by Cecilia Meis: The speaker, author and self-described ‘spirit junkie’ has built a life and career out of one simple mantra: Let go…
I want to ask her about her younger days, about what kinds of trauma she’s pushing down with all of her hours of meditation and serene prayer. I want to ask what it’s like to go through life without setting specific goals, just trusting the world to work out—but it’s hard to ask those kinds of questions of someone so seemingly removed from concern over anything. It is my inability to let her soothing presence take hold that has me growing increasingly worried. Doesn’t the fact I even want to ask these things signal something wrong about me?
Bernstein and I are nestled at opposite ends of a slate-gray couch in the corner of an artist’s loft at the edge of Chinatown in New York. Behind her, various production assistants rustle through bags of sound and lighting equipment, prepping for her photo shoot. This isn’t the most intimate place to ask Bernstein about those years she spent in back-rooms of various nightclubs, drinking and doing cocaine, generally losing control of the first half of her 20s. But if the noise is distracting, her face doesn’t betray her.
“My bottom was hard and fast. I knew it was death or sobriety,” Bernstein says without inflection, as if she’s telling me the date or her favorite color. She’s willing to open up to audiences about problems in her life, but she’s also careful, guarded.
Edgar, Bernstein’s father, pops up frequently in her books, blurry snapshots of a middle-class man in finance, who never missed his father’s yahrzeit—a death anniversary in the Jewish faith—yet couldn’t seem to find time or ways to connect with his only daughter. That lack of connection led Bernstein first to seek his approval, and then the approval of other men in her life, at any cost.
ut she writes about learning to see her father in a new way, too. About releasing the resentment she harbored, choosing to see his good spirit instead of the person whose very image carries years of stories that are difficult to see past. I ask her about the transformation.
With an unwavering smile, she tells me her relationships “have changed.”
Bernstein, 38, has become something of an icon for spiritual 20-somethings. She’s written five smashingly successful books with a sixth book just out. The fifth most-viewed video on her YouTube channel is “What a Spirit Junkie Eats to be Healthy & Hot!” She drops a few four-letter words during her workshops and seems so comfortable and confident in her typical getup: ripped jeans, a V-neck and a pair of white Chuck Taylors.
Today she’s wearing black skinny jeans and a soft denim button-up. She sits barefoot and cross-legged, drawing her feet beneath her. As she talks, one arm is casually draped over the armrest and the other supports her head, which rests ever so slightly on her palm.
“My bottom was hard and fast. I knew it was death or sobriety.”
“Can I get back to you on that?” she says when I ask about her pet peeves.
She adjusts on the couch, shifting so her back rests against the armrest. She turns my phone so the speaker recording our conversation is closer to her while telling me about the real epidemic that should worry people: judgment. We’re all trapped in a judgment cycle, she argues. It begins with trauma—a universally shared experience—and continues as we use judgment to anesthetize ourselves from pain. The solution: Return to our natural state, which, she says, is love.
I nod slowly, returning a half-smile. But my face must betray the string of thought, deep personal doubt, running through my own head. She continues, undeterred.
Bernstein offers six tangible steps to “detox” from judgment. It begins, not unlike the 12-step program used by Alcoholics Anonymous, with accepting where you are right now, not where you want to be, and ends with a universal call-to-arms.
“I want to transform the inner beliefs of millions of people throughout the world so that we shift the energy of the planet,” Bernstein writes in her new book, Judgment Detox: Release the Beliefs That Hold You Back from Living a Better Life. “Accept that you are part of a movement.”
People seem to have answered the call. In just over six years, she’s launched herself to self-growth stardom, reached the No. 1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list and been invited as a featured guest on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday and a regular expert on The Dr. Oz Show.
The results are there. Her workshops sell out nearly every time, and inspire achingly vulnerable public moments. One woman recently stood up and publicly forgave her rapist. Another man forgave himself for the alcohol addiction that stole his career, his family and his life.
“I’ve been authentic,” Bernstein says. “I’ve been willing and brave enough to tell the truth of my own shortcomings, and I’ve been able to teach authentically and let people recognize themselves in me.”
On Dec. 14, 2012, Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, fatally shooting 26 teachers and students, including 6-year-old Emilie Parker.
Emilie’s mother, Alissa, was consumed by grief, hatred and confusion. Even the thought of playing with Emilie’s two younger sisters was enough to bring back nausea-inducing memories. Together with her husband, she visited the Mormon temple in New York City to find answers, relief, anything to help them move forward.
