There Is No Such Thing As Trash

Dear readers, 


The other night, I reread one of my favorite Zen books—Novice to Master, by Sōkō Morinaga. He shares a wonderful story of the time when he first began to study at Daishuin monastery. His first task upon being accepted to the monastery was to sweep up the temple garden. When he had finished sweeping, he went to the roshi and, pointing at the pile of leaves, pebbles, and moss, asked, “Master, where shall I put this trash?” 

“Trash?” bellowed the roshi. “What trash?” 

The Zen master proceeded to show Morinaga how to save the dry leaves for lighting fires under the bath, use the moss to plug holes between the stones in the walkway, and to place the pebbles under the rain gutters.  

I love the humility and simplicity of the roshi’s demonstration, showing that everything is useful for something—that is, if you can shed the modern habit of throwing everything away and learn to perceive its value instead. And of course, there’s a message here about the nature of life itself: although we may reject certain experiences or aspects of life as being less beautiful or important than others, they are all valuable. There is no trash. 



Although my off-grid home in rural Hawaii is many miles away from the nearest zendo, I’m nevertheless surrounded by teachers whose wisdom rivals that of Morinaga’s roshi. Many of my neighbors remember a time when there was no road at all to this isolated part of the island, and the only way out was to hike or ride a mule up the steep, narrow trail on the side of the cliff. Even now, getting to town is a production on the best of days, and can become impossible for weeks at a time during storms. For this reason, my neighbors are all expert recyclers. Things that would be considered trash in the “real world” are carefully salvaged here. Scraps of rope, peanut butter jars, and bits of wire all find a use; I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve pulled an old water jug or tarp out from the pile of junk under my cabin and thought, Good thing I didn’t throw this away! 

But after living here for five years, I still fall prey to the temptation for convenience, and its shadow side, waste. When that happens, my neighbors are always ready to steer me gently back in the right direction. 

This past week, I was rushing to build a proper outhouse to replace the leaky, derelict one at my homestead before a friend of mine came to visit from the mainland. After digging the hole, building the structure, painting it a beautiful shade of “discount green” from the reject shelf at the hardware store, and even hanging artwork on the back wall, I was ready to add the finishing touch—the toilet seat. Although most of the structure consisted of salvaged wood and leftover bits of hardware and roofing, I’d taken the wildly profligate step of ordering a brand-new seat online. 

 I was determined to get the whole project finished before my friend came. But on the eve of my friend’s visit, my neighbor returned from the post office and informed me that the crucial package had not yet arrived. As ridiculous as it feels to confess this now, I was absolutely crushed. I’d sweated to finish building and painting the outhouse in time, and now it seemed my vision of presenting my friend with a beautiful and luxurious bathroom was dissolving before my eyes. 

In the small community where I live, most projects end up becoming group projects, whether you intended them to or not. Most of my neighbors had gotten themselves involved in the outhouse project, whether it was by giving me advice on siting, helping me lift huge rocks out of the hole, contributing a scrap of wood or a panel of roofing, or playing practical jokes on me when I was building it. At this point, they felt just as invested as I did—especially when it came to the time-honored goal of coddling a “city” friend whose needs, we liked to imagine, were more sophisticated than our own.  

As I stood in my yard, absorbing the news that the yearned-for toilet seat had not, in fact, arrived, my next-door neighbors wandered over. “Why not check the old shack that fell down in the storm?” said one of them. “There used to be a toilet in there.” “Or the one down the trail, by the pomelo tree,” said the other. “Let’s go check there!” “Or, come to think of it,” said the first neighbor, “I think Brad still has an old toilet sitting around in his shed.” 

Suddenly, in the fading light of the day, I found myself going on a toilet seat hunting expedition through the jungle, along with two of my closest neighbors. Within a matter of minutes, we’d rounded up not one, but three—pulled from the abandoned outhouses of bygone residents. 

“See?” said my neighbor. “No need to buy it online. Just look around and use what you can.” 

My spirits lifted by the adventure, and buoyed by a last surge of physical energy, I headed to the outhouse with a jigsaw and cut a hole, then installed the most dignified of the three salvaged toilet seats over it. And when the brand-new version arrived in the mail a few days later, I sent it back. After all, my “no trash” outhouse was already perfect exactly as it was. 



Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to work on the 10th Anniversary edition of Stephanie Bennet Vogt’s classic book Your Spacious Self: Clear the Clutter and Discover Who You Are, coming out from Hierophant next month. As I edited the book, I remember wondering what Vogt would make of my homestead, with its stockpile of odds and ends which just might come in handy someday. Would she take one look at my home or my neighbors’ homes and declare them hopelessly and terminally cluttered? 

But as I moved through the chapters, I was relieved to find that Vogt’s message goes far beyond organizing your tool drawer and letting go of the clothes you no longer wear. Your Spacious Self is about stepping into a mode of existence characterized by expansiveness and ease—whether you live in a minimalist apartment or on a homestead where every last bit of detritus might someday have a use. According to Vogt, spaciousness isn’t measured by the empty space in your cupboards, but by the calm and kindness with which you can hold your physical, mental, emotional, or energetic “clutter” when it arises, allowing it to gently dissolve in the loving field of your awareness. 

I decided that, while Vogt would most likely identify various types of clutter after walking around my home, from the expired seed packets I feel guilty for not planting in time, to the overwhelming mess of files on my hard drive, I’m guessing she couldn’t help but feel the spaciousness here, too—the warm wind blowing through the open tent flaps, the love of my neighbors, and the way that just about any problem can be solved by taking a short walk through the jungle and seeing what you can see. 



This morning, I carefully gathered up the scraps left over from the outhouse project—the sawn-off bits of two-by-fours, dropped nails, and nearly-empty paint cans—and sorted them carefully in my workshop. Who knows when they’ll come in handy, or for what? I felt a kind of reverence as I handled these objects which were at once precious and worthless, as I imagine Morinaga must have felt when he began to see the swept-up leaves and pebbles as something more than trash. I remembered Vogt’s advice to place objects carefully, imbuing them with the energy of your care and attention—energy which will bless the next person to handle those objects, whether it’s you or someone else. 

It is our reverence, of course, which makes things precious, whether those things are scraps of wood or entire chapters of our lives. Handling things with care is a way of elevating them—and elevating ourselves in the process. Learning to care for those things in ourselves and in the world which we are used to seeing as “worthless” is a revolutionary act, going against the grain of a consumer culture that teaches us to ignore or reject that which isn’t perfectly shiny, flawless, and brand new. And when we do start to perceive the value in what we previously considered trash, we realize we are surrounded by treasures—in all places, at all times. 

Readers, as the summer draws to a close, may all the old peanut butter jars you’ve been saving find a use—and may you see the perfection in even your most imperfect endeavors. 



Hilary Smith 

Senior Editor, Hierophant Publishing 

The Power of Story

Dear Readers,


As long as I can remember, I’ve collected people’s stories. Whether it’s a close friend or a stranger I’ll never see again, there are few experiences I treasure more than sitting up late in a darkened kitchen, or riding a bus through an endless sunrise, listening to someone tell me about their life. I’ll gobble up as many stories as they’ll give me, and ask as many questions as they’ll let me: What did you do next? How did you decide? What did the other person say? How did you find your way back again?

I think my love for stories arose in part due to my very orderly and predictable childhood. My parents were cautious and well-organized, with backup plans for their backup plans. Everything went according to the script; it was extremely rare for anything unexpected, dangerous, or exciting to happen. As an adult, I can appreciate the benefits of so much safety and orderliness, which allowed me to thrive at school and in my extracurricular pursuits. But as a child and teenager, I sometimes felt suffocated by the routine. It seemed to me that all the good stories belonged to other people—people who’d lived more dangerously and contended with higher stakes. I’ve spent most of my life seeking those people out and warming my hands on their stories, like a campfire whose flames I can admire but never quite possess.

Lucky for me, the remote off-grid community in rural Hawaii that I call home is teeming with stories. Anyone who’s visited this place even once has a story about it, and the people who live here never seem to run out. No matter how many times I hear about the afternoon a pair of neighbors blocked the water head so they could gather prawns from the streambed, only to have another neighbor stumble across the makeshift dam and “helpfully” unblock it, I never get bored. Told one after another, the stories form their own hypnotic music, casting a spell of belonging, remembering, and appreciation. I love nothing more than to be surrounded by this music, soaking it in, letting it saturate my consciousness. I hope someday to be part of it, woven into it, my own thread joining all the others and tying me to this place.



