The relationship between self-mastery and enlightenment. An interview with Anthony (Tony) Robbins: by Craig Hamilton: The memory is still crystal clear in my mind. It was the summer of 1996, and like most days in Marin County, California, the sky was blue, the sun was shining, and a warm breeze was blowing in off the San Francisco Bay. I had been working for about twelve months as sales manager of a company that provided screenprinted sportswear to the Bay Area’s multibillion-dollar software industry, and at the end of what had been a banner week in an unbelievable month of sales, I had just had my most profitable day yet. “I can do no wrong!” I thought to myself as I cleared the last bits of paperwork off my desk and began to close down the office for the weekend. “What will it be next?”
In my brief tenure with the company, I had more than doubled its sales volume, and in what seemed an almost uncanny run of good luck, I had just closed three of my biggest deals ever and over the last four hours had received about half a dozen calls from clients placing substantial reorders. As I locked the door and made my way out to the parking lot, I could hardly contain myself. It seemed that the telephone had become a sort of golden pipeline from which flowed an almost endless stream of business, and that I had somehow become the Midas whose touch made it all happen. The sunshine and sea breeze only magnified my sense of exhilaration, and as I climbed into my newly purchased Saab and slipped a CD into the stereo, a strange and irresistible ecstasy started to well up inside me. Suddenly it all seemed so effortless. All those months of pushing through my own resistance, of challenging head-on my fear of failure (and of success), of questioning, questioning, questioning my approach, and of making that extra push to be sure I was giving one hundred percent had somehow come together in a sort of crescendo of positivity, of possibility, of unstoppable confidence. Driving home, I felt almost like I was having a spiritual experience. I couldn’t stop smiling, and at times even laughing, as wave after wave of this ecstatic feeling of invincibility, of freedom from limitation, washed over me.
But for all of its vibrancy, all of its utterly life-affirming radiance, there was something about my ecstatic reverie in the car that day that made me hesitate. Having lived at that point for four years in a serious spiritual community under the guidance of a powerful teacher of enlightenment, experiences of ecstasy, joy and liberation had become a frequent occurrence in my life. But I had never experienced anything like this—anything simultaneously so powerful and so . . . well, so full of me. At the time, I didn’t quite know why, but I just had a sense that the freedom and power this current of explosive possibility seemed to offer was not what I was looking for. I put on the brakes—metaphorically speaking—and although I never fully understood what happened that day, and have wondered ever since just what that power, that thrill, could have been, as I exited the freeway and made my way down the last few tree-lined blocks toward home, I decided to leave it behind.
Fast forward to fall 1998, present day, Berkshire mountains, Massachusetts. In preparing for this issue of What Is Enlightenment?, we are studying the works of the greatest Self Masters of our time and asking what, if anything, their teachings have to do with enlightenment. For the last few nights, we’ve been
reading and discussing the books of the world’s most popular motivational speaker, Anthony Robbins, and tonight we’re listening to his tape Awaken the Giant Within. On it, he speaks passionately about the liberation and exhilaration he experienced in transforming his life from one of failure to one of unbelievable success, and implores each of us to take control of our destiny by harnessing the unstoppable power of decision and “taking massive action.” All of a sudden, like a flashback, like déjà vu, it hits me. This was my experience in California! This must have been what it was all about! What he is describing must be the freedom, the sense of possibility and enormous power that I had experienced that day in the car. I recall that I rejected it at the time as being at cross-purposes to my pursuit of enlightenment. I wonder if, in the context of our investigation into the relationship between self-mastery and enlightenment, I will be able to reject it so easily now.
Prior to beginning our research for this issue of What Is Enlightenment?, when I heard the name Anthony Robbins I thought of the can-do guy with the million-dollar smile whose late-night TV infomercials had catapulted him to international success as a motivational speaker. And granted, if Robbins has a trademark, his videotaped poolside chat with former football pro Fran Tarkenton about the potential we all have to master every aspect of our lives is certainly it. In fact, as a result of those infomercials, Robbins holds the unique position of having sold more audiotapes worldwide than Michael Jackson—over thirty million to date. But Anthony Robbins, I would soon discover, is much more than a charismatic speaker with a good marketing campaign. In his inspired call for greatness in all areas of life, he has profoundly impacted leading figures in fields from athletics to the arts, from business to politics, from education to philanthropy.
