Fran Grace, PhD, Writer, Educator
“Love brings things to life,” says writer and educator Fran Grace, who knows wholeheartedly from whence she speaks! Her new book, “The Power of Love: A Transformed Heart Changes the World,” features interviews with or about many well-known spiritual teachers, writers, scientists, and activists – His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, Dr. Viktor Frankl, Llewellyn and Anat Vaughan-Lee, Mona Polacca and The International Council of the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers, and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, among others – and is interwoven with her own transformational story, one that includes alcoholism, coming out as gay, panic attacks, leaving a fundamentalist church, nearly exiting academia, and, most of all, self-acceptance. Fran, who has a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary and teaches about mysticism, traveled the world to research her 700-plus page book and, perhaps as no surprise, experienced numerous love-filled synchronicities along the way.
A Professor of Religious Studies and Steward of the Meditation Room at the University of Redlands in California, where she helped found the first contemplative college classroom of its kind in the country, Fran had what she describes as her own universal and unconditional Love-with-a-capital-L awakening when she met and studied with Dr. David R. Hawkins, a renowned global spiritual teacher. Hawkins, with his heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul resonance, was a powerful influence on both Fran and the book. But a mystical pillar of light that Fran experienced, surrounding her at age 15 in her high school classroom in northern Florida, may have been the early catalyst that set her life path in loving motion despite the tribulations that it initially triggered.
My conversation with Fran was a delight and stretched from the moving narrative of her book, which takes readers on her heart pilgrimage to Buddhist and Hindu monasteries in India, to the largest meditation hall in North America, and to Mother Teresa’s Homes for the Poor in Rome, Calcutta, and Tijuana, all the way to our world today and the critical, ever-present need for love, compassion, and kindness. Published through a nonprofit she founded in 2008, Fran is gifting all book proceeds to those she interviewed and their organizations, in gratitude. With its love-filled message of oneness, her journey is heart-stirring and awakening and her book is already at the top of my re-read list. In short? Love, making a world of difference.
RG: Fran, thank you so much for spending this time with me. Our subject is love, and we could probably talk about that into eternity! You recently published a book, 'The Power of Love, A Transformed Heart Changes the World,' a hefty 700-plus pages that’s a combination of interviews with spiritual teachers around the world along with the story of your own personal path toward the power of love. Will you talk to me about the inspiration to write this book and what the power of love means to you?
FG: The inspiration was that at 39, after almost four decades of life on this earth, having a sense that love existed but not knowing, really and truly, that I would ever have an experience of it. Having looked everywhere and experienced different things. But at 39 I found myself at the doorstep of a teacher, or mentor. People have different words for that person who becomes a guide. For me, he's a spiritual teacher. I found myself in the presence of a human being who had such unconditional love that people came from around the world just to be in that energy. They felt love down to the core. That's what I felt like, too – no matter what I had ever done, whatever would become of me, I was totally accepted in being exactly how I was and that this person could see all that I had ever done and still loved me without knowing me.
So that was the inspiration, that experience, and then everything that came out of that, being loved. The change in my professional life was just so transformed. I had been on the cusp of throwing my whole career out the door! I was a tenured professor, I had a great career, I was successful in all my professional endeavors, but I was so done with it. I felt despair over the meaning of it. But through that love that I experienced I became changed and I was able to completely revamp my whole existence as a professor in the courses that I taught and the things that I wrote and the way that I could see into people and be helpful to them. We developed a meditation program that came out of that encounter that I personally had with my teacher, that encounter of love.
Dr. David R. Hawkins
RG: We should say here his name was Dr. David R. Hawkins. What was it about him that captured you? You talk about him being able to ‘see’ you and offering love, but we're not talking about romantic love. What was it that you recognized? Was it intellectual? Was it your heart resonating? How did you experience it?
FG: It's hard to describe. I had fallen in love before, romantic love, and that's also very powerful and quite beautiful. An experience where I went beyond myself to care about another person and a lot of life changes came out of just falling in love romantically, but this was different. In the book I describe when I first encountered him, which was in a book that he had written, 'Power Versus Force,' and I approached it very skeptically because at that time I felt I had nothing to learn from a man. I had been so wounded by patriarchy. But somebody I respected recommended it to me so I went to the very back of the book and started to read his autobiographical statement of his own existential journey and it's like a light switch came on in me. I felt lit up from the inside, from the deepest part of myself. The innermost part of myself was being touched and opened, just reading some of his own experiences.
