Interview


Melissa Unger


Paris - 7 December 2016

Melissa Unger is an American who devised, in Paris, a revolutionary concept : a spa for the mind !

How about taking a break in your hectic life to reconnect with your deep self?

This is what Melissa Unger invites you to do at Seymour.

She was leading a successful career in New York, in media and arts, consulting for internationally recognized organizations such as Tribeca Productions, Disney’s Jumbo Pictures, Artnet,… and being personal assistant to actors Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis when an event made her realise that she might be missing out on what really mattered : herself. She had lost track of whom she really was.

I met her in Paris, in the Seymour space, for a very intimate interview where she speaks her guts out as an invitation to embark on your own personal reconnection journey.

As we are about to set our intentions for the New Year, this might be the little help you were just waiting for.

You have a creative professional journey.

I’m trying to think of a way to characterise it… I believe everybody is creative and I think that we forget what the word creative means. It just means, you know, looking at the world or questions or things from lots of different perspectives and wanting to push things forward.

So in that sense, I have a creative mind. I have a curious mind. I’m probably a little bit of an iconoclast and that makes me creative. So everybody goes left and I want to go right. You know? Or everybody’s in one room and I go in the room behind the room that everyone’s in.

But Seymour didn’t come out of that.

It’s really been something that happened sort of accidentally. I probably shouldn’t say this, but there was no real strategy behind it. Seymour is my father’s name.

II’s like a super-personal project. It came out of a much more personal sort of trauma and evolution.

I grew up in New York and, at 33, I was living a great life there, great jobs great friends, a boyfriend. And then my father died. And something, like, shifted. And a confluence of events happened. I came to France for three months in 2004 to visit my grandmother (my grandmother is French) and sort of clear my head. I didn’t know any of this when it was happening; it’s only in hindsight that I understand it. But I was in a position, for the first time in my life, where I was not impeded by anything. I had a little bit of money in the bank, because I had been working. I didn’t have a cell phone, I didn’t have internet, I didn’t have any friends in Paris – I just had both my cousins who were ten years younger than me, my grandmother and no place I had to be.

It’s something that very rarely happens – no children, no attachment, nothing.

It’s August 2004, the weather’s beautiful and I’m just walking around the city. And something happened which I know now is a meditative experience.

Basically, all the buzzing thoughts in my mind sort of settled while I was walking. I suppose at some point my mind was just blank. And then in that blankness came something – creativity, inner voice, inspiration, whatever – and it was a sentence and it said, “Peter never ate,” and it was this book that I ended up writing. And I sat down like most Americans do with a Moleskine in a café, thinking I was writing a great American novel.

And what happened was, I was looking down, I was writing, but I could see myself writing. So I wasn’t thinking about what I was writing; it was just coming from… Now I know a lot more about what that is, but at the time I had no context for that. I was a very sort of rock-and-roll material girl; Then I did it a couple more times and I realised that I could retract and my consciousness into a sensation of I’m there. I’m writing and I’m receiving something.

So, for the next eight years or so, while I continued my life working regular jobs, finishing my book and just living life, I started nerding out on research. And I started with books about Timothy Leary, because I didn’t know where to start. Then it just sort of took me, over the course of time, through the psychology of meditation, Carl Jung, … And I realised, that we’re kind of all talking about the same thing.

Whether it’s a religious experience or whether it’s an artist that’s playing jazz that loses himself in the moment; what Tiger Woods has when he swings the club, that everything goes away and he just becomes a vehicle for the swing;– we’re all talking about the same thing. We put different language on it. Sometimes it’s, “God is talking to me,” inspiration, creativity, the muse, imagination… It doesn’t matter – it’s just a word. But I started becoming fascinated with these two states of consciousness. And it’s also intuition versus thinking, … I don’t have an answer for what it is. I’m still questioning. But I’m interested in those subjects.

So I explored these subjects, went on a more traditional psychology kind of exploration – more Jungian than Freudian and started to self-explore. And it was really fascinating. I realised that we obviously have a lot of subconscious reflexes and reactions – that we don’t even know why they’re there – that are planted from things in our childhood, things our parents have taught us inadvertently…

We now talk about epigenetics and the stuff that comes from different generations. And I started to feel increasingly during the period that I was just like this puppet to all of these things that had nothing to do with me!

So, I went through this period where I really tried to figure out what’s me, what isn’t. It was an interesting, though quite exhausting, emotional process. And it completely changed the course of my life, because it taught me super-basic things about myself.

Like, I used to think I was really outgoing and, in fact, I’m quite an introvert. And so I wondered why I always have to rest; or I didn’t like going on group vacations… Actually I wasn’t. It was a mask, a false personality that I was putting on. I found this fascinating. I realised that we all obviously have masks. And the more I was able to pull these away, the more powerful I got and the more able I was to do something with this. Like, I’d worked for other people my whole life; it never even occurred to me to do my own project and think I was capable of it. I was afraid, you know. So it feels like the more you speak to your honest truth, the more you get in line with it.

