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Moments of grace: a conversation with Saskia Shakin

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Saskia Shakin

Saskia is a public speaking coach who has helped many leaders and academics find their authentic speaking voice.   She has inspiring things to say about the essential role that silence and connection play in authentic communication.  She is also the author of a beautiful book called More Than Words Can Say: The Making of Inspired Speakers.  The book is a collection of inspiring short stories about what she has learned through her work.  The following conversation took place during one of my visits to her home, upstate New York, in the Fall of 2009.

Tesa:  I would like to begin with a question that I ask myself often.  “When all the noise is silenced, the meetings adjourned, the lists laid aside, and the wild iris bloom by itself in the dark forest, what still pulls on your soul?”  

Saskia: I wish to be of service by helping myself and others find their own personal joy.   I have used coaching and public speaking as a vehicle for that, but my personal goal has always been inner transformation, not better speech.

Tesa:  And what have you learned from life about finding your personal joy?

Saskia: I would not call them learnings, but grace.   I have received moments of grace that I didn’t feel I earned or deserved.  They didn’t come from good behavior.   These moments of grace when I found well-being and blessedness have come to me when I was doing the right thing for my soul, not the right thing according to anyone else.   Happiness can only be influenced, not created from the outside.  My house makes me very happy, and looking at this boulder out the window gives me internal peace in contrast to how frenetic I feel when I’m in New York, where I have a good time but can’t wait to come home.   But while I’m very grateful for the material things that I have, the blessed moments in my life have come from things that were given to me rather than from things that I worked for or earned.

Tesa:  I feel that is true for me too.   Grace is not something we have really much control over, however.   So, how can you actually support others to access joy if it mostly comes as grace?

Saskia: The first thing I learned is that we have to trust that joy is our birthright, that we are joy, that we don’t have to become joy.  What we have to do is de-clutter all the barriers that are hiding our joy, to discover that it is there, at the root.  Our work is simply to de-clutter the façade.   But first and foremost, we have to believe that it is who we truly are, and then allow ourselves to find it.   Otherwise, we are always chasing it through different things: this amount of money, this person etc.

Tesa: Has this been the underlying motivation beneath your efforts to help people find their true voice, or teach them easier ways to learn?

Saskia: I don’t know that it’s been conscious.   I’m motivated by two things: beauty and joy.   Beauty is very, very important to me, and not the Bloomingdale definition of it.   There was an ice storm here once, and I had never seen one before.  Everything froze on all the trees.  There was thick snow all around.  The ice was a good inch thick on every branch, twig, pebble.   I was driving to a luncheon, and the sun was coming at an angle, and it suddenly hit the ice in such a way that everything exploded with light, and turned into diamonds everywhere.  It was as if the crystals in the water had become diamonds.   I was transported and started driving my car at 5 miles an hour, maybe less.   I was letting it coast, because I had to experience every moment of this.   Someone else might have just driven down the road but this sight so entered my soul that I felt like I was receiving some sort of atomic joy medicine.  I had no words.   If I had been with someone, I would have gone silent and just pointed at things, saying “look at this!”  It was a freak accident of nature.  If I had been 10 minutes late, I would have missed the whole thing.   I realize now how much I am elevated by beauty, even if it is just finding flowers that look beautiful with the table.  That makes my day.   I’m encouraged by joy and beauty.  It gives me a sense of purpose.   And what I have known for many years, through my work, is that when people tap into that moment of truth and beauty in their speech, even the most boring people come alive and they start connecting in a way that I don’t see them connect otherwise.   When one’s head, heart and energy align, self-consciousness is set aside, and whatever it is people are talking about comes to life, even if the topic is economics.  Then their words are like poetry and their speech is authentic and moving, and it deeply touches me.  I’ m always very honored to be a participant in that process.

Tesa:  And what do you see as the essence of that process that allows someone to align head, heart and energy?

