Interview: The Concept of BirthQuake

Dru Hamilton at "Book Talk" with Tammie Fowles, author of BirthQuake: Journey to Wholeness

Dru: What is a BirthQuake?

Tammie: A Birthquake for the most part is a transformational process, which impacts the whole person, and ultimately leads to growth. They're initiated by a significant challenge in a person's life, or what I call a quake.

Quakes occur for most of us when we're standing at a crossroad. They can be precipitated by a loss, a major lifestyle change, or even a new awareness. While the experience can be painful, the pain of a quake holds promise, because it triggers a healing process.

Dru: How is a BirthQuake different than a mid-life crisis?

Tammie: Birthquakes at a glance can understandably be confused with a mid-life crisis, because they often occur at midlife, and are initially difficult experiences. But there are a number of ways that a Birthquake and a midlife crisis differ, one of the most significant differences is that the outcome of a midlife crisis isn't always positive. In some cases a midlife crisis leads to a breakdown, while moving through a BirthQuake ultimately leads to a Breakthrough. Also, a Birthquake effects the whole person, it touches just about every aspect of your life.

More than anything else, it's how we respond to the quakes in our lives which determines whether we'll be diminished by our quakes, or transformed by them.

Dru: Can you give us an example of someone who's been transformed by a Quake?

Tammie: One of my all time heroes is Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist who was imprisoned in a German concentration camp during World War II.

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Frankl was starved, beaten, frozen, he witnessed horrendous acts of violence and murder, and yet survived to tell the world his story, in his incredibly powerful book, "Man's Search for Meaning."

He lost his entire family, including his pregnant wife, to the death camps, and much of his identity was stripped away. He lost control of just about every physical aspect of his life. He had no choice over when and what he'd eat or even if he'd eat, when, where, for how long, he'd sleep, when and how long he'd work or what kind of work he'd do, and even if he'd be alive by the end of the day.

Frankl recognized that What he did have control over was how he'd choose to respond to his situation. While the guards might dictate what experiences he had, no-one but he himself had the power to decide how he'd respond to those experiences, or what meaning they'd have to him.

Dru: What do you mean when you describe the quake as connected to the loss of spirit?

Tammie: Well, I believe that most of us become so preoccupied with the every day details of our lives that we lose touch with our spirits, and we begin to function on automatic pilot, so often going through the motions that we fail to fully appreciate the incredible beauty in our world, and truly experience the moment.

I also think that as a result of becoming so overwhelmed by our culture's dominant story, we've lost touch with our own.

Dru: Can you be more specific about how our cultural story has overwhelmed us?

Tammie: We're introduced to our cultural story almost immediately. We're taught it by our families, our teachers, our peers, and most of all, at least in the case of Americans, we're taught the dominant story by the media.

A culture's dominant story comes to dictate what it's members pay attention to, what they value, how they perceive themselves and others, and even to a large extent, it shapes their very experiences.

By the time American children graduate from high school, it's been estimated that they've been exposed to 360,ooo advertisements, and on average, by the time we die, we Americans will have spent an entire year of our lives watching television.

It's been pointed out that it's the people who tell the stories who're the ones who control how our children grow up. A long time ago we acquired most of our cultural story from wise elders, and now commercial television has become our primary story teller. When you consider what the primary message of this incredibly powerful storyteller has been, it's not that difficult to appreciate how much of our soul has been lost. We've been hypnotized by a story heard hundreds of times every day in America, and the title of that story is "Buy me."

Speaking of stories, I remember hearing a wonderful story about a workshop where Joseph Campbell was showing images of the sacred to participants. One image was a bronze statue of the God Shiva, dancing within a circle of flames. Shiva had one foot in the air, and the other foot was resting on the back of a little man, who was squatting in the dust and carefully examining something he was holding in his hands. Someone asked Campbell what the little man was doing down there, and Campbell responded, "That's a little man who's so caught up in the study of the material world, that he doesn't realize that the living God is dancing on his back.

A quake is like an alarm going off, it's a wake up call telling many of us that we've lost our connection to the sacred. It urges us to attend to the sacred in our world, and invites us to evaluate the impact of our cultural story. It also calls for us to explore and even begin to reauthor our own stories.

