The LIB Citizen is about taking the Lightning in a Bottle philosophy of “Leave It Better, Leave It Beautiful” from the festival out into our every day lives, so that we may actively engage with all of life as a proud citizen of our deeply connected planet.
Here you’ll find interviews with members of the LIB Community in their journey to take action in the world, as well as opportunities for you to join them. Whatever it is you are inspired to do, in the words of the Tibetan meditation master Milarépa as he spoke his last great secret to his student, “The important thing is to actually do it.”
This week on LIB Citizen Suzanne Sterling talks about what it means to be a Conscious Activist, how to find balance in the overwhelm, and why LIB is her favorite festival. Suzanne also gives a little preview of what she’s bringing to LIB this year.
More Opportunities to Engage – new green workshops announced for Lightning in a Bottle:
photo by Wobsarazzi
Full Interview Transcript:
LIB Citizen(Shena Turlington): You’re listening to LIB Citizen, and I’m Shena Turlington, the Environmental Sustainability Director of Lightning In A Bottle, and member of the Do Lab collective. And I am honored to be here today with Suzanne Sterling, a professional singer, composer, and earth activist, also known as a “musical priestess” who is using her connection with the soul and earth medicine to reach out and inspire people across the world. Suzanne co-founded “Bare Witness” Humanitarian Tours and Off the Mat Into the World, which are really unique programs designed to connect people through their passions and their practices into offering active service into much needed areas of the world.
Thanks so much Suzanne for joining us today!
Suzanne: You’re welcome, totally my pleasure.
L: Suzanne, I am really inspired by your ability to turn your joys, your practice, and your passion into service-oriented offerings to the world, reaching many people and inspiring many more to follow suit. In essence, this is what so many people are looking for right now: ways to express their most authentic selves through the power of their gifts. Can you share with us a little bit about what was your path from following your passions and becoming an expert in them, to turning your life offerings into activist organizations?
S: Great question. One of the things we really focus on in the Off the Mat Training, which are trainings to get people to look at their motivations for service, is to look within before going out in the world and change anything – really just a deep sense of self inquiry. One of the things we talk about there is that in a way our deep wounds can become our greatest gifts to the world. If they’re examined, if they really have a deep relationship with some of the challenges of our own lives, the ways in which we cope with some of those wounds and the way those wounds can become the seed of compassion and the seed of our gifts to the world, it can really turn around and look like that instead of saying “I’m ashamed and this thing didn’t happen today”, looking at it and saying “what does this bring about in me, what inspiration is rising up in me, what strength is rising up in me.” Really what breaks our heart about the world and what we feel passionate about has a lot to do with our own life experience.
I would say my own passion about my own self expression was growing up in an environment where I did not have a voice. Because I’ve gone through a long and not always easy process of continuing to find my authentic voice and stand up and speak my truth, take risks, and… you know I grew up as a performer, but really shifting from performer mode into self expression, and those being two different things. I think that was a really good training field as a performer, but then to go into a situation where it’s like “no I’m going to be vulnerable here, I’m going to take risks, I’m going to be vulnerable in my pain and in my joy” – that to me is the best gift that I can give. It’s not always easy because it’s tied into some of my deeper wounds, but that passion that comes from my pain and breaking through whatever coping mechanisms I have around that pain and really stepping out into places that scare me, I think is where the juiciest stuff is for people. I see it over and over again – we think that the best activist or best artist in us is almost this ideal outside of us, when we stop and actually notice what is and take a deep look at it and have some kind of a relationship with it, that’s the jewel. I would say for me that the discovery of a more authentic expression of myself ahs come from not being afraid of the shadow aspects of my personality and giving voice to it, and in giving voice to it there’s some different kind of empowerment there.
L: I love that, I love that it’s the wound that becomes the gift, that becomes the fuel for moving out into the world. It’s like activism becomes the path of the wounded healer.
L: And you’re known for being a big proponent of the Sacred Activism movement, this movement that’s been growing in the past decade. Tell me about this – how is it different from traditional activism, is it related to this idea of the wounded healer?
S: It’s related to the idea of the wounded healer and it’s also related to the idea that we often feel like if only somebody else changed then things would get better. If only that person was different, then maybe there would be peace on earth. Actually what happens is, it all has to come from within. So as a conscious activist I have to look at places where I’m still in separation or I’m still at war, either with myself or with the world. Even in cases of disagreement. Not to say I can’t have discrimination and I can’t have conscious communication around conflicting ideas and especially around destructive practices, I feel like we do need to stop some of the destructive practices on the planet, but I also feel like it’s important for us to innovate and come up with new creative ideas and I think it’s important to have a spiritual context for what we do.
