Sex, exes and texting were among the subjects discussed in the recent graduation commencement speech to celebrate 133 students who received Masters Degrees in Spiritual Psychology from the University Of Santa Monica (USM). Not the most conventional topics for an academic occasion! But then there is nothing conventional about the speaker in question - who happens to be the founder and Editor In Chief of this website. Insightful and compelling, Arianna Huffington's address was wise, but also highly entertaining. "Do you know that 20% of millennials use their smartphones during sex?" she asked the crowd that filled UCLA's Royce Hall in Los Angeles, where USM holds their graduations, making an obvious point about our addiction to technology.
"Do you know that half of women would rather go for a month without sex than without their smartphones," she continued, in between bursts of laughter from the audience.
In general, I can think of better ways to spend a steamy Sunday in LA than sitting in the audience at a graduation ceremony. Invariably long and dull -- I recall that even when I was awarded my BA in London, decades ago -- it was a somber, soporific affair, more memorable for the dinner that followed with my proud parents. But the recent USM graduation (I attended in support of a friend who was graduating) was a different matter altogether. There was all the pomp and ceremony you'd expect, but everyone was fired up with excitement and enthusiasm. The atmosphere was more like a rock concert; as if the crowd was waiting for Beyoncé or Taylor Swift to take the stage ... or indeed the charismatic Ms. Huffington, who seemed to have a similar effect on her audience and was greeted with a rapturous standing ovation.
She did not disappoint. Self-deprecating to a fault, Huffington's remarks ran the gamut from her first serious relationship: "with a man who was twice my age and half my size .... but love is blind ..." (she was referring to the late, esteemed, British journalist Bernard Levin) to her trademark Greek accent "a little bit the bane of my existence." She told us that before splitting from her husband, Michael Huffington, he bought her a course of sessions with the dialect coach who had helped Tom Hanks with his Oscar winning role in Forrest Gump. Huffington reveals that the coaching didn't work.... "so that was the end of marriage." She paused for effect.... "And the end of my trying to change my accent." She said she finally (thankfully) came to terms with her Greek inflected English, "when I met Henry Kissinger .... he said to me, 'Arianna relax about your accent. In American public life, you can never overestimate the advantages of complete and total incomprehensibility.'
The hilarity continued, punctuated with astute comments, for example that programs like the ones offered at USM, which used to be considered "a little new-age-y, a little flakey, definitely Californian ... now have scientific backing behind them." Engaging, open and vulnerable, Huffington reflected movingly on her daughter's former drug problem (she is now sober) to illustrate the value of gratitude. Naturally, she encouraged us all to sleep more, the subject of her forthcoming book, she discussed the value of positive journalism (reporting innovation and good news as well as bad news and disasters) and HuffPost's own 'What's Working' initiative. And she talked about the 'burnout' epidemic that has left people focusing on power and money rather than serving the community and simply enjoying life.
"Rumi was right: said Huffington, quoting the 13th century poet: "Live life as though everything is rigged in your favor," remarking that in her view, USM's programs and approach "are actually transformational ... onward and upward is no longer enough -- it's onward, upward, and inward."
Before I continue, my own disclaimer, I hold an MA from USM myself and I can testify that following my two years of study there, everything took a turn for a better: relationships, career, and motherhood. It makes sense to me that Huffington was this year's USM speaker; her philosophy of life is in synch with that of USM founders and directors, Drs. Ron and Mary Hulnick. Pioneers in the field of spiritual psychology, the Hulnicks maintain that we can use life experiences to heal ourselves. Emphasizing compassion, USM's formidable programs teach practical skills, which include self-forgiveness and techniques designed to help people release limiting beliefs and go for their dreams.
The afternoon included stirring speeches from the Hulnicks (a married couple). Mary Hulnick told the audience that the unique curriculum at USM is based on "universal spiritual values such as acceptance, unconditional loving, joy, and peace," explaining that each class takes the form of an "experiential learning laboratory." Ron Hulnick expressed his belief that more people "are seeking a greater sense of purpose in their lives" and said he viewed spiritual psychology as "a bridge across the River of Evolution. ...that is best described as a bridge between sleeping and awakening."
Back to the star attraction, the charismatic Arianna Huffington - while keeping her audience rapt from start to finish -- was just as impressive off stage. When the cameras were no longer focused on her, rather than rushing off into a waiting limo in the manner of most celebrities I encounter for my job, she stopped and chit-chatted for hours, happily posing for selfies.
My favorite Huffington memory from the day: which had us all roaring with laughter and applauding madly -- men and women -- was a point in her speech when she was talking about the need to rest one day a week. "When God created the world in six days," smiled Huffington, "she took a day off ... not because I believe she really needed to. After all, she's all-powerful and omnipresent and omnipotent and all that stuff .... I think she was sending us a message ..." I think Ms. Huffington was sending us an important message too!
Watch Arianna Huffington's Speech: