The following is a transcript for Episode 31 of Season 1 of Mindfulness+, an interview with Thomas McConkie and John Kesler, founder of Integral Polarity Practice. Listen along, or read the transcript below.
Thomas: I am especially excited to introduce this guest today. After almost twenty years of practice across the different meditative traditions, I'm sitting here with the man who has probably had a deeper impact on me than just about anybody, and I feel a lot of gratitude for his teaching and just for the person he is. I'm excited to get to share him with you today. His name is John Kesler. He's in the studio with us. Welcome, John.
Kesler: Thank you, Tom. So pleased to be here.
Thomas: Thank you. It's hard to know where to start, there's so much, John. I hope this is just the beginning of many conversations we have with you on Mindfulness Plus, but I wanted to get the ball rolling today and introduce you to the listeners at Mindfulness Plus. So there's a lot to say about John. It's telling that I've known John for ten years and have been studying with him for about that long, and it seems that every time I meet somebody that knows John, or I go to some conference where John's keynoting, or some meeting that he's presiding over, I hear about a new organization that he's a part of or on the board of, or was the driving force and inspiration behind starting it. He's just involved in so many things and it's a beautiful example of the fruits of a mindfulness practice. I think, John, the way you show up in the world and how deeply engaged you are is a real inspiration.
Kesler: Thanks, Tom. I'm a real believer in what goes on inside of you as a reflection of what you're doing in the world, so you need to have a practice on both sides of that, I think.
Thomas: And I haven't seen that demonstrated more powerfully with anyone, than with you, John. Not to flatter you, that's how it is [Kesler laughs]. So John has developed a practice called "Integral Polarity Practice”. That's the inner practice you could say, that we'll speak about a little bit today and explore. John also spends a lot of time heading up an organization called "The Salt Lake Civil Network", which has to do with supporting the flourishing of wholistic communities on a global level. And John is also a practicing lawyer, and a deeply engaged father and husband, and overall good citizen [laughs]. What else can we say, John?
Kesler: [laughs] They could call me a recovering lawyer.
Thomas: A recovering lawyer! Right [laughs]. Hard to come to terms with that one. So this is interesting. There are a lot of things we could say about your background and your mediation practice, but an interesting place to start it occurs to me is your background as a swimmer. I mean you were a national champion backstroker when you were young.
Kesler: Well I swam for a lot of years — went through age group swimming, and swimming in high school, and into college, and I was as involved as a person could be.
Thomas: Junior Nationals in high school, I think it was. Undefeated your freshman year at Stanford which was probably the best swim team in the country at that time, and then you kind of laid it up. You stopped swimming pretty spontaneously, is that right?
Kesler: Not quite. I transferred schools and took a year off, but really because of the financial support that was there, I finished university swimming.
Thomas: The financial support, that was where?
Kesler: At the University of Utah.
Thomas: Okay. So you came back for some scholarship money, here, after you'd beaten up all the best swimmers in the NCAA, you decided to come back to your roots in Utah.
Kesler: Yeah, there were other reasons that I returned related to family. In those days, you had to take a year off if you were going to transfer schools. And in those days you could only swim on a freshman level if you were a freshman. So, different world then but I did, after that year off, swam for the last two years of undergraduate.
Thomas: And it's interesting, I met Genpo Roshi when I was 18 years old — Roshi is a well known Zen master who had a big influence on me. He was also a water polo player on the national team, so really adept swimmer. I just thought that was such an interesting coincidence. You studied quite deeply with Genpo Roshi which we'll talk about momentarily, here. The swimming thing is interesting to me: swimming is such a repetitive sport and activity for those who've done it. I wonder if that was some kind of precursor to your career in meditation later on.
Kesler: I have to think that it was because swimming isn't one of those sports that you're stimulated by all the exciting, challenging situations that you respond to going on around you. You literally practice for hours everyday and for years, repeating the same physical routine and movements. I think unless you find a meditated place to be in, there, you have a problem.
Thomas: So interesting. You know, it reminds me that all of us in some way probably have activities in our lives that are monotonous and routine, and that we have the opportunity to bring our full awareness to; to kind of pull ourselves out of the monotony and into a sense of a kind of wonder. With something we've done 10 million times, when we're really present with it, feels like it's the first time we've engaged it.
Kesler: Nice summary. I think that's right.