Robbins’s list of clients reads like a veritable Who’s Who in the field of excellence. He has been personal “peak performance coach” to the President of the United States, Fortune 500 CEOs, professional sports teams, world-class musicians and champion athletes. He has addressed distinguished audiences from Great Britain’s Parliament to Harvard Business School, and the International Chamber of Commerce recently honored him as one of the ten “Outstanding People of the World.” He is the owner of nine companies, and the head of a national foundation that organizes and sponsors projects to serve the homeless, inner-city youth, prisoners and the elderly. His two books, Unlimited Power and Awaken the Giant Within, have collectively sold over three million copies, and his seminars, now taught worldwide—with titles such as “Unleash the Power Within,” “Life Mastery,” “The Competitive Edge,” and “Date with Destiny”—draw thousands, and have inspired hundreds of thousands to walk barefoot across a bed of red-hot coals. When Anthony Robbins talks about self-mastery, it would seem, the world listens.
In preparing for this issue of our magazine, while we examined the work of many of today’s leading authorities in the field of self-mastery, few captured our interest like Anthony Robbins. In fact, there are few individuals alive today with as much experience as Robbins in helping people to go beyond their self-conceived limitations and reach for their highest potential. Who is this human phenomenon, we wondered, who, with only a high school education, had earned his first million dollars by the age of twenty-two, and who now, at the age of thirty-eight, has won the respect and attention of many of today’s most successful and influential people? Where does his overwhelming positivity and confidence, his almost religious zeal, come from? And what have his years of pushing the edge of human potential taught him about self-mastery? About enlightenment?
Robbins’s life story is the kind of rags-to-riches tale that makes red-blooded Americans burst into song at the sight of the flag. Born and raised in a low-income suburb of Los Angeles and kicked out of his house at the age of seventeen for being “too intense,” he quickly found his first vocation: sales, a career which, combined with his voracious appetite for personal growth books (he read over seven hundred such books in a period of a few years), soon found him in the seminar business, initially selling tickets for a popular motivational speaker. While his remarkable ability to sell tickets to almost anyone (he broke all the sales records in his first month) soon catapulted him from his four-hundred-square-foot apartment into an income bracket beyond his dreams, it wasn’t until he started giving his own seminars that his destiny began to take shape.
It was early 1983 when Robbins first encountered NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), a radical and relatively new therapeutic technique promising to deliver instant transformation by directly altering unconscious “programs.” After only a brief introduction to the NLP principles, Robbins took the technique on the road, appearing on radio and television stations throughout Canada and eventually the United States, touting the wonders of this new “technology of change.” So confident was he in his ability to induce dramatic change that he began to publicly challenge psychiatrists (many of whom had expressed skepticism and even outrage at his claims) to give him a chance to work with their toughest cases in front of a live audience. After curing a woman’s phobia of snakes in fifteen minutes—a phobia her psychiatrist had been treating for seven years—he writes, “I became a wild man! I stormed across the country demonstrating to people how quickly change could occur.” He even started offering personal therapy sessions, first for $500, then $1,000, then $5,000 per hour, guaranteeing transformation in one session and proclaiming, “If you see your therapist more than twice, your therapist has no integrity.” Interest in his seminars began to grow, and after a financial roller-coaster ride that lasted for several years and through a number of partnerships, the rest, as they say, is history.
As a teacher of self-mastery, Anthony Robbins is a force to be reckoned with. He is a gifted speaker—at once entertaining, educating, inspiring and challenging. The essence of his message, simply stated, is that we all have within our grasp the ability to profoundly transform our lives if only we are willing to make clear decisions and take dramatic action to follow through on them. He writes: “I believe life is constantly testing us for our level of commitment, and life’s greatest rewards are reserved for those who demonstrate a never-ending commitment to act until they achieve. As simplistic as this may sound, it is still the common denominator separating those who live their dreams from those who live in regret.” Using his own life story as an example of the commitment to change he teaches, he is unabashed at pointedly challenging others to reach for their own highest potential, and it is apparently this passion for living on the edge of the possible that infuses his work with such a contagious positive energy.
When we approached Anthony Robbins for an interview, we weren’t sure what to expect. While we had no doubt that he, like perhaps no one else in the world, would be able to speak eloquently and passionately about self-mastery, we had no idea what, if anything, he would have to say about enlightenment. Surely, we thought, anyone who had spent so much time and energy encouraging and challenging others to break through their limiting ideas, to reach for the highest, would have to have come to some sort of reckoning with the spiritual dimension of life. But we wondered: With his predominant focus on the achievement of material success, how deeply would he have thought about the ultimate goal of the spiritual quest, the final leap beyond all ideas? What would someone who has spent most of his life helping others to get what they want have to say about coming to the end of wanting? And how would a man whose stated aim is to help people take control of their lives relate to the idea of surrender, of giving up control altogether? This, we thought, was sure to be a fascinating discussion.
