10 Questions Series: Jack Canfield

September 2, 2013 by Chris Grosso

Jack Canfield

NAME: Jack Canfield

BIO: As the beloved originator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul® series, Jack Canfield fostered the emergence of inspirational anthologies as a genre – and watched it grow to a billion dollar market. As the driving force behind the development and delivery of more than 123 million books sold through the Chicken Soup for the Soul® franchise (and over 500 million copies in print worldwide), Jack Canfield is uniquely qualified to talk about success.

Behind the empire Time Magazine called the “publishing phenomenon of the decade” is America’s leading expert in creating peak performance for entrepreneurs, corporate leaders, managers, sales professionals, corporate employees, and educators. Over the last 30 years, his compelling message, empowering energy and personable coaching style has helped hundreds of thousands of individuals achieve their dreams. 


Q: Who and or what, do you attribute the person you are today to?


A: There’s an old saying that when the student is ready, the teacher appears, and that’s been my experience in life. Beginning in High School I had teachers take me under their wing and tell me I was special. They encouraged me to apply to Harvard instead of West Virginia University and I thought they were crazy, but then I got into Harvard. While I was there, I had a college professor who was the # 1 expert on Vietnam during the Vietnam War. I was studying Chinese History as my major and he took me under his wing and told me I was special. Then, when I arrived at Graduate School, the head of the graduate program told me they were writing a book about first year teachers and that they wanted me to be one of the ten people included. After Graduate School, a woman named Marion Balboni from the Harvard School of Education approached me regarding a Job Corp center that trained kids who had dropped out of school. She said she wanted two of the brightest students from the University of Chicago, Harvard & Stamford, and they chose me to be one of those six people. We basically retooled education as we were the first people to use cassette programs to teach kids to read that we had designed ourselves. From there, a professor I met at a conference encouraged me to further my education and he helped me get into the Doctoral Program at the University of Massachusetts. Then I met a woman named Martha Crampton who was a Psychosynthesis expert. She took me under her wing and told me I was one of five people she wanted to train to do that work. I spent three years driving back and forth from Massachusetts to Montreal for training. Lynn Twist, who started The Pachamama Alliance and was also the head of The Hunger Project at Est took me under her wing and taught me about how money is incorrectly perceived in the world and how we need to change how we deal with economics and the ecological situation in general. Jack Kornfield who’s a wonderful mediation teacher, taught me Vipassana Meditation. Throughout my life there’s been teachers who’ve emerged usually taking me to a higher level of my own self-esteem. They believed in me and helped me own parts of myself including my spirituality, physicality, humor and power. My path has been blessed by teachers.


Q: What are some of the musical albums or musicians/bands that have impacted your life and in what way?


A: Early on Bob Dylan was an influence for me. I remember being in college and buying all of his albums. I appreciated the consciousness that he was bringing to the transformational shift that was happening in our culture when people were beginning to wake up. The 60’s and 70’s gave rise to the civil rights movement, the empowerment of women, the anti-war movement and he was a huge voice for that. I also sang in a folk singing group and learned some of his songs and we included them in our work.


James Taylor had a big influence on me. You’ve Got a Friend and Shower the People are two songs I still use in my workshops today. The lyrics, “Shower the people you love with love” and “You’ve got a friend, call me anytime” are moving and I think that’s a lot of what I teach. I was just having my astrological chart read by an Ayurvedic Astrologer yesterday as it was my birthday recently and my wife gave that to me as a gift. He said that my two major focuses in life are love and friendship, and that’s what I’ve been creating in my work. Organizations that teach people to live their lives more fully in love and to be connected to each other in a way that’s empowering and loving.


I love the work of Krishna Das and his chanting and listen to him often. I have an infrared sauna and his music is playing in there whenever we’re in there sweating, and chanting along.


Joan Baez’s work back in the sixties also had a huge influence on me. I loved singing along with her.


More recently, I love the work of Enya. She creates wonderful music that uplifts and makes me feel expansive.


Q: What is one of the most shocking experiences you’ve ever had?


A: The most shocking experience I had was that when I was 16, I was kidnapped. It was a very brief kidnapping, lasting about three hours, but it was horrendously scary for me. I was hitchhiking on my way home from school, which I did everyday when I was in my teens, and a guy picked me up and offered to drop me off at my house. He proceeded to drive past the road my house was on, which was at the edge of the city, and we were then headed into the country. He turned onto a dirt road and said he was going to pick up a radio and that he’d drive me back to my house after that. He then pulled over and tried to sexually assault me. When I was resisting, he pulled a gun out of the glove compartment and threatened to shoot me if I didn’t cooperate. I remember knocking my hat off, and as he reached into the back seat to get it, I unlocked the car door, got out and began running. I remember running down the dirt road in a zigzag fashion because I’d seen in some war movie that when you run in a zigzag motion, and someone is shooting at you, that if you change directions at the right moment, you have a 50/50 chance of surviving. I don’t know why that came into my mind, but it did. I then ran down a hill that was at a 45% angle, and what should have taken 15 steps took me about three. I knocked on a farmhouse door and a woman answered who proceeded called the cops. For months after, I had difficulty falling asleep. I had nightmares about him coming into my window and trying to kill me. We looked at mug shots but I was unable to identify him. They took imprints of his tire tracks but he was never caught and they never figured out who he was. I think that was the first time I lost my innocence and began to realize there really are scary things in the world. It heightened my awareness and got me out of my Pollayana mindset. I’m still optimistic and I trust the Universe but now, I trust my intuition when I don’t feel safe.


Q: What is one of the most beautiful experiences you’ve ever had?


A: When I was in the rainforest in Ecuador, I had an experience with Ayahuasca. I was with The Pachamama Alliance who brought people down there to preserve the rainforest. During our trip, we took Ayahuasca and somewhere around the middle of it, it was as if there was a narrators voice that said to me, “You are about to experience what very few human beings will ever experience in their lifetime on earth.” There was then an explosion of light and I experienced pure bliss. All I can remember is being totally in awe, totally at peace, totally at one with everything. I think it lasted about 10 minutes but who knows in those kinds of situations. I remember at the end of it crying and just repeating the words “thank you” over, and over. I could have died right then and I would have been happy. It would have been like, “Okay, now I understand what it’s all about.” I’d read all the books and done the meditating, but I’d never had that powerful of an experience. It’s been something that’s guided me since and I find that at times, while I’m meditating or leading a group meditation, I’ll drop into that space. I was watching the closing ceremony of the Olympics a few weeks ago and there was a fireworks display. They were shooting in the air from the edge of the arena towards the center, like a huge mandala of purple, pink, yellow & white light, and it looked almost like that explosion of light I had when I had my previous Ayahuasca experience. I’d been watching the closing ceremonies for about an hour and half and the competition was over. Everybody was celebrating and there was a sense of oneness between all the countries. They were having fun and dancing and I was already in a space of humanity as brotherhood and love, and when those fireworks started, it was like a flashback of my total bliss experience. I remember just sitting there with a smile on my face and feeling at one with everyone in the world. So it keeps coming back. The other benefit is that it’s informed me in such a way now that I find I’m very rarely scared. For as much as I teach, there’s still times I’m on stage and wonder how I’m doing, if they’re getting it, if they like me, but that’s pretty much disappeared for the most part. My sense of joy, humor and spontaneity is also way stronger. I just finished the weeklong workshops I did around the world, in 24 countries. Everyone on my staff who assisted me, about 25 people, were all saying that I’ve never been more on, more joyful, never had more love coming out of my heart, so I think that really impacted me at a very deep level.


The other experience that was most beautiful for me was taking a midwife class. I helped birth two of my three children (I have three boys.) I had a doctor present both times so if there was an emergency they would know what to do, but I actually delivered two babies and that was magical. Being present at a birth, even in a hospital is amazing, but doing it at my own home, with mediation music playing and being able to participate and facilitate that experience, and watching those babies come out of a woman and it’s alive and it needs your help, that was just amazingly beautiful.