So, things started to change for me and I wanted that for other people too.

I started the Seymour project in 2011. I was in my mid-40s, I don’t have children; I’d been working since I was a kid, after college, a lot. And I was at this stage in my life when I realize that “if I want to do something. It’s now.”

So I tried to create a project in which I pulled together all these different centres of interest.

It’s a little bit of esoteric stuff, a little bit of psychology, a little bit of creativity and imagination stuff, and it gave all the Seymour projects that came before – the little pop-ups. And then eventually, one day, very much in a similar way that the book came, I had the idea… I don’t want to be too esoteric, but the idea was given to me of “a spa for your mind.” And it kind of came fully formed and I did a presentation and voilà.

Seymour Paris

I love that – a spa for your mind.

Yes. When we started the space, it was so scary for me. But I knew I had to do this; I had to overcome my fears to do it. When we were setting up the space, decorating everything ourselves, it was a real, deeply intimate, personal project and it just turned out, coincidentally, that the world needed it.

No one was more surprised than me of the feedback that we got.

I knew I was doing something cool or I wouldn’t have asked for funding to do it. But I didn’t think that it would resonate the way that it did.

I wasn’t a business person that was like, “Oh, I see a gap in the market…” It’s a classic example of wanting a place for yourself that you don’t see and so you make the thing that you want. I just wanted to create a really urban place where you can go.

It’s deeply personal and at the same time what I’m the most proud of is that it’s universal.

I built the structure; these are my ideas but, every person that goes through there lives it in a completely different way, depending on what their mood is or where they are in their life, and they can take something from it that’s different. So, if you came with a friend, she would probably have a very different experience. Some people come to me crying and others are like, “That was a ton of fun!”. It’s really weird, you know, an interesting experience.

We’ve only been open for two years. It’s still very new, For me, I’m still as fascinated as someone discovering it for the first time!

 

It’s so inspiring. Everybody makes it their own experience…

They do. It’s interesting. Very different things happen for different people; And it’s funny; at the beginning I was really worried about is it going to work, are people going to like it. And I realised that there are so many different ways to see the world and experience things. Some people will come up and say, “Oh my God. That plant room freaks me out. It’s really… I hate it.” And then some people will come up and be like, “Oh my God. I could stay four hours in that room,” and it’s the same room. It’s so fascinating!

The truth is that there were some stories at the beginning that went like, “coming from the USA and surfing on the hype of digital detox…” It made me look like I’m some entrepreneur that had this gimmicky key idea to rope people into some sort of bullshit, while it’s the opposite of that!

I’m like a struggling girl, like everybody else that has problems…It was my way of solving and being creative, giving meaning to my life, trying to give back, creating a project and a space that didn’t exist, working with young people.

You know, we were the three of us in my apartment with this crazy idea. There were 2 interns and me. I’m proud of that for them. They were 20-something and they were sat with some crazy lady in her apartment and we did it! That in itself is a sort of victory for me, for them, for their lives. Now they’ll be like, “Anything’s possible because we pulled this shit off.”

And that’s why it’s a non-profit too. It was very important to me. I get a lot of stuff for myself from it and out of this – so it’s super-important for me that an equal amount goes out energetically.

Seymour Paris

So it’s a deliberate choice to make it a not-for-profit.

It was totally a choice. I was funded by a philanthropist for the start-up costs and the first year of operation. So, it was an incredible gift, particularly because she’d given me complete carte blanche, which was very, very important, because I knew what I was doing and I had to do it instinctively. I couldn’t have explained. It was very important to just sort of feel it out, because that’s when you get innovative. If you have to think it all through, it kills the crazy aspect of it.

So, yes, right now we survive on private donations, a little public entry, and we’re just getting our feet wet for privatising for groups on Mondays and stuff like that. So, if corporations have budgets for various things, we invite them here to come. And they understand that it’s a not-for-profit and that they’re helping. Who knows if that model will work? We’ll try it out and we’ll see what happens.

But it was important for me to keep the cost for the public very low. And originally it was seven Euros but, for some people, seven Euros is still a sum. So we did start to realise that it was sometimes a deterrent entry price. I’m really interested now in making sure that people can come in here and use it.

I care about them coming to the space, but I care about the message of the space more. So if you come and it brings awareness while you’re here about how much of a stranger to yourself you are or how much you need the silence or how much you need this exploration of safe and you never come back here and you do that at home, that’s fine with me. You know, it’s also like a platform for awareness-raising.

Do you have regulars?

We do, yes. We don’t have as many as I would like. We have a regular tribe, I would say, around us that love Seymour in general.

We’re a neighbourhood place. We just started where we were. It sort of grew really, really organically. It was like the quartier, other people interested in the subject, people that I knew, …

Now, we also have workshops on the weekend, and some discussions. And we have an online magazine and, although it seems paradoxical, a Facebook page. But we’re not preaching, you know.

That’s what you say on your website. You’re not anti-technology.

