Lorenz Sell from Sutra.co Interviews Roman
posted by Roman Hanis on July 18th, 2018
Lorenz Sell is the founder and CEO of Sutra.co, an online communication platform designed to facilitate intentional, meaningful conversation among smaller groups of people. Roman and Lorenz discuss creating a safe container for vulnerability and transformation, indigenous wisdom and the importance of confrontation in community. Listen to the podcast on the excellent Sutra.co blog, or read the transcription below.
Lorenz: Hello Roman, welcome to the show!
Roman: Hey Lorenz, great to see you.
Lorenz: Good to see you. Your work has been a tremendous influence in my life and I’m always so touched to participate in the retreats you host. And I’d like to start there, just to delve into the origin of this work you do and how you come to it and maybe just a bit about the early days?
Roman: Well, in the early days, the initial motivation was to deal with a health condition considered incurable in Western medicine, which eventually brought me to the Amazon rainforest where I spent years with the indigenous communities and tribes, getting to know how they live together in everyday life. This eventually inspired me to create something like it, adopting some indigenous social technologies in our modern world to see how that works.
Lorenz: And what was your first retreat experience like? Did you decide you want to start bringing people together in this way and what was the evolution of the process in the beginning?
Roman: In the beginning, after the first year of living with indigenous people, initially lived with indigenous people for three years, but after the first year, I became inspired to design a certain bridge-like process. Most people in the West aren’t really ready to experience how indigenous communities live. It’s a very different mentality and lifestyle, so learning how to bridge the indigenous way of being with our modern lifestyle brought me into a beginning. Initially, I did retreats in the Amazon rainforest and served as a cultural bridge, working alongside some indigenous people, simultaneously cultivating resonance and relatedness with participants; the same state of being indigenous communities cultivate.
Lorenz: When you first encountered people in this way, was there an exploratory process in terms of the specific activities and exercises you brought people, or right from the beginning did you know how you wanted it to be and that’s just how it was?
Roman: It’s a continuous exploratory process that continues to this day, and there we’re constantly saying that “everything’s perfect with infinite room for improvement” – that’s kind of our motto. We’re continuously seeing what works and what doesn’t, finding better ways of bringing the essence across.
Lorenzo: And what is “the essence”?
Roman: Well, the essence is a certain frequency that we cultivate when entering into deep relatedness, openness, receptivity, and shared-heart presence, so we work to bring that about with ancient, indigenous wisdom of how to be in community, and also more modern social technologies. So combining them, things become tangible and you can feel a certain frequency or elevated state of being in the sincerity and truthfulness. The more people cultivate this being, the more at ease with each other they become.
Lorenz: Is this integration with modern technologies and ancient wisdom something you’re pioneering or is it something you experienced elsewhere and decided you want to extend it. Because it sounds very novel to take these ancient approaches with a modern flavor.
Roman: Honestly, in the particular way we do it, I’ve not seen elsewhere. There might be something out there, but I’ve not seen it.
Lorenz: One of the things I really appreciate about your experience is the safe space. I walked into the retreat experience and relatively quickly you establish this incredible space for transformation. It’s really very simple: A consistent experience of being, and when you experience it really speaks to what you mentioned about resonance. Can you explain a little bit about how you architect such a safe-space experience?
Roman: Well, the intention is a big part of it. What is my intention and how am I not just facilitating this for others, but I’m just as much a part of it as everyone else? I wish to experience this state in a way that supports everyone’s learning and exploration, including my own, and intend to bring focus into the process as a cornerstone of this work.
Lorenz: And how else do you work with people, to prepare them for the experience?
Roman: Well, what I find useful is to share my intention with people and why I’m there, right? Why I’m doing this work. So the essence is to make it relevant so it’s not something people are just checking out that someone else is doing, but how meaningful it is in their own lives with the issues they experience? Through this engaged, shared interest and focus on the relevance of the work, a safe container opens for people to enter and see people are not fooling around, and that it’s essential, relevant and useful for everyone.
So, it’s essentially establishing a dialogue with people and connecting with them, and bringing it down to a practical and embodied experience.
Lorenz: How do you establish the dialogue?
Roman: Well, personally I start by having a talk and relating to the topic at hand, ensuring that it’s not something I just do as a repetition, but that it’s fresh and alive and spontaneous and meaningful in the moment. So from me, it’s really being present with everyone and being able to relate to them.