There’s a raging conversation right now in the yoga world – do spirituality and politics mix? Well, actually in my opinion, you can’t separate them. For me the conscious activist is always someone who is starting the conversation from within – what do I need to change, what do I need to learn, how can I take responsibility for this, how can I get educated on the root causes of some of the problems rather than just seeing them on the surface, how can I engender communication and really compassion, and how can I look at the face and suffering and maybe not right away try and fix it, but just be present to it. Be present to my own pain, and be present to someone else’s pain.
What we learn in activism is that listening deeply is one of the most powerful and healing things that we can do. Rather than saying I’ve got an agenda and here’s how we need to change it and everything will work out, what actually works in global aid is going into situations and listening and saying I don’t know everything, but I’m going to deeply ask the right questions and I’m going to take enough time to drop in enough and be present enough, not with sympathy for the suffering of others, but simply empathy. I know suffering too, we are both human, we suffer together, and I see your suffering, and if there’s any way I can help to alleviate it, I will. But not going in and saying, “here’s what we need to change or shift right away.”
I think there’s a longer trajectory in conscious activism, and I also think the difference is looking within and saying, “what needs to shift in me? Where am I blaming the the world for something I’m just projecting on the world?”
L: Yes, that’s such a clear perspective, that activism is a listening practice, going in and listening and offering, vs. a proposing or pushing an agenda.
S: Yeah. There’s great stories about how that works, about people who are simple and listen and practice presence, which is what spiritual practices do, that much more gets communicated that way.
L: And a lot of times, related to this pain, when people are listening, especially people that are activists, it’s a common thing for them to feel that what they’re doing is never enough. And being aware of all the opportunities to help in the world, and if we’re really listening, all the pain that’s really there, there’s a lot of overwhelm. Do you ever have that sense of overwhelm, and if so, how do you deal with it.
S: Omigod. We see it all the time. A lot of times in our trainings we get half yogis who are like “okay, my life’s kind of handleable, I’ve worked out a lot of my personal problems, I just want to help and I have no idea how”, and then half the room who are activists who are out there, and they’re just working themselves to the bone. There’s no sustainability there, there’s this whole activist fatigue thing that happens, and there’s no willingness to take care of oneself. So a lot of times when we’re out there trying to fix, many of us, especially those of us who are codependent, we’re just trying to fix the world because we’re trying to avoid our own pain. It’s like, if I focus on and fix your pain I don’t have to look at my own. So rather than saying, “I’m going to look at my own pain, I’m going to look at myself on a deep level, and at the same time I’m going to take action.” And what does it look like to be as committed to the self as the other? And it’s not like either one is helping – you know there’s a lot of navel gazing yoga practitioners who never do anything because they’re trying to perfect their practice too. So it’s like finding that balance about self care and caring for the world, and not looking for perfection either area, and just accepting that there has to be balance. Certainly I’m not the poster child for sustainability, but I’m learning more and more and more that if I do take care of myself I have way more to give to other people. Way more.
L: So the solution to overwhelm is really just turning inside and looking at what needs to be fed at home here, as well as out in there, and finding that balance. It so relates it sounds like to the practice of yoga, the balance, as well as the service.
S: It is. Yoga’s interesting because we’re really just putting ourselves in these challenging positions and learning how to breathe and be present. And learning how to relate to what comes up, because the body will hold all the information of the emotional life. So everything we need to know is literally living in the body, and we can heal through various different physical practices, and that’s why yoga is such a great portal into self awareness, and out of self awareness real deep awareness of the world and what’s happening for other people. It does begin to engender a sense of curiousness and an invitation to the world to come in. It’s no longer distracted by the compulsive need to consume things, or the compulsive need to be perfect. That stuff falls away and then you can really begin to invite the world to penetrate you, and then you can really make things happen.
L: So tell me about the work that you’re doing with the yoga community and with your projects with Off the Mat, and Bare Witness, and what’s happening for you right now.
S: It’s really exploding, it was an idea that there were three of us who founded the organization, and we now have eleven people running the organization, and it’s a really great team. We do trainings where we do a week long intensive with a trajectory of beginning with self inquiry and learning about the mind-body connection and taking responsibility for ourselves, and then moving out into non-violent communication, deep collaboration, we talk a lot about sharing power and shifting power paradigms as they exist on the planet right now through this idea of collective collaboration and sharing power, and we model that a lot in our programs. Then we get really practical, like helping each person find their passion, find their purpose, and give it expression. That’s really where much of my work comes in. I feel that part of my work in the world I just to help people know that they have a voice, know that they are a creative, joyful artist, their activism doesn’t have to be a huge…you know, shame or guilt or anger-driven drag, it basically can be an inspiring, creative, joyful, expression.