In the silence of the temple, she heard a voice, a feeling in her mind, saying, speak to the shooter’s father. Barely six weeks after the shooting, they met with Peter Lanza, who offered a more humanized image of his son. It helped, but Parker wasn’t ready to stop channeling her hatred toward the shooter. She imagined running him over with her car so he would never reach the school that morning. The scenarios provided relief, however temporary.
Then one day, while jogging nearly a year after the shooting, Parker was overwhelmed with feelings of compassion and even love for Lanza. Parker stopped, crying on the side of the street, and felt a physical burden lift from her shoulders. She details her journey to forgiveness and peace in the 2017 book, An Unseen Angel: A Mother’s Story of Faith, Hope, and Healing After Sandy Hook.
“We think we are protecting ourselves from feeling pain,” Bernstein says. “We can use this judgment and rage to shield ourselves but ultimately it’s just perpetuating the trauma over and over again.”
This is what so much of Bernstein’s work boils down to. She uses Parker’s story in her workshops. “Forgiveness isn’t something you do,” she teaches. “It’s a miracle you receive.”
Bernstein’s life, the way she sees it, has been a series of miracles.
She grew up in Larchmont, New York, a storybook village in Westchester County. She shared the picturesque waterfront town with notable neighbors such as novelist Jean Kerr, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and actor Michael O’Keefe. It’s a wealthy place, but Bernstein says she had a typical East Coast, middle-class upbringing.
A theatrical child, Bernstein was outgoing, vivacious and perpetually comfortable onstage. After landing a role in a national TV commercial at 8 years old, she was ecstatic, but not from any adolescent dreams of stardom.
“It was the first time I remember my father ever noticing me,” she writes in Spirit Junkie: A Radical Road to Self-Love and Miracles. “Once I got a taste of what his attention felt like, it became like a drug that I couldn’t get enough of…. I became a love junkie.”
She’s quick to add that her father wasn’t mean or a bad parent; she just didn’t feel like they ever had a real connection during her childhood. Bernstein’s mother, on the other hand, was a bit of an esoteric type, who was raised Jewish but practiced Siddha Yoga. She instilled in young Bernstein a love of spirituality and meditation. They attended ashrams together. But at 17, Bernstein strayed from her spiritual roots.
“My fear of not being good enough without male attention became my Achilles’ heel and affected nearly every area of my life,” she writes.
We’re all addicted in some way, Bernstein says. Unable to fill the hole of insecurity, we become addicted to people who make us feel better, even for a split second. Unable to be alone with our dark thoughts, we become addicted to creating noise to fill the sound of silence. Unable to cope with past trauma, we become addicted to stuffing our calendars with appointments and our walls with achievements.
“We do, do, do, get, get, get, to avoid feel, feel, feel,” Bernstein says. “The whole point is that you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything. You have to slow down and just be where you are.”
Her experience is something a lot of us share. Millions of young, beautiful, strong, powerful, capable men and women with unimaginable potential find themselves trapped in the jaws of insecurity. Subconsciously, they internalize the message—intentional or not—that parents, teachers, friends and love interests often send: Without X, Y or Z, you are not good enough. Whatever you alone bring to the table is not enough. You are not enough.
That message carries through to adulthood. It affects our careers, our roles as parents, lovers and friends. It seeps into every decision, big or small, a constant voice telling us that asking for a raise is too risky because we’re lucky we got this job in the first place, or that our business ideas will never pan out because we’re inexperienced. We project our own regrets onto others in the form of judgment and criticism. It makes us feel good, if only for a moment. Bernstein calls this the judgment trap: an endless cycle of judging ourselves and others to cushion against the possibility of pain that comes with being emotionally vulnerable, open and intimate.
“I judge all day long,” Bernstein says. “The difference after having written [Judgment Detox] and taking myself through these practices, is that I have a very quick comeback rate and I see my judgment differently. I can heal those judgmental patterns. I’ll stop myself and be silent.”
Just 12 years ago, Bernstein was a 25-year-old club promoter by day, trend-chasing party girl by night. A year after graduating from the Syracuse University theater program, she launched her own boutique public relations firm and a nonprofit network connecting female entrepreneurs. She hosted fundraisers and was regularly invited to black-tie charity events. But the Carrie Bradshaw lifestyle quickly veered into cocaine- and alcohol-fueled nights consistently lasting until 5 and 6 a.m.
