Meditation, Walks and Aikido with Susan Harrow
On life in Paris and San Francisco, the power of a regular meditation practice and how Aikido teaches important life lessons everyone can use.
Today, I’m thrilled to have Susan Harrow as our guest. Susan is the CEO of prsecrets.com. She’s a media coach and a marketing strategist who works with everyone from CEOs to soccer moms, rock star wives to reality TV stars, entrepreneurs, authors, speakers and start-ups to double or triple their business with PR by using sound bites effectively. Susan has helped clients shine on Oprah, CBS’ 60 Minutes, The Today Show, Good Morning America and in the New York Times, Inc., O, Parade, People, The Wall Street Journal, USA TODAY, Forbes, Vogue, Bazaar and more. What you might not know is that she’s a black belt in Aikido and was almost sold into slavery by a Bedouin Sheikh in Israel for 10 camels and a mule. Susan talks about her meditation practice and how important walking is to her, as well as how Aikido is based on love and kindness.
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Hello, Susan. Welcome to the show.
It’s so great to be here with you, Clare.
I’m going to ask you about the Aikido and nearly being sold into slavery later on in the interview. Now, what I would love you to talk to us a little bit about is the significant city in your life. What is it? Which city is it?
It might have been Paris. I lived for a year and a half in Paris. As Dickens said, it was the best and worst time of my life. I didn’t speak French when I got there. I almost failed my French classes. Then no one would speak English with me. I took French classes there at the Institut Catholique and the Sorbonne. As soon as I could speak French, everybody wanted to speak English with me. To me, every day in Paris was an adventure. I would really pinch myself and say, “I can’t even believe I’m living here.” I would set up every single day to do something new in Paris; explore different part of the city. Even in a year and a half, I didn’t get through the whole city of course because there are so many things to do. I never really did that in San Francisco in the same way, but I think when you’re living in a new city the idea is, “I want to take it all in. I want to explore everything.” What you do so wonderfully is, “Let’s bring that same curiosity to the city that we live in.” We have new eyes when we travel. We can have new eyes in our own cities where we live.
Would you tell us a couple of things that are really wonderful about San Francisco?
I lived in three or four different places in San Francisco. The last place I lived was near the Mission, near Dolores Park. There’s always some beautiful thing going on in Dolores Park but I also loved that I would run every night and I would run through the Mission and stop at my favourite taco place, which is Pancho Villa. They would have a Mariachi band sometimes there on the weekends. The place is always packed and it had the best food. That was my reward after I ran, to stop there and get a burrito.
I love running around. Even though I was in an urban neighbourhood, I really loved just running through the streets and seeing everything. It’s a little different now since I don’t live there. But one of the things I do love to do is to meet with Sherry Richert Belul. She has a website called Simply Celebrate. She and I often meet in the Mission, go to a Thai restaurant and then we sometimes go to this place that serves chocolate, Dandelion, which has all kinds of exotic chocolate things. Then we would go to thrift town and pick out clothes for each other. Oftentimes you could get in a rut with your own clothes, but we would find clothes for each other to expand our clothes vocabulary.
Where you live now is in the Bay Area, right?
I live in San Rafael, which is in between Sausalito and Sonoma.
I know that you love to go for daily walks, Susan. A big part of my work is encouraging people to get out for a walk and explore their city and really notice what’s going on around them and reminding people that you can find something new every day no matter how quiet a residential street you may live on, no matter how dull or boring it seems and how routine everything looks. There’s always something new to discover if you really look for it and really tune to your senses. Tell us about one of your favourite local walks.
