Seemingly at the height of his public relations career, Sam Ong was managing affairs for top luxury brands like Jaguar, LVMH and Gagosian Gallery, employed by ubiquitous firms from Syndicate to Strategic Group. By all appearances, he was living a dream life, jetting from coast-to-coast and soaking up the excess and perks often associated with the PR lifestyle.
In fact, Ong felt empty and lonely.
His perspective changed drastically and permanently on 9/11. He felt the detriment of a life lacking spirituality and consciousness, and he knew that he could not continue on that same path without jeopardizing his wellbeing. So began a personal journey that would reconnect Ong to the values with which he was raised, improving both his mental and spiritual health.
In January 2013, this eventually led him to found Hellosamo, his own public relations firm, and begin splitting his time between New York City and Venice, California to work with Café Gratitude.
Below, Sam shares how he now balances his bicoastal existence and why a sense of gratitude and love is essential to his process.
Live The Process: Have you always been as health-conscious and spiritually connected as you are today?
Sam Ong: No. I grew up eating meat and dairy, processed food and the like. As a child, my favorite thing in the world was the dyed pink whole milk that remained after eating three heaping bowls of Apple Jacks. That sugary, totally processed, unnatural milk was what my dreams were made of! I was always active, so weight wasn't an issue, just proper nutrition.
As far as being spiritually connected, I was raised Catholic and went to private schools. My connection went through different stages. I initially related to God as a punishing ruler and was afraid to do anything wrong. My connection then shifted to treating God like Santa Claus, playing a bartering game: if I'm good, then I'll get what I want. When things didn't go according to my specifications, I severed all communication and became self-sufficient. I always believed in an higher power, but didn't have a connection. I was like a kite without a string, anchored to nothing and easily swayed by external circumstances.
LTP: What inspired you to change the way you live your life?
SO: The wake up call for me was 9/11; a real turning point. Before that, I was all over the place. I was working ‘round the clock, traveling between New York and Los Angeles and out every night. By the time 9/11 hit, I was totally toxic. When it happened, I realized that I needed to take a time out and I moved back home with my folks in northern New Jersey to rest, reevaluate and regroup.
I was fortunate enough that I could afford not to work for two years. It was such a blessing. During that time I read a lot of books: The Power of Now, The Four Agreements, Rational Fasting, Finding the Boyfriend Within. I started practicing ashtanga and got interested in nutrition. I had no idea if I would return to PR and marketing, but I took advantage of my time off. I explored and discovered new places and did things that I've always wanted to do, but hadn’t had the time because of work.
I went to Dai Bosatsu Zendo upstate and meditated with the Rinzai Zen monks. I went to Kripalu in the Berkshires for my first juice fast, and then participated in juice cleanses with Jill Pettijohn and Gabriel Cousens. I became a vegetarian, then vegan and then raw vegan for a year. I felt so amazing and I wanted to see how conscious eating impacted my life physically, emotionally and spiritually. Looking back, it was at this point in my journey that I started to go within. I surrendered what and who I thought I was and experienced just being.
LTP: Do you find that your demanding work schedule can disrupt your chosen wellness path, and how do you stay on track?
SO: A former co-worker of mine used to say, "We are doing PR, not working the ER!" Keeping perspective on life is important and working on that balance is a never ending task; it’s a daily thing. Of course work can get in the way, but I have to remember that, ultimately, it's not the most significant thing in the world—I’m not saving lives.
It’s been imperative that I learn to delegate and have a supportive community. I'm a perfectionist, total type-A personality, so I had to learn to focus on the full picture and not get caught up in the minutia. I stay on track by remembering wise words my mother, who is deeply spiritual, writes on all my cards. She says to prioritize my life by "S.I.P": first spiritually, then intellectually and finally physically. I joke with her that prior to 9/11, I was “P.I.S.”-ing all over the place!
During my two-year sabbatical, I thought maybe I should just go to an ashram in India and live there and all would be great. What I've come to learn is that while annual retreats are essential for taking a pause, relaxing and seeing things from a new perspective, the major opportunities to grow and transform occur in normal day-to-day life.