My big thing is I feel that every person on the planet is hard-wired for authentic self-expression in community. That’s what we in the west have completely lost, completely lost. My favorite thing is we go to all these different countries with people on the Bare Witness Tour – we take people who have raised money with us on these work trips, and they actually get to work on the projects they’ve been supporting with their fundraising efforts – and everywhere we go, people come out and they sing with us, they dance with us, and they’re always surprised when we sing and dance back, because we’re a bunch of westerners and they’re not used to that. Yet I know that even here in the west it’s part of what we’re hard-wired for, and when people give themselves to sing and express – and not as professional artists, but as human beings, we love to express ourselves, especially through our voice and our bodies – and when we do it in community, it’s a deeply spiritual experience. And that’s part of my work, I feel really really passionate about it, partly because of my childhood of not feeling like I had a voice, but I feel like part of my job on this planet is to continue to find my voice and then help people find theirs. So the next step for us in the intesive now is, “what do you want to create”, and getting people to practically vision what they could do right at this moment, not fixing or changing anything, knowing that things will be fixed or changed over time, but rather than wait to reach that state of perfection where we feel like we’re ready, just taking the first step, leaping off the cliff so to sepak.
L: It’s so profound, this notion of voice, and as a vocalist, you working through your voice literally in helping to bring people to their true voices, and with their voices extending their power to affect change in the world. I have seen in my own work with Amazon Voice, how the lack of voice in the international or political scene can be extremely detrimental to humanitarian rights, and I just love this idea that you’re saying the voice is literally the voice and then also the voice of what you’re doing is this spiritual expression that creates a shift for people and what they’re doing in the world.
S: Yeah, there are so many people who are just dying to express themselves and dying to tell a story, and dying to speak truth to power, and they’re just so deeply afraid. I get it, I get how vulnerable the voice is. It’s one of the most profound tools we possess, it’s often where most people have shut down at some level. But what happens when people shut down is that the whole system goes into inertia, so there’s not as much give and take, you’re not as available to the world and the world isn’t as available to you if you’re not willing to respond. We in the west have shut down are responding tools. The responding tool is the body, and the other responding tool is the voice. So we’re supposed to be in this deep relationship with the world with our bodies, with our voices, with our souls, and for most people all that energy and all that intention and all that beauty and all that grace gets stuck in the voice. So moving energy through the voice and give people an incredible…it’s a very powerful experience when people do connect with their authentic voices, it’s beautiful. I love it.
L: So what would you recommend to someone who feels really shut down in their voice right now, and is having that strong desire to really give birth to something, but…. what’s a simple step they can take to open that power up?
S: You know, one of my favorite things that I did in my own life for so many years is I had my own yoga practice at home, and I made a lot of noise. It wasn’t always pretty noise. Just knowing I was releasing trauma from my body through the vibration of the sound – sound is a physical thing and it can move old stuck energy out of the physical body because it’s so physical, and I feel like once people give themselves permission to make sounds, not necessarily pretty sounds, but through the body whether it’s through yoga or through dance, that simply moving energy through the fifth chakra, through the throat, is a crucial piece. That’s one thing. A lot of people sing in their cars and their showers, and I would say do that even more. Roll your windows and go for it, and not feel ashamed or embarrassed. If you feel there’s a scream in you that needs to get out, roll your windows and go for it, it’s actually really healthy for us to use our voices.
L: So speaking of free expression, I know Suzanne that historically you, and you continue to be a big participant in the festival scene, and I know you’re coming to Lightning In A Bottle, and you’re a big part of Earthdance, and Harmony, Buringman, and Power to the Peaceful to name a few… what is it about festivals that draws you to put your gifts and your energy into them? And if you want to speak a little bit about what you’re bringing to Lightning In A Bottle, and maybe the potential you see in festivals.
S: It’s an interesting perspective, doing it for the last…15 years or more… mostly on the west coast, is watching that culture develop. it’s a fastening conflux of music, ritual, healing arts, technology, activism, all those pieces are coming together. The parallel for me is for a long time my life felt very categorized. Over here I did music, and over here I did ritual, and over here I did some activism, and they were kind of separate. And then probably about eight years ago I started being asked to come and do a musical performance and facilitate a ritual and maybe teach a workshop, so it felt like the festivals were giving an opportunity to do this weird strange mix of things that I know how to do. And it’s a weird strange mix. I’m not just a musician, I’m not just an activist, I’m not just a ritualist, and I’m trying to pull all those things together to create community, to literally create culture, and I think it’s time for us to see that we’ve created an incredible culture. There’s a festival culture and it’s yogic, and it’s music, and it’s self-expression, all these pieces, and it’s exploded actually. We’ve seen it explode, and if we can bring more of the festival culture into peoples’ daily lives, I think it has a tremendous capacity to inform how we meet these interesting crisis times we’re entering into. We’re at this interesting crossroad as a species and environmentally on the planet, and things have to shift, I for one believe in the power of ritual and in the power of art to really make culture, and to shift things. And I’m watching it explode in the festival culture, I’m watching people make connections and use technology to make revolution happen. Small revolutions, but those small revolutions have profound effects.
