Tami Simon founded Sounds True in 1985 when she was only 22. She had no business experience at the time—only a tape recorder, a cassette dubber, and a commitment to disseminate spiritual wisdom to as many people as possible. More than three decades later, Sounds True has been named one of the fastest-growing private companies in the country, and its print, audio, and online products have helped millions of spiritual seekers worldwide. Here, Simon talks with Unity Magazine editor Katy Koontz about what sparked the start of her spiritual journey and what trends she’s witnessed in the inner-growth industry over the past 37 years.
Katy Koontz: You were interested in mysticism early on. What attracted you to it?
Tami Simon: I was raised in a Reform Jewish family in Coral Gables, Florida, and we would go to Friday night services at the synagogue at least once a month. I remember feeling uncomfortable that the rabbi was being presented as a type of mediator between the people in the congregation and God.
Then in college, I heard this definition of mysticism based on Evelyn Underhill’s work that said mysticism was an unmediated experience of divinity—your direct experience. That word unmediated lit something up in me because that’s how I feel my connection to Source—as a direct connection.
KK: Did you have any mystical experiences growing up?
TS: One early insight came from reading Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. He wrote about Siddhartha sitting by a river and listening to the sound—and what he heard in the river was impermanence. I was always a very sound-sensitive person; I learned from sound. So the sound of the river became a gateway for me to the idea that everything’s changing all the time. There isn’t anything that’s solid, so that means I’m changing all the time too.
That idea was highlighted by an early experience I had with psychedelics. I didn’t have a lot of those experiences, but it took only a couple to have a major sense of initiation into this idea of everything being vibration—scintillating, radiant, changing vibration. I remember looking at a painting and seeing the colors dripping and moving; the trees in the painting were melting. It’s like that notion from quantum physics that everything has both a wave nature and a particle nature. In that experience, it became clear to me that solid particles were only one way to perceive and that I could also connect to the wavelike aspect of things.
KK: You also started meditating in college, right?
TS: Yes. I was very interested in certain existential questions like, “What happens when we die?” That interests many young people, but for me it was obsessional. If I don’t know the answer to that, I thought, I don’t know how I can live, because I have to work backward from that end point.
When I went to Swarthmore College, I intended to major in philosophy because studying the meaning of life sounded interesting. But studying the great Western philosophers felt very abstract to me, and I wasn’t that interested in abstract knowing. I was interested in inner knowing: What do I know in my own experience, and can I write from that place and speak from that place and have confidence from that place? Those were the things that were important to me.
So I soon found myself in the religious studies department. I had a professor named Gunapala Dharmasiri from Sri Lanka. He was there on the Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program just for my sophomore year. He taught Buddhism and existentialism, and as part of the class, we all learned how to meditate.
We became good friends. In fact, two or three nights a week, I would go over to his house, and his wife would make a big Sri Lankan curry dinner while his three small children would run around playing. I would insist on doing the dishes, and then he and I would talk into the wee hours of the night. We were true friends, and when he left to go back to Sri Lanka, I wanted to go with him and his family. So I did, and that’s when I was introduced to meditation in a much more rigorous way because I attended a 10-day meditation retreat taught by Satya Narayana Goenka, a Burmese meditation master.
KK: That sounds intense.
TS: That retreat was like meditation boot camp. You wake up at 5 in the morning, and you go to bed at 10 at night, and you’re in noble silence the whole time. When Goenka went up to his main center in India, in Igatpuri, I traveled up there and did two more retreats with him.
That’s when the inner lights went on for me. This intensive Vipassana practice gave me a sense of a real homecoming—occupying the space of my body from the inside out. I found what I was looking for, the answers to what happens when we die and all that, and the subject no longer tormented me in the same way. I had this feeling of okayness in my being, okayness of the feeling of the breath coming in and out, the sort of vibratory wakefulness of the body. It was a gateway for me into something primordial, something indigenous to my body. Other people will have other gateways. The important thing is to find the gate that works for you and go through it.
So there, as a 21-year-old in India, I committed myself to bringing these types of practices to as many people as possible so they could touch their own inner connection with Source.
KK: That’s a lot to experience in a relatively short period of time.
TS: I discovered a different sense of time. I remember reading a book by Krishnamurti while over there, and the instruction was to find the space between thoughts and to be there and rest in that. I thought, I can do that, because if you’re traveling in India, waiting for trains, you’ve got lots of time. So I discovered a whole new sense of entering a type of timeless world, where I was intentionally doing just simple practices like that.
KK: Once you came back, you waitressed for a while, and you said a prayer several times an hour: “God, I’m willing to do your work. Please show me what it is.” Do you think that prayer energetically opened a door?
TS: I think the activation came from the depth of my sincerity. It wasn’t that I was just repeating the words because some surface part of me wanted something. Sincerely wanting to find a way to contribute was alive in my heart. And the form wasn’t important … it could’ve been anything. There was an inherent humility in my request.
This lofty idea I had of helping introduce as many people as possible to different spiritual practices, I couldn’t just look in the newspaper for a job promising that kind of opportunity. I had no idea how to find something even remotely like that. Quite honestly, I think I was also scared and concerned. Would I find a place in the world? Would there be a place for me here?
Dropping out of college was a very big deal for me and my family. When I came out as a lesbian, they were like, Yeah, we always knew there was something different about you. I remember thinking that being a lesbian was just the tip of the iceberg because for me, that wasn’t all that big and bold. The part of me that didn’t necessarily connect deeply to abstract, academic learning, the part of me that wanted to feel a connection with Source as the guiding light in my life, that made me feel different.
