Peggy Dulany in dialogue with Julianne Lee

Julianne Lee: Good morning. And I hope it’s okay if I ask you some personal questions as well during the course of the interview.

Peggy Dulany: Sure. If I can ask them to other people, I need to be willing to answer them myself.

Julianne Lee: During dinner last night I was talking with some people at our table and we were talking about when it was that we came out and sort of declared to the world that we are going to have spirituality be the centerpiece of our lives and have spirituality guide our path. And for me that happened a few years ago, but it had always been there, the voice inside, and it had been growing incrementally until one day I could no longer avoid the voice or neglect it. And I really had to make a big leap in my life and went through a big transition to the dismay of a lot of people around me, to my family members and a lot of people who knew me in a different way. So it seemed to me having read the paper that you wrote in 2012 about your transformation that now you’ve created this Montana retreat so that you can facilitate this personal transformation and to enable people to have a safe place to go through this journey. So how do you structure the Montana retreat so that people can feel safe to go through this very unsettling and strange experience?

Peggy Dulany: I could answer that at different levels but I guess I would start by saying that in order for people to open up, they need to feel safe. And so the first thing we try to do, and I learned this through the various guides because I went through about 15 or 20 of these retreats, plus work with the Animas Valley Institute, which does vision quest work since 2003. So I mean I immersed myself as a participant for many years and began to notice what were the kinds of experiences in which I felt safe to open up. And a lot of it is that we set up a council, and a lot of indigenous societies have one form or another of this, in which it’s kind of a sacred space and whoever is speaking is holding a talking piece. And there are certain guidelines, which include confidentiality, brevity of expression, because everybody gets to speak in turn, speaking from the heart, listening from the ears of the heart. And for some reason it’s a kind of magic that I don’t know that I totally understand, but we open every year with the council. Most people have never experienced it before, as the people go around the circle, usually the first two are quite brief and may not be very personal or very emotional, but as it goes around the circle, it gets more and more personal. There tend to be more and more tears and there’s something releasing about the tears, because it ends up being not only the person who’s speaking, but that seems to trigger in the others a resonance and allow them to drop into a heart space, which means partly a trusting space, that then sets the tone.

And I’m hoping that, because we probably have six or eight people in the room who’ve been through the Montana retreat, I’m hoping, from a participant’s experience if anybody wants to make comments I’d love to hear that, but that’s the first thing. And then the second is, just as Christian was saying, the direct experience. And I don’t like to sue the word “nature” because we’re part of nature, too, so calling it “nature” makes it seem as though it’s something different from us so I tend to say either “the wild” or “the natural world.” But so we try to do the retreats in a very special natural setting, where it’s easier to begin to drop into that connected space and then also reopen any blocks there might be to feeling connection with spirit.

Julianne Lee: So when the participants of the retreat are in this safe place, what is the journey that you want them to experience through this process?

Peggy Dulany: So a lot of this was designed either by the former facilitators or through my own experience of what happened to me, then trying to develop something that would allow the possibility of other people having that kind of an experience. What I’ve come to see in myself and others is that it’s often fears that we carry, that we might not have actually known about. In this book that I’m writing I have two chapters. One is called “Fearing Bears” and the other is called “More Bear Fears.” And the reality is that yes, where I’ve been living in Montana, there are a lot of bears and one can understand having a certain fear of bears. But from the beginning, this is starting actually 19 years ago before the retreats happened, I had a suspicion that the bears were a convenient thing to name my fears about, but there were probably things behind that and so my own journey has been to figure out what are the things behind it.

So one of the most important things for me is to allow people the space in a safe environment to figure out what the real fears are about. Often it’s mortality, by the way. I mean, fear of death and that’s another reason for the connection to spirit, because if we have no connection to spirit and our time on earth is the only thing we believe in, then of course it’s going to be scary. All of a sudden, you’ll be either burnt up or under the ground, and that’s it if that’s what you believe. So and since, by the way, that was what I believed for a long time, the importance of going beyond the sense that we only have this little short lifetime to live, was pretty important in terms of addressing that, but they might be from traumas in childhood or whatever and so the need to feel safe enough and then open enough to begin noticing.

I have to say one other thing. My concept of what the soul is, and there are very different concepts; I’ve had long and interesting talks with my Tibetan and Taiwanese friends, because the East and the West I think have different definitions of the soul, but the way I’ve come to think of it is the little individual essence of ourselves that everything else we may share in terms of cells, and air that we breathe, and all of that, but it’s the essence with which we were born into this lifetime and we came in with a purpose. But often in order to make ourselves safe, we’ve limited our lives so we’ve begun living a smaller boxed in life. And so the real purpose of the retreat is to allow the clearing away of what I could call “the protectors” in a positive sense, or “the limiters” in a less positive sense, that have caused us to live in a certain size box so that at least for the moment of the week that people are together, they can recover the sense of what their original purpose was.

