Elephant Journal founder Waylon Lewis sat down for this exclusive interview with Conrad Men’s founder Alex McAfee to talk about being a spiritual entrepreneur, his travels, what it really means to have a broken heart, and what it was like growing up around Chogyam Trunga Rinpoche and his Crazy Wisdom.
A: What was it like growing up in the Shambhala Community?
W: At the time it was by far the biggest, loudest, boldest Buddhist community founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who was this kind of wild and crazy character. He founded Naropa University and taught meditation in a way that was accessible to the West. For me it was sweet. I didn't really get Buddhism growing up except through osmosis--I went to Buddhist summer camp and all this stuff, but they didn’t really push Buddhism on the kids, you know, you can't really. Buddhism is a religion I guess, but it’s not like something you can make your kids do. Meditation is something you have to get for yourself. It was pretty great and fun. People definitely partied, and dressed up, and meditated a lot, and studied a lot. The emphasis was really on compassion, and social good, and mindfulness--which are all sort of buzzwords now, hopefully. It felt like a really good ground for how to live a life fully, and properly, with some intention.
A: Were you meditating as a little kid?
W: Yeah, I would meditate, and sort of do the studying with my mom, but again it was pretty optional. That helped it become something interesting instead of something that I'd want to rebel against.
Waylon & Conrad Founder Alex McAfee at Burning Man 2013
A: Do you remember Chogyam Trungpa?
W: Yeah, he was like a grandpa or something. He was like the godfather or something in my family. I would see him every week, all the time, but our one-on-one time was usually pretty limited. He was the star of everything in a way. I took my vows to become Buddhist with him. I did a two-month seminary with him--I was the youngest one to do that. I asked him if I could do that and it was pretty unusual for a kid to do the seminary so he had me write him a letter to explain why I wanted to do it. So I had a fair amount of time around him I would say.
A: Being in that personal space with him, was he this big crazy character that he's perceived to be?
W: Yeah, no. I mean, the funny thing is when you were around him he wasn't this sort of rock star that I feel like he is thought to be now--this kind of wild and crazy guy. I'm glad you asked that. Growing up around him he seemed infinitely boring in a kind of powerful way. To be around him, he was very spacious, and very relaxed, and very slow, and very bright, and very awake--but not busy. You know how you can be sitting down with someone at a café, and they’re fidgeting, and moving around, and whatever--he was just completely, intimidatingly, present and boring. He didn't try and impress people or do amazing things all the time. He was half-paralyzed, which is a quality that led him to be a little bit slower, and people forget about that when they talk about his sexual exploits and things. He was a very slow mover.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
A: How is that affecting you now that you do Elephant Journal? I'm a very big fan of how you approach the very clear separation of editorial and advertising. How do you see what Elephant is doing? How do you see it making the world a better place?
W: Well I think that if we can have some journalistic integrity in a new media context, like you said, "Keeping editorial and advertising separate." The intention of journalism (I studied journalism at Boston University) is really a beautiful thing, it's almost like a spiritual path. It's an ethical creation. It is to protect the public good, and to do so with honesty, and to do so with gentleness. It's one of the principles of journalism to inflict as little harm as possible, including on the people you're writing about--unless there's an overriding public interest in harming them in exposing some corruption or something. And just making all that fun by focusing on mindfulness, and eco-fashion, and arts, and social good, and adventure; and all the things together and not just separately. We tend to silo all the stuff, like: “Let's have a spiritual publication, or a fashion publication, or an adventure publication," but we’re just putting it all together.
A: So you just did some traveling--I know you work like crazy--but you just did some traveling over to Israel?
W: Yes, this summer I went to Israel and then Sweden for my friend Rachel Brathen (The Yoga Girl) for her wedding with Dennis at this castle in Sweden; and I'd never been to Sweden before. That was fun--running around Stockholm and just getting to know the people up there. They're the most fashionable people I've ever seen. The men up there, they're out of control, they're like Mad Men gone Technicolor. They dress up every day in a super fun way, the men up there are more stylie than the women, the women are beautiful but…Tel Aviv the women were stunning, the style, they're just powerful and outgoing. It's just a very different culture than in the U.S. where it feels very respectful, which is good, but also very careful. In Tel Aviv the women almost feel like they're in charge--in terms of the whole dating energy. Then I went to Florence for a while. The food, obviously, and the history and the art was amazing. That was fun.
A: How does traveling change you, or does it change you?
W: For 12 years of Elephant I've traveled a lot for conferences and expos and things where Elephant played some part as sponsor or I was a speaker--yoga festivals or whatever. But I haven't really, I've been the opposite of an adventurer. I've been an entrepreneur and I've had to sacrifice, in a way, my own enjoyment in travel. So to be able to finally have enough of a great staff, and they're just taking care of so much now. Like this morning, I almost don't know what to do with myself. It's like I don't have a roll in my own company anymore. It's kind of like this delightful problem that I can finally start taking some time off. We just hired someone to cover my 9:00 PM to midnight shift that I've had for six years every night. So now I'm nearly free and I look forward to kind of catching up on the kind of travel you and my other friends have been doing.
A: I wanted to ask you if there was any time in your life that woke you up? Did you ever have a kind of, “Aha Moment,” or spiritual awakening, or anything like that?
W: In terms of spiritual adventure?
A: In terms of spiritual adventure or something that really woke you up. You were raised in a mindful community, were you just always awake?
W: No, I think the funny thing is that they talk about Warriorship. A warrior is the kind of Shambhala Buddhist term for a human being who’s fully awake and in service of others. They talk about the warrior being continually broken-hearted, but not in a bad way, sort of in a cheerful way. I think that's something I’ve always felt--that there's so much suffering, and there's so much joy that to be human fully is to... Pema Chodron quotes Chogyam Trunga Rinpoche saying, "If your heart can be completely open to sadness and the suffering of the world, endless suffering..." There's so much needless war and rape and factory farming, you know the oceans are falling apart and climate change is going to lead to all kinds of things... If you can be awake to all that instead of pushing it away, gated-community spirituality is what I call it, where you try to keep unhappiness away. At the same time Trungpa Rinpoche says, "To keep the vision and the brilliance of the Great Eastern Sun." Meaning that the vision of humanity's basic goodness is always rising, it is always morning. In America, as Reagan said, "There's always good news." So you don't get into martyrdom or feeling sorry for yourself or solidifying that suffering that you see and you actually just get up and you do your best and you have fun and you go surfing and you party and you work hard for other people. That's where I think adventure can become meaningful--instead of it just being this selfish exploit it can be something where you're waking up your own heart and your own experience so that can be of service to other people and enjoy it, and feel that sadness without pushing it away. That's the kind of travel I'd like to do and that's the kind of adventure we all do whether we are traveling or not. I mean, life can be rough. As you know, it can be full of challenges and you can only get through them if you take them head on with an open heart--without aggression.
For more of Wayon's own Crazy Wisdom, be sure to check out Elephant Journal here.