What do you do when you go through extreme adversity, feel that life has literally been ripped from your feet, your world is crumbling around you and everything that you believed as real has disappeared, and you even contemplate that death might be a nicer place than where you re at? Demian Lichtenstein and Shajen Joy Aziz went through something quite like that and emerged from the other end as two completely different people.
In Discover the Gift, Demian and his sister, Shajen, narrate and present a simple road map to a journey of self-discovery that will change your life forever. Sharing their own heartfelt, personal stories of tragedy and redemption, the brother and sister joined by many of today s most influential transformational leaders inspire you, guide you, and ultimately enable you to begin your own journey to find your Gift and the life you were meant to live.
Ishita: Tell us about the first time when you felt like fear struck you in a way that impacted your life.
Demian: I ll take it back to the age of two. I'mtwo years old and my mother is away for a little while. I am upset because I am not getting my breast milk. Then she shows up with all this cooing and giggling with a snotty little bundle in her arms and softly announces that there will be no more breast milk for me and that I will have my milk through this strange little thing in her arms.
Fear enveloped me at that point. It was such an issue for me that I literally packed my bag at the age of two it's a family joke, but it's true because I realized that the world was no longer a safe place and literally mother s milk was no longer mine. Luckily, our family dog, Boss, followed me for the several miles as I walked down a busy country road, until I guess I got tired and plopped myself in the yard of a neighbor s home. Of course, my mother and father were insane with fear at this point, doing everything, including climbing into the well on the property, looking in the rivers and the trees and everywhere, calling the police and all the family friends. Finally, the neighbor called and said, Your son is sitting on our front lawn. So at a very early age, I realized that the world wasn't always going to be the warm, cuddly place. There were more such events to come, and after the birth of my little sister Shajen, I had someone to blame for those: My horrid sister who had come into the world and taken away all the goodness!
I can tell you other prominent moments of fear in my life. I was approximately six years old. I wrecked my bicycle on a mountain hill and fractured my legs, dislocated my back and fractured my skull and was placed in a hospital for many months to recuperate. Still, to this day, I have a lot of pain from that accident. So fear had been embedded into my cellular structure at a very early age. I can go back even prior to our birth to acknowledge that our father was born into the fear and the chaos of the Holocaust and World War II. There have been many studies that say that the fear present in the parents blood is passed through to their child. That child then carries the signature or the residual memory of that fear and passes it on to their children. Shajen and I were both literally born with a certain dose of that fear already within our system.
Flash forward almost fifteen years, we are growing up in Vermont, in a castle up in the mountain and we now have a stepfather. Our mother and father divorced when I was four and Shajen was two. In many respects that castle on the hill is a Wonderland. It is filled with a lot of beauty and magnificence. There is a lot of tension and turmoil, drama and fear. But it is a pretty amazing place, all in all.
Then suddenly, our stepfather leaves. Shortly thereafter, the castle burnt to the ground. And just a few weeks after that, our mother, perished in a tragic car wreck. Suddenly my sister and I were left without any of the core, foundational things that one comes to rely on: your parents, your mother, your home. So we were quickly passed out into the world. But that sent in another level of fear that nothing is safe. Nothing is for sure. Nothing is solid or real and anything can be taken at any point, including our own innocence, which had been taken by others years before. Luckily, our real father stepped in and has been our family since.
Shajen: We talk about that a lot in the book and the movie. For me as well, the fear was created while I was young. I was always a very careful watcher of people because I had this fear of them since I was five. I learned at a very young age to be extremely cognizant of all that was happening within the body, their facial features and all of that.
In our society we say, Stand in the face of fear. I've done that for many years. I've stood and faced my fear. I've looked at it. I've talked to it. I've worked with it and couldn't figure out how to shift it until I understood the distinction that I actually had to step through my fear and not stand in the face of it. That distinction is what we are sharing in our book, Discover the Gift, that we can't just stand in the face of our fears. We must step through them and take steps to activate our dreams, to activate our ability to move through it and say, Fear: I totally acknowledge you. I always have, and maybe the fear will come back later. it's okay to be afraid. it's not okay to have it stop your life.
For many years, my biggest fear in the whole world besides that of losing my family, which already happened to me was of flying. Fear stopped me from living the life that I was ultimately meant to live because I was afraid of getting on an airplane.