Dru: What prompted you to write "BirthQuake?"

Tammie: My own BirthQuake experience, although I wouldn't have called it that when I first encountered it. The rumblings of my own quake I think began with a growing dissatisfaction with my life, an awareness that I wasn't being true enough to my deepest values, and a haunting sense that too much of my life was moving on without me. I knew that I needed to not only explore how I was currently living my life, but that I'd also need to make some significant changes but I didn't really want to change, I just wanted to feel better, so I tried to keep living on automatic pilot for as long as I could.

And then, when I was about 35, I developed back pain that eventually just became so intense that I could barely move. And so for days I was laid up in bed with very few distractions, it was essentially just me and the pain, so I was trapped, and the only place that I could go was inward, and so that's where I went.

Ultimately my inward journey led me to make significant changes. and many of the initial changes involved loss - the loss of my psychotherapy practice, my home, my life style, and then, remarkably, the loss of my pain. So living through my quake has been hard, and I know that it's not finished with me yet, but I also believe that it's leading me down a path that feels right.

Dru: You mention in your book that while exploring the meaning of your life, you realized one day that you'd had it backwards all along. Can you talk a bit more about that?

Tammie: Sure, For years I questioned what the meaning of my life was, why was I here? I could think of a number of reasons to live, and could imagine more than one purpose to devote my life to, but ultimately I never felt that I was clear about what the meaning of my life was.

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Then one day it occurred to me that maybe I'd had it backwards all along, that instead of focusing my energy on finding some purpose and meaning to my life, I needed to make my daily life more meaningful. So ultimately, I needed to forget about the questions, and live what answers I had. So I decided to focus on shaping my every day life in ways that reflected my personal values, time with my family and friends, time in my garden, time in service to others, and time for myself.

Dru: You describe life as art. What do you mean by that?

Tammie: Mathew Fox, Episcopal priest and author, describes life style as an art form and he urges each of us to create life styles of "spiritual substance." When I look back at my "pre-quake" life style, I'm struck by the opportunities that I missed, and the countless precious moments that I was too busy to really appreciate. When we view our lives as a work of art, each of us then becomes an artist, and each day becomes to a large extent an opportunity to create our very own masterpiece.

Michael Brownlee, editor of Cogenisis, defined life as "that which creates." If your alive, than you're automatically a creator, and it makes enormous sense to me, that we each acknowledge our significant power to create, as well as take responsibility for what we chose to produce.

Dru: You identify three phases of a Birthquake in your book, could you briefly describe them?

Tammie: The first phase, which is triggered by our quakes, is the Exploration and integration phase. This phase typically involves a great deal of introspection.

It's here that we begin to examine our personal stories. We look more closely at our inner selves, our emotional and physical selves, as well as at our life styles. We also begin to identify our needs and our values, and to evaluate our choices. Tom Bender, author and architect, wrote that "Like a garden, our lives need to be weeded to produce a good crop," and that's what we begin to do during this phase, we look at where in our lives that we need to weed, and also, where and what we need to plant, and to cultivate. Bender also maintains that in order for both a person and a society to be healthy, there needs to exist a spiritual core, and that the spiritual core involves honoring. I believe, that an important question to ask ourselves during the exploration and integration phase is, "What do I truly honor, and how does my life style reflect that which I honor."

It can take years sometimes to shift to the next phase, the movement phase. It's during the movement phase that we begin to earnestly make changes, and the changes are usually small at first. From an alteration in diet, planting a garden, beginning to meditate, - to more life altering changes, maybe a shift in career, leaving or committing to a significant relationship, or actively participating in a spiritual, or political movement

The movement phase typically involves growth and change at a personal level.

The final phase of a BirthQuake I call the expansion phase. Those who've entered the expansion phase, are not only changing their own lives, they're also reaching out to help others. It's this third phase that truly involves wholeness.

Dru: How does the expansion phase involve wholeness?

Tammie: Most of us have heard that wholeness relates to the mind/body/and spiritual aspects of a person. And while that's true, I think that this description misses a major aspect of wholeness. From my perspective, Wholeness extends beyond the individual, and encompasses the world in which we live. So for me, true wholeness not only includes attending to the needs of the mind/body/and spirit, but also requires that we connect to the world of which we're each a part.

