I recently sat on retreat at Insight Meditation Society, Barre, Massachusetts and left feeling disappointed, as if I had lost a spiritual home. Since 2009 I had attended this hallmark institution for my meditation practice, but also as a refuge from the world. This last time though, as I spoke up about the physical accommodation allocated to the two affinity groups on retreat, the People of Color and LGTBQI sanghas, a white teacher in an interview told me that I had questioned authority and the way institutional decisions were made. To my surprise, I felt scolded and invalidated for speaking up.
I arrived on retreat feeling excited, though with no expectations. As silence gave way to our explorations of the mind, the teachers asserted in several occasions, “All races, religions, and cultures are welcome here. Some of you have come from thirteen other countries and 18 different states.” This was unheard in over twenty or so retreats I had sat at IMS. “You’re all welcome here,” was the opening discourse as most white teachers tried to embrace diversity in their daily Dharma talks, including teachers like John Martin, Carol Wilson, Guy Armstrong, Sally Armstrong, Annie Nugent and Jamie Baraaz. They made an extraordinary effort to mention discrimination, oppression, historical deportations and ongoing concerns around internalized racism and universal suffering. None of these were explored in depth, but only mentioned briefly or unpacked. Uganda Dharma teacher, Bhante Buddharakkhita, who was the tokenized teacher of color for this retreat, spoke about daily occurrences in his experience as a Black Theravada monk in India, South America, and California, however not having the U.S. context of racial, ethnic and gender politics didn’t bring much light to issues of diversity in the U.S. Dharma community. This was the long retreat so many of the people of color who had been recruited into the five-year teacher’s training were there. Their participation was a response to what had happened at Spirit Rock a few months earlier when Dharma teachers, Larry Yang, Gina Sharpe, and Lila Kate Wheeler, walked out of the training in 2016 because of the lack of diversity. The Board apologized in this letter and made an effort to recruit people of color for future teacher’s trainings, mainly African-Americans thus their efforts falling short for Latino and other people of color practitioners (https://www.spiritrock.org/diversity-initiative).
In a previous post I had written about my own ethnicity becoming as invisible as “colorism” for Black folks on retreat when Latinos/as issues were never addressed in the People of Color Retreat in 2017. My dilemma was being in silence and not being able to express my ethnic background, as well as not hearing any Dharma talks on U.S. colonialism, oppression and the groups that were represented there, including a good number of Latinos/as born in the United States and Latino/a immigrants like myself. The all African-American and African team only spoke to the “Black body.” So at IMS I was glad to talk to some folks in the beginning of the week at the apple-picking activity, when silence was broken. I found out then that there were other Latinos/as and people of color represented in our retreat and I felt more at ease. Some of my own feelings of insecurity around becoming “invisible” as a woman of color in a white-majority retreat were dissipated as I entered in conversation with other women of Asian-American background, Hindu origins and members of the LGTBQI community. I felt somewhat SEEN before going into silence. In the past, not being able to express myself about my “color” had put me in the white majority, involuntarily passing as “white” because of my light skin.
For a few hours, I walked around enjoying the flower gardens and new Buddha statues on the premises. There were a few new walking meditation rooms as the Meditation Center had expanded and grown. Next, I discovered the People of Color and the LGTBQI affinity groups were having a welcome meeting in Room 200 on the second floor, at the end of the hall of the main building. I got even more excited, thinking this would give me a chance to be “Me,” a Latina, woman of color, pansexual. I had sat at the LGTBQI affinity group at the People of Color retreat at Spirit Rock and it was quite liberating to be with “one’s own people.” For the first time at IMS, Bhante Buddharakkhita led the welcome meeting for people of color. We were all settled in when one of the White teachers joined the meeting. I was surprised to see her there, and when I raised my hand to speak up, I was even more surprised how much her presence had triggered me, bringing me back to the time I had sat with her seven years ago during the scientists and educators’ retreat. My body began to contract as I told my story on that retreat and what other things excluded me as a Latina immigrant on retreat, like when Dharma teachers use the word “America” to refer only to the United States, when in fact it is a continent. U.S. ethnocentrism in language usage excluded me and other “Americans” born south of the United States. Without even realizing, within a few minutes, the presence of this white teacher in the meeting brought up the discrimination I had experienced when teaching at Amherst College, having been tokenized then as a Latina professor. I remembered how this particular teacher had told me to do Metta to myself. Would loving-kindness be a sufficiently “good practice” for those who suffered oppression? Could Metta close the gap between the oppressed and the oppressor? I couldn’t stop thinking about Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem, “Call Me by my True Names,” when he encouraged us to embrace the perpetuator’s and the victim’s actions all in ONE as if the healing of one couldn’t be separated from the healing of the other. Was “Metta” a spiritual bypassing by the white teacher? Would the power of naming the oppressor be more helpful? I remembered it had helped during that retreat seven years ago however to hear this again on this retreat when I brought up other similar issues of inequality in my interview time, didn’t seem appropriate.