“It was bad,” Bernstein says. “But it wasn’t who I was in my heart.”
It’s hard to imagine the woman now taking me through her daily routine of meditation, yoga, journaling and reflection tearing it up in Cielo, the Coral Room or one of the other nightclubs she represented. I ask what she would say to her younger self, knowing what she knows now.
Bernstein leans forward, breaking into a wide grin, exposing her perfect teeth.
“Relax, it’s going to be great!”
In 2005, Bernstein hit rock bottom. She didn’t overdose. She didn’t harm herself or others. She didn’t have a public meltdown. It was an average night after clubbing. At this point, she weighed less than 100 pounds. Her friends had attempted multiple interventions, but she wasn’t having it. She was stuck in the vicious cycle of the judgment trap.
Bernstein defines judgment as “a separation from love.” The separation begins when tragedy strikes in our personal lives and we distance ourselves from our true nature—again, love. The vicious cycle occurs when we subconsciously judge ourselves for being at odds with our true nature. To anesthetize our pain, we project that judgment onto others, which only makes us feel guiltier, which we also judge ourselves for, and the cycle repeats itself.
If you’re searching for ways all this might apply, take stock of your daily thoughts. How many times have you woken up on the wrong side of the bed only to take out those negative feelings on everyone around you? How many times have you indulged in a “cheat day,” only to project your diminished feelings of self-worth onto someone you see at the bank or in the fast-food drive-through?
“We think we need to chase that thing that will make us feel good, but the irony of it is that when we feel good, we’ll get all of the things that we want.”
“[Judgment Detox] is a wake-up call,” Bernstein says. “It’s telling people we have to wake up and take responsibility for the thoughts that we have and the words that we use and the judgments that we are placing upon others, because those daily judgments are polluting the world. They’re polluting our relationships, and they create a ripple effect. When we begin to heal those behaviors, we start to create a more positive ripple effect.”
In the early hours of Oct. 2, 2005, exhausted, strung out and approaching a nasty hangover, Bernstein wrote in her journal: “I need help. God, Universe, whoever is out there… I surrender.” In the morning, Bernstein woke up to hear what she describes as an inner voice saying, “Get clean and you’ll have everything you want.”
That inner voice is what Bernstein thinks of as her spiritual connection. She considers herself a claircognizant, a term describing people who receive inner guidance in the form of knowing something on a gut level—an inexplicable sense. But she’s quick to note that everyone receives guidance in their own way. Her lessons aren’t religious and don’t require someone to buy into a strict set of beliefs. In Judgment Detox, for example, she describes prayer as simply,
“your intention to transform fear into love.”
Her prayer that morning in 2005 was small and simple, and Bernstein walked away from drugs and alcohol forever. Of course it wasn’t easy. Addiction is a very real and dangerous illness. She’s the first to admit that her story of conscious surrender isn’t a guidebook. The real power of her message lies in inspiring people to be willing and open to surrendering to their inner connection, in whatever form that takes. Had she been willing when her friends attempted an intervention, things might have gone differently. But Bernstein wasn’t ready then. She had to get there on her own.
The greatest gift you can give someone is to let them find their bottom, Bernstein says. Similarly, the greatest harm you can do is to try forcing someone to change when they’re not ready to take the first step. Her story resonates with people not because it’s new, but because she’s brave enough to share it onstage in front of thousands of people or on the shelves of bookstores all over. Her wounds are open for everyone to see.
Within four months of her sobriety, Bernstein started sending positive ripples into the world, beginning with small, guided meditation sessions with six or seven women in her Greenwich Village apartment. From there, things moved quickly. By 2008 she had launched HerFuture.com, a social media site dedicated to connecting women. (GabbyBernstein.com has since absorbed the site.) By 2011 she had written her first book. Amid her own rise to spiritual stardom, Bernstein still faces insecurities and self-doubt.
“My fingers are trembling as I begin this introduction,” Bernstein writes in Judgment Detox. “I have a limiting belief on repeat: Who are you to write a book called Judgment Detox? You judge all the time!”
