bDharma: How do you describe your Women, Food & Forgiveness Academy?
Marcella Friel: The Academy is a transformational community for health-conscious women who are seeking to heal the emotional and metabolic roots of yo-yo dieting, binge eating, sugar addiction, and chronic body shaming.
About two-thirds of what we do in the Academy is focused on emotional healing and trauma resolution; the other one-third is about what I call “forgiveness of the body,” or metabolic resetting and self-care.
The main tool I use in my work is EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques), which sometimes is described as emotional acupuncture. I call it “brainwashing in the positive sense.”
There is also a holistic nutritionist and Ayurveda practitioner who co-teaches with me on the nuts-and-bolts resetting blood sugar, improving autoimmune conditions, and regulating body weight naturally.
bD: Your offering in the Women, Food & Forgiveness Academy draws from many traditions – everything from the mythic themes of Joseph Campbell to the visualization practices of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. What are your major influences, and how do you characterize the ingredients you especially bring to the mix?
MF: Well I think you touched on a lot of my influences. From Joseph Campbell I learned that all acts of healing or acts of heroism. If we really want to heal deeply (versus just feeling better), we have to confront and work through the depths of our karma to the degree that we can in one lifetime. This takes supreme courage.
So my view is that the journey of healing is fundamentally an archetypal journey. In addition to my 35 years of Dharma practice, I’ve also been in 12 -step recovery since 1996. The 12 steps also outline a universal, archetypal path of healing, so I draw heavily on that as well.
What I am not is a licensed therapist or counselor in any traditional sense. I call myself a transformational mentor because my work is more educational than therapeutic in nature.
bD: Further, I feel that the Buddhist teachings have seeped into the wider culture, much beyond the mindfulness craze. And people such as yourself who take the teachings and make something of them, apply them in specific ways and articulate the teachings with a specific intent, are the filters through which the dharma is bubbling up into our culture. So good on you, but do you see it that way? Strikes me as a lot of responsibility.
MF: I see what you’re saying. It is a lot of responsibility, and I take it quite seriously. I remember reading an interview years ago with Pema Chödrön where she described her recognition that she was a teacher. I don’t mean to compare myself to Pema, but I can identify with the sense of responsibility that she expressed as part of her path.
Our teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, placed a lot of trust in us to teach, and I bank on that trust. I don’t sell myself as a holder of any lineage. If I were selling myself as a lineage holder, I think that would be a very different story and a much more slippery slope.
bD: I have a little chip on my shoulder about people who take from the Buddha dharma and use it to create their own platforms, to hang out their own shingles, without due homage. Admittedly, I have been trained in a lineage- and hierarchy- happy tradition not to trust the teacher who is not directly tied to his or her teacher. How do you describe your connection to your “ancestors”?
MF: This is an interesting question. I certainly understand where you’re coming from, and I have a different point of view.
In 2018 I wrote an article for Elephant Journal called “Confessions of a Dharma Sex Kitten,” in which I describe the dubious privilege I’ve had of being rather intimate with card-carrying lineage holders, and guess what? They’re human beings just like you and me, with their inspiration, their recklessness, their devotion, their brilliance, and their arrogance.
And as you know, in the past few years we’ve seen so many lineage holders topple and fall from lack of character. In sifting through my own wreckage from these misfortunes I’ve learned that putting faith in lineage holders simply because of their credentials is a form of theism.
So I put my faith in character. In the 12-step world, when you’re searching for a mentor (a sponsor), the suggestion is to look for somebody who has what you want. What is the person’s level of integrity? Of humility? Of discipline? How do they work their program, so to speak?
When women come to explore the Academy, they never ask me, Are you a licensed therapist? Do you hold a spiritual lineage? They ask, Can you help me? And when I can’t, I tell them, with bone honesty! The last thing I want is for any women who’s been through a lifetime of failed dieting to spend more money on yet another thing that doesn’t work.
bD: Again in terms of lineage, I see some of the traditional Buddhist teachings as specifically made to isolate, take, and maintain power. My suspicions of the, let’s call them, extra-lineage teachers, I might argue, come from teachings that exemplify such design to consolidate power in the hands of a few. Would you agree? Have you thought about it in that way?
MF: Oh yeah, I see that quite a bit. And this is why I always encourage my students to question what I say, to rely on their own experience, and to build a community for support.
bD: How do you measure success?
MF: I measure my success first and foremost by the experiences of my students. The tool of EFT can clear traumas sometimes in a matter of minutes. I regularly have the privilege of watching women make quantum breakthroughs where other modalities have failed.
Years ago one of my mentors said, “Transformational mentorship occurs in the moment when the mentor is in awe, and the student is in awe.” I get to be in awe on a regular basis, and that magic keeps my lungta running strong.
bD: You have created a specific hierarchy in your work. As the creator of curriculum, you are in the seat of wisdom holder. You hold a central position, your seat is clear – you open the meetings, set the agenda, set up the break-out conversations. How do you keep grounded and humble?
MF: Who says I’m grounded and humble!? In the Shambhala teachings on natural hierarchy, and in the 12-step world, humility is described as knowing your place in the natural order of things. Self-deprecation, as you know, is a form of arrogance.
Again, taking my cues from Pema, when I began to recognize that my place in the natural order was as a teacher, I accepted that and took it on.
To be a genuine teacher to me means to two things:
First, I am always a student. As Suzuki-roshi said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, and the expert’s mind there are few.” So while I am a teacher, I’m not an expert. I am a lifelong learner.
Second I know that if I try to teach from my own energy, the whole thing falls flat. In the 12-step world we talk a lot about maintaining our spiritual fitness, our conscious contact with the “God of our understanding.” Even though the phenomenal world has called me to teach, I strive to keep the vessel clean, so to speak, so that what comes through has genuine benefit.
bD: I’ve also witnessed the wisdom that arises from the participants at the Academy. The space is created for individual voices to shine. I love that — I’ve been in plenty of online and in-person meetings that flop on the discussion front — to what do you ascribe the quality of the discussion section of your platform?
MF: I ask open-ended questions that are focused on turning women toward their own natural wisdom. I also encourage women to share their breakthroughs loud and clear. Hearing oneself share one’s successes, and having that celebration reflected in one’s tribe, reinforces the success in the neural networks and also creates safety around having success.
I also do believe I share myself quite vulnerably with my students while also holding my mentorship position, and I believe that gives them huge permission to share themselves authentically and vulnerably as well.