It was a resonance of soul to soul, heart to heart. It's like I had lived in darkness my whole life, darkness about who I really was, and in reading his book that light just switched on. I thought, ‘I'm going to go see him in person,’ because I found out he was still alive and didn’t live that far away from me. It was that experience like you've been swimming around in a series of different pools of water, a pond, and then a lake, everything gets maybe a little bit larger, the pool you're swimming around in, each time you run up against some barrier where the thinking feels limited or there's a certain moral judgment around something. I was that dolphin, you might say, that was swimming in these different pools of water my whole life hitting up against the barrier. When I got there and I was with him, I walked into the lecture hall and I felt like, 'Good God, it’s the first time I ever felt this way, I'm the dolphin in the ocean.' The sea had no shore, is what it felt like. No limit here, everything is expansive, everything is free. I can swim however I want, I can jump, I can dive, I can go down deep, I could go up high, I could play, I could cry. It's like this atmosphere of total freedom!
RG: I have to say, you're a really lovely and heartfelt writer. It's an extraordinarily meaningful book and I found myself constantly stopping to write something down. I've got lots of little notes and I know that I'm going to have to reread the book! One of the things that I believe was in Dr. Hawkins section, he said 'Love is an energy field that is available everywhere all the time,' which I thought was particularly poignant and I'm wondering if that's what you were feeling. If so, how does that work? It happened for you, maybe it happened for other people, maybe with him. Maybe other people experience people they've met who are like Dr. Hawkins. How does it happen for the rest of us?
FG: Fundamentally, his teaching is that we are that energy field. What he told me at the beginning is that 'you yourself are what you're looking for.' We experience it in the presence of greatness, whether it's another being like him, or great architecture or great music, or if we get opened up somehow to that space, then keep experiencing that inside oneself. The task is to remove what blocks it. That's what he said, ‘The sun is always there. It's just the clouds that block it.’ So what are the clouds? They're different for each of us. For me, I had to deal with alcoholism and a lot of intellectual vanity and pride and thinking I knew so much! The sun is always shining and that means, as I understand what he gave to me, that it was the gift of an experience of my own inner self, that I am that energy of love. I have to say that I experienced that. I can experience that.
RG: Is it something you experience all the time? Does it come and go?
FG: I understand that it's always there. It comes and goes only because, you know, stormy days! I mean the sun is here but the storm clouds come and go. Not the energy itself, but...
RG: What you're describing – or what he's describing – is that there are multiple layers to this. There's the love that somebody might experience from someone, but there's also the love that they're emitting to someone.
RG: So the sun is always shining, but there are a couple of different places where it can get cloudy.
FG: That's the problem we have right now! My plumber was just here this morning because we had a leak in a pipe and he said, 'Gosh, Fran, what's going on in the world? All my customers are telling me they are so unhappy and they're anxious more than ever in their life.’
RG: I hear it all the time, too.
FG: The sense of storm clouds, and there's a lot of hatred and hostility and fear and things that are very disturbing. But my understanding is that there's also something else going on. On the surface there are all these clouds and storms but underneath there's some profound beauty in life.
RG: One of the things about the book is that you traveled far and wide. You interviewed a lot of people and I'm going to recite some of them: His Holiness, the 17th Karmapa, you spoke with him at his monastery in India and in the US, if I'm not mistaken. You spoke with the grandson of Viktor Frankl, who wrote ‘Man's Search for Meaning.’ Llewellyn and Anat Vaughan-Lee, Mona Polacca and the International Council of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. Betty J. Eadie, whose near death experience became a best selling book, 'Embraced by the Light.' You went to the canonization of Mother Teresa in Italy. All of these interviews are so rich in their information. But how did you get led to who to interview and how did you make it all happen?
FG: In terms of who ended up in the book, before he passed away, Dr. Hawkins and I came up with that list. He has in his body of work a method of calibrating people's energy. That's a whole different topic for people to explore if they want.
RG: Is that something you know how to do now? Or did you always know how?
FG: No, I wouldn't set myself up as somebody who does that. You know, we can have our intuition. But before he passed away he calibrated the energy of different people that I had on the list. The main thing about that selection process is that he verified each of them, calibrated at the energy field of love. A lot of people talk about love and yet some of the people that I had asked him to calibrate who are lovely, famous people, don't calibrate exactly at that energy. I just interviewed the people that he verified. How it happened that I met them was completely by synchronicity. I look back over the years where I met them and I didn't have to work very hard in the traditional way of a scholar who has to try to make something happen. They just sort of fell in my lap.
(Photo © Meggan Austin)
RG: Do you think part of that is about this path of love being always open and kind of everything that we need we'll find there? You were setting off to talk to people about love and experiencing it. Do you think there was a resonance on their side that opened that path for the synchronicities?