A few weeks ago, I was chatting with an acquaintance—a friend of my neighbor’s—when he told me one of the best stories I’ve heard in months. One day, my acquaintance and his friend hiked out to visit my neighbor, since they lacked the truck required to make it down the steep four-wheel drive road to his house. But when they got there, after walking through the forest for a little over an hour, my neighbor wasn’t home. They sat down in his living room and played a board game to pass the time while they waited for him to appear.

Night fell, and my neighbor still hadn’t arrived. Unsure if he was coming at all, his friends decided to hike back to their car—but the only flashlights they could find were almost out of batteries, their light faint and weak. It was a new moon, and the forest was completely dark. “I know,” said one of them, “Let’s turn the flashlights on for a second, then run to the edge of where we saw the light fall.” They set out, turning their flashlights on for just long enough to see the next fifty feet of road, then running through the darkness to the edge of where the flashlight beam had fallen. The whole time, it seemed to my acquaintance that they were being followed through the dark woods by some otherworldly presence—the Night Marchers of Hawaiian legend.

This jog through the darkness seemed to last forever. The thong on somebody’s sandal tore out; a set of keys was dropped and groped for and found again. Had they taken a wrong turn? It hadn’t felt this long when they did it in the daylight. And why did it feel like they were being watched, followed, tracked?

Just when they were about to reach their car, sweaty and unnerved, a pair of headlights appeared. It was my neighbor, coming home in his truck after a long day in town.

Although this isn’t a sad story, I tear up when I think of it. There’s something about those weak and fading flashlight beams, illuminating the road for a split second, that I find deeply moving. I love the image of two friends running through the darkness together, pursued by Night Marchers, lending each other the courage and boldness neither of them would have possessed on their own. There’s an innocence and exuberance to the adventure that reminds me of my favorite children’s books. I imagine some plucky frog or talking mouse turning to his companion and saying, I know! Let’s turn on the flashlights for one second at a time! And of course, there’s the happy ending, when the travelers are safely reunited with their friend.



Many years ago, I took a trip to a remote beach with my partner at the time. Our truck flipped over when he attempted to drive up an extremely steep and tilted off-road track. After crawling out the shattered windows, we sat on the grass in a daze, not speaking. Night was falling, and there was no one around. Wanting to enjoy a day of freedom from the screen, I hadn’t brought my phone, and his had flown out of the truck and been crushed under the side view mirror. We were well and truly stranded.

It took a while for us to recover from the shock, much less formulate a plan. Should we sleep right there, beside the ruined truck, and figure out what to do in the morning? Should we hike out to the main road and flag someone down? The road was so far away, and there was no guarantee that anyone would come along at this hour, much less stop to help us.

I felt distressed by the sight of the wreck, and spooked by the thought of spending a sure-to-be-sleepless night in the grassy dunes above the beach. There was a full moon, and I thought it might feel good to walk—grounding, even. Perhaps we’d get lucky and hitch a ride home, where we could gather the tools and supplies we needed to deal with the mess. My partner didn’t have a better idea so, salvaging what we could from the truck, we set out for the road.

As we limped along the dirt trail, the tall grasses whispering all around us and the ocean below pale with moonlight, I realized this was the most present my partner and I had been in months—with each other, and with life itself. We’d both been moving at a hundred miles an hour, caught up in the stress and chaos of moving to a new place. But the accident forced us to slow down. Walking above the moonlit beach, I felt more at peace than I’d been in months. I felt grateful to be alive—not just in the sense of having survived the accident, but in the awakening of my senses to the warm air, the fragrant grass, and the soft dirt beneath my feet.

Suddenly, I felt deep appreciation for every little thing: the sweater and snacks I’d packed that morning before setting out, the fact that it wasn’t raining. I felt grateful to sit in the back of the white Prius that stopped to pick us up when we finally got to the main road, even though it was going in the opposite direction from where we wanted to go; grateful for the cheap motel where we spent the night, for the shower and little bar of soap, and the paper bag of papayas at the front desk. The “disaster” had shocked me out of my mental preoccupations and returned me to my body. The truck was broken, but my soul had been restored.



As an editor at Hierophant, I work primarily with self-help and spirituality books, where the author’s own story often supports and illustrates their message. I feel grateful to be entrusted with these stories, which are often deeply personal. We’re all running through the dark with only the occasional, precious flash of light to keep us going; we’re all doing our best to make the most of that light, and to do right by the friends with whom we share it. Reading and listening to people’s stories, I’m reminded over and over of the basic truths of life: the importance of humility, generosity, patience, and courage; the value of friendship; the kindness of strangers; the grace of the unexpected. It is a blessing to be reminded of these things.

This summer, may you all hear stories which move and inspire you—and may you all have just enough light to make it to the end of the road.



Hilary Smith

Senior Editor, Hierophant Publishing

Balancing Skepticism and Receptiveness

Dear Readers,


One of the unexpected benefits of living on a ramshackle off-grid homestead in rural Hawaii is that whenever friends come to visit from the “real” world, they can never quite restrain themselves from fixing things, building things, or making the small but necessary changes I never seem to get around to completing on my own. No matter how sincerely I assure them that a visit to my land does not come with work-trade requirements, when they see the jumble of tools and the overgrown garden, few of them can resist the urge to put some small piece of this chaos in order.

They remind me of myself when I’m editing a book—poking around, finding better places for things, telling me I should really add this or get rid of that. Before I know it, they’re swinging hammers, pruning trees, and tackling all that is leaky, wobbly, broken, dangerous, or all of the above. I feel a sense of kinship with the authors whose books I gaily assault with my own fix-it projects, and hope they feel the love in what can otherwise be an overwhelming experience, the same way I feel my friends’ love in the knots tied, screws driven, holes patched, and heavy objects moved around my land.



While my friends are fixing things, they also love to project their own dreams onto the land. Why not have a rope swing over here, and a fire pit there? Why not build a trellis for those air potato vines, or drag in a clawfoot tub? I’ve lost track the number of times I’ve heard the words, “If this was my place, I’d build a tree house in that monkeypod.” (Indeed, it’s a running joke in the valley that every newcomer dreams of building a treehouse in a monkeypod, and you can tell how long someone has been here by the fervor with which they express this desire. Meanwhile, most longtime residents have abandoned their monkeypod treehouses and embraced the convenience of life on the ground.)

One friend who stayed with me recently is an avid bird watcher.

“Why not put a bird feeder in the garden?” he said. “You’ll be able to watch birds all day while you’re writing.”

I was skeptical, and told him so. I already saw plenty of birds every day—eating the seeds off the amaranth plants, perching on the ‘awa stalks, chattering in the bamboo at sunrise and sunset. What did I need a bird feeder for? This wasn’t some suburban backyard where one had to carefully court the visits of wildlife. Besides, the kind of birdseed people used on the mainland would probably get moldy in this wet and jungly part of Hawaii, and who knew if tropical birds would even eat it?

Undeterred by my grumping, my friend cut a thick piece of timber bamboo and piled some lava rocks around its base. He set an old metal platter on top of this rudimentary post, weighing it down with another rock. Next, he cut a few bananas from the rack we’d harvested the previous day, and laid them on the platter along with some papaya skins. I groaned inwardly at his naivety.

“You’ve just made a gecko feeder,” I protested. “And a fruit fly feeder, too.”

I imagined myself cleaning up the rotting mess after he left, the same way I’d discreetly dismantled a few of my other friends’ well-meaning but ill-considered contributions to the land. Sure enough, the first visitors to the bird feeder were the bright green geckos ubiquitous to this part of the island—cute enough in their own right, but hardly the feathery spectacle my friend had in mind. Meanwhile, the birds continued to eat the amaranth seeds and perch on the ‘awa plant, ignoring the bounty of fruit.

I’ve lived here for five years, I thought, feeling amused and a little smug at the correctness of my prediction, but anyone who comes down for a weekend always thinks they know better than me. I thought ruefully of the ways that I, too, had ignored the advice of long-term residents when I first moved onto my land—planting a garden in the middle of a swamp, pitching a tent where falling tree limbs could crush it in a storm, and yes, boldly declaring my intention to build a treehouse in a monkeypod as if no one had ever thought of that before.



What is the correct balance between letting yourself be surprised and inspired by another person’s vision, and gently affirming your own experience, wisdom, and authority? As a writer and editor, I ask myself this question all the time. Sometimes, I have to push back on a chapter or section that just doesn’t work. Other times, I have to ask myself if I’m rejecting an idea out of true discernment, or out of the inability to appreciate its potential. Am I being too deferential, or too headstrong? If I let an author have their way against my better judgement, am I giving their vision the benefit of the doubt, or failing in my sworn duty to stop them from needlessly driving over the edge of a very well-traveled cliff?

