Michael Regan, the Feral Mystic
Photo by: David Silver
An interview with speaker and guide Michael Regan.
Elizabeth Marglin interviewed five spiritual teachers who will change the way you think about spirituality. Here is her talk with speaker and guide Michael Regan.
When we learn to listen well, all of existence is showing the Way.
How did you become involved on the spiritual path?
It’s a strange question because it assumes there’s a time that it starts and a time when it wasn’t happening. I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a sense of a deeper reality. I think that’s true of a lot of children. I feel like I was born into it. But we have to learn to balance that intuition of the deeper reality with our involvement with the world, with family, and the need to belong. It’s easy to feel like you’ve got pulled too far into an involvement in the social realm. And that prompts an urge to come back into one’s deeper center. That rhythm played out in different ways throughout my life. One of the ways was as a very private, desperate sense to know the truth of my life and why I was here. I pursued that without making it explicit to other people. That was the part of the Irish culture too, you are not supposed to speak of things of that importance. Because if we speak about them, the belief goes, it can invite the wrong kind of attention to that private interior space–the source of certain prompts and insights. But to not listen to those prompts is to lose touch with what guides us through to the adventure of our lives.
There was a point, when I was 33, where I felt like I had failed with this desire to know the truth. I walked into work and I scanned the workplace to see what needed my attention. I felt a sense of neglect, but I didn’t know of what. All of a sudden, I realized it was something in the core of my own being that I was neglecting. I had no idea what that potential was, but as I turned my attention to it, that potential started to speak to me. One day the word “greatness” landed inside me. Because I wasn’t feeling particularly great, the word provoked a flinch of skepticism. But the visceral quality of that message, from some deeper aspect of myself, couldn’t be denied. It was too tangible. I figured if that potential did exist, despite several obvious failures, I ought to leave the work I was doing. Within six months I had resigned without knowing what would happen next. I was completely thrown into the unknown. I created space to listen for what that potential was about and where it would take me. The question was—how far was I willing to go to know and express my deepest self?
On the spiritual path, there is much talk about the lover and the beloved, and the separation of the two as the cause of suffering. How do you define the beloved?
Those terms, for me, evoke the feeling of a romantic love and don’t feel applicable to my experience. But after I resigned, I had a conversation with my heart, which I hadn’t done in a long time. I realized I held something back, played it safe with love. I wanted to know the deepest potential of love, not on a mental level, but what I learned from my heart. In a sense, my heart was the teacher. My life would be partly wasted, no matter what I did, if I didn’t discover the deepest potential of love. That was my calling. It came as a surprise but it was also completely intrinsic, woven into me. It took me a long time to admit it because of the vulnerability and exposure.
I started to explore what it would mean to risk everything for love in the middle of my ordinary life in Washington, DC.
I had been living with a suppressed sense of alienation from myself and the world. It was in the background, threatening to grab hold of me all the time. Ultimately, risking everything for love took me to some end in myself where I couldn’t go any further. A loss in my personal life led to a wrenching anguish that I had never allowed myself to experience before. It was all part of the deepest potential of love—it was what I had signed up for. It didn’t feel like a mistake. It felt perfect. The veils in my perception got stripped away by anguish and gave way to a more universal dimension of love. All the armor I protected myself with was stripped. I couldn’t create distance between the center of my heart and any of my surroundings. That was my tutoring in the real nature of love. I heard what it means to be a real human being described as the boundaries that you usually hold get pierced by this deeper reality.
Not everybody is interested in the deepest potential in love. But in the midst of this, I realized that there is an invisible tribe of people all over the world and throughout all time who had been through this process.
This breakthrough was the precursor to a deeper series of revelations over the next few years. In 1998, I was drawn to a leadership gathering called “Synchronicity, Authenticity, and Soul in the Workplace.” This became the playground for exploring the creative potential of love in a group setting. During the event, John O’Donahue started off a session quoting Meister Eckhart: “There’s no such thing as the spiritual path.” As soon as I heard it I knew that the whole purpose of my life was discovering the truth of that statement. O’Donahue explained the quote as what you are looking for can’t be found inside of time and experience of any kind. I turned my attention to that new place. I walked around the gathering listening for clues. I was sensing, like a wild animal, for the next piece. It felt like a galaxy being swallowed by a black hole. Then it became light after light. It was bewildering and beyond amazing. If you want to know the depths of love, you have to contend with this beatific vision. The personal self falls away. Inside who you took yourself to be something else happens. The distinction between you and that immaculate divine light falls away. There’s only that. It’s inconceivable to the waking mind that the vast reality could be inside you—and that it could be you.
