Conscious Business & The Spiritual Wisdom of Sounds True: An Interview with Tami Simon
Conscious Business & The Spiritual Wisdom of Sounds True
An Interview with Tami Simon
by Nadia Colburn, Ph.D.
Tami Simon is the founder and CEO of Sounds True, a multimedia publishing company that Tami founded in 1985 at the age of 22 with the mission of disseminating spiritual wisdom. Today, still faithful to its original mission, Sounds True has grown to have nearly 110 employees and a library of close to 2000 titles featuring some of the leading teachers and visionaries of our time. Sounds True is a pioneer in the conscious business movement, and Tami leads in a way that values their multiple bottom lines, which include relationship and mission as well as profit.
Tami also hosts Insights at the Edge, a popular weekly podcast where she has interviewed many of today’s leading teachers. Tami has recently released the audio program Being True: What Matters Most in Work, Life, and Love, in which she distills her own life, work, and love lessons and reminds us to “remain alive to the inner voice that always encourages each of us to ‘be true.’”
Nadia Colburn (NC): You are the founder of Sounds True, one of the largest publishers of spiritual wisdom, especially of original audio programs and online classes. You publish many of the leading teachers in spirituality and mindfulness. I’m interested in how the company came into being and also in the way you conduct Sounds True as a spiritual and conscious business.
Tami Simon (TS): Sounds True began in 1985. I was 22 at the time, had dropped out of Swarthmore College at the end of my sophomore year, and spent a year studying meditation in Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal. I connected deeply to the practices and wanted to introduce them to others so they too could have access to these powerful practices through personal, direct experience. That became the seed of Sounds True with our original mission being to disseminate spiritual wisdom.
NC: The company has grown a lot since then. How big is it now, and roughly how many books and audios do you publish each year?
TS: We currently have approximately 110 employees. Our total library is close to 2000 programs, including audio learning programs, online courses, online summits, as well as books and healing music from around the world. Each year, we publish approximately 100 new titles.
NC: That’s impressive. And you’ve recently released your own audio program, Being True, which talks about your story and the story of Sounds True. In it, you talk about bringing consciousness and awareness to the business world in really important ways.
TS: When I began Sounds True in 1985, it was hard for me to find models that inspired me in the world of business. I had to create something that I didn’t see. My inspiration was to disseminate these great teachings and approaches to contemplative life, and also to have our business model itself follow the central discoveries of the wisdom traditions in terms of how we conduct ourselves as a business. I wanted to have integrity between the process and the products of the business. So, we created our own processes.
Today, more than three decades later, there are many different people attempting in their own way to bring together multiple bottom lines in business, which is one way to talk about it. Being a conscious capitalist is another phrase; bringing mindfulness to the workplace; having a business interested in fostering the personal growth of employees—these are all different descriptions of a similar phenomenon. There is an emerging movement in which businesses want to impact the world in terms of social entrepreneurship; many businesses today want not only to be successful in terms of generating profit but also in making a social difference.
If your number one priority is making money, I don’t think it’s possible to embody the core values of the wisdom traditions. But if your number one priority is something else, like human flourishing or generating love and contribution, and behind that, you need to be profitable in order to support that other number one goal, then you can live by the teachings of the wisdom traditions.
The problem is that in most businesses the number one reason for being is shareholder return and how much money we’re generating; nothing to do with love, beauty, or planetary health.
I think that’s the reason it was so hard for me to find models. I couldn’t find many for-profit companies for whom the bottom line and reason for being wasn’t simply making money.
From the very beginning at Sounds True, I believed that “the means and the ends are the same”—because ultimately all we really have are means. There are no real end points. An end point unfolds into something else and something else and something else. The means, the path itself, should be life-giving. So that has been critically important to me from the beginning.
NC: Did you meet doubters along the way—people who didn’t believe you could succeed if you didn’t put profits first?
TS: Yes! Many people told me I wouldn’t be able to stick to my values. I ignored them. That wasn’t an option for me. How much money I’d make, that was optional; I didn’t have a real financial goal. But it wasn’t possible for me not to remain true to my values.