FG: The book was meant to be, and I allowed it to happen. I didn't make it happen. I had to keep allowing it to happen because I myself felt like I didn't have what it took to do it on a lot of levels. I felt not up for the project and so I just had to keep allowing it to go. The energy of it was really strong and so I had to keep saying, ‘OK! I'll go there, I'll go do this. I'll do it.’
RG: Were there times when you found that it wasn't working with a particular person and being able to connect with them? Did you persist or did you let it go and move on to others?
FG: There was only one case where that happened and it was with Mother Teresa because I knew that she needed to be in the book. I mean, how can you do a book on the power of love but she's not in it?! She passed in 1997. Love is transformative, and I had to be in the presence of that energy. The only way I could think to do that was to go to India, to Calcutta, where her mother house is. I went there and made a request, 'Please may I talk with people who were with Mother Teresa?' And they said, 'No, we don't do that kind of thing. We don't talk about our work.' Then a friend here in Southern California where I live came to my office at the university and said, 'Fran, here's the phone number, I saw a Mother Teresa nun walking in the drugstore parking lot and here's her phone number. She just happens to be in town for two days because her father passed away.'
So I call this Sister, she's from India and she said, 'We never do this. We never talk to people, but yes, I will come talk to you.' It turned out that Sister C. had done all of her novitiate training with Mother Teresa. She was very close to Mother Teresa and she invited me to go to Tijuana, where international headquarters are for the Missionaries of Charity. I also met, by her introduction, Father Brian, who was the postulator for Mother Teresa's canonization. Then she invited me to the canonization and Rome. So through that one synchronistic moment, everything fell into place for that part of the book.
RG: Do you know why she agreed to talk to you?
FG: I have no idea. She said she was following her intuition. She ended up – and this is really important – she ended up not only doing all that, but she got moved while I was finishing the chapter from Tijuana, where she was headquartered, to Rome, right into the office that decides who gets to use Mother Teresa's quotes. I was then emailing her asking permission to use quotes because you can't just quote Mother Teresa in a published work. It's a very rigorous process. You have to submit every word that you say comes from Mother Teresa to this permissions office, and Sister C., it turned out, was the one person right there to receive these emails, who knew the process for submitting my request to the head authority who decides to give permission or not.
Fran and Sister C. at Mother Teresa's convent in Rome
RG: Again, the power of love!
FG: It was just meant to be. I don't know what to say.
RG: I can't recall in the book where it falls but there was an experiment, the loving intention experiment with rice, which I think is very similar to the water experiments by Dr. Masaru Emoto that I've read about so many times. Do you want to talk about that? Because I think that there is synchronicity, and things that happen, when there's love involved.
FG: That's a funny thing. I almost didn't want to put it in the book but I sort of had to. I had to do things I didn't want to do! That experiment, which was done in a college classroom at the request of my college students, was when we were studying the power of intention on physical matter. We can, in our own experience, know that when people are yelling at us and angry at us and hating us, we can feel that in our body. We kind of shut down, or we go numb, or we get adrenaline activated and it's just not a healthy experience in the physical body. Then when we're in the presence of somebody saying, 'Hey, you know what, gosh, I love you. I'm so grateful for you. I appreciate you. I just love what you did here,' you feel the healthy hormones coursing through. We can feel it physically. But what about rice? That's a whole other step, isn't it?!
Anything in the physical world that we can imagine, is it affected by human intention? It turns out it is. In the rice experiment my students brought in two empty Gatorade bottles, plastic, and boiled rice. I closed the door because I thought this is too weird and I don't want my department chair walking by and looking in here! They put their boiled rice in these two containers and they wanted to put on one container the words, 'We love you, we thank you,' and on the other, 'We hate you, we want to kill you.' For two weeks at the beginning of class they said one phrase to the one rice and the other phrase to the other rice because they wanted to see does it have an effect, these words and our intention.
After two weeks I pulled those two bottles off my shelf in the office. I was just done with it, enough is enough! Because I was already seeing just visually that the hated rice was decomposing into gush and the loved rice, the granules were staying intact, they were not under a death process. They weren't being killed. When I took the lid off the hated rice it exploded all over, like rice guts, all over my arm and my office! The loved rice was totally peaceful when I removed its top. The students were fascinated by that, obviously. They thought, 'Yeah, that's what it's like when children are yelled at, they explode. And how things that are loved are peaceful.’
RG: These Gatorade bottles were in your classroom when the students were speaking to them?
FG: Yes, as a group.
RG: Both of those rice bottles were side by side when this is happening?
FG: No, I held one.
RG: But it's still in the same room, so both bottles are actually hearing, 'I love you, I hate you.'
