I’m here today with Christopher Maher, author of the new book, Free for Life: A Navy SEAL’s Path to Inner Freedom and Outer Peace. Today, Christopher travels the world, teaching people how to find freedom in their body, brain, and nervous system. But first, he had to find that freedom for himself.
In this episode, Christopher talks about his journey from Navy SEAL, to would-be Olympian, and what the breakdown of his physical body taught him about his emotional life. With this, Christopher talks about his transformation, from a give it your all kind of guy, to someone who understands the importance and gift of slowing down.
In our conversation today, Christopher explains how it’s in this place of slowing down that we can access our instinctual knowledge and with this, that the greatest changes for the better in all aspects of our lives occur.
Rites of Passage
Nikki Van Noy: Let’s start by telling me a little bit about your background as a Navy SEAL and aspiring Olympian.
Christopher Maher: I went to SEAL training in 1991, right after the Gulf War occurred, and it was an intense experience. I was meeting with someone last night who was the commander of my first platoon, and we started going over stories about the intensity. When I was there, I was young, so it was a great opportunity for me to really stretch myself. I wanted to find something in the world that would push me physically, mentally, emotionally, and energetically.
The only thing that I could find that would challenge me that much was SEAL training. I went there and graduated, but it took me a bit longer than others. I went into the SEAL teams, I worked hard, and it was very different than I thought it was going to be. It was no-nonsense. When you’re in SEAL training, I think you’re imagining something like from the movies, and then when you get to the SEAL team, there’s a really big wakeup call. Suddenly it dawns on you that you are in a community where you’re never allowed to make any mistakes. Because if you make a mistake, it could cost lives.
Nikki Van Noy: That’s a lot.
Christopher Maher: It was a great time to build camaraderie. I went to a boarding school growing up in Hershey, Pennsylvania and when you leave an environment like that and you move out into the real world, out of that safe bubble, life is very different. Being in the SEAL teams that go through SEAL training, it reminded me a lot of the boarding school that I went to. It was comforting in one way, but it was a lot of pressure on the other. It was good, there’s a lot of good guys, and there were a lot of really great opportunities to grow as a man.
I began to move through my rite of passage and understand what it was to show up to produce, to provide, to be consistent, and to honor your word, because in the SEAL teams if I learned anything, I learned one thing, which was we always got the job done. So, there’s an intense amount of confidence in that. When I was complete with that experience, I decided I wanted to get out of the military, and go back to school, and start training for the Olympic trials. What I didn’t know is that everything that I learned in the SEAL teams was everything that was going to keep me from getting to the Olympics.
Nikki Van Noy: Interesting, can you break that down for us?
Christopher Maher: Well, when you’re in SEAL training and the SEAL teams, your capacity for work is so high. I could work from 4:30 in the morning until midnight every single night, no problem. But when you’re moving into being an athlete, you can’t work that hard, and you can’t work that way. So, when I went to practice with my coaches, every event or every practice to me was a race and I was going 110% every second.
When you’re in SEAL training, part of the process is working together in a boat crew with six other guys. Your job is to beat the other boat crews so that you can get some rest. I was in a boat crew that had guys that were really high performers, so we won all the time. I had trained myself to win at everything and I was winning at practice, but I was losing on race day because I had used up all of my vital core energy.
When it came time to put it on the line and perform really well, I didn’t perform well at all and that was really frustrating. I’m thinking, “My God, I have this amazing body, I’m incredibly strong, I’m very disciplined. I know how to show up, I’m honoring my word, I arrive to practice early, I give it my all, and how am I finishing last in these races? This doesn’t make any sense. How could I be running slower than I did in high school?”
None of that made any sense to me and, of course, because I had that give it all attitude, I didn’t change my strategy. I kept going with the same strategy, give it your all and it will all work out. But the truth is, that strategy was incorrect. I was left upset and confused, and so I decided, “Well, hey, I’ll just work harder.”
Nikki Van Noy: Oh boy. Sounds reasonable.
Christopher Maher: Instead of a six-mile run on Sundays, I’ll run fourteen miles on Sundays. Then I kept getting these overuse injuries. So, every two or three months, I’d have another injury. Then I would start training again, I would have a decent race, and then, boom, I’d have another injury.
It was this vicious cycle that I was stuck on. My coaches were applauding me because they could see all the effort I was giving. I don’t think that they understood that I was tapping into every ounce of energy that I had to produce that much at practice. It would have been a much better strategy for me to be the way that I was when I was in high school–show up for practice, have a good time, and race hard on Saturday. I would show up, work, overwork, and then fail on Saturdays.
I went after that again and again and again until my body started to break down and have some real problems. That Olympic hope downshifted to an Olympic dream, and it downshifted to frustration, agitation, irritation, and hopelessness.
