Interviewsand Articles

 

Leah Pearlman—Inspiring Happiness in Our World

by Bela Shah, May 7, 2012


 

 


If you ever have the opportunity to meet Leah Pearlman, one of the first things that you might notice is her glow, illuminating from within. In this interview, Leah, the creator of Dharma Comics and the co-founder of the Happiness Institute in San Francisco, California, shares her inner journey.  She reveals how she was able to move away from a highly coveted position with Facebook, and the deep introspection that led her to co-create a physical space that encourages the cultivation and deepening of our individual and collective happiness.  Her story and insights invite us to reevaluate what we value in life and why.  We all seek happiness but are we allowing ourselves the time and space to realize what really make us come alive? 
 
Bela Shah:  Let’s begin with what most people don’t already know about you. It’s hard to believe that the creator of Dharma Comics was a computer science major!  How did that happen?
 
Leah Pearlman:  When I was studying at Brown, I sat in on an introductory computer science class just to spend time with a friend and I ended up enrolling. My first course was the hardest thing I had ever done and I swore to myself that I would never do it again. But at the end of the course, a Teaching Assistant (TA) flattered me into TAing the class I’d just taken, but I had to take the next course to do it. Somewhere along the way, I fell in love with programming. The affair only lasted while I was at college, but I’m deeply grateful for it.
 
Bela:  For many of us, our college years our some of our most formative.  Would you say this about your experience? How did those four years at Brown shape you?
 
Leah:  Well, I remember just working really hard all the time.  I rarely “hung out.” I felt like I needed to be doing something productive most of the time. Maybe I could have benefitted from chilling out. I remember suffering a lot because I worked so hard and at the same time, I never thought I was doing enough. But I guess there were results. After college, I joined Microsoft, which later led me to Facebook¸ which gave me the resources for what I’m doing now with Happiness Institute. And the Happiness Institute is all about people who like to hang out while doing something productive or valuable. So I guess that doesn’t answer how Brown shaped my values, but a bit about how it got me here.
 
Bela:  You were at Facebook for three years and doing really well professionally and then decided to take a break. Most people couldn’t imagine leaving such a coveted position.  Explain!
 
Leah:  The most significant catalyst for leaving was that my dad was battling cancer. One day I realized that I had been working so hard that I hadn’t made enough time to spend with him.  My priorities were screwed up. So I took a six-month leave of absence.
 
Shortly after taking leave, I went to Burning Man for the first time, which initiated a huge transformation for me. Seven days in the desert and it was the first time where I had no agenda or plan, nothing to optimize or maximize. So I just wondered around following what I perceived as fun and aesthetically beautiful. For the first time ever, I moved through the world guided by aesthetics instead of by achievement. And it was awesome.  
 
The harsh conditions of the desert helped me learn to take care of myself in a new way. I was always making sure I had enough food, water, and warm clothes.  Through that radical self-care, I started cultivating a deeper level of self-love.  I also did acid and MDMA (like ecstasy) for the first time and they played a really important role in my awakening. I experienced my heart open in such a powerful way that allowed me to experience total acceptance of myself and others. I know what it feels like to have no regrets, no guilt, and total acceptance, and that has become my point of reference. I know now, when I’m out of a state of love, and I adjust.
 
Bela:  Wow, a lot there to elaborate on.  Let’s start with how moving away from an achievement based approach.  How did this shift your perspective and values?
 
Leah:  Before I left Facebook, I felt like I needed to achieve but I didn’t know why. I thought I needed to maximize something but I didn’t know what. I was in the mindset that certain things in life would satisfy me, such as a good job.  I had no spirituality, bigger picture or global view, and I didn’t understand human connection.  I thought human connections were a means to an end, and that you have good friends or a relationship so that you can feel something. 
 
But in those six months I started to understand my own spirituality. All the wisdom of the world is inside of me.  The whole world is exactly what it is and I have nothing to maximize or optimize.  I started to understand what self love is all about. I started to understand nature and that human connections are an end in themselves.
 
Bela:  What did you mean when you said that you were “guided by aesthetics”?
 
Leah:  The art at Burning Man was the most amazing, creative self-expression that I’ve ever seen.  Every person treated their own body, tents, and camp like a platform for art.  I came from a maximizing frame of reference, where my mind was in the “how to be the most successful” mode of thinking in an objective way. Now I think living is making beautiful things and moments so that ourselves and others can appreciate life. There’s nothing to maximize later, only beauty to appreciate or amplify now. And beauty is infinite and changing moment to moment, so there’s no question of “maximizing” anything.
 
Art is the frame through which I view the world now. As an example, today I was driving home and thought, “wouldn’t it be lovely to go dance on the beach!” But my mind was asking, “Do you have time to go to the beach? Isn’t there something more productive you could be doing?” But my heart created a radiant image of a girl whirling on the sand.  So that’s what I did. Who care’s why? It just felt like a beautiful thing to do. So the aesthetic of the experience is what really drew me. And I’m glad I went.
 
Another example: The other day I was feeling sad and my heart was telling me to call close friends and hang out with them even though they live far away and I had work to do. Aesthetics guided me to pick up the phone, like writing the perfect next scene in the movie of my life, and it was such a lovely day. And by allowing that time and space to care for myself during the day, I came home in the evening and completed much of the work that I had wanted to do.
 
Bela:  Tell me more about that sadness…it caught me off guard while thinking about someone who runs the Happiness Institute…where does it come from?
 
Leah:  One thing I’ve been learning in the past year is to not worry about the story around where an emotion comes from. I was just sad, it happens, as do the rest of the emotions. The stories are just an attempt of the mind to make sense of them. I’ll speak for myself, anyway.  I tend to experience a lot of loneliness. But I’ve finally realized that it’s not something that can be solved. My reaction used to be “I’m lonely so I should be with people,” Now my response is, “Oh, here’s loneliness again.”  It’s part of the practice to be aware of loneliness as another emotion, and not see it as a problem or be scared of it.
 
As part of this practice, I am able to come back to myself and ask what I need from a place of love.  If I’m feeling lonely, it’s because I’ve abandoned myself in some way.  So the other day I thought I needed to do work, but I was in a suffering state emotionally and physically.  I used this as a guide, and asked, “What can I do that is nurturing for me?”  I wanted to be with close friends, not for the sake of being with people, but because I knew that spending my time in this way would fuel my creative energy. So I spent the day writing poetry with them.
 
Bela:  You described a profound realization that all the wisdom of the world is inside of you.  How has this realization, this understanding of human emotions, and appreciation of beauty inspired Dharma Comics?  And how does creating these comics bring you back to this realization?
 
Leah:  There is something that happens to me when I witness something extraordinary, and I feel it very deeply. In those moments, I feel a division occur.  One part of me is feeling and another part of me is just witnessing.  It’s in these two parts, first the separation and then the coming back together, that the comic develops.  When pain happens for example, part of me is hurting and the other part of me has to comfort that pain.  Today I put up a tin man comic who’s missing his heart.   There was a part of me that said, “Ouch, I can’t feel my heart, this sucks,” and the other part of me said “I know how you feel” which is what the caption reads. I see my art as the offspring of the emotional lovemaking of the two parts of me.  A friend once said that she sees love not as an emotion, but a creative force that attracts things to each other in order to create.  So that’s what I think of with my comics, love is a creative force and art is the creation.
 
Bela:  Can you share some stories behind some of your Dharma Comics?  What personal emotions did the ideas/messages come from? (“I hope you like it, it’s not perfect but it’s all I have!” Or, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours!”)
 
Leah:  The idea for “I hope you like it” developed after a friend made a video of a story and song night we held with friends. He sent it to us with an email that said something like, “I did the best I could… there are imperfections…but I hope you like it.”  Watching the video, I saw that he wasn’t sharing a video, but a piece of himself. That touched me, and I saw the universality of it. And sometimes the things we want to offer from our hearts might never be perfect, but if that got in the way of offering, we might never do it.
 
The second comic, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours”, came when a friend shared with me from a really vulnerable place. Her openness encouraged me to be more open, bringing us closer.
 
Bela:  Have you thought about making greeting cards with your comics as gifts?
 
Leah:  I do want to help people give them to each other in a physical form someday soon.  Most of these comics are made from me to one other person.  At least half of them are direct quotes from a conversation, and I create the comic as homage to that person and interaction; often, I gift them the original. I know that this is how the comics are often shared too, “This comic made me think of you,” and that is the spirit in which they were originally created. So I really like the idea of enabling people to give them to each other physically.
 