No, we’re not. Everyone is like “are you a sect?” and this is so annoying! No, it’s just balance And we’re probably going to do a bit of work on reframing that on the website because I’ve realised that people focus on that. They go “Oh, I have to give up my phone and whatever.” And it’s not that we want you to take breaks from technology; we want you to understand what you’re missing out on – which is yourself. Or what it’s masking from you.

It could be alcohol, it could be anything; it just happens to be technology in this era, It’s very easy to be like, “Oh I’m working so much!, I’m so valiant,” but it’s the same thing – it’s an addiction in itself.

So, for Seymour, it’s technology because it’s the ill of our age, so to speak. But you can insert any other thing that keeps you from feeling your feelings, thinking your thoughts and exploring yourself. As long as you’re running from yourself, you’re not, I feel, living an authentic life. It’s hard work to look at yourself – but it’s worth it.

Seymour Paris

Is there’s a community building up around the concept?

Yes, there is. However, when I built the space, I imagined that people would go like to the gym, on the way into work and on the way home. For me, it’s like every morning I will accept my intentions; I look at myself. I like to do the thing that sets the tone for the day. And then in the evening, you take stock and that’s how you learn and move forward. But people are not ready yet for that. People still see it as this sort of absolute experience… So we’re still in an education phase.

Well, this concept is still really new. People need to get acquainted and then experience it. It’s a whole process.

Right – we are starting to capture people’s responses and, what they say about their experience at Seymour is very touching. So, we know that people are loving it, that they need it.

I think that people are thanking us for reintroducing them to themselves. I think I could have opened the space and thrown a handful of pens on the floor and some paper and, in a way, it would have been the same.

There’s a funny example I read once about dating. If you go on a date and you don’t talk, just listen, they’ll get up and go, “Oh my God, that is the nicest woman in the world – I loved her.” And this, just because they listened to themselves talk the entire time and they fell in love with themselves. And this is what we’re doing here. They love us because we’re not saying anything. So, they think it’s us, but it isn’t. We’re giving them agency.

You’re giving them the framework, you guide them.

Yes. We’re giving them the gift of themselves. And the joy that they’re feeling is the joy of rediscovering themselves. When they’re in the space, they’re having a conversation with themselves ….

Yes, people need to reconnect with themselves. There are all these social networks, but it sometimes seems they pull us more apart than it puts us together.

Yes. It’s interesting. And, we create a lot of false personas…

But I wonder, if we all block those masks, we would be so much more compassionate to each other.

I feel like we’re all fighting an invisible enemy, because we’re all the same and we’re all each other.

I wish we could just all drop the masks.

Seymour Paris

Besides the space, you also organize workshops and you’re also a consultant…

I am. Before I started Seymour, I would do all sorts of consulting related to innovation and creativity… But now, I won’t say yes unless it’s somehow related to the Seymour message, because if not, it’s too confusing.

But I’ve only started doing that again recently, because I didn’t have time before. Seymour is a bit like a toddler and you’re like, “Oh my God! Is it still breathing?!” and then you’re like, “Oh, Don’t stick your fingers in the electric socket,” you know. It’s true! At the beginning, I didn’t sleep. I was constantly anxious wondering if it was still breathing! It’s really what it was like. It was really crazy, you know, to a point where you’re like sort of comfortable having a babysitter. It’s really interesting!

Do you think you’re going to make the Seymour experience in other cities?

A lot of people have asked us. Funnily enough, one came literally the minute we opened! The paint wasn’t even dry, I was super-emotional, I felt like I had just given birth, and everyone was coming I hadn’t even bonded with this one yet! How could I even consider that?

So we’ll look at that for next year and see if I want to take advantage of any of those opportunities. In all honesty, I don’t know yet. I don’t know if that’s what it’s about. I don’t know if it’s just this place and it’s a philosophical project and we touch the people that we touch and it will all just be this thing that happened, or it will go into other things.

I also have to be careful about practising what I preach– which is I also have to carve a life that is meaningful to me. And that decision isn’t always be the most famous or being the biggest. In our Western culture, if someone gives you an opportunity, obviously you’re going to seize it, because that’s how we measure success. But I’m not sure that that is actually success. Maybe success is I made a difference to myself for whatever reasons, from my childhood, and I saw that I could do this. I don’t know that constantly striving for something else is actually what I’ll need here. Maybe I’ll just need to chill, just to write a book or something. I don’t know what I’m going to do.

And why Paris?

I was living here. People ask me that a lot. It definitely was not the easiest place to do it.

There must be something in my karma that I must have needed a mountain to climb. But no, I lived in the neighbourhood, I’ve been here eight years, So, it’s my neighbourhood, my “quartier”…Honestly, I chose the space because it was close to home and I had a lot of friends that had businesses in the neighbourhood and it felt safe and they were amazingly supportive!


SEYMOUR is located 41 Boulevard de Magenta, 75010 Paris
tel: +33 (0) 1 40 03 81 68

Visit the website at SEYMOUR PROJECTS