Leaning Into Fear and Falling Into Beauty with Susan Piver

Today my guest is Susan Piver.

Susan is a Buddhist teacher and the New York Times bestselling author of seven books, including The Hard Questions and the award-winning How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life. Her latest book is entitled The Wisdom of a Broken Heart. She teaches workshops and speaks all over the world on meditation, spirituality, communication, relationships, and creativity. In 2011, Susan launched the Open Heart Project, an online meditation community with nearly 12,000 members who practice together and explore ways to bring spiritual values such as kindness, genuineness, and fearlessness into everyday life.

In today’s episode, Susan and I speak about:

  • How fear has unfolded in her life and how you can be confident and fearful at the same time
  • How synchronizing the mind and the body is the key to confidence
  • Tapping into the power and the beauty of fear
  • The careful balance of avoiding the “conceptual game plan” while still having action
  • A story of Susan’s own emergence and how to see yourself through the relationships you keep

Here’s my conversation, “Leaning Into Fear and Falling Into Beauty,” with the wise and open-hearted Susan Piver.

Subscribe to the Emerging Women podcast on iTunes.


Chantal Pierrat: Hello, and welcome, Susan.

Susan Piver: Thank you, I’m glad to be here.

CP: Yes, I am too. I have lots of juicy questions for you that are relevant to my life, so I’m glad we’ve carved out the time. Let’s start with—well, we had such a great conversation the first time we met last month, and I just wanted to go in a million different directions. But today I want to talk about fear. You have a couple of books on fear, [including] Freedom from Fear, which I think is your most recent book, and then a book with a very interesting title, How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life: Opening Your Heart to Confidence, Intimacy, and Joy. And I know that one is more practical; Freedom from Fear is a seven-day meditation program.

But I’m curious to see, just in your own life, how this topic unfolded for you, and how it came into this—and you also have some audio that you’ve done with Jen Louden. So how did this come through you, and what do you have to say about fear?

SP: OK, well, I always feel like my biggest qualification is my own fear, because I just experience a lot of fear. I always have throughout my life and I still do. It’s something that each of us has to figure out a way to meet. And I was thinking of writing a book about meditation practice, and I wrote a proposal for that book. And in the proposal, there was a line that said something like, “Meditation is so awesome because it teaches you how to not be afraid of your own life.” And when the publisher saw that line, they said, “That’s the title.” So I said, “OK.” [Laughs]

It was very easy to gear the content around the topic of fear because meditation—in particular, I suppose, in the style that I practice, the Shambhala Buddhist tradition—is seen as a gesture of warriorship. And one of the fruits of meditation practice is courage and wakefulness and curiosity and joy. So those were the things that I wanted to focus on, and in doing so, also had to focus on why these wonderful, wonderful qualities are so difficult for us to find and hold.

CP: So right now, in The Atlantic—and I just picked this up so I haven’t read it—there’s an article, it’s on the cover, and they’re calling it “Closing the Confidence Gap,” just talking about even highly successful women are lacking in confidence in their jobs and in the work that they do, even though they’re seen and rewarded for their work and they’re outwardly recognized as being successful. I know for myself, building a business and feeling confident that I can create this platform that is Emerging Women, and yet the fear and the lack of confidence—it’s like you can be confident and fearful or confident and not confident at the same time. How is that?

SP: Isn’t that interesting? Yes. And there’s something in particular about starting your own business, like you just said, that makes every day a sort of confidence gauntlet that you have to run. I also work for myself, and I don’t know about you, but I feel often that I’m as good as my last email. If it was positive, I feel like, “This is working!” And if it was disappointing in any way, then I feel like, “Oh, this is never going to work out.” Going on that ride, more days that not, is exhausting.

I don’t really know a lot of women who don’t struggle with that. But fortunately for us, to reverse that does not require changing the way you think about yourself. Which may sound odd, because you think, “Well, if I only thought better of myself, I would be more confident.” Or, “If I only trusted my capacity to write or teach or build or champion,” or whatever your task might be, “then I could be confident.” But you actually don’t, according to the Buddhist view, have to change anything about your self-view. Rather, what’s required or what is suggested is this synchronization of mind and body, and the notion that fear arises when mind and body are unsynchronized. And I’m sure, as a spiritual practitioner, you know what I mean.

