This moment of crossing the threshold, we’re meant to be witnessed through it, we’re meant to be covered and flanked and swaddled and supported through it. And part of the work that the doula does is help design for that.
Welcome to AWAKEN, a podcast presented by the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. That was the voice of Latham Thomas and I am your host, Laurie Anderson. In this 10-part series, we explore the dynamic path to enlightenment and what it means to wake up. We’ll hear from authors, artists, wisdom bearers and Buddhist teachers, people who have experienced a shift in their perspectives on life throughout their personal journey. This podcast is inspired by the exhibition, Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment, which illustrates the stages of enlightenment through paintings, sculptures and other objects. We use these artworks as a jumping off point to better understand the paths our guests have been on and where they are going.
In this episode, we explore how a journey towards awakening might begin. We hear from master birth doula and world renowned wellness leader, Latham Thomas, as she shares how one prepares for birth, her own story of birthing her child and how she navigates the way the body can act as a portal to the spirit world. As Latum shares her story, she contemplates a painting of a Mandala. In a journey to awakening from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, a mandala is a meditation tool that we can use to guide us through our travels. When a Buddhist practitioner visualizes a mandala, it’s like they are giving birth to the whole world.
Mandala is so important when we think about anchoring ourselves in a space where we don’t have anything tangible to guide us and the visualization practice can be very helpful because it not only allows us to use all aspects, whether it’s the mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical aspects of ourselves to work together. But also it helps us live into an experience and prepare ourselves for an experience that will be embodied. Right. Many I would say are unpacking trauma and uncovering aspects of ourselves that we haven’t been able to fully address and things that we’re carrying that we didn’t even build up in this life, but that we inherited. We have these tools that help us to assess a path forward. What it also can do is, allows us to also unpack, right? And so if I know that the vision, if I’m holding a vision, right, if I have a visualization, I’m holding a vision for an experience or, um, uh, an intention, whatever that may be, a dedication, whatever that may be. I also have to confront myself and interrogate like what I’m taking with me as I travel, like, what do I need to unpack spiritually? What do I need to release? And it gives me an opportunity to also assess what’s here. What needs to stay? What needs to be, let go.
You know, I grew up being able to have exposure to various world religions. I went to temples and masjids and my mom took me to church because I really liked it. Um, she did not like church. And so, you know, she would let me go places though that I could worship. I was really into it. And I was like, oh, look at that really cool building. What’s that? She’s like, oh, that’s a temple. I was like, can we go? And she sort of recognized that and then would put me in position to be able to like, explore. And so, just being exposed to so many ways of being in prostration of just devotion that I was astounded by. I just had a point of view or entry point that was really open. And I would say was fostered. Even though my mother was not religious, she didn’t discourage me from having experiences that were both, I would say, tethered in institutionalized religion and into sort of mystical traditions. I believe all places can be holy, but I believe what really makes a place holy is sort of the intention that people bring when they show up there. I’m bringing the same type of energy. And then when you enter that space, you feel something. I think it’s physically laced within that place and etched within the walls and in the air of those places. For many people, it can be overwhelming. Sometimes people have to leave, they have to walk out or they pass out or they’re have overwhelm. Because it’s charged with every experience of every individual that came there before you.
I remember when I was like maybe in third grade and I was on the playground and there was this big tree and we were playing dodgeball at the time. And I was on the playground having to go get the ball that went really far out the way. And when I went over there, I remembered being visited by a spirit. And it was one that I recognized and I remember being like, okay, this is weird. But also I wasn’t afraid. There was a feeling of, oh, hi, like, oh, it’s you. And I can’t say how I recognized, but what I categorized it as was like, one of my mother’s grandparents who I never met. The energy felt like ancient energy, you know, that had come to see me. And I left, and I remember telling my mother and you know, she believed me. She didn’t tell me, or that’s not possible or you didn’t have that experience. And so I just feel like there were so many entry points to having this tether between like, what’s really part of the human lived experience and then this sort of ethereal or spiritual experience. And I think it took a while for me to sort of drop into like this Cartesian thought, this idea that we’re bound to our bodies and it’s our mind and our bodies that live in this vehicle. And we travel through life in this vehicle and then our lives end and that’s it. That’s sort of what we’re taught through the Western framework. And I was exposed to so many traditions that basically flipped that concept. You know, we are not our bodies and that we are not bound to our bodies and that we could leave our bodies and spirit travels within and between bodies. And so I think having that as a frame, growing up, allowed me to be more open to experiences that I would probably now call spiritual, but I just thought it was life.