Bela:  I want to go back to something very personal that you shared earlier, about experimenting with drugs for the first time at Burning Man. I know that you also meditate and have taken the intense 10 day Vipassana meditation course.  How do you reconcile the liberty you feel through drugs with the freedom you strive to cultivate through meditation? 
 
Leah:  Most of us see the world through a set of filters we’re born and raised into.  I see time, for example, as a construct to make sense of the world.  Acid gave me the embodied experience of not living in the flow of time, but experiencing life moment by moment instead. From there, it’s easy to recognize the futility of optimizing for the future rather than the experiencing the present. It gave me a break from patterned thinking so that I can gain new perspectiveMy dharma comics are about that. An underlying theme is to take one situation and think of it in a new way, which frees me, and others, I hope, from patterned responses to life.
 
Of course if I’m on acid and a friend calls and needs help, I will be unable to help effectively. I don’t believe drugs are substitutes for finding that truth in a sober way. I want the lessons to be integrated with life so I can be of service with what I learn.  If I stay in the space-pod of drugs I’m going to miss out on something more important to me.  So I use them very rarely now.  I think Ram Das said, “Once you get the message you can hang up the phone.”  When I achieve a similar high from dancing or from writing a poem, or a deep personal connection, this offers something more nurturing for me now.  I don’t think meditation and drugs are in conflict, but they serve different purposes.  A lot of modern spiritual leaders, Alan Watts, Ram Das, Jack Kornfield, have all gone through the drug experience and that helped me to reconcile it as a perfectly valid form of meaning-seeking.
 
It’s funny to me now how often we take rules so seriously when often they’re so irrelevant.  Our perceptions of what is good and bad are also skewed.  For example, sugar is definitely harmful for our bodies in so many ways yet it is totally accepted, but LSD is illegal and dramatically improved my quality of life.  So to me, in this case, the legality and illegality becomes totally irrelevant to living a meaningful life.
 
Bela:  So let’s talk about Happiness Institute.  What is it?
 
Leah:  It’s a space where people have permission to seek their happiness and the happiness of others. They come to develop their creative energy. We provide the space and the community support and the only thing we ask in return is for people to offer back in a way that feels aligned for them. This means we don’t have fixed rates in terms of dollars. We are experimenting with lots of different ways to enable people to support the institute whether it’s through money, time, services to one another, donations of physical goods, etc.
 
Bela:  What was the process that you went through for arriving at the vision for HI?
 
Leah:  During my six month leave of absence from Facebook, I went to my first Vipassana sit.  I didn’t know it was Buddhist or a form of meditation, but I liked the idea of being silent for 10 days.  It was another huge opener for me and gave me access to my spirituality, to the understanding that I described earlier that the wisdom of the world is inside of me.  I started exploring internally for my answers.
 
When I came back, I found a brilliant and loving coach to help me orient within this new framework that I was seeing myself and the world.  I began moving from an achievement-based approach to life to a more artistic way of creating. The concept of the HI came from a year of working with her and seeing what I was missing in my life and realizing what my calling might be. Moving away from that goal-oriented approach is very hard and I still feel like a toddler because I have an ego like everyone else, and it’s a goal-oriented world.  When I’m not careful, I can make HI about achievement instead of creation.  So it’s a process for me too.  I have to go to Wednesday meditation regularly to remind myself of prioritizing being over doing and making safe spaces for people.
 
Bela:  What is the challenge of translating the concept of HI to newcomers? Usually, in our transaction based system, people are not used to “paying” for a service in ways that appeal to their hearts.
 
Leah:  Some people get it because we are in California.  But it’s hard to understand because even I don’t know exactly what it is. But when I explain that it’s a place for people to nurture their personal passions alongside others that are doing the same thing, (imagine a co-working space, but instead of work, people are cultivating creativity, service, and passion), most people get it. And most people like it!
 
As far as the unique “business” plan, I just know that when everything is reduced to financial transactions, so much creative value is overlooked or completely ignored. People without adequate financial means are often left out who have plenty to contribute. Most people understand that. Because it’s still relatively new, we are still in the process of articulating what it is (even to ourselves). It’s been less than a year since we opened the doors. When I explain The Happiness Institute, people think, “Huh, this thing that I didn’t even consider myself being able to do before is possible to try out in this space.” I can actually feel hearts and minds expand just the tiniest bit. And I know I’m on the right track. 
 