I spoke with Anthony Robbins by phone from his office in La Jolla, California. And despite having just returned from a week-long session of his “Mastery University” in Hawaii, despite having just completed a full day of back-to-back meetings and being in the midst of preparations for another seminar starting the next morning, he was brimming with enthusiasm and to my surprise even offered to extend our scheduled hour for as long as I needed. From the first word of our conversation, I felt as though I had been catapulted into the front carriage of a moving locomotive, as he passionately poured out his full-hearted response to every question I asked and then some. And for the next two hours, I found myself on the receiving end of an almost nonstop volcanic intensity, at times struggling to get a question in edgewise, as Anthony Robbins, true to his own teachings, gave himself completely and generously to the discussion.
His thoughts on self-mastery were, as could be expected, powerful, direct and alive with insight born of his own experience, proving that when it comes to taking charge of one’s life, Robbins knows whereof he speaks. But reflected in his inspired answers was also the fact that he has indeed thought deeply about spirituality and, as in most areas of life, has come to some strong conclusions. In fact, in light of our inquiry into the relationship between self-mastery and enlightenment, what was perhaps as intriguing as the content of the interview itself was the way it revealed the unexamined and potentially limiting preconceptions that those on either side of this line tend to hold about the other’s approach. For while I fully anticipated that what Anthony Robbins would say to me would be different from what he said to Fran Tarkenton, I never expected to hear this man of infomercial fame speak so passionately about the spiritual dimension of life, the larger context in which the quest for personal power and mastery must occur. And while Robbins clearly had more respect for the pursuit of enlightenment than I would have guessed, his almost categorical dismissal of single-pointed spiritual practice and his uncouched skepticism about the lofty aims of enlightenment teachings made me wonder whether, in his attempt to portray all of life as spiritual, he might not be glossing over some important distinctions.
Yet given Robbins’s own admission that spirituality—and particularly enlightenment—is not a subject that he speaks about or even directly contemplates with any regularity, what was perhaps as surprising as the strength of his opinions about it was the depth of humanity that at times seemed to come out of him when he spoke. As the interview progressed, Robbins gradually revealed not only an unusual warmth and genuine care for the welfare and upliftment of others, but a rare openness to questioning his own ideas and a deep reverence for a God greater than himself. In the end, my conversation with Anthony Robbins turned out to be a fascinating encounter, revealing a seldom seen side of one of today’s most powerful Self Masters, and raising some of the most important questions facing those who aspire to go beyond limitation in any arena of life.
WIE: How do you define “self-mastery”?
Anthony Robbins: Mastery of self comes down to the capacity of an individual to discover what it is that they truly want, what their path is, and then to eliminate the obstacles, which are always internal, that would keep them from being able to fulfill that path on an ongoing basis. There are natural obstacles that life offers us in order for us to grow and expand as individuals and discover more of who we are and to unfold more of our spiritual path. But I also think there are a great number of challenges that are self-induced. And we must develop the capacity to meet those, anticipate those as much as possible, and eliminate them by developing what I would consider to be emotional and/or spiritual muscles. Because the challenges will continue to show up in life, but if you have the inner strength—whether that be your faith, your determination or your incredible love for self, for God and for others—then I think you’ll have the capacity to live a life that’s extremely fulfilled. I think that’s ultimately what self-mastery leads to—a life that’s fulfilled. And that can only come, in my mind, not just from feeling good, but from contributing in meaningful ways to those around you, those you care about and ultimately to society as a whole.
WIE: What do you see as the relationship between self-mastery and enlightenment?
AR: I think the goal is the same. I think the language is different and the traditions are different. It depends on your model of the world, whether it’s Eastern or Western. There are different points of view about how to approach this experience of ultimate ecstasy, as some people describe it, or ultimate nirvana or ultimate fulfillment. But to me the notion that spirituality is separate from the rest of life does not allow for a practical approach to living a life that has extraordinary quality. That extraordinary quality can be measured in so many areas, so I don’t think it’s a matter of picking one area and saying that’s everything. I think spirituality is a part of everything. It doesn’t need to be separated out from everything else. Nor does it need to be measured by a series of steps or traditions. I think every individual has to discover for themselves what spirituality looks like. I personally am against saying, “This is the way.” I tell people there are certain needs that human beings clearly have. I mean, you don’t have to be too bright to be able to see that there are patterns in human behavior—especially if you’ve been around, as I have, two million people during the last twenty-one years of my life. I’ve seen every kind of success, from the people who are supposedly the most successful in the world by cultural terms to those who’ve been the most successful in the world by spiritual terms, whether it’s a Mother Teresa or a Christopher Reeve—who I perceive to be an extraordinary human being—or a Nelson Mandela or a top athlete or a top financial trader who made a half-billion dollars in a day. Each of these people has found aspects of fulfillment. Some of them have found ultimate fulfillment—what you would call “nirvana” in my mind—in that they have an incredibly fulfilled experience of life, themselves and God all at one time. How that is done, I think, is as unique and different as people are, and I think it’s wonderful that there are so many different traditions that offer ways and paths to do it.
