On November 11, a woman died in Marin General Hospital in Mill Valley, California. She was 70 years old, and her death was due to complications from hip surgery after a fall. For 20 years, she’d had Parkinson’s disease, and later developed Lewy body disease, a form of dementia. There were no articles published about her death, and in fact no stories online at all, other than a notice on the site of the publishing company she founded four decades ago. A week after her death, the San Francisco Chronicle published a pro-forma obituary that borrowed most of its content from the notice and misspelled the name of her first book.
The woman’s name was Shakti Gawain. Her first book, published in 1978, was called Creative Visualization, and it sold seven million copies. All told, her three other major books and assorted workbooks and journals sold an additional three million copies. And yet last week she vanished without a trace, except for the fact that she utterly transformed my life, and likely did the same for millions of others.
Had she wanted to, she could have had the celebrity and fame of Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Louise Hay, and other self-help and self-development authors. But she didn’t want any of that. She didn’t do speeches or personal appearance tours or PBS specials. She didn’t hype anything or make any grandiose promises. Now and again she did conduct workshops—I attended one in Orange County, CA two days after my birthday in 1994, driving south from L.A. with helicopters overhead as O.J. Simpson was being chased in his Bronco back north up the 5 Freeway. I remember arriving at the hotel with the chase happening live on TV, the ultimate ego distraction, and the feeling of moving from that surreal carnival into the calm and grounding of her workshop.
No, she was all about the lessons, and the work. And there’s no particular drama or excitement in the work. Her writing style is unexceptional and doesn’t lend itself to quotes; it’s like water that’s so clear and still that you see straight to the bottom. Her lessons and messages aren’t based on footnoted research or scholarship, and she’s not part of any tradition or orthodoxy. It’s a distillation of some Eastern and New Thought teaching filtered through her personal experience. There’s nothing to hang your hat on, so to speak. And yet, her work opened the door to a real and meaningful spiritual life for me by showing me how to find and trust the spark of divinity within myself.
Here’s how that happened. I was 30 years old. My so-called career, really a collection of terrible jobs, had crashed and burned. I’d managed to get married and have a kid, but I was lost and adrift and unconsciously at war with myself. With hindsight I’m aware I was living every day with a low-level anxiety that sprang from my confusion and cluelessness. Often I’d make a move that would work out badly, and realize I’d known better all along. Or I’d feel a strong pull to do something and yet hang back in fear. I would hit these speed bumps all the time and then go back about my business, aware that something was wrong but always blaming it on other people or my circumstances… which if I stopped to consider them just seemed like random bad luck.
The latest terrible job ended like they all did, and my wife suggested I take some time off and be the househusband while she took over as the breadwinner for a while. Our daughter was in preschool, so I got a part-time job in a children’s bookstore that shared the same parking lot, in order to keep an eye on my kid across the way and also to earn a little self-respect money. One day I opened a new box of books we’d received, and on top was a book that clearly wasn’t for children. That caught my eye, so I read the title—Living in the Light—and then the back cover to see what it was about.
“Are you searching for deeper meaning and purpose in your life? Do you sense that you have an inner wisdom that can be a guiding force for you, yet wonder how to connect with that intuitive self? How do you know which inner voices to listen to?” That’s how the blurb started. I felt a twinge or a shiver or something, similar to the feeling when the door of a dark room starts to open, I guess, a kind of anticipatory awakening. By the time I reached the bottom of the copy, my head felt like it was exploding. It was as if my entire life had been leading up to that moment, like I was passing through a crucial juncture even as I was reading the words, and I knew on some deep level that somehow that my life was never going to be the same again.
I read the book, which was predicated on the simple idea that each of us has a strong inner guidance, an inner knowingness, that is 100% present and 100% correct. In animals we call it instinct. In humans, we call it intuition. It’s a little bit magical and mysterious, in that it can’t be explained (Malcolm Gladwell later wrote Blink, a study of intuition in which he tries and fails to disassemble the butterfly). Even more mysteriously, it’s a kind of psychic ability that has access to facts and information that you have no way of knowing in any usual sense. For example, people who won’t get on an airplane because they have a bad feeling about it, and later the plane crashes. We all have this kind of knowing, but because we can’t quantify it or predict it or know where it comes from, we discount it or shrug it off.
The book was very simply written, but the lesson wasn’t so simple. I tested out my intuition, first on little parlor tricks on the order of finding my lost keys. When those worked I tried more complicated experiments. What I was doing without quite realizing it was learning to trust myself at an extremely deep level. Often I’d return to Shakti’s book, or her recordings, and her calm (faintly Southern accented) voice was very loving and reassuring. A few years into this process, she wrote The Path of Transformation, essentially a companion piece meant to clarify and enlarge the meanings of Living in the Light, based on what she had been hearing in workshops and personal sessions. Meeting her at the workshop was a little thrill, but since there was no drama about her, she just calmly acknowledged my thanks and appreciation. It was all about the work.
As the years passed, my “tests” of intuition became fewer, but much more difficult. I passed through some severe periods of doubt and trial, only to come through them with my faith strengthened ten times over. It was essentially religion without religion… spirituality discovered completely in action and doing. I hesitate to call intuition the voice of God, because I have no idea who or what God is. Neither do you, if you’re really honest with yourself. But I don’t need to know what it is. I know that it’s alive inside of me, that it wants the best for me. I know it doesn’t want me to be comfortable, necessarily, or even “happy” in the usual sense of that word. Sometimes it seems very quiet and far away, and then suddenly it’s hugely present and it reveals itself as having been at work all along. Over time, I’ve learned to trust it so completely that I don’t even think about it much. My life as I live it today would have seemed like a miracle to my 30-year-old self in that bookstore.
They say when the student is ready, the teacher appears. And so Shakti Gawain appeared, changed everything for me, and then quietly faded away. Her passing hit me hard, though: like the death of a parent. A wise and loving parent who has given you everything you need to live your life as a happy self-actualized person, and so you might undervalue the gift, thinking you did it all yourself. And you did, but only after someone else showed you the way. In fact, every day of my life for the past 30 years has been a tribute to Shakti Gawain and the power of her teaching. To say I’m grateful seems inadequate. To say I loved her seems almost silly. I owe her everything. There’s no way to repay the debt except to keep living out the truth she showed me, to be a small ripple in the energetic influence she had on millions of us.