Lorenz: You mentioned this becoming embodied with people, to start with a dialogue and then have it becoming bodied. What does that mean?
Roman: Well, this is where some of the indigenous wisdom comes in. We’ll do different practices and ceremonies, perhaps breathwork, meditation, and something that allows people to immerse into a state of being and share an experienced that serves as a rite of passage for people to relate more closely.
Lorenz: How do you know people are ready for that? Is it just because they walk in the door?
Roman: Well that’s definitely a factor, and right from the start, during my initial dialogue with the group, I communicate very directly in terms of what’s going to happen, how I relate to it, what’s relevant in my own experience and that the focus is on bringing everything to the surface, not avoiding anything, being able to face oneself fully and uncover deep wounds, with the tools and practices to work through them.
When people hear that, if they’re not ready, they let me know and we can work with people on an individual basis. Also, this work isn’t for everyone and I don’t try to please the masses. It’s totally natural that some will resonate and others won’t, and it’s my responsibility to bring it across so people can recognize it. The sooner the better.
Lorenz: Is there a way you set expectations? Are there expectations when people come? I would imagine expectations are part of this safe-space container. What does that look like from your side as far as creating the container is concerned?
Roman: Well, there are a set of community agreements that we’ve been developing for several years, and are essentially a series of pointers which people often resonate with. It’s a series of points to practice when in the shared space. The agreements are essentially facets of a single agreement, pointing towards a state of being. For example:
- Taking responsibility for one’s own experience
- Speaking from I rather than we to avoid the herd mentality
- Being transparent
- Honoring the true self
- Seeing every situation as an opportunity for learning and revolution, seeing that there is no wrong but rather ignorance of all wisdom, and that ignorance is not bad, it’s just not knowing any better, no gossiping.
So those are some facets of the agreements we work with. By agreeing, we can establish a safe container that allows us to confront each other in a more direct and harmonious way.
Lorenz: At least in my work with groups, inevitably challenging people sometimes show up. What do you do about that and how do you work with charging people when they show up in the the group experience?
Roman: Challenging people are the essence of our work, so we really appreciate them. They help evolution and cultivation of essential human qualities such as patience, tolerance and discernment. It’s inevitable that in any community conflict will arrive sooner or later. It’s wishful thinking that communities will live happily ever after with neutral goals and everything will work out. Experience speaks otherwise. Even if there’s a mutual goal, conflict arises, so it’s essential to prepare for that, and learn how to turn conflicts into creative friction.
Lorenz: And how do you do that? Because I think this is at the heart of expectations and around community, I love the way you said that inevitably conflicts will arise. It’s not like you’re looking for this perfect community with perfect people where everything is always harmonious, but you should really expect conflict. The difference is how you approach it. So when you’re on retreat and you have someone disturbing and affecting everyone else, how do you work with that?
Roman: The cultivation of transparency and not avoiding confrontation. Whereas in other communities, everyone runs around telling everyone how special they are, trying to act like everything is fine, passive aggressive vibes are created. Sometimes you can feel it, like that expression “cutting the air with a knife”, right? Certain issues are avoided to such an extent, an explosion happens. And this is something to watch out for, not to keep things accumulating on hold, but learning how to confront issues at their conception, having different tools, practices, agreements, intentions, and agreeable attitudes to work with. So something useful is established criteria that confrontation is essential. Then we can learn to confront each other productively. Then we see this criteria for a confrontation becoming a steady, grounded presence. If someone is unable to maintain that, we offer mediation. Myself and other community members have trained over the years to mediate conflict and step into the midst of confrontation, not taking anyone’s side. It’s not about seeing who’s right or wrong, but seeing the lessons we can all learn from those situations.
Lorenz: Sounds like a type of dialogue process?
Roman: Sure, it’s a dialogue process, simultaneously about taking time, a few deep breaths, leading things neutrally and not entering conflicts emotionally disturbed, instead cultivating objectivity.
Lorenz: You know, as we’re talking about this, I’m curious about your own personal journey as someone able to hold this kind of space. In the process of running these retreats and building community, what kind of personal and internal challenges have you encountered and overcome?
Roman: One of the main challenges I’ve encountered is being defensive. If someone brings something critical up, there’s this automatic response of blocking it with defensiveness and justification, so that’s been a great catalyst for my own growth. I’ve learned how to take things in and not defend or avoid or justify and really appreciate whatever comes my way. That’s become a treasury of creative experiences.