WIE: The attainment of self-mastery, as it’s generally conceived, seems to include the winning of an extraordinary self-confidence, anchored in the discovery that one has the power to break through seeming limitations and do things one never imagined one could—the discovery of an overwhelming sense of “I Can.” Those individuals who’ve attained enlightenment also seem to demonstrate an unusual confidence and a sense of being unbound by limitation, yet according to their descriptions, this confidence arises from the deep, mysterious and life-changing realization of their essential unity with the very source of all existence. What in your view are the similarities and differences between the discovery of one’s personal power on one hand and this mystical or enlightened realization of a fundamental unity on the other?
AR: First of all, I don’t believe that self-mastery is something that’s “attainable.” I don’t look at it as a goal. I look at it as an ongoing process. To me, it’s more like active mastery. It’s an ongoing process every day that you’re alive. There’s the old saying, “The road to success is always under construction.” I also don’t believe that many people who supposedly are enlightened maintain that sense of enlightenment forever. I visited many spiritual masters in India and my experience of them did not confirm, for me at least, that they were living as the one Self that they were and that we all are.
Second, I want to say that self-mastery, believe it or not, is not the ultimate perspective that I have for a person. I think there’s a difference between “I Can” and “I Am.” And “I Am” is really the goal that I’m looking for, rather than “I Can.” Everyone can. I think the experience of liberation comes from giving up an obsession with what it is that you think is controlling you. In so many spiritual traditions, there’s this focus on all the hell you have to go through in order for you to finally be liberated and finally be free. And my personal belief is that the only thing keeping you from freedom is all the beliefs you have about what has to happen before you can be there. I think the reason for that is that we don’t value things unless we make them very difficult because otherwise they’re not as significant. We don’t allow ourselves to have that ultimate “aha!”—that ultimate sense of connection. We live in a society where there’s an obsession with who I am as who I was, or what happened to me years ago, and it’s completely absurd. It’s cultural hypnosis and it happens around the world, but especially in this culture, the Western culture, where the basis of that, the presupposition of that, is that we’re all fragile and that what we have to be able to do is somehow work out what’s happened in order for us to experience the gift that God has given us right here and now. What most of us do is that we actually reinforce the neurology, the psychology and the spiritual focus of limitation as opposed to one of transformation and freedom that is already within us and around us. Every great master says that. They all say it in different ways. My metaphor is: there’s freedom when you let go of fear and you embrace love fully—the love for yourself, the love for God, the love for life, the love for people. What keeps people from doing that is just their fear.
I personally believe that love is always there. But I think that most people are playing a game in their head. Rather than going for a life of fulfillment—which would be an enlightened life where every experience of one’s life is one of joy, where one appreciates everything life has to offer and feels a sense of connection with all that is—they instead try to do it by isolating themselves and walking through a set of practices in which they promise themselves that someday they’re going to feel the way they could feel in this moment.
I do not believe personally that people need to put themselves through an immense amount of pain and struggle in order to really be fulfilled. I just don’t believe that’s true. I do not believe they have to heal all their old wounds and old traumas. And I actually don’t believe that they have to destroy themselves or their identity of self. Because while most modern traditions talk about the destruction of the ego, I haven’t met too many people who have done that, including the great saints (supposedly) who I have met as well. Because they have a sense of identity also. Their identity is “I am God,” and that’s still a sense of identity. I had a private darshan [audience with the guru] with Swami Muktananda in India three days before he died, and I thought he was a magnificent man, an incredibly loving man. But he had a sense of identity.
WIE: It’s interesting that you bring up the notion of destroying the ego and the Eastern teachings of not having a self—
AR: Yes. It’s probably my ego that’s telling you this, by the way.
WIE: But I do think there is an important distinction to be made here, because it does seem that, on the one hand, in the pursuit of self-mastery one generally moves from a negative, limited sense of self to a deeply positive sense of self, which I definitely hear in your message. Yet the wisdom traditions, and specifically those that come to us from the East, speak about the ultimate human attainment, or enlightenment, as the discovery that our true nature—who we really are—is beyond any notion of self, positive or negative. And when they talk about the idea of no-self, the distilled message seems to be that we must give up our identity, our beliefs about who we are as a separate individual.
