Agapi Stassinopoulos is a powerhouse of positive energy. The younger sister of media star Arianna Huffington, her life trajectory has taken Stassinopoulos from acting (she trained at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), to psychologist, to best-selling author, with books that include Unbinding the Heart: A Dose of Greek Wisdom, Generosity, and Unconditional Love, Gods and Goddesses in Love, and Conversations With the Goddesses (both of which became PBS specials). A popular speaker and wellness guru, she conducts workshops for Thrive Global, a company founded by her sister, and has a new book out, Wake Up to the Joy of You: 52 Meditations and Practices for a Calmer, Happier Life. I caught up with Stassinopoulos recently to talk about how to "live in joy" in the age of Trump, and her personal brand of hard-earned, uplifting, infectious wisdom for everyday life.
Mark Matousek: Your book is full of sage advice for individuals struggling with feelings of fear and powerlessness in today's volatile world. What are some steps that people can take to transcend harmful emotions and become sources of growth and positive change?
Agapi Stassinopoulos: I’d like to start by saying that I feel there is a great spiritual awakening on the planet right now. More than any previous time, people are drawn to meditation, to mindfulness, to yoga. These have become mainstream in the West because there is a hunger. That’s the good news. Because of social media, we have access to amazing spiritual teachers. You can watch the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Eckhart Tolle or any number of other masters. Their teachings are available and we must celebrate that.
At the same time, when there is spirit and light, the dark forces of whatever is hidden and suppressed—like hatred and separation—become more powerful. Separation happens in so many different dimensions. We see it everywhere. I believe we are all part of the spiritual heart. We all come from that place of oneness, so that place in us that knows love, that knows connection, hurts. It’s a challenge that we also feel more than any other time because it’s in the news and social media. It’s in our families. There is division with people in our lives, as well as political division and religious division.
Separation can make us feel helpless and powerless, like we have no control. To withstand this negative force, we must return to our inner core, and that takes work. That takes time and patience. That’s why I wrote this book that I refer to as “a year-long study of yourself.” You go past your fears, past your negative thoughts, and past the division. Little by little, you break it down and say, “How can I today—because all I have is today—move past the separation and fear of asking for what it is that I want in my life? How can I move past withholding my love and my generosity?”
We are created from embryonic states to become a fetus, a baby and then the person we are today. The only response you can have to that is reverence and awe. And yet we forget that our bodies are the most valuable, precious thing we have and take that miracle of life for granted. I went to my ophthalmologist the other day and he took a picture of my retina to make sure it was okay. I took that color photo and framed it and put it on my desk and said, “Oh my God. Who made that? Who made my bones? Who made this miracle of this body?”
We are living in an inspiring and unimaginably large universe. Contemplating the immensity of our cosmos can make you feel very small and insignificant. But think about it. You have 37.2 trillion cells in your body. There is vastness outside you and vastness inside you. You are connected to this mystery, you are a microcosm of the universe, and every aspect of your life benefits from the universe’s provision. That is so profound to me, that we are an effect of the universal energy. People who say, “I don’t believe in God,” I want to say to them, “Forget the G O D word. But can you believe that there is something larger than yourself that is working for you and around you in a brilliant cosmic intelligence?” To me, daily practice of meditation is accessing that reverence and awe and really tapping into it. Do whatever it takes to move with it, to partner with it, and live your life with that in mind. Imagine what would happen if enough of us did that? We would open to such amazing energy, creativity, and power.
MM: So the way to get through times that are socially or politically dark is to touch into source, to join with that power that’s larger than us and move beyond the fearful ego?
AS: Exactly! It’s funny because I look for words to convey to the millennials this spirituality that you and I live in, so “touching into source” is very helpful. If you’re going to live in the anxiety of the surface of this world, you’re never going to find the depth, the source. If you want calmness, you’ve got to go deeper. The depth of the ocean is calm, but on the surface, there are always waves. If you dive deep in your life, your life can be bliss.
MM: What do you mean when you say, “Take a sabbatical from happiness”?
AS: We worry so much in this culture about being happy. The pursuit of happiness is even written in our Constitution. It’s an erroneous concept because we are emotional, thinking beings that are constantly affected by a hundred things around us and inside us. If we strive for happiness, it’s going to be elusive because things constantly happen with human beings that disrupt that happiness. But if you focus on euphoros, the Greek word for “the bearer of goodness,” you will be inhabited by this divine source of life we talked about. You wake in the morning and proclaim yourself to be the bearer of goodness. “I will bring good. I will attract good. I will create good. Good things happen to me, and my life is good.” You start to move into the track of goodness, and that becomes a place of abundance, a place of rest, a place of relaxation, and a place of trust.
AS: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” When I’m in a state of goodness about the world, no matter what is happening, I see that goodness. But if I’m in an irritable, angry, separate state, I’ve shut down.
One of the things I tell young people—and older people too—is that when things don’t happen that you want, don’t drown in discouragement. We say, “Oh, this didn’t happen, so nothing good will happen.” Don’t barricade yourself.
In my own life, there were many things that didn’t happen for me in the outside world, but that gave me an opportunity to look inside to find my spirit, my courage, my confidence and ultimately, to find my heart. When I found those things, I felt liberated. I found resilience of spirit, realized I had much to offer and gained abundance. Writing a book was not on my dream list and my fourth book is out now. I was recognized as a talented actress, but that wasn’t my path. I always say to people, “Maybe your path is completely different from what you imagined.” I urge people to be a scientist about what they want and ask themselves why they want it so badly. Perhaps they are chasing an illusory dream. But if you want to learn, to expand, to be of service, you will find a way.
