There were some refreshing differences at this year’s SAND Conference, an event I’ve been attending for close to a decade now in the SF Bay Area. For those new to SAND, it stands for Science and NonDuality and for those new to nonduality, think of it as a mature state of consciousness, in which the dichotomy of I-other is “transcended”, and awareness is described as “centerless” and “without dichotomies”.
SAND honors and nurtures the exploration and experience of nonduality as a pathway to greater wisdom and well-being in the context of the unique challenges of the 21st century.
The noticeable difference at this year’s event was two fold: increased diversity and age span. One of the things that SAND founders Maurizio and Zaya Bennazo have done so well over the years, is to keep SAND’s authenticity and core values from the time they launched to its current configuration which is as special and transformative as it has was in its infancy.
As a conference junkie and someone who has been in marketing and branding for over two decades, its a hard feat to do and is one of the major things that makes this event our favorite. And, why else?
If you’re drawn to timeless wisdom, consider yourself spiritual but also grounded, have an open mind and heart and are equally curious about the advances in science, then this too will become your favorite event.
While the liberation of science from religion resulted in tremendous technological advances, it also led to zillions of perspectives, mostly ones embedded in science but ones who along the way, somehow lost the focus on what it means to be human, to be conscious, and to seek meaning and purpose in life, which is core to SAND’s purpose and mission.
This year’s theme was entitled From Quarks to Love and the event was held from October 23-27, 2019 once again at the intimate Hayes Mansion in San Jose, CA.
Love is a big part of any spiritual journey is it not? But, if you have spiritual intuition without love or you’re guided but are frustrated by the religious dogma which is so alienated from the contemporary mind, then you can either find yourself going in circles or give up on the idea of having a spiritual life altogether.
This becomes increasingly heard if you’re part of an intellectual community who questions all of it or come from a religious family who doesn’t question anything but their own faith and belief systems.
While millennials have a different perspective and we’ll address their journey a bit later, it is more important than ever to build (and be part of) communities which bridge these two worlds and accept you and your beliefs as they are….without judgment.
From SAND’s vantage point, they look to things grounded in science but equally look to the ancient mystics who see the world in a nondual way, which equates to loving, expansive, blissful and unitive, lacking any sense of separation.
“More than just a feeling, a nondual experience conveys deep and liberating insights into the truth of life and death, self and world.”
The Voices of SAND
Although I’ve been attending for years, I didn’t realize until this year that Maurizio and Zaya run their theme by one person every year for a ‘blessing of sorts’: A.H. Almaas. He graced the main stage Friday evening and spoke about Embodied Spiritual Love which set the tone for the weekend.
His books and work are centered around practice as the expression of realization, where freedom is living our realization and our transcendent truth lives personally in the world.
I always enjoy Donald Hoffman, who is a return speaker every year, largely because from his vantage point as a professor of cognitive science, he takes bold leaps into alternative thinking that traditional science doesn’t easily embrace. In other words, he is known for challenging whether we see reality truly as it is.
You can’t go to a conference in modern times, whether it’s about technology, medicine or humanity and not hear about the trajectory of Artificial Intelligence (AI). People fear it, don’t understand it and question its ability to integrate and support humanity’s most important assets: love, empathy, compassion and other matters of the heart. As such, it seemed fitting that Donald Hoffman addressed whether AI can feel real love at this year’s SAND.
He asks: ‘could silicon feel real love? His colleagues, therefore what is respected in Hoffman’s communities — physicalism is the go-to belief system, which is closely related to materialism — and therefore is what glues all theories together within their context of looking at the world. This view equates to how the Universe began (aka with a big bang) and so, life and consciousness are late comers to the party. In other words, they are derivative from matter and space and time, and so the universe is unconscious.
If this belief holds true, then our conscious activities and experiences come from the brain, which suggests says Hoffman, that “your experience of love then, is nothing but a program running in your brain.” (see end of article for links to where you can find the full download of this talk and others)
“If our conscious experiences come from the brain, then our experience of love is nothing but a program running in our brains.” – Donald Hoffman
Julia Mossbridge who is known for her talks on Loving AI actually took on Time Travel as a topic this year. And, Joel Salinas took a different angle on science and the brain. He spoke about what science and the brain can teach us about the convergence of reality, love and our senses.