As an editor, I have to have some measure of confidence in my own sense of what will make a book successful—otherwise, there would be no reason for me to exist. When an author clings to a beloved-but-unnecessary section or paragraph, I sometimes need to summon the inner strength to say, “Look—I’ve been doing this for years, please trust that you’re in good hands.” In my early years as an editor, wary of hurting authors’ feelings, I sometimes refrained from making changes I knew would benefit their books—ultimately robbing those books of the expertise I’d been hired to provide. Even now, I’m still learning when to insist and when to indulge, when to suggest and when to assert, and when to say, “You want to know why nobody who’s lived here for a long time lives in a monkeypod tree?”



“Maybe the birds don’t like the shiny platter,” said my friend. He scrounged around my scrap wood pile until he found an old wooden cutting board. He set it on top of the bamboo post with a fresh offering of papaya and bananas.

The next morning as we sat outside drinking our tea, they appeared: little green white-eyes, rainbow-feathered leothrixes, and a pair of yellow-billed cardinals with a brown-headed baby in tow. We watched for over an hour as the cardinals pecked at the papayas, feeding pieces to their chick, and as waves of leothrixes carried bits of bananas back to their nests. Although I’d seen all these birds before, I had to admit it was wonderful to watch them close up, for extended periods of time—to see their colors and hear their songs and scoldings. My smugness melting into sheepishness, I thanked my friend for his persistence. In this case, at least, a short-term visitor really did know better than curmudgeonly old me.

Since then, the bird feeder has become a daily source of wonder and companionship. The birds keep me company as I sit on my little porch, tinkering with books for hours at a time. In the weeks since my friend went home, I’ve seen the baby yellow-billed cardinal learn to feed itself, and watched the pale brown feathers on its head slowly turning to brilliant red. It makes me wonder how many of the other ideas I’ve dismissed out of hand would change my life if I let them. I, too, am still learning how to be edited—how to trust in the expertise of others, when appropriate, and how to invite others to draw me out of my tunnel vision instead of remaining cozily ensconced within it.

Living off-grid, I’m surrounded by reminders of the never-ending balance between consulting your own authority and deferring to the wisdom of others. Gazing up at a crooked rafter in my cabin, I remember the moment I wanted to ask my friend to start over with a fresh two-by-four, but refrained out of fear of looking ungrateful. When damp specks of mist blur the pages of my notebook, I feel a twinge of regret for failing to heed my neighbor’s warning that this north-facing deck would get all the weather, even as I’m constantly grateful for the cool shade it provides.

Although there will always be moments of ambiguity, the bird feeder reminds me to always maintain a seed of skepticism towards my own doubting tendencies, an openness to being humbled and amazed—and the ability to see the singing, feathery potential in another person’s ideas, even if the early iterations of that idea are all geckos and fruit flies.

As we move into spring, may you all be blessed with birdsong, no matter where you live—and with friends whose wisdom enriches your life, even if it takes some courage to let them.



Hilary Smith

Senior Editor, Hierophant Publishing


Click here to read Hilary's previous essay, "The Magic of Oneness."

The Magic of Oneness

Dear Reader, 


A short way down the trail from my cabin in rural Hawaii, there is a little old man who lives in a shack with a pig, three dogs, and four cats. Everyone worries that he is getting too frail to live in our remote off-grid community—carrying bags of dog food across the river in a faded green backpack, feeding his pig with overripe breadfruit he hauls down the trail in five-gallon buckets. Although we all lend a hand when we can, none of us are equipped to give him the kind of full-time care he’s getting closer and closer to needing. 

A few weeks ago, he had a serious health crisis. My neighbor heard him shouting and called an ambulance, then lifted him into a wheelbarrow and rolled him all the way to the river, where the paramedics would be waiting to pick him up. That evening as we sat around under the monkeypod tree, my neighbors and I all wondered if he would come back. Perhaps he would go live in town, which was surely the right move for a person in his fragile state of health. 

But just a few days later, I was on my way to check the water lines when I ran into him on the trail, a heavy bag of clothes and groceries in each hand. He was skinnier than ever, with pipe cleaners for legs and white hair sticking out from under his ballcap. He reminded me so much of the stray cat that had made its way back to my land even after I’d driven it three miles and several water crossings away. I stopped and offered to carry his bags, and he readily accepted. Even as I made this automatic offer, I felt a twinge of weariness—I was already so tired after a morning of working on my land in the hot sun, and still had much to do. After carrying the bags all the way to my neighbor’s place, I would have to return the way I had come and climb up the waterfall, which was my original errand. Although my body had extended itself reflexively to my neighbor’s aid, my mind began to protest at the cost. 

Yet when I picked up my neighbor’s bags and felt the weight of them transfer from his body to my own, something miraculous happened: I had a sudden, visceral awareness that this transfer was taking place not between two distinct beings, but within a single organism. I wasn’t depleting “my” energy reserves—I was experiencing a kind of homeostasis, with energy flowing naturally to the place it was needed the most. Although my mind grumbled after the fact, my body had carried out the gesture automatically, the way certain trees will automatically send sugars to their less-healthy neighbors through roots and fungal networks underground. 

Later, I wondered: did I stop and help my neighbor because I perceived the two of us to be a single organism, or did that brief and striking shift in perception arise from the physical act of making his burden my own? 



Living off-grid, you can’t help but become aware of energy: where it comes from, where it goes, and the many ways it is used, recycled, and transformed. Light comes into the solar panels and the tool batteries greedily consume it, snug in their plastic chargers beside the power strip. 

The energy stored in the tool batteries then goes into turning screws, cutting wood, and mowing grass. You spread the grass clippings in the garden to build the soil, and before you know it you have papayas, pumpkins, and sugar cane to feed your hungry body at the end of the day. 

You scheme about ways to save energy—a more efficient light bulb, a lower-wattage computer monitor. Keeping your tools in a place that doesn’t require you to climb up and down a ladder fifteen times a day, which will cause you to burn fewer calories, which will make your stash of pumpkins last a couple of days longer, which means you won’t have to carry a pumpkin all the way home from your neighbor’s garden half a mile away, which means you will have more time and energy left over to finally fix your chainsaw, which means you can help your neighbor cut up the windfall bamboo, thus repaying the debt of energy left over from the time he helped you fix your solar system. 

You notice the ways your neighbors are constantly transferring their energy to you—through their labor, their gifts of food and other resources, their encouragement on hard days. You transfer energy back in the form of your own gifts and words of encouragement, and the strength of your own body applied to a common task. The flow is organic, spontaneous, and unplanned. There is no ledger, yet all debts get paid; no accounting, and yet all that which is depleted gets restored. 



As an editor at Hierophant, I don’t frame roofs, cook meals, or harvest vegetables with the authors I work with, but there is nevertheless an aspect of shared labor, and therefore of community. When editing a manuscript, I receive the gift of the author’s wisdom; at the same time, I apply myself to the project of helping that author express their wisdom in the clearest possible way. Because many of the books I work with deal with spirituality, there is also a sense of chipping away at a shared mystery, and becoming part of one long chain of human endeavor to understand and celebrate the divine. 

Recently, while editing a book chapter in which an author was describing a significant event in her life, I had an experience not terribly unlike the moment when I picked up my neighbor’s grocery bags. Gazing into space, as I do at regular intervals when I’m writing or editing, I tuned into the emotions the author was describing, allowing them to play out in my own body. As I pondered the idea she was trying to express and toyed with different ways of expressing it, I felt a sense of oneness with the work in which I forgot that an “author” and “editor” existed, and instead felt myself to be part of a unified field of humanity, all working on these deep problems of life, all shouldering the burden of being human together. 

Although there are practical reasons for putting an author’s name on a book and giving that book its own title and cover art, this is really for the sake of convenience. As don Jose Ruiz likes to say, “We’re all working for the same boss.” Just as flowers come out of the earth, ideas come out of the great pool of human history. A flower couldn’t exist without the earth, and a book couldn’t exist without thousands of years of humans thinking, feeling, searching, and dreaming. Whether or not you ever have your name on a book, you’ve probably helped write one just by being alive. All labor is shared, whether we realize it or not—and realizing it can make us feel happier, more grateful, and more alive. 



I’ll never forget the time I carpooled to a meeting in town with several of my neighbors. We were sitting in the bleachers of the high school gym, listening to some engineers give a presentation about plans for our road, when I happened to glance down. My feet and shins, I noticed, were caked with dried mud—the natural consequence of hiking through several streams on my way to the car. I rarely remember to rinse off my legs before going to town, and was feeling a little embarrassed at being seen this way by the town folks, when I saw that my neighbor’s feet were also brown with mud. Turning my head to look down the length of the bleacher, I saw that we all had the same dusty streaks on our calves and dried mud between our toes.  

