Bidding adieu to a wonderful teacher

An homage to the late Sally Kempton

Sally Kempton by David Martinez

Dear friend, 

Somewhere among my Google docs, there is a draft of a letter I meant to send to someone I really wanted to interview for the podcast and get to know better: the master meditation teacher and writer Sally Kempton. As it happens, I waited too long to send it. The sad news came to me via Instagram a few days ago, announcing that Sally is no longer with us. 

I had another email for you, edited and ready to go. And its topic? My favourite teachers. I prepared a post, to honour the various instructors I’ve had the pleasure of following or studying with, and the practices they gave me, that became tools in my tool kit. These are amazing resources, ones that help me every day, and I wanted to pass them on to you. 

I hadn’t included Sally, for one reason only: her teachings were different. She wasn’t a mindfulness teacher, you see. 

A journalist for Esquire, the New York Times and the Village Voice, a radical feminist who was making a name for herself in New York in the 1960’s, she left it all after meeting Baba, aka Swami Muktananda, and followed her guru onto a monastic path to become a Vedic Swami. A master meditation and tantric philosophy teacher, she put away her robes in 2002 a few years after the death of her guru, and moved to Carmel, California. She had a sense that there was another teaching path ahead for her.  

I came to Sally serendipitously. You see, she was my teacher’s teacher. During my yoga teacher training, Suzanne Faith, our lead instructor, shared with our group how wonderful a meditation teacher Sally was. Suzanne had recently returned from a week-long retreat with Sally, and she recounted that death was a topic that had been evoked many times over those few days. She understood it to mean that Sally was preparing herself, and her students. The message I got was this: this is an amazing teacher and she may not be here for much longer. 

I looked her up right after the course ended, and something in me knew that I needed to study with her. And I was right! Sally’s teaching seamlessly integrated meditation, yoga philosophy, as well as psychology and neuroscience. Right in my wheelhouse.

The teachings we explored with her, ancient texts like the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra, may seem far from the secular mindfulness that I teach, and yet, they are not. There are threads between them and many of the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism — traditions that, after all, were born close together. Like Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, with whom I studied mindfulness and compassion, Sally embodied benevolence, kindness and wisdom. Like them too, she was adept at linking spiritual teachings to daily life, making her insights practical, soothing, grounding even. 

In her workshops, she talked about non-duality, energy, goddesses, breath, the universe. Love. It was at once accessible and complex, subtle and connective. 

Very strangely, the day before the news, I thought of her. Sat on my balcony, I felt the need to be guided in meditation by her. I reached for my phone. A quick Spotify search showed me a number of podcasts episodes where she’d been a guest on, most of which I’d already listened to. A glance at the dates confirmed she hadn’t been on any new shows for a while, a year, or more. Premonition? Perhaps Suzanne’s words were still at the back of my mind. Sally certainly looked much younger on Zoom (where I saw her last) than her 80 years. 

I settled on a guided meditation that she offered to The Practice, a show developed by the Yoga Journal over the period of the pandemic. The 16 minute breath-based meditation practice ends with a visualisation, one where we are invited to imagine a fiery golden energy bubble of sorts. She advises us to make it a daily practice for a week or so, first to connect with the energy around us and then protect our own as we move through the world. 

A moment ago, as I was typing this email, my eyes caught a glimpse of a small, fluffy feather floating up into the morning’s light blue sky. 

An oddity, a sign? I take it as the latter.  Jai guru deva.

If you are curious to find out more about Sally, head over to her website, I encourage you to explore her books in particular. Beautifully written, her journalistic skills and literary talent shine as much as her passion for meditation.

In the below link is the original email and blog post about my favourite teachers, before I decided to rewrite my email and honour Sally. Look them up, give them a try, see if one of them can offer you, like they’ve offered me, precious resources, tools for your life’s tool kit. 

Thank you as always for reading me. Until next time.