Thomas: Okay, well we can save another podcast episode dedicated to Johns merits as an athlete [laughs] but I want to get to a story, John. I mean I flipped when we first talked about this. I thought "who is this guy”? [laughs] when I heard this story. It belongs in the cannon of American Zen stories. You're a lawyer, you're going for continuing legal education credits, and you show up at a mediation workshop, is that correct? Or was it built as a meditation workshop and you thought it was mediation? What's the detail there?
Kesler: No, it was a mediation workshop, not meditation. But this gem haroshi had just come up with a dramatic new approach called the “Big Mind Process" that he had not really tried on people outside of his own community, and he just wondered what would happen if he offered this to people off the street. And the person who was running the conference was a student of his and so this was a breakout session for an hour and a half in a day-long workshop.
Thomas: And that student by the way, was that Diane Hamilton who was helping him set up this workshop?
Kesler: It was.
Thomas: So Diane was a former guest on our show. She did our last video podcast with us — check that out if you haven't yet — it was a gorgeous conversation with Diane. So here you are, you wander into this mediation workshop and the Zen master decides "I'm going to see what this industrial strength technique of Zen does for the next person who walks through the door. Somewhat.
Kesler: Yeah. So there were probably 35 or 40 of us attorneys who just kind of wandered in clueless of what was going on. So he facilitated us through this unique process and the effect was so profound on me that I just was… it wasn't something I thought about, it was just being in a state of… I was stunned and almost in shock because I was in a state I'd never been in before and it was profound.
Thomas: Could you say a little bit more about that state you were in? How would you describe it as you look back on it? What happened in that workshop?
Kesler: Well you're always aware that you're sitting here in a body and you have a sense of self and other, but he was able to facilitate us all in a way that we identified more with everything around us — the entire universe, the cosmos. And so it was a sense of being one with or no different than the universe. And it was an experience I had never had. I had meditated a lot for about 5 years in my early 20's but I had never really had this experience and it was just so profound that I knew I needed to follow up on it.
Thomas: Yeah. You walked out the door of the workshop that day and it just kept going, did it not? [laughs]
Kesler: It did! And I was kind of angry about it [laughs]. I didn't want to have my life changed. You know, what is going on here? And it really kind of… I kind of kept that sense of Identity for well over a week — almost 2 weeks.
Thomas: Okay. So you go in for some continuing legal education credit, you walk out totally merged in one with all of manifestation, and you contemplated a career change at that point [laughs].
Kesler: Well I sort of knew that I wanted to follow up on it, and I contacted Roshi and said "look, I have my own religious tradition, I'm not particularly interested in becoming a Buddhist; but I'm just so taken by this experience that I had.” And he said, "Well, my hope has been that this would be an experience for all of mankind; not just tied to Buddhism. And I would be so excited for you to become a student understanding that you can maintain your own Mormon tradition”.
Thomas: And you did just that. That's the next thing I want to talk about. So here you are: from your mid twenties to your mid fifties you were a householder and a lawyer — not living in a monastery — and then boom: it's of all places a mediation workshop where you have what many would call a classical experience of awakening.
Kesler: Yeah. Well you know there are different qualities of spiritual experience — of having faith, and trust, and communing — but the sense of oneness was a distinct quality of being awake, you could say, that was unique.
Thomas: yeah, it was new to you. So you went on and you worked with it. You studied with Genpo Roshi, you learned his practice, his techniques and you developed something quite novel. You took even that in a new direction. Could you say a little bit about the relationship of your polarity practice to adult development? That's a topic we talk about continually on this show. It's the "Plus" in Mindfulness Plus.
Kesler: Well it took about three to four years to really absorb this teaching of this new "Big Mind" process and it involves using voice dialogues, speaking to aspects of the self — that's one of the unique aspects that he added to this practice.
Thomas: Let me ask about that. I don't want to gloss over that because listeners maybe haven't heard of Big Self, and when they hear "talking voice dialogue" to a particular voice — could you say a little bit about what is Big Mind, and what does it mean to talk from that voice?
Kesler: Yeah. Well Big Mind is just a word or you know, a framing of that experience.
Thomas: The one that you had at the mediation workshop.