And then they’ve got difficult decisions to make, because either they’re going to allow themselves to expand again and in which case as people from the Animas Valley Institute say, we’re risking everything. We’re risking our marriages, and our work, and the way we present ourselves in the world. Either we’re going to risk all that or we’re going to say, “Okay. I realize this is what I was here to do, but given the commitments that I’ve made, I can’t just throw that all out, but maybe I can change these things.”

Julianne Lee: You know, when you asked that question to Christian about the shadows that we have to deal with at some point in our lives, I was also thinking about that, and it’s something I have thought about for some years. And because I meditate, I think my spiritual path was understanding what energies I was made of, and that anger, fear, whatever it was that I had in myself were just energies. Even the shadows. But we always attach information to that energy, whether it is somebody telling you that you’re not supposed to be angry, or you’re not supposed to behave in a certain way. Because of the information that comes with the energy, we have a hard time releasing energy as just that and we think of them as shadows.  But if I were God and I created this world, and if God were a painter, say, and He had a whole palette of colors to choose from, He could use white, or black, or any different shades of colors and no color would be considered a good or bad color. There would be no labels attached to it. Shadows are just the information that we attach to energy that comes from our egos.

So, I think, if I can just attempt to answer your question, releasing energy is just energy. It’s releasing the information, the wrong information that came with it, that takes time. If you have an understanding partner or an understanding community like this, where you feel safe to release that energy, and you do it enough times in a safe environment, and you realize it was just energy that you had, once you release it, the energy just can dissipate into the air and mix with other energy. It’s not really anything, that could really hinder our path of growth. So, I think for that reason the retreat and the safe space that you create for people is very important. But I’m wondering, when people come to join your retreat, do they have certain expectations? And when they leave, do they leave having had something completely different from what they expected?

Peggy Dulany: Probably someone here might be better qualified to answer that than I would. Anybody wants to take a crack at it who’s been to the retreat? Corinne?

Corinne Evens: Well, I’m sorry to tell you that when I went to the retreat, I did not have any expectations so I just went there to have an experience that I didn’t know, I mean a new experience. And the result of that was, because you spoke about nature, that we are also nature as human beings, but I have been brought up in cities so when I was going to forest, or walks, I wouldn’t feel so comfortable. So my first retreat taught me how to feel good in nature and not be afraid and be part of it, and interact with it, and so that was really great.

And, and then it was I think because I didn’t expect also anything special, I discovered a path to make a journey in myself, which was very important. So this was really great. And then I had some problems at the time and that are still now here and I didn’t expect to resolve them, but I expected to maybe suffer less about those problems like family problems and things like that. So the retreat helped me, first of all, to cope better with those problems, suffer less, and also validate my feelings and also the way of my rational thinking about it. So I felt like I was not along anymore, I could share this, and that what I was thinking was making sense, because it was shared by everyone.

Julianne Lee: So you have been hosting these retreats for 13 years now and Corinne has also given her experience, what one retreat has done for her. After 13 years of hosting retreats, have you also been able to witness your personal journey and how you have evolved?

Peggy Dulany: Well. So before these retreats started with the exception of a mindfulness retreat with Jon Kabat Zinn, which I had done two years before, I had been essentially cut off spiritually since the end of high school, even before that. And I mean I was under this illusion that if you leave the particular church and Sunday school within which you’ve been brought up and you don’t want to do that anymore, then you’re giving up religion, and I don’t think I’d even heard of spirituality. So I was in this spiritual vacuum for many years. First of all, I was working too hard, didn’t leave any space. I was mostly in cities. I could feel vibrations every time I was out in the wild, but I didn’t know what they were. And so when I moved to Montana I was really, I often say, “Unbeknownst to me,” it was because of a longing that I couldn’t even define.

I knew I needed to slow down. I was burned out, all of that, but there was something else behind that and I realized that it was a call both to change my lifestyle, but also to connect with something else. And I’m a very slow learner, so it’s been a long and continuing journey just being able to connect with what I prefer to call the Divine mainly because, although I’m not willing to use the word “God”, it’s taken me a long time to be willing to use that, because the way I was brought up was in such a patriarchal conception of religion and God. And so I found my way back in by living in the wild and so that’s been a big piece of the journey.

And the other has been how important it is to, as you say, release those energies through the body so I focus a lot on body practices and the other has been to come into a sense of enough safety that the heart can be open, which it can’t be 24 hours a day, but as much as possible that the heart is open because if one wants to talk scientifically, there are more neurons in the heart and the gut than there are in the brain and so if you’re only living from here up, it’s a very limited existence. So all of that has been part of my journey.

Julianne Lee: When we were in India in February, I said, “Oh, Peggy, you are always so calm and collected.” And you said, “It took me a long time to be this way,” and it didn’t always come easy to you in the years before. So what was the biggest fear that you had to overcome to be who you are today? I know you wrote a little bit about it in your paper.