Lorenz: Is that just a process and holding internal space, not reacting and observing what comes up from what comes in?
Roman: Absolutely, yes, and seeing if there’s a charge to whatever’s being brought to me then there is also truth to that. So, if someone shows something to me and I have a strong reaction, it must be valid. Being open to that alchemical pressure cooker process and being vulnerable and honest with people about my own process rather than being an outsider without anything to work on. Just that vulnerability has been a powerful catalyst for the transformation work others, seeing that I’m also human, not just pretending for some mundane 9-to-5 job.
Lorenz: How do you cultivate vulnerability in the community environment when you aspire to have people connected deeper levels?
Roman: This is where the ancient technologies and indigenous wisdom and practices come in. These might be breathwork practices or sacred plant ceremonies that tend to shatter elaborate self-deceptions. The practices are also part of the indigenous inner transformation process that we frame with Jungian transpersonal psychology to examine the life blueprint emerging in someone’s dreams, for example. Then the person becomes essentially entirely transparent to the group, with nothing to hide. That’s quite vulnerable. People can show their emotions and work through them. That may not be the main indicator but certainly connecting with one’s emotions and learning how to work with them is a big step in that direction.
Lorenz: So this is emotional intelligence?
Roman: It’s emotional intelligence that can start with catharsis, with emotional catharsis
Lorenz: What does emotional catharsis mean?
Roman: Emotional catharsis is from suppressed content. So many feelings and emotions are left unacknowledged over the years, bottled up and, and finally will pop like a champagne bottle, often in an uncontrollable process, finally allowing everything out at once. Once out, its possible for awareness to step in and be raised, working with emotions in a more harmonious manner.
Lorenz: I get the feeling this kind of emotional suppression is a widespread condition in today’s world?
Roman: Yes, definitely
Lorenz: And it sounds like a lot of your work revolves around helping others see that and release it in a form of emotion catharsis, as you’re saying?
Roman: Catharsis is not a necessity and it doesn’t happen to everyone. But even if it’s just one individual tapping into themselves in such a powerful way, that allows everyone else to connect with themselves on deeper levels.
Lorenz: Is this a prerequisite for authentic and deep human connection?
Roman: Definitely it’s good to be able to relate to each other on more than just the conceptual level, which is how modern society tends to prefer.
Lorenz: Is it a prerequisite for me to have internal emotional intelligence to connect more authentically and deeply with other people?
Roman: Yes. And of course, it’s not black and white, and there are many layers of connection. Initially it may start just seeing someone else connect more deeply with themselves and then gradually starting to relate more to oneself in that way, developing a relationship.
Lorenz: And this goes back to what we were talking about frequency and heart-presence. I imagine that many people deal with emotional challenges or depression in this ongoing journey of emotional intelligence. And so, I wonder what this process of cultivating presence with oneself and accepting that in relationship to just connecting with other people through that journey.
Roman: Yeah you know, making a commitment to being vulnerable with oneself. Right now we’re coming to the end of our tour through the United States, doing workshops and retreats. I had people come to me and thank me for sharing this work because apparently there’s been something of an epidemic in America of suicides, violence, and school shootings, and I’m sure in other parts of the world too. So people would thank me for doing this work because it’s so meaningful in the face of that. Some of those people had friends who committed suicide that they didn’t even know had issues because people are wearing such crafty masks in society and everyone pretends like everything is fine, simultaneously experiencing deep issues without anyone to turn to, because they think that everyone else is fine and they’re the only so they have to hide it.
This work allows people to be vulnerable and pierce through the elaborate self-deception, beginning to establish a framework and foundation to deal with issues, seeing that they’re not by themselves and then find motivation to resolve it. It was very powerful for many people and that’s what inspires me to keep doing this work.
Lorenz: What could people do as a simple way to begin approaching some of these problems? Not everyone could go to a retreat or a workshop, so what are simple ways people can cultivate this kind of self-awareness or help others do that?
Roman: Well a very simple way is just to dedicate time to oneself everyday. We dedicate time to so many distractions in life, so instead dedicate a little time to get to know oneself daily, whether it’s half an hour, or 10-15 minutes, just sit quietly and breathe and acknowledge everything that comes up in the mind and the body on the emotional level, and establish that intimate relationship with oneself, rather than constantly looking outwards.