AR: Well, I personally believe that in order to get to where you want to be in life, no matter how successful or happy or fulfilled you are at this point, you have to be willing to understand that the same level of thinking that got you to where you are is not going to get you to where you want to be. And the only way to make that movement is to break your pattern. But I think that to have no sense of identity, if that were really true and if the ultimate test and the whole purpose of life was to destroy the uniqueness of you as an individual—well, I personally just don’t buy it. It doesn’t make any sense to me whatsoever. My perception is that we should look at it from the perspective of seeing yourself as connected, seeing that you are everything, and at the same time seeing your own uniqueness and valuing both of those elements simultaneously, rather than saying one is right and one is wrong. The best metaphor I know of is the metaphor of “I am the river of life and I am also one of those little droplets in the river.” So I am clearly the river. And when I’m a droplet I don’t have the same power, but there are times when I need to be a droplet in order to serve life also. There are points where having that sense of individual identity is valuable, as long as I’m not constantly using that as a way to separate myself from the greater good.
But human beings have such difficulty with paradox. I think the quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to the amount of uncertainty they can comfortably live with, but paradox does not provide certainty for people. What we’d rather know is, “I don’t exist and I’m just everything and I don’t have any sense of identity whatsoever.”
WIE: You seem to be suggesting that the teachings of no-self are ultimately just another conceptual framework which can be held on to as a way of maintaining a sense of identity.
AR: Exactly. That’s my point. So it’s bullshit. And by the way, who’s to say that isn’t driven by ego in the first place?
WIE: Are you saying that you don’t think it’s possible to give up the need to identify with a separate sense of self, to let go of the personal identity?
AR: I don’t say it’s impossible. Anything’s possible. But I don’t know if that is the ultimate goal for heaven on earth, so to speak. I’m open to the possibility that the ultimate answer is that I should not have any sense of self, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me currently. If you really think that ultimately there’s just this place where you have no identity, why not just die now and—if you believe in that process—get connected right now?
WIE: Well, if you speak with the sages of the great traditions, or you read how they’ve written about it, they don’t tend to describe the attainment of no-self that we were speaking about as something that’s negative or akin to physical death. It’s usually described as—
AR: No, no. You’re assuming something. I don’t think death is something negative at all. I think death is being in another transformed state in which you’re probably connected at a larger level.
WIE: Okay . . .
AR: By the way, anything I’m telling you I believe, I’m just telling you what I believe. I’m not saying I’m right, by any stretch. Five years from now, ten years from now, you might ask me and I’ll say, “Boy, was I full of crap back then!” My own point of view about that is that I think most honest people will tell you that sometime in their lives they believed something with their heart and soul and ten years later, they look back on it and say, “What a joke! What an idiot I was! Back then, I’d have died for that belief. Now I’m sane.” I’m only telling you what I believe, and I don’t believe I have the right answers in this area. I don’t lecture on this.
But I do believe that by pursuing ultimate enlightenment we’re constantly pursuing something that’s causing us to forget what we have. As long as we’re trying to chase something, we’re not going to feel that it’s already here. I think it’s wonderful to practice these practices of all sorts but what I believe is that while you’re here, you should use all the resources you have and not hide in one place—not hide in one place called “spirituality,” a separate little thing that you go off to do by yourself by doing your certain form of meditation. Do that while you are living your work, your dharma in the world. You should make sure your spirituality is reflected in everything you do—the work you do, the way you connect, the way you think, the way you feel. And that process is a lot more doable than most of us make it.
I loved your magazine’s interview with Dr. Laura Schlessinger—especially her simplification of the Jewish tradition’s view that we’re all in cahoots with God to make the world a better place, and when a critical mass of us do that, then you’ve got heaven on earth. That would be much more consistent with my own point of view. To me, that’s a practical spirituality, not a place of escape. And I think a lot of people use spirituality as an escape, so they can put all of their focus there and not be held to any form of standard in life in terms of making a real contribution, and I think that’s selfish.
WIE: In your book Unlimited Power, you outline the essence of your approach to transformation, which you call “neuro-associative conditioning,” which, from what I understand, is a powerful technique for reconditioning ourselves to free us from limiting patterns of behavior.
AR: Yes. It’s a set of tools to deal with the blocks—that we’ve all created—to simply being who we really are.
WIE: And you’ve stated in your book that this approach can lead to a greater degree of personal freedom. In contrast, the path of enlightenment is traditionally seen as a form of deconditioning or going beyond all conditioning. In fact, it’s traditionally taught in the enlightenment traditions that until we’ve transcended conditioning altogether, we’ll never be truly free.
AR: And what is the path those traditions almost inevitably use? The conditioning path! Say this mantra over and over again, right? Breathe in this particular pattern. Sit in this particular pose. What is that? It’s pure conditioning.
WIE: Perhaps. But I think the teachers in those traditions would argue that they are only using conditioning as a vehicle to go beyond conditioning. What I want to ask you is: Do you believe there is a dimension of freedom that lies beyond the freedom that we can experience by reconditioning ourselves?