Saskia: My inability to answer that question was the reason I didn’t want to write a book for 25 years.   I didn’t have the words.  I considered it to be magic.  Nine times out of ten, I could make it happen but I had no idea as to how I did it, and also no idea what to write about it.   At the time, I could not find any language around it.   I finally figured out that what I did wasn’t magical at all.  What I did was listen with every cell in my body.  The magic comes from my ability to listen without judging, my ability to feel things even when I do not understand where they are coming from, my ability to listen for truth and not words, and to sift out what people just say from habit, and where they are really hitting their truth.  The magic comes from my learning how to be silent and allowing someone to dwell within themselves to a depth that they may not have been previously aware of.   I think that people know how deeply I care when I am silent.  It’s not a neutral silence.  It is a caring silence that invites what is real within people to come forth.

Tesa: I really love the words you use… “listening with every cell of the body.”  What an evocative image for deep listening!   Saskia, what kind of people do you most enjoy working with?

Saskia: I am turned on by a particular combination of curious intellect and soulful connection.   You embody it for me.  There are lots of people that I have enjoyed working with in the soul camp.  They are very interested in knowing and expressing their soul and that is where they go without much trouble.  And then there are those who live on the Cartesian level and have very interesting ideas, but what I want is both and I’m not satisfied by one or the other.  I think that’s why I chose not to make yoga my professional calling.   I felt that it would not keep me intellectually alive.   The work that I have done in my career over the years with brilliant minds really excited me.   I would go home and could not sleep.  They were not necessarily spiritual but I felt a really strong heart connection to them.   They were brilliant and kind, or brilliant and warm.   If someone is only living in a crunchy granola world, I am likely to get bored with them if they don’t have an intellectual brightness that has also been cultivated.  I am drawn to people who think for themselves, have new ideas, and can connect on a holistic level.

The places where I donate my services are service organization, like Women for Women International.   I also donate my time to the Women’s Institute at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY, because these women in the Women and Power conferences are so inspiring.  I like to work with the core organizers, at the leadership level, so that the lessons that I’m offering can ripple out.  I love to work with people who are creating transformation in themselves and their communities.  I get a lot of pleasure from supporting people that have a vibrant message that I agree with and want to help spread.

Tesa: And when you imagine a transformed world, what is it that you see possible?

Saskia: I see how we would communicate with each other and drop the chit chat and small talk that serves as a barrier.   The world that I see would look like the Omega world at lunch and dinner, and in between, a world where people really talk.   They don’t go through their curriculum vitae.   The people who seem called to talk to me really start sharing right away.   Elizabeth Lesser, the co-founder of the Omega Institute, always asks very insightful questions, and she once asked a woman the following question: “Which women in your lineage is present in you right now in this moment?”   Before the woman answered, she commented: “Oh, these Omega questions… they go so deep.”  I feel that those are the kinds of conversations we would have in a new world.   Inter-personal conversation would be honest and genuine.   They would be heart-to-heart.   We would be sharing stuff that is real.   People would talk the way you and I started talking the moment we met, learning from each other, enjoying each other.   Joy and beauty, again.

Tesa: I have heard you talk about three different types of work that have given you deep joy.  They seem to be your medicine: teaching people how to teach themselves (a new way to learn), helping people communicate in ways that different audiences can really understand (‘translating” or building communication bridges across worlds), and helping people find their soul voice.  What are the connecting threads between these three things?

Saskia: I remember our conversations during 9/11, when total strangers could connect without even speaking, and shared the loss, the pain, the bewilderment, and the connection.  It’s a form of communication when we totally know each other, with language, or without language.  How we communicate is not just how we speak or connect through language.  It’s how we are present.   One thing that makes me crazy about one of my friends is that she’s always on her cell phone. I don’t feel that she’s present with me when she’s on her cell phone.  Are we multi-tasking, and having divided attention? Real communication has to do with how we physically are in how we communicate.  It’s not just communication to get it over with so we can rush to the next event.  It’s what happens when we wish that time would stop and we could go on for ever.   It’s giving someone your total presence and attention.

How we learn is very much built in the work I do, especially when I work with academics and get them to understand that the transmission of information has to be different from the way that it was transmitted to them.   It has to be told with stories, analogies, metaphors, making it interesting from the perspective of the audience.  I want them to appreciate the difference between short- and long-term memory.   There is a quote that I love… “tell me a fact and I will listen, but tell me a story and it will live in me forever.”   I want people to understand that story-telling is organic.  It’s how we have always learned and how we still learn.  Brainy people have to begin to appreciate the value of this other way of learning.

