Love It Forward: The Radical Wisdom of Jeff Brown
The outspoken author and therapist talks about what it takes to get real.
Posted March 28, 2017
A former criminal lawyer and psychotherapist, Jeff Brown is the author of five popular books: Soulshaping: A Journey of Self-Creation, Ascending with Both Feet on the Ground, Love it Forward, An Uncommon Bond, and Spiritual Graffiti. He produced and appeared in the award-winning spiritual documentary, Karmageddon (which also starred Ram Dass and Seane Corn), and is the owner of Enrealment Press as well as an online school, the Soulshaping Institute. A popular presence on social media, known for his playful, irreverent coinage of terms (the "New Cage," "enheartened," "humanifesto") and uncommon wisdom for everyday life, Jeff lives in Toronto with his partner, poet Susan Frybort, and spoke to me recently about the pitfalls of dogma on the path of self-awareness, and his singular take on the spiritual life.
Mark Matousek: Tell me about how you came to do this work?
Jeff Brown: I've been doing this work internally since I was a child—locked into adaptations and disguises to help me survive my family battlefield. There were voices or glimmers of knowing, “callings” that would arise in my consciousness. It has been an unexpected surprise to learn that, in many cases, the material from my early life was fundamental to my true path (what I call my soul scripture), and grist for the mill of transformation in the direction of the path I was here to walk.
During adolescence and into my early 20s, there was this sense that there was a path encoded in me, something I was born to embody, what James Hillman called the “innate image.” For example, I watched a famous criminal lawyer named Eddie Greenspan on television in Toronto and had this feeling that I would work with him one day, which turned out to be true. In my earlier life, though, I made the mistake of thinking my reality was bifurcated—
MM: What do you mean?
JB: I believed that there was this "true path" encoded in the bones and there was this "false path" I was experiencing with this crazy family. By the time I was an undergrad, I was feeling kind of bored and writing notes [to myself] in class like, “You are not who you appear to be.” Some part of my consciousness was waking up to the reality that there was something calling to me. At first I thought it was leading me, so I went to law school and worked with Eddie Greenspan. But throughout my bar admission process, when I was about to become a prominent lawyer, this dual voice got stronger. The warrior consciousness said, “You come from no money. Go and be a prominent lawyer. You have great work to do.” The other voice didn’t tell me what my next step was, but it told me it wasn’t to become a trial lawyer. I had this radical conflict internally between who I had become to that point in my life and this idea of who I was to become. As the journey has unfolded, I have come to realize that all of it is fundamental to my unique soul scripture in this lifetime.
MM: So how did you make that crossover from a lawyer to the path of a spiritual seeker and teacher?
JB: My first direction wasn’t really spiritual, but psychotherapeutic. I wasn’t ready to abandon law entirely, so I made the decision not to practice right after being called. There were people I was going to get an office with, and I decided not to participate. And then I allowed myself to surrender to my body and to my emotional process. I don’t distinguish spiritual maturation from emotional maturation.
I left after my first year of law school to do two years of therapy before going back. I started to sit in the back of courtrooms watching trials and I just started crying. It wasn’t because of the content of the case, but because my emotional material was trying to find its way through me. I spent a long time in this emotional process; due to my background, I'd had to armor up and warrior up. I'd punched my way through everything but finally had an opportunity to drop below the puncher in order to really feel and live. I did a very important workshop at the Omega Center in Rhinebeck with Terry Hunt where I unraveled some material that was obstructing my consciousness. It became clear that I could not practice law forever. It was an incremental process.
MM: And your path remained more psychotherapeutic than spiritual?
JB: I don’t know the difference between these things anymore, but my early exploration remained psychotherapeutic. Alexander Lowen was my therapist for a while. I worked with Al to release many deep holdings, to clear emotional debris. And invariably, at the end of each session, I would feel opened to a "unity consciousness" field of experience. I naturally entered a meditative state, and began to understand that it was all part of the so-called “spiritual field.” After that, I had a great love experience that cracked my heart open and subsequently did weeks of release work at Harbin Hot Springs in California to move me to the next level. The calling revealed to me then that it was time to write.
These steps of revealing my innate image came through somatic release, so that’s why I don’t distinguish spirituality from psychology. Release work opens up the field of inquiry, and the transformative work I do around unresolved issues grows me in karmic stature, expands my capacity to be here in a spiritual sense.
