by Dina Tevas-Ingram
Leigh Taylor-Young “had it all.” By the age of 23, she had already had a hit Broadway show, a leading role on television’s hottest night-time soap, a feature film co-starring Peter Sellers, and was married to Hollywood idol Ryan O’Neal. Despite all of this, Leigh found herself feeling unfulfilled and empty.
Wishing to find spiritual and emotional wholeness, she turned her back on Hollywood, walking away from international stardom and everything that society had told her was important, and turned to the God that she had known so simply and purely as a child.
In this exclusive interview, Emmy award-winning Leigh Taylor Young, actor and star of Sunset Beach recounts the spiritual journey that took her from the red rocks of Santa Fe to the top of the Himalayas and back again.
How did you begin your spiritual journey? What caused you to start thinking in terms of God and spirit?
I think it was there from the time I was born. I didn’t come into a family that had a strong spiritual or religious focus, but from the time I was very little, I was aware of another kind of presence.
Was there some sort of incident or event you experienced?
There was a moment I can remember when I was two and a half. It was in the late ’40s, in Washington, D.C. My mother would take me to a boardinghouse where they kept young children of working mothers. The room I was in overlooked a convent, and I would see the nuns in their big, winged coifs coming in and out. I immediately had an affinity with their energy, felt a flow of understanding about their presence.
I also remember being very conscious of what was around me and of people’s sensitivities. At the time, this was very confusing, because what I perceived as reality and what I was told was reality were two entirely different things. My mother and father were having significant problems in their relationship but were telling me that everything was all right. I became really confused about what I should believe: my feelings and perceptions or what people told me was true and real. So my quest and curiosity about what was true and real got set up at a very young age.
What is behind things? What is really happening in a situation?
The blessing in all of this is that it inspired me to quest for spirituality at a very young age, so that I could find my sense of home. I was very aware of a sense of a presence around me, something expanded, and I had a deep longing to find out what that was. I had a little girlfriend who was Catholic. She was six years old, and she had these little plastic statues that had something in them that glowed in the dark. I wanted one of those statues more than I wanted anything. She finally gave me a little statue of St. Anthony and this was the treasure of my life. I held it, I kept it in my drawer because my parents were very intellectual. They were more inclined to, you know, Unitarian, to Emerson and Thoreau, which I resonated with as well. But I needed something more spiritually nurturing than that at that stage of my life. And I found it in this little statue that glowed in the dark. It seemed to match up with my sense of a presence, which nobody was talking to me about. it was a marker for me — a validation that what I sensed, this presence, was real.
Then another friend gave me a little mirror with a picture of Jesus as a shepherd, holding a child and with little sheep around him. That became my next treasure. At the time, I wasn’t quite sure who Jesus was, but that mirror was it. It matched — was resonant with — a sense of home.
As a child was there anyone who significantly influenced your life?
Yes, my grandfather, Dr. Carl Taylor. He was an incredible inspiration and my first mentor. He taught me the value of my own spirituality and great curiosity. He was a Methodist minister, a professor of agricultural sociology; and a great humanitarian. He was one of the heads of the Ford Foundation in India, had met and known Gandhi, and knew Roosevelt quite well.
When I was five, my parents sent me to live with him for the summer. He put me in a little morning Bible school, and I was just in heaven. It was another marker that validated my perception of a greater and ever-present presence. I heard about angels, and prayer, and all the stories in the Old and New Testament, which immediately resonated with me. At night I would pull out my little statue and my mirror, and I’d set the statue on the mirror, and I would just start to pray — God bless everybody and anybody I could think of. I would get such pure joy out of it. Without knowing it, I was evoking that powerful connection, with the purity and power of a child’s heart.
Fortuitously for me, my grandfather adored me and my mind and was a wonderful Socratic teacher. He loved to discourse with me about humanity and the relevance of a human life and how it can affect the rest of humanity; He opened my view of the world from the very beginning, teaching me that I was not just some solitary entity, but that I was interconnected with all other beings on this planet. He would regularly give me very interesting and advanced books to read, like Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda when I was 12. He’d say, “Read this, tell me what you think.” He took such a great interest in my opinion and instilled in me the confidence that I could read and comprehend anything.