FG: Yes, but we can direct our intention to something. What I've learned through this whole book from the physicists that I talked to, from the life of Mother Teresa and my own teacher, is that just in general human intention has a huge effect on everything in life. We know that even to give attention to a plant it tends to grow. But then when you add a very pure level of loving intention toward something, it is hugely determining of an outcome. When Mother Teresa wanted to go in 1986, I think it was, to Beirut and cross the line to rescue some Muslim children that were in a bombed out shelter and the government was saying, 'We can't let you go there because they're still firing shots and bombing and you'll get killed,' she said, 'I'm going to pray for a ceasefire, because I have got to get over there. It's going to happen, the ceasefire is going to happen Friday at one.' They were like, 'Yeah, right,' rolling their eyes. And then it happened.
RG: That was her intention, or did she have some further knowledge that if she did what she did, it could stop at that moment?
FG: I have no idea but in my limited understanding paired with the research that I had to do for the book, it’s when somebody prays or makes a strong statement of intention. It doesn't have to be verbal, it can be just an inner intention that's very pure and selfless. It's not about, 'I really want my red convertible car by the time I'm 50, and I want the most good looking person to be with!' Those are all fine, but...
RG: Are desire and intention the same?
FG: I don't think so. They’re certainly related. I think of desire more as, ‘I really desire a million dollars,’ or even ‘I desire my own enlightenment.’ We can have intention around that, too. But intention starts to align our life energies of commitment and action. Maybe I say I'd like to go to Hawaii next year. That's a desire. But if I say I plan to go, my intention is to go, then all of a sudden some things start to happen. I start to put money aside to do it, I look on the internet and get a plane ticket and nail things down.
RG: Another thing in the book, you talked about heart cells from different people and that if they end up in a Petri dish they will synchronize.
RG: Is this the same concept as the rice? I'm trying to look at the underpinnings of how some of this works, the more metaphysical part of it.
FG: It was Dedan Gills, the African-American poet that I interviewed. He mentioned the heart cells and his point was that the heart has the capacity to pause and sync with other hearts and that is the spirit of unity that he felt is really vital. If we don't have that, if hearts aren't in sync, then nothing's going to change in the world. We can yell as loud as we want! To pause and then sync with some resonance that's happening with another person, or with a group of people, around something that really matters that we all care about. The heart can do that. The mind will dicker. The mind will get all invested in details. But the heart knows some deeper level what we have in common.
Belvie Rooks and Dedan Gills (Photo © Larry Rose)
RG: That concept really spoke to me given how much discord we have in the world. What would it be like to get X number of people in a room, get our hearts in sync, and then something transforms from it?
FG: Well, we've seen it with Martin Luther King, Jr. We've seen it with Nelson Mandela. We've seen it when certain leaders come from a heart space, like Belvie Rooks, who is the African American woman and co-founder of Growing a Global Heart foundation. At 15, she told me, she was in the room with Martin Luther King, Jr. and she said she's never been in a space like that. She can remember down to what it felt like in her body, her heart, her soul, her mind. She said the whole room was alive with this energy of love and commitment to something higher than our hatred, higher than our personal wants. The whole room was in sync at that heart level because of the message that he was getting and the power from within him that it came from.
RG: This feels similar to what you described about Dr. Hawkins.
FG: Right. Yes.
RG: I hate to use the word 'special,' but are there quote unquote ‘special people’ who arrive on the planet to help guide us to this?
FG: I think on the planet there's a spectrum, you might say, of levels of consciousness. I mean, this is quite obvious! I don't know if they arrive on the planet with that purpose. But I think the lesson I take is that we all have within us that inner nobility, that dignity, that capacity to love more than just ourselves. Of course we have to start with ourselves, that's vital. If we don't love the piece of humanity that we are, then I don't think there's much hope for us to embrace others! But to get to a point where we care about not just ourselves, not just our family, not just the one group we're in, but really the whole of humanity and then beyond that. My God, everything that lives! There are certain beings that were, that are, at that level. They encompass within their heart the well being of everything that lives.
RG: It feels to me like you are one of these people!
FG: No, I'm on the way, slipping and sliding. I'm very impatient. I have to deal with my impatience every day.
RG: It's plausible to think that Mother Teresa had some impatience sometimes, and that Dr. Hawkins had some impatience, and certainly Martin Luther King, Jr. had a whole lot of impatience. I'm not sure the thing that we can pin all this on is impatience!
FG: The beautiful thing that I also learned from these, I would call them great beings because to me they really are, is not to take ourselves so seriously. They weren't pious. They weren't self cautious. They weren't trying to appear a certain way, of having it all together. They were just very natural, spontaneous people. If they needed to they cussed. I mean, if a brick drops on your foot, Dr. Hawkins told me, what do you think you're going to do?
