Mavis Karn is one of the OG Three Principles teachers. It was such a joy to talk to her about how she came across this understanding, how it resonated with her even though she couldn’t explain it at first, her work with incarcerated youth and their impact on her, and her latest venture – being a published author and audiobook narrator.
Mavis Karn is a counselor/educator/consultant in private practice in St Paul, Minnesota. She is also a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.
Over the past 45+ years, she has spent her time working with individuals, families, schools, businesses, hospitals, agencies, prisons, athletes, and athletic teams, as well as mentoring and training other professionals.
You can find Mavis Karn at MavisKarn.net.
- The power of calm
- What happens when children wake up to who they are
- Finding our kindness
- How our feelings are always feedback about our thinking
- How our feelings are always on our side, guiding us back to who we are
Resources Mentioned in this Episode
- Mavis’ original letter to the kids she worked with is on the home page of her website
- Find Mavis’ book, It’s That Simple, in ebook and paperback wherever you buys books. Or ask for it at your public library. Coming soon in audiobook.
Transcript of Interview with Mavis Karn
Alexandra: Mavis Karn, welcome to Unbroken.
Mavis: Thank you very much. Good to be here.
Alexandra: It’s lovely to see you.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to find the three principles.
Mavis: Okay. Well, this is horrible to say, but about 45 or 50 years ago, I was working at a place called The Bridge for runaway youth in Minneapolis. I was a family counselor. And one day my boss said he had been invited to the graduate school at the University of Minnesota to hear three PhD psychologists from Florida talk about what he said was something or other. He couldn’t go and did what I go in his place, and then come back and tell him whatever it was.
I said, sure, because I got two days off work, and I don’t care what he wanted me to do, I would have done it. I didn’t know what I was going to get to. But sure enough, it there were three PhD psychologists from Florida, who had been spending some time with a man named Syd Banks. And they wanted to talk about that. So I thought, Oh, great.
I got to the part where they said something about all human experience originates with individual thought. I thought the top of my head was going to come off. I don’t remember much else what they said for the next two days. I do remember that. And I, I really felt like I had, it’s kind of like having brain freeze only there’s one thought left. And it was that.
I came home that day and I told my daughter I had heard the best thing I’ve ever heard in my life. And she lit up. She said, What? And I said well, it was about thought. And it was just great. And she looked at me and like I had been smoking something funny. So that was my first experience that I know of actually, of having understood something completely, without having a clue how to explain it to myself or anybody else.
And to say that all the lights went on in the next year or it was just peaches and cream. No, that wasn’t I threw everything I could at it. I wasn’t in the habit of just taking everybody’s word for something. So I was going to prove either that it was right or it was wrong. But it was all about our thinking.
I would say well, okay, how about when you’re a single mom and you have three kids and you’re rarely have enough money for anything? That’s not just my thinking there. Except then I would say to myself, if there’s every single mom with three kids that hardly ever has any money, does she feel exactly the same way about it all the time. I’ll tell you that’s not true.
Okay, all right. So well how about when somebody dies? That’s not my thinking. There you go… except does everybody always feel the same way all the time? About a death. That just doesn’t make any sense.
So I kept having this wrestling match with myself. But at the same time, I just started feeling a lot better I started feeling more relaxed. I started seeing people differently. They started looking I don’t know, lovelier, or more innocent. It was kind of like I was cleaning the lenses of my glasses, and I was seeing more clearly things.
There weren’t any books then about this. There were just people talking about it. So whenever there was an a workshop on it, I went down to Florida a few times. And, and then finally, I can’t remember the first time I heard Syd Banks, whether he came in, he came to Minnesota a lot. But also he talked to other places, and I don’t remember the first time.
To tell you the truth, it took me a long time to figure out what he was talking about. He was really a nice guy. And I enjoyed all the people that were there. But to tell you the truth, I thought, well, one of these days, I guess I’m probably going to get it, but I don’t understand what he’s talking about. So but I just kept seeing more on my own. And I kept talking to the kids, particularly in the runaway children, about what I knew, and they would always kind of go half asleep.
At first, I thought I was just boring them. But then I realized that when I was listening to what I was talking about, it was very simple, and probably calming and true, because I did I did talk to him about how there’s nothing wrong with just think there is my simple version of everything. So I gradually started thinking, Syd probably was talking about something important too. He got it got clear to me that what he was saying, but I thought he was just learning to be clear. Turns out, I was listening better. I just thought less and felt better. Thinkgs weren’t as complicated as I used to think they were.