Kesler: The one that I had. And in the eastern traditions that experience tends to be an experience you want to have. It's sort of a quality of waking up in that particular way. So I became trained and certified — I wasn't taking bows or anything in the tradition — but I became certified to be able to share it. But one of the things that I noticed was that it was very intuitive, and very flowing, and very much tied to traditional Buddhist concepts and voices, and experiences the way they were framed. And I had spent already many years very interested in human development and stages of development, and it didn't have that quality to it. So I decided to see if I could speak in this voice dialogue to voices that were related to stages of human development. And voice dialogue is Jungian therapeutic technique that was developed, and it established that you could speak to aspects of the self, like the vulnerable child is a classic voice that you can speak to. Genpo Roshi had identified that you could speak to transcendent voices — that was his big breakthrough — and for whatever reason, as I was exploring that with a group of people I just noticed that when a voice spoke up very strongly, it's polar opposite also always wanted to speak up, and so I just started playing with those polarities. Like the in-breath and the out-breath (we don't speak to the in-breath and out-breath so much) but about every other polarity developmentally above that, like desire and aversion. If desire has a real strong voice, aversion is saying, "Well, I'm kind of part of this whole deal, so I want you to hear what I'm doing in the life of this person as well."
Thomas: Yeah let me chime in, there. I meditated with Genpo Roshi for many years, and he did speak to the wounded child and he did speak to desire. And when I started practicing with you I was struck. I felt like I was getting into territory that I had somehow intuited somewhere but we'd never quite brought to the surface and it's really genius in polarity practice to notice that if there's desire on one side, then the flip-side of the coin is aversion, and those qualities are both right there together.
Kesler: Yeah. And then it took another couple of years of working with people and working with groups to say "wait a minute, this is actually also kind of a spiritual meditative practice. Where does this go?” I just discovered that if you quieted those polarities down there was a still point where there was a stillness, like desire and aversion — this place of deep satisfaction or contentment, or abundance, and it would slow that down and then you would be in a different place. You'd be in a deep unity type of place somewhat outside of space and time. A sense of wholeness, a sense of fullness.
Thomas: Right. I want to come back to still points. We've actually been exploring still points on Mindfulness Plus the last three weeks, and you are the crown jewel of our four week series, John Kesler [laughs]. The master of still points. I want to come back to that in a moment. One thing I'll say what I've learned studying with you, if we're going to talk about — I mean the polarities if you look at Johns chart, if you go to the theIPPinstitute.com you can kind of see the framework of the practice he's laid out. It's really beautifully elegant. There are 15 key polarities that you primarily work with. There are countless polarities, but 15 polarities you've identified as being thematic and paramount in human development.
Kesler: Yes. It was clear that there are very central qualities that come online with each new stage of human development. So my thought was that even though there are endless polarities, if you could work with those universal qualities within yourself that everybody else shares, and they could become more transparent, you could work with them, you could hold the fulness of it; it would create a foundation for integration and growth. And it turned out that it worked really well and attracted several developmental psychologists and researchers because they found that it happened to match a very strong theme in developmental psychology that had been coming online in the previous decade.
Thomas: Right, and this is one of those hidden gems about John Kesler, that the real estate attorney in Salt Lake — I've asked world class developmental psychologists questions about their research and I've had one say "you know, you should really talk to John Kesler about that one. He really knows more about this than I do” [laughs]. To your credit, John, It's a robust framework, and If I can share a personal experience: I came from quite a traditional meditative background in Buddhism. I was doing my daily sitting for years, and it was a practice that did amazing things for me. Nothing was broken by any stretch. And yet, when I started to practice with you and become more sensitive to polarity, the transformation I saw in my life was profound. And to give just one concrete example: one of your polarities that comes up very early in human development in the first few years of life. You talk about agency and communion. You talk about the individual and the collective. And I didn't notice until I started practicing with you how heavily oriented I was towards the individual side. And the whole collective, relationship, communion side, was there, but when I was with people, I was waiting to be alone again and go to my meditation cushion. And really just in a few years of working with Integral Polarity Practice (or IPP) my entire mindfulness practice transformed from I sit on my cushion daily to meditation is relationship and every encounter I have with another being - not just a human but with an animal, a plant — every relationship I have is an opportunity to bring my highest awareness to that moment and encounter. And suddenly this practice I'd been really giving myself to for 15 years, it was enormously freed up from the cushion — from the formal practice — and I felt like I was walking around and every encounter I had was this invitation to meditate. That's just one example of how polarity practice opened up my awareness to a whole new dimension of mindfulness.