The judgment detox teaches you to let go of control—because when has forcing change ever worked? It teaches you to stop praying for specific things, such as a new job or relationship, because that’s your ego assuming it knows what the problem is. It teaches you to break down the walls separating you from love and connection, because you can’t fight this battle on your own. Like AA, the process offers relatable stories from real people, from Bernstein herself, offering universality to a problem that feels singular.
“We all suffer,” she writes. “We all feel unworthy and abandoned. But identifying sameness [in one another] allows us to shift our focus from separation back to love.”
In some ways, Bernstein’s story is just learning how to say no. She’s learned how to say no to drugs, to self-judgment, to anyone who says she isn’t good enough. She’s even said no to good things, profitable business opportunities, because she trusted that even better things would come along.
“We’re trying to accomplish so much that we’re actually getting in the way of what’s meant to be—that next step,” she says.
Her life follows the pattern of a highly driven businesswoman, but Bernstein attributes her achievements to an alignment between her mind, heart and spirit.
“The belief systems, the thought forms, the constant repetition of the same stories over and over, keep us so misaligned,” she says. “So, often we’re thinking, Oh I have to do all these things to get to the place where I want to be or I have to be someone different. The truth is quite the opposite. We have to reclaim who we really are. And who we really are is someone who feels good.”
When she’s talking, especially to large audiences, it seems Bernstein’s career was predetermined. A natural born leader, she quickly rose through the ranks as an adolescent, spearheading weekend spiritual retreats as the president of a Jewish youth group. Her charismatic, bubbly nature drew people near. Even in the depths of her darkest days of addiction, Bernstein was sure of her future.
“I’m going to be a motivational speaker and self-help author,” she would tell people in nightclubs. “[They] would laugh at me because I was high on drugs with them, but I knew.”
In the early days of recovery, Bernstein struggled to attend a dinner party or go out with friends because the temptation of “just one glass of wine” was fierce. Like anything else, that process takes time. She’s dedicated the past 12 years to constructing safeguards against anything that threatens her happiness. Sure, she has dark patches sometimes. There are even days when getting out of bed seems insurmountable, let alone the thought of inspiring others to bring happiness into their lives. That’s what 12 years of a meditation practice, daily mantras, journaling, yoga and self-awareness creates: the ability to see a trigger when it happens, and instead of letting it take the wheel of your emotions, acknowledging it, being grateful for the growth opportunity, and moving past it.
“The feeling of being in alignment with feeling good in this moment has far more power than all of the actions you’ve taken in the last year,” she tells workshop audiences.
Her message of love is well-received, if not adored. Fans of the “spirit junkie” see her as their guru, which is obvious from spending a few minutes scrolling through comments from her combined social media audience of more than 1.2 million. Or witnessing 33,061 people, led by Bernstein and Deepak Chopra, break the Guinness World Record in 2014 for the largest guided meditation. Her fans rely on her for spiritual guidance, but also love advice (she sells an audio program, Medidating: Meditation for Fearless Romance), career advice and even mini cooking videos on her Instagram story.
“We’re trying to accomplish so much that we’re actually getting in the way of what’s meant to be—that next step.”
“We’re meant to feel good,” Bernstein says. “That’s the true nature of who we are. We think we need to chase that thing that will make us feel good, but the irony of it is that when we feel good, we’ll get all of the things that we want.”
This movement began before Bernstein was a household name. Her mentor is Marianne Williamson, whose first book, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles” debuted in 1992, and who helped push this brand of nonspecific spirituality into the mainstream.
“When infants aren’t held, they can become sick, even die,” Williamson writes. “It’s universally accepted that children need love, but at what age are people supposed to stop needing it? We never do. We need love in order to live happily, as much as we need oxygen in order to live at all.”
The message is as simple as it is poetic. It provided meaning to some for whom religion couldn’t. Fast-forward a decade, when 20-somethings now openly embrace the moldable messages of it-girl spiritual gurus: Kris Carr, author of Crazy Sexy Cancer and the popular blog My Crazy Sexy Life; life coach Jennifer Macaluso-Gilmore, who is often referred to as an oracle by her clients; and Sera Beak, author of The Red Book: A Deliciously Unorthodox Approach to Igniting Your Divine Spark.
“Spirituality has become a very hip thing,” Bernstein says. “It works because I’m not saying, ‘People, this is what spirituality means,’ I’m saying, ‘Here are practices that can help you develop a spiritual connection of your own understanding.’ ”
This relaxed, a la carte version of spiritual connection doesn’t come without criticism. Esther Hicks, co-author of a series of books covering the law of attraction, says it can be confusing and unhelpful for people to cherry-pick from different practices. And a growing body of research cautions against Westernized meditation retreats that can open guests to past emotional traumas they’re not prepared to face.