Q: What is one of the most defining moments in your life and why?


A: There’s two that come to mind. The first was when I was sitting in a laundry mat in Chicago while attending Graduate School at The University of Chicago Graduate School of Education. I was minding my own business, reading a book for one of my courses, when a stranger came up to me and forcefully said, “Put your book down and talk to me,” so I thought, “okay” and we subsequently became great friends. His name was Frank Brody and he was a Graduate Student in Economics working with Bobby Kennedy on figuring out how to reduce poverty in the city of Chicago, which is what his doctoral dissertation was on. He invited me to attend a lecture series that was happening up at Kendall College in Evanston, IL called The Living Philosopher’s Series so I went. Some of the speakers were Alan Watts, who was a great Zen teacher, probably the first American to really popularize Zen Meditation. There was also someone by the name of Doxiadis, who was a Greek Architect and a humanist that was really cool. Marshall McLuhan was also there. He wrote the largely influential “The Medium is the Message.” The person who I saw speak the first night however was named Dr. Herbert Otto, Director of the National Center for Exploration of Human Potential. He was studying things back then like fire walking, people who spoke in tongues, people who spoke 20 languages etc and in his lecture, he talked about how we’re only using 10% of our brains and 10% of our potential. Afterwards, I approached him and said I wanted to learn more regarding what he spoke about and he told me about a foundation that was there in town, which taught all that kind of stuff. It was called the W. Clement and Jesse V. Stone Foundation. W. Clement Stone was a good friend of Napoleon Hill who wrote Think and Grow Rich and they had also written a book together. It was a growth center similar to the Esalen Institute or Omega, called Oasis, and I started talking seminars there on the weekends. I was learning about things like Yoga, Taoism, Meditation, Gestalt Therapy and I couldn’t get enough of it. I was like someone who hadn’t drank water for their whole life and I began realizing that my whole life had been academic and sport oriented. My brain was well developed, and my body was well developed, but I never really delved into my emotions, and there were a lot of suppressed emotions. My father was abusive, my mother was an alcoholic and they got divorced when I was six, so there was a lot of pain associated with that. I’d never really delved into spirituality though. I’d gone to church and sang in the choir, but the thing I liked about church was singing in the choir, just like chanting with Krishna Das, I wasn’t interested in spiritual training or religious education however. When I started taking these seminars at Oasis, I really woke up to a deeper part of myself, and that’s what really sparked my interest in this work. I began teaching it in my High School classes. I would do self-esteem exercises, and break kids into pairs, having them talk about their goals and fears and how and why they stop themselves from accomplishing things. I was even elected “Teacher of the Year” during my first year of teaching. I’d have students who were suspended from school, sneak into school just to go to my class and then sneak out of school again and that was pretty cool. That was probably the major defining moment.


The second was when I was working for a training company and decided I had to leave and go start my own training company, and I was scared to death. My wife and I were living on $32,000 a year in L.A. at that wasn’t a lot of money. We borrowed $10,000 from my Mother-in-Law and started with a hollow chore door that was stained on top of two file cabinets in my kitchen, a phone and an IBM electric typewriter. That’s how I started my company and I’ve been running it now for 30 years. That was a big defining moment. Finding the courage to go out on my own and entrepreneur and do this for myself, not working for anyone else and knowing that if we didn’t make it, we wouldn’t eat.


Q: What do you believe are the benefit, if any, vs. the dangers of mind-altering drugs?