Bela:  It’s interesting to think of an institution based on a giving culture as a “business model”. Usually when I think of business models, I think the ultimate purpose is to make a profit.  But HI is not about making a profit, it’s about helping people find their happiness.
 
Leah:  What is a “business” really? I mean, our whole society is an enclosed system and it functions because there are always exchanges.  Trees take in carbon dioxide and exchange this for the oxygen that we need. So exchanges are inherent to the world and nature.   HI still functions by honoring exchange and it’s important that one part of the system isn’t taking advantage of another part.  If one person rents a desk and can choose a price and they choose zero, this wouldn’t feel like the good thing to do when you’re part of an exchange-based system.  Exchange and dignity requires that you invite and enable people to contribute back in a way that makes them feel in integrity. 
 
If people are using the space, we offer different ways that they can contribute and it doesn’t have to be monetary, it could be time or a donation of material resources.  We explain the system and the different ways that people can help, but we never call anything “free” because that’s just not a real thing. Nothing is “free.”  In a closed system, everything affects everything else.
 
Bela:  Volunteering with BloomBars has demonstrated what a challenge it is to move from the intellect to the heart; it’s a process to begin thinking from the heart instead of the mind when considering the value of something…and for every person this process is different...
 
Leah:  Mostly I think this is ok, because what we’re trying to do is join a revolution, and that will take time. If everything functioned like Karma Kitchen or BloomBars or HI, the world would be a completely different place. For me, I feel a ton of patience because most people will apply old models of thinking to see how it fits.  As long as they are experiencing a subtle, internal shift, then it’s perfect.
 
Bela:  What is so special about your model is the realization of abundance that it creates. People begin to see the abundance of their own gifts and discover ways that they can offer and share these gifts with others. How have you seen HI create abundance in creativity and human connections?
 
Leah:  I wouldn’t say that I’ve seen it create abundance on the aggregate yet.  And actually, we’ve stopped using the word abundance in favor of sufficiency. We’re focused on unearthing the sufficiency around us. What makes gift cultures work is that ultimately, people want to contribute. A few days ago I picked up dinner and everyone chipped in. One person there has very limited means and asked if he could share the food and clean the dishes in place of giving money. I told him to have some, but not worry about the dishes, and he said “Please. Let me do the dishes.”  
 
I think people usually feel more fulfilled when they’re contributing in response to what they’re receiving.  So gift cultures enable and challenge people to offer value in creative ways.  In a strictly monetary system, the only thing that is of value is money so those who don’t have money may feel like their under-contributing or stretching themselves thin in order to have what they want .  In a gifting environment, if people are usually honest about their contribution, every contribution is celebrated even if it’s $5 or doing the dishes. The whole experiment is worth it to watch someone give what they didn’t realize they had and watch it be gratefully accepted
 
Bela:  Can you share one story where you have seen this happen?
 
Leah:  Today I was meeting with someone who started this nonprofit because he was HIV positive and for three years he didn’t let anyone touch him because he felt untouchable after he got diagnosed. Then one day, he finally allowed himself to receive a massage and realized how important touch is for human life. He started a program which offers massages to HIV positive patients.  He approached HI because he wanted to facilitate a workshop for training people in massage so that they could heal each other and he wanted to rent a space at HI for a meager amount. So I asked him, “What if instead of paying us, your healers offer donation-based massages to our community so people who can’t afford massages can receive them, we get contributions toward rent, and you’re expanding your mission even further, by helping  more people receive loving touch?” He was so excited because it was in alignment with the actual gift he had to give, which is touch, not money.  Nobody feels like they’re sacrificing, everyone feels like they’re giving and receiving.
 
Bela:  What is your dream for HI in the next few years?
 
Leah:  My dream for HI is first to create something of real value. Second, if HI is truly valuable, I’d love to create a model others can replicate.  Perhaps one day there would be little institutions of happiness all over the place. My ultimate dream is that it’s normal in every community to have spaces for people to go where they can co-create with shared resourced in an environment that is based on people giving and receiving their gifts.
 
A second part of the vision is to tell the stories of the people at HI because I want to show how person after person is able to come with their ideas and see them through. These videos would be shared online so that others are inspired to do the same.
 
Bela:  Tell me more about the role of service in your life. How has your definition of service evolved since becoming involved with Service Space and finding HI?
 