RG: If you're willing, I'd like to talk a bit more about your personal experience through all of this. The power of love seems to have played a really meaningful role and not just in this book. You've seen and lived through some very difficult things in your life.
RG: You mentioned alcoholism, and you were very involved in a fundamentalist church and then ultimately found yourself leaving that church, which was difficult in certain ways.
FG: Kicked out kind of thing!
RG: Everything is in the book. You suffered from panic attacks and a fear of speaking publicly. You were married and you left a marriage. You came out as gay, lost a job, lost your friends, identity, security. There was gender discrimination. We're talking about a lot of things that you've been up against that certainly do not speak to love and yet somehow you found your way through all of that to love, to all of these spiritual teachers. You had to find your way through a lot of very difficult things, and I’m thinking about this idea of love as a beacon. How did you find it and how did it begin to resonate with you in a way that you could change all of these circumstances?
FG: Well, I got kind of battered. The circumstances really were rough to go through. I think most people have their 'whatever,' whatever their worst life circumstances were. It makes it difficult to be a human being. This is no easy cakewalk to be a human being. I think when I get up to the pearly gates I'm just going to tell St. Peter, 'Hey, you know what, just let us all in!' I think everybody deserves to be let in. So in my particular case, yes, I think there was always within me something that wanted to be free. I mean, who doesn't want to be free? Yet I found myself in these real constricting environments. At 15 is when I had an experience of extraordinary love, infinite love, that completely melted my sense of self into itself.
RG: That was one of the things I wanted to talk about. Will you tell that story?
FG: Yes, I was sitting in English class and suddenly out of nowhere this pillar of light came and surrounded me. All around me was a pillar of light and instantly time disappeared and there was total silence within me. My mind in the moment before had been chattering away about all these concerns. I had worries, little teenage worries. Then instantly I find myself within this totally loving light and there are no thoughts, no time, total silence, total peace, and it's like whatever I thought I had been was melted into this love that had no beginning and no end. It was extraordinary. I had been paying attention to the teacher talking, and that all just completely disappeared. I was right in this light and I was that light.
I don't know how long it lasted and then it went away and I was just shocked out of my skull. I looked around and everybody was just kind of going on like nothing had happened and it was so bizarre to me! I'm like, 'What, did you people not see that?! What just happened here?!' Because to me it was the realest thing that I had ever felt or experienced and I could see this light. It wasn't electrical light, it didn't have a shadow to it but it had a quality of intelligence. It was alive, you know? When I sit under a light at home, it's a light but I don't feel energy from it, it doesn't have any intelligence or love in it, it's just a light.
RG: Was there warmth to the light?
FG: It didn't have a temperature. It just had an intelligence and a lovingness that melted. It was, in this lifetime, the first real conscious experience I remember of love. I became very different inside. I don't know what it was except there was an energy inside of me that was disturbing because it was very unfamiliar. I wasn't able to sleep. My mother, after a bit of time, became very worried for me and took me to a minister. I was living in the Deep South. We went to this tiny little conservative church. Bless her heart, where else could she take me? It was a very strange thing that her daughter was going through. I told him, and he said it was the devil inside of me. This was of course then when my psyche became split, not split in a psychosis, thank God, but it could have been. I'm surprised I didn't decompensate psychologically but for some reason I didn't. I was able somehow to hold it together and have an ego life that was very academically oriented, very mental. Probably as a defense to all that!
RG: You wrote in your book that you felt like you were dissolving into something greater when this happened, and also like it downloaded something to you. Have you had any sense of what that download was?
FG: There must have been some kind of energy or something that got activated inside. I think the human psyche has so many different dimensions to it. The dimension that was activated was something that we might call the spiritual dimension, transpersonal dimension, or maybe the soul itself. Something got awakened and enlivened. Maybe download isn't the right term, maybe it's something from within that just caught up and energized and was brought to life. I think love does that. Love brings things to life.
Fran dancing with her class (Photo © Taylor Matousek)
RG: You grew up on the Gulf Coast of Florida near Coffeen Nature Preserve, which is a wild bird refuge, and you told the story of a bird that you came across who was dying and that a light passed between you.
FG: That's true.
RG: Was it a similar kind of light?
FG: That's a good question. I never thought about it that way. No, I would say that everything in my experience, everything that's living has a light inside of it. It is light. Energy is light so we're all light in a way and even the animals and trees. I went through a time in my life a few years ago where I could see auras of people and I could see the light. The light of that bird that was lying there dying. It's like the light of its being was coming across to me on the sand, which was quite different than the experience at 15 with this pillar of light that came from above that had this immense infinite love in it. It was divine, really, that's all I can say! It was way beyond any kind of individual being.