Changing Your Programming
Nikki Van Noy: You were talking about how you had this give it your all attitude. I feel like this is something in society that’s programmed into all of us. It may manifest in different ways, maybe it’s working themselves to the bone at the office, but it seems to me, getting rid of that programming would be incredibly difficult.
Christopher Maher: Yes, it was very difficult. When I was going through SEAL training and I was in the SEAL teams, I didn’t realize that underneath, my body was changing, I didn’t realize I had become extremely dense physically. I had lost my range of motion and I lost all of my power. What I gained was endurance.
I traded flexibility, high range of motion, and speed and power, for endurance. I could go and go, but then I couldn’t turn it off, because my body was locked into an inappropriate stress state and I only knew how to manufacture more stress. The more stress there was, the more comfortable I felt after a fourteen-mile run, and I felt better than I did after a six-mile run.
Say, you work for a Fortune 500 company and you’re a CEO. This CEO wants to have a successful business. He’s under the pressure to produce. He makes everybody in his team overproduce. Everyone in the team is being paid a substantial amount of income and so they’re not going to feel good if there’s not a fair and equitable exchange. They start over giving and overdoing to be able to feel good about receiving what they’re receiving. That’s very difficult to break because once you get a taste of a measure of success, you’re chasing a dragon that you’re never going to catch.
Nikki Van Noy: It strikes me that there seems to be a mirror between what was happening physically in your body and what was happening to you emotionally. I hear stress on both levels. Can you talk to me about the correlation there and how you’ve come to see that?
Christopher Maher: Well, here’s how I experienced it. I realized that at some point, whatever was in my body was in my life and whatever was in my life that wasn’t working was happening also in my body. When I began to change when I began to shift and de-stress and de-tense and de-distort and detox, what happened is that I expanded emotionally. I have more spaciousness inside of me to connect, to relate, to consider other people’s perspectives.
There was more room inside of me to be in the receptive mode. When I was in SEAL training and then the SEAL teams, and then in training for the Olympic trials, I was stuck in the initiatory mode, the protective mode. The denser my body was, the more I was locked into a protective state.
The more I opened my body, the more receptive I became to everything and everyone around me.
Nikki Van Noy: That’s fascinating.
Christopher Maher: This is where the theory of relativity is brilliant, because it applies to everything mechanical in the universe, and human beings are based on structural mechanics. So, the denser I became, the less receptive I became. The more I knew the way and as I began to open, and to stretch, and to relax, and to deepen, and to create more space inside of me, the more receptive I became. As I became receptive, life spoke to me–I didn’t tell life what to do.
Life said, “I want you to go over here.” And I said, “I’m going over there.” When I would follow that deep intuitive sense, I would meet the next person who would be able to help me get to the next level of where I wanted to go. Then my focus shifted from, “I want to be an Olympian,” to “I want to know love at its greatest measure.”
Nikki Van Noy: Talk to me a little bit about that transition and what that looked like for you?
Christopher Maher: One of my buddies that I was in SEAL training with and then the SEAL teams with, was this guy named Jeff Higgs. He’s a black belt in jiu-jitsu, a black belt in judo, very masterful in yoga. I mean, every discipline that he studied, he’s mastered. A very amazing human being.
He came over to the house and he brought a yoga mat and a juicer. We went to do yoga for two hours and I sat there frustrated the whole time because I couldn’t get into one position. Not one. I was fitter than him. If we went outside and we were going to run or we were going to swim, I could outwork him. But there was no way that I could get into any of these positions. At that moment, I began to realize,” Oh, this guy is healthy and fit, and I am fit and unhealthy.”
That was a very tough pill to swallow. Imagine, here I am, I’m living in California. It’s 1999, and I don’t know what a yoga mat is.
I know what the weight room is. I know what starting blocks are, I know what lunges are, and plyometrics, and all those kinds of things. I don’t know anything about opening my body and getting my tissue healthy. He helped me realize that “Oh, I need to turn things around quickly.”
The most difficult part of that, to be honest with you, was reaching out for help. I was suffering inside, and I was in pain, but I didn’t tell anybody. Then, as I started to open up, I got in a car accident and the car accident pushed all of that discomfort into the middle of my hip socket, and I could never get away from it.
Then, I needed more help. He guided me to work with some other people, some Rolfers. Then I got into the Egoscue Method and acupressure, then acupuncture. Anything alternative. I mean, it made sense to me. It made a lot of sense to me.
They were telling me they were going to be able to take me a mile, and I didn’t realize until I worked with somebody and I got instantaneous permanent change, that they told me I was going to be able to go a mile, but they were only taking me a foot. I was happy about that foot because, at the time, I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know that you could actually experience instantaneous permanent change. Once I got a taste of that instantaneous permanent change, I never looked back. Literally, the next day I said, “Okay, that life is over.”