At the meeting, the rest of the yogis continued to share the different ways oppression had affected them on retreat from cultural appropriation to language usage, invisibility of the colored body and other oppressions, as well financial obstacles or simply not being selected for the five-year teachers’ training program at Spirit Rock. Most immediate was the story of an African American yogi who had flown from Los Angeles to sit with Bhante Buddharakkhita, yet after reading the Orientation Handbook on our room, which included outdated Peggy Macintosh’s guideline, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” she felt self- conscious in front of the other eighty white folks. She said she wanted to take a plane back home. Towards the end, a Latino yogi made an observation about the presence of the white teacher in that meeting, and politely told her that she shouldn’t have been there, to which she got defensive and responded that the protocol was to have two teachers in those meetings. Despite my own trigger in the body, I had not put it together that her presence had changed the quality of our discussion and was not really appropriate. Bhante Buddharakkhita saved the moment by suggesting that we meet again in the afternoon in Room 204, so many of us came back but not all of us did. I was surprised that a woman from Montreal showed up and another woman from Mozambique, both directed there from the registrar’s office, when self-identification with the people of color label has been more appropriate than institutional guidance. It is about the empowerment in the process of self-identification, not about label assignments. Also, I was surprised how loose and expansive the people of color label was being used, by IMS drawing people from other countries and calling them “people of color.” This was quite a contradiction of the usage of the term and the fact that self-empowerment has been at the core of U.S./Latin American political identity movements throughout the eighties and nineties, all the way back to the civil rights movements in the sixties. The white teacher who showed up for the people of color meeting never apologized, and when the LGTBQI meeting happened in the afternoon, only one white gay teacher showed up. The meeting went much smoother and deeper in our shares.
At the second meeting with Bhante Buddharakkhita, the shares seemed more real to our own concerns, like economic, social, and sexual oppression. The room was small though, half of the size to sit all of us, and the carpet smelled moldy. A Black yogi from New York City told the story how oppressed she felt in the Dharma, and how a teacher had told her that there must be something wrong with her. A yogi from Brazil spoke to her many colored identities, and how people saw her as white or black, depending on the context. Another Hindu, Muslim yogi spoke to her growing up in England, and how she was raised to be a racist, which I related to, and also shared what it was like to be raised as middle-class in Argentina and migrating to the United States where I had learned about social justice from the civil rights movements and the Latino/Puerto Rican/Chicano social movements. I also mentioned the dissolution of borders when it comes to big corporations, war and capital interest. Bhante Buddharakkhita was very enthusiastic about our shares, and asked us to write him notes with more questions that he could address in the Dharma talks at night. I wrote him a five-page letter searching for answers about the role of the Dharma in oppressive situations in the world, and back home in our own U.S. institutions. Recently I had shared the idea to start a people of color sangha in Spanish or even a bilingual one, and the local Dharma teacher had told me that Latinos/as didn’t have the time to meditate. In the town I lived, Fort Bragg, California, there was a large Mexican-American population whom I thought could potentially be interested in learning how to meditate. She explained further that this “immigrant population” was only concerned with “surviving,” basically making money. I didn’t understand why one need excluded the other.