The sight of so many muddy legs nearly moved me to tears. I felt a sense of comfort, belonging, and something akin to pride. My neighbors knew the weight of a wheelbarrow, the value of a pig, a pumpkin, or a five-gallon bucket, the sound of rain on a metal roof. They knew what it was like to sit in your chair in a stupor at the end of a long day, too tired even to read; they knew the night-blooming flowers and the moon. When one of us was sick or weak, the rest of us didn’t carry that person’s burdens for them—we just carried them, period, because they were there to be carried, and we weren’t many beings, but one. 

Readers, as we transition from spring to summer, may you all be supported by the energy of sun, earth, and community; and may your roots feed others, and be fed in return. 



Hilary Smith 

Senior Editor, Hierophant Publishing 


Click here to read Hilary's previous essay, "Hitchhiking to Freedom."

Hitchhiking to Freedom

Dear readers,

As an editor at a spirituality and self-help publisher, I learn profound lessons from all the books and authors I work with. In fact, I often joke that it’s like getting paid to do therapy all day—there’s just no way to spend so much time reading and editing uplifting books without having those positive messages sink into my heart and mind. This has never been truer than with Adelfa Marr’s book, Lord Knows This Sh*t Ain’t Easy: How to Stay Emotionally Balanced in a Chaotic World, coming out from Hierophant next month.


a headshot of author Adelfa Marr


I have to admit that I was a little nervous about working with Adelfa. After all, she’s a successful life coach, Instagram influencer, and lives in southern California with her husband actor Manny Montana—about as different a life from my rustic off-grid existence as you can get! How would we relate to each other as author and editor? Yet I soon found out we had a lot in common. On the very first page of her book, Marr writes of her struggles with anxiety and overthinking:

In my mind, being in control of my emotions—and ideally, the emotions of everyone around me—was the only thing that could keep me safe… I truly believed that I could eliminate any uncertainty, awkwardness, or discomfort from my life if I just thought hard enough.

When I read these words, I felt like I’d been struck by lightning.

Like Adelfa, I’d spent long periods of my life believing that I was responsible for, well, everything. It was my job to defuse conflicts, pre-empt disasters, and eliminate all negative emotions in myself and everyone around me. I was constantly rehearsing conversations, convinced that if I could just think of the perfect thing to say and the perfect way to say it, I would magically gain control over the situations that scared me. Yet for all my thinking and planning, life continued to be as awkward, uncertain, and uncomfortable as ever, and even my “successes” at controlling outcomes failed to bring me lasting peace.

As I slowly read and edited Adelfa’s manuscript, I began to remember a time in my life when I hadn’t been so fearful and controlling—when, in fact, I’d routinely taken risks that many people would find uncomfortable, with complete trust that everything would turn out OK.

At eighteen years old I was obsessed with hitchhiking. In high school, I’d read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and On the Road. I’d also recently discovered mysticism, and begun devouring the works of Rumi and Lao Tzu. Between the swaggering characters I encountered in the novels and the thrilling ideas I absorbed from the poems, I was filled with eagerness to hit the open road and discover these states of freedom for myself.

I’ll never forget the day I walked to the side of the highway and stuck my thumb out for the first time, carrying a backpack stuffed with books and a guitar I had no idea how to play. The sky was clear and blue, and the air pleasantly chilly. I was filled with a sense of hope, possibility, excitement, and absolute trust. I trusted my body to walk for miles if I needed to, and my instincts to turn down rides that didn’t feel safe. I trusted my long johns and raincoat to keep me warm and dry if the weather turned stormy. Most importantly, I trusted in life. I believed that everything was a kind of teacher—the road, the drivers, the weather—and I was open to all of it, with a near-total absence of fear.




For me, hitchhiking represented a voluntary surrendering of control. I didn’t know who I would encounter on any given day, where I would sleep, or whether I would spend hours in a state of hunger, wet, or cold. Although cell phones existed at the time, they were not yet ubiquitous, and I was unencumbered by one. I was happy not knowing, and not having the option of knowing—content with being confined to the present moment, to the direct sensory experiences of wind, sunshine, and rain, and to the feelings of joy, curiosity, pride, and trepidation that came and went like passing clouds.

For the next four years, I hitchhiked on a regular basis—a short trip here, a long expedition there, sometimes alone and sometimes with a friend. I slept in public parks, in strangers’ homes, and in the occasional campsite or motel room. I interacted with people from all walks of life, and became very competent at meeting my own basic needs and staying calm and cheerful under all sorts of conditions. Those years were a magical period in which my tendency to trust was at an all-time high, and my tendency to control was at a corresponding low.

This all changed when, at age twenty-two, I got into my first “serious” relationship with a man I’d met after—what else?—hitchhiking to San Francisco. Interestingly, the easy and expansive sense of trust I’d felt towards the universe while hitchhiking dissolved abruptly when it came to trusting a specific person. I felt anxious about my partner’s eating habits, his approach to finances, his behavior in social situations, and a myriad of other subjects. My not-so-subtle attempts to control these things did little to gain me the sense of safety I craved, while doing much to aggravate my partner.

In Lord Knows This Sh*t Ain’t Easy, Adelfa Marr writes, “When you put your anxieties in charge, the first thing they do is cannibalize your joys.” This was certainly true for me. Like a swarm of termites, my anxieties about being vulnerable to another person swiftly began to bore holes in the joy I felt at falling in love. Before I knew it, I had turned from a carefree hitchhiker into a micromanaging control freak. Although I had no problem trusting strangers with lead feet to give me rides down winding forest roads in the backs of their pickup trucks, I could barely let my partner drive me across town without holding my breath and clenching my foot on an imaginary brake pedal, convinced it was only my hypervigilance that kept us from crashing.



Over the years I stayed in that relationship, this mystery tormented me: how could I be so trusting in some domains of life, and so controlling in others? What was it that made me shift so dramatically between these two states? When I was alone, I could sometimes recapture the sense of cosmic certainty I’d experienced in my days on the road; yet when I was with my partner, I often found myself in an anxious, contracted state that was anything but mystical. Which one was my “real” self? Was I a trusting, mystical person or a neurotic, controlling person?

It was only while editing Adelfa’s book that I finally stumbled upon the answer: I wasn’t inherently trusting or inherently controlling. These qualities simply appeared or disappeared based on how free I perceived myself to be. As an inexperienced twenty-something who had been socialized to value long-term commitment, it didn’t occur to me that I had the freedom to leave my relationship. It therefore became ever more important to control my partner and somehow turn him into the person I wanted him to be.

As a hitchhiker, I knew myself to be free, and could therefore accept all kinds of uncomfortable experiences, knowing I could always leave. I didn’t need to control things to feel safe, because my freedom was my safety. In the context of my first big relationship, I’d believed myself to be bound, and therefore fought tooth and nail to ensure that things would go my way. I’d forgotten my freedom like some precious coin that rolled under the couch, and with it, lost my sense of safety. For me, therefore, regaining that sense of mystical trust was contingent on regaining a sense of freedom. The more I learned to bring my hitchhiker self to my relationships, the better a partner I became—and the less I felt the need to control the minutiae of my own life and the lives of those around me.




In Lord Knows This Sh*t Ain’t Easy, Adelfa Marr gives us practical ways to reorient our lives towards trust, spontaneity, and ease, no matter how far down the rabbit hole of control we may have fallen. The tools she shares have been life-changing for me, and I believe many readers will feel the same way. I wish her wise, entertaining, and deeply relatable book had been around when I was twenty-two. As it is, I will be handing out copies to everyone I know—and to every hitchhiker I pick up along the lush Hawaii roads, trusting that they are all teachers in disguise.



Hilary Smith

Senior Editor, Hierophant Publishing


Click here to read Hilary's previous essay, "A Tale of Two Waterfalls."


Book cover for Lord Knows This Sh*t Ain't Easy by Adelfa Marr



A worldwide pandemic, climate change, social injustices. . .

Over the last few years, it’s seemed like things on the outside are falling apart! Meanwhile, on the inside, many of us are struggling with feelings of unworthiness, fear of failure, and difficulty finding hope—all while trying to be perfect partners, parents, or friends!

In a world that seems increasingly chaotic, unpredictable, and sometimes downright scary, is it still possible to live a happy and fulfilling life?

Beloved life coach and self-care guru Adelfa Marr tackles this question with her characteristic wit, humor, and warmth, and readers will find a refreshing take in her answers.

Marr understands that self-care isn’t all bubble baths and scented candles. This book gets into the messy stuff—the fear, the shame, the regret—and shows how we can all become more authentic, joyful, and courageous versions of ourselves.

Lord knows this sh*t ain’t easy, but with Adelfa Marr as your guide, you may find that it’s not as hard as you think.

