March 17, 2023
Joe takes us on a walk through his childhood and early life, from the suburbs of Connecticut to fleeing the revolution in Iran. A green mohawk and an 8-second hit of oneness.
Episode Intro: Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease. I am Brett Kistler, here with my co-host Joe Hudson. This week we are going to go into a much requested topic about Joe’s history. We cover the first part of his life from a relatively standard modern start to being kicked out of his house at a 13 year old, getting a green mohawk, and collecting spiritual tools from around the world.
Joe, tell us what fucked you up?
Joe: Oh my goodness. Pretty early on. If I think about my first seven years, that was probably, as far as zero to 18, the most functional part of my childhood. There were some issues. Also, it is that time when so much of your basic attachment issues get created. I remember that was the time when I had the strongest relationship with my father. I remember coming home, and I remember always looking forward to him being around and him always looking forward to us. That was, I think, pivotal. I don’t know how life would have been without that.
Brett: Where was this? To get some context, where were you growing up?
Joe: The first seven years were in rich suburban Connecticut. After that, by the time I was 28, I had lived in 26 places or something like that. I mean I couldn’t go back and count it, but I have been saying that so long that that feels like probably what is right. There was a time where we were moving every six months. The first seven years were in Darington, Connecticut.
The thing that affected me there was that my mom was working, and she was one of the first people in that upper middle class, white culture where the woman was working. My mom, in fact, will probably tell you the story that she had many men who were her suitors, and she picked the one she didn’t particularly love at first but who would allow her to have her career and kids. That was a very important thing to her. Due to some weird circumstances, she had to go to work shortly after I was born. She was a professor. My mom was a bit overwhelmed, and her parenting style was a bit rigid at the time. The job was to train me when to go to the bathroom so she could change diapers on a schedule. That was from a very early age.
Not that she thought of it as bad in any way, but at that point, what it really taught me was that my needs weren’t going to get met. It took me probably until my 30s to realize that I even had needs. When people asked if I had any needs, I would say water, food, and shelter, air maybe. I had no idea that there were needs out there to thrive. It was only needs to survive in my mind.
03:50 Brett: What did you have in place of needs? It sounds like schedule or some outside imposed structure. What was the thing that was there instead?
Joe: That’s a great question. What was there was my duty to make sure that everything was calm. There was a duty to make sure things didn’t get too overwhelming, which was obviously impossible for me. I was a young boy with a tremendous amount of energy. I had an abnormally high IQ, and so I was constantly getting into stuff. That was the felt sense of the job at a young age. Of course, my mom was just deeply overwhelmed with everything that was going on. She had had a situation where her dad died at an early age. She had really not deeply explored her emotional self. There was no room for that in her childhood. There was not a lot of room for my emotional world.
My earliest memories were being made fun of for crying. The needs weren’t just physical, but the emotional needs were also not acceptable, at least some of the emotions were not acceptable. What happened for me was just to even know that emotions were something that was important that happened in my thirties, and to know I had needs. Then to learn how to identify them and ask for them was a huge journey for me. It was a really significant journey later in life because of that.
The other thing, I think, was the relationship was very much wanting a level of affection and nurturing, particularly from my mom, who wasn't there. I had it with my dad in the early years. I felt that deeply in that experience, but I didn’t feel it as much with my mom. When I got sick, I would have it. I remember enjoying being sick because I would get this level of care, nurturing and attunement that I didn’t get otherwise. I can tell just given her mom how much more attuned, now from this perspective, but as a kid you don’t know that at all. All that was there was just this desire to be held in a way that wasn’t available.
Brett: I am curious about loving having her take care of you when you were sick, liking being sick for that reason, about how much that relates back to having learned that love was having your bodily state be managed.
Joe: Yes, that’s interesting. That’s another thing that was interesting. My parents weren’t into sports. I had eye issues when I was young. I had a lazy eye. They didn’t want me to fail. They didn’t teach me failure so they didn’t allow me to do sports, which modern research would say probably created more proprioception issues. I had a lot of those as well. I was very nerdy, clumsy, glasses. I didn’t have the same kind of balance and stuff like that. There was something about the body and my family. It was the mind and the intelligence that were really important. The body wasn’t, and the body was to be controlled.
There were definitely huge portions of my life where I wasn’t in harmony with my body. I was overriding my body or not listening to its intelligence. I would say that’s actually still to this day probably a place that requires the most energy and attention. I know my experiential body from tons of meditation, but as far as the care of my body, to make sure exercise happens. That still requires more attention. It is not automatic in my system as it would be if I was taught that from an early age.