That was a great blessing because he shaped this questing in me to know, understand, and seek what was true and real.
By 14, I was developing into an attractive young woman, and I was getting more attention. Suddenly I became more interested in belonging to society and externalizing myself. One of my greatest devotions at this time was to ballet.
Did you take lessons?
From the time I was five until I was 17. It was my dream. It helped me become very disciplined physically. It enabled me to move energy through my body. For those who are very empathetic and sensitive to other people, movement is essential because it enables them to disperse energies that aren’t always theirs. You can get back into your own energy field very, very fast with physical movement. So I was very devoted to movement and have been ever since. When I started having goals and dreams for myself, first it was as a dancer, and then when I was 17 and went to Northwestern University, I very quickly fell in love with acting. I went to the theater school there, and that was the lightning bolt: This is my path. This is what I have to do.
What inspired you to become an actress?
I met a friend for lunch who was in the theater school, and I joined her acting class as an observer. It deeply affected me.
What about that class made such an impact on you?
Alvina Krause, a very famous teacher, was teaching the class. She was devastatingly inspired. She set me on fire with the vision of what theater could be. Through her I was able to see that the actor becomes a mirror to the human condition so that the audience can watch the performance and benefit. This sense of benefiting others through art matched my longing to express myself and to contribute to humanity. I went very quickly toward creating a successful career. I was very devoted, very passionate and disciplined about my craft. By the age of 21, I was starring in a Broadway play called Three Bags Full. By the time I was 23, I was famous, making three times as much money as my father, a corporate executive. I was co-starring in my first movie with Peter Sellers, starring on Peyton Place, married to Ryan O’Neal, who was a handsome young star, and had a beautiful brand-new baby. But instead of being happy, I was unhappy. I had an awareness that something had lied to me. These were the goals that we were to achieve and be fulfilled by in this culture, but I just wasn’t fulfilled. I felt empty and confused.
So you had achieved everything you thought was important but were still unfulfilled?
Yes. What mattered most to me was love. With all of these accomplishments and supposed successes, none of it filled this desire to find greater love in my life. When my marriage to my first husband concluded with a big crash, anything I could identify as “Leigh” crumbled too. I lost my home and my identity. I’d invested my entire ego in things outside of myself. I was Leigh the wife, Leigh the successful actress, Leigh the mother, but not what I yearned for the most. And the need to go find that greater love, that true home, overrode everything else in my life. I walked into my office, where I had a laminated map of America, and for the first time in a long time I closed my eyes and prayed,
“God, where do you want me to go? I need to go.” My hand landed on Santa Fe. I let go of my agent, press secretary, nanny, and assistant and literally walked away from my career and everything I had. Four hours later, I was on a plane to New Mexico and by the end of the month had moved to the Pecos wilderness with my two-year-old son.
You found yourself out in this Santa Fe wilderness?
Well, I was now devoted to the journey, and I was willing to follow every lead, whether it was in the alternative health field, prayer, yoga, meditation, astrology, numerology, aromatherapy, massage therapy. New Mexico was filled with healers. It was the ’60s, so most alternative paths had an Eastern influence. I learned about homeopathy, Chinese medicine, and detoxed my body with 20-day water fasts, raw food diets, and colonics. I was voracious for information and praying constantly for guidance. Then I traveled to India.
What were you looking for? What was your quest?
I was so hungry for God. I had fallen in love with God. And ultimately the yearning of my journey was to achieve a greater union with God. In the beginning of my journey, I externalized my search for God and did whatever I felt would open me up physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to Him. At the time, I felt I might never work again in the business because I needed to be in certain environments and around enlightened people who nurtured my path. I needed to be around that which was loving and peaceful and to be motivated to grow and learn. I later found out that it doesn’t matter where you are. You don’t have to go anywhere. You are a walking prayer. With every breath you take, you take in that love of God — there is no separation. But that realization and joy comes with really knowing that God is within.
What happened when you went to India?