A Tale of Two Waterfalls

Dear Readers, 


For the first three years I lived on my land here in rural Hawaii, I didn’t have running water. Instead, I hauled drinking water from a spring in five-gallon jugs, and set out buckets to catch rainwater for washing dishes. This sounds like a hardship, and it was—but the upside of living without running water is that I was forced to walk to a nearby waterfall every day to bathe. 

At first, my visits to the waterfall were utilitarian: I was sweaty and needed to rinse off. The water was cold, and I would wade in quickly and get out just as fast. As the days and months went on, however, my relationship to the waterfall changed. I realized that soaking in the cold water reduced the pain in my back after a hard day of work, and sometimes erased it completely. A dip in the waterfall was also extremely effective at resetting my emotions if I was feeling sad, stressed, or overwhelmed.  

It wasn’t long before I’d stopped seeing the waterfall as a mere substitute for a hot shower, and begun to see it as a kind of mother, always ready to wrap her cold, wet arms around me whenever I needed a hug. I brought my sorrows to the waterfall, and my joys as well. I never walked past without pausing to say hello and pay my respects, even if I didn’t have time to get in for a swim. Other times, I’d sit on the rocks and utterly lose myself in the sight and sound of the waterfall, enchanted by the sprays of yellow leaves floating down from the trees to land on its surface, the prawns scuttling across its pebbly floor, and the ever-changing tune of its cascade. 

Like the heady excitement that goes along with getting to know a new human friend, I found myself wanting to know everything about the waterfall, to catch up with it every day and see what was new. If I went to town for the day, I missed the waterfall and wondered what it was doing. When I got back home, I’d visit as soon as I could, eager to see its latest colors, hear its sounds, and submerge myself in its waters no matter what the weather was like that day. 



Two years ago, my next-door neighbor offered to add me to his water line, which is connected to a separate waterfall. I was very appreciative for what was a huge gesture of trust and benevolence in a community in which the most basic comforts are hard-won. I bought some PVC pipe and the strange purple ointment that seals it together, a hose valve and a long green hose, and by the end of the day I had joined the ranks of people with running water. Now, my life was defined by relationships to not one, but two waterfalls: the one which had kept me clean and healthy during my first hard years on the land, and now this second rivulet, which was steeper and more austere, and whose high and rocky pools did not invite swimming. 

Befriending this second waterfall was an entirely different matter. Hidden away on the side of a steep and crumbly cliff, guarded by dense thickets of coffee trees and storm-felled Java plums, it was not a place to visit every day. Instead, I bowed to it from a distance, catching sight of its pale white stream high on the cliffside as I walked home after a trip to town. Once, during heavy rainfall, I heard what sounded like a jet engine passing over my land. After a few minutes of baffled searching, I realized it was the waterfall, swollen so much from its usual flow that I could see it from my own front porch, high in the trees like an apparition. 



Last month, a friend of mine who is an avid naturalist came to visit me on my land. As we sat on my front porch drinking tea, he continuously expressed curiosity about aspects of the natural world to which I’d never paid much attention. What was that bug doing? What was that bird eating? What kind of insect would hatch out of that foamy green mass of eggs? I felt a mixture of awe and embarrassment as I realized that my friend’s attention was capturing thousands of details that I routinely overlooked. He was loving, noticing, and attending to the animal life of the land, the same way I attended to the waterfalls. 

He pointed out a jumping spider on a sugarcane leaf, and we walked over to take a closer look. The spider had a smooth, shiny back and milky aquamarine eyes. My friend explained that he’d once made friends which a jumping spider, and got to know him well over a period of about eight months. Jumping spiders are intelligent, he said—they can recognize individual humans, and even learn tricks. As we stood in the sunlight, admiring the spider, I let this startling fact sink in. The creatures around my home knew and recognized me—were attending to me, in their own particular way. What would happen if I finally started attending to them? 

In the days after my friend went home, I found myself seeing and hearing things I’d never seen or heard before. I watched ants crawling on a bright pink ginger blossom, and two cardinals calling to one another across my ‘awa patch. I peered at the small white eggs my friend had discovered in a rolled-up scrap of tarp, wondering when they would hatch. I considered the elegant brown spider on my wall. I realized there was no end to the ways in which I could expand the range and depth of my attention, and in so doing, come into relationship with the whole world, and not only its human residents. 



What good does it do to attend to the natural world? Certainly, we can speak of the benefits to ourselves—a sense of peace and health, a heightening of empathy—but does our attention benefit nature? Does a waterfall gain anything from being loved and admired, a jumping spider from being known? Surely, attending to a pine tree won’t stop it from burning in a wildfire, and listening to the minute details of a heron’s footsteps won’t stop the factories whose effluent pollutes the river in which that bird hunts for fish. Is attention merely a feel-good exercise, or is there something more to it? 

In the modern world, most of us have been taught to reject anything that isn’t quantifiable. Gazing with love upon a waterfall or a spider doesn’t appear to “do” anything, and as we move out of childhood we learn to give up these pastimes in favor of more “productive” activities. If we care about nature, we sign petitions, organize protests, and campaign for earth-friendly policies—laudable and necessary actions which are the “yang” to attention’s “yin.” When it comes to protecting nature, we rightly put our energy into urgent doing. But I wonder if there is also urgency to the manner of our being—if our local waterways, spiders, and birds would benefit, in some mysterious way, from our stepping back into relationship with them. 



Last week, there was a huge storm, and my neighbor and I had to climb up to a high pool of the waterfall to fix our water line, as we often do when the inlet gets blown out. This sounds like a hardship, and it is: the climb is difficult and dangerous. We grab at roots and at frayed scraps of rope, our feet slipping on the crumbly cliffside. My neighbor never fails to point out the spot where another neighbor of ours was killed by a falling rock several years before, as well as the latest landslides and downed trees. 

But the upside of this hardship is that I know the water. I’ve seen it running brown and furious, thin and drought-stricken, clear and cold. Not only that, but I know my neighbor: some of our best conversations have taken place as we scrambled up the rocks, stories and confessions pouring out amid commentary about valves, fittings, and basic hydrology. The waterfall binds us to itself and to each other; in our mutual attending, we all become more alive. 

It's not every day that we can stop a wildfire, save a coral reef, or make some other concrete “difference”—but no matter where we are, we can elevate our relationships through the quality of our attention. We can be friends to the wind, the water, and the jumping spider, without even knowing what “good” it does. Perhaps there is something more precious to this not-knowing than we will ever realize, and more good than we can ever perceive. 



Hilary Smith 

Senior Editor, Hierophant Publishing 


Click here to read Hilary's previous essay, "The Downside of 'Having it All.'"

The Downside of "Having it All"

Dear readers, 


Ever since I moved to my small, off-grid community in rural Hawaii, I’ve relied less and less on the grocery store for my daily sustenance, and now live to a large extent on food grown or foraged within a short walk of my home.  

A record of my meals is a record of my relationships: eggs from George, an heirloom tomato and chayote from Caleb’s garden, Thai eggplant and plantains from Chris, a rack of bananas from Shukamar’s place, a huge jackfruit from Jimmy’s. The wild potatoes and wood ear mushrooms Wanna taught me how to forage, the green papayas in coconut milk Lorien showed me how to cook, the tins of lentils Ninu gave me “for protein” after I described a typical meal of tree spinach and brown rice. My homestead is anything but self-sufficient, and I like it that way. The relationships I enjoy with my neighbors are enriched by the constant giving and receiving of gifts, a pattern of exchange that wouldn’t exist if we all had everything and needed nothing. 



Last month, I traveled to Portland, Oregon to visit my friend Willow—my first time visiting a big city in years, and at two and a half weeks, the longest I’d been away from my land since moving there a few years ago. I was nervous about the trip. In my tiny community, every person matters. When somebody goes away for a while, it alters the fabric of life. Belonging to a community like mine is like belonging to an orchestra or soccer team: attendance, while not mandatory, is highly preferred and richly rewarded. 

I’d lived in Portland for a couple of years in my early twenties, and remembered it as a time of great loneliness. In my experience, life in the city was as anonymous and isolating as my current life in a farming community is interconnected and warm. There were none of the exchanges that so enliven my life in Hawaii—no sharing of fruit or rides into town, no mutual reliance on one another for entertainment and information, and none of the voluntary simplicity that enables these things to happen in the first place. People in my community in Hawaii truly need one another, and from this need arises a dense web of relationships. In my experience, people in cities did not need one another, and consequently had no reason to know each other—and this lack of need resulted in an epidemic of loneliness. 