Kesler: Thank you for that example. And that's a good example, for instance, that you learned with any true polarity it's not healthy and pathological, or they're not opposites in good and bad ways, they're just necessary qualities that need one another. And as you become mature in any polarity, they come closer together and begin to inner penetrate, and at some point you can't experience agency without communion. You can't experience a sense of purpose without being concerned with something larger than yourself, for instance.
Thomas: Yeah exactly. And I found that so much in my own experience. That far from compromising my agency, to more deeply enter into relationship and communion, I was energized in my solitary times. I felt happier when I was alone. And after a certain point of being alone, being in my meditation and individual life, I would come back into relationship and replenish myself that way. So like you pointed to, this dance of the polarity, these two qualities could express even more fully when I held them both. It's a profound gift, I can't even express. We'll have to have you on to another show to do a bit of voice dialogue and really help the audience understand what that feels like to start the wholeness of a given polarity. It's really something.
Kesler: Thank you. and I realize working with polarities is only one approach — there are many approaches to meditation and integration, and growth — but it's one that's powerful. I love it, am committed to it, I love to share it.
Thomas: Yeah well it's a real legacy to humanity as far as I've experience IPP, it's done amazing things for me and you really walk the talk, John. It's just amazing who you are and the life you live, and the generosity you share this practice with. It's stunning.
Kesler: Thanks, Tom.
Thomas: I want to come back and talk about still points for a minute. Again, you pointed to this a moment ago, that the still point is a different dimension of our humanity. It's a place of profound stillness and peace beyond space and time, where we start to experience a fullness of freedom and compassion, and joy. You shared a story with me years ago that I really just wanted our audience to hear. I think it's a perfect example of the potential of really living from a still point throughout the day. You know what story I'm talking about, you were, I think reading the newspaper one evening. You were just home, relaxing.
Kesler: I was. And I mean this is an example, I think, of being trained in a still point opens you up to something that everybody has available to them. But it's just in my experience it’s maybe more sensitive. I was just being really quiet, I was reading the paper, but I was sort of settling into some deep stillness, and all of a sudden realized that there was something really important. It had to do with a young woman who was living in the university village. I was a Mormon bishop for a married student housing area at that time, and I just went running out the door. My wife said, “Where are you going?” and I said, “I'm running over to so and so's place.” She said, “Who's going with you?” I said, “I'm just going.”
Thomas: Let me pause you there because, just a little cultural context for you listeners around the globe. In Salt Lake City, in a Mormon culture, where a man John's age — a bishop — just has this impulse to run over to a young woman's house. His wife's going to raise an eyebrow, we could say [laughs].
Kesler: Yeah [laughs]. So I just sped over there and knocked on the door, and there was no answer. So I did what anybody would do and I kicked the door open.
Thomas: [laughs]. Any reasonable person would do that.
Kesler: And I saw this woman laying on her living room floor, her head on a pillow, and she'd been smoking, and there was a cigarette smoldering in her pillow. The moment I burst through the door, the pillow burst into fire. I was able to dash over and pull it away and her hair was on fire and I was able to help her. Even a minute later would have been too late.
Thomas: Ten seconds later.
Kesler: And isn't that, a person in that position or any, where you're seeking to be a steward for other people in an ecclesiastical or other position, I think there's a tendency to get inspiration for those kind of folks. But I just know that that practice, along with leading the life I felt I was supposed to lead, helped me be more sensitive in those kinds of ways.
Thomas: Yeah. It's a remarkable story, John. I remember the first time you shared that story with the small group of us. And something you said after that story really struck me. I'll remind you what you said and offer it to the listeners. It was something to the effect of: "in that moment, I was still and I was open, and I was receptive; and I received inspiration to dash out my door, and I didn't even know why. And I went and this woman ended up needing somebody to save her life". And the question you put to us has stuck with me for years ever since. You said "how many messages of inspiration are we missing when we're not present, when we're not open”?
Kesler: And there are just so many references in so many of the traditions in the Christen-Judaeo tradition. “Be still and know that I am God.” Be still, and it's like a portal. You're open to your deepest sense of source and inspiration, and spirit — whatever language you use. I just know that that's why I do this practice. It's the heart of the practice.
Thomas: And that story is dramatic. This woman was passed out on the floor, she would have been incinerated had you not been there. But I see you showing up day to day just in the community, just being a good citizen, and you've really been a good example to me of what the still point looks like and feels like, and walks like, and talks like. And I'm just grateful for who you are, John, and your presence in the world.