Early on, I sat down with a successful entrepreneur who asked me, “What’s your vision?” I answered him in a number of different ways, but he kept on asking me the same question. I wasn’t giving him the answers he wanted. Finally he said, “What is your revenue goal? How big should your company be?” I was like, “I don’t care. That’s not up to me. That’s up to the marketplace, the universe.”
Today, I think more and more young people want to work for companies that give them a substantial amount of freedom, and they want to make creative and cultural contributions. So, for businesses to be competitive moving forward, I think a different value system is going to have to come into focus. And my hope is that the public at large will feel so inspired to support and engage in commerce with businesses that have this heart and focus that such companies will thrive more and more. And these thriving companies will inspire other companies who are looking at the profit bottom line; they’ll realize this is a good way to build your brand.
A business can earn a “lovemark” as well as a trademark. A lovemark is something customers give you when they love what you produce and they love the authenticity with which you market and describe your products; when people sense a feeling of real human beings making things that connect with real human beings. Getting a lovemark allows you to be a lot more successful. I hope at Sounds True we continue to earn such marks from our customers.
NC: I hope so, too. Certainly this last national election has been at least in part about the role of money, and so we need to change what money means and what we can do with money.
TS: Yes, we need people to understand that how they spend their money is a statement of their values. What businesses and what values are you voting for every time you spend your dollars?
NC: You talk about there being three different bottom lines for your company. Can you tell us a bit about that?
TS: The first bottom line is the first question I asked when I started Sounds True in my twenties: What is my mission? My mission was to create learning programs that can truly create a difference in people’s lives. At Sounds True, we’re not trying to sell quick-fix-spirituality that promises enlightenment in five easy steps. Our programs represent the depth and challenge and true requirements of a spiritual journey. So, it’s very important that we never sell out or compromise on mission. That is our first bottom line: being true to our mission.
Our second bottom line is our process: How are we doing the work? For us, the ends and means are the same, as I mentioned. Are we honoring all of our relationships—with authors, with vendors, with customers, with future generations? Are we valuing the workplace itself? So, our second bottom line involves the health of all of our relationships at work. Are our relationships honest and mutually beneficial? Can we see another person’s position and still have our own? Can we have a workplace that supports personal growth, respects individual differences and fosters authentic communication?
And our third bottom is financial. We need to be profitable to support the other two bottom lines. Cash flow is like oxygen. However, it is also the most negotiable bottom line in that we can have more or less of it in any given year, but we need to stay profitable in general in order to stay in business and stay true to our first two bottom lines, which are not negotiable.
NC: That’s beautiful. You began publishing audio programs at Sounds True. How did you come to that?
TS: In college, I learned that I loved to listen to a great lecture. I personally learn more when I listen to someone speak than when I read a text. We all learn differently, and I’m an audio learner.
Also, hearing a great teacher, especially someone in the wisdom traditions, is itself a teaching. I think there is something you can learn just from the sound and cadence of a spiritual teacher’s voice, a potential richness and relaxation, a pausing and openness to space. As you listen, you are really communing with the flow of that person’s mind and being.
In the late 1980s when I started Sounds True, audiobooks were just being introduced to the marketplace. My idea was not so much to publish books on tape, but instead to give people the experience of listening to great dharma talks and transformational lectures.
Sounds True became the leader in original spoken word, that is, transformational audio programs delivered in a natural teaching style. Over the years, we’ve seen opportunities to expand into many different formats, including online learning.
NC: And how do you see the different teachings that you showcase at Sounds True interacting with one another?
TS: That’s a complex question, and it has a light and a dark side.
One of the dark sides is that Sounds True sometimes has created confusion for people. There are so many options offered; the danger is that someone could become a dabbler. If you just dabble on the surface, you don’t get anywhere; the moment a spiritual path becomes hard or challenging, you jump ship and go somewhere else. There are dangers in putting out so much material that offer so many different options.