08:32 Brett: Something I am noticing so far is what you are describing sounds like a pretty common Western, modern experience of upbringing. A lot of our parents have had similar starting places in their parenting style, women entering the workforce more and the American experiment shifting more to the dual working family from what other traditional forms existed. I am curious about what, if anything, contributed to the pendulum swinging in the other direction in your life to being so heavily invested and interested in your emotional freedom.
Joe: That happens in the teenage years. I think the seed for that happened in the teenage years. Parenting now, what I see is that the will or the independence for the kid comes on line. There is something big that happens around three, another one around seven, another one around 10, and then another one around 13 where the kid’s job is to create more autonomy. They have that friction between wanting autonomy and care.
When that started kicking in for me at around 10 years, a couple of things happened simultaneously. One is we lived in Iran and then we had to move back to New York because of the revolution that happened in Iran in 1978 and 1979. The only school we could get into was this public school where my sister and I were the only white kids in the school. I was beat up on a regular basis. I was occasionally protected because people had a crush on my sister. I was allowed to get beat up X amount but not past X amount because if they protected me too much, that was an issue but if they didn’t, it wouldn’t get my sister’s attention or approval.
I had just seen a war, been evacuated. That stress, and then we moved into a hotel in New York for X amount of time, just stuck in a hotel. Then we moved into New York City. All of the time this movement was going on, I am creating more independence. I am dealing with all of this trauma and at the same time this is when a kid stops seeing their dad as this beautiful, wonderful person who can’t mess up anything. My dad was my hero, and then I was starting to rebel against my father. My father was not taking it well. All of that stress really increased his alcohol use or maybe it was just lots of alcohol use built on itself. I was dealing with the one person where I was getting that attunement, and they were angry at me regularly, yelling at me, disappointed in me, and mood swinging the way alcoholism does.
My sister, obviously, dealt with this as well, but it was different. She played the role in the family of the good, diligent kid, and I started to play the role of the rebel. I think a large portion of my desire to and I think blessing is that it was that role because that role was going to push me into places where my parents didn’t approve. For a while, that was drugs. For a while, that was mohawks. For a while, that was skateboarding and smoking cigarettes and drinking at a young age. But then eventually, by the time I was in my 20s, it was trying to find alternative ways of seeing the world that weren’t my parents’ way of seeing the world. My dad was very business oriented, very money oriented, and my mom was very science oriented. I looked for the place that wasn’t science or business.
I think there is also a natural desire to explore this area just because I was looking for relief. It was really fucking painful. By the time I hit my 20s, existence fucking hurt. It just fucking hurt. The negative voice in my head was so loud. The criticism of my dad and my mom, I had taken it on. It had become the voice in my head. It was brutal. I mean I had some depression easily by 19 years old because there was just this constant, negative self-abuse. I wasn’t crying or having any emotional experience. I was only allowed to be angry, and 10 years old was just the beginning of it.
By the time I was 13 years old, I would sit at a dinner table and get yelled at for an hour and a half every night. My dad was deep in the alcoholism at this time, and he would be yelling. I would be like fine, dad, you are right, and he would say that he had told me I was fucking weak and that I would quit. It was that level of verbal barraging on a regular basis. There was, I would say, a subconscious agreement that it was my fault and that I was the problem. That was a conscious agreement. The subconscious agreement in the family was he was mad at him, so not at me. Everybody was thinking thank God, but there was also this moment of can’t you just be nice. Can’t you just acquiesce to whatever is happening? I felt very isolated.
15:00 Brett: You were the scapegoat in the dynamic keeping the game in play.
Joe: I was that, and in family therapy thought process I was the crucible that kept the parents’ marriage alive, meaning I was the problem they could come together over. At that point, I obviously didn’t want to be home. I would just leave. At one point, they kicked me out and they had this list of things I had to do to come back, and I wouldn’t sign the list. Cops had to take me into the social services. It was brutal. I was 13 at the time. I was trying to figure out how to live away from home. I was trying to figure out if I could rent a room if I tutored. I had really good grades at the time and so I wanted to know if I could tutor kids and make enough money to pay for rent, food and go to school. When I went to the counselor to talk about that, the cops came and picked me up. They called me incorrigible and took me to social services.