Lorenz: What would you say to someone involved in creating an experience for others in this way, whether it’s a retreat, workshop, or a learning or community experience?
Roman: Without working with one’s own misery and suffering, it’s not possible to relate to others and have compassion for them. So it’s essential to face oneself and, in my experience, this works works from the inside out, not the outside in.
Lorenz: You mentioned your own community. What does that look like? What does the word mean for you now?
Roman: Community means friends who come together to encourage and humbly share the highest potential with each other within the foundation of a common vision to bring that benefit to others and continue to rejoice in the happiness of others. It’s not just living for one’s own happiness because that’s very limited, but to reciprocate that farther and farther. In the indigenous language of Quechua it’s called Ayni, the right way of living where everything is continuously in connection with everything else. In the community of friends and helpers on the way towards greater happiness, this is something that really resonates with me.
Lorenz: And your community right now, is a community of people that have participated in your retreats?
Roman: It’s the community of people who have taken part in retreats, workshops or even dear friends I’ve known over the years and have experienced their revolution and vice versa. There’s a recognition of the shared spark of truth as a state of being rather than a philosophical concepts.
Lorenz: And these people are geographically all over the place, right?
Roman: Yes, all over the world.
Lorenz: You mentioned you’re concluding your of the US right now. Are there other ways these people are connected to each other outside retreats?
Roman: We’re working on that and have online platforms and groups where people congregate and we encourage communication. So we have a group on Facebook, for example, where people come together from all over the world, from different types of workshops, and even though some have never met, they’ve all connected to this frequency of being.
Lorenz: Do you find that works? I mean, do you see a lot of engagement among your online groups?
Roman: There’s always room for improvement, so we’re constantly developing new ways of doing that. We’re working on an online interactive course which will serve as a way for people to continue engaging and help people towards those ways I shared earlier to face themselves on deeper levels, providing the tools to work through whatever issues arise. And of course I’m very inspired by the Sutra platform and look forward to collaborating with you more!
Lorenz: You mention the word “being” a number of times. I love that word, but I’m often challenged to describe what it means. Maybe you could shed some light on that?
Roman: Being is something I think can’t be described in words as such, but it can be pointed to. It’s a certain state of easiness, of suchness, not being someone or something, not trying to do something, accomplish anything or get somewhere, but to just be. Of course, that being relates very closely to a spacious heart-centered presence.
Lorenz: And what does that mean?
Roman: It’s all-encompassing but not bound by anything. We’ve all experienced it in the womb, the connection of unconditional love with the mother. It doesn’t matter if the child kicks and screams, unconditional love is always available. This is something potentially inherent within everyone. Everyone has the capacity for unconditional love, no matter how big the pain or how great the frustration, the capacity for unconditional love is always greater. This is something that current society teaches us not to trust, but to hide from, resulting in the prevalent fear and scarcity mentalities. If you look at nature, it’s easy to see that there’s unlimited abundance and scarcity is a man-made concept.
So all of the tools and practices and perspectives I cultivate in my life and organization, they all point to unconditional abundance, and that’s found in the source of creative potential, which is the heart. And the practices help people to engage with that and do things step-by-step. Of course, it can be overwhelming to face one’s greatest traumas right away so instead, step-by-step learning to verify how meaningful that original state is that we’ve all experienced in the mother’s womb and as a child, but that we’ve all forgotten about and pushed away because of certain conditions that were not supportive of it.
Lorenz: I really resonate with what you’re saying and it makes me think how one of the challenges of teaching this kind of material is that it isn’t necessarily intellectual. You can read about it in a book, but it’s not something that’s necessarily at that level. It’s an experience of being, it’s an embodied experience, and I think that’s very interesting that the work that you do and really the work I’m trying to do with Sutra, is the idea that there are some things you can learn from a book that certain things you learn through direct embodied experience. It may be like you said; it can be pointed to and described but it’s true the direct experience that is had..
Roman: Very much so. And this is why community is so useful. If it’s just me by myself, it can be much harder to face those in dark corners. In community, we encourage each other and learn how to be vulnerable in each other’s presence, and see that it’s a very natural experience, gradually learning to be more stable in it before bringing it out into the world, even with people and environments not necessarily supportive of it, but standing one’s ground in the face of others who may be hiding from themselves because they don’t know any better. And in that way, learning how to bring positive change through our own process. In my experience, this is very essential.