AR: Oh, absolutely. I think ultimate transformation is the connection with one’s Creator. And that is not a conditioning process. That’s a connection process. But often, to get ourselves to the place where we allow ourselves to feel that connection, we have to break through the barriers that we have conditioned within ourselves because we don’t feel we’re worthy. That’s the deepest fear of most people. They don’t think they’re worthy of connection. They don’t believe that they’ll really have lasting love. And so in order to get through those things, there are a variety of practices that can assist you. But ultimate transformation is when some body creates that connection, and what I try to do is create environments where that connection is easily attainable—environments where there is so much love and so much possibility and where people feel deeply connected to themselves and deeply connected to others. At my Mastery University, we have people from seventy countries. We’ve got six languages translated simultaneously and we’re going from 8:30 in the morning to 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, full blast. There are unbelievable expectations in people’s minds. They’re here to transform their bodies, their minds, their emotions, their spirits, their souls—everything—simultaneously. And there is a rigorous approach to how to do that, but the primary thing that makes those transformations possible is that you put people back in the reality of themselves. You put them in an environment where the best of them shows up and they begin to remember the truth. Socrates said learning is remembering. And that’s all it is. And so some of this conditioning is trying to dehypnotize people from the hypnosis that the culture has created. I certainly agree with that.
We learn so many limiting ideas from our culture. Like the idea that because you were raped at X age or because you were abused or because this or because that, you turn out in a certain way—and it’s absurd because you can look around and see so many exceptions. People who were given everything—love, joy, happiness, a great education, money, support, everything imaginable—they turn out to be a drug addict. Or you see someone who is physically, mentally, emotionally and sexually abused, given no support, no background, and they become Oprah Winfrey. Or there’s someone who, in spite of being in prison for twenty-seven years, doesn’t go out and kill people but goes out and helps to try and turn around their country, a Nelson Mandela.
WIE: What do you feel makes the difference between individuals who remain in mediocrity and those who transcend their circumstances?
AR: We have a unique situation in life. Here’s how life works in my estimation. It’s a very simple game. You do a poor job at something, what kinds of rewards do you get?
WIE: Very few.
AR: You do a poor job, you get nothing. You get pain. When you do a really poor job consistently in life, your relationship leaves you. When you do a poor job at work consistently, unless you work for the government, your job is over. You get right-sized, you get downsized, right? You’re out of here. You do a poor job on your kids, they end up in jail. Now, most people in life won’t settle for “poor.” Their standard is “good.” If you imagine a set of stairs and you’re at the base level, where one step down is maybe a poor job and “good” might be ten stairs up, that’s a big jump to “good.” So when you do a good job in life, what kind of rewards do you get?
WIE: Good rewards.
AR: No, you get poor rewards. Every day people stop me on the street and they say, “Mr. Robbins, I know you’re an expert in this field and I just wondered if you could answer a question.” They’re usually very emotional. And they’ll say, “I’m a good husband. How come my wife left me?” or, “I’m a good wife. How come my husband left me?” or, “I’m a good parent. How come my kid is on cocaine?” And the hardest thing in the world is explaining to them that this is how life works. You do a good job, you get poor rewards. That’s how it really is. And the best study of life is the study of how it is, not how you think it should be. You could say, “Gravity makes no sense and I’m going to avoid it. I don’t like it.” But if you jump off a cliff, you’re going to pay the price. There are certain laws that just can’t be beat. They’re part of the way we are formed, of what we are a part of, the system we’re a part of.
So, most achievers in life, whether they be spiritual achievers, business achievers, parent achievers, people who really are going for the best, they say, “I want to be excellent. I don’t want to settle for good. I’ve got a much higher standard.” But if the standard is excellence, here’s what happens. You get good rewards. You’re going to say, “Wait a second. I went from ten stories up to twenty stories up! I’m one of the very best men. I pray every day. I read the Bible. I read the Koran. I meditate. I’m doing my mantra, I’m doing my kriyas [yogic practices], I’m speaking in tongues, I’m eating the perfect diet. I’m doing this stuff. How come I don’t have enlightenment yet, damn it?” It’s because you’re excellent. And I’ve got news for you. You’re never going to get it as long as you’re excellent. You know what you’re going to get? Good rewards. You’ll have a great life. You’ll feel a great sense of spiritual connection. You’ll probably have a great sense of gratitude. That’s what you get when your standard is excellence. But the ultimate level is outstanding. And the thing about that is that although it’s only a quarter-inch above excellence, very few people ever go there. When you are outstanding, when you stand out from all the rest in your standards for yourself, not by competing with others but in your standards for yourself, you get all the rewards, all the love, all the impact, all the everything, not just from society but from yourself, because you know you’ve never settled for less than you can be.