That part was interesting. I want to go back to this. The first part was the achievement attachment issues, what happened in those first years. What was happening in the second years was I was deeply learning that I had to do it all myself. There was nobody who was going to be there for me, and I was going to be emotionally abandoned. Love was emotional abandonment. There were these moments with my mom when I did feel her love. There was a way she would support me, and there was a way she would fight through me at the time. I would be her knight, and so there were both of those things happening. There were some ways I felt virile, but what wasn’t going to be there was that somebody was going to take care of me and I was going to be emotionally abandoned.
What is interesting is I was never materially abandoned. What dad would do, which was amazing, was if I ever got in trouble, which I did regularly, jail a couple of times for little stuff, never with charges pressed but for being a rebel, my dad would come and pick me up. He would ask me what we were going to do. I never got in trouble for any of that. He was very supportive in those moments, which was really fascinating.
Brett: Also, what a mind fuck? On the one hand, if you are in trouble with the cops, you are good. Then at the dinner table, rah. Nobody else gets to beat up on you but me. That’s the energy.
Joe: Yes, there was this being very upset over things like I had messed up a coffee machine or I criticized something or I didn’t wear the bathing suit he had bought me. I remember that particular fight in the hotel room. It was so bad. He had a speedo he wanted me to wear, and I wouldn’t wear it. But going to jail for the night and getting picked up, he was totally cool.
Brett: I can’t get the picture now out of mind of you in a speedo.
Joe: It was blue and little. The thing is I never wore it. He had a matching one. All of his anger towards me, in retrospect, was him feeling unloved. That’s what it all was. He still wanted me to admire him, love him, and want to be him, and what he couldn’t see is all I wanted was his love and appreciation. It was a really fascinating time.
It wasn’t until my 30s when I started to undo this one. I noticed for myself and others that when you get taught you have to be self-reliant, it is really great. It makes you successful in business in many ways or it can, but what it also does is you make it really hard for people to help you because you never trust it and you get angry a lot. There were a whole bunch of anger issues I had to deal with and that made it really difficult for people to support me. Intimacy was really challenging and letting love in was really challenging. Then I constantly created it so that people would emotionally abandon me. That was all happening. That’s how that got created.
20:20 Brett: Got it. Going into your 20s, you have got this super abusive voice in the head, and you are depressed and miserable. That’s where many people stay, and they also don’t recognize there is an abusive voice in their heads until they show up to a workshop and explore it. What had you started to recognize that there was something going on that you could explore and change?
Joe: The narcissism had set in at this point. By the time my 20s were coming up, that protection necessary in that world wasn't there because I think there is a reality that happens with kids. If I really allowed the truth in, it would mean my parents can’t take care of me that way that I needed to be taken care of. That’s an untenable truth for a child. Instead, what happened was that I created this very big wall of protection, which I would call narcissism. I don’t mean that like narcissistic personality disorder kind of stuff. I just mean trait narcissism. I was often protecting myself by feeling I was better and being very judgmental and emotional constipation. I wasn’t able to cry. All of those things were happening. I wasn’t really available but very much still yearning for the affection and for someone to take care of me.
Brett: To what extent were you aware of that yearning?
Joe: Not at all. I think the seed of it was actually in Catholicism. I took a lot of solace in CCD and the stories of Jesus. It was the other thing that felt somewhat real to me, particularly the parables of Jesus. There was something there in my young ages. I would correct the CCD teacher, so I would get in trouble there. Not only was I rebellious but I was capable of being rebellious in the most annoying ways, but there was something there that touched me. I got really deeply into religion and religious studies. By the time I went to college, I got kicked out of my first college with a 3.95 for behavior, basically rebelling against everything I could rebel against including myself frankly.
Brett: There is more detail to that story in some early episodes.
Joe: That rebellion, the way it paid off is I got into Herman Hess and stories of Jesus. When I got to college, I decided not to take the 101 class. I am going to audit an advanced religious studies course. I studied Daoism and Herman Hess. That’s where I was deeply interested in these alternative ways of looking at life and spirituality. I started to deeply take a look at that, but it was all very heady, very intellectual. It opened the door. It was like the seed was planted that there was this alternative and transformation was possible. There was another way of looking at it. Just like reading the text of [unclear], I basically in my 20s collected parables of different religions and saw a lot of them were the same. I studied a lot of religions and how they were doing the same thing. That was, I think, the very seed of it. The real work didn’t start until the meditation retreat.
Brett: I am curious that they planted the seed that made you realize transformation was possible. How did you realize it was transformation and not salvation or some other concept?