Peggy Dulany: Maybe if I could just slightly redesign the question. I mean the circumstances of my family life led to basically a chronic anxiety, but I didn’t even know it was anxiety because I didn’t know anything else. So it took me quite a while and, you know, psychotherapy and all of that to recognize that my main presenting symptom was anxiety. But even once you recognize it, then like what do you do about it. So for me noticing is a first really important thing, and then understanding the origins is another, and then beginning practices such as meditation, or yoga, or being in the wild is another. And even then, what I still struggle with is my apparent need to create circumstances, that will continue to trigger the anxiety that I’m so familiar with. So there’s an ironic and not very healthy safety in being anxious. I’m familiar with it. So it’s not pleasant, but I know it. And so the rest of the work has been through whether wilderness retreats, or meditation, or yoga, or safe groups to understand what some of the underlying triggers were. And it’s like you were saying to release the energy or just acknowledge it as energy and let it pass increasingly.

Julianne Lee: When I was reading your paper I thought it was very brave of you even to talk about it in that paper. So I think that in itself was a great release of energy just to even talk about it and share it with people in print.

Peggy Dulany: Can I say just one more thing that relates to your prior question? For me it helps connect the issues of the psyche with the issues of the spirit. So one of my teachers characterized the issues that a lot of face is there’s one voice in us—and, by the way, we use voice dialogue a lot in this—to enable us to identify the different often conflicting voices within. So one fairly characteristic thing is the wounded child aspect of us who is extremely needy and feels like it’s never gotten enough and is like a bottomless pit. And then there’s the nurturing parent of us who would like to be supportive, of course, but is not enough in itself. It will never be able to give that wounded child enough because the wounded child didn’t have enough of whatever it was that caused the wounding.

So, one of my teachers taught me this exercise, which I love. You lie on the earth and put your arms out and the wounded child is the, the current body and the adult self is in one hand but it’s exhausted because it can’t give enough. It can never be enough. So then you just lie there and meditate until you feel the energy of the Divine flowing into you, which is the infinite love. And so you allow it to come in through this side and go all the way up through the body, the heart, the mind, etc., and come out into the adult, the human adult that is wanting to give to the child that the child’s never getting enough.

And so at that point you begin, you bring your hand, which is the adult, but the adult infused with this infinite love that never ends and is the only thing outside ourselves that’s going to make it enough, and bring that in still receiving the energy from the Divine so that it’s just a continuous flow. And that is the one thing that I find is able to quiet the wounded child and continue to replenish the part that’s still needy.


Biography Peggy Dulany

Peggy Dulany, GPC Member, is Chair of the Synergos Institute, a global nonprofit organization helping solve complex problems of poverty and inequality by promoting and supporting collaboration. Drawing from her experience living and working in Rio de Janeiro as a young woman, she realized that the people most affected by adverse living conditions also have the greatest energy and motivation to solve their problems. The resources they lack are connections to the economic and political realms where necessary changes can affect whole communities

Peggy founded Synergos in 1986 to facilitate relationships among grassroots groups and government or business leaders and organizations, people who otherwise would not have access to each other, so that they can develop long-term relationships and forge new paths in overcoming poverty. In 2001, she co-founded Synergos’ Global Philanthropists Circle with her father, David Rockefeller, to support philanthropic families in using this approach.

Her career has included heading a public high school program for drop-outs and consulting with the United Nations and the Ford Foundation on health care and family planning, and with the National Endowment for the Arts on nonprofit management and planning. She was Senior Vice President of the New York City Partnership, where she headed the Youth Employment, Education and Community Affairs programs.

Peggy is an honors graduate of Radcliffe College and holds a Doctorate in Education from Harvard University. She has sat on over thirty nonprofit and corporate boards including Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Africa-America Institute, among others. She  runs two socially responsible businesses: a grass-fed beef and guest ranch in Montana and an ecotourism operation in Namibia. Through Synergos, she also guides wilderness retreats that offer participants a safe space in which to reflect on their deepest purpose in life.

Biography Julianne Lee 

Julianne Lee  is the CEO of JULIANNE LEE & Co., which publishes ARS VITAE, a Korean-English bilingual publication series about a “thoughtful lifestyle” which explores what it means to live well.

Previously, Julianne was the Spokesperson of the National Security Council of Korea, and the youngest Presidential Secretary and Spokesperson for Foreign Press Affairs in the Roh Moo-Hyun administration. Prior to joining the government, Julianne was a correspondent and news anchor at SBS, a major TV network in Korea. She was also the first female journalist in Korea to become a solo anchor of a prime time news hour in 1994.

She received her B.A. from Brown University and M.A. from Harvard University. In recognition of her unique career, Julianne was named a Young Global Leader and New Asian Leader by the World Economic Forum as well as the Next Generation Leader by the Korea Foundation.