A: I think all mind altering drugs have both qualities. There’s nothing out there that doesn’t have a benefit and a cost. I’ve never been heavily into “the drug scene.” In Graduate School, I was first introduced to Peyote coincidentally by the guy who is now the head of drug prevention for the State of New Hampshire. He was a fellow doctoral student and invited me to ingest the substance. I’d grown up pretty much straight and had never done it but agreed too. I remember having the most amazing inner journey of interconnectedness, of seeing life in the trees as living beings and feeling my own spirituality, the joy, the deeper sense of what was happening in the world energetically. At that time, having been very impressed by the experience, I sought out a Shaman and would say that probably half the years of my life since then, I’ve done about two journeys a year. I have done everything from LSD to Mescaline, Ayahuasca and so forth. Mostly natural substances that come from nature that were being used by indigenous tribes, always in a sacred context and almost always alone with my wife and a Shaman, though sometimes with a small group. Those experiences have been very meaningful to me in terms of deepening my awareness of what was really important, showing me where I was off purpose, showing me my fears, my attachments, my addictions to fame, money, being important and mattering. I’ve also seen the destruction of people who use drugs recreationally and too often. Whether it’s the aforementioned substances or cocaine or even pot. I’ve seen many high school kids get addicted and lose motivation for school. I’ve seen the aftermath of people who’ve done a lot of LSD in the 60’s and become dysfunctional. I watched one guy totally lose it and eventually commit suicide as a result. I’ve seen people when they weren’t prepared psychologically, and guided correctly by someone who knew the territory, have experiences they weren’t able to integrate. They flipped out and become what we would call mentally ill, because parts of themselves came up out of the depths without any guidance on how to integrate, or process them and literally the people just went off the deep end. I was at Harvard when Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, who later became Ram Dass, were doing experiments with LSD. In a recent interview with Oprah, Ram Dass said they went way off the deep end and probably damaged some of their own brains and the brains of others. For me, I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had. They’ve had a profound impact on my life and given me a glimpse of what’s possible. They’ve showed me places I needed to look at and places I needed to go, but I don’t recommend mindless, unintentional use just to escape or get high. It is important that they be done with intention and in a controlled environment. They can be done alone, but I think it’s helpful when you have a guide.


Q: What are some films you’ll never forget seeing for the first time and why?


A: One of the first films that really touched me was To Kill a Mockingbird. I grew up in West Virginia, which had a lot of racism, and it helped me to confront that as well as to see the power of someone standing up against prejudice.


Another movie that really rocked me was Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence standing up against the British Government and his bravery, creativity, and seeing through the crap was excellent, especially because he was right.


Gladiator is a more recent film that was similar in nature that I enjoyed. A lot of the films I’m moved by are somewhat heroic, where people have the courage to stand up for what they feel is right and the right way to be.


Dances with Wolves is another movie that did a similar thing. Instead of decimating the Native American tribes, Kevin Costner’s character really saw the beauty and went “rogue,” as the military would say, but he followed his heart.


El Norte was a movie about a Guatemalan family sneaking into the United States from Mexico. Living in Southern California at the time, it really touched me in terms of my sensitivity about what it means to be an immigrant and their struggle for freedom, and the cost and pain that comes with it.


Most recently, I saw a movie called The Intouchables, which is a film about a black guy who goes to work for a very wealthy Frenchman, who is a quadriplegic, and they both learn to love one another, not in a sexual way but a way that teaches them to love life more fully. They transform one another throughout the movie and it’s powerful.


Q: Does God exist and if so, in what capacity? If not, why not?


A: As far as I’m concerned, God exists. The question is how do you define God? I don’t see God as a guy in the sky with a great beard on a throne but rather as infinite source energy, the cause of all things, the infinite intelligence, the energy matrix, the grand design. I believe that there is a matrix, and I believe there is an unfolding and evolution that is occurring, and we can either cooperate with that and allow life to become easy and fun, or not. About three years ago, someone asked me what the purpose of the Universe was, so I thought about it, and the only thing I could think of was that the only thing I knew for sure was that the universe is expanding, so I answered that maybe that’s its purpose. The person who asked me, he was a Quantum Physicist or a Philosopher, but he said that that’s right, it’s expansion. It’s expansion of consciousness, love, awareness and so forth. I feel there’s a nurturing, supportive energy that is in the universe that I can align with, and when I align with it, I can ask it for guidance. I can relax into it and be nurtured. I see it as light, as energy, as consciousness, as mathematical. There’s so many ways you can describe it, relate to it and tap into it. As people often say, it’s a mystery, it’s ineffable, words can never describe it. Someone once asked me if I believe in God, and I said, “No, I don’t believe in God, I know God.” It’s like if they were to ask me if I believed in my wife; No, I know my wife. We’re always trying to understand it and relate to it more. Michael Beckwith, whose church I go to often, says they’re not interested in a theory of God, but rather, in a direct experience of God, and that can be found through meditation and dancing, chanting, some of the hallucinogens I previously mentioned and more. I feel like I’ve had that direct experience with God and I’m very grateful.