LTP: What advice would you offer people who are looking to deepen their understanding of their own spirituality, but struggle with the superficiality of modern life?
SO: Two important lessons I've learned along the way are openness and discipline.
Being and staying open is an essential practice for me. All too often, I find myself obsessed with what I think things should look like instead of accepting them for what they are. I will get to practice being open this week as I embark on dating, for example. I have three first dates. The game I'm choosing to play is to say “Yes!” to everyone. I'm letting go of what I think he should look like and staying open to a deeper connection instead of getting caught up with surface. One of my teachers asked me to consider, "What do I love about this person?" during the date. My instinct has always been to highlight what I perceived wasn't there or wrong with the person or circumstance. I'm excited to see what surfaces when I come from a loving place, focusing on positives.
If you do this daily with everything in life you find superficial, you may find the deeper/spiritual connection to it. With someone looking to deepen their connection, staying open to different avenues is paramount. We are so blessed to have many teachers, so be open to trying it all. Prior to relocating to Los Angeles, I was a diehard Bikram fanatic. When I got to Venice, I found Kundalini, and that seems to be working for me at this time. I may or may not go back to Bikram, but I will remain open to that possibility.
My other necessary practice is discipline, which I define as the difference between what I want in this moment and what I want for my life. When I visited the monastery, the Roshi told me that consistency is key, especially when meditating. He related meditating to a pot of water, saying you cannot put it on and off the fire if you want it to boil. Regardless of whether I get an immediate result or not, I need to just meditate and over time, more will be revealed. Consistency over time is difficult but achievable.
LTP: What does happiness look like to you?
SO: I’m not a fan of the word, “happy.” For me happy is simply a smile—a superficial sign. I prefer bliss or joy, as they occur on a deeper, cellular level.
Jai Jagdeesh expressed it best in her quote: "May you be filled with such a deep love for the breath of life that every moment is bliss." All of this work, this journey, this process, is about becoming fully aware in the present. It's about getting out of my head and opening my heart. Healing the past. Quieting the monkey mind. Awakening to the moment. Connecting to and serving the whole. There is nowhere to go because I've already arrived. There is nothing more to get. This is it and it's perfect.
LTP: What does it mean to you to "Live The Process" and how do you do that every day?
SO: When I hear "Live The Process," I think of that saying, "The joy is in the journey, not the destination." For me, it’s the process of always choosing love over fear. The process of practicing self-care and being of service, staying connected and ultimately being love.
In the book, Sacred Commerce: Business as a Path of Awakening, Matthew and Terces Engelhart (the co-founders of Café Gratitude) share tools about bringing love and service into the workplace. Three months ago, I relocated to Venice, California to learn about and practice sacred commerce at Café Gratitude Venice. I've committed to working part-time on the weekends for a year, to work all positions and learn all about the trade with the intention of opening up Café Gratitude NYC. I've been a cashier for the past month and will train as a host this week. It's so much fun being a beginner and learning something new, while applying my PR/marketing skills. While handling clients during the week and working at the café on weekends, I'm also bicoastal, spending one week every month in NYC. That's a lot and doesn't include family, friends, yoga etc. Without connection, it becomes "I have to" instead of "I get to." Today, I get to do all of these things while being present, calm and serene.
As far as my current daily process, I am on day seven of a 40-day Kundalini practice. I also practice transcendental meditation (20 minutes, twice a day). My diet right now is primarily vegan—without soy or seitan—and when I do eat animal, I am very particular about the sourcing. I do allow myself one cheat day a week.
I also make a conscious effort to start my day focused on gratitude and what I can bring to every interaction—love, light, a smile etc.). I always ask, “How I can leave this world a better place?” I've been playing a game called “Best Day Ever,” wherein, regardless of what happens, it's the best day ever. My hashtag is #RadicalAccptance.
All of this supports me and my process, and works for me every day.