Leah:  I remember saying soon after I met people at Service Space, “I know I want to be of service but it scares me, I don’t know how.”  I wasn’t exactly sure how to help.  Should I be serving starving kids in Ethiopia? Or volunteer at a local soup kitchen? Even at Wednesdays mediation at the Mehta family home when everyone jumps up to wash the dishes, I felt awkward. I wonder, “Do I help? Do I wash my own dish? What do I do?  It’s all very confusing!”
 
Bela:  (Laughing out loud) I wonder how many more people feel like that at Wednesdays at the Mehta’s!
 
Leah:  (Laughing) Part of me thinks that’s part of the process.  In feeling awkward, a question is born.  “How do become helpful, so I don’t feel awkward anymore?” Even noticing that I want to be helpful is the first step. That’s why I love the smile card stuffing that occurs after Wednesdays meditation, it’s a low barrier way to start contributing.
 
I don’t know exactly what the catalyst for change was, but I share Rilke’s philosophy that if you hold a question long enough, the answer comes. A year and a half later, I don’t even ask the service question anymore. I just serve as I feel called.  What has really freed me up is that I let go of this idea that there is any right way of doing service.  I could be at Wednesday and I don’t know what to do to help, but then I notice the person right next to me is finishing their meal so I offer to take their plate and that feels good.  So I pay attention more and the impulse comes.
 
Bela:  So the moment that you start wondering how you can help, you leave the present moment to “figure it out.”  When you’re just being present, you see the opportunities to be helpful and from there, you serve.
 
Leah:  Yes! Exactly!  I hadn’t thought of it that way. But you’re right. Another way I look at it is through this image: Our physical bodies are located in this physical space, but our minds have the ability to go elsewhere.  So our minds can think, “How can I be of service? and include options like serving in Ethiopia, but our physical bodies are actually the ones that will have to do the work.  So the biggest shift in service for me was to start serving what is actually right around me. It doesn’t matter where I am, if I notice that someone needs something that I can give, then that’s my job, period.
 
I was once asked, “What is life asking of you?” When I first heard that question, I heard it in that big way. What is my life’s purpose? Later I realized that “life” is simply someone saying “Hey Leah, can you give me a ride to the airport?”  “Life” is a cow who doesn’t really want to be mistreated in a factory farm. Now I live into the question in a new way. Rather than “What is life ultimately asking of me?” It’s “What is life asking of me moment to moment?” This includes the life inside of me. “What do I need?” Life is always speaking and I’m learning to honor that.  While I could be of service for bigger things, I’ll ultimately do that by paying attention to what is physically in my surroundings and trust that will add up to my life purpose.
 
Bela:  Do you feel that what you’re doing with Dharma Comics and the Happiness Institute are expressions of your service?  Internally and externally; are they a service to you as well as to others?  Along with that, how do you keep the ego in check? I see how popular Dharma Comics are on Facebook.  How do you remind yourself to keep going back to the service part of it?
 
Leah:  Great questions. I don’t think of Dharma Comics as an act of service.  I happen to know that they serve, but they’re 100% personal.  I rarely draw something for someone if they ask me to unless it will serve me too.  I have to really want to do it for myself. A few times I have drawn for reasons other than my own nourishment and it just felt really horrible, like nails on a chalkboard. So, while they are gaining popularity, I rarely feel an ego when I create or share comics because they have little to do with anyone else. I really feel that to me, they are a gift and a healing medicine.  When I draw them, I feel this elation and it’s cathartic. I love the little guys that I create in my comics, I even feel like a fan like anyone else, so it’s not coming from a place of ego.  I don’t take any credit for their creation, I don’t work for them.  I just feel really lucky every time I’m drawing one because I’m able to bring an idea to life for myself and others. I feel gratitude every time.
 
HI on the other hand is not that way. I’m constantly thinking of it as an act of service and have to remind myself over and over again that I’m doing this because I want to be doing this. When I start making HI about everyone else and try to meet their needs at my own sacrifice, I’m not going to serve people and the whole thing is going to collapse. It’s really important to remind myself that I’m motivated by the love of it. When I work from a place of love, I get excited and creative.  When I do things because “I think I should,” such as responding to emails all morning instead of coming into the space and being creative,  then I just get become really agitated and make everyone suffer around me. 
 
Bela:  I have been thinking a lot lately about the idea that service should be effortless. With your Dharma Comics, your intention was never to serve others, but they have ended up serving so many. It seems like Dharma Comics is the effortless service, coming from a place of love and serving so many without intending to.
 