I had the same experience at the birth of my son, where I was also visited. It was again a soul recognition fully. Like I recognized the spirit of who was there and I connected with that energy and knew that it was my ancestors that were with me in the room, although I couldn’t name them. I did not see them first, I felt them first. I felt heat, actually. I felt really hot. It was like a presence was beaming warmth onto me and it was a presence from above. I just felt this like sheet of warmth come over me. And I was like, oh my gosh, I’m really, really warm. And I felt that warmth and I was like, oh my God, I’m about to ignite. And then I felt watched, but it wasn’t like being watched in a creepy way or being observed. It was being witnessed. Like I felt like it was safe watch. It was benevolent watching. I then looked up. What I saw was multiple forms and they were human forms and I couldn’t recognize the faces, but there were faces and there were bodies. They had these robes, kind of, which I recall the patterns being with red and burgundy tones, like really deep, rich, like blood in tone. And they were cloaked. You didn’t see like feet, you just really saw garment gathered and so you could just see sort of the head and neck. You don’t see legs and feet. You just see hovering. I mean, I can remember the shape that was around me was like a horse shoe, like a half U shape. And so when I looked up, it was over me and I could not believe what I was seeing. And then I was able to point up and then say, I want to go there.
And I felt myself lift out of my body and I watched my son be born and I was fully alive and fully awake. I really even can’t believe it happened because it’s like, not even possible what I was able to see from the physical position I was in. Everybody remembers that moment from that day. I think that also was really reassuring because when my son, his dad was like, everything you said was like happening. And that’s why they were like, looking around confused because they’re like, how can she see this from where she is? Right. She can’t see this from where, like, she’s not physically able to do that with her body. I think that that was also the other real magic that unfolded for us was that there was possibility beyond what the body could do, but, you know, spirit like moves beyond the body, right? And so it affirmed again, a set of beliefs that I already had, which is that we’re not bound to our bodies and that I didn’t have to believe that like, just because an experience is happening through me, that I couldn’t also ascend and, and be, and by the way, I didn’t plan for that, but it, but it occurred and I wasn’t like afraid. And so I was thankful to have had context so that I would not be afraid. Because I think that if I hadn’t had the sort of framing from African Atlantic spiritual traditions and Eastern philosophy to like, orient me, then I probably would have been like, what was that experience, right?
It was like this amazing high I’ve never done drugs before. And the feeling was just like, what I would imagine people go searching for. Copious amounts of like DMT and PEA and Oxytocin and a cocktail, right? Like a perfect cocktail of hormones to facilitate this sense of safety and security and belonging and trust and transcendence. And also there were endorphins. So I didn’t feel pain. I, you know, I just felt like, I felt this total oneness and connection to everything that felt like I was connected to everything. I have the language to explain that now. I know through science, how that happens now. But I also know through spirit, how that happens and can say it and not feel like, oh, this thing happened that I have to keep to myself because it’s a rare experience. But so many people have these experiences that they don’t feel comfortable talking about because of the way that we frame the spiritual as if, as if it’s not supposed to be a part of your waking living life. And it is, it’s supposed to be a part of the conversation and dialogue you have with the divine, is that you’re in constant contact, you’re in constant relationship, you’re in constant dialogue with, with spirit. And the more that you, I think appreciate and acknowledge these instances and like, give them space in your life, then I feel like you have a deeper connection that can provide fortitude. And for me, it’s really actually tethering and provides strength for me.
I believe that I was protected and that they were there to help me bear witness, but also to, I would say awaken me to the next phase of my work, right? Like this is where you’re supposed to be in your work actually- is to do this. Like we’re about to let you see what’s possible, right? The type of experience that you could have, but not only that, which you can offer up to other people.
Uh, having that experience definitely informed the rest of my life’s path. I believe that it set me on a path to really want to support people in reclaiming the safety and sanctity of the birth experience. It is designed to be a trance. It is designed to be a meditation. Like birth itself is a meditation. How you’re born is really important. How you’re born into parenthood is really important. How you pass on and transition to the afterlife is really important. And we really don’t take good care of people on those ends of life. Like we just, with our sort of current medical model, we make everything sanitized and we take out the spirit and the sex and the mystery and the magic and the humanity of, of these expenses to provide service that’s clinical. And so like all of those things for safety, we really compromise experience. And so people are not having these transcendent events in hospitals. I mean, you can obviously like I’ve, I’ve attended some births that have been incredible in hospitals, but they’re not designed to deliver that experience.