Kesler: Thank you. And what I would have to say is I don't think this is the practice or somebody should do this vs. something else, but it's a nice compliment to whatever belief system you have, I think, and helps you access that kind of openness.
Thomas: We'll close on this note. You noticed what John just did. He said, "You know, IPP is just one of many practices.” The reason you don't know about IPP is because John doesn't have a self-promoting bone in his whole body [laughs] so I'm here to tell you guys that this is really a profound source of wisdom, and you'd do well to look into it a little bit. I know I've been deeply changed by John. Thank you.
Thomas: So I'd like to turn the time over to you to just do a little bit of a guided meditation. When I have guests on, I invite them to just give us a little flavor of what they're up to in their own practices. I wonder if you'd mind just leading a meditation with us.
Kesler: Sure, I'd be happy to do that for a few minutes. So what I thought I might do is a meditation with a polarity that we tend not to think of really, because it's sort of like a fish being in water. You're just so immersed in it that you don't realize it has those qualities, and that's a meditation relating to the qualities of mind or consciousness itself. And one thing I noticed as I spent time in the mindfulness-type practices, I realized that this quality was there. Consciousness always has a quality of focusing and opening. Open and focus. And We've all had the experience I think where we've been overstimulated by our environment. We've gone to a concert or we're just tired and the kids have been screaming all day long, or whatever it is. And if you get stuck in any pole, like openness to stimulation in your environment, you become raw. Things become pathological. Or if you're focused on something and you just can't get out of it — you're obsessed for instance by someone who has embarrassed you, or harmed you, or maybe physical pain, and you can't get your mind away from that — that in and of itself is pathological. And with every polarity, that's the message. You need to learn how to hold them both and hold them well, and come from a deeper place. And so what I'd like to do is just facilitate a little bit of a meditation relating to that quality and then some of the fruits that arise out of that.
Thomas: Excellent. Thanks, John.
Kesler: So I'm just going to close my eyes a little bit, and settle into where I'm sitting, and into this body, and into this breath, and relax. I'd invite you all to do the same and just follow along.
Just as you know that the pattern of breathing - the in-breath and the out-breath has its own polarity - be aware of the openness of your own mind and awareness in this moment. Just open to whatever's going on right now, that you might notice physically or emotionally, mentally; just be open to whatever is arising in this moment.
And now I would just invite you to bring a scope of focus to this openness. To focus on what you are hearing in this moment, in addition to my voice. What do you hear in your environment, inside of you, outside of you?
Now shift your scope of focus to your emotions. The emotions that you brought into this moment in the last few hours and that you've had during this day. See if those emotional feelings are still present. What do you sense from what’s arising from you emotionally in this moment? Don't try to judge it, control it. Just be aware.
And now be open and aware as to what's arising in your thoughts at this moment. What are you thinking? Whatever those thoughts are, just allow them to happen. Don't judge them, don't control them.
And as we find with any polarity — as we bring the focus and the openness together — there's just a field of awareness. You're aware of what's arising, you move your scope of focus as it's appropriate. But in this moment allow yourself to just be still and tranquil, and relaxed in this moment. And allow your awareness just to rest. Feel that deep tranquility in this moment.
And if this quality is here, you'll also notice that you have a sense of being very present to whatever’s arising. And if you have difficulty getting into this tranquility or this stillness, just practice being present and this quality will settle in for you. And another quality that tends to arise if you're still at your center, connected to your source, relaxed and aware, it brings on a quality as your present in the moment to what in the Buddhist traditions they call the "Beginner Mind". It means rather than framing everything you experience, or what’s before you as you have normally done - just be open to what's arising. Allow yourself to be surprised, allow to see what's really there. And you can live in a moment by moment and state of astonishment as you are totally present to what's happening; not prejudging.
And as you're open and present, and tranquil, and present, and aware, this still point is also a bit of a portal. It opens us to our deepest source of wisdom and compassion. Peace beyond understanding.
And in many traditions — as we say in many traditions — we're open to the gift of divine light, or sacred light'. One can feel it, one can see it. It's always there. Thank you.
Thomas: Thanks so much, John.
Kesler: Thank you, Thomas.
Thomas: If you want to learn more about John Kesler and Integral Polarity Practice, you can go to theIPPinstitute.com, learn more there.