RG: Has that light visited you again?
FG: The energy of it is what I felt when I was with Dr. Hawkins. The energy of that light, it was no different than what his light was.
RG: Were you very aware that you changed after that light happened? You wrote in the book that your mother started noticing that you were different.
FG: Yes, I felt very different. I couldn't sleep at night, I had all this energy running around in my body and it made me very nervous. I felt like I was going to be dissolving into something, like it was going to dissolve me as an individual. It was like all these vibrations but I didn't really go into a big study about it.
RG: Which I find fascinating!
FG: Yes! You have to understand I was a 15-year-old in a family that lived in this rural nature preserve and we were in this conservative group, there was no way that I could. We went to the minister, and out of anybody he should have been the one to do something, but no one knew anything. I certainly didn't know, and we didn't have the internet back then. I couldn't jump online and do a Google search, 'weird vibrations in my body!'
RG: I get that. I meant in later years exploring it because it was certainly a defining moment for you and there are lots of traditions of people being visited by light as a metaphysical, mystical experience.
FG: You're right.
RG: You're seeing auras, also. Would you consider yourself a mystic?
FG: I lived in Sedona for a few years. I was giving a lecture on mystics because that's what I studied. I was talking about the historic mystics and a guy raised his hand and said, 'Well, we're all mystics!' And I said, 'OK, at one level, that's true. However, there's a difference. If you look at a tomato, there's a difference between a seed and the whole tomato.' Maybe I'm at the level of, ‘There's a seed here,’ but I'm not a full blown tomato. There's a difference between our potential and that which has already become it. The people that I interviewed in the book, to me they are mystics in the sense of the full tomato, they've grown from the seed. I'm not there. A mystic to me is a certain state of consciousness. I've had these momentary, transitory, ineffable revelational experiences and those are mystical experiences that many people have, but I think there aren't a lot of mystics in the sense of somebody for whom that state of consciousness has become their permanent experience.
RG: It would have to be permanent?
FG: Yes, the true mystic lives in a nondual state of consciousness—they are one with everything. When Dr. Hawkins lost his personal self, it never came back and he spent the first year not believing that people were addressing his physical body as David. He's like, 'Why are you looking at me?!’ He knew himself to be everywhere and that's a real different state than usual ego state where we know who we are. I'm Fran, I'm this body...
Fran welcomes His Holiness the 17th Karmapa to the University of Redlands
(Photo © Carlos Puma)
RG: Radio Gabriel takes a look at the intersection between spirituality and creativity, and I'm curious about your thoughts on that crossroad. You refer to it a lot in the book. Dr. Hawkins says love is in artistry, love is an art project, love is spirituality, love is creativity. There are a lot of possibilities. I also recall reading His Holiness the 17th Karmapa talking about creating art, creating a universal language, and it's sort of like the hand-in-handedness of love and art. I'm curious what your thoughts might be about that.
FG: I think it's right at the root of what humanity needs right now. Art takes us to that place where our hearts beat in common. What we were saying earlier, where we can be in sync with something. Creativity and spirituality and my experience are totally linked. Anytime I've been creative, even writing this book, or creating something, a song on the guitar, or as a professor creating a session where the students are going to have a certain experience, creating a ritual that's meaningful, anytime that that's happened it's come from a place that's not my mind. It's come from the spirit, the soul, which is the deeper part of me and it's a beautiful experience to tap into it. It's not easy for me because I have a very busy life in my head! I'm a professor and I have to go to faculty meetings and do all that stuff, plus just a regular householder, like we had the pipe that was leaking this morning so I had to call the plumber.
RG: I'm wondering if it's about love, and what that connector is?
FG: For me, love is the critical component around creativity. First of all the artists, we have to love what's coming from within us. If we don't value it then it's not going to happen. I know that in in your experience you have a certain sort of element of love around Christmas and your mother.
FG: There are a lot of people who sing out of their heartbreak, or they paint out of love for something that they're seeing, or the photographer that just walks around the planet. I know one who does this. His photographs are amazing because he has a deep love for humanity, wanting to capture the diversity of different faces and different actions and interactions and so out of that love for what he's seeing he's able to relay to the rest of us. He sees there's a beautiful spirit within that young woman who's pregnant and homeless or whatever the circumstances that he captures. Another kind of person who doesn't have that love would just look at it and get depressed over it. But David Taggart, my friend, is able to capture her, the nobility of her insights in her situation. He has created a platform called Republic of Humanity. For me, if it hadn't been for love, love for my teacher, this book, 'The Power of Love,' wouldn't have happened. I did it because of the love and gratitude I had for him.