From scientific reasoning to explain things of the heart and feminism divine energies to shamanism, the environment and sacred medicine, we continue on a journey of other magical aspects of this year’s SAND.
We were blessed by the presence of two female lamas: Cythia Jurs, who is founder of the Earth Treasure Vase project and Lama Tsomo, who is a known spiritual teacher and author.
Two of the most historical and respected speakers SAND has had on their stage over the years include Rupert Spira who has always been interested in the nature of reality and Francis Lucille. They both spoke of how they see nonduality as Advaita Vedanta teachers, so therefore from the latter teachings’ perspective.
Spira and Lucille also held breakout sessions, where attendees could ask questions in a more intimate setting. Spira and Lucille have both explored the tantric tradition of Kashmir Shaivism and Atmanada Krishnamenon to put their teachings into a wider lens and understanding.
Charles Eisenstein, who notoriously covers ecology, science, medicine and spirituality, was eager to wake us up to environmental issues as he does year after year. He asserts that regardless of green house gases, issues have been happening for a very long time and that switching fuel sources to power machines isn’t going to solve the problem. He asks: “why aren’t people more alarmed by global warming?”
“Our lived experiences tell us that no matter what we do, we will be fine, at least in the ways we define it. That said, we have 10% of whales that lived 300 years ago, 10% of large fish, half the trees, 20% of the sea grass meadows, 30% of the insects and no passenger pigeons.
Our lived experience says we will be fine however we’re only fine in the ways we are choosing to measure and proclaim. Every time an ecosystem dies, a forest is leveled, or a species goes extinct, something in ourselves dies as well.”
“Every time an ecosystem dies, a forest is leveled, or a species goes extinct, something in ourselves dies as well.” – Charles Eisenstein
Swami Sarvapriyananda shared that when he studied Tibetan Buddhism of emptiness and Advaita Vedanta, he discovered that both of them speak the same language of nonduality. And yet, one says no self and the other says ‘self is absolute.’
He says that neither one is about a journey from one place to another — it’s all happening right here and right now. He adds, “it’s not even a journey from yourself to something else. It’s just YOU!!”
One of my favorite speakers every year is Jean Houston — I always attend her breakout chat so I can perch myself on the floor a mere two feet away from her and listen to her fruitful wisdom.
Her charm isn’t just the way she thinks, what she knows and the wisdom of what she shares, but how she shares that wisdom through her engaging and insightful storytelling. And, at 82 years old, she’s still got as much spunk as ever.
She is most known for her work spearheading and harnessing the Human Potential Movement. Today, her books and the people she has worked with over the years continue to draw people in to learn more — what they ultimately get is her presence and raison d’etre which exudes from the core of her being. An authentic and passionate soul, I remain a huge fan.
Also at SAND this year were renowned speakers and teachers who deal with trauma: Thomas Hübl whose expertise lies in understanding how to heal collective trauma and Julie Brown Yau who works one-on-one with individuals.
The teachings of Thomas Hübl attempt to get to “transformation” through integration of trauma, somatic sensitization, advanced meditative practice, and a deepening understanding of culture processes. He says, “when I am “related” to you in some inherent way, I can and usually will….find a connection to you. When I don’t know you or “relate” to you, there’s no connectedness and the sense of separateness wins.”
From this mindset and current paradigm, Thomas Hübl asserts that in order for there to be harmony and connectedness not just in our personal lives but in the “marketplace,” we need to feel as if we‘re related even if we don’t look or act alike in society.
We live in a world of contrasts and polarity, meaning that it’s fairly easy to resonate and even garner some “care” and empathy for another in our sphere if they are related to us.
Also a profound teacher in this area is Julie Brown Yau, whose years of psychological and spiritual practice has led to a deep passion for resolving trauma, reducing stress and cultivating compassion and joy in people‘s lives.
We love her energy and her commitment to getting people out of ‘suffering.’ She is also a Dream Pattern Analyst whose interest in somatic psychology emerged from her earlier work as an advanced cranial sacral practitioner and training in myofascial release.