Some people think that they need to do a different walk every day. I do a couple of walks but I have a few favourite. Here’s the thing, it’s the same walk but it’s not the same walk because there are always different trees in bloom. One of the things I love to do this season is I have my favourite plum trees. There are certain trees in the area that have the sweetest and best plums that I just plucked their plums on to the sidewalk. I have a little bag that I always carry with me to collect beautiful fruits because a lot of neighbours put out fruit when they have an excess and also the fruit trees just drop their fruit on the sidewalks. I bring a little bag and the plum season has just started, so I’ve been picking plums off the sidewalk, popping into my mouth, probably not very hygienic but I figure I already wiped them off. I must confess, sometimes the sweetest plums have already been pecked at by a bird or bitten into by a squirrel, and I just bite the other side. I’m not going to eat the whole thing with the squirrel bite or the bird just for disease sake, but I bite the other side because I can’t resist. This was the best plum. The plums are out and there are a couple of apricot trees as well. You’ve never taste an apricot like this, never ever. It doesn’t taste anything like the apricots in the store. It is the most magnificent apricot tree.
The other thing I do on my walk is I know all of the local dogs. They all brush up to me because they know me. I never feed them because I want them to come up and love me for me. Although I carry this little tiny bag where I put my keys and my phone, they always think that there’s a treat in there. Every dog has to put their nose in it even though there’s never been food in there. They need to look and see, “Is there a treat for me?” On my walk, I love the animals; the cats that I know that will come out, the dogs that brush up to me from their dog’s leashes. I have two favourite dogs but the favourite dog is Daisy. I call her Daisy-doo. She’s this little corgi. I know the people who live in this house. They have their door open so she and this other big dog, Mac, run out from the house to put their nose under the gate so I can pet them. I pet them through the gate and she always rushes out to make sure that she gets petted on my walk.
Would you say that this daily walk is part of your mindfulness meditation practice?
Yeah. One of the things that I do on my walk, sometimes I catch up on phone calls with friends but most of the time I use it to pray and to sort through the day. I always have a notebook. I also have my phone, so if I want to record anything to the phone, I do, but I don’t listen to music or anything. I have a paper notebook with a pen that I carry and also the phone. I get a lot of ideas. I remember in my old neighbourhood one time, I had my notebook and I was sniffing flowers. I used to live in Oakland at one point. I would sniff flowers, I would write in my notebook, I would walk and walk. This woman came up to me and said, “Are you a flower professor?” I said, “What?” She goes, “I see you every day with that notebook, sniffing flowers and then writing in it.” I said, “No. I just love sniffing the flowers. I’m actually writing other things in it, other ideas.” She thought I was a flower professor.
What I do is I have some meditations where I work on myself. There’s a beautiful one from Dr. Brian Alman that I can share with you that’s super simple. You just breathe in, you say your name, and you can say your first name and your last name. You breathe out and you say what you want. What happens when you’re doing that is it creates a connective circle, because we rarely say our names to ourselves. It creates something in the brain chemistry where you can connect it to a goal. You breathe in, “Susan,” and you breathe out, “Grace,” if that’s something that you want. Sometimes I do that for the qualities that I’m working on. Other times I work on people that bug me. I have a meditation that I do so I can send love and get over that feeling about not liking that person or letting them bug me. I’m working on that too. Then also healing old patterns or old things that still rankles me. Those are some of the things that I do while I’m walking. Sometimes I just walk and just space out and see what comes in to let it flow, let my mind clear.
Susan, if you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, in addition to what you’ve just talked about, what other practices might you adopt to just try and get scented again and just calm yourself down?
Breathing is the most important thing and the most neglected thing. I remember this Zen story about a guy saying, “Breathing is so boring.” The Zen monk grabbed his head, thrust it in a barrel of water and held it in there. When the guy was blubbering and almost drowning, he lifted his head out, he says, “Now is your breath interesting?” Breath is the thing that can control our autonomic nervous system quickest. It’s the one thing that I train all of the people that I media coach, is how to control the breath. If you practice it ahead of time, even five minutes a day, breathing in holding ten counts, breathing out ten counts and pushing out all of the air, you will calm down your autonomic nervous system. It is a fact. It’s the way that your body chemistry works. That’s the quickest way to calm down is doing that. That’s not so easy sometimes sitting. That’s why I like to have people walk because sometimes it’s easier in movement and the movement gets your endorphins going too, so that combination.