Yet when I arrived in Portland, I was amazed to discover that Willow’s life in the city was characterized by a web of relationships nearly as dense as my own. On a rainy Friday afternoon, we waited in line outside an elementary school to pick up food which had been gleaned from local grocery stores and would otherwise be thrown away. As we slowly shuffled towards the boxes of still-gorgeous produce and expensive vegan cakes, he chatted with other regulars, catching up on everyone’s news from the recent holidays. A few days later, we went to the local tool library to borrow a circular saw and clamps for a carpentry project, where the volunteer attendant gave us tips on how to achieve our goal of shortening the legs on a table. 

Although he could have bought his own groceries and amassed his own collection of tools, Willow had arrived at the same conclusion that I had the very first time a neighbor invited me to pick tangerines off her tree: It’s better to be in relationship with others than to have everything you want and need, all to yourself, all the time. 



Willow is part of a large social network of artists and performers who are constantly exchanging resources the same way my neighbors back home constantly exchange favors and food. On my first weekend back in Portland, we went to one’s friend’s house to pick up a bicycle for me to ride while I was in town, while dropping off a stack of puzzles for the household to enjoy. Another day, we picked up an electric sauna which had served tours of duty in no less than three households among this group of friends.  

As the designated “man with van” in his community, Willow is frequently called upon to help his friends haul mattresses and other pieces of furniture. Instead of backbreaking errands, these tasks become fun social events during which all participants make new memories and strengthen social bonds. Indeed, it’s better not to have your own van, because that means you can call Willow, and enjoy an hour or two in his company.  

This idea—that it’s better not to have it all—is hard to wrap your head around if you grew up in North America. How can it possibly be better to need something from somebody else? How can it be better to rely on the people around you for food, entertainment, transportation, or other resources? Yet there’s no doubt, as you pick tangerines from Wanna’s tree or bounce across Portland in Willow’s van, that if you had it all, you’d be missing out. If you had your own tangerine tree, or your own van, you’d be poorer, lonelier, and less resilient. Far from making you more secure, your wealth would be robbing you of some of the greatest treasures a human being can enjoy. 

One of the great paradoxes of life is that when you have too much, you become impoverished; when your basket is too full, you no longer have space to receive. The world’s major spiritual traditions all speak of the importance of emptying oneself in order to cultivate this crucial state of receptivity. In Zen, seekers are told to empty their cups, because a full cup will overflow when you try to pour in the tea. In Christianity, followers learn that it is more difficult for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 



These lessons apply in the abstract sense of emptying one’s mind in order to receive spiritual wisdom, but are also very pertinent on the material plane. Think of the joy and gratitude you feel when receiving a gift, as compared to the dullness of purchasing that same item from a store. I don’t think I felt my heart warming the last time I bought eggplants at the grocery store, but this morning when Chris came into my yard to deliver two long, shiny purple ones, along with the latest news about our storm-damaged road, I felt happy for the rest of the day. 

In much of Western society, there is anxiety attached to receiving. We worry that accepting a favor will land us in somebody’s debt, or that helping ourselves to a free pile of bananas is shameful as long as we have the means to buy other food. Receiving, in the mind of our culture, is for poor people. Everybody else should purchase their own bananas, maintain their own van, and possess their own arsenal of tools and other objects, no matter how redundant these may be with the arsenals of their neighbors and friends. 

In other words, we all strive to be yang, while losing sight of the magic of yin. Our culture as a whole has forgotten that the ability to receive is itself a gift. As outrageous as this may sound to Western ears, I believe that my “needing” eggplants is as much a gift to Chris as the eggplants are to me, and that those runs across town in his ramshackle van are as precious to Willow as they are to the friends whose mattresses and bed frames he’s helping to move. 

I could get my own chickens, but then I would miss out on sitting in George’s cozy white-washed kitchen, chatting with him and Trixie over coffee after filling my carton with eggs. I could plant my own chayote patch, but I would miss the beautiful walk to Caleb’s house, and the chance to watch him fix his wood chipper or help him lift a heavy piece of plywood onto his new kitchen wall. My state of benign neediness keeps me in relationship with my neighbors, just as their needs place them into closer relationship with me. 



Likewise, I believe my friend in Portland is happier exchanging board games, bicycles, power tools, and electric saunas with his community than he would be if he possessed all these things for his sole use. By leaving space in his life to receive—to some extent by necessity, but also largely by choice—he gains access to the true riches of friendship, community, gratitude, and celebration. Although I didn't know it during my own years in the city, these treasures are available no matter where you live. It's just a matter of choosing them. 

This month, reader, may you empty your cup, dust off your gathering basket, and open yourself to receiving—whether you live in an isolated farm village or in the middle of a bustling city. 



Hilary Smith

Senior Editor, Hierophant Publishing


Click here to read Hilary's previous essay, "Is the Mind an Escape Room?"

Is the Mind an Escape Room?

Dear readers,


Sometimes—many times—my work at Hierophant just makes me grin.

Reading Professor Chris Niebauer’s brand new book last weekend was one of those times. In The No Self, No Problem Workbook: Exercises and Practices from Neuropsychology and Buddhism to Help You Lose Your Mind, he writes, “What if life is an escape room? This is a game where a group of people pay to be locked into a room, find clues, and solve puzzles in order to get out. Maybe consciousness locks itself in a room of hidden clues and then goes on the adventure of finding its way out.”

For those unfamiliar with the tenets of Buddhism, the concept of anatta, or “no-self” describes the idea that the self is an illusion from which our mental suffering stems. In his previous book, No Self, No Problem: How Neuropsychology is Catching Up to Buddhism, Professor Niebauer applies his expertise in neuropsychology to the concept of anatta to demonstrate how neuroscience supports the Buddhist idea of a fictional self. But how are we supposed to escape our thinking minds?

The No Self, No Problem Workbook provides the tools to do exactly that: outwit the “escape room” of the limited, imaginary self—dominated by the left brain—and experience the weird, wonderful, and expansive realm of “no-self,” accessed through the right.

Not only do I love escape rooms, but I have a soft spot for books that jolt me out of my ordinary state of consciousness and do something to my brain. The No Self, No Problem Workbook is exactly that kind of book!

After spending a pleasant afternoon working through the thought experiments, riddles, and hands-on practices designed to quiet the thinking mind and induce this “no self” experience, I truly felt I had entered an altered state of consciousness. Suddenly, I could feel the workings of my brain in a way that had never been quite so clear before. Even as I write this, several days later, I feel a renewed sense of excitement about un-knotting this magical, elusive, and endlessly confounding illusion called the self, and discovering what lies beyond it.



I first stumbled upon the power of “no self” when I was in the midst of a health crisis in my late twenties. I’d been suffering from severe, chronic insomnia for several years. This maddening condition had proved resistant to just about everything—yoga, meditation, herbs, therapy, acupuncture, Western pharmacology. My quality of life was very poor. Every day was a struggle, with no relief in sight. At the peak of this suffering, I found myself Googling things like at what point do you die from insomnia?, and researching whether euthanasia was legal in my state.

I was well aware that these thoughts of death were alarming. But what could I do? I’d consulted every doctor and alternative practitioner under the sun, and nobody had been able to help me. If this painful and debilitating condition was truly incurable, it seemed to me that death should not be ruled out as a viable alternative.

After sitting with these thoughts for a week or two, I had a brilliant idea. If I was considering death as a possibility, why not practice being dead? I could try death on for size, right here, right now, by lying on the floor and pretending I didn’t exist. I wouldn’t have to sign up for the real version until I was sure that I liked it.

Intrigued by this idea, I lay on the floor in savasana—otherwise known as corpse pose, in yoga—and stuck an eye mask over my eyes. My head soon began to fill up with its usual weary thoughts—All this traffic on our street is driving me crazy. I’ll never finish the novel I’m working on—but now there was a difference. For every thought that came up, I now had the perfect response: So what? I’m dead!

It thrilled me to be “dead” in this way. Suddenly, I had no problems. I no longer had to fix anything. The traffic on my street had nothing to do with me. My unfinished novel would remain so, and that was not my problem. My suffering lifted almost instantly, and I experienced a mental lightness I hadn’t felt in years.

So what? I’m dead! became my mantra, and savasana my go-to yoga pose. Whenever I felt myself becoming overwhelmed by real or imaginary problems, all I had to do was “die” for a few minutes and my relationship to those problems would right itself. Needless to say, my thoughts of actual death dissipated completely—and not long afterwards, my insomnia cleared up too.



I think Chris Niebauer would say that in teaching myself to “die,” I’d cracked an important puzzle in the escape room. After all, if I was dead, I had no problems to solve—and if I had no problems to solve, there was no longer anything for my left brain to do. With my left brain temporarily stunned into silence, my right brain got some breathing room. The contracted, suffering “self” who had to deal with traffic and write a novel flickered off like a hologram, leaving behind…what, exactly? Bare existence. Light and shadow. Sound, vibration, color, scent.