Although she focused on love this year, she also helps people through the active dying process using her somatic depth psychology experience as well as grief counseling. It’s such an important part of helping people on their spiritual path, not with new concepts and practices, but with the things they need most in their every day life: healing, which needs to happen before we can embrace the most important form of love: self love.
They actually had an entire panel this year on Self Love with Sonya Bibilos, Kirstin Kirk, Marlies Cocheret, Maja Apolonia Rode and Pamela Wilson.
The Here & Now for Everyday Life!
Helping people on their journey for situations which come up in every day life is a lot of what SAND is about — it’s not about diving into science and spiritual ideologies and systems so much as it is connecting to the here and now.
As SAND co-founder Maurizio Benazzo says: “we care about and focus on what is it that people in the real world are dealing with right now. Whether it’s trauma, grief, a child with special needs or a loss of a job — this is what is real for people!”
“It’s about helping people deal with the everyday issues that face them in the here & now.”
This comes down to among many other things, life balance and being in harmony with yourself and others. This creates a sense of empowerment and spiritual connection to all that is, as well as a realization that while we may appear to be separate as individual humans, but we are also still interconnected on this path we call life.
A major issue facing humanity today is the balance between masculine and feminine energies — the rules have changed and millennials are most aware of this shift because they‘re growing up without the old patterning. For those who grew up in former paradigm conditioning and thinking, it‘s a confusing transition.
Rick Archer moderated a panel entitled Dynamics of Attraction: Divine Masculine and Feminine in Awakening with Kirstin Kirk, Zhen Dao and Loch Kelly. Says Zhen — “the relationship shouldn’t be the place to confirm. I don’t want to have to justify my wholeness. The erotic is a destructive archetype.”
Zhen adds: “we vilify desire when we really mean craving. Craving comes from absence or lack of versus desire, which comes from fullness. Desire is longing for what you were born to fulfill and do. The fact that it isn’t always available makes it more crystalized.”
From Kristin’s perspective, she says that “it’s about living in the fire and living in the embodiment — our move into knowing comes from unknowing.” Later, she echoed much of what our own guides relay on a regular basis: “what we are attracted to in others is like a mirror — it’s an inner recognition. If I surrender through a longing for it, then I realize that the love and need was on the inside. It’s more of a reminder of what we have lost or forgotten about ourselves.”
“When there’s no grasping, you can surrender and find real human connection and consciousness together. If the grasping isn’t there, there’s no suffering.” – Kristin Kirk
And then, later on in a standalone session, Jeannie Zandi took on peace and how to discover it between men and women. In other words…burying the hatchet.
The panel on Social Justice: Are We One? was moderated by Konda Mason who led the panelists and audience into a series of exercises before launching the tough conversation. Panelists included: Sara King, Orland Bishop and Caverly Morgan.
It was a powerful dialogue which not unlike the important messages that Rev. Deborah Johnson conveys every year, included the need to include all feelings, perspectives and emotions despite from where you hail.
Truth be told, Deborah Johnson always brings the house down whenever she sets foot on a stage. As a life-long social justice activist with a passion for healing socio-political issues, her voice is one which stands for compassion, equality, and reconciliation. Her talks support her passions for coalition building, conflict resolution, public policy development, and cultural sensitivity awareness.
What we love about all of her talks is that Oneness is her vision first and foremost, beyond creed and doctrine, and she feels particularly called to heal the sense of separation between those adhering to conservative and progressive ideologies. It is so beautifully aligned with our own work.
Mark Gober recently brought the powerful book, “An End to Upside Down Thinking” to market, which has earned him respect in the scientific community and numerous on-stage talks. He originally hailed from the world of banking (and still works in finance and tech), however a deeper dive into understanding the brain, the mind and consciousness led him into new truths and new realities.
Since his book uncovers facts that support a reality that consciousness exists outside the brain, he discussed the issues that arise from this view: what does this means for science, our belief systems, our capabilities as humans and the nature of what it means to be human itself?
He asserts that these facts have always been available to us, but buried in a pocket of denial.
Mark’s podcast — Where is my Mind? — explores the research and big thinkers behind the mind and consciousness, from both a science and spiritual perspective. The question: “what if consciousness comes from outside the body?” was central and pivotal to his talk at SAND and to the interviews and topics in his riveting podcast.