Leah:  Mmm. You’re getting at the core of HI’s mission, which is to invite people to follow what makes them come alive as both an end for themselves, but also because I believe whatever that is will also be of the most service. I could be wrong, in which case HI has a bunch of happy people that actually aren’t helping or serving others, but I doubt it. I truly believe when people stop compromising their own experience of their life, ultimately more joy and more service will be achieved. This is related to why I’ve been dressing like a cat for a month.
 
Bela:  Ok, what?
 
Leah:  I’ve been dressing like a cat. I believe this so strongly that if we follow our heart and our impulses nature will live through us in a way that serves. Dressing like a cat helps me remember to trust myself. When I think “I’m a cat,” I only do what I feel like, whether that’s talk, write, or clean. I end conversations when I stop feeling alive, I stand on my head if I get the urge. If I want to touch someone, I walk up to them and collapse in their lap. (Usually with permission first.) I’ve been having more physical contact with humans that I have been craving and that I wasn’t allowing myself to have before, as a human, because of these ideas of what an “appropriate” way to act is.  I’ve had a lot of lovely conversations with people in this way. Curious, and alive, instead of polite or wrote.  
 
Recently, a few of us were racing around HI with tails and making cat sounds.  Someone came in really angry so I dressed him up like a cat too and when he started roling around with us, he felt so much better. It sounds ridiculous, but I just think that our ego mind of how things should be keeps telling us that we have to do things a certain way.  Maybe if we just take a break from that, the real service will arise.  So I’ve stopped doing dishes at Wednesdays because I don’t usually like doing dishes. But I draw comics for all of the iJourney readings because I love drawing comics. If I were to not draw comics and do dishes, perhaps everyone would lose something.
 
Bela:  You said to me once that if people didn’t value HI, then you would have to shut the doors. You said this with such ease. I didn’t hear a tinge of doubt or fear in your voice. Do you ever become worried or overcome by fear that maybe your idea won’t succeed?
 
Leah:  I have a surprising amount of detachment for HI’s outcome for something that is my current life’s work.  Ultimately, I feel committed to consciousness. The Happiness Institute is a vehicle to learn more about myself and to invite others into that exploration too.  If I were to fail, then that will be part of the learning. What does keep me up at night, however, is that there is this beautiful idea and beautiful intention, and I worry my own unskilled habits and patterns could sabotage it. I hate the idea it could fail because I wasn’t able to be serious enough to make it happen. If I do the best job I can and it fails, then I have no problem with that.  I just worry sometimes that I’ll do a mediocre job and I’ll ruin it.
 
Bela:  What practices do you have to try and change your habits, your mental patterns?
 
Leah:  Recently, I took all our contact information off the website for The Happiness Institute. On the Contact Page I explained we’re experimenting with “Radical Presence”, so if you want to get to know us, come by.  That has helped me stop feeling so victim to email and scheduling meetings. In this way, I have long unstructured days to focus on the highest priority needs of the space. Most recently, this cat thing has been incredibly helpful, too.  When I’m a cat, I do what I think needs doing, instead of falling back into patterns.
 
Bela:  So actually dressing like a cat makes you feel empowered to not have to respond to everything and be available all the time?
 
Leah:  Yeah, this is my perception of cats but it makes me feel empowered and unapologetic about my own impulses. 
 
Bela: (Laughing) What does this cat thing look like? Do you have a cat mask? Or just whiskers?
 
Leah:  I have an eye mask that has whiskers.  I keep saying to people that I’m a cat, which makes me practice being a cat. So when I get an email that asks, “Hey do you want to have this meeting?” I respond, “I don’t want to, I’m a cat.” Yesterday I was in a meditation circle, and I became incredibly tired and I wanted to lie down. And I said to myself, “Oh, I’m a cat so I can lie down on the couch.” I don’t think anyone in the sangha cared and if they did, that’s their own deal. But I was able to lay there and enjoy the meditation and feel totally alive. And also, I’ve been watching how other people respond. It is out there enough that it allows everyone else space to stretch their imaginations too. If I’m lying on the floor as a cat, other people will sit down and take off their shoes. They’ll take a deep breath and let themselves be silly. 
 