Q: What do you think your greatest contribution to humanity is?


A: I believe I do two things. One is that I’m able to take esoteric, difficult to understand or complex ideas and present them in a way that the average person can relate to, and integrate and apply them into their lives. I have an ability to come up with metaphors and stories that make it easy for people to ingest and digest these things. I also think I offer a safe space. I have total compassion, and I won’t say total unconditional love, because I still get irritated occasionally, though very rarely, but people feel safe to be themselves and open up. As they open up, they discover who they really are and once they do that, they have the courage to express that and achieve their dreams. On a personal level, I think that is my greatest contribution. How that’s come through in form however, is through the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, which now have 500 million copies, in 40 languages in print around the world. In the last three years, we printed over 325 million books and they’re even using them to teach English to children in schools in China. The stories are very moving, inspiring and motivating and to realize we’ve probably touched 1/7th of humanity through our books blows me away. The other thing is being involved in The Secret. Over a billion people have watched that movie and I was one of the major players in it. There’s also the trainings I do and we’ve now trained close to 300 people to do the work I do in almost 40 countries around the world and that’s exciting. Lastly, I created a transformational leadership council, which now has about 120 leaders like Don Miguel Ruiz, Gay Hendricks and John Gray who. We come together twice a year and commune and share ideas, we nurture and empower each other. I think we were all feeling alone because we were at the top of our mountains so it was nice to come together. There’s so much coming out of that group in terms of cross pollination, co-venturing and projects so that’s something I feel has been a really great contribution as well.


Q: What does the human experience mean to you?


A: I love being alive and being in a body. I have a lot of friends who want to get off the wheel of karma and never come back, and once I experienced bliss, I can see why they want to do that, but I like being alive, I love being in a body. My astrologer was telling me the other day that I’m very sensorial. I know I’m on track when I’m experiencing joy and aliveness in my body. I love feeling my senses. I love good food and the occasional nice glass of wine. I have a rose garden and flower beds at my home and I love them. I love hearing good music. I have 14,000 songs in my iTunes and every kind of music from African Dance, to Classical, Indian Chanting, Reggae and Blues. I’m grateful for my sight. I have a great art collection and enjoy beauty. Someone recently said, “Beauty is as much divinity as can be contained in any one form” and I truly believe that. I feel blessed to have been given this opportunity to experience love, joy, enthusiasm and all the things that allow me to feel this aliveness, and not just to vibrate it and be one with it but to sense it. I also love to create, whether it’s painting, sculpting, playing the guitar or piano, landscaping or interior designing my home, which I did the majority of myself. I love to be able to take my hand and make things happen, play a drum or touch somebody, and that’s only possible because I’m human. There’s the old question that asks if we’re humans having a spiritual experience, or spirits having a human experience, and I believe we’re spirits having a human experience, and I’m enjoying mine a lot.

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Chris Grosso is a writer, public speaker, mental health youth group facilitator, and author with Simon & Schuster. He also writes for Revolver Magazine, Fangoria, and has spoken at a bunch of fancy-schmancy festivals and conferences (as well as even more events that were significantly less than fancy-schmancy). Chris's podcast, The Indie Spiritualist, is hosted on Ram Dass's Be Here Now Network.