All of our human and spiritual adaptations that make it so that we can have a transcendent birth experience, those systems, you know, like the limbic system, which is the emotional motor system, the four hormonal systems that are active during labor and delivery are all under threat with our current medical model, right? Like we can not be in a state of meditation in our current medical model. And so I think for me, what is most important, obviously when we’re talking about, you know, protecting lives and especially in a country where we have poor maternal health outcomes, one of the only nations in the developed world that has an increasing maternal mortality rate compared to other countries, spend the most money per capita on health insurance. And yet we have women dying during childbirth and a country where black women are four to five times more likely than white women to die during childbirth or due to childbirth related causes. It’s unacceptable that this is how we’re living. Part of the work is obviously advocating, educating people to have the best experiences.
But also, I don’t know people to just, to survive their birth. I want people to have transcendent birth experiences.It’s like part of your birthright to have joy and to have transcendence and to have witnessing and this moment of crossing the threshold ritual, you know. Ceremony and celebration, we’re meant to be witnessed through it, we’re meant to be covered and flanked and swaddled and support sorted through it. And part of the work that the doula does is help design for that. And so that’s what I’m thinking about. I’m thinking about the spiritual needs of the birthing person, as well as the baby that’s making their way Earth side. I’m thinking about how you’re going to recall the experience, what stories you’re going to tell. I’m thinking about the memory that you hold and what that entails as much as I’m thinking about the day of and how to prepare you. I’m thinking about what’s on the other side of that experience as well. And so that moment for me, definitely imprinted me along this journey. And there were other things too, but I would say that was probably one of the bigger signals that I was supposed to move along. This path.
What’s most important in a birth experience is being able to ascend out of your thinking brain and move into a primal state of being. It’s important to be able to enter into an altered state of consciousness and to move out of this beta brainwave flow and move into like alpha and feta, which are, uh, dreamlike states, but also associated with meditation, daydreaming, doodling, aha moments, you know, these sort of bridges of consciousness. And then surrender is only possible if we feel safety. And so once safety is granted and then we can move into a place of actual surrender. And so what we’re asking people to do now is literally the impossible. We’re asking people to surrender, but we’re not guaranteeing safety. Like we’re asking people to trust the process, but they enter into places where they don’t even have, they’re not recognizing their dignity. They’re not recognized in their desires and their basic human needs even. And so we really need to focus on that so that people can have the experience that mother nature really outlined for us. And so what we’ve done to birth when we institutionalized it is that we’ve siphoned all of that magic out and made it nearly impossible for people to have these experiences inside of these settings.
Babies are born on their birthdays, right? And like you can’t control when, you don’t know that, that’s sorta some of the magic that comes in. We don’t know when it’s going to happen, but we know it’s going to happen. The control comes from the surrender, you know, when you allow yourself to soften and to be at ease. There’s great control in that. There are things that we can’t control that are happening through our body. The only way to be in relationship with that experience is to be in surrender.
When we can be in a place where we sort of relax our bodies, we trust regardless of the outcome, by the way. If we can be in a state of ease and trust that this is the way and that my body knows the way.
If there’s a moment when it doesn’t, guess what! There’s professionals here, we will course correct, right? I think when you have that as a, as a lens and a frame to work from, it can prepare you better. We’re never really ready for that moment. And, and then it comes and you’re like, wow, you have to step into it. And the only way out is to go in.
Embracing the unknown and surrendering without the guarantee of knowing the outcome, can be a scary process. In a way it’s like navigating darkness. But Latham helps guide us in the preparation needed to help us navigate that darkness.
Hmm, I love a conversation about darkness. I love visualization as a pathway to a better understanding where we’re going and how to get there. Darkness is divine. Darkness is imperative for growth. Darkness is the beginning. It’s also the everlasting, but darkness is the place from which all things grow. Like when we think about, um, a soil bed and like before we even see a really short stem or unfolding of a leaf, we’re seeing incredible root systems already in place before anything hits the surface for our eyes to see. Everything is underground, working. We look at the soil, there are earthworms and microorganisms that are working to keep things alive at the soil level. We think about the nighttime and all that happens in the darkness, growth happens when you go to sleep. Visions that we have during our nighttime sleep repair, our bodies actually go through repair cycles and grow and heal during the night time. And so that’s growth. Think about birth and what’s possible along a reproductive journey. There’s so much that’s unfolding and all we can see is that a belly is growing. It’s happening in the dark and a baby is born emerging into the light.