There was something on the Women Travel for Peace website, an explanation of the fact that the women in a particular culture speak in proverbs…  that their language is in proverbs.  To take that analogy, in the world I imagine possible, we would tell each other meaningful, very short stories.  I have a book that exemplifies this.  It is a very skinny book called “Simple Truth.”   This little book is one of the most powerful books that I have ever read.  The stories are not haiku.  They are not poetry.   They are tiny stories that are utterly honest and very poetic.   The moment I read them, they really resonated.  The opening story goes something like:  “I had a dream last night and it was utterly fantastic and totally magical and absolutely unreal and I know it was true because when I’m sleeping, my sub-conscious is not smart enough to tell lies.”   Everyone who reads it sighs.  If I could design the way we would communicate… we would speak truth in short little tales that would resonate with everyone most of the time.   That’s the language I love… clean, sparse, true, effective, uncluttered.   And I think that’s why this little book resonates with me.  And that’s probably my own writing style, which I didn’t know until I sat down and wrote my book.   What I got out of being submerged  for several years in the learning approach known as the Silent Way is that nobody else ever teaches us anything.  We teach ourselves everything when we are ready.   The most the world can offer is a kind of “smorgasbord,” and we will take from it what we need when we need it.

The other thing that I have learned is that because we teach ourselves, we have to do the work.  We cannot sit back and passively take notes.   We have to engage in the process of learning.  We have to practice it in order to make mistakes, and in order to figure out which things are mistakes and which are not.  It can’t be something that you sit back and that you have poured into you.   Knowledge does not come from somewhere else.   It comes from within as we play and improvise.

Tesa: What do you feel you most need to continue flourishing?

I love these kinds of conversations.   More of this type of connection is exactly what I need.  Travel also comes to mind.   I feel like it’s time for me to travel a bit more than I have been, to be exposed to new vistas, dimensions, cultures.    I am especially drawn to the women of Africa.  I’m thinking of a particular woman who spoke at the Women and Power conference at the Omega Institute.  She was like an African queen.   She had the face of a sculpture: lean and elegant.  She seemed to have no sense of her own beauty. She was from Uganda.  She was so thankful to be there and spoke about the fact that it had been a dream of hers all this time to come to Omega.   She had read about it on the internet and wanted to go.  The sheer beauty and joy in this woman was so moving, and she started to cry.   She had some notes but she wasn’t reading and was very apologetic because she got very emotional.  Everyone became unglued.   It was as if we were in some non-alcoholic dream.  Linda Rivero from Women Travel for Peace was sitting next to me.   The two of them started talking and I joined their conversation.  This woman from Africa had found a copy of my book, and said she wanted to buy it.  I just gave it to her.  She was so happy and so grateful.  There was just something about her.  She communicated with us in the way I would envision a better world: no mask, and her voice was so dignified.   Her body was so elegant.   Linda said to me: “she has no idea how beautiful she is!”  And it was just so.  She was the essence of beauty and joy and communication from that totally integrated place, and her message moved everybody.

What moved me so much and what I think moved everybody else is that this woman kept saying that she was sorry, but her tears enabled all of us to feel what she was feeling, and moved us so deeply through her dignity and her expression of gratitude.  It made me feel grateful that I could donate to the scholarship fund that helped her come to the Omega conference,  grateful for the fact that she did come, and that we were all in this room together, inter-generationally, really feeling our oneness.  She conveyed all of that to us, minimally through her words, but the vehicle was her being, her essence.  She was such a powerful messenger!  She was really gorgeous, and riveting in her beauty.  And you could see that her soul was just as beautiful as her body.

It was just the love in her heart that she was expressing.  And this was what Linda experienced in villages in Africa.  So when I think of travel, I feel drawn to Africa.

Tesa:  I hope you get to go. I have never been to Africa but the two years I spent in Egypt were deeply heart-opening and life changing for me.  Thank you for this conversation, Saskia. I experience many “moments of grace” when we are together.

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More about Saskia

Website: The Keynote Coach

Articles and Interviews:

Book: More than Words Can Say: The Making of Inspired Speakers