RG: From an art perspective, you talk a couple of times in the book about how important art was directly to you and in changing you.
FG: Oh, yes.
Sandro Botticelli's "Birth of Venus"
RG: You spent a lot of time in Italy and had something of a spiritual Renaissance in Florence that came from the architecture, and you talked about how viewing the Birth of Venus undid a lot of years of dogma and a variety of things.
FG: Yes, yes.
RG: There's something there, again, about that intersection between creativity and spirituality and perhaps love being the fulcrum.
RG: Can you talk about that a bit, of what that was for you?
FG: Botticelli, Sandro Botticelli, a great Renaissance painter. Having been raised in a very repressive religious dogma around my body and rejection of sexuality and sensuality and just being a physicality, rejection of all that, like it was shameful. So there I was in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence as a 22-year-old, there to be a religious missionary to convert people to my little Protestant group!
RG: Which is totally fascinating in and of itself, that you went to Italy to do that, a predominantly Catholic country.
FG: Beautiful Catholic country and here I am, a 22-year-old, ‘You people are going to hell.’ I mean, the arrogance of it. But at any rate there was, as you say, a spiritual Renaissance standing there in front of The Birth of Venus who's very beautifully naked, nearly naked. Just the gorgeousness of the whole painting. She's born whole. I remember standing in front of that, captivated and so opened up by the beauty of it, the beauty of the body as Botticelli was able to bring her whole mythology, her whole meaning, her purity at the same time. She is so beautifully made in her inner sensuality, the naturalness. Yes, it was a moment of awakening and grace for me so I brought a poster of that painting home with me and it became a real touchstone for me of my own embrace of myself. Although I had a moment where I was dating a man, and he was a religious man. He came into my living room and saw that over the couch, The Birth of Venus, that beautiful piece of Renaissance art, and he was offended by her nakedness. He asked me for some cardboard and scissors and tape and he taped over her breasts with cardboard, and it was just completely botched and ugly then. It ended up with the whole thing going into the dumpster. That was a sad moment.
RG: My first instinct is to ask why you let him do it?
RG: Which I'm sure is a whole other story.
FG: Well I had mentioned earlier, at 15 when the minister told me I had the devil inside me and I believed him, I became completely silenced as a person. When you're told you have the devil inside you you're afraid for your mouth to open and what's going to come out of it. So I became muted, really. I didn't have the capacity in my 20s to stand up for what meant a lot to me. I was very deferent and succumbed to the stronger personality.
RG: When did you find your voice, and how did you find it? Was this about love, and is this about Dr. Hawkins as well?
FG: Such things never disappear from one's psyche. We can suppress them, we can deny them, but they don't disappear. They don't die because it's powerful art and what it opened up in me was vital. A few years later, in my 30s, I ended up falling in love with a woman, which was sort of The Birth of Venus all over again for me. That was very shocking because I had no precursor in my life. I had not had same sex attractions and the religion I was in was very against any kind of homosexual thought or feeling or anything. I don't know where it came from in me, but it did. I fell in love and the experience was so beautiful and healing that I wasn't going to suppress it. I was going to try to understand it and say yes to it. That's all I knew to do at that point because I just needed to save my own life. I wasn't going to suppress a powerful love again like I had at 15.
RG: So the same sex relationship, if I'm hearing you right, is what helped you find your voice?
FG: Yes, because the love was so strong. Being loved by a woman was very healing for me, having been shut down by patriarchal dynamics in the church and in my marriage. The love was very mutual and very supportive and tender and it very much empowered my own voice as a woman. It was so powerful and healing that I just had to say yes to it.
RG: There was a poet you mentioned in the book, Marilyn Peck. I'm not sure if she said this or your student but they said when someone denigrates your creative work they're denigrating the divine within you. It's interesting going back to your mother and this minister saying what he did about the devil, as that alone is denigrating the divine within you.
FG: Yes. That’s very, very crucial.
RG: And then finding your voice, which is extraordinary.
FG: Yes, and then of course a lot of creativity was unleashed when I found my voice and said yes to this powerful love, even though, frankly, I didn't understand it. I didn't understand where it came from. I was very baffled and everybody was very upset. I was a disgrace in the community I was in and I lost pretty much everything. But look what I gained – I gained myself and out of that all the creativity that's been such a river in my life. It got unblocked.
RG: What's also interesting is that if there were some download that you got from that pillar of light, perhaps this was what it was.
FG: Yes, it could be.
RG: Finding your voice and things getting unleashed when it's time for them to do that.