And there is always going to be shedding and destruction. And if we can see that as also holy, it’s really important as well. And so I would invite that new framing around darkness for folks to lean into more deeply and even the times we’re living through, which had been talked as dark times. And I always wonder what people mean by that. Like, what is dark about right now? Like what we see is awakening. We see people who are standing up to look at systems that have been forcing harm for many years and dismantling actively and divesting actively in systems that are creating harm in this world, institutions that are creating harm in this world. That is about awakening. And so I see the moment that we’ve been living through as painful as it has been for so many of us as one of, of awakening, as one of setting us on a path towards liberation, which you have to move through these cycles of waking up, like you have to rise up.
I actually had the blessing and the um, responsibility to work with someone who had endured early childhood sexual abuse. It was clear that they were not going to be a candidate for a hospital birth. It was clear that, you know, they needed to be able to deliver in a home birth environment. And I just want to preface this by saying that if someone has had an experience where they’ve been under trauma, you know, I’m not going to share anything graphic, but what I will say is that birth can amplify memory. It can trigger, uh, emotional and traumatic events that live in your tissues. Even if you feel like you’ve resolved these moments or come on the other side of these experiences or that you felt like you’ve processed certain trauma in your life, there’s this very peculiar way that experiences have of embedding themselves in our bodies. And so at the time of birth, if we’re not doing the work throughout the pregnancy to sort of prepare the person, and even when we are, these things can make it to the surface.
I was able to, to witness this person who could not, in the presence of her community at home, could not deliver the baby and had to go in hiding to do so. And so she went into a closet to do it, and it was like, you know, how cats disappear to give birth to their kittens? And then the next day you’re like, oh my God, there’s kittens! It was kind of like that. And that we knew she was in this small little room in the dark. She delivered her son and she came out and the way that she came out, it was like she was asking permission to come out almost, right. But then when she stood up, the shoulders were back, the chest was high and her head was held high and she was professing what she just did. And everybody was weeping and it was such a beautiful moment. And it would not have been possible in a setting where she wasn’t witnessed in her vulnerability. It would not have been possible in the setting where she could not retreat into darkness. It would not have been possible in a setting where she wasn’t seeing her dignity and also in her pain and the experience of, of her past that was sort of weaving into this birth experience. And so I say that to say that, in birth, all things are possible. This growth is possible. You know, transcendence is possible. Healing, healing is really possible.
I just give thanks that I could witness experiences like that. And there are so many, but I would say now, you know, when I do less births and I teach more, what I find is that this community of doula siblings that are in service of birth work that are serving birthing people, there is a, an awakening for them. They come in and the way that we sort of design the program, you know, it’s not linear. The learning is spiral. And so we’re really taking them on the same journey that we’re taking the burning person on, right. Their own birth. An initiation into birth work. And so I get to see them too. I get to see hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people on this journey together. And what it reminds me of is the thing that I cherish most, which is showing up to a place that has been charged with a certain energy that people show up with over and over and over. And the beauty of being able to show up to a space where people have the same intention and show up over and over and over is essentially a holy place. And so what I believe is that what we’re doing is restoring the faith in the body, restoring the sanctity of the birth process and we’re creating a holy place for birth workers.
Before we come to a close, Latham shares an extended vocal practice utilizing the vibration of sound.
When I wake up in the morning, the first thing that I do before really doing anything else is give Thanks. And it could be the smallest of things that I’m thinking about. Just the air that I feel in the room against my skin. It could be sort of the shape of the plants and the way that the sun is hitting the leaves. And this, my son coming in and asking me to make breakfast, like all these things that like, I really cherish really, you know, as I think about how time moves so quickly, especially in a period that we’ve lived through, where we’re inside and time is supposed to not be as accelerated when you’re being still, but somehow has found a way to move quickly, even during the quarantine. And so for me, that time where, you know, I’m not on email, I’m not on devices, I’m not, I don’t belong to anyone in that moment in terms of my, my time, I just, um, you know, allow for grace and move really slowly and intentionally. And so part of that’s like, you know, going to the roof of my house where I can experience the fresh air and the sunlight. And usually there is where I do like, a vocal practice, which is meditation. My sound practice is really important to me and grounds me and my body for the day. And I like to think about vocal toning in this way.