For me, a movement is the best way to calm myself. I will go out for a walk. If I can’t take a whole walk, I will go out into the garden. If I’m crappy or if I’ve had a tough client call, I will go out into the garden, I will take my clippers, I will deadhead roses, just snip off the dead. I will deadhead around the garden. I will also sniff all of the different flowers because it just makes me so happy, just breathing in the air. I found that article about if you just put your feet on the actual ground, on the grass, it will help you get over jetlag. I’m like, “Damn, I wish I would have thought of that.” I was walking around the garden but in shoes. I had forgotten about that. I have remembered reading that before. Taking off your shoes and putting your feet on the ground, which is so simple. That’s why I think we love walking on the beach, putting our feet in the sand and in the water. We’re just touching the earth and somehow that shifts the whole-body chemistry too into a much calmer state.
If only we had known, we might have avoided all that jetlag after our fabulous trip. This sounds to me like that’s a really super simple but really impactful tip that somebody, for instance, in a big city who’s got a horrible commute, might be able to adopt. They may try the breathing exercises if they’re seated in a train carriage for instance, but that they might have more benefit from it if they’re walking from the station to their office.
One of the things I do too, like if they are seated on a train or in line in a long grocery line, so I’m crabby. “Oh my God, this long line. I’m hot.” To shift the crabbiness, I do a meditation where I send love and kindness to the people in the line. I might choose one person or I might start with one person and create a circle of energy between us and people inevitably turn around and smile. I’ve done it so many times that I know that people feel it because they’ll turn around and smile at me. Or the other thing that I’ll do just as a real practice, especially at the dollar store, the people behind me just have one item and I have twenty, “Go ahead.” Even if I’m in a hurry, I’ll let that person go ahead because it makes me feel better. Even if I’m in a hurry, I just did a kindness. I’ll think about that one person and then I’ll expand it to the people in the line and then I’ll expand it to everybody in the store, because a lot of people are crabby. I’m not the only one in the store. I did that a lot in Paris on the train. I do that typically in public transportation. I do it when I’m stuck in traffic. That’s just a practice to get out of the crabbiness, to think about sending that love and kindness to all the people who need it, because we all do.
Many of us are living in cities where speed is the default setting and any way we can be a bit kinder to ourselves and a bit kinder to each other is always a wonderful thing.
It really is. I have another practice. If I’m walking anytime especially in line, when you look at somebody and they just annoy you and you think a bad thought to them. Whenever I do that, which is often, I admit, sometimes initially they just annoy you for some reasons or they’ve done something annoying and maybe they’re annoying or they’ve done something annoying. I challenge myself to find one good thing about them. Sometimes it could be even the most minor thing. It can be they look good in that shoe colour. I try to really challenge myself to see something deeper in them that’s the good in them. Anytime I think that negative thought, I practice in thinking the positive thought and shifting it so the negative thoughts come less. It’s not that they don’t come at all because they do. That’s just the fact of life. I challenge myself then to switch it to positive.
That always makes me feel better too because I don’t feel good thinking negative things toward people. That’s a catch-22, the more you think negative things about people, the more people are negative back towards you and the more you get caught up in that negativity, so the more you switch it to the positive. It’s not Pollyannaish either. I just want to say that it’s not about trying to stop the negative thoughts, it’s about noticing that you’ve thought a negative thing and to shift it in the moment. “I just thought that about the person that I don’t even know. Can I find something good in them?” Then that’s the practice of always finding the good in other people and the practice of always finding good in other situations, even when it’s difficult.
Especially when we were in Bali, sometimes we were so hot and crabby and we had a shopkeeper who was bitchy. We were hot and crabby and then somebody was pushy, then we don’t like them, “Why are we here? This is so hot. Why did we even choose to leave our beautiful villa today?” It starts the cycle of negativity. “I should have stayed home.” Instead of, “Let’s go get an ice cream or let’s get something cold to drink,” and shift the situation.
I’m interested in learning about how you came to become a black belt in Aikido.