Nikki Van Noy: Wow. When you’re talking about change, are you talking about physical change, emotional change? Give me an example of one of those feet that you’ve stepped forward?
Christopher Maher: Okay, I’ll give you an idea. I went to see this guy who lived in the hills of San Jose. He worked on me let’s say, four to six hours a day for four days. When I first went there, I had pain at every single joint. Within an hour, all the pain that I had in my body was gone.
Previously, I had spent tens of thousands of dollars and thousands of hours. So, you can imagine, on one side, I’m extremely happy that I have this relief in my body. And simultaneously, I started to get upset inside because I thought, “They told me they were going to take me a mile, they really didn’t even take me a foot, they took me an inch.”
This guy, he said he was going to take me a mile, and he took me a thousand miles. That was very powerful for me. The most important part of that story is, when I went to the airport to fly from San Jose back to San Diego, people were bumping into me at the airport and I had never had that experience of people coming right into my boundary and sort of knocking me over, because once I went through SEAL training and the SEAL teams, I had an extremely intimidating presence. Inside, I still felt like a teddy bear. But outside, people’s experience of me was very different, and I didn’t know that there was this intense vibration coming off of me.
When I sat on the plane and people were engaging and approaching me, it was a very different experience. I thought, “Whoa, something’s happened.” It’s like I had been unplugged from the matrix, and I was in a completely different way of relating to the external world. I went to teach my Wednesday night class. I walked over and I told the ladies, “Hey, whatever you want to do tonight, we’ll do. Figure out what you want to do for a warm-up, and meet me back here in fifteen minutes.”
They were looking at me like dogs that are confused. Their heads were tilted to the side and they were looking at me like, “Who is this?”
At the time, the way that I worked is that I was retroactive. I would be in an experience, but I wouldn’t realize what the experience was all about until maybe two or three hours later. Sometimes two or three weeks later. Sometimes two or three months later. My orientation to time was retroactive.
Now, suddenly I am driving home after the class and I say to myself, “Oh, my god. Now I understand why they were so confused. I wasn’t telling them what to do. I was asking them what they wanted to do.” So, I shifted from initiating to being receptive and they never had that experience of me. I hadn’t had that experience of myself, but I was so retroactive, I didn’t even realize at the moment that I was being different.
Nikki Van Noy: What is most fascinating to me is your story about being on the plane and realizing that people are interacting with you in an entirely different way.
Christopher Maher: Oh yeah, and I was receptive to it. I didn’t realize that I had become closed off to it. That was eye-opening.
In September, I went to homecoming. I went to a private, well-endowed boarding school in Hershey, Pennsylvania named Milton Hershey School. I went back to homecoming, and I was talking to people, and in mid-stream of our conversation they were walking away, and I said, “Hmm?”
This was eight months before I went to see this guy for the first time. This was in September 2000 and I saw him in June of 2001. I go back to homecoming that year and one of the people who walked away from me, this young lady named Lisa Shockley, she came up to me and said, “I don’t know what you are doing, but whatever you’re doing, you’d better keep doing it.”
I thought, “What is she talking about?” So, I pulled her to the side, and I said, “Lisa, what are you talking about?” She said, “I don’t know who you are, but you are not the kid that I grew up with.” Inside, I wanted to get rid of the emotion. I could feel some tears coming, but I was at an event, so I choked them back. I realized that, in that moment, she gave me the message that I needed to hear.
I went back and I took everything that this guy was teaching me, and I worked on myself five to six hours a day because then my goal was getting back to the person that I was before I went to SEAL training and I went in the SEAL teams. Lisa has known me since I was seven-years-old and she has seen my evolution. When someone who you care about, that loves and appreciates you and loves to be around you, can’t stand more than sixty seconds of being in contact with you, and they just get up and walk away without any explanation, it’s shocking.
Then for her to come back and say, “I don’t care whatever you’re doing, you keep doing it.” That was the next catalyst that got me to take everything that I was doing to the next level. I basically took SEAL training and all the discipline that I learned from there and I applied it to putting myself back together and getting back to who I was as an emotional being before I got cold and intense.
Evolution of Discipline
Nikki Van Noy: I can see how what you shifted into required discipline, but discipline is so often associated with these ideas of rigidity that you are talking about trying to get away from.
Christopher Maher: I have learned that there are three forms of discipline. There’s imposed discipline when I went to the boarding school and they had a structure that they applied to produce an environment that was safe for everyone. We had the merit system. I was at this school, and I had no choice. If I wanted to remain in the school, I had to do what they wanted me to do at the level that they wanted me to do it.
That was involuntary, imposed discipline. I didn’t want to be in the school–my grandmother wanted me to be there.
Then when I left there, I volunteered to go to SEAL training. That was voluntarily imposed discipline. They are going to give me their version of discipline, and then I had to learn self-discipline for my benefit internally, versus discipline for external gratification. I went through all the forms of discipline. The most difficult discipline was voluntary self-discipline for my internal benefit.