On the other light side, people are different. We know that everyone’s mind is different. For one person, a sitting meditation is exactly what helps that person find a sense of calm. For someone else, movement is better, whether through contemplative running or chi gong, and for others, perhaps something completely different like writing in a journal works. If a person thinks there is only one way, then that person might never find the portal or gateway that works best for their unique situation. So, it’s important for people to have different options to taste and see what feels right.
So, my advice and encouragement to people is: if you find something that feels resonant to you, then really go into it for a period of time, even and especially when it becomes challenging. And develop your own inner guidance system. The goal is to no longer be looking to the outside but to find an inner light and inner guidance system that is always available and that knows the right next step.
NC: Have you been able to see the impact of these teachings made available through Sounds True?
TS: Yes, I receive hundreds of letters every year about how the teachings we’ve published at Sounds True have changed people’s lives. It’s very profound.
Sounds True is part of a larger movement that is emerging in the culture where there is a hunger and interest in this next step in our evolution. As our materialist experiment proves to be hollow and disappointing, people are recognizing a deeper hunger that needs to be met. There is a shift in how people’s need for meaning is being met by traditional religious structures; overall, fewer people are participating in traditional religious traditions, and yet, we have an innate desire for meaning and connection to others on a spiritual path. Where do we meet this? In spirituality and wisdom traditions outside of codified religion.
Another factor is that in the past twenty years, more and more scientific studies are supporting the benefits of contemplative practices such as mindfulness meditation and compassion practices.
Our world is in trouble and suffering, and more than ever, people need tools to help them remain calm and centered. We are experiencing an acceleration in information sharing due to technology, and people are certainly in need of practices that help them stay grounded, undistracted, and in the moment.
NC: And how do you see the benefits of spiritual practice leading to more social awareness?
TS: Whenever we make space in our lives; when we come out of doing into being; when we make that shift, we have the opportunity to connect with how we’re really feeling, so we’re not overriding our feelings. When we shift into being, we can shift into what’s actually happening in our immediate experience, which is what is happening in our bodies. And when we tune into our bodies, we can discover how we feel—sad, excited, etc.—and what those feelings are connected to.
That gives birth to what is really happening within us and around us. We feel our connection with all of life—what is directly in our environment and in our greater world as well.
NC: Again, that’s beautiful. How do you see the intersection of spirituality and social justice?
TS: In my own life, I have wanted to embody love in action, and that is the reason that the processes at Sounds True being congruent with the products is so important to me. I always say the greatest accomplishment at our business is not the creation of any one program, but the body of Sounds True itself—what we stand for as a business. No matter what we’re doing—what creative project—we try to do it in such a way that it expresses love in action.
For me, part of this love in action has required I also invest a lot of time in my personal relationships—with my wife Julie and with our dog, Raspberry. If I were to give all my time and energy to work and not have my family life also be a place of love and beauty, then I would be missing something very important, and there would be a lack of congruence and wholeness in my life.
Early in my life, I saw many spiritual teachers whose organizations were messes. I saw successful CEOs who didn’t have family lives that were nourishing for themselves or their family members. I saw these examples and wanted to do something different.
I also saw that spiritual practices don’t solve all our problems. We need to receive and listen to feedback from family, from friends. We need to listen deeply and be present so that we are attuned to what those we love and life asks of us.
In my own life, I started to see that my choice to continue to go on long intensive meditation retreats was at the expense and suffering of my wife. I was more comfortable being alone and meditating than I was relating to other people. For me, my true growing edge was learning how to be in close relationship and that brought up more terror and also delivered more growth at a certain point than sitting alone on a solitary retreat. So, I had to listen to what my life was really asking of me, and it was not more meditation but rather to devote myself to more intensive and intimate contact.
NC: You talk with a lot of authenticity about your own experiences and your own growth in your audio program, Being True. What was your process of putting together Being True and how did that process fit into your own growth?
TS: I had the feeling that I had taken in so much that it would be useful for me personally to come forward and express myself. That was my next growing edge.