I ‘d gone to India to be taught by one of the 200 swamis in the Shivananda ashram located high in the Himalayas. It was such joy to be in a place surrounded by people who loved and quested for God. I wanted to stay there and learn, surrender and become. But the swami who was in charge of teaching me said, “You have a son, and you have to be responsible.” And I asked him, “How do I put these worlds together?” And he said, “You’ll find out.” And he was right. I came back to L.A. Eight months later, I saw a little sign in a health food store that said a Swami Muktananda was going to be giving a talk. The minute I saw the name, I knew that I knew him. I went to this apartment in Santa Monica and sat outside the door at five a.m., praying and meditating and waiting for the door to open. The door opened, and who was standing there but this swami who had taught me at the ashram in the Himalayas. He had left to become a disciple of Muktananda and was now traveling with him as his translator. He saw me sitting on the floor, and was so excited that he grabbed me and threw me at Muktananda’s feet. I was immediately invited to the meditation retreat the next day. I canceled everything I had planned, went to the retreat, and sat down at Muktananda’s feet. He looked me in the eyes with so much love, didn’t even touch me, and I fell over like a log. It was incredible. They pulled me to the side of the room, where I remained for hours. I was traveling in inner realms, experiencing God within myself That started a very intense journey for three years with him.
When you say you traveled in inner realms, what do you mean?
It was like one big WOW. I knew unabashedly, without any doubt, that I had a deeply mystical experience of multidimensional consciousness. I had a feeling of expansion and ascension and in my mind’s eye saw images of beings and light and heard beautiful sounds.
Was there any strong emotion that accompanied this experience?
Joy. Infinite joy.
Was this what you had been searching for?
Yes. This was the reality that I’d always been looking for — I was having it affirmed. It wasn’t just a longing anymore, it wasn’t just a wish that I couldn’t quite touch because I was looking for it outside of myself. It was inside of me, my experience.
You have spoken about the serendipitous way that you met Muktananda. Do you believe that you were divinely guided to him, to enable you to have this experience?
Yes, I think that I was divinely guided to him and to meeting the many masters I have met. I think I was divinely guided to go to the theater school that day. It doesn’t have to necessarily look like the most unbelievably profound spiritual experience to be one. When we open to a greater presence, our life becomes a dance with grace. We’re divinely guided to those things that are good and wonderful and provoke growth in us.
That’s the function of our work here on this planet: to awaken. And that process can sometimes look very unspiritual. Being a movie star could look unspiritual. But if being a star is a function of this dance with grace, then becoming that movie star is part of the divine scheme. All experiences play an integral part in bringing you closer to God.
You have said that a good teacher is “someone who by their very gift, skill, and being, awakens me to what I see in him — that he never disempowers but instead empowers me to be what I see in him — helping me to see, know, and experience the love and divinity that l am.”
Yes. I think God helps us through other people — true gurus and teachers — and through the books that we are guided to. They are all external guides that help point us inward. A true teacher has the ability to activate, awaken, and flip on that light switch which already exists within you. Their light enlightens you to your own light just by reflection, by the acceleration of their consciousness, by being around them, and by their goodness and generosity. For me, Muktananda was one. And for twenty-five years, I have been blessed to work with John-Roger, who is also one of the greatest spiritual guides and friends I could ever hope for.
Because my grandfather was a professor, my first understanding of life was learning, and the value and the humility of learning. And that humility is a big requirement when you are learning from a master. There’s a fine line between humility and surrender. Because you never want to surrender without discernment and vigilance. Surrender and discernment in my opinion must go together. We must value and treasure the spirit and the divinity that’s seeking to know itself more, and we don’t want to place that with someone who’s basically going to use and abuse it and take its energy. It’s important to exercise discernment when choosing any important person in our lives.
You have had a couple of turbulent personal relationships, the most notable being your first marriage, to Ryan O’Neal. If you were giving advice to someone about the nature of love now, what would it be?
I would tell them that it’s about loving one’s self, first and absolutely foremost. The more one comes to know the self, forgive the self, and love the self, the better lover one is of anything and everybody in this life.
If you were giving advice to someone who was just at the beginning of their spiritual journey what would you say?
I would just say love God with all your heart, body, mind, and soul. And whatever comes forward for you to follow, as that love progressively awakens in you, do it. And it will awaken in each person as long as they have the willingness to open to the journey, because it is a journey. Don’t try and form it, just have the love and the willingness to listen, and it will guide you with impeccable perfection. Know that you’re safe. We all take some wrong turns, but those are perfect too. It is a perfect journey. It’s just a matter of whether you want to do it sooner, or do you want to do it later. Its purpose is to help you remember who you are — and that you are divine.