Lorenz: I’ve found in my own journey and there are periods of this kind of self-awareness, seeing myself just a little better and becoming open to growth. I believe I’ve observed the same phenomenon in many others. The moment a person gets it, they somehow become more receptive. I’m wondering if you’ve seen something similar and if there’s some way to accelerate it, or does everyone just go through their own journey at their pace?
Roman: You know, you can bring the horse to water but you can’t make them drink. Everyone matures at their own pace and it’s not really possible to speed that up. Nature has its own cycles and rhythms and lot of this work is about trusting the natural cycles and rhythms of an organism, and body, and psyche and seeing how my maturation takes place in that way.
Lorenz: You mentioned the word humility earlier and I’m wondering if that’s also something that’s part of its own cycle or if it’s something that can only be taught or modeled?
Roman: Well, life itself is the greatest teacher and sooner or later, life humbles everyone. Also, there are indigenous societies and wisdom that patterns life, facilitating these qualities in a more accessible way so we don’t have to be humbled in very crude ways, such as a conflict or disease, but instead we learn how to be receptive to nature’s messages before they get really loud, or overpowering. In my own life, at times, I was finding my way by banging my head against a wall, but learned how to be more fluid, receptive, open, humble, and listen. Because with humility comes listening, and the bridge I mentioned earlier is about the initial step, even learning how to learn. Before learning from these societies, a certain attitude, mood, or state of being must be cultivated that relates a lot to humility, because it’s the ability to open up, rate? That empty cup. This is a big part of it.
So often people have groundbreaking experiences when they bridge a certain threshold and suddenly everything they thought was real shows itself as illusion. Openness, listening and receptivity arises from that. Some people have it through car accidents, some from illnesses, others the loss of a loved one, others entheogenic plant ceremonies. The nature of these experiences is to shatter the personality construct, allowing us to see there’s more to us than the personality, more to us than the broken record of the story running through the head, allowing openness, a gap in the continuity of conditioned existence.
Lorenz: What is the role of commitment in this process for the person on this journey?
Roman: Commitment is crucial. What we’ve been talking about right now is having some challenges in life and if someone doesn’t have a big enough challenges, they won’t want to get to the root of them. So yeah, if someone experiences an occasional bad mood but overall everything is working out and they can keep enjoying all those instant gratifications available, great.
But then, at a certain point, there’s a surprise exam that life brings where suddenly none of those instant gratifications matter anymore. And then seeing how certain issues keep coming up, and there’s this constant dissatisfaction and misery that I simply can’t put a Band-Aid on any longer that keeps coming back in my face… sooner or later, this comes up for everyone. It’s best that it doesn’t come on the deathbed, but there comes a point where it’s not possible to run any more, when for me, that’s how I found commitment; when certain issues are no longer avoidable and I cannot lie to myself any longer, I cannot pretend everything is fine and I need to get to the core of it and I’m not satisfied with anything else, unable to compromise. Commitment naturally arises in the face of adversity, so the more honest we can be with ourselves, the more committed we are to resolution.
Lorenz: Is an aspect of community that it can support this kind of commitment? Because I think on one level, this type of commitment is a very personal choice, no one else can commit to your personal process, only you can. In some sense that’s a lonely road because everyone’s personal journeys is extremely personal. What is the role of others in that?
Roman: You’re very right, it is a lonely road. And at the same time, we’re not alone on that road because it’s a lonely road for everyone, where everyone is living with themselves continuously. And so the community in my life has been a powerful catalyst and is not just any community – it’s the intentional community, the community of people who come together and really be honest with each other and themselves.
And that’s an amazing environment to live in where there’s no hiding, no avoidance, where we can serve as mirrors to each other’s blind spots. Yeah so that becomes a very powerful catalyst for the evolution because if I live by myself, my personality and conditioned ego finds all kinds of ways to avoid issues that living in community brings to the surface, such as the lack of integrity and commitment and disturbing emotions and everything starts to come up, and that becomes the fertile soil for the essence to blossom.
Lorenz: Is that the process of just learning how to hold space for yourself and others?
Roman: Absolutely. Yes, that’s a big part of it.
Lorenz: When you first started doing the work, was the intention to build a community, or were you thinking that at all at the time?
Roman: Initially, the intention was to share the benefits I’ve experienced in the indigenous cultures that I’d lived through my own process. So initially, it was just to share the benefit and then seeing how that benefit can truly be shared in a powerful container of intentional community that is naturally created.