We talked about spending time in being. When we do that in an embodied way, there is a process of tuning into what’s needed inside of us and wants to come out. It became clear to me that there was an inner imperative to come forward and express myself and to do so in speaking would be a natural and fun way to communicate both what I’ve learned from starting Sounds True and in doing my interview series.
That was the genesis. I could tell inside me that recording Being True was my next step forward just as clearly as I sensed previously that prioritizing my intimate relationships was my growing edge.
Asking ourselves from an embodied place, “What is my true growing edge?” Not “What do I want?” but “What is being asked of me?” This process itself is a kind of listening where the ear is tuned to the universe itself. And when we have the courage to follow what we hear, our life, our sense of empowerment, our inner genius, and our inner light unfolds.
That is then the light that is informing the next step in our life. I think our life unfolds in service to the fulfillment of our unique incarnation, even if it asks things of us that don’t seem particularly glamorous or impactful. So, making the Being True audio program was what was asked of me, and then I needed to go through the act of doing it.
I knew I wouldn’t create a script. So, I created a pretty simple outline, and I created a series of four lectures. I had an outline for each talk that was a couple pages long, but I went into the studio and didn’t really look at the outline.
NC: In Being True, you talk about finding the inner channel, and you referred just now to an inner light. Can you say a bit about that inner channel, that place from which the light shines?
TS: I spent the past 15 or so years studying somatic meditation—meditating with the body—with Reggie Ray. Part of what we learn is how to connect with the central channel in the body, that channel of energy almost like a river that runs in front of the spine. If you sit up straight and imagine a string at the top of the back of your head pulling your head upwards, you can feel an elongation in your spine and an opening of the space in front of the spine. This river of energy runs up from the perineum all the way to this point at the top of the head. In yoga, the central channel is known as the sushumna nadi. When this river is flowing in an easy and bright way, there is a sense of inner brilliance and illumination. I was trained to meditate with this sense of flow in the central channel, and on a regular basis, I tune into this channel being open and bright. This gives a sense of having a backbone or a sense of real integrity in our body and in the whole of our life. It is a channel of inner authenticity.
NC: Yes, that inner authenticity is also that unique self that you talk about poignantly.
TS: This sense of individual uniqueness is so important to me. For so long, I looked outside for someone or something—for a perfect mirror of me and my experience and my needs—and I couldn’t find it, and I felt like a freak.
There was no ready template for me in the world. Early in my life, people would look at me and say,”Are you a boy or a girl? We can’t tell.” I had a deep sense of androgyny while being in a woman’s body. I was interested in spiritual practice but equally in media and business and the transformation of society. I couldn’t find my reflection in the world. When I started to tune to the inside and trust that the expression of my life might not look like any external norms, I found a home in somatic meditation and continued to hunger and learn many different approaches. I was interested in approaching business in a radically different way and for a different purpose—to make a contribution. When I gave myself permission to be one-of-a-kind, things in my life started working a lot better. I could accept this person—this unique person—and trust its one-of-a kindness.
It’s important for me to share my own journey with other people. People are looking for some kind of recipe—if I just find the right recipe, they think, they will have the key. I want to let people know that there is no foolproof recipe—you might get some great ideas from this teacher or that, but make sure to take teaching inside you and listen from the inside. Let it express itself from the inside out because we all have a unique perspective and life story.
We each have an inner light—inside of each of us, there is this hidden power that can be unlocked and set free, and that is what I have been doing in my own life, and hopefully, I’m helping others do it in theirs.
NC: Yes. That’s very inspiring. Thank you, Tami, very much for your wisdom, honesty, and contribution here in this interview, at Sounds True, and in general for what you show is possible in the world. It’s been a pleasure and honor to talk with you. §
Nadia Colburn, Ph.D. (Editor) holds a doctorate in English from Columbia University and a B.A. from Harvard University. She is a kundalini yoga teacher and mindful writing coach, and she offers workshops in person and online. Her writing has been published in more than sixty publications, including The New Yorker, Boston Globe Magazine, and The Kenyon Review. To get free meditation and writing prompts go to nadiacolburn.com.