So I feel like the festival culture is giving people forums to be creative. Lightning In A Bottle is my favorite festival, and I’m going to go on the record saying that and I’m not just saying that because I’m doing this interview, and one of the thigns I love about it is there’s art going on there all the time. And htat wasn’t the case seven or eight years ago, there wasn’t live art going on all the time, and Burningman was – look at how much art got created at Burningman, and now that that’s rolled out, there’s huge Burningman sculptures all over the country in various palces, and getting placed more and more out in “muggle” world, or the regular world. So it’s givng people form.
Everyone’s an artist, and I know everyone’s an artist. Everyone’s infatuated by that idea. I went to Bali in…I don’t know, 1987or something, because I found out that everyone in Bali is an artist and everyone grows rice, and I was like well how does that work? Because here we’ve separated it out. So I love the festival culture, I think it’s fascinating, I think it’s allowing people to step away from what’s expected, the routine, the sort of soul killing categories and boxes people try to fit their very unique and brilliant souls in, and it’s giving people permission to create and cross-culturally create, and pollinate.
So that’s exciting to me, and what I’m bringing to Lightning In a Bottle this year like I have for the last couple years is I teach a workshop called “Sing Yourself Awake”, and I do it in a bunch of different venues and festivals, and we just get into our bodies, we go into the yoga practice, and then we simply improvise sing together. I’ve had some really incredible moments doing that, because again if you get people in the right space, if they give themselves permission, they step past the wall of fear and terror, they move into self-expression, and then they’re in community in self-expression, and something really deep taps in. Because it’s what we’re meant to do. Every indigenous culture on the planet does it, we’re the only ones that are like “yeah, we don’t sing together, we don’t dance together, we don’t celebrate life together.”
L: Mmm, it’s so true. Well I’m looking forward to that workshop, and just for people who are curious about how to get involved with your organizations now, what’s happening for you, how can they do that right now?
S: The good news is I’m just about to do a Kickstarter campaign for my next album and that’s exciting, and the Off the Mat Into the World community does a lot of different projects. In April we’re doing what’s called the Empowered Youth Initiative working in Los Angeles with amazing people who are working with marginalized communities and at-risk youth in Los Angeles, and we’re doing a big celebration for the truce between the Cripps and the Bloods. So that’s exciting, and we also have our global fundraising initiative, and this year we’re raising money for organizations that are rescuing and rehabilitating victims of sex trafficking in India, and we’re also going to do some cleaning up of the Ganges River. So that is another way that people can get involved, and we have a number of intensives coming up, Off the Mat is going to be at a lot of festivals this summer, and I will also be at many of them, and my website is www.suzannesterling.com, and I have a monthly newsletter that I send out illuminating all the various projects and ways that people can get involved.
L: Super exciting! So anyone’s who interested can find those links on our newsletter to the Empowered Youth Initiative, and the Global Seva Challenge, and the Kickstarter campaign, and just one last thought Suzanne for anyone who is out there who are maybe Suzanne Sterlings maybe 10 years ago and feeling that call but not really knowing how to transform that call into a viable model, what advice do you have for them?
S: I would say for me, trusting all the deviations from the path. Speaking as someone who’s very very driven and willpower-based, and think I know how things should go all the time, letting go of that has made me a much happier person. And it’s also really interesting from this vantage point now, to look back and see all the things that I was doing that didn’t seem connected when I was in my twenties, now it’s all making sense. The other thing I would say to people is do not be afraid to do your own thing – to make it up as you go along, to do something you haven’t done before, and to take risks, and be a maverick or a trailblazer, and maybe don’t even look for someone who is going to guide you, but find that guidance from within and trust it, and let yourself be a unique, strange, out of the box individual.
L: Spoken like a true wise woman on the path, easier said than done to surrender to the deviations, but that is always the answer, to surrender to the unknown on the path. Well thank you Suzanne for following your voice and for following those wounds and the deviations on the path, and taking those risks to create change in the world.
S: Mmmhmmm, my pleasure!
L: And to the listeners, thanks for joining us on LIB Citizen, and be sure to check out those links for more ways you can get involved in positive activism. And we’ll see you next time, with another active citizen from the LIB community.
Music playing can be found on Suzanne’s page at www.suzaennesterling.com