I didn’t even know there were different forms of discipline. Once I got a taste of instantaneous permanent change, and then I got confirmation from Lisa Shockley that I was moving in the right direction, I shifted. My discipline shifted from, “I want to be disciplined so that I can achieve,” to “I want to be disciplined because I want to feel.”
Nikki Van Noy: It sounds like a true evolution of discipline.
Christopher Maher: Then that shifted into another form of discipline, which is instinctual discipline. When I started learning all of these systems of self-integration, healing, and personal development, I applied the conventional version of discipline. They said, “Do it this way for this long.” Once I began to master these skill sets, I had a conversation internally with myself one day.
My inner self said, “Hey, you need to slow down, and you need to follow what I am teaching you.” Meaning, I started to listen to my body, as opposed to projecting from my mind onto my body, I started to listen to what my body was telling me. Instead of doing everything in a specific sequence, my body would say, “Listen, I want you to do it this way, this way, this way, this way, and this way.” As soon as I shifted into instinctual discipline, now I had the real version of discipline.
I was connected to myself. I was listening to my body and I was connecting to my soul. Now the way that I moved through the world shifted completely. I realized that “Oh, I am really good at analysis, yet I have got to really work and focus on becoming masterful at being instinctual.” I realized the highest form of intelligence is instinct and feeling, and the lowest form of intelligence is logic and analysis. My whole life, I had been rewarded for getting good grades based on analysis and logic.
I had to basically take everything that I learned my whole life that says, “This is what you have to do to be successful,” and I had to put all of it in the trash to begin to listen to my inner self, and to begin to trust the inner guidance that was coming from the source for me. Then my whole world changed.
Then I had all the space in the world for everybody to follow their own version of discipline, their own version of intelligence, to move through the world the way that they wanted to, because as I started opening and deepening my experience with myself, I stepped into what I call spiritual arrogance–like I knew the way.
“No, no, trust me, I have been there. I can tell you–I know the way now.” One day I started listening to myself. I was sitting around, and I was watching people eat, and they’re eating junk food. I said, “How could they possibly put that in their bodies, what are they thinking? Should I go talk to them?” And then I heard this inner voice go, “Hey, the path of one is not the way of another.” The path of one is not the way of another.
The way that I am doing things for me is for me. The way they’re doing them is for them. I don’t need to project my sense of reality on them. I need to stay focused on what my body is telling me is right for me. In reality, I am not God. I need to get off that overly-moralizing position around food and exercise and rest and all the things that I learned, and I need to stay inside. I need to stay connected to these instincts.
If they come to me, and they want my help, and they’re asking, then it is appropriate. It is no longer appropriate for me to project onto everyone around me what I think is the right way. Then what happened is that instead of my very fixed sense of black and white, I started to have a full range.
Then that cascaded all the way over and then suddenly, regardless of what experience I was in, I could access the color that was appropriate for that situation–as opposed to only having one way of seeing things, one outcome. My perspective shifted greatly, and I was able to learn to meet people exactly where they were. I no longer forced them to come up to where I was flowing or over to where I was thinking.
That gave me a lot of freedom. It gave me a lot of breadth and depth in my personality and in my behavior.
Intention Drives Everything
Nikki Van Noy: How do you apply that when you work with clients?
Christopher Maher: This is for me the greatest tool of all. Intention drives everything. What I used to do when I worked with people was, “Oh, I have all this information, I have all this insight, I have all these experiences–they can lean on me and I can show them the way.”
Then suddenly, I woke up one day and was in the meditative state. I was having this inner conversation and then I heard, “Hey, you need to be sure that they are no longer a passenger in your car. You need to be a passenger in their car and the way you’re going to do this is they’re going to set a very clear intention. You’re going to help them and then I’m going to give you the information relative to their intention. We’re going to put that beautiful mind that you have to the side, and we’re going to let their intention be the driver so that it’s a co-creative process.” Then when it became a co-creative process, it was wonderful. Everything started shifting big time.
Now, I can spend ten percent of the effort, and I could get ten times further because I was in alignment with who they were, what they wanted, and with their clarity. I was letting their bodies dictate their energy, and their emotions dictate where we were going, rather than project what I thought was right for them.
That created tons and tons of freedom for me.
Nikki Van Noy: I love that we started this conversation by this concept of giving it your all, and then landed here, where you realize that putting forth ten percent was actually the way to be of the most service and the most effective.
Christopher Maher: One of my teachers, Rich Litvin, he’s always saying speed up to slow down. I realized for me that less is more because I started to realize there’s subtle energy. There is the gross dense energy that we’re used to, like your dining room table, and then there’s that subtle energy. The greatest amount of change is available in the subtle energy. Exponential change can happen there.