We go through our days and our lives, often, where our mind is on one thing and our body is doing something else. And that is considered the root of fear. And if we can bring those things into union, through meditation practice or yoga or swimming or kissing or cooking or whatever you do that synchronizes mind and body, then confidence is present, not as a kind of self-belief, but as a kind of ease within your own body and mind, which is capable of opening to everything.

So I was very relieved when I realized I didn’t have to start thinking certain things about myself and ban other thoughts. But instead, if I could practice bringing my breath into my body and my mind into the present, that fear would be manageable. And I would posit today that I found that to be true.

CP: Well, I don’t want to say, “Easier said than done!” But I kind of want to say that because it’s so interesting how we rely on the content and the context of our lives to sort of move through and get things done. We can’t just spend our lives breathing and experiencing that synchronicity all the time, because we need—there’s friction, we need to navigate the complexities.

We’re launching businesses, we’re writing books, so we’re moving forward, but I’m curious, if we’re not changing our thoughts—because I love what you’re saying. It’s so refreshing not to have to manipulate our thoughts. Not that I’m against affirmations, but [to] trick our minds into thinking something else is exhausting. But how do you prevent—if I have some thoughts that are thoughts of fear or self-doubt that are coming in, and instead of trying to work with those thoughts, do I want to bring my body into alignment with those thoughts?

SP: That’s really a good question. First of all, “Easier said than done,” absolutely. Anyone who has ever sat on a meditation cushion for more than five minutes knows that it’s just difficult every single time. So yes, definitely easier said than done.

And also, I’m not suggesting that when we feel fear, we drop into meditation, which would be pressing our mind on the breath, because that would be, actually, silly or dangerous, even. But instead, when we’re trained in meditation, for example, in the placement of attention continuously, as much as possible, on breath, then we’re not training ourselves to follow our breath particularly. We’re training ourselves to follow our lives so that when fearful thoughts arise or when a task needs to be accomplished, you can place your mind on that fear or on that task or on that thought with full attention. At that point, you have a lot of options.

But when we’re trying to avoid the things that actually are arising within us—like, “I don’t want to be afraid,” or, “I’m afraid of this so I’m going to try and start doing something else”—that’s when we add to the confusion. So by “fearlessness” here, again, I don’t mean feeling good or confident or even strong. I mean feeling real, feeling truth, feeling genuine, and being willing and able to stay with your experience. Because when we depart from the experience, that’s when fear amplifies.

And when we want to write and are too afraid, or I’m picking a fight with you and you don’t want to get into a fight so you want to get away, it really helps to be able to pay attention to those things without hesitation. That’s one definition of strength. So, yes, we’ve got to get things done, and when you bring your body into alignment with your fear, which was the last part of what you were saying, it actually helps to dissipate fear. Because it’s there now, it’s there in that moment, and instead of tightening up to squeeze it away from yourself, if you open further to make more space, it assumes its rightful shape as just one thing that is going on with you right now. But, like I say, if we try to tear away from it, we’ve “ensmallened” the space in our minds, but when we can turn toward it, we can “enbiggen”—which is not a real word—the space and a bigger view is possible.

CP: And is there—and once again, I’m sort of coming at this from my own personal experience, so if we’re digging in too deep, forgive me. [Laughs] I’m doing it, I’m doing the practice as you’re talking, and I’m thinking it’s almost like a leaning in. I know that you are a student of Sakyong, so leaning into the sharp points is one of the big teachings in that lineage. When you say “making space,” I like that better because it feels—I always had a reaction to “leaning in” to when something was difficult. But I don’t have that reaction to making space because it feels like something else might come in and share that space.

SP: That’s a really interesting thought. Maybe they happen in sequence, like first you have to lean in, which just means, in this case, see or feel or allow. Leaning in is synonymous with allowing. It’s not synonymous with impaling. [Laughs]

CP: Right! [Laughs] Though it feels that way sometimes!

SP: I know, I know! But it’s not, it’s not meant that way as far as I understand it.

CP: Of course, yes.

SP: But then when you allow, then the space naturally expands. But if you don’t lean in, then first you have to arrive in the space, and then you can enbiggen it.

CP: And what’s the role of the body in this practice, with regards to fear?