Demian: I convinced her to get on a plane and fly on 9/11. It was the sister ship of the Boston airlines that was involved in the event, the same flight, but going in the opposite direction. 7:30 in the morning, leaving from LA to Boston.
Ishita: Was that the challenge for you, flying on 9/11 itself?
Shajen: I was boarding the flight when it happened. They grounded the plane and came in with machine guns and dogs, had everyone seated and then slowly let us leave hours later.
After that happened, I was so petrified I didn't fly again until recently. And then Damien and I created Discover the Gift and realized that sharing what we know with others means we had to be open to the entire world global. So we d have to become teachers and share our own life experiences and messages and those of the people who supported and helped us along the way. And so that meant we had to fly. All the time. And all of a sudden this summer I had to choose to step through the fear and follow my passion to teach and share what we learned in Discover the Gift.
Ishita: You had an innate desire to meet this goal, so what was the first step that you took?
Shajen: I acknowledged the fear, Wow, I'mreally afraid and this is stopping me from doing what I need to do in my life. I'mso passionate about sharing my gift that I said, Ok, I'mgoing to do it. I'mwilling to take the step. And then I held on to my brother s arm the whole time. My seven year old daughter took the first flight with me across the country from LA to New York. And being with her made flying a beautiful trip. I did it twelve times in six weeks, which got me past my fear. I was afraid. But the fear became less the more I kept doing it.
Ishita: I had the same fear of flying. What kept me going was a list I created in my moleskin notebook basically telling the Universe or God why I was not supposed to die yet. I wrote down all the great things I wanted to accomplish on earth, how I wanted to help people and empower them. All the reasons I couldn't die as yet with the music still inside of me. Tell us about the role your family played in your lives. At times, it is important to separate ourselves from our loved ones in order to grow and live a life you would like to before coming back to your family again. Did that happen in your case?
Demian: The separation in our family was one born of adversity and circumstance, specifically meaning we literally had no home. We literally had no mother. Choices had to be made about what we were going to do. It became clear to me that I wanted to go to New York City to live with our father. Shajen very much wanted to stay in Vermont. She wanted to be close to her friends and didn't really like the city that much, even though she came to live there for a while and then went back to Vermont. So, our separation came from two things. One was circumstance, obviously, and the other one was a very strong desire to not have to deal with each other because as very emotional, sensitive and high-strung children with definitive points of view, we didn't really know where to focus our anger. So we focused our anger on each other. And that was a volatile mix. Shajen and I in a room together were gasoline and fire. So, being separated also felt natural at the time.
For some reason, as time went on, misunderstandings and anger grew between us. We did not really have ability to channelize the power of our emotions and it became clear that living in the same vicinity to each other was not healthy for either of us.
Time passed and Shajen became a master educator and I became a master filmmaker. And then came a point in time where we realized that being separated from each other was no longer going to work. One of the transformational flash points of both the motion picture and the book is that realization. I had to face some of my biggest fears and one of them was reconciling with my sister. In the process of that reconciliation, taking responsibility for my actions, for the things I had done in life, not blaming her and the world for all the pain and fear and anger I felt, allowed me to take full responsibility for my part in it all and then reach across the divide and ask for forgiveness.
Shajen: That s really all I had been waiting for years: forgiveness from my brother. I couldn't get through his steel gates – they were too strong and powerful for me at that point and I ended up with my own little family and friends in Vermont. I went into education and mental health supporting others because what I really learned about fear and my own life s adversities was that the more I reached out to others and the more I supported others, the better I felt. That ended up becoming my life s journey to become a school-based mental health counselor so that I could be involved in that world everyday because it lit me up. I worked with thousands of families and students who are in fear all the time and I wanted to speak to everyone that s in fear.
Ishita: How did you actively develop that resilience after going through the extreme circumstances you went through and additionally not talking to your brother?
Demian: We were blessed to have the best mentors in the form of family. In the book and the movie, we recount the story of our grandfather, about how he survived the Holocaust and what he had to do so that our father would live and so that we would exist.
This doesn't make sense. Please go back and reference the context of what he is seeing here. Or if it's related to the below, it needs to be integrated and reworded.
I've learned one thing for certain: If you want freedom from pain, suffering and sorrow, stop thinking about yourself and put your attention on somebody else. On how you can be of service to the world. If something is giving you great anxiety, see where it is coming from and how can you instead be of service to alleviate that pain and suffering for others?
