• Sue Shanahan

Martha Beck: True North

Updated: Oct 13


“Martha Beck is one of the smartest women I know.” - Oprah Winfrey.


When I think of Martha Beck, I think genius. That’s why I was so happy to have the opportunity to interview her for my Porch Light Profiles. I wanted her to verify that it’s safe to trust our inner guidance. From what I understand, that’s how she lives her life. I was banking on her three Harvard degrees and vast experience as a life coach to confirm that living from the inside out will not put you in peril. In fact, it’s the quickest, most direct path to connect to your life’s purpose.

My heart raced as I dialed Martha’s number. I had read all of her books and faithfully followed her column in O The Oprah Magazine for many years. I was awestruck by her ability to make the complex comprehendible to the ordinary mind. After she picked up the phone and we shared pleasantries, I dove right in with my first question, “Have you always followed your inner wisdom?"

“No, not at all. Not at all. As a very Mormon child, in a very Mormon family, and in a very Mormon part of the country, that was not the teaching. And there were very explicit teachings about controlling your behavior and even your thoughts, so that they were aligned with the local philosophy. So yeah, I spent my whole childhood living in that illusion.”

Martha said she was relieved to leave the church and its beliefs behind when she left to attend Harvard. She had no idea that she was walking into another kind of religion, the religion of academia. She and her husband where both pursuing combined masters/doctorate programs when she became pregnant with their second child. They soon learned that their baby boy had Down syndrome. Martha was urged to abort the fetus, giving birth to an intellectually disabled child was seriously frowned upon. “Many colleagues were skeptical that as a career academic I would not be able to raise a child with a disability.” Worse yet, they doubted the value of an individual with a low IQ.

At the same time something was shifting inside of Martha. Along with the physical changes, magic was being ushered in. She began following the directives of an inner knowing that would not leave her alone. Although she was pro choice, she could not talk herself into terminating the pregnancy. She already loved the little person growing inside of her unconditionally. For the first time in her life, she sensed she was being guided by loving beings. She could feel them. Synchronicities abounded. She had the foresight to see across space and time. It frightened her to have episodes that would be scoffed at by the Harvard community.

“What was happening was real, and I couldn't deny it. So I was back in the same place that I was when I left Utah. What is real? It's not the church I was following. It's not the God of intellect. Not the God of reason either. It's something bigger and much more mysterious and much more humbling. And that as you know, became a completely different life path for me.”

Martha struggled to find the confidence to trust her expanding consciousness. She went from not believing in anything that was slightly irrational, to believing everything. It was all so unsettling. She decided to take everything as truth until she was sure it was false. That gave her permission to act as if she were being guided until proven otherwise. In the years to come, she found that premise is the only way for her to live.

In her long-standing practice as a life coach, Martha has observed that most of her clients come to her disconnected from their inner wisdom. They are at odds with what they were raised to believe. To pay attention to the ‘still, small, voice within’ can be perceived as a threat. You can no longer be controlled. That leads to ignoring or suppressing that inner whisper. In Martha’s case that suppression turned into a wake up call.

“After so many years of not tuning into my inner voice my body began breaking down. I got really physically sick. I got a whole bunch of autoimmune diseases. What I now know is any variation from one's deeply held truth weakens the body and causes the immune system in particular, to go looking for ways to get it to stop.”

Illness was a great way to get Martha’s attention. So much so that she made a pact with herself to never betray her inner truth for one year. The benefits of that experiment lead her to write her book, “The Way of Integrity.” Today the moment she veers away from her purest truth, her body starts to develop symptoms.

“Now it usually comes in the form of anxiety and then it can become intense anxiety with depressive aspects. I don't usually let it get any further than that. Knowing this keeps me in as much integrity as I can muster, which is not ever perfect. But it's pretty close to true because if not, I get sick. It's that simple. But I don't get sick very much anymore because I feel it at the stage of a tiny tickle and my motto is, cave early.”

To take Martha’s discovery a step further I asked her, “Does following your inner compass always lead you to your life’s work? More importantly, will you be able to support yourself?" She confirmed that her multifaceted career path opened up to her step-by-step through listening.

“That is the scariest question I face. It's one thing for me to bet my own life on this premise. It’s quite another for me to say to you, to a friend, to my children, ‘Oh, yeah. If you feel like dropping out of college, you go ahead. The way will appear.’ It's terrifying. It helps to have been pointing people in this direction for years and years in my coaching practice because my clients come back and tell me where they went with those instructions. And it's often miraculous.”

Of course there are clients who come back and relate that following their intuition didn’t work for them. Upon further examination, Martha finds that they actually didn’t let go and wholeheartedly trust their heart. They circled around it but never actually dove in.

“I mean, I've worked with people in little villages in Africa. People who've had horrors happen to them that you can't even imagine. And for them to look at me and say, ‘Is this going to work for me?' And for me to say, ‘yes,' is a massive leap of faith, every damn time. And yet, I've seen it work even in those places. It's incredible.”

Martha admits that coming from your center is simple but often not easy.

“I still have problems with it every day. There is so much programming in everyone’s brain that by the time you’re done with childhood it’s hard to discern that whisper. There is all kinds of stuff that I still assume, that are not necessarily true. And when my life bumps up against that, I have to change my point of view. And that means letting go of a belief system that I’ve held for a long time. So a big part of my brain goes, ‘Are you sure?' And I have to go back to the integrity practice, go back to the body compass, go back to the things that have proven effective over and over.”

It’s speaks volumes that a women who was raised to revere the God of the intellect traded her brain power in for an inner compass. Staying true to what she learned while carrying her son, Adam, has never failed Martha Beck. Coming from your intellect is all well and good, but only takes you so far. Following your heart is what bridges the chasm.


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Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

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