SP: That’s a great question, and as you ask it, something occurs to me that hadn’t really occurred to me before. I’d say the body is like your navigational device. It’s like your compass, because if you want to feel what you feel, if you want to lean in, that’s not the same as telling yourself a story about what you feel. Leaning in is feeling what you feel without the storyline that you’ve attached to it.

So to do that, the only way to do that that I know of is to find where this sensation resides in your body. So if you feel afraid, are your shoulders hunching? Does your blood feel cold? If you’re angry, does it feel hot? Does your breath get shallower? The body is like the homing device for leaning in. And that’s what I would say the role is. Does that sound right to you? What do you think?

CP: Yes. I mean, I really need to defer to you on this, but it feels right. I feel it in different places in my body, but I also want to say my tendency is to contextualize it again. “Oh, it’s in my heart, therefore that’s the heart chakra and it’s telling me this.” But what I’m understanding from you is that you’re just feeling it.

SP: Yes. And I would never say, “Don’t do those other things.” I do those things too. It’s valuable to contextualize and learn and analyze and think deeply and probe. If those things were devisable, I would not have a job. Luckily that’s what I do most days. What I’m saying is, “Don’t do that first.” Do it second. Keep them separate, and don’t confuse them.

CP: Let’s say we’ve gone through the practice, and I’m synching up my body—which definitely makes sense, though I have resistance to it, I’ve noticed, as we’re talking. I definitely do not want to merge with the fear. That’s kind of the language I’m using, but as I do it, and I’m looking around [laughs] I feel like I’m looking for something else to come into that space. We’ve biggened the space—I love that word—and I’m just wondering, since we’ve made it bigger, is it an antithesis of fear?

And again, I don’t want to be too solutions-oriented, but I feel like fear is not the highest vibration, and when we’re doing spiritual work, I may be eager for something—like maybe the opposite or the answer to come in. I’ve heard it said that love is the antithesis of fear, and maybe people have different versions of that. I’m curious to see if you have any thoughts on that.

SP: Yes. A multitude, actually. The first thing that occurs to me is, how do we know that fear is not the highest vibration in a particular moment? How do we know that? There cannot possibly be rules. There are no rules, in which case there is no statement that says, “Fear is always not the highest vibration.” That’s just too conceptual. And if we walk into our lives with any theory, even the theory of the dharma, which to me is the highest, most awesome thing the world, then we’re going to be trapped by it.

But if we walk in with a kind of willingness to feel, then our path becomes the highest vibration, I would say. And we’re able to modify, along the path, in relationship to reality, as opposed to ideas about reality because we’re experiencing our life. And again, I think what you’re pointing to is really accurate is that it doesn’t feel good to feel afraid. It’s limiting and it is dark and awful. Definitely. Nobody should want—you don’t want to force yourself to hang out there. It sucks. But if it’s something that’s happening, it’s happening. So you lean into it in some way, and then watch it. It will start to transform.

Fear is unavoidable. We live in a world where there are things to be afraid of, and we’re vulnerable creatures. So because we’re vulnerable, we’re going to experience fear, because we’re not invulnerable. So that’s just part of life, so we have to find a way to work with it. But fear of fear is optional. That doesn’t have to be a part of life. That is actually the worst fear, I would say.

Fear tends to stiffen us up and shrink the space and make us feel tiny and just very claustrophobic and uncomfortable. But if you look at what’s underneath fear, just what is right underneath fear, you may find something interesting, because it’s usually some expression of vulnerability. Our vulnerability is our most beautiful and powerful and creative quality. So right underneath the fear is an expression of our vulnerability, and often it feels like sadness. And sadness is very soft and workable. Fear, however, is not. So what happened just before the fear? Because that could be an interesting thing to feel and notice.

CP: When you say “vulnerability,” of course I feel an opening, and when you said that the sadness and the softness—I mean, there’s a lot of power in those. When we look at it from that way, meaning not power out there, going to impale. It’s not impaling power. But just a wisdom and almost a longing. And it just sort of dissolves the fear as I’m kind of sitting with it.

SP: That’s great. That was beautifully said. I’m so happy you used the word “longing,” because I really relate to that word. It’s so human. And we are often directed away from our longings as a form of dissatisfaction or indication of a problem, but they actually are really powerful and important at softening.