You have said that your worldwide quest led you back to your “one true home.” What does coming home mean to you?
Coming home is having a sense of center. And the truest home for me is that spiritual home. It means that you’re comfortable in yourself and that you’re aware of how you’re in balance mentally, emotionally, and physically. Sometimes it’s the hardest place to get to because the mind is busy and the emotions are busy and the body’s busy, and we’re working on external goals. A lot of how I choose to live my life is about taking good care of myself so I can more effortlessly be in tune with the spirit, which is what I call home.
You have mentioned prayer. Are there any other spiritual practices that help you to take good care of yourself?
Yes, meditation. Meditation is a way to plumb the inner depths. It’s the greatest adventure. The only goal of meditation, to put it in poetic terms, is to go into the heart of God. I like to use the phrase “spiritual exercises” when speaking about meditation and prayer, because I like the active aspect of “exercising” myself in spirit. Everything needs exercise, every aspect of the human dimension of consciousness.
When we pray and meditate, we are saying, “God, I’m available to you in your time.” Sometimes you do it day after day and feel like you’re not getting it. But don’t judge yourself; keep the agreement. It has its own gift of timing and grace. And then welcome it.
You have worked for the Institute for Individual and World Peace. How has it enriched your life?
My desire to reach out more to world peace comes from my own process of working for my own inner peace and a desire to touch other people with the concept that peace is possible. It’s not something that’s far away from us; it already exists within each one of us.
The Institute for Individual and World Peace (IIWP) does a lot of training seminars in inner peace work, consensus work with our own selves. The concept is that in order to reach a positive consensus with other nations and races, we must first become aware of what our own particular hot spots for non-peace are, heal them, and become more anchored to that place of peace within. So that when we finally come together, we have the clarity to work out in the external what we’ve worked out internally.
You also work with Educare, an education program for inner-city kids?
Yes. Educare does transformational training in the inner city with children who have little materially, helping them to affirm that they are valuable, and that their value can never be taken away from them. Educare focuses these young people on their strengths and abilities, inspiring them to use who they are to create their own reality, their own future, and not succumb to the belief that they are handicapped. It’s an incredible experience to see a switch turn on within them, to see them turn into the little beings of light that they already are. Educare helps them find that switch.
You have said that the greatest gift the individual can give to saving the planet and mankind is his coming to know who he is and that the greatest boon to world peace is individual peace.
I think the greatest gift we can give is to know ourselves and to learn to know that we’re divine and that God is in everything-in the greatest darkness and in the greatest light. For me, God is in and is everything.
So even in the darkness, there is light, because when you journey through, you’re able to learn the lessons you need to learn?
Sometimes something really hurts, and a little child’s voice inside of me says, “This isn’t going to bring me closer to God; this just hurts.” But then I look back at absolutely all of it and say, “Boy, all those things really have brought me closer.” And I thank God for those experiences, thankful that there is something that loves me so much and that’s so divine that it doesn’t listen to me when I say, “Well, I don’t want this,” or “I do want that.” That there is something that is wiser than I am and doesn’t capitulate to me. Something that holds me to my spiritual destiny when I may not be holding to it myself. A love that’s so great that it just won’t let me go, no matter what happens. When I feel that things are difficult in my life, I go to that place within, where it’s always waiting with so much abundant loving.
You have said that you might he developing tapes that deal with alternative forms of healing; exercise, and creative visualization.
Right now I am writing a children’s meditation, which — through visualization, music, and words — helps bring them into their own inner being, where they can know their divinity and tap into their own abilities to heal themselves.
And what was your inspiration for creating this tape specifically geared to children?
I just did it live and spontaneously in a workshop for children. It came through in a way that moved me so deeply that I transcribed it. Now I’m working on it because I’ve gotten so many beautiful letters from children about their experiences. That’s the value of meditation. It reconnects us to the spirit that we are, so that we — rather than going to sleep more and more, the older we get — can use the opportunity to wake up and remember.