The road twisted around a cliffside. Way, way down the edge I could see the turquoise blue of the Ganges River as we made our way from the Rishikesh airport to Saatva Retreat Center. The unpaved road with no rail between us and the long drop down to the river seemed, to my American eyes, as though it should be a one-way road. Around each corner, our driver couldn’t see what was coming, so he’d honk to alert oncoming traffic. That is just the way those bumpy dirt roads are driven in India. Doing my best to ignore this precariousness as I completed the final stretch of my 20+ hours of travel from Los Angeles to India, I eagerly engaged my fellow bhakti yogi retreat companions. Aaron caught my attention as he shared his passion for writing and his upcoming move to Santa Fe. And how he’d started off in Law and now not only runs his own practice but got his foot in the screenwriting door writing an episode of Law & Order. Aaron had 180 written all over him and I had barely scratched the surface.
Over the next few days as I was writing 100 Ways To Spark Change in 2016, Aaron was one of my biggest supporters. It was no wonder he had great suggestions for how to spark change, he’s been doing it for decades.
Aaron’s multitude of 180s didn’t happen overnight, but moved along steadily and he continued to build up practices that supported his growth and his dreams. He’d always wanted to be a screenwriter, but he started off on another path. Through his journey, Aaron demonstrates that with focus and daily action, 180 comes. As Aaron shares, “Major 180 shifts take time and involve battling your demons and facing all your shit” -- it isn’t easy!
I hope you enjoy this interview with Aaron as much as I do - he’s full of resources, practices and blissful ideas for transitioning through the really hard stuff. Did I mention he’s also a Gongmaster? If you’re curious about the gongs and sound healing, read on and also, check out Aaron’s website, Way of the Gong for more!
Aaron, you are a man of many 180s, but the first I'd like to ask you about is your 180 from working in Law to moving into the Arts. How did you know that you wanted to make this change? How did you find the courage and how did you get started?
When I was a kid, I saw Annie Hall and knew I wanted to be a screenwriter. I watched every Woody Allen film I could find, and later on the Tarantino films cemented this career goal. I was a junior in college when I took my first screenwriting class. I loved it. However, I didn’t have the confidence at that age to follow my dream of going to film school and becoming a writer, so I went to law school instead. My dad is a lawyer and he “strongly recommended” that I go to law school as a “safety.” 17 years later, I know there’s no such thing as a “safety,” but I didn’t get it at the time, so I went to law school. After graduating, I refused to get a job as a lawyer and instead focused my energy on writing my first few feature-length scripts. I was a waiter, a tea bartender, and even got sucked into a multi-level-marketing scheme. Anything to make money to keep writing. Then I met a girl. Fell in love. Got engaged. And racked up a good amount of debt, so I bit the bullet and got a job as a lawyer. I spent the next ten years working as a lawyer but never stopped writing. For the first few years I worked for a law firm doing consumer litigation (mostly lemon law) and hated every day of it. Then I started my own practice. And that’s when I was able to arrange my own schedule. I’d write in the mornings and work on law stuff in the afternoons. Although I got very close to selling scripts more than a few times — some to very big production companies — it took 16 years of writing before I started to have some real success. I’m lucky that I’ve always had a deep passion for screenwriting. You have to or there’s no way you’re going to write script after script after script, especially if they’re not selling. Something kept me going. Call it the creative spirit.
You discovered meditation in college and have since expanded your knowledge-base and practice in the spiritual realm. What does your daily spiritual practice look like?
I’ve been lucky to learn quite a few spiritual practices and realize there are different tools for different moments. On a typical day, I wake up around 7am and do about 10 minutes of qi-gong, followed by 20 minutes of a Buddhist (Samatha) sitting meditation, followed by 20 minutes of kirtan. Later in the day, I try to fit in 30 minutes of a pranayama breathwork meditation that I learned from David Elliott. This style of breathwork changed my life. It’s by far the most powerful spiritual practice I’ve ever found. Within 20 minutes of deep breathing, you get an enormous flow of energy that breaks through any stress or other blocks, and takes you to a profound sacred space. I also enjoy playing the gongs and working with sacred music, as well as doing yoga. I don’t do all of these practices in one day, but my morning practice is pretty steady. And if I don’t do breathwork, I feel the difference.
How has your spiritual practice supported you through the shifts in your life?
There’s no way I would’ve made it through law school without meditation, especially since I hated every day of it. And there’s absolutely no way I would’ve stuck with screenwriting without breathwork. You put your heart and soul into each script. And if it doesn’t sell, that’s devastating. You feel like you want to quit and never write again. Well, try doing that ten times. Or more. I needed a practice like breathwork to move through all the anger, resentment, grief and insecurities that are part and parcel of being a writer. Or any artist for that matter. And when I broke up with my fiancé, I got really depressed. Breathwork and the healing community saved me, as well as spiritual books like Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth,” Michael Singer’s “The Untethered Soul,” and Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist.” Recently I’ve been through some ups and downs, and kirtan has been my way to move through it all. Every obstacle and is an opportunity to learn a lesson, discover who you really are, shed the parts of you that no longer serve you, and step more fully into your dharma (path). From my experience, daily spiritual practice is the key.
As a 180-Pro, you know that 180s can be in all areas of our lives - from career and geography to relationships and perspective shifts. Is there a 180 you've gone through that has been particularly powerful for you recently? What was it and how has it impacted your path?