There's some research that indicates that there's a significant correlation between mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety and substance abuse, and too great of a preoccupation with the self. Another study found that a necessary ingredient of happiness, seems to be to possess somewhat of an outward focus.

So those individuals who reach the expansion phase of a Birthquake, who actively look inward but also reach out, extending their caring and concern beyond their own self-interests, enjoy a sense of greater well-being. They also, on average, tend to live longer too.

Dru: In your book you identify cultural myths that you suggest interfere with individual growth and personal satisfaction. Would you share a few of them with us.

Tammie: Sure. The first is The Myth that more is better.

My generation was raised on television, and most of us were programmed to believe that the most and the biggest is the best. One of my favorite songs when I was a little girl began, "my dogs bigger than your dog." I learned it from a pet food commercial. Last fall PBS aired a special called "Affluenza" which proposed that Americans are suffering from an epidemic of raging consumerism and materialism, leading to symptoms like record levels of personal debt and bankruptcy, chronic stress, overwork, and broken families. And, the statistics that support this premise Dru are pretty staggering. They indicate, first of all, that Americans are wealthier than ever. For instance:

  1. Americans on the average are 41/2 times wealthier than their great grandparents.
  2. There's been a 45% increase in the US of per capita consumption in the last 20 years.
  3. We own approximately twice as many cars as we did in 1950. And, while 89% of Americans own at least one car, only 8% of the world's population does.
  4. The median size of a new house in 1949 was 1,100 square feet, In 1970, it was 1,385 square feet, and in 1993, it had grown to 2,060 square feet.
  5. It's been estimated that 10 million Americans have two or more homes, while a minimum of 300,000 people go homeless in this country. And while Americans comprise 5% of the world's population, and consume 30% of its resources. So, While we're better of financially and materially, interestingly, we seem to be worse off in a number of ways.
  6. It's been calculated that while the average American spends 6 hours a week shopping, the average parent spends just 4o minutes a week playing with their children, and one study found that we spend 40% less time playing with our kids than we did in 1965, and 163 more hours a year working. And finally, according to the index of social health, there's been a 51% decrease in American's overall quality of life.

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So, It seems all to clear to me, that Having "more" materially, doesn't translate into greater happiness or satisfaction. In fact, I whole heartedly agree with Tom Bender, who observed that, "after a point, more, becomes a heavy load."

Another myth is the myth of Happily ever after.

So many of us were raised on fairy tales, that told us that once a particular event occurred, we'd live happily ever after. Consequently many people end up living on what Frederick Edwords referred to as "the deferred payment plan." Those of us who've lived on the "deferred payment plan," have spent a great deal of our lives waiting. We've told ourselves that we'll be happy when we marry, make enough money, buy our dream house, have a child, when the kids leave home, or that we'll finally be happy when we retire. Unfortunately, the deferred payment plan, often causes us to project a significant part of ourselves, and our spirits into the future, so we end up failing to fully appreciate and even sometimes to be in the present. What so many of us fail to recognize, is that generally, experiencing Happiness is both an active and creative process. We create happiness in part, by what we choose to focus on, appreciate, and expect from our lives. It's been said that love is a verb, faith is a verb, and I'd add that happiness is a verb too.

And then there's The Myth of the Good Life. Our Fantasies of the good life so often seem to include images of luxury and wealth, and while the notion of the "good life" seems to be deeply ingrained in our generation's psyche's, the world was introduced to the concept of the "good life" by people like William Penn, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry David Thoreau, who's vision of the good life was very different than most of ours turned out to be. To these visionaries, the "good life" represented a lifestyle based on simplicity; not material gain, on personal autonomy; not acquisition, and on spiritual, emotional, and interpersonal growth; not net-worth.

I also think that most of us have forgotten that the American dream was founded, to a large extent on spiritual values, and we only need to take a look at the great seal on the back of every dollar bill, to be reminded of that.

So it may be that it's not that we need a new definition of the good life, or even a new American dream, as much as we need to reconnect with our earlier visions.

Finally, the last myth that I'd like to talk about, is the myth of having it all.