Joe: I think transcendence was in there for sure, but salvation wasn’t in there because I was self-reliant. There was no fucking way salvation was going to happen. There was a whole bunch of stuff I had to get over. I am not going to hell. There is no heaven and hell like I was taught in the Catholic Church, and the guilt part. The idea of being saved couldn’t even be a part of my reality. As we think about it now. I see that oftentimes the way that we relate to our parents is the way that we relate to God and money. We are constantly trying to get our parents’ love and to get money. If we feel like our authority figure was never going to save us, we never believe God is ever going to save us. I think that’s where it really came from. There was luck in it. If I was in a different role in the family, I am not sure if I would be here.
Brett: Or a different path entirely.
Joe: But I think what is needed is the belief that there is change possible and then the drive for that. If you have those two things, that’s all that is really necessary. In other words, if you are listening to the podcast, you have everything that’s necessary because you have two things.
Brett: The seed was planted, and you recognized that transformation was possible. You weren’t seeking salvation or anything outside of you. You looked for transformation and that you could do it.
Joe: That was all intellectual. That was reading books and trying to figure it out. Then there was the body experience that happened. There was the emotional experience that happened. That happened because of my wife. At like 26, I met Tara. Within three months, we got engaged and married a year and a half after that, something to that effect. It got really dysfunctional really, really quickly, but before it got dysfunctional and we were in the love phase, the engagement happened.
One of the things she was very adamant about was doing a 10 day meditation retreat. I was like okay, yeah. I was that young male energy. I thought I could do it and I could be silent for 10 days. That was the big challenge. I had no idea I was doing one of those hard-core ones. I had no idea. I hadn’t meditated before. I had no idea of the pain of sitting still for 12 hours a day. I didn’t know that that was the toughest part, but that was the beginning. That’s when the thing started in earnest or moved out of the head into the body. I don’t know if I have told this story on the podcast, but I feel like it is an important story to tell again if I have.
Basically, in that meditation, you sit still and learn to focus your mind for the first three days. Then at the end of day three or beginning of day four, you move your attention up and down. I had this moment of oneness with the universe. It lasted about eight seconds. It was during the first solid sit I did moving the attention around. Everything disappeared. I was the universe, and the universe was me. It was a very felt sensation of that. I disappeared would be another way to say it. Buddhists have a very specific word for this particular type of opening. But what that was was God’s little heroin dose. That gave me just enough that the rest of my fucking life was about that. That is fucking possible? I am going to do whatever the fuck I have to do to get there.
29:30 Brett: What was so attractive about this? You described it in a heady way of being one with the universe. What made eight seconds of that like heroin, and you want it so badly?
Joe: My ego was gone. The constant editor of life, the separation. In the ultimate sense, the thing that I was taught my whole life of being separate and a problem was gone. I was just one with everything. There was no fight left. There was nothing to fight because I was it. The feeling was of being vastness. Imagine if you could feel what it would be like to be nature. Not to be in nature, but to be nature. That was the feeling, and I was gone in that moment. That was the experience for eight seconds. Whatever that was, I was going to whatever.
Unfortunately and fortunately, but unfortunately what happened in my journey at that point was I tried to recreate that, for years. I think it was eight years or maybe seven years. I tried to recreate that experience, and that is just flogging yourself. I immediately took this thing that was my nature that I had gotten a taste of and I made it a goal. I made it effort. I made it something I had to achieve to be good enough. I turned it into all of these things that denied the nature of what I had experienced. My brain immediately co-opted it. I remember sitting and meditating, trying to effort myself back into that experience again, not ever recognizing for years that it was received, not created.
Brett: Your memory of the experience ended up taking the shape of all of the blocks that would stop you from being in that experience all of the time.
Joe: Yes, that’s a great way of saying it. That was the unfortunate part about it. The fortunate part about it was that is when it opened up. I would have taken anything or used any tool. I would have traveled to wherever and have done whatever to get that back. The benefit is that when I was doing and because of my fierceness that was I taught and the fierce self-independence, I just looked for every possible tool I could ever find and just tried it out. I did that instead of working for most of the next eight years. I just did that all of the time.
Brett: Late 20s, early 30s.