FG: I think that's the wisdom of the psyche and maybe even the divine. I don't know, but I think the psyche is very much on our side. It doesn't unleash things for us until we're able to handle them.
RG: Does it make you wonder with everything that you've experienced if there's more to learn, more to be unleashed?
FG: I'm quite sure that's true.
RG: It'll be interesting to see if you have another experience with this pillar of light as time goes on. I would be looking for it all the time! Once you've had something like that, it seems to me I would want it a lot because it sounds so wonderful.
FG: I have so many beautiful experiences. The unique thing about that was that the sense of personal self dissolved and it was spontaneous. I do a lot of teaching on mystics and these experiences that we all want to have are almost always spontaneous. It's not when you're sitting there in meditation and then the veil lifts. It's when you're just walking along, walking your dog. Like for me, sitting in English class.
RG: Let's talk about meditation for a bit. You're a professor at the University of Redlands and you created a pioneering program on meditation, compassion, and spiritual practices. You created a meditation room and one of the first classrooms in the country for contemplation, correct? I love your title, 'Steward of the Meditation Room Program.'
FG: I wouldn't say I created it. Several faculty members and I had the energy and vision and a lot of people participated to make it happen. The administration has been amazing. ‘Steward' is simply to signify that I take care of the space and watch over it but a lot of people are involved.
(Photo © Meggan Austin)
RG: Can you give me a sense about what happens with your students, their transformation as they participate in your classes and in the meditation room? Do you see a noticeable change in them from meditation?
FG: I do see a noticeable change. I don't know what it's from. I am in awe of what's inside every person, that when they give attention to their deeper self then huge things happen for them. It's even over the course of a few weeks. What happens in the classes is that first of all, they are encouraged to connect with their deeper self. They're encouraged by the things that they read. I do reading assignments that are focused on qualities of the deeper self, qualities like attention and compassion and self inquiry, mindfulness, inner dignity. We focus on something that's inspirational of the deeper self. It's the material itself – we become what we think about, so if we concentrate on things that are of that nature, then we tend to become them. Secondly, they're given freedom and encouragement to learn from each other's life stories. I see each person as a textbook and I think hearing the stories of their peers is very encouraging to them. Then they're given exercises or practices where they have to do certain contemplative inquiries into themselves as it relates to their daily life. So it's not just in the classroom. For example, they're asked to do a meditation practice from Tibetan Buddhism called Tonglen.
RG: Do you want to describe that?
FG: Sure. It's extremely helpful to them. I hear from them 10 years later and they're doing it as a social worker or a doctor or a mother. Tonglen, as we learned about it from the Dalai Lama, or the Karmapa, it's just a way of working with our breath in daily life or on our meditation cushion where we breathe in suffering and we breathe out healing, or loving kindness. We become aware of suffering in that I have suffering in my life, I'm going to breathe in my anxiety and just become aware that I'm not the only one. There are people here in this classroom or around the world that have anxiety and just to realize that it's not all about me, that there are other people that suffer from what I suffer. So to breathe that in and to breathe out loving kindness and wish for some kind of relief from that anxiety. It's a very effective practice because the student puts attention on themselves being a vehicle of healing in the world.
RG: There's a transformation, in effect, and exchange.
FG: There is. They write about it in their papers, all these different things that they were aware of in doing the practice. It helped them pay attention more to who was around them or what was going on and their own inner capacity to be a channel of something positive.
RG: Have you written a book, Fran, about your experiences in the classroom or what you have your students do? Your coursework? It certainly seems like there are a lot of people who could benefit.
FG: Eight years ago I co-edited a book called 'Meditation in the Classroom,' and I have a couple of essays in there and other teachers from around the country have essays in there about the incorporation of meditation and mindfulness.
RG: It seems like it's a very positive, powerful, loving thing to do. Again, particularly with so much discord.
FG: No kidding. When I first became a professor I taught classes on religion and hatred and oppression and all these things, and it's not that any of it's bad to do, but the effect it had on me and the students was it made us more despairing and more depressed and more angry. We need to become aware of it psychologically in ourselves. The effect of the patriarchy, for example. I had a real wounding, homophobia and rejection. We have to own the goodness of what we are, we have to make that journey out of our internalized oppression. That's all important, but then what, you know? We've got to get to a place of ‘What next? How are we going to love the enemy? How are we going to not hate what's hated us?’ Because otherwise it'll just go on and on. Hate for hate, you know?
RG: You talk about that in the book, the idea of universal love. You were asking someone about universal love and this gentleman said you need to worry about not liking the person sitting next to you rather than universal love!
FG: That was so embarrassing!