Q: How did you and Jun Po meet? We first met in Boulder, in 2007, at a weekend conference on how Integral Theory had changed/affected out lives. Jun Po, recently in remission from Stage-4 Throat Cancer treatment, was remarkably candid about himself and some of the mistakes he'd recently made in his life, not a common experience one has when talking to a "spiritual teacher". They tend to be long on teachings and short on personal revelations that might put them in a bad light, but not Jun Po. I was intrigued.
Q: How did you come to write the book?
Jun Po contacted me in the spring of 2009, and asked me if I was interested in writing his life story. I said, "maybe...". He flew me to a retreat center in Massachusetts, where he told me his life story over two days, then asked again if I was interested. It was the most remarkable life story I had ever heard, so I readily agreed to write the book.
Q: How long did it take you to write this book?
I started the book in July 2009, and finished the first draft in May of 2010. After critical feedback on the manuscript, I decided to completely rewrite it, which took another year. From then, it was off to the publisher for editing and finally came into print in February 2012.
Q: What was the hardest part of creating the book?
There were two hard parts. The first was that when I was first offered this book in the summer of 2009, I realized that it was a story more extraordinary than I had ever heard before. Denis Kelly’s life is like a Hunter S. Thompson bioptic that somehow ends up with a Zen master at the end of it.
But how does one afford to take a year, or two, off of life to write a book, full-time? Although I was living in Boulder, CO, I still owned and was renting a house in Philadelphia. I sold the house in August 2009, and used the money to live on while I wrote the book. I’ve never regretted that decision.
The second hardest part was when, in the summer of 2010, the book was rejected by a major New York literary agency because the writing wasn’t strong enough. I nearly threw in the towel and decided to give up on my dreams of writing, but after a long night sitting with it, ultimately decided to “double down”.
Q: It's an unusual format for a biography, and reads more like a novel. Was this intentional?
Very much so. I wanted the book to recreate the emotional and situational elements of Jun Po's life, so that the reader got as close to possible to experiencing what his life was like instead of merely reading about it. I labored to get inside of his mind and emotional state, and to create the scene and setting of his life events so that the reader would have a deeper and more emotional experience.
I'm happy to know that many people have been deeply touched by this approach.
Q: Did you find that your own spirituality or view of the world conflicted with Kelly's?
No — Jun Po showed me the missing pieces in the my own practice. I had been trying to “get away from” my ego and “negative” emotions in my practice. His teachings showed me I had everything I needed to transcend — and include — all of myself on my spiritual path.
Q: So you became his student before writing the book. Didn't this create a conflict of interest?
Sure, and I'm not a journalist. Plus I worked to offset this as much as I could. I distanced myself from him for the two years I was working on the book, and also collaborated many of the stories in the book to get differing opinions on what happened. Most importantly, Jun Po was not eager to cover up or hide the places in his life where he made serious mistakes and had large breaches of integrity; those, in fact, are some of the most interesting and telling points of the book. Part of what makes him unique is his willingness to discuss the places where he made mistakes, even big and embarrassing ones.
Q: Had you written a book before? Or a biography for that matter?
My first book is a collection of short stories called The Mysterious Divination of Tea Leaves. I had never written a biography until A Heart Blown Open.
Q: What universal takeaway should a reader expect from reading the book?
Anyone seeking true emotion freedom in their lives — freedom to truly show up as a partner, parent, friend — will be inspired by the book. Kelly’s life isn’t just an exploration of how to “wake up” and attain spiritual liberation, but how to live that liberation in the mess of daily life. That means viewing what used to be “problematic” emotions like anger, shame, and jealousy as gifts that can teach us how to truly live and love.