Joe: Until about 35. I was constantly doing this therapy or that course. I was in it. What I didn’t know until later because I’ve seen some people go into that space and it happens, but all of the psychological and emotional stuff is still unhealed and undealt with. That can get really complicated. I was lucky in that not only did I learn a tremendous amount of tools, which puts me in the position now to do the work that I do, but I also healed a lot of stuff before I could access that space or before I realized that that space was my nature and that was where I rested. There was a lot of work that was done, which I am very, very grateful for. The experience itself was painful as fuck because I was constantly not there. I was constantly trying to be fucking somewhere I wasn’t. I was just using it as a way to beat myself up. All of that stuff was painful as fuck.
33:45 Brett: Something that’s interesting about you in particular, to me, is that there are many people who have an intellectual level understanding of mystic concepts and meditation, all of the different layers and levels and all of the neuroscience behind it. Then there are a lot of people I see that have a lot of the felt sense capacity to reach these states meditating. There is something that’s less common that I see in you, which had me very attracted to this work, is that emotional and psychological layer. For myself, I’ve been focusing less on the meditative practice and more on the psychological, emotional stuff, just trusting the more I work through my emotional stuff, the more I am in my natural state and less in my conditioning or whatever story that is.
For you, what made it that your path brought you into so much contact with the emotional and psychological side of this?
Joe: I think I was lucky and born at the right time, meaning I was born at a time when there were free meditation retreats happening for the first time. Maybe it started in the 60s and 70s, and I was doing it in the 90s. I would say the version 3.0 of psychology was happening. It had passed Freud and some of the other stuff, and there was a more integrated psychological approach. There were a lot of tools available.
I was living in California, and so there were a shit ton of tools available. I didn’t distinguish between a meditation tool and a spiritual tool. For whatever reason, my brain would have just taken any tool. If I saw something that affected somebody in a positive way, I would do it. I didn’t give a shit what it was. I was very lucky in the fact that I wasn’t religious about it. Some people are religious about it. Psychology doesn’t work. Psychology does work. Some people are religious about psychedelics. They work. They don’t work. If I saw somebody change, I didn’t care what you called it. I just did it. There was just a lot of it available. I was really lucky I could read non dual teachers, which I did a tremendous amount, and I could read them from 2,000 years of history and cross culturally.
I could read a guy who was an ex-heroin addict nondual teacher from Holland and I could read a 1,200-year-old Zen teacher. I could go do the Hoffman process. I had a great therapist. I was just very fortunate. The introduction to it, a lot of it was Tara who had just started discovering it herself. She had just done a retreat or part of a retreat. She actually had a therapist. It was really good. I was very fortunate that way. Tara started to open the day, and because I was rebellious, I was in this artistic community in the 90s in San Francisco. There were all sorts of alternative things that were happening that I got to try out. I got to see people transform. Any time I saw it, I asked what they were doing and if they could get me in. That was the thing. I think I just got lucky.
There was something else that happened, and I know I have told this story. Some part of the recognition that I stopped crying from that early childhood time when emotions were shut down and I saw that picture of me being made fun of for crying, I knew something wasn’t right about this. That’s what began the emotional inquiry. Also, the relationship with Tara, I see this in a lot of relationships. One person holds the emotional and the other the intellectual. The intellectual person thinks they are better than the other because they are out of control with emotions, and the emotional person says they aren’t as good as the other person but also fuck you, I am better than you.
Tara was really willful, and so she was not going to give up. She would say she didn’t believe my logic and that I wasn’t smarter than her. She also knew she had this crazy brain on her, but she had done this acting so she knew this emotional stuff was important and valuable. Part of it was her absolute will to just not give into me, which are part of her parenting patterns. That’s what I was attracted to. Before Tara, I was trying to get over the lack of availability of my mom’s nurturing, and so I was seeking it in any woman I could find. I was sleeping around tremendously. It was sleeping around and they would chase me, and I would be out of there. Tara was the first one to say that she could take or leave me. Somehow I felt like I could depend on that because that person doesn’t need me. Since I couldn’t love my own need at the time, that just felt safe.
That willfulness I think was a huge part of me realizing I wasn’t going to win the part. She is never going to agree that I am better than her because of my intellect. I got to see some of the benefits of her emotionality. That’s also a big part of it.
Brett: Thank you, Joe. We are going to pause this right here, and we are going to come back again in another episode to finish the conversation. Thank you everybody for listening. If you know somebody who might appreciate what you heard today, please pass this along and share what resonated for you. We love your feedback so hit us with comments or questions through our website, Circle community or tweet us at artofaccomp. You can reach out, join our newsletter or check out our courses at artofaccomplishment.com.