My mother found a way out of a little one-bedroom apartment in Athens, Greece to bring Arianna to Cambridge to study economics and bring me to the Royal Academy in London with very few financial resources and no connections. She didn’t know anybody in England, but she found a way. Her love for her daughters and seeing what they could be, motivated her and gave her the chutzpah, the courage, to break down barriers. When you have the motivation of love, you will find the way.
MM: Is that what you mean when you talk about grace and disappointment?
AS: I mean that there is a spirit, an energy, that works with us. We’ve all felt it at some point in our lives. It reminds me of that Christmas movie everyone watches.
MM: It’s a Wonderful Life?
AS: Yes! It’s like when everybody comes to Jimmy Stewart’s rescue and brings him the money from the bank. That’s what I call the spirit of grace, the spirit of generosity. And we need to trust in that in the middle of a disappointment. But that energy, that spirit, is not invasive. It won’t come unless you ask it. How many times have you prayed or asked or said you needed help, when suddenly somebody showed up in your life? We are all connected through our thoughts. We are not just these three-dimensional bodies walking around. Our unconscious communicates and other people pick it up and they come to our rescue, or a spirit comes to our rescue. So, it’s what Rumi said: “Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor.” The other quote from Rumi that I love is: “You’re not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.” You can feel small, insignificant and insubstantial, but knowing the universe is in your tiny body should be enough to make you happy.
MM: As long as you’re not comparing yourself to others, as you say in the book.
AS: It’s so important. There’s this sort of fake happiness going around everywhere on social media, because everybody is putting all these fabulous pictures of themselves on there. Comparison has been a dear friend of mine. You can only imagine. I’m a Greek girl from London and in London everybody spoke Queen’s English. I spoke English with a Greek accent, constantly thinking I should be someone other than I am. And then I struggled with the images of what Hollywood wanted, struggled to fit in. “What if I was blonde and 5 feet 7? I could get the part. But I’m not.” It’s endless.
What I learned from comparisons and jealousies is that they point to where you haven’t filled your cup or owned your gifts. They point to where you are not yet 100% you. We know that when you are fully engaged in doing what you’re doing and your heart and creative spirit are involved, you couldn’t care less what anybody else is doing.
MM: Is that connected to what you mean by making your ego your ally?
AS: Ego has such a bad rap. “Oh, she has such a big ego,” or “She is full of ego.” Right? In psychology, we try to tone down our ego to become more humble. Father Richard Rohr wrote in The Divine Dance: “God, give me a good humiliation every day. It’s good for the soul and it’s good for the ego.” What I mean by the ego is a strong presence—your sense of self. Let’s say you’re auditioning for a part or you’re going for a job you really want. You have to go in with a sense of self or you’re not going to get the job. You need your ego to get what it is that you want to make things happen in your life.
My mother had a healthy ego. She would ask for a bank loan with this presence and confidence and make it happen. Where I was tested, was working with movie directors. They tell you what to do and if you don’t cooperate, your ego is working against you. If your own strong ego clashes with other strong egos, you not going to get anywhere. I studied psychology and learned about the many parts of us that we need to integrate so we don’t walk around feeling disconnected: personality, soul, ego. If you do feel disconnected, you need to ask which part is feeling that way. Your ego is there to boost you up, if recognized and used correctly.
When I was young, my acting teacher said, “I don’t think you’re an actress. I think you’re a lovely girl and a nice human being.” And my mother’s answer was, “Oh, she’s not your teacher. She didn’t get you.” My mother asked that teacher if she knew someone I could study with that might be able to bring my talent out. How blessed was I with a mother like that? That’s why I say to this generation: “We must encourage these kids.” Tell them they are wonderful and capable. Be their cheerleader. And when they don’t get what they want, say, “Okay, sweetheart, yours is coming. Let’s help you get it.” Be there 100% for them. I see parents who bring their kids down because their parents did that to them, instead of reinforcing their gifts, and instilling a sense of what they came to this earth to do.
MM: A lot of parents think they’re doing the kids a favor by protecting them from disappointment.
AS: They think, “Oh, the world is such a hard place. You have to compete with everybody.” And these kids are looking to them for help in becoming who they really are. I have a beautiful quote about overcoming our childhood pain: “I’m not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.”
MM: One last question, Agapi. What do you mean by, “Know your linchpin”?
AS: We all have something that centers us in our lives. That linchpin is something that when we don’t do enough of it, we start to feel off center. I know my linchpin is moving my body to music. I started as a dancer and went into psychology and writing. So, if I get too much into my head, I start to feel out of sorts. Some people are introverts and if they don’t have enough time for themselves, they don’t feel right. And extroverts don’t feel right with too much alone time. There are those who need walks in nature or they feel depressed. Your linchpin is the pin that makes the wheel go. If you lose it, the wheel falls apart. Having the discipline to do that thing consistently—whatever it is—will pick you up and elevate you.
MM: A central core practice of really knowing what you need?
AS: Exactly. A central core practice. And everyone’s is different.
Agapi's Website: www.wakeuptothejoyofyou