CP: You know, it’s interesting, if we look at what you were saying, that we modify our path in response to our reality, which, with this approach, I love, because it just speaks of a certain resiliency. Kind of like the aikido approach—something’s coming at you, and [you] just kind of work with it and move it.

SP: I think, honesty, that is a great definition of fearlessness, is that aikido approach to a fear situation. That is the ultimate, perhaps, expression of fearlessness, or a penultimate expression of fearlessness, because probably the ultimate expression would be complete enlightenment. So let’s say the penultimate expression would be meeting your world and working with things as they arrive. That is a beautiful form of confidence.

And when you think about it, if you need a sort of conceptual game plan before you meet your life, that is kind of cowardly.

CP: Say more, say more. This is hot now! You’re saying that if I’m setting goals—yes, say more about that. How is that cowardly?

SP: Well, if you think about what is the difference between faith and doubt—what is real faith? We live in a country where people talk about that question a lot. And I think the ultimate expression of faith is have no belief system but a completely open mind, and of course, a strong spiritual practice and a community and all the other supports that I think pretty much everyone needs.

But if you have this conceptual game plan, it always stems from the need for protection.

But when you agree to enter your world without protection but with intelligence—obviously we all have to be practical, we can’t walk in the middle of the road and so forth—but openheartedly, that is amazingly brave. And most systems of thought close our hearts to ourselves and to others.

And that’s why my work is called the Open Heart Project, because that’s how strongly I believe in the openhearted approach, which to me is the ultimate expression of bravery. And a closed heart is a kind of cowardice. Of course, I’m a coward. My heart’s closed all the time. But I try. I try to find when that’s happening and soften it.

CP: Now, you said this word, is it “penultimate”? Is that what you were saying?

SP: Yes.

CP: OK, that’s a fancy word.

SP: Well, ultimate is the ultimate, obviously, and penultimate is next to ultimate. In Buddhist thought, they often talk about the ultimate and the relative form of various qualities, or the absolute or the relative. So I didn’t want to—“absolute fearlessness” would be enlightenment, so I was just trying to make it a little more relative to our world, which I am firmly ensconced in.

CP: I hear that. I hear you’re firmly ensconced in it. I want to say like the “uber-ultimate,” but of course that is the ultimate, right? OK.

SP: [Laughs] Yes, there’s nothing after ultimate, that’s the problem.

CP: OK. So one of the things that I wanted to say, and then I want to get into that open heart, is that there’s a doing that’s required in the world. And when I say “required,” I’m not saying that we all have to make money and we all have to [be] busy, busy hamsters on the wheel. I just think that karmically, right now, the world is paying its dues, to put it nicely. I feel like there’s a huge imbalance and it needs to be righted if we’re going to continue to live on the planet. And I’m not saying this out of fear, although fear plays in for me, but we are, especially women, being called to action, to play more in the forefront. And while I love the whole aikido model of really being able to respond in a way that meets the fear, both in body and mind, I just wonder if there’s room for a more active role, where we’re using this consciousness but we’re taking it out into the world and we’re initiating action, rather than in that response mode.

SP: Well, I certainly hope so, because I agree with you 100 percent. The time for action is now. I think often people think if you’re a spiritual practitioner, you’re sort of gazing into space—

CP: [Laughs] Right!

SP:  —and not bathing or just sort of spacing out. And I find the deeper the spiritual practitioner, the less spaced-out that person is. The deeper their practice, the more present and engaged and capable of accomplishment they are.

So yes, we all should have an objective. And we all should know what that objective is. Sometimes it takes a long time to figure it out. And then we should go for it. But along the way, a process is required, and that process becomes the path to your aim. And if you don’t know how to be on a path, or can’t tolerate a path because you just want it to be done already, then you get further and further away from where you want to go. So yes, be aikido-like, but have as your objective to win the match. Aikido is a match, so you want to win. There’s no need to release that objective.

CP: Yes, I think the trick here is to make sure that that objective does not become that conceptual gam plan. And that’s tricky.

SP: Yes. So you’re constantly like—if your mind was a lens, you’re constantly zooming between close up and far out. I can’t remember what that’s called in a camera, but zoom and pan out. You’re constantly zooming and panning out, and often doing one when it should be the other, speaking for myself, anyway. Be a good strong camera operator, but don’t think that you can just set the lens and walk away, if you really pummel that metaphor.