And here I am. I’m 83 years old, and I’m still kind of, in my own way, passing on the best information I got in my life. And anybody that’s interested. I keep seeing more and more and more simple. Or more simple. It’s not rocket science. It’s just divine engineering. We are just whoever invented us knew what they’re doing.
Alexandra: With the kids that you were working with at that time, as you were learning, did you observe any shifts or changes in them?
Mavis: Oh, it was amazing. It was just amazing. And at the time, I developed this belief which turned out not to be true, but that it was a lot easier to teach the kids because they just didn’t have such a grip on their habits of thinking. And it probably had a lot to do with I saw it so simply. At the time I didn’t think I was seeing it simply. I thought it was just the best I knew to do and I knew that there was a whole lot better way to teach it but I wasn’t there yet. That’s what I saw that turned out the seeing it simply worked for kids.
So it probably helped that I love them that I have such an affinity for kids. They don’t, I don’t know. But when I was in charge of the groups, they would always call calm down pretty quickly. It turned out to be they would calm down, just kind of knowing it was me. Because they got ready to calm down. And it really wasn’t I was just calm.
And turns out, any feeling you bring to something is catching. I was just beginning to see the power behind calm. And not in order to affect other people. But for me, the power in just calming down and trusting that what I need will show up instead of spending hours and hours and hours trying to figure everything out. So the kids responded really well.
Alexandra: That calmness that you began to see and the value in being a single mom, I imagine there was a lot of weight on your shoulders. Did that begin to lift?
Mavis: I could still get myself all wound up about something, I’m just not particularly interested in it anymore. But I just relaxed more than I didn’t. I just kept getting more so that the relaxation was the bigger part of the equation and the worry and the anxiety and the “am I ruining my kids?”, all of that stuff was less than less.
But, I’m not any different than anybody else, I can still drive myself bananas with my own thinking. I just catch it quicker. And when it happens, I know it’s just it’s nothing, just temporary. It’s just a break from sanity. I don’t care. I’m going in a bad mood, and I’m thinking stupid things. I pretty much keep my mouth shut because I don’t want to clean up the mess I make if I didn’t keep my mouth shut. So I just don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s temporary. I’ll be smarter again in a minute.
Alexandra: One of the things that we’re going to talk about today is your book.
You famously wrote a letter: was it to these kids that the first letter that you wrote?
Mavis: The letter was to kids in a project I did. With actually a couple of pro football players, they had started a little agency in the north side of Minneapolis, where lots of kids get in lots of trouble. And we got the county to give us some money to go and teach what they teach to kids in a prison about an hour from of my house.
For two years, I went down there every Sunday and taught three or four different classes. And it was a blast. It wasn’t at first when they first went there you know, it’s not like they were the kids were going oh Mavis is here. No, it was like that. They pretty much thought I was the wrong profession, the wrong gender. In some cases, I had the wrong pigment. But they got over it.
It was just an honor to go in and just it was just an honor to just be with them. And watch what happens when kids wake up to who they are.
They are magnificent. And they, the kids that were in the class in the beginning, kind of kept order as new kids came in and wanted to show everybody what’s what. And I hadn’t noticed that for a long time that the original kids were taking care of order. I just like got this great thing. But it turned out that that they would from time to time take a new kid aside and say don’t mess with G they called me. OG. I thought it meant old grandmother for the longest time I and it turns out it means original gangster
They found their kindness. They found their beauty and they didn’t want me to get hurt. And that was lonely. I didn’t even know it was possible to get hurt. Now I think about it, that’s not particularly safe place to go. But I’m not a street smart person. I don’t pretend to be.
I just know some things and I was pretty sure if they gave me a chance, they’d want to know it too. And I was right about that. I am not sure who taught who more. They taught me so much about what’s possible. For kids that in many cases came from home lives that would just curl your teeth. And to have them find who they really are, after years of just having some beliefs about their own limitations, and so many of them had no expectation of living beyond 20.
That was so startling to me to find that out. I knew it intellectually just reading stuff, but to be with kids who didn’t think it mattered too much what they did or didn’t do, because they weren’t going to live much longer anyway. And that was there. That was there. It was logical that they all lost so many friends and relatives to violence that it was logical to think well probably not going to be around long.
To see them start to have aspirations that in most cases involved helping people and we didn’t have the kind of money or resources to follow up on these kids. So it was always informed what we’d see them here and we’d see them there and they wouldn’t from time to time stop in my office and we go have lunch and stuff.
But there are so many of I have no idea what happened except every once in a while somebody will tell me hey, you know I saw so-and-so. I wish we would have known how to incorporate some follow up stuff in it. But we were just babies in this thing. And we were operating on a shoestring. And we did as much as we could with what we knew at the time, but I would have loved to have kept track of them.