What is the main way you work with students?
I don’t think of people as students. All I do is invite people to come together around that core potential, that preciousness of the heart. To shift their focus from what it’s been on and listen to what’s true. Then we talk about what comes up in the midst of that investigation. We talk about creative dilemmas, delusions, challenges, different kinds of pain, the ultimate nature of reality, and look into dreams. The dream work doesn’t make sense in and of itself. It’s just a way to be together.
The invitation of the work is to shift the focus to the deepest potential of love. Everything else we do is secondary. You can pray, do yoga, breathing exercises, mindfulness practices, but it always come back to that singular focus on love and your receptivity to it. It can be uncomfortable because of the obstacles that need to be cleared. But once your attention shifts to love, a subtle process starts to unfold to support that orientation. The wisdom of the heart will speak to where your deeper nature bumps into the particulars of your life situation.
What is your teaching style?
People have said there’s a mix of something gentle and tender, and at other times something fierce and wild. I guess that makes me unpredictable. I don’t know if I can define my own style without sounding like a jerk.
What is the practice you recommend?
I work with people who are a bit more mature in their creative expression in the world. That’s why I don’t call them students—I learn so much from them. I’m interested in giving expression to what’s fresh and new, always listening for the unexpected surprise. People can do that through painting, journaling, meditating, walking in nature, dance and movement, I just happen to be drawn to work with dreams. Partly because during the awakening of my heart my dream life exploded. I realized there was a benevolent force that was trying to guide me through this shift in consciousness. To stabilize these realizations there are a lot of very fine adjustments that need to get made. I find dreams often speak to these adjustments. The dreams come from inside each person and they are all different. Rather than impose a universal teaching, I celebrate the uniqueness of what the true self might be bringing for each person—and for the group.
I give people homework as a way to get them thinking how to apply an insight into different facets of their lives. If somebody has had a dream about the poise and command of a flamenco dancer, I will invite her to bring the pose of that dancer into her family life, her work, and even her conversations with friends. Adopting the flamenco dancer’s pose of mastery allows her to tune into her life in a new way. It invites her to make contact with her own center. If you ask for a dream about what you need to know to integrate the power of the self, particularly what shift you need to make, more often than not the answer comes.
Realizations can come through but they don’t necessarily transform how we relate to the world, to each other, to the earth. The way of love is concerned with how we function and interact. There are all sorts of habits, of listening and speaking, that are incongruent with the way of love. It’s good to work with someone who’s willing to tell you what you don’t want to hear. People can always fool themselves. It’s a little bit dangerous to interpret your own dreams. There’s an aspect of the mind that wants to control what the message is and shut out what may be disturbing. It’s a massive reeducation project. When I look around the world, it seems like that’s what we need.
What’s the biggest shift that’s taken place in your teaching? What’s the current edge in your work?
One edge has been learning to trust what comes through my own center without concern for how people perceive it—whether it fits into what any other wise person might be saying. When you’re interested in the originality of God, bringing forth what’s indigenous to you, it challenges not only your own norms, but those of the environment you’re working in. There tends to be a backlash any time you challenge norms, even the norms that surround radical teachings. Even radical teachings start to become the new fundamentalism. Your only focus must be on serving your inner self—let other people debate the merits of your work. At some point, you just have to let it rip.
My edge is finding a way to integrate an ancient, almost inconceivable view of the divine with the zeitgeist of our contemporary times. As a result, just when I think that I know where this work is going, it takes an unexpected turn and demands something new and different from me.
What is the deepest lament/misunderstanding/distortion you see in spirituality today?
I notice a gap between the language people use and the energy behind the words. That gap constantly shows up in people’s dreams, where the spiritual pose that they’ve taken in the world is too small for what’s trying to come through. That gap often provokes a growl inside me that wants to tear things apart so that something new can come through.
What is the most common trap of the spiritual teacher?
I can only say from personal experience: Wanting to be liked is the kiss of death.
Can surrender be taught?
For me surrender comes about when you realize that trying to control the spectrum of what you experience–and don’t experience—is what’s holding you back.