Before I went to India in November last year, a friend, who recently got back, told me that everything in my life would change when I returned. Those words went in one ear and out the other. I had the most amazing adventure of my life in India, including a beautiful romance. And when I returned, everything changed. I moved to New Mexico, bought a house in the mountains, decided to remodel the house, had a big conflict with a couple of my best friends, lost my grandmother, fell out of love, and nearly lost my mind thinking I made a huge mistake moving. It was a really tough time. I was so depressed, I didn’t want to get out of bed. My spiritual practices were gone. It took some deep inner reflection and getting back to my daily practice to break out of it. And I did. And now I feel like I’ve shed my skin and I’m in a whole new and exciting space. Another friend reminded me that I bought the biggest Shiva murti (statue) I could find in India, brought it home and put it in my bedroom (which is not advisable). Shiva is the Hindu god of destruction, transformation, and rebirth.
You're also a gongmaster, can you speak to how sound therapy supports the inner-work that 180 requires? Are there other tools you've discovered that you recommend for those doing the work of 180?
Sound healing is a fascinating new field and it’s based in science. Recent sound studies have proven the healing effects of certain sound frequencies on the physical as well as mental and emotional bodies. And I’ve seen and experienced healing on the spiritual level as well. And the best part about sound healing? You don’t have to do anything! Just lie down and be open to receiving the healing sound waves of the gongs. After twenty minutes or so, your whole body begins to vibrate. And if you combine it with breathwork? Watch out. Super powerful stuff. And fun! In addition to sound healing and breathwork, I recommend a basic sitting meditation, yoga, aerobic exercise where you get a good sweat going, kirtan, qi-gong, tapping, and anything else that works for you. The main thing is — do something! Because in order to successfully move through a 180 shift, you will come face-to-face with your inner demons (and maybe some outer ones!), and you’ll need all the tools in your toolbox.
Is it ever a bad move to go 180?
Haha! Can I get back to you on this? The short answer is no. The long answer is — no, but there will be times where you will second-guess your 180, possibly cry a little bit (or a lot), and be very tempted to turn around and go back. Don’t! At least not right away.
Major 180 shifts take time and involve battling your demons and facing all your shit. Naturally you will want to go back to your comfort zone and what feels safe. Try to resist that temptation. You are meant to deal with all the stuff that’s coming up, and it’s essential for your inner journey. And your outer journey is simply a reflection of your inner journey. Take your time. Call upon your resources. And make the full 180. After plenty of time has passed and you’re confident that you’ve stayed the course and learned your lessons, then it’s an okay time to go back. Because you won’t be the same person anymore. And that’s the most important part of the 180.
You've lived in Los Angeles your entire life until now. Share with us about your geographical 180 - what made you decide to do it and how did you choose where you would go?
I moved from Los Angeles to Santa Fe, New Mexico. I don’t know why. Just kidding. Sort’ve. For the last ten years, I’ve been traveling to New Mexico to go to a spiritual retreat led by David Elliott, a gifted energy healer and master teacher of breathwork and making 180 shifts. David lives near Albuquerque and over the years some members of the community have moved to Santa Fe and the surrounding areas because it’s an absolutely gorgeous part of the country. For the last few years, I’d go to the retreat and then stay with friends for a few days after. And then one day my friends showed me a house for sale that was more beautiful than I ever imagined for my first house. And the kicker is that it was affordable. I couldn’t afford anything close to what I’d like in Los Angeles. But New Mexico is much less expensive. Plus, Santa Fe has the most beautiful sky I’ve ever seen. And life is more simple. There’s more space. People are more friendly. There are four real seasons. Coming from LA, which has beautiful sunny weather (always), I’ve wanted to experience the snow, and the winters are gorgeous and yet mild in New Mexico. It snows, but then it’s sunny out! I got tired of the congestion in Los Angeles. Tired of the craziness and the mania, and the fact that so many people are unhappy and constantly chasing their tails. I needed to get off the hamster wheel and try living in a place that’s more relaxed and has a more natural flow to life. I’ve learned something though.
The aspects that make us want to move are things that we are meant to deal with inside ourselves. Running away to the Himalayas (or Santa Fe) is not going to change what’s going on inside yourself.
So while I’m glad I made the move, I wish I had that perspective before I moved. And at the same time, I know I’m exactly where I need to be. For now at least.
Are there any mantras or quotes you live by?
"We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the life that is waiting for us." -- Joseph Campbell
"There's no room for playing small when you commit your life to miracles." -- Gabrielle Bernstein
"Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen." -- Robert Bresson
“Where awareness goes, energy flows.” -- David Elliott
“Love everyone. Feed everyone. Serve everyone.” -- Neem Karoli Baba
“Sing louder!” -- Govind Das
If you could go back to a previous version of Aaron and share something with him, how old would he be and what would you share?
20 years old. Junior in college at UC Berkeley. Deciding between taking the L-SAT and applying to law school, or applying to film school. After 20-year-old-Aaron gets off the phone listening to his dad argue in support of the law school path, I would tell him, “Your dad loves you very much. And he’s sharing with you what he’s experienced in his life. And he’s scared of what it means to be an artist in this world and he wants you to be safe and successful. This isn’t your Dad’s life, it’s yours. Trust your own instincts. Go to film school. You’re gonna be alright."
What challenge would you issue to the 180 community that might help spark creativity and positive change?
Try breathwork. And sound healing. And kirtan. Listen. See what comes up for you. Write it down. One day you will get a clear message about your 180 shift. Do it. And don’t look back. And in the meantime, think of someone in your circle of friends and family who’s trying to make a 180. Call them and ask them how you can help. Serving people is a circle. If you start by helping someone, you will get the help you need too. Always. Be patient. And have fun!
How can the 180 community support you?
The best way to support me is to support yourself and your 180, as well as those around you. And come try out breathwork, the gongs and kirtan when I’m in town (or find classes/groups near you). If you feel like subscribing to my e-newsletter, please do so through my website. And of course, if you like this interview, please “share” it :)