I started training with Richard Strozzi-Heckler, who specializes in leadership even for people high in government. He does it for everyone. It’s about leadership in your company but also leadership in your own life. That’s a long story how I found him. Let’s just say I found him, I asked him to be my mentor, I started training with him in leadership and doing some personal work with him. Then at his dojo, I saw my first black belt test. Tesfaye, who came from Ethiopia, was the first person to get his black belt and went back to Ethiopia to train gang kids and kids with AIDS. I saw Aikido for the first time and I thought this is the most beautiful, amazing martial art. It was so extraordinary. I had to do it. It turns out that someone there introduced me to Hans Goto Sensei and the dojo here in San Rafael is five minutes from my house.
I started training in Aikido, which was the most difficult and arduous and frustrating thing that I’ve ever done. I had always been an athlete. I’m a former Tennis Pro and was captain of my volleyball team, number one on the team, a jock. I couldn’t do Aikido for anything in the world. I have two left feet. It’s three-dimensional and up-down. I was the most uncoordinated person and it was always like I was chosen last in the baseball team. They would demonstrate something and I’m thinking, “I have no idea what they just did. I have no idea where to start.” I really literally cried every night in my car, never in the dojo. I go to my car and just cry. I’m so awkward. Everything that I was working on myself came up. Every quality that I didn’t like about myself came up on the dojo floor, and bam, it’s in my face. It’s the most intense therapy. Every day I’m confronting everything I don’t like about myself. You can’t hide your body. It all comes out. It’s all demonstrated. For some reason, I really loved it and nobody in my dojo ever thought that I would be a black belt. They all thought I would quit. People confessed that to me later, “I never thought you’d last.” I just persisted.
I still have anxiety about going. I haven’t gone since I’ve been back, Clare. I can’t bring myself to do it. I still have a lot of resistance. It’s the thing I love the most and I resist the most. It’s because you have to touch people, you have to interact with people, your bodies are up against them. Sometimes I just don’t want to be in that kind of intimate situation. It’s still really hard. There will be times where my Sensei will demonstrate something. He sees the look on my face where it’s like I’m thinking, “I can’t do this and I want to leave.” He’ll read it and he’ll say, “Susan, you can do this. Susan, be brave.” I just want to cry and think I just want to go home, and I don’t and I never have. I sometimes go into the bathroom for bathroom break just to breathe. I have cried in the bathroom but I’m like, “I’m not crying in the dojo floor.”
It’s incredible this tenacity and persistence in you and a bloody-mindedness almost. You keep going back regardless of all the stuff that it has brought up, all of the challenges and the difficulties. You’ve loved it enough and you’re persistent enough to push through those even when it doesn’t feel good.
It rarely does feel good. Here’s the thing, everybody is different, so you can’t do the same move twice. Each person is different, so you’re actually adjusting what has just been demonstrated to each person who’s in front of you. It’s not like tennis where you’re just hitting a ball and you know the perfect place to hit the ball and you’ve done enough shots where you know the perfect place to hit the ball in almost any circumstance. It’s just not like that because every person is different and every moment is different. Even my Sensei said if he feels he’s done one throw in a hundred that’s good, he feels that’s a good day. You’re throwing imperfectly most of the time; you’re attacking and throwing the other person imperfectly and pinning most of the time. It’s because both of you are in motion. You don’t ever get a chance to gloat or be proud, because if you do, in the next moment you can be thrown down on the mat. That’s another great practice. It’s like, “Yeah, I just did a good thing.” No, you can’t even go, “Oh my God, I had one good throw,” because the person’s attacking you again and it’s to your disadvantage in the moment. It’s a great practice for not judging what you do in the moment, just doing it. That’s the point about being present because if you’re not present, you can get hurt. The next move is already coming. It’s a practice of being focused and present, which is exhausting every time. /but the more I train, the more that that time where I am focused and present is extended.
Would you say that this is a sport that a frazzled urbanite would really benefit from?