You have objectives. You have wonderful objectives. And you are really out there accomplishing them. How do you—if you don’t mind if I ask you—balance the doing and the knowing what to do?

CP: It’s funny because I was just going to ask you that, how [it shows] up in your life. But I will do that in mine—since I feel like I’m with the teacher here. So for me, I feel that something is sort of living, coming through me, and I’m trying to yield to it and do my best to not get in its way. But at the same time, there are some real goals here, real realities about making this viable not just as a brand and a message, but actually something that works financially and supports not just myself but a team of people and a community of people that is growing and has [many] layers to it: authors and speakers and participants and entrepreneurs and executives and sponsors.

And so I find it very, very difficult to not be overtaken by what you’re calling the conceptual plan, because it’s tricky. You want to hold and begin with the end in mind, and that has been a spiritual teaching that I’ve used just because it feels very natural to me. But at the same time, I don’t want to be locked in, because maybe the opportunity is for me to learn failure. [Laughs] I mean, I’m just going to say it, but it’s hard for me to get behind that, truthfully. It’s hard for me to be OK with that.

SP: I understand! I relate. And I too want my hopes and dreams to work out spiritually, financially, creatively, everything-ly, the whole nine yards. And maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but I’m not going to stop trying. And maybe there [are] lessons in failure, I don’t know, but there’s joy in succeeding, too, and that’s also a lesson.

CP: Thank you for saying that, yes.

SP: It is completely wonderful to succeed. But you know, going back to the confidence thing, from the beginning of our conversation, I find that, especially with women, that when a success approaches, before it lands in your hand, you devalue it. You enjoy it for a half a second, then you’re like, “OK, anybody can do that. If I can do it, anyone can do it. OK, what’s the next thing I have to succeed at.”

CP: Oh, this is so true!

SP: I know! It’s crazy. So if we can learn how to enjoy our successes without devaluing them right away—also, you said something that I related to as well, which was something about [your] mission. I don’t think you used that word, but that’s the sense that I got. That’s how I know what to do, too.

I feel like my life has a life of its own and I don’t really know what it is exactly. I am more the shepherd than its captain, so to speak. So my life has a certain narrative structure, even, that when I look back, I see, but when I look ahead, I can’t. And I just want the story to be told. No one will ever know that story. I won’t even know the story. But the story, somehow, is the magic part, and I want that story to tell itself.

CP: Yes, that’s a nice way to put it. I love that whole story piece. Well, obviously, you’re a writer, you live in story. But it’s a really nice approach. I was going to try and ask this question before: where in your life—give us maybe one or two points where you were really emerging.

And, of course, we’re always emerging, but what I’m saying by “emerging”—and this is basically our audience, people [who] at any age are coming out of a deep transformation of some kind. Maybe it’s a transition in their life or a tragedy or just therapy and self-reflection. You get to this point where you’ve done enough practice on the inner that most of the healing is done, and when that happens, I find that women—and myself included—just feel on fire, and that’s the energy of emergence. And that’s happening on a cosmic level, but individually, [in] the stories of our lives, there are certain markers that stand out as being more significant emergences.

I’m just curious about you, since you’ve written a lot of books and you’ve done a lot of practice, and you alluded to your coaching practice, so I’m curious to see if you can share with us maybe one or two of those points in your life that you remember and how that story unfolded.

SP: That’s a great question. A fun question to think about, too. And I’ll just say the first thing that pops in my mind, and it’s—anyway, I’ll just tell it to you and I’ll tell you why that’s the moment. So I wrote a book about getting married, and it came out. I wasn’t a writer, I just had this idea and through a variety of weird circumstances, it became a book. I was working, I had my own business. I was a book packager, that’s what it was called back then. And a book was an interesting side line, a side note, but I didn’t ever think, “Well, I’ll be a writer.” I didn’t think anything about it. I was like, “Well, maybe people will like it!”

And then it got some media attention. And then it got a lot of media attention. I lived in New York City at the time, and I was at the cell phone store buying a new cell phone when my old cell phone rang and it was my publisher saying, “Next week, this Sunday, your book is going to No. 2 on the New York Times Best Seller list.” Of course, anybody would be happy with that. There [are] the obvious external reasons to be happy, like, “Oh, what a great marker of success. What a wonderful thing. That’s a turning point in my life professionally, financially, creatively, blah, blah, blah.”