That’s more of an answer than you actually asked, wasn’t it?
Alexandra: It was great. I love hearing the background. And actually, you answered one of my follow up questions, which was going to be about whether you ran into them later on.
And the letter that you wrote to them that came about, was it because of a graduation?
Mavis: Well, yeah, it was the end of my part of that program. The money ran out. I kept going for a while anyway. But other people in the agency took over. And so on my last day with them, they were going to have a party. where me and this is what, because we’d see the one they got out to was part of the program, we think there was a group, and sometimes individuals. So they’re going to have a party and they made this cake. I wish I would have taken a picture; they looked like they had a fight over it.
Before I went, I just I want to give them something. And I actually get them on socks. One of the Christmases I was with them at the prison, I bought them all socks because they were always running on a socks. I took a garbage bag full of socks. And I thought, socks? We don’t want to give them socks.
I suddenly thought, Okay, I’m going to write him a letter. So I just sat down. And I let the letter write itself. I don’t know how else to explain. It wasn’t a personal intellect letter. It was just a love letter by itself. Made a bunch of copies. Give them all a copy. That was it.
And somehow or other that letter got into Stillwater, which is the big boys prison. And I got a call one day from somebody. One of the inmates wanted to make a poster. So I thought, well, that’s a good idea. So he made a poster out of it. I had a bunch of printed. He used to give it to kids when I see him and lots of times, adults. It just got wings and it started floating around him to turn up in places. I didn’t send it there. I don’t know how it got there. So that’s the letter.
Alexandra: I’ll put a link in the show notes because it’s at your website, which is MavisKarn.net. And so if listeners are interested, they can go and read the letter there, which is so beautiful. And then it’s the first letter in Mavis’ new book called, It’s That Simple.
So let’s talk about that a little bit. You’ve touched on it actually already a little.
Why did you choose that title?
Mavis: I don’t know anything about writing a book. Michael Neill had tried to get me to write a book for ever since I met him he tried to get and we’ve known each other a long time. We should write a book. Like, I don’t know how to write a book, you write books. You’re great at writing books. I don’t have that much to say I can’t write a book.
He was about ready to give up on me as far as the book goes, and he went and he said, Well, how about if you just write some more letters? And I thought, Well, okay, yeah, I know how to write letters. I’ll write letters. And he said, it’s that simple. It’s that simple. Yeah. And because I say that a lot, I guess, because things are simpler than we think. So that’s how that came about. That book would not have happened without Michael.
Alexandra: What was that experience like for you writing more letters?
Mavis: I loved it. I have a little porch on the back of my house. And I have a backyard that backs up to a forest. And it’s just a lovely little place back here.
I took my legal pad and my pen, and I’d sit out there and I would write letters. And Michael would say, have you read a letter about this case? Write a letter about that. And I would think of a letter and sometime my project manager Azul would think of a letter and I would just write letters. I had the best time. It took two weeks. I still don’t know how to write a book.
Alexandra: Well, it’s beautiful. And yeah, just lovely. All different kinds of subjects that you talk about, like our moods and self-esteem and all different kinds of stuff. I was in Portland in March with Michael, he was doing a weekend with Barbara Patterson.
I think it was there that it was mentioned you were going to record the audiobook as well. How was that?
Mavis: It was fun. I didn’t want to do that either. He said, Okay, either I’ll come to Minneapolis, or you can come to California. I’m coming to California. So we he set aside three days with this recording studio. I know nothing about recording things, either. There’s so much I know nothing about.
We did it in one morning. I just read the book. That’s it. Yeah, we had three days. He said, Well, we know how long it would take. So but that was it. I just read the book. That apparently that’s coming out pretty soon.
Alexandra: I’ve taken a few classes with you and Christian McNeil. And they are such great classes. I just enjoyed them so much every time.
One of the things that I really appreciated about one of the messages that you kept returning to, is how our feelings are always feedback about how we’re thinking. I tend to talk to people about food cravings, specifically. And as I was going on my journey, trying to understand why I had those cravings and why I would overeat that message was so profound for me and made such a big difference in my life.
Could you please talk about that a little bit more about how our feelings work and what our feelings are?
Mavis: Well, they’re just astonishingly useful. For every emotion, which is a physical sensation, every emotion is on our side, all the way from hatred, to terror, to love and kindness, generosity, they’re all on our side. Because they are letting us know, in this moment, the quality of the experience we’re creating with our thinking.