I grew up and would, you know, go in the kitchen and see my grandmother cooking. And she would just be humming. I just remember her always humming. As a child, I think I, I don’t think I thought anything much of it, except for, I guess that that’s what grandmothers do, right. I don’t think I understood at the time that, you know, that practice was actually soothing for her nervous system and that she did that to sort of help break up a lot of what she experienced in the world.
You don’t really need anything except for your own voice, which is amazing, right? Like you can use your own voice to be a conduit for healing. And it’s something I bring into the birth work I do to help people get comfortable with their voices so that they can use their voices to help release their babies. It’s something I bring into my own daily practice to remind myself, to use the power of my voice to speak truth, to use the power of my voice to be mighty, to use a power of my voice as an individual to serve the collective. What we’ll do to just align ourselves in spirit and in consciousness and in voice, would just be a brief practice where we’ll tone together.
I want you to think about how you can send your voice to a place distant, just with your intention and with the power of the vibration of sound that you can create within your body. Receive a breath in, through your nose and exhale, sigh it all out.
Inhale. Hmmmmm. Let’s try that together. Hmmmm
And so we’re going to add on. I want to invite you to place your right hand over your heart and your left hand over your belly. And you’re going to do another few rounds of toning, but this time I want you to release your voice. So your mouth and jaw will open for an “aahh” sound.
And so I’ll show you what that sounds like.
Receiving a breath (Inhale), “Aaaahhh.”
Receive a breath, “Aaahh”,
Just adding on together for the closing of this practice, I want to invite you to respond to my call.
I’ll release my voice, and I want you to repeat what you hear from my voice.
Receive a breath (Inhale). “Aaaahhh”.
(Inhale) Aahhhhh [change in pitch]. Hmmmmmm.
And just being here and the resonance of the sound and just noticing any sensations, any feeling, reflections, anything that’s coming up in your body or in your consciousness now. Noticing how you may feel physically, emotionally. What’s your spirit feel like now? And it, when it feels appropriate, you can gently open your eyes, start to bring life back into your body and into the space, right? And just move about what feels good for you and know that you can return to this practice. It’s important to engage in a practice that allows you to free your voice. That reminds you of the power of your voice, because this process is, and this practice is about awakening.
Many thanks to Latham Thomas for sharing your journey with us. We hope you enjoyed it for more information about our guest and to see images of the artwork in this episode, visit rubinmuseum.org/awakenpod. If you’re hungry to continue the conversation, join us on Instagram at @rubinmuseum. And if you’re enjoying this podcast, leave us a review, wherever you listen to podcasts. Leaving us a review is one of the best ways to help this podcast reach more listeners like you.
Awaken is produced by the Rubin Museum of Art in collaboration with Sound Made Public, and I’m your host, Laurie Anderson. This podcast is supported by Barbara Bowman, the Ellen Bayard Wieden Foundation, the Prospect Hill Foundation, Bob and Lois Baylis and public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Awaken is sponsored by Tricycle: the Buddhist Review, a print and digital magazine dedicated to making Buddhist teachings broadly available. Music for Awaken was created by Blue Dot Sessions. Podington Bear, Tendinite, and Siddhartha Corthus.
Don’t miss the next episode with musician, singer, songwriter and best-selling author, Amanda Palmer, talks about darkness and how she embraces it.
Thanks for listening.
For more information about our guests and to see images of the artwork in this episode, visit AWAKEN Podcast. If you’re hungry to continue the conversation, join us on Instagram at @rubinmuseum. And if you’re enjoying this podcast, leave us a review wherever you listen to podcasts. Leaving us a review is one of the best ways to help this podcast reach more listeners like you.
Awaken is produced by the Rubin Museum of Art in collaboration with Sound Made Public, and I’m your host, Laurie Anderson. This podcast is supported by Barbara Bowman, the Ellen Bayard Wieden Foundation, the Prospect Hill Foundation, Bob and Lois Baylis and public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Awaken is sponsored by Tricycle: the Buddhist Review, a print and digital magazine dedicated to making Buddhist teachings broadly available. Music for Awaken was created by Blue Dot Sessions, Podington Bear, Tendinite, and Siddhartha Corthus.