“If consciousness exists outside the brain, then what else don’t we know about the brain, about consciousness, about humanity and beyond? This changes everything we hold about our world view.” — Mark Gober
He says, “if consciousness is not native to the brain, would phenomena like telepathy, precognition, near-death experiences, after-death communications, and so much more not only be possible… but be predicted?” The implications could shift our collective worldview and even impact how we treat one another.
A friend who knows Brian Swimme personally told us not to miss his talk and so I sat in the front row riveted from start to finish. What I didn’t expect was how many times I would laugh out loud.
Brian teaches evolutionary cosmology at CIIS in San Francisco. Inspired by the work of Thomas Berry, Swimme founded the Center for the Story of the Universe which offers programs to expand our collective consciousness and redirect the current self-destructive trajectory of society towards a vibrant community that transcends individual, human and geo-political boundaries. Bravo!!
Other speakers we heard from include Mirabai Starr who beyond her talk on ‘fierce and tender wisdom,’ is just plain funny. I love her energy every year on and off stage.
Rick Archer moderated the Divine Masculine and Feminine panel but also gave a standalone talk discussing how knowledge is so profoundly different depending on your level of consciousness. He spoke of the ethics of enlightenment and how those ethics belong to both students and teachers.
He runs a well known podcast called Buddha at the Gas Pump: Conversations with Ordinary Spiritually Awakening people.
“Ethical behavior has been regarded not only as a reflection of spiritual development, but as a prerequisite to it.” — Rick Archer
This year’s event was the first time I was able to experience the work of Kabir Helminski who has such a lovely presence — it’s the right word. Simply put, I felt calm and invited into his world and his beautiful presence. His talk on Awakening Spiritual Intelligence was full of beautiful Rumi references and of poetry itself, which of course, is the language of the soul….to say one thing and mean another.
Listening to Rumi with Kabir’s kind and tender voice was like bathing in silence. He read much of Rumi, but this was my favorite:
“You are hidden and yet
From east to west you have filled the world with Your radiance
Your Light is more magnificent
Than sunrise or sunset; and you are the inmost ground of consciousness
Revealing the secrets we hold.
You whose essence is hidden; while Your gifts are manifest
You are like water and we are like millstones
You are like wind and we are like dust;
The wind is hidden while the dust is plainly seen.
You are the invisible spring and we are your lush garden
You are the spirit of life and we are like hand and foot;
Spirit causes the hand to close and open.” – Rumi
Zaya Benazzo moderated a panel on Sunday morning on the Climate Crisis and the grief we are all feeling now. Thomas Hübl, Bayo Akomolafe, Cynthia Jurs and Charles Eistenstein addressed the issues we are facing today, and also what are we to do with the grief we feel? How do we hold it? How do we handle it? What solutions are available?
Peter Russell is a powerful voice on stage every year. As a physicist, Russell went from being a strict atheist and scientist to discovering a profound personal synthesis of both mystic and science. Known for his book From Science to God, he blends physics, psychology, and philosophy to a new world view where consciousness is a fundamental quality of creation.
Combining his passion and practice of meditation with science and fact, he ultimately believes in a universe that is not unlike mystics subscribe to: one in which the inner and outer worlds are no longer at conflict and peril.
Below, Isa Gucciardi gave a fascinating talk on Medium and Oracle Traditions in both the Shamanic and Buddhist teachings.
Marlies Cocheret on the playful connection of intimacy between Human and Divine.
Below, Zaya Benazzo on the main stage who moderated the Crisis Climate panel among others. We love her energy, her work and powerful contributions she is making in the world.
Sky Nelson-Isaacs gave a really interesting talk on the relationship and synchronicity in Quantum Physics.
Part of what brings me back year after year is the incredibly heart-felt people who attend the conference as well — it’s one of those events where the attendees are as interesting and engaging as the speakers and the hallway conversations are as profound as the wisdom on the main stage.
The blending of the visionary authors and teachers with the spiritually awakened is part of the magic. Add to that, the love and passion of co-founders Maurizio and Zaya Benazzo, and you have a winning formula. I was thrilled to see Maurizio announce their new book: On the Mystery of Being on stage this year.