Suddenly, it didn’t matter if I achieved great things. It didn’t even matter if I recovered from insomnia! As Niebauer writes in his first book, No Self, No Problem, once you become aware of the left brain’s talent for inventing problems out of thin air, “You may even stop trying so hard to change certain things in your life, or to become this or that in the future, because you begin to notice that the problems you are trying to overcome are mostly creations of the left-brain interpreter and you see how once they are overcome the left-brain interpreter will simply create new ones.”

In other words, the left brain’s full-time job is to endlessly produce more problems for the imaginary "self" to shoulder. If you’re tired of having problems, get in touch with your right brain—and ditch your self.



Ten years after my insomnia crisis, I still like to practice being dead. Lately, this takes the form of selecting a random moment in the day and imagining in as much detail as possible what that moment would be like if I wasn’t there.

For example, if I’m at home in my cabin, I’ll listen carefully to the sound of the frogs, the creaking bamboo, and the rushing stream, and imagine what these things sound like when I’m not there to hear them. I imagine the cabin exactly as it is, but minus me: still, empty, a couple of dry leaves blowing across the floor. I see the stars, the dark shape of the hills, and the tools leaning against the wall of the shed, and imagine that these things are simply here, without anyone looking at them.

This practice brings me a deep sense of peace. I like to know that this place has a life without me, that this world has a life without me—indeed, that I have a life without me, or at least without the jumble of thoughts, plans, and opinions my left brain would have me believe is “me.” As I sit in my cabin, imagining that I’m not there at all, I become more present than I am when I am there. And if that’s not a riddle worth pondering, I’m not sure what is.



One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten was from a young woman who advised me to “ride loose in the saddle” if I wanted to survive as an off-grid homesteader. She was referring to a willingness to do any job rather than clinging to specific career plans, but I’ve found that this advice applies splendidly to just about any aspect of life. When you ride loose in the saddle of jobs, you find yourself learning skills and making connections you never would have imagined possible. (Rare plant propagation? Sure! Translating medieval French poetry? Okay!) And when you ride loose in the saddle of the self, you understand that the self is just for fun. As Niebauer would put it, the self is what pure consciousness dreams up to entertain itself. We’re not supposed to rigidly defend it, we’re supposed to play with it—wholeheartedly, and with great delight.

When you embrace this attitude, life becomes a lot more fun. Opportunities arise where before you could see only dead ends. If your “self” is just a suggestion, you really can write your own ticket in terms of jobs, relationships, and just about everything else. If your “self” can be anything, it is threatened by nothing. You can enjoy the escape room, knowing it’s just a game.

I will always treasure the moments in my life where I’ve gotten a glimpse of no self—that bright, expansive, infinitely peaceful state. Indeed, someday, I hope to make it my permanent address. As Niebauer writes, “It is possible to make no self your home, and self a place you sometimes visit.”

May we all “lose our minds” in 2023, and treat our selves like the fun, well-meaning, charming illusions they really are.



Hilary Smith

Senior Editor, Hierophant Publishing


Click here to read Hilary's previous essay, "Pruning Trees, Words, & Life."



Cover image for The No Self, No Problem Workbook by Chris Niebauer, PhD





Ready to tackle the escape room of the mind yourself? Check out The No Self, No Problem Workbook.

In this groundbreaking workbook, Professor Chris Niebauer takes a deep dive into the incredible link between Eastern philosophy and recent findings in neuropsychology, which is now confirming a fundamental tenet of Buddhism: anatta, or the doctrine of “no self.”

The exercises and practices in this book are designed to help you recognize and disidentify with the fictional self created by your left-brain interpreter. Learn how to become more present, find inner peace, and see the world through the eyes of what Niebauer calls “clear consciousness.”

Pruning Trees, Words, & Life

Dear readers,


My land here in Hawaii is bordered by a guava thicket. The first year I lived here, I gathered entire buckets of the round, fleshy fruit, and spent many happy afternoons making juice and jelly. The following year, I eagerly awaited the return of guava season, only to discover that the harvest was rather smaller. The third year, I hardly gathered any guavas at all—the ones I found had all fallen from a great height, smashed open on the ground, and rotted. 

I was puzzled by this change in my guava fortunes. The trees were healthy and fast-growing. Why wasn’t I getting the abundant fruit which had so delighted me in Year One? 

After consulting the internet, I found my answer: Guavas only grow on new branches, not on old wood. With every passing year, the trees were growing taller, and the new branches were appearing higher and higher off the ground, until the fruit was so far out of reach it was as if the trees weren’t fruiting at all. 



I researched how to prune them. I felt some trepidation about cutting off so many apparently healthy branches. But the sources I consulted were clear: when it came to getting healthy, accessible fruit, the old wood had to go. I added some bar oil to my smallest, handiest chain saw, sharpened my loppers, and went to work on my guava thicket. Before I knew it, I was standing next to a pile of branches nearly as tall as I was. Where the thicket had been dense and impenetrable, it was now airy and open. I could see the sky where the over-tall trees had blocked it before. Returning my tools to the shed, I felt a flicker of nervous excitement. What had I done? Had I gone too far? Would this really work? 

I thought it would take months to see new growth on the guava trees. But a flush of new branches appeared almost overnight, skinny and smooth and shining with clean new leaves. I picked some of the young leaves, which are highly medicinal, and brewed them as tea. Meanwhile, I waited for the next crop of fruit to appear. When summer came, the new branches had thickened, and round yellow guavas appeared within easy reach of where I stood on the ground. Far from damaging the trees, the heavy pruning had stimulated them to grow. 

Sometimes, the fruit we long for is waiting to appear—as soon as we cut off the old wood. This is true in life as well as in horticulture. I think often of the times in my own life when I’ve pruned old wood, whether by moving away from a beloved town, leaving a relationship in which I’d invested heavily, or setting aside a project which had consumed my energy for years. I remember the trepidation I felt at the prospect of each pruning: How can I take down that branch? What if I kill the whole tree?  

It took me a long time to understand that, just like the guava trees, my life would not only grow back, but flourish in the wake of every shock. We tend to think of loss as a negative thing, but skillful deletion is a highly creative act. Empty spaces hum with potential. Although the forms of life can be altered or destroyed, the force of life remains undiminished. Life wants to grow back. All we have to do is let it.  



As an editor, I’m keenly aware of the ways that courageous pruning can allow a book’s true message to emerge. Sometimes, we have to bravely wield the saw, cutting off entire sections of a manuscript which may have been necessary in the first draft stage but are no longer serving a purpose in the final version. No matter how interesting or well-researched a given section may be, it needs to go if it’s not giving readers something nourishing, memorable, and necessary—in other words, the branch gets pruned if it’s not producing fruit. 

Just this week, I took a two-hundred-and-eighty-page manuscript and trimmed it down to a hundred-and-seventy-five pages. Even though I am confident that this pruning will result in a beautiful, focused, productive book, I must admit I felt a few moments of vertigo as I watched the word count dropping precipitously with every cut. Would the author be shocked when she saw the enormous pile of branches I’d removed from her tree? Or would she trust me when I told her that the tree was now stronger, healthier, and soon to be overflowing with fruit? 

As a project moves along, the prunings become more subtle: a sentence here, a word there. It always amazes me how even these subtle deletions can dramatically alter the feeling of a book, lifting unnecessary weight, injecting lightness, and allowing the beauty of the language to shine through. It’s tempting to think that an extra word or sentence won’t make any difference, but as the extraneous material falls away, I swear I can hear a book breathing. 



This Thanksgiving, I was invited to stay on a remote piece of land in a part of Hawaii that few people get to see. Accessible only by helicopter, it is the site of an ancient Hawaiian village, and has many beautiful waterfalls and archeological features, which a small team of stewards are restoring. One of the stewards took me for a walk around the land, showing me the rock walls he’d rebuilt, the agricultural terraces he’d restored, and the ancient stone walking path he’d uncovered from under layers of brush. 

This person had lived and breathed this restoration project for several decades. His knowledge of plants, aquaculture techniques, and archeological features was exhaustive. I commented on the fact that he seemed intimately bound to the land, to the point that I could scarcely imagine the project going on without him. I was stunned when he shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Nah. One of these days, I’m going to walk away, and they’ll carry on without me just fine.” 

It was humbling to listen as this master stonemason explained to me that when he rebuilt a wall or restored a terrace, that was it—he was done. Why hang around and gaze at his creations, impressive as they were? Those branches had fruited, and were now spent. It made no sense to linger for the sake of lingering, to hang on to what was finished when life is constantly urging us to begin again. His love for the land was deep and genuine, but he had no fear of leaving it, knowing there were an infinite number of places he could love. 