When I was busy mothering, writing, and managing a very demanding private practice, I had more in terms of financial and professional success, than I'd ever dreamed about as a young girl. And yet, I wasn't all that happy. I often felt stressed out, pressed for time, and that something was missing. At the same time, I couldn't understand why with all I had, that I could possibly want more. Then one day I realized, that it was the "more" that had become my problem. I'd bought into one of the most popular myths of my generation - that I could (and should) have it "ALL."

The reality is that No-one can have it all. When we choose one path, to some degree we forsake another, at least for the time being. We just can't do it "ALL" without making sacrifices, no matter how smart or tough we are, and while we all understand intellectually, that there's no way to have "everything" and give up "nothing," it seems like many of us are still trying very hard to pull it off.

Lilly Tomlin, one of my favorite comedians once joked, "If I'd known what it would be like to have it all, I might have settled for less." Today her comment feels far more like wisdom to me than humor. I believe that those of us who're determined to "have it all," and "all at once," have sentenced ourselves to a lifetime of ongoing struggle, and dissatisfaction.

I think it's delusional to expect that life can and should provide us with everything we want, and all at once. I also think we're being tremendously unfair to ourselves when we attempt to achieve it. I just don't think anyone should have to work that hard.

Dru: You also mention that you believe that BirthQuakes can occur not only in the lives of individuals, but also within an entire culture. Can you elaborate on that?

Tammie: This aspect of the Birthquake phenomenon fascinates, and at the same time frightens me. I believe that quite possibly we're experiencing a global quake. In 1992, Over 1,600 scientists from around the world, released a document entitled, "Warning to Humanity." This warning stated among other things. that human beings were on a collision course with nature, and that we need to make significant changes now if we want to avoid profound human suffering in the future. Other rumblings of a global quake in addition to our environmental crisis, can be felt all over the world in addictions, mental illnesses, wars, crime, poverty, child abuse, and much more.

I recognize that many of the problems I've mentioned have existed for centuries however, in no time in history has the world been at such universal risk. This is not just about facing the multitude of species that are becoming extinct, or the billions of starving people in the world, this is about the fact that every single one of us is at risk.

Dru: How do you respond to those people who say, "there aren't enough people who are willing to make the necessary changes to make a real difference, so why bother?"

Tammie: I'd tell them that we need to stop seeing ourselves as powerless, and that we just can't afford the luxury of feeling helpless any longer. Looking back at the history of the United States alone, during the time of slavery, there were a number of people who believed that slavery would never be abolished. Also, an amazingly short time ago, when my grandmother was a girl, women weren't allowed to vote. For years, many folks, including women, thought the suffragette movement, a movement which took 70 long years to succeed, was futile. Also, had anyone predicted twenty years ago that within a few short years we'd witness the end of the cold war, the Soviet Union, apartheid in South Africa, the Iron curtain, and the Berlin wall, which had separated families since World War II, have to wonder who would have believed them.

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Bill Moyers once observed that the largest party in America today isn't the democrats or the republicans, it's the party of the wounded. And, He's right I think, we've all been wounded. Yet I also believe in our tremendous ability to heal.

Before any major transformation, there are those who've said, "it's always been this way, it's never gonna change." And yet it has changed again and again."

According to Duane Elgin, author of "Voluntary Simplicity," it's been estimated that in the United States alone, 25 million Americans are consciously exploring more satisfying and yet responsible ways of living. Now, this translates into roughly only about 10% of the US population, and many would say that this isn't nearly enough, and I'd agree with them. But I also whole-heartedly agree with Margaret Mead who once said, "never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Michael Lindfield, who wrote "The Dance of Change," noted that, before any cultural transformation is completed, there's generally a time of great chaos and confusion, and he suggests that our culture needs a new story to inspire and guide us through what he calls "the coming birth."

I believe that we have that story, and that we've always had it, and that we only need to recover it. It's an age-old story about wholeness, interconnection, cooperation, and the sacredness of all life. We just need to embrace it and incorporate it into our daily lives.

Dru: I understand that you also conduct "BirthQuake" workshops, can you briefly summarize what a Birthquake workshop is?

Tammie: A BirthQuake workshop in one sentence is a process which assists participants in transforming their own personal challenges or "quakes" into opportunities that offer personal and spiritual growth.

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, November 26). Interview: The Concept of BirthQuake, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 16 from

Last Updated: July 21, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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