On the Mystery of Being was just released in October and it brings together an array of visionary spiritual leaders, psychologists, philosophers, scientists, teachers, authors, and healers to celebrate and explore what it means to be human.
The book covers the beautiful and insightful convergence of spirituality and science, weaving in the incredible wisdom and experience from top thinkers in the world of both disciplines, including Deepak Chopra, James Fadiman, Peter Levine, Dean Radin, Robert Thurman, Gangaji, Jean Houston, Rupert Spira, Adyashanti, and others. Find it over on Amazon.
Interactive & Embodiment
An important part of any growth — personal, spiritual and intellectual — must also exist (and shift) in the body. Without embodying the wisdom, the shifts and growth aren’t really sustainable. I loved learning about the powerful work of Mona Haydar, who is a is a rapper, poet, activist, permaculture practitioner, meditator, composting devotee, mountain girl, solar power lover and a tireless God-enthusiast.
She is known for her thought provoking videos, one which received millions of views and featured Mona, pregnant with her second son, surrounded by an intersectional group of dynamic women as Mona sang “all around the world love women every shading” calling out racism and colorism. Bravo bravo!
Because embodiment, music, poetry and the arts are so integral to the awakening process for so many, there are plenty of activities and embodiment classes and experiences you can take throughout the weekend.
Selene Calloni Williams ran a beautiful Shamanic Yoga class with self enquiry through yoga with Lorraine Taylor. And, we love everything about David Ellzey — you could say that he embodies embodiment.
Over thirty years, through Conscious Coaching and as one of four global Sedona Method Instructors, David has inspired a quarter million people to awaken beyond the mind’s limitations using his profound experience in emotional wellness and awakening consciousness. And, he manages to do so more often than not, with humor that softens your heart while simultaneously weaving you into an experience of healing.
While I missed the session with Lyla June who is also known for singing on stage, we are fans of her work. She’s an activist, poet, musician, ecologist and community organizer of Dine (Navajo), Tsetsehestahese (Cheyenne) and European lineages. See our coverage of IONS, and at the bottom of the article, you’ll find a video which includes her uplifting the audience through her passionate voice and conviction.
Robert John Malone led a Spirit of Sound session (we are huge believers in sound as a healing modality), and Richard Rudis leads a sound gong bath every year which is always very memorable.
They always do something on Qigong as a force (quiet force) for Awakening and this year it was led by Vivienne Verdon-Roe. Ellen Emmett led a body of truth and vibration as a ritual, Zhen Dao led a session on cultivating sense and sensibility and Cynthia Merchant led a session on Trauma and the Rupture of Interconnection with Somatic Experiencing.
At the intimate and somewhat emotional closing session on Sunday evening, Daniel Lapin played the Tibetan Horn.
Performance, Ritual & Ceremony
That leads us to the other beautiful thing about SAND: evening performances inside and out. Each day, Jonas Ketterle held a Cacao Ceremony where you could participate and experience. Below, Zhen Dao and Eros, the Fugitive Sacra Theater Troupe performed inside the main ballroom after dinner.
A fire dance and ritual was performed by Liquid Fire Mantra outside on Saturday evening.
Speaking of experiential and embodiment ways to go deeper, Carlos Warter and Frank Echenhofer both explored Psychedelics as Teachers.
The closing ceremony was a little unique this year in that they created a small circle in the middle and invited people up to speak from the heart.
Everyone who sat in the inner circle shared their own words of wisdom but also vulnerability and emotions which came up for them during the weekend. It was beautiful to see the courage of so many youth (from SAND’s Young Sage’s Group), whose mission is to help guide young people into the realization of the interconnectedness of life.
In Between It All
And, in between it all, there are random experiences you will stumble upon that are set up formally and informally, on the beautiful lawn of the Dolce Hayes Mansion as well as in some of the breakout rooms.
But there’s no shortage of cake if you want dessert — yum! I couldn’t ‘not share’ since I have no discipline not to partake every year.
CHEERS to another mind-bending SAND Conference. Hope to see you at next year’s event. If you have never attended (or even if you have), email us for special discounts they offer to our community each year.
Here’s a short video we took which highlight’s this year