Finding your Freedom through “Selfless Service”

By Steven Libowitz   |   March 29, 2018

The beginning of Bonnie and David Paul‘s The Freedom to Choose Project came more or less out of the blue 15 years ago when the couple were on the faculty in spiritual psychology at the University of Santa Monica. An inmate at a California prison who had been inspired by a story she read in now-Santa Barbara resident Jack Canfield‘s Chicken Soup for the Soul series of books had written requesting for someone to come speak about self-esteem, and the couple volunteered, figuring it was a one-shot deal.

“We weren’t looking to be working in prisons,” David recalled recently. “But the response from the women was so incredible, and they kept wanting us back. We lead a life of listening deeply to our hearts and follow that guidance. So, we decided to do it in a more organized way.”

Thus was born Freedom to Choose, for which the Pauls train volunteers to serve in prisons where they work with inmates on practical life skills such as communication, self-responsibility, and emotional intelligence. That training also includes how to be a better volunteer, not only on site with the gathering of convicts, but inside – doing their own inner work and developing strategies to be productive and self-renewing.

“Our volunteers always talk about how they went to prison work to be of service, but what they actually got was their own freedom,” Bonnie Paul said, adding “and I am among them,” which was immediately echoed by her husband.

When the Santa Barbara-based husband-and-wife team were invited to talk about the prison project for the spring offering in the long-running Mind & Supermind lecture series from SBCC School of Extended Learning (which featured Canfield himself last fall), they decided to do even more. “We wanted to teach how to take skills beyond our work to volunteers in general,” David said. “There are a lot of nonprofits in town, and almost all of them rely heavily on volunteers. But very few people have had formal training on how to be of service. So, the question becomes: How do we take people who want to help and give them the skills to be highly effective?”

The Freedom to Choose Project’s official volunteer training is a deep-diving, two-day immersion and they also have several ongoing groups that meet weekly, but the Pauls are offering a dip in the waters in their Mind & Supermind presentation “How Selfless Service Can Transform You and the World”. After a video showing the power of FTC’s transformational work in the prisons, the event goes beyond talk into experiential exercises, methods the couple have developed that combine attitude work and communication skills with principals from neuroscience.

“We’ll briefly go over a concept we developed in the prisons about how when you recognize the flight-flight-or-freeze syndrome, that you notice you have a choice point of how to react,” David explained. “That’s the Freedom to Choose moment.” With specific skills that will be practiced in triads – including the neuroscience of “the mirror response” – participants will be able to anchor the experience for future growth, he said. “It’s important that we understand each other, not just the words, but the meaning.”

The hands-on method resonates as even more timely right now, as the community is recovering from the Thomas Fire and Montecito mudslide, and caregivers are already beginning to suffer from “secondhand trauma” and “caregiver burnout.”

“It’s traumatic to be around people who are stressed. The skill set we teach is: How do I renew myself in a way that’s relatively simple and iterative?” David explained. “We want to take people from ‘I want to help’ to creating the ability to sustain when dealing with challenging circumstances as a volunteer. In prison, it’s stories form incarcerated people. In community, it’s the emotional and physical suffering from a loss. So many people are out there helping, and our community needs that now.”

David Paul, M.D., Ph.D. and Bonnie Paul, Ph.D., experiential lecture “How Selfless Service Can Transform You and the World” at 7:30 pm on Monday, April 2, at the SBCC Schott Auditorium, 10 W Padre St. Admission is $20. Call 687-0812 or visit

Vocal Rising Workshop

Dr. Gwendolyn McClure – the pioneering Vocal Sound Healing practitioner who wrote her Pacifica Institute dissertation on the fusion of Indigenous Wisdom’s Vocal Sound Healing with modern Music Therapy and Jungian Psychology – is also taking her next local workshop outside into nature. The intensive vocal sound-healing journey features vocalizing, drawing, movement, review, and release as participants rise above and beyond their traumas and self-imposed limiting beliefs that no longer serve. The specific location for the 10 am to 4 pm wilderness day retreat slated for Saturday, March 31, will be provided upon registration, though it appears a beachfront is likely, as she cautions that “easy terrain walking up to 100 yards will be required” and suggests bringing a blanket, pillow, hat, camp chair, sunglasses, water, sunblock, and comfortable shoes, as well as a sack lunch.

The registration fee is $127; sign up or get details online at or call (520) 904-2043 or email to contact Dr. McClure, who is in her 28th year as a vocal sound healing practitioner and has previously led these workshops through SBCC’s Adult Ed/Continuing Ed and elsewhere in town, as well as all over the United States.

Madhyamaka’s Moon

Santa Barbara Bodhi Path hosts visiting teacher Lama Jampa Thaye for a weekend program in the teaching of Jamgon Kongtrul called “The Rays of the Stainless Vajra Moon” on Saturday and Sunday, March 31 and April 1. The text was composed by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, considered one of the greatest Tibetan masters of the last 200 years. It is organized as a practical set-by-step guide on how to meditate on the view of the Madhyamaka, the ultimate nature of reality, as taught and practiced in the Kagyu tradition. The text is a short meditation manual that provides essential methods for uncovering the reality of our minds, which is naturally pure and endowed with the qualities of wisdom and compassion. Lama Jampa is the spiritual director of a network of dharma centers, founded under the authority of Karma Thinley Rinpoche, which bear the name Dechen. There are two sessions each day, 10 am to noon, and 2 to 4 pm. Admission is by suggested donation of $60 per day or $100 for the weekend. Visit

Meetup Roundup

Tiny Playful Group of Meditators has its weekly gathering from 7 to 8:30 pm on Friday, March 30, in an office space of the organizer at 228 E Anapamu St. Up to 10 folks (eight chairs, two cushions) participate in mindfulness exercises, paired self-inquiry opportunities, and quiet meditation before engaging in connected discussion. Free. Details online at

Fourteen hours later, Santa Barbara Silent Hiking returns to Rattlesnake Canyon Trail – one of the front country pathways not affected by fire or flood – for an invigorating but largely conversation-free gathering. The two-hour hike takes place at 10 am on Saturday, March 31, rather than the group’s usual Sunday outings in deference to Easter arriving on April 1. The total hike length is about 3.5 miles, with a slow and steady uphill climb till turning around halfway through. The turn-around takes place at the last creek crossing, at the junction to the Rattlesnake Connector Trail, or up at Gibraltar Road, depending on pace and desire. 

Either way, the energy is easy-going, with the goal of enjoying nature while “dipping into the specialness that only comes from hiking quietly in a group,” with chatting generally only taking place at the mid-point decision, or post-hike. Free. Meet at the stonewall near 1900 Las Canoas Road. Details at

The Santa Barbara Cuddle Connection invites everyone to explore the basic human need for connection through comfortable, mutual exchanges that may – or may not – involve physical contact. Certified Platonic Touch therapist Amber York leads the three-hour monthly workshop that begins with a check-in and icebreakers and exercises to create the container, set guidelines for safety, and demonstrate various methods of platonic touch. The second half is for putting the skills into practice, as participants get the chance – via voluntary invitation – to slow down and feel the powerful nuance of touch and the creation of community, which for many can be a spiritual experience. Admission is $20. Check-in begins at 7 pm Saturday, March 31, at Santa Barbara Body Therapy Institute, 516 N. Quarantina Street. Visit


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