I realized that the artists and spiritual teachers from whom I’ve learned the most all share this quality of detachment. It’s novice writers who cling to the words they already have on the page, not trusting themselves to generate equally good or better material to replace what has been deleted—master writers can cut with confidence, knowing there’s more where that came from. The spiritual masters on whose books I’ve been lucky enough to work at Hierophant emphasize the importance of embracing change. They remind us that our lives come with us wherever we go, and whatever we do.  

This quality of detachment requires a deep trust in life. At the same time, practicing detachment is the best way I’ve found to gain trust in life, if you don’t already have it. Cut a paragraph or chapter from your book, and you’ll find that you do, in fact, possess the skill to write something even better. Accept a change without resisting it, and you’ll discover that life rushes in to fill the empty space. When a thing is complete, bow and move on. By learning to let go of specific things, we embrace the infinite, discovering more and more to love. 

 I look forward to pruning my guava thicket in another month or two, and I look forward to puttering around in the garden of words here at Hierophant, tending the many excellent books we’ll be releasing in the upcoming year. May you all be happy and safe, and may your buckets always overflow with fruit. 



Hilary Smith

Senior Editor, Hierophant Publishing


Click here to read Hilary's previous essay, "The Magic of Nature."


Cover image for Think Like a Publisher by Randy Davila







Looking for guidance for pruning your own thicket of words? Check out Think Like a Publisher by Hierophant President Randy Davila. This detailed guide for authors explains the basics of the publishing industry in clear and concise language, including what publishers (and readers!) look for in a manuscript, the importance of a good editor and how to find one, author platform building, marketing strategies, and even how to find the right self-publisher for your manuscript.

The Magic of Nature

Hello dear readers!

As I mentioned in last month’s newsletter (which you can read here if you missed it), I am the new senior editor at Hierophant Publishing.

One of my first tasks in this role has been to familiarize myself with our catalogue by reading as many Hierophant books as possible (which gives new meaning to the quote, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”). And while I eagerly devoured books like The Mastery of Self by don Miguel Ruiz Jr. and Warrior Goddess Training by HeatherAsh Amara, when I saw that Earth Witch: Finding Magic in the Land by Britton Boyd was next on my review list, I must admit I was a little reluctant.

Before reading this book, I would never have thought of myself as a witch.

True, I live deep in the forest of rural Hawaii, in a strange little cabin I built by hand, and can often be seen gathering herbs and mushrooms, a handwoven basket slung over my arm. I spend a suspicious amount of time conversing with trees, stones, and bodies of water, and am partial to candlelight, incense, and dark, windy nights.

But a witch? Never.

Like many of us, I associated that word with my fourth-grade teacher’s Halloween costume, pointy hat and all, or with certain trendy Instagram accounts wherein witchcraft consists of skincare routines and home décor. I’ve never, to my knowledge, cast a spell.

Indeed, witchcraft has always struck me as dizzyingly complex, with its elaborate tables and charts—moon phases, obscure qualities of herbs and gemstones, the proper combinations of ingredients for various workings, etc. If you challenged me to either cast a spell from one of those manuals or change the head gasket on my truck, I’d probably have better luck with the head gasket.

Please let there be no charts, I thought as I downloaded the manuscript onto my e-reader and got down to business.

Snuggled up with a pot of guava leaf tea, rain falling on the metal roof of my cabin, I began to read:


Magic lives in the soil, in the backwoods, in the bones of the dead, and in seemingly desolate places in nature.”




When I read those words, something in me nodded in recognition. Just that morning, I had dug up a fresh ‘awa root to share with some visitors, the soft and fragrant soil falling away to reveal the pale white lateral. Nearby on the Pali, or hillside, the bones of my neighbors’ Hawaiian ancestors have been resting for hundreds of years, rocks piled carefully to mark the sites. The forest where I’d gone mushroom hunting the day before was lonely and storm-tossed, with many broken branches littering the trail, its towering trees charged with mystery. What was the feeling I experienced when I spent time in these places, if not magic?

A few pages later, I highlighted these words:


“It is only with time and an erotic merging of the land and ourselves over many seasons that we can experience something real and profound.”




I recalled the many times in my life when I moved: from British Columbia to California, California to Washington, Washington to Oregon, Oregon to California, California to Hawaii. With each of these moves, I felt a sharp loss as the land, plants, and animals which had become dear to me were taken away. In each place, I had to undergo a sometimes-difficult process of getting acquainted with new land, new plants, new animals, and new magic. It took many seasons to complete this erotic merging: many seasons of slow and intentional practice before my body was at ease with the coldness of the river or the current of the ocean, my eye adept at spotting the shapes of the herbs in the forest, my tongue familiar with the taste of the berries, my nose quick to identify the scent of wildfire and mugwort, candycap mushrooms and rotting cedar, night-blooming jasmine and wild ginger.

I’ve never felt quite at home in a place until this erotic merging is well underway. Until that point, I feel lonely and disconsolate, excluded from the web of connection which is so central to my well-being.

This was especially true when I first moved to Hawaii. The tropical plants were utterly inscrutable to me; lush and beautiful as it was, the natural world felt like a locked door, and I couldn’t find my way in. Although I lived in the forest, I couldn’t feel the forest. I was a stranger there, and this state of separation was painful to me.

One day, my next-door neighbor came over to visit. She had a question for me. “Do you talk to the land owners?” she said.

“The land owners?” I said, thinking perhaps she had mistaken me for a renter. “No, I bought the land from—”

My neighbor shook her head. “No,” she said, “the land owners. You have to talk to them. Give them offerings. Tell them why you’re here.”

It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that when she said land owners, she wasn’t talking about the people whose names were on a title chain down at the county records office. She was referring to the real land owners—the spirits of the ancient, sacred land we were lucky enough to call home. My neighbor explained that the land owners were always watching, always listening; it was important to ask their permission before entering a new part of their domain, and to pre-emptively ask forgiveness for any clumsy mistakes I might make while I was there. It was good to leave gifts for them, too—they were partial to strong liquor—but mostly, it was important to talk to them. To be in relationship with them. It would be both odd and rude to cut through my neighbor’s yard every day and pick fruit from her trees without ever acknowledging her presence; failing to engage with the land owners was just as anti-social.

The next day, I took a walk in the forest. “Hello, land owners,” I said out loud. “My name is Hilary. I honestly don’t understand how I ended up here, but I’d like to do a good job of living in this place. Please teach me how to live here. I’m sorry for all the things I’ve already done wrong.”

I felt something inside me change when I said those words. Some little tendril of connection became established. Suddenly, I wasn’t a stranger anymore. I had introduced myself; no matter how shyly, I had entered the web.

From that point on, the erotic merging I craved began to happen. My ears picked up the many different moods of the stream running along the edge of my land, telling me if the water was high or low. I began to sense when it would rain, moving my laundry inside just seconds before a downpour. When I walked in the forest, edible and medicinal plants made themselves known to me, and I always came home with my basket full of exactly what I needed. I found myself talking to the land owners more and more frequently, pouring out tea for them in the morning, or wine at night. This magic had nothing to do with charts and tables; it was as natural and obvious as talking to my “regular” human neighbors.

As I write this now, another natural and obvious fact is staring me in the face: I’m an earth witch, and have been one all along.

Real magic has little to do with gemstones and magic wands; it’s in the quality of our attention when we move through the natural world, and in our capacity for relationship with neighbors both seen and unseen. I’m grateful to Britton Boyd and her fabulous book for calling these facts to my attention, and reminding me that whether or not we identify with the word “witch,” we can all engage with the magic of nature, give ourselves joyfully to the service of the earth, and walk a path of connection, communion, and reciprocity with all forms of life.

I’ll share more of my journey next month, and until then, I encourage you to find the magic and mystery in the land you call home, wherever that may be.



Hilary Smith

Senior Editor, Hierophant Publishing


Cover image for Earth Witch by Britton Boyd





Earth Witch: Finding Magic in the Land by Britton Boyd

Interested in exploring your own magical connection to the sacred land around you? In Earth Witch, author Britton Boyd invites you to seek out the deep and mysterious connections with the earth that lie at the ancestral roots of witchcraft. This book provides those new to witchcraft with foundational practices on which to build an organic spirituality rooted in the natural world, and challenges seasoned witches to renew the ancient relationship with the earth that lies at the heart of their craft. Packed with stories, spells, and rituals, Boyd encourages all of us to live in service to the planet we call home.

Learn more and read two free chapters from the book here.