Yeah, because you can’t daydream, you can’t space out. It’s so absorbing and that’s one of the reasons why I love it. When Will, my sweetie, got a staph infection and almost died and he was in the hospital for two months, Aikido was such a refuge for me because at the beginning of class I’d be thinking about him and think about, “Right after class, I’m going to the hospital.” Part of the time he was in San Francisco, so I had to drive an hour after Aikido, so I get home at 1:00 in the morning. I finished at 8:00 and drive to the city and get home at 1:00 and start the day again and work for myself. Aikido was such a refuge for me because I couldn’t think about Will for those two hours. Sometimes it would pop in between when Sensei was demonstrating something or someone was demonstrating, it would come in and then I’d have to say, “Let it go and focus on the present moment,” because I’d miss what he was demonstrating. It was such relief to be not worrying and not thinking about what was happening to my sweetie in the hospital. That was a refuge for me.
That sounds like it was a fantastic release and refuge for you, thank goodness, during that traumatic time. That certainly is something that is an idea anyone listening today in an urban setting anywhere around the world might consider exploring.
The other thing that’s so nice about it is that Aikido is based on love and kindness. It’s called the art of love and harmony. It’s really about doing the least damage possible to your attacker, but it’s also about understanding someone’s point of view. In Aikido, we never stop a blow, we connect with it and redirect it. Then we use the other person’s energy going in the direction they think they want to go to throw them. It’s very much about connecting with another person. Ultimately, the mindset that we’re going for is that there’s no separation between people. You know the mind of your attacker because you have the same mind. You’re connected to the earth and the universe and all of that. That’s implicit in the training.
We don’t really talk about that too much but we talk about how to stay connected, how to be more connected and closer to the attacker because the ironic thing is the closer you are, the safer you are in Aikido, which is crazy. We all want to pull away and get as far away from the person, but in Aikido, the more parts of your body that touch the other person, the safer you are to get away and to attack them. It’s full of that irony. Just the practice of it, that we’re so much in our heads all the time, especially with computers and cell phones and that sort of thing, that this really puts you into your body. That’s one the reasons why I love it too, because I’m such a thinky person.
Susan, you’ve just mentioned attackers. I know that you have a really special and important program that you have been working on for some time that is important for anyone who is a woman or who has a loved one who happens to be a girl or a woman. Will you tell us a bit more about that?
I’ve created True Shield, a verbal self-defence course for girls. I called it True Shield because it’s from a saying from O Sensei, the founder of Aikido. He said, “Your spirit is your true shield.” That’s why I named the course such. It’s for girls 12 to 24 to empower them to go through the ten most difficult and dangerous situations that they’ll be in and stay safe. It’s about role playing. Even though I call it verbal self-defence, it’s very physical. It’s using your eyes and your face and your body and your voice so you never get to a point where someone is actually attacking you. It’s a pre-self-defence course to protect girls and to train them to speak up in any situation where they need to use their voice.
We’ve even got a scenario where a girl was interrupted. What do you when you’re interrupted, when you want to say something and you’re not being heard? It’s a practice and training just like Aikido. The more you do it and try different things, the more confident and calm and empowered you’ll be. The YWCA in Boulder just signed on, so we’re in the YWCA and we’re in a school in Marin and the course is just getting launched for schools and organizations all over the world to empower their girls. Also, I’m talking to shelters and domestic violence and sexual slavery; people who support the girls who have been sexually enslaved. Those are the kinds of organizations that we’ll be working with.
This is such an important program and I’m so happy to hear that you had this success so far and that it’s going to be reaching many more women and girls around the world. I say that as both a woman and an auntie, I look at my two nieces who I adore and I want them to be empowered and to have the verbal tools and the knowledge to protect themselves, as you say, to avoid getting into these situations where bad things can happen.