But that’s not the emerging moment that first swept me off my feet. The emerging moment was all of these instances of self-doubt and fear and depression and darkness—things that I’ve experienced my whole life, even still. But in that moment, they all fell away, and I felt completely myself and totally empowered. And I spent some time thinking, “Well, why did you need such a conventional marker of success to feel empowered?” But I don’t care, that’s just the way it was. And there’s something about, I think especially for women, a coming out into the world and feeling, “Oh, I have found my place in the world and I’m not elbowing my way into it in this particular moment. It has opened to me.” That produced a tremendous amount of confidence in me, and that was a great moment.

I was in the store and I looked at the cell phone guy, and I was like, “My book’s going to be No. 2 on the New York Times Best Seller list!” [Laughs] I just said it to him, and he was like, “Oh, that’s really great!”

CP: [Laughs]

SP: I think he thought I was crazy, but anyway, I bought the cell phone and then I walked out into the street. I’ll never forget it, it was 23rd and 6th Avenue, and it was like a different world, a brighter world. It was a good moment.

CP: And that was about 10 years ago, or 12 years ago? Because I remember reading the book.

SP: Yes, it was about 10.

CP: So now, you really talked about that opening, and as you talk about that experience, I’m relating it to the Open Heart Project. Do you feel, through that work that you’re doing on your website, through the Open Heart Project, that we’re almost preparing ourselves for moments like that, by opening even through the difficult times? We’re kind of reaching for that state that you just described, in a way. I am! [Laughs] I want that!

SP: Yes. But the space that I just described is relational. In other words, it’s a road through a relationship with the world. And I think those are the most empowering moments, for me, anyway. They’re not so much things I feel within myself. I might call those things more like insights or evolutionary moments or whatever. But these moments that are a result of contact with the world are communications, and those communications, I think, create us.

You sort of come into being through relationships, not through self-reflection, I would say. The full you is not revealed to you or whoever until those relational moments occur. I’m not talking about love relationships or any particular kind of relationships, but it just is a very interesting topic to me right now. I think what I want to write about next is this notion of communication and relationship that calls us into being. Because we think, “Well, I’ll become myself and then I’ll go out and have relationships.” But it actually can work in the reverse. Relationships can tell you who you are. That might not sound very clear.

CP: No, it’s very clear.

SP: But I just want to point out that distinction.

CP: I mean, this is, I feel, the power of the feminine, and it’s happening on every level, that as people [who] are really leaning into the feminine are taking positions of leadership, we tend to be more relational in our style. Two things are happening: 1) we’re unfolding through that relationship, no matter how. There’s deep, intimate relationships with our partners and then there’s all different levels of that. And I feel like that’s the future of spirituality.

SP: I totally agree. I love that focus. People think being relational means being nice to people or something, or just not being rude. But that is so not it. That’s part of it, of course, but it’s about opening to connection, and we don’t know how that connection is going to feel. But there is no solid you or me. That being sort of shifts relationally. So that’s interesting, I think. It’s interesting that you could tell me a story and it would feel one way to tell it, and you could tell the same story in the same words to someone else and it would feel different. The relational space is everything.

CP: It’s everything.

SP: Everything. [Laughs]

CP: It’s everything! I love it! I’m so happy that you’re doing the work, and I really love this. Like I said, I do feel like this is the future of not only Buddhism, but it’s the future of all spirituality, becoming more relational and looking at our unfoldment not only and solely within ourselves, but even more so in reflection to the impact we have on others and others’ impact on us. There’s so much happening there. This is now. That’s all the focus. Even people in learning and development at big companies that are bringing in mindfulness—I love all that. I think that’s fabulous. But I think the focus on the relationship piece takes it to a whole other level.

SP: Yes. I completely agree. I totally agree.

CP: And I love that title, the Open Heard Project.

SP: It’s such a joy. That work has been such a delight. I had no idea what it would turn into, but it has been a wonderful thing to work on.

CP: Well, thank you, Susan, for your time and [for] sharing with us. I cannot believe that we spent this time and it flew by. Not surprised. And I look forward to sharing more time with you in Boston.

SP: That sounds great. It’s been lovely to talk with you. Thank you so much.

CP: Thank you! Take good care.

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