Ultimately, the only way to be fulfilled is to constantly grow and to contribute in a meaningful way to other people, to the world. And in order to grow, all of us have to be willing to let go of our fear and let go of who we are, and we’ve got to set standards and we’ve got to challenge ourselves. What makes people leaders in life is their willingness to say, “Raise your standard. Demand more from yourself.” That’s what all leaders of any sort do: They call people to a higher standard. I think that causes people to grow. And we must grow. It doesn’t matter how much money you make. It doesn’t matter how often you meditate. It doesn’t matter how many people think you’re spiritually enlightened. It doesn’t matter how many times you try to tell yourself you have the ultimate religion and path. It doesn’t matter how many degrees or cars or homes you have. If you don’t feel like you’re growing, even if millions of people love you, you’ve got nothing. You’ve got nothing. You are going to be unfulfilled. You’re either growing or dying—there’s no in-between—and the only way that happens is by standards, is by challenge.
One thing I think we need to realize, though, is that even if we grow, it is not about us. If this was just about us personally, why the hell are we all here? You’re not just here to unfold and go do your own little spiritual enlightenment piece and go into your own nirvana. I don’t believe that. I believe we’re all here together to support and grow and contribute to one another. All of us have had an experience at some point in our lives where we did something that we really in our heart and soul knew was good and right and we didn’t tell anybody we did it. We didn’t do it to get acknowledged or to get a sense of significance. We didn’t do it for love. We did it because we knew it was right. And when we do that, there is nothing on earth that feels as good as that does to a human being because it goes beyond emotions. It affects your spirit. It affects your soul. And when people do that, their life transforms.
But this cannot be achieved by false manipulation from the outside. Growth does not come from having an intellectual discussion with yourself. Growth only comes when you transform. And you must take that growth and convert that to something meaningful so that the world becomes better, so that the heaven on earth that we were talking about earlier actually becomes a possible reality—and I think it ultimately will. It already is for many people. It’s just a matter of making your peer group become humanity instead of your peer group being a small number of people that you have influence over or impact on in your lifetime. What we’re here to do is to make sure we maximize our capabilities as a human being and hopefully contribute in a way that’s meaningful. And if enough of us do that, and enough critical mass happens, maybe more of God’s work that’s probably already here on earth will be appreciated.
WIE: Earlier, when you spoke about aspiring to reach a higher standard, it was clear that the level of change you were speaking about would require a willingness to exert enormous effort and self-discipline or self-control. In looking into the relationship between enlightenment and self-mastery, one thing that has become clear to us is that in either of these pursuits, there is the need for effort and discipline. The difference being, it seems, that in the enlightenment teachings, the purpose of that effort and self-discipline is ultimately to help facilitate a profound surrender or a complete giving up of control in order to allow a force greater than oneself to move one’s life. Does the path of self-mastery or “life mastery” that you teach ultimately bring one to the same point of surrender that the great traditions speak about?
AR: Yes, I believe it does. But I also believe in the paradox. I believe that ultimately my life is guided, but I also believe that along the way, I have a conscious choice whether to listen to that inner guidance or not. And if I listen to it, then my life turns out very differently than if I don’t. And knowing when it’s really your inner guidance and when it’s your fear speaking is very important. What most spiritual traditions call “ego,” I would call “fear.” So what most refer to as “destroying the ego,” I would say is breaking through the fear. Because the fear is what keeps us separate from our ultimate selves and from the love that we really want, which is already inside of us and which, if we are connected with it, is easy to share with other people. So yes, I ultimately believe that you’re no longer trying to control everything, that you have ultimate faith. When I’m being my spiritual best, I don’t know what’s happening. It’s just coming through me. I put myself in a place. I ask for guidance. I pray and then I trust that it’s there and it shows up. So the answer to that is yes, but I also believe we have to play a conscious part.
There is an old story of a minister who crosses the country and he’s out there letting everybody know about the gospel and making sure that they understand that Christ is the source of their life. He gets to the desert outside Phoenix, Arizona, and he gets really close to this area that he thinks must be a mirage, because in the middle of the desert he sees these amazing gardens. He sees vines and trees and fruit and everything. But as he gets closer, he sees that it’s real. In the middle of the desert! Everything around it is dirt and dry and dead. Then he sees a little house at the back of the garden and so he walks to the house and bangs on the door because he wants to make sure the gardener understands the source of all this. He bangs on the door very intensely. And the gardener is a very kind, loving and spiritual man. He comes to the door and opens it and sees the minister, and the minister says, “Mister Gardener, you and the Good Lord have certainly done a fine job with this garden,” but with the emphasis very intensely on the fact that the “Good Lord” has done a fine job with this garden. And the gardener looks at him and smiles. He’s a very loving man and he says, “Mister Minister, I understand what you’re saying. I understand your point, I think. I think what you’re trying to say to me is that if it wasn’t for the gift of the seed, the miracle of the soil, the sunshine and the air, there’d be no garden here. And you know,” he said, “you’re absolutely right. But I have to tell you something, you should have seen this place when God had it all by Himself!”