Also, as much as possible, if I notice that I’m doing something that I really don’t want to be doing, I stop and ask myself, “Does this really have to be done right now?” If the answer is yes, that can reconnect me to the urgency or the passion and then I can enjoy doing it again. Or I ask myself, “Who is this serving if I do this right now?” If I don’t have good answers, I stop.
 
Bela:  You recently spoke at Wisdom 2.0 about finding your gift. Will you share a bit of that message here?
 
Leah:  The key message was to invite people to this idea to follow whatever it is that feels good, feels nourishing, feels exciting, feels easy (not easy in a lazy way but easy in a release sort of way). I believe those are the bread crumbs to true fulfillment, service and self-actualization.  I was trying to share that through my own story. 
 
The one message I didn’t get out is to recommend suspending judgment. For me if I had judged my comics as not being “good” enough, even though I enjoyed drawing them, and found them personally nourishing, I would have sabotaged my own flowering.  This is sort of what we talked about with service too, about starting where you are.  If we ever think we need to be better at something before we can give, I think that can be a sure way to stop the process.  So my message was really about, honor what feels good and trust that this is aligned with what is most important.
 
Bela:  Post Facebook, a lot has changed in your values.  How has this impacted your relationship with your family, your best friend, and with other significant people in your life that knew Leah before HI?  Has it been difficult for them to understand your new choices and/or values?
 
Leah:  The main way it’s impacted my relationships is for the positive because now I am living into values.  Before I was living from a self-centered achievement framework, where I focused on what I needed to do to achieve things in life and this strained my relationships at times.  The change in values has helped me to become more present with people in my life, or even if I’m not always present, I become aware of when I’m not present.  So I feel closer to my best friend now than I ever have and I feel like I’m still learning and getting to know her. And we’ve been bff since we were four.
 
Bela:  That’s really interesting...it seems like you’ve been able to deepen your relationships through your new value-based way of living.  I was wondering if this would cause you to find some of your previous relationships to be empty or void of depth.
 
Leah:  There are a lot of people I don’t spend time with anymore.  In the last year I’ve become more service-oriented and so I tend to avoid social gatherings that don’t have a purpose.  I don’t judge that, it can be nourishing for people and I think that maybe later along my path, I might enjoy these types of gatherings more.  But right now I like to be productive or learning or intentional and just want to focus on that.
 
My parents have been really supportive through all of this.  Sometimes I feel like they’re just a step or two behind (which makes sense because they’re not me) in understanding where I’m going and why, but they’re always open to understanding me.  When I decided to leave Facebook, they were actually really supportive because they knew I was pushing myself too hard and they saw how much I always worked.
 
As I go through all these changes, I sometimes experience myself as a little bit preachy. I feel so excited about where I am sometimes that I feel like I try to sell it and that is something that causes a distance between me and others. I don’t think it’s the new values that create the distance, rather it’s learning to hold people in a loving way without trying to impose my values on them. But ultimately, I’m just a more loving person, so my important relationships feel that much stronger.
 
Bela:  Is there anything else you would like to share?
 
Leah:  One thing that was important to me to convey through my Wisdom talk, especially because the other speakers were Jack Kornfield and Ekhart Tolle, was that I am just like everyone else. We’re all the same and we all can start wherever we are.
 
I’m trying to say that for me, it’s a moment to moment practice. I often don’t know what to do now but if I just focus on coming from a place of love in this minute, or half hour, or in this hour, then I will ultimately find my way to a career in love and to relationships of love. It is not a big mountain. It is only a step by step process and no one is better positioned to take those steps than anyone else.
 
I’ve noticed in your questions that I seem to have that theme across different things, whether its service, or drawing, or pursuing happiness and doing a good job at work, it’s all about this question: What is the thing that I can do now that feels like it is coming from love for me and for the people around me? I know sometimes I learn about people and they seem so beyond what I’m capable of being.  And then it’s not particularly inspiring, it can be the opposite, even a little depressing. I don’t want people to see me that way. I just want people to see yet another Leah-cat, doing her best, no “further along” than anyone else. J
 
Bela:  Thank you…this interview brought me back to love and my heart.
 
Leah:  Purrrrfect! You invited me to this interview. So it’s almost like your past self creating the conditions for nourishment of your present self. We did it together!
 
 
 
    
 

About the Author

Bela ShahCollaborate has worked with the U.S. Department of State to design and implement capacity building exchange programs for emerging international leaders in the fields of law, journalism, public health, and women's empowerment. 

 

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