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The Edge Walker: How Sally Kempton Bridges Worlds

The author and teacher speaks on finding the "Middle Way" in age of extremity.

Key points

  • When you strive for the middle way, you learn to trust that you’ll be brought to the center, your path, and your integrity.
  • You have to know how to let go and when to say no on the path of awakening.
  • We can care about things without clinging to them. This is especially important in holding on to internal states.
  • When you don’t practice, the weeds of your tendencies grow and become thickets, and then you can’t see through them.

Sally Kempton is a brilliant enigma: an author, yogi, and activist who refuses to be boxed into categories. Beginning her career as a literary “It Girl" in the 1970s (Kempton once debated Playboy's Hugh Hefner on national television), she was known for her chutzpah and feminist bite before life took her in a different direction, becoming one of the most dynamic, insightful, and sought-after spiritual teachers in the country today.

The offspring of socially-conscious parents—her father was the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, Murray Kempton—she broke into public view as a journalist, working for the New York Times, the Village Voice, Esquire, New York magazine, and other major publications.

But dissatisfaction with her personal and professional life led Kempton to become a spiritual seeker. She met her guru, Swami Muktananda, in 1974. Following what she calls an “implosion of love," her life course changed irrevocably. Kempton left mainstream journalism and spent 20 years as her guru's editor and traveling companion, earning ordination as a swami in the Vedic tradition.

In 2002, she left this spiritual community and embarked on a more integrated, balanced life as a teacher and author in the world, writing several books (including Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga, The Heart of Meditation, and Doorway to the Infinite), and offering courses in yoga, self-inquiry, and exploring the "Sacred Feminine."

I had the opportunity to speak to Kempton recently about finding the "Middle Way" in our age of extremity and polarization, and how she has learned to bridge many worlds.

Mark Matousek: How would you briefly describe what you do for those unfamiliar with your work?

Sally Kempton: My work is to make accessible the essence of the non-dual heart path I studied with my teachers, yet to do this in a post-traditional context. I teach on the tremulous edge where openness meets discipline, and where transformation happens from the inside.

MM: Your biography contains such a wide range of experience. Integrating extremes seems to have been a big part of your own education.

SK: Absolutely. This winding journey has been a gift that ultimately led to the place of integration. Finding the middle way gave me the ability to take on many perspectives, while comfortably knowing my own.

MM: Clearly that perspective has widened.

SK: Major life changes happen because you’re pushed in a certain direction and can’t help going there. I call this having a "fated" life. Many times you start off with a certain background, without feeling like you belong and without knowing where this inner striving for the middle way will take you. You learn to trust that you’ll be brought to the center; to your calling, your path, and your integrity.

MM: Is this feeling of being between two world characteristic of the seeker's path?

SK: Yes, and it can take years to bring the worlds together when you’ve stepped into one that’s unfamiliar to the society that you grew up in. I’m a second-generation journalist and that part of me is utterly skeptical and cynical about pretty much everything. I put that aside, then ended up coming somewhat back to it after my youthful, experimentation phase, which was followed by 30 years of a highly-disciplined yogic lifestyle. It took a long time before I was able to live in the world and maintain my spiritual life in an integrated way.

MM: Is skepticism a virtue on the spiritual path?

SK: That voice which says, “This person doesn’t know what they’re talking about” remains, but at a certain point you have to suspend disbelief for the purposes of experimentation. That’s crucial on the spiritual path. You have to know how when to let go into the unknown to let go and when to say "No."

MM: We also have to doubt our own doubt. Sometimes it's a mask for fear.

SK: The fear, but also the western cultural belief that reason is superior to intuition. Over-relying on intuition can get you into terrible trouble, but over-relying on reason will cut you off from all sorts of experiences and relationships. This is, again, about finding the middle path.

MM: You lived a long time in an ashram. Why did you leave and what were the hardest parts about reintegrating into civilian life?

SK: I decided to leave after 25 years because I wasn’t growing. It was a full-scale departure from one life to another. My work was completely entwined with the teachings of the ashram, but leaving that situation didn’t mean leaving teaching, practice, or spiritual writing.