That’s my view of spirituality. I believe that, yes, I have to have trust and faith but I believe you have to trust in God and tie up your camel. The guy who wanders out in the desert with his camel and just lets him loose and says “God will protect me” isn’t doing his part. I don’t think that’s how God has it. I think we’re in cahoots with God to make this thing work down here. And I think that to the extent that we do our part and we listen to that inner guidance that is always available to all of us, that’s the extent to which we will have a life that’s fulfilled and maybe one that’s enlightened.
WIE: You speak often about the possibility of discovering and awakening an awesome power that lies dormant within each of us. In your view, is this power the same as the higher power referred to in the religious or spiritual traditions?
AR: Yes, without a doubt. But in my work, I don’t speak about it in that way. I’m not teaching religion and I’m not promising spiritual enlightenment. And as a result, very often people say “I’ve had the most profound spiritual transformation of my life here” because I didn’t put a label on it. I didn’t tell them they had to be a certain way or practice a certain thing. I let them connect. I created an environment where they were more likely to connect with their deeper self. And that deeper self, I believe, is a spiritual self that’s connected to everything. But again, I never tell people that. I don’t lecture on it. But do I believe that’s the same source? There’s no question. There’s only one power in the world, and in my belief that power comes from our Creator.
So when someone is demonstrating something extraordinary, while they may take great pride in the use of the power that God has given them by hopefully making some intelligent choices, I think all along the way, there’s been no question in my mind that any great thing in my life is a gift from God. I believe the ultimate path to enlightenment is the cultivation of gratitude. Because in a state of gratitude, real gratitude, deep spiritual, emotional, physical and definitely soul-level appreciation, there is no fear. When you’re grateful, fear disappears. When you’re grateful, lack disappears. When you’re grateful, self-significance disappears. You feel a sense that your life is uniquely blessed, and that’s a sense of significance; but at the same time, you feel as if you’re a part of everything that exists and you know that you are not the source of it. In that place, there’s connection, there’s growth and usually in that state you show up differently for the people around you. Just walking around, you vibrate. There are so many emotions that are so valuable for the development of one’s spiritual, physical, emotional self in the path of quality of life, in the path of self-mastery—obviously faith, obviously passion. But I think one of the most underutilized is gratitude. And I think those who are pursuing enlightenment with such fervor and trying to do all these physical practices, but are not living in a state of gratitude, will never find what they are pursuing. Because it is only through that gratitude, that acknowledgment, that one experiences the ultimate blessing and connection.
WIE: You’ve been speaking about the potential within all of us to make enormous, even quantum, changes in our lives. Some prominent exponents of the human potential movement—Michael Murphy, the founder of Esalen Institute, for instance—believe that contemporary advances in our understanding of the workings of the human mind and body and of how mastery is achieved should be seen in the context of the evolution of the whole human race. They believe that the pioneering efforts of people like you reflect the possibility of a transformation over time of our entire species. Do you see your own work in such an evolutionary context?
AR: Well, I don’t know if I’m playing the game at that level of transformation for the earth and for our species. If you look at us as a species, though, I do think that we’re an experiment. I think it’s hubris to think that we are the be-all and end-all of what can exist in the universe. The dinosaurs were here for what—a hundred million years?—and we’ve only been around here for two hundred thousand years.
But to answer your question directly, I think that anything we can do to more thoroughly understand how we function as human beings, what really drives us, and how we can utilize that understanding to be better human beings and better spiritual beings, is definitely a part of our evolution. And I think it has to happen rapidly because our technology is multiplying in its capacity and its strength and its diversity more rapidly than our technology for the management of human emotion, which is what drives all human action. And I think that’s the part that has to be focused on. We need to develop the emotional and spiritual muscles to deal with whatever challenges show up. So if there’s a prayer I have, it’s not “Give me, Lord.” And it’s not “Why me?” It’s “Make me.” It’s “Make me more.” I don’t necessarily want it to be easier. Maybe intellectually I’d like that, but what I really want is to be better. Because if each one of us was constantly more and better of what is really inside of us, then our capacity as a species and as a spirit and as a unified spiritual body to do good, be good, create good, and experience more of our true selves, our authentic selves, I think would be multiplied many times over.
WIE: What do you see as the highest expression of human potential?
AR: Love. There is nothing greater than pure love. When someone is acting from that state and not from fear, when they’re coming from that place of loving themselves and loving their Creator and loving their fellow man, I think the best and highest of people comes out. That’s an overly simplistic answer but I think it’s an accurate one. Personally, I think it’s the truth.