Shajen: For example, if I hadn't grown up with the serious tragedies such as first losing our stepfather, our house, our mother, childhood sexual abuse, my work as an educator and a counselor wouldn't have been as powerful as it is now. I wouldn't have been able to reach so many children and families and changed as many lives if I hadn't experienced those awful tragedies myself. Because I had, I was able to empathize and understand where the families were at the moment in their suffering. I look at all of my life experiences as hard as many of them have been as gifts and ways in which I can relate to others in a better and deeper way to connect more powerfully.
Ishita: I think it's a wonderful frame. From going to loss to sharing your gift. So what is the premise of this book and how do we access the gift?
Demian: We have many gifts. But there is something that is unique to us. it's unique as an individual snowflake, and the degree to which you re willing to discover that gift, educate it, nurture it, honor it, is the degree to which you will step through your fear, your anxiety, your resignation, your cynicism, your despair into a world of your gift, the sharing of it and the experience of joy. Fulfillment, making a difference, love and connection, especially with your family and the people that matter the most to you in your life. I also say the opposite is true and I feel like it's the truth. If you re unwilling to open yourself up to even the tiniest possibility that you are unique, an extraordinary, never to be repeated again, walking miracle, a gift, alive in this present moment, then you will experience a life filled with despair and misery and mistrust, where your beliefs diminish who you really are and it won't allow you to recognize it in others also. You will be cynical about life, not believing that something else is possible for you and for the rest of the world.
I ll go a step further. I don't care what you ve done or how horrific your experiences have been, you have the capacity to discover the gift within yourself and share it with the world and through that unlock the depth of the gifts other people possess. You can have people experience not only an authentic YOU, but a life that they ve been waiting for.
Shajen: What you focus on is what you get, and what you pay attention to grows. So be receptive to positive things and possibilities that are good. In the book, we dive into our past and the tragedies and how we came to be where we are now. It goes into specifics on the eight steps to discovering and unfolding your gifts.
Ishita: What is the biggest obstacle to understanding and accessing our own gifts?
Shajen: Self blame: It will stop you every time. It stops us from loving ourselves, which stops us from loving other people. When you re in self-blame, you re not in forgiveness and you re not in gratitude. Being in gratitude opens up more possibilities in my personal life experience than anything I've ever grabbed on to. When I'min my funkiest spots, I remember to focus on gratitude and something beautiful always opens up for me.
Demian: Another large one is what I ll call radical forgiveness. Literally forgiving the unforgivable. When you can step into a place where you can forgive the unforgivable, it creates freedom for you.
Cheryl Hunter is an internationally recognized transformational leader. She s in the movie and she talks about how as a beautiful, young nineteen year old model in France she was abducted off the street by a group of men and brutally gang raped and beaten to near death and tossed out on the side of the road. Today, she s one of the top transformational leaders in the world. She said that during the rape something happened to her; she realized that no matter what, even if she didn't survive in the physical form, she as a being, as a soul would make it out of there. This wasn't how her life will go on forever. She would get out. And then in the process of that realization as a very tangible thing, she also came to embrace this experience as a gift, literally practicing radical forgiveness. In the movie, she says Life re-contextualizes itself. The context in life events is more important than content itself. Cheryl took the extreme story of her life and re-contextualized it to become the beginning of a new life instead of the end of the end of another. The content was being raped, the context was a new life.
Shajen: You make meaning out of your experiences. Cheryl s example is like that of mine; the only way I could feel better was to help others who had been through a similar thing. So we must learn to re-contextualize our experiences and share them from a place of resiliency, power, and love because when you ve found love, you ve found everything. it's only when you can love yourself, that you can love others.
Demian Lichtenstein is the producer, director, co-author and co-creator of Discover the Gift. After many successful years in the trenches of Hollywood and propelled by a question posed by his sister, Shajen, Demian brought his two worlds filmmaking and metaphysical study to Discover the Gift: the movie, the book and the movement.
Shajen Joy Aziz is Co-author and Executive Producer of Discover The Gift and Director of Operations at Equilibrium Entertainment, as well as a founding member of the Southern California Association of Transformational Leaders. Ms. Aziz has held numerous positions in education and mental health Public School Administrator, Counselor, Alternative Program Creator/Director, and Special Educator and Educational Consultant. She is most passionate about children and young adults as they are our future.
Images by Pink Sherbet Photography.
BIO Images Source www.discoverthegift.com.