The thing is that every woman that I’ve talked to or anyone, they all say, “I wish I would have had this when I was growing up.” They all have the same reaction. Everyone says that. “I wish we had this for me.” Some people have even asked me, “Can moms take it?” It would be a great thing for moms to do it too. As a media trainer, one of the reasons why I created the course is because no matter how successful a woman is, even if she’s a CEO of a company and very dynamic, these issues are all the same. I realized that media training women, that there were so many situations where a woman was afraid to speak up or afraid to challenge authority or to ask for what she wanted or to be portrayed in the media in a way she wished she wasn’t because she didn’t know that she could speak up for herself and say, “I don’t want to be posed with my cleavage out. I don’t want to sit in that particular chair on my bad side. No, that’s a subject I don’t want to talk about.” To navigate how to redirect the conversation if it’s a subject that you don’t want to talk about.
I’ve worked intensively with women for 27 years on being able to give the message that they want in a media interview and to redirect the conversation where they don’t want an interviewer to go. I had been doing that verbal Aikido with women for years. Then I thought let’s bring it to girls younger so they learn this so by the time they are adults, they know how to handle themselves in any situation. They know how to say no and have that be the final statement. Gavin de Becker says, “When a man says no, it’s the end of a conversation. When a woman says no, it’s the beginning of a negotiation.” Let’s stop that. When we say no, it’s the end of a conversation.
I really couldn’t agree more. That’s absolutely super important. I can’t wait to see how the programme unfolds over the rest of this year into next year. One question I have to ask because all of our listeners at home will be curious. Tell us please, how did you almost come to be sold into slavery?
I was in Israel with my family. I was with my brother. Suddenly this man was very close to me and he goes, “Is that your husband?” pointing to my brother. I said, “Yes.” He says, “Tell him, I want to buy you for ten camels and a mule.” I’m thinking, “Excuse me?” “You, tell him.” I go up to my brother and I say, “We need to keep walking because this guy is trying to buy me.” “It is a good price. You tell him. Ten camels and a mule.” I said to him, “I’m thinking that’s not that much.” “It is a good price. You tell him.” It was really scary to have him trailing after, insisting that he’s going to buy me for ten camels and a mule. Even me at that time I’m thinking, “I’m worth more than that.”
What I want to say to everyone is sometimes we really think about we don’t really recognize our own self-worth. That’s such an important thing. What you do too in Urban Curiosity, it’s thinking about what really matters to us in every moment. As we’re walking, “What beautiful thing can I notice about this day? What beautiful thing can I notice about myself?” That’s a daily practice for me too because just like everyone else, I’m so critical of myself, of my body, of my face, of getting old, of my wrinkles, you name it. That kind of thing is also a daily practice and being present to who you are and really what you want to accomplish in the world. Because that’s really where my focus is, much as I’m concerned about and of course in the media, how I look and all of that. I think about that too. Really, I think about what do I want to accomplish in the world? What’s more important to me? The other things will take care of themselves.
I’m going to ask you the final question which is, what are you curious about right now?
I am curious about jiu-jitsu. First of all, Aikido is so super hard. I’m really bad at it but what I’m good at, I can punch somebody in the face and knee them and do all those things. I took another Aikido class which was more street fighting from this guy who trained the military and Special Forces and all of that. I’m thinking, “I can so do this,” because it was much more direct. Jiu-jitsu is also on the ground. We don’t train on the ground. We train throwing people on the ground and pinning them. I’m very curious about training on the ground and also being able to do things that are more direct, that have a more direct effect that’s more self-defence. Aikido, it is martial arts and it is self-defence and as I said, it’s designed not to hurt your attacker even though the next step in a pin would be a break; pinning someone and then the next step would be a break. We never go that far. That’s what I’m curious about. I’m curious about jiu-jitsu where I could do something a little more direct in self-defence.
You’re going to have come back on and let us know how you got on.
That sounds good.
Susan, thank you so much for being on the Urban Curiosity podcast today. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you.
It’s been so lovely, Clare. Thank you for inviting me. I can’t wait to come to London and actually do an Urban Curiosity Walkshop or have you come here to California and do one.
We might make those happen. I can’t wait. Thanks, Susan.