That is the love of the universe. There’s so many pieces of truth in the core of every religion, one of them in Christianity is Christ saying, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the earth.” And when I when I think about how well we’re made, I think of oceans as the love of the universe with us, always just guiding us way from misusing the gift of thought. And back to coming from our natural inborn common sense and wisdom. kindness, compassion, love.
It’s like we don’t have to figure out anything out. Those sensations are there to see when we’re a little off course here, relax, come on back home smarter any minute now. That is at least as use useful as touching a hot stove feel so bad, you can’t leave your hand there isn’t that useful? It’s like that’s on our side.
It’s how we know whether to buy shoes or not. They may look good. But if they feel bad, they, it’s not going to work. So there’s a sensation that lets us know if these are the right size shoes.
There’s a sensation that lets us know whether you’d put a coat on or take it off. We are being guided all the time by sensation. And the sensation of emotion is guiding us in the use of this thing.
Alexandra: It’s so simple.
Mavis: I read little essay not too long ago by a woman that was reading a book about the Buddha. And she said, the Buddha says, Everyone is enlightened. All of our struggles happen because we don’t know that. It’s that simple.
All of our struggles are because we don’t know we are divinely created. And divine design is science. It’s not bubbles and petunias. It’s science. It’s like, right now you and I are looking at a screen. Right? If we want to look that way. When we change the aperture in the lens of our eye, just with intention.
Who invented the app? Or that’s amazing. That’s just one tiny little piece of our engineering. We get so impressed with technology. But we have more apps than any phone Apple is going to invent ever. Because the phone was invented by somebody that has more apps on the phone.
Alexandra: You mentioned at the beginning that you’ve been exploring this understanding for quite a while.
Do you find that what you see about these things deepens all the time?
Mavis: Yeah, but I hesitate to use the word deepen because people associate so much with complexity. In my world, it just gets more obvious. That’s what I loved about the kids.
There’s a story in that book that I think that’s a book. I’m pretty sure this is one of the one of the times we were meeting with a with a group of them after they got out of prison in Arizona. 15 or 20 of them in my conference room and I was going to start the group and the kid next to me said, “G, can I talk?” I said, “Sure.”
So he started around the room and he started naming each kid and their gang affiliation, if they had one. I knew their names but I didn’t care what gang they belonged to. That wasn’t important to me. And he went around the room and they would they would nod at that. I thought where’s he going with this? And then he said, In the past, most of you have been my enemy. But now I have love for all of you.
And I was like, whoa. And the kids started talking about what would happen if the whole world knew what they knew. And they got rowdy about it. There wouldn’t be any war. People wouldn’t even think about it. And all babies would be loved. And they went on like this for the rest of the time.
They thought of all the things that wouldn’t happen because people wouldn’t trust their thinking when they thought about doing those things. The other two guys who were with me that day, and we were just we were looking at each other like I mean, we all thought it would work. But we didn’t know it would work that well.
Now, I know that these kids are still kids. And maybe some of them went and got into a little more trouble before they go it maybe some of them got a lot of trouble. I don’t know. But I know that I will never forget that day. And I don’t think they will either.
Alexandra: Beautiful. Oh, that’s so lovely. I guess we’re coming close to the end of our time together. So I just wanted to ask if there’s anything we haven’t touched on that you’d like to share with our listeners?
Mavis: I have no idea. What do you think?
Alexandra: I’ve loved everything you’ve shared thus far, and I really enjoy hearing about your work with the kids. I don’t know what it is, but it always gives me a good feeling.
Mavis: Me too. I have a favor to ask people.
Alexandra: Sure. Go ahead.
Mavis: I’m not any good at promoting my book. Someone else has got to do that. But if people can afford it, I would like people to give one of the books to a kid.
Alexandra: Oh, lovely.
Mavis: I would love people to do that.
Alexandra: I’ll put links in the show notes so people can find it. And that would be beautiful. That’s a beautiful request. Thank you, Mavis.
Mavis: Oh, thank you. I told Michael one day, you run into anybody that’s got kazillion dollars, could we give them a really good deal. And they could give a book to every kid on the planet?
Alexandra: Well, you never know.
Where can our listeners find out more about you and your work?
Mavis: You mean, besides the what do you call it?
Alexandra: Website. Let’s give that address again.
Mavis: What is it?
Mavis: I don’t visit it much. I’m not good at this stuff.
Alexandra: That’s okay. That’s why you’re here. That’s why I’m doing what I do.
Mavis: So thank you very much. I need all the help I can get.
Alexandra: You’re welcome. This has been amazing it’s been so great to connect with you again and I thank you for being with me here today
Mavis: You are most welcome. Thanks for having me.