I think it's valuable to take on a system, a way of understanding the world that can help expand your vision. At a certain point, though, even a powerful vision can become confining, and there's an inner demand for other perspectives. That's often why people leave spiritual organizations -- as you mature you need the intellectual freedom of being able to follow your own intuitive knowing.

There's a real balancing act here. In the modern west, we don't typically believe there's benefit in adhering to a system of spiritual discipline, especially when it becomes uncomfortable. We're all about our own individuality. Individualism is a major evolutionary step forward fro simple conformity to social and religious dogma, yet practice in a spiritual tradition can give you a grounding and perspective that most of us don't get otherwise. That grounding stays with you. But yes, leaving was hard in the same way that it's hard to leave a long marriage.

MM: Yoga is all about balance and wholeness, and integrating our various parts. What does yoga teach specifically regarding the Middle Way?

SK: We have centers in the body—the heart being the one that’s most accessible—but also this channel that runs from the base of the spine up to the crown and connects us to the earth below and to the higher regions above. This channel is actually called 'the center' and is like a thread made of energy and light that runs parallel to our spinal column. By centering your attention there, you align to your instinctual source, your embodied center. This gives you access to intuition that allows you to approach people and situations from a completely different sense of self. Your decisions become congruent and aligned with flow, or a higher direction.

MM: Does psychological balance begin in the body as well?

SK: Absolutely. It begins with sinking our awareness, with becoming aware of the breath flowing vertically. You’ll feel this invisible core and it will become apparent that there’s an axis in the middle of the body. It provides a source of knowledge and wisdom as we learn to pay attention to it.

MM: How do emotions help or hinder this balance?

SK: Emotions are natural but you need to feel them and let them go. If you didn’t get angry, if you didn’t get sad, if you didn’t get joyful, life would be so gray and dull and boring. Also, we wouldn’t know ourselves. When we hang onto the anger and it becomes resentment, or we hang on to the joy and it leads to extreme attachment—that’s when undisciplined emotions trap us. There’s a lot of devotional emotion around Hinduism that I find very attractive. I think most human beings need some excitement and drama, and where do we get that except through emotion?

MM: There’s a big misunderstanding that enlightenment means permanent equanimity, never getting excited or having strong emotion. In my experience, this isn't true. It's just that the wise don't take their emotions (or themselves) so seriously.

SK: Exactly. One of the great insights of Buddhism is the idea of non-clinging, which we get mixed up with non-attachment. We can care about things without clinging to them. This is especially important in holding on to internal states.

It’s interesting to see how our innate characteristics can be useful in our spiritual growth. Some of us are more placid and others more volatile, and the question is, how do you use self-understanding and self-discipline to make the best of your natural temperament and let go of the parts that are not so helpful.

When you say, “I want to be enlightened, I want to be free,” the higher powers start to take away the veils that hide you from yourself. You get glimpses of what is behind the veils, and what you see is both your beauty and your ugliness. It's painful to see ourselves without the filters we normally put over our negative feelings, and it takes courage and powerful motivation and good guidance to walk through that.

MM: One last question. What's your relationship to self-discipline?

SK: It's crucial for me. On the spiritual path there's a continual flow between expansion and contraction, between progress and stagnation. Having a thread of practice that I do every day keeps the connection through all the ups and downs, so that if I go through a busy period I've been able to keep the inner terrain open. When you don't practice, the weeds of your tendencies grow and become thickets, and then you can’t see through them.

I do a lot more formal sitting practice these days than I was doing two or three years ago and I spend a lot of time alone. The pandemic has been really good for retreat practice. I’ve also been looking at unsettled relationships and making amends as a way to clean up my karma.

At this point, it’s about trying to live with the fullest integrity that I’m capable of, knowing that the energy which has propelled me along my path all these years is not stopping. The path that I was trained in looks at enlightenment as a state of extreme joy, as well as equanimity and balance. That's where I want to live.

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