“I think that memories often come and are triggered when we are at a place when we’re ready to receive them,” Bernstein responds, true to her message. “I don’t think you need to be afraid of meditation, or therapy or any type of self-reflection because your brain actually will protect you until you’re really ready to let that be unlocked.”
When you talk to a guru, particularly if you’re still self-judgy, you can’t help but internalize everything they say. How do I know if what feels good is actually what’s good for me? The thought sticks with me, and we both pause in the silence.
Just days before meeting Bernstein in this loft, I made a near split-second decision to move across the world. It was a life move as much as a career move, to head up a small writer’s retreat on an island in the Gulf of Thailand.
I wasn’t unhappy. I had a solid job, a great boyfriend and a family support system. In fact, I was in perhaps the most stable place I had ever been in my life. The email arrived without a sound at 2:38 a.m. I woke up exactly three minutes later. The note explained how the candidate who was chosen over me three weeks before had to return home suddenly to care for a sick parent. If I wanted the job, it was mine.
I made the decision to move across the ocean, away from nine young nieces and nephews who would be reaching big milestones without me—walking, growing teeth, losing teeth, having crushes—in a matter of hours.
“Begin to trust in the presence of this inner wisdom and don’t hesitate to follow its direction,” Bernstein advises.
I’m not totally sure why I made this decision. I didn’t hear an inner voice or feel an inner wisdom. I don’t know whether this opportunity brings me more joy than another potential opportunity, because how can you know what you don’t know? I guess what I’m saying is that maybe some decisions are just decisions, and considering if any one of them brings me the maximum amount of joy sort of brings the exact opposite.
I’ve also thought of my action-oriented attitude as the opposite of this surrendering-to-the-universe type of mentality. But the more I talk to Bernstein, the more it seems we have in common. Sameness. Except, I realize as my internal dialogue yammers ever onward, for her consistently poised demeanor.
“You seem perpetually calm,” I say, knowing it’s not really a question, knowing that it exposes my own insecurity.
“Oh, babes,” she chides me with the tone of an older sibling. “I’ve got almost 11 years on you. Some of that comes with time.”
Bernstein knows how to work the camera. She transforms effortlessly between poses. One second, she’s shooting a flirtatious smile over one shoulder. The next, she looks much taller than her 5-feet-4-inches, hands on her hips, eyes slightly narrowed in a powerful pose. Suddenly I see the woman who can command a room for hours on end during workshops. I imagine the business-savvy executive launching PR campaigns. I even see the 25-year-old Bernstein waking up to watch the bustling city come to life while she nurses a hangover and feelings of regret and unfulfilled potential.
I see Gabby Bernstein. And I see myself. And I pass no judgment on either.
As we walk around Chinatown, she seems to relax. Her makeup artist is ogling over the large diamond ring adorning Bernstein’s left hand. They chat about ring insurance and how difficult it must be to determine fraud. Bernstein and investment banker Zach Rocklin married in 2014. He left J.P. Morgan in early 2016 to help manage her business.
Later she stops by a fruit stand, leaving a large tip for the woman who didn’t understand her question about prickly pears. We chat about the blessing that is New York City pizza and how crazy-warm the weather is tonight.
Back at the loft, we’re nearing the end of our time together. I’ve learned one of her pet peeves, luggage on the bed, and that she loves a warm bath after a rough day. I’ve learned that she, too, struggles with flat hair and isn’t sure navy blue is a good look for the shoot and let’s try red instead.
By now Bernstein is visibly tired of me rephrasing the same question because I can’t seem to understand how someone with an impressive set of accolades in such a short span can claim to not have goals. She’s said many times that thinking so specifically is problematic, that the universe—and your own gut instincts in the moment—will somehow guide you in the right direction.
“So I know you don’t have any goals,” I begin slowly. “But you must have something you’re looking forward to.”
“The only thing I’m looking forward to is being a mother,” she says softly. “It’s something I’ve been working toward for a long time, but I’ve really had to surrender to it.”
I don’t have to see the pained look flash across her face to understand that moving toward some unseen destination without a map is terrifying. Sometimes you just have to let yourself go.