So when I was saying that prayer, there was a lot of sincerity in it, and something kind of like desperation was underneath it too. That becomes a very serious fuel.
KK: So the plea was coming from your head and your heart.
TS: It was a cry from my soul, and a genuine soul cry is very powerful.
KK: Was it a surrendering?
TS: There was a lot of surrender in it, in that I believed that my prayer would be answered.
KK: And it soon was.
TS: At a certain point, I decided to quit my waitressing job because it seemed a waste of time. My life’s work was not appearing. I remember writing in my journal, “I guess my experiment has failed.” And the day after that, my father died. When I came back from my father’s funeral, a small inheritance was being wired into my account—$50,000. That might not sound like a lot, but this was 37 years ago. It would be close to $200,000 today. It was enough money for me to start Sounds True.
KK: Have you recognized an evolution in spiritual teaching over the years?
TS: When I started Sounds True, people seemed very interested in the mystical dimension in the world’s wisdom traditions, like the gnostic wisdom from Christianity, the Kabbalah from Judaism, and Sufism from Islam. That seemed to be the zeitgeist for people on a spiritual quest.
As time went on, people became interested in seeing the spiritual journey through the lens of contemplative neuroscience—what’s going on in the brain when we use these ancient practices, even if we’re not associating ourselves with any traditional religion. People wanted to understand more about evolutionary biology, how our emotions are part of our bodily wisdom expression, and how self-compassion changes the way our nervous system functions. For example, when we act with self-compassion, we release oxytocin in the body, so we move from fight-or-flight to tend-and-befriend. These are the kind of conversations that have been happening in the last decade or two. It’s been a pretty big progression.
The spiritual journey asks a lot of us. It requires inquiry into our motivations, inner truth-telling, and willingness to look at how our behaviors impact other people.
KK: Do you think understanding the science makes more people interested in spirituality?
TS: Very much so. It’s become a welcome aspect of adult development versus “I have to have spiritual experiences or talk about God in some way.” People don’t need to make that leap. Instead, we can simply say thousands of studies now show that practicing mindfulness meditation changes your default state from fear, worry, and concern to feeling open to new possibilities.
You don’t have to believe in anything, join anything, or have a spiritual teacher who may or may not end up being ethically wise. You can just get an app and get going. People can tap into the results fairly quickly.
Also, they might not use the word spirituality. It might be that more people are interested in inner well-being, for example. The word mindfulness has captured our contemporary world in a way that the word spirituality hasn’t. They’re words for different things.
KK: What do you think is the biggest impediment to inner growth?
TS: The spiritual journey asks a lot of us. It requires inquiry into our motivations, inner truth-telling, and willingness to look at how our behaviors impact other people and which of them have an addictive component. And if they do, what are we trying to avoid and why? Do we have to somehow find a way to feel better than others? What kind of insecurity is that? To engage at that level of depth, you have to have a real inner hunger. Something in you has to be pushing you toward that, a drive to know what’s true.
I think a lot of people just want to feel a little better. They don’t really want to change their addictive patterns or look at their early traumas and the defensive patterns that formed as a result. So some people engage in the spiritual journey at a surface level. If you just want to be a little more comfortable or you want to be a little kinder to yourself, it’s a great place to start, but it’s not going to take you that far.
If you actually want to know what is true in the core of your being, that’s more unusual. That’s a person who has a high enlightenment drive and is willing to embrace discomfort on the journey. That’s what I think keeps people from doing the deep work. It’s uncomfortable.
KK: So most people will go only as far as their comfort will allow?
TS: Yeah. They just kind of bounce off the surface, get a few slogans that help, read a few books, talk about it a little bit, but they don’t really change that much.
KK: Several years ago, you produced The Self-Acceptance Project, a series of free audio downloads. You said self-acceptance is one of the most difficult yet vital challenges of the human journey. Why is that?
TS: Through hosting those 30-some-odd interviews, I learned from some leading experts that part of why self-acceptance is so difficult is the negativity bias. We’re actually wired to see what’s wrong.
KK: As a survival mechanism?
TS: As a survival part of our neurological system. Imagine you want to make sure you’re safe. You’re going to scan the landscape to see if anything is moving or out of place. We’re scanning for danger like that all the time.
Some people, and I’m one of them, have a kind of hypervigilance for danger. People who are high achievers, or worst-case scenario planners, or attorneys searching for the loophole—they’re always looking for what they could’ve done or said differently. So they’re highly self-critical, as well as highly critical of other people.
Understanding that we’re wired with this negativity bias is important because it’s just part of being human. If we aren’t aware of it, then it’s driving us. But if we understand it, then we can make a conscious choice to also pay attention to what’s right. We can learn to be a compassionate friend to ourselves, no matter what we’re going through. That’s a very different scenario than just you and your aggressive mind hanging out together.
That compassionate energy, that loving awareness, is really part of you. The traditional metaphor is that you’re a wave in the ocean. When you’re suffering, the ocean itself comes and merges with you and says, “You’re part of us, you’re just fine, and everything’s okay.” That great sense of ease, relaxation, and comfort is available to us, and when we accept it, we then become more compassionate toward and accepting of others when they’re suffering.
Tami Simon is the founder and CEO of Sounds True, a multimedia company near Boulder, Colorado, that disseminates spiritual wisdom through books, audio programs, online trainings, and events. She is also the founder of the nonprofit Sounds True Foundation, which makes transformational education available to communities in need. Simon interviews leading spiritual teachers and luminaries on her weekly podcast, Insights at the Edge. Visit soundstrue.com.