MM: What do you mean by karmic stature?
JB: We come in at a certain stage of development: karmically, cosmically, psychically and psychologically; and if we allow ourselves to surrender to it, there is this unfolding to move in the direction of wholeness or stature.
MM: For people not drawn to organized religion, who are turned off by the New Age but want a legitimate spiritual practice, what do you recommend?
JB: I recommend that they not accept patriarchal ideas of what practice means. Also, meditation is not the royal road to the Kingdom of God for everybody. I often encourage people to embrace somatic, body-centered release work, dance and love-making as release, and expression practices. Anything that allows them to move more deeply into the self, to clear obstructing debris and move into a more unified experience of consciousness. I don’t believe in encouraging spiritual practices that bash the self, bash the ego, bash our identifications, or bash our story. To me, that’s just disassociation masquerading as enlightenment. They’re useful tools for a period of time, but detachment is a tool, it’s not a life. I invite people in the direction of spiritual practices that are more encompassing, inclusive, and congruent with what I call an enrealment experience, rather than a linear, mastery-focused experience of spirituality. It all comes down to a genuine intention that allows you to connect both to a unified field and a deeper experience of your localized reality.
MM: What is the role of self-inquiry on this path?
JB: I’ve often found my answers in life experience, so I encourage people to depth-charge, to go out and have uncomfortable experiences, because that yields information. And then we check in with our bones, as they will tell us whether that’s a direction we are here to walk or whether that’s a false path. I believe the innate image is encoded. I don’t believe it’s a cerebral construct. I believe it’s an enheartened experience, in the tissue, in the emotional body. It’s in the truth chills we get when we know we’ve come to something deeply true. I believe the connection to the body is the direction to go when you ask the question, “Who am I?” I don’t believe it’s a transcendent experience, but rather a deeply imminent one.
MM: Doesn't full engagement with "imminent experience" move us toward the transcendental, since there's no separation between the two?
JB: Maybe transcend is not the best word to use since it sounds somehow separate, or disassociated, from an imminent experience. But people do need to be careful. If they follow Eckhart Tolle, for example, they run the risk of moving towards disassociation; basically, they end up floating in the "oneness abyss" in the emptiness. I don’t believe we are here just to be in the emptiness. Otherwise we wouldn’t be in a body temple. At the same time, I understand that we need to have that oneness experience to give ourselves a break from this madness down below. Also, it gives us a vaster perspective that we then bring back into the body—the localized experience. My goal is to find the blend between the wisdom (the all-oneness or unified focus) in the East, and the healthy ego—the magnificent self-hood—in the West. Not going too far in either direction.
MM: Many people are wondering how it is possible to live in this dangerous, turbulent, time as awakened individuals. What do you recommend?
JB: To begin with, focusing on regular, appropriate emotional release is helpful. I have a foam bioenergetics cube that I use to release anger. I encourage people to allow themselves the space and time to drop into their hearts, and to move through grief (or whatever it is they’re holding) so they don’t continue to accumulate. Practicing the art of selective attachment is also important, keeping people close to you who hold you in the highest light, who nourish and sustain you. Establishing healthy boundaries—energetically, physically and emotionally—through awareness work is essential. Consumerism preys on the uncentered, so establishing, testing, and consolidating boundaries to manage the madness of the world more effectively and protect our center is crucial. Many people are trapped in unhealthy, unfulfilling dynamics that prevent them from having the time they need to go deeper.
MM: What about engaging with the world politically or through social activism?
JB: I just published a book by Andrew Harvey and Chris Saade (Evolutionary Love Relationships) that focuses on taking the fire of connection and bringing it out into the world with boots on the ground. I see my own purpose moving in the direction of sacred activism. Finding causes that are truthfully important to us and bringing our voice to the world is our only hope now. If we spend our time floating away toward "spiritual" experience, it’s very easy for us to ignore everything that’s happening around us because we see it all as an illusion. Now that I’m bringing my work more into the world, I’m finding that I need my warrior more than ever—my vigilant consciousness and my legal skills—aspects that I pushed away from for a while to explore an opposite way of being. I had to find the way in which those things could integrate.
MM: This seems to be the core of your work: integration, balance, and attention to all that is human within us.
JB: Yes. And it is a lifelong process.