On the first week of the retreat, I kept meditating in Room 204 with both affinity groups, however I had to stop going because of the mildew. During one of the last Q&A sessions, I raised several questions about the room assigned to the affinity groups in the context of who made the decision to sit us there instead of Room 200 where yogis went when they were late to enter the big meditation hall. I also raised the question of anger and social justice movements after a white Dharma teacher had related them in a dharma talk. He said there was a lot of anger in social movements, and that he had taken the active choice not to get involved with the Transgender Social Justice Movement or other initiatives. Did I hear well? People who were trying to make a change in the world have a different kind of anger from people who sit and meditate? Was one method favor over another one? Wasn’t anger a universal human emotion? As a social activist involved in social justice, (Afro)Latino communities, immigrant and women’s rights, I turned the question inward, was “my” anger not accepted? Was my anger different from white neurosis which was extensively addressed at every retreat I had been, as well as U.S. American dysfunctional practices, politics, and institutions? This was very different from what I had read in the writings of one of the leading engaged Buddhist Dharma teachers, Joana Macy when she wrote: “Don’t apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a measure of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart and as your heart breaks open, there will be room for the world to heal,” Engaged Buddhist Reader, 1996. Bhante Buddharakkhita was grateful for my comment and on our one-on-one interviews we brainstormed about possible rooms at IMS that could accommodate the affinity groups. He said I was instrumental in the change when it happened a week later.
During that first week, I had three individual interviews with the same white teacher that came to the affinity group meeting, and on the last interview I told her I wasn’t in the retreat to educate white people on diversity issues, and that I wouldn’t be attending her fifteen-minute every other day sessions anymore. Overall, her responses were awkward, defensive, and at times incriminating. For example, after I spoke up on behalf of the affinity groups, she implied my intentions were not good, and that the founder of IMS, Joseph Goldstein had been meditating in the Room 204 for thirty years. I felt unheard and invalidated. Institutional sacred cows’ actions meant more to her that my need to be in a healthy environment. In fact, soon after this last encounter with her, my fibromyalgia symptoms were activated and I had pain and insomnia for the days that followed. When I tried to explain that my chronic back pain had induced the fibromyalgia and that a fall on the ice at Amherst College was the onset of my physical suffering, she asked me if I had my balance checked with the doctor. I knew trauma in the body could be locked for many years, but it was then that I was one hundred percent sure, something that she would probably never understand. When we discussed my body awareness in the context of my practice, she asked me if I had the skills to counteract the trauma, which I responded positively, through long deep breathing, something I had learned as a Kundalini yoga teacher, not as a Vipassana practitioner. All the years I couldn’t sit on the meditation cushion I had learned to make my life my practice, something she didn’t understand either when she questioned why I had spoken up for my peoples’ rights, and instead gave me other options that I could have used instead of causing such “ripples in the community.” Obviously there was a disconnection between their diversity discourse and what they saw as daily community practices to bring about equality and social justice to this and other retreats. She had introduced herself as the Program Coordinator of Spirit Rock so when I mentioned that I had tried to sign up at the Mindfulness Yoga program that same week, but was not successful because no scholarships were offered for people of color, she also got defensive and said her planning didn’t include daily registration practices, just the long-term vision of the institution. I was even more surprised when the registrar left me a message the next day that there wasn’t even a payment plan I could have signed up for, and a deposit of $1,700 was necessary if I wanted to save my seat. Of course I declined the attempt.
On the day the retreat started, I had exchanged a few words with Bhante Buddharakkhita about next year’s People of Color retreat at Spirit Rock. I was surprised to hear that it was turning 20 in 2018. I would have imagined our Dharma communities would be more diverse by now. What had been the problem? What had been the inabilities of IMS and Spirit Rock in recruiting people of color teachers, were these merely financial or were there other reasons? I had considered it myself before my back injury however no teacher had suggested it, in fact, when I brought it up, I would always get the same answer, “it involves a lot of sitting.” I was about to give up on the idea and even disappointed that if I didn’t sit long enough, then I wasn’t a good “Dharma practitioner,” when I heard Bhante Buddharakkhita said in one Dharma talk, that if this practice was just about sitting, all chickens in Uganda would be enlightened. I laughed hard, having the courage to continue the practice despite the fact that I couldn’t sit for long, and got my certification to teach meditation in other spiritual traditions. I remembered a few retreats at IMS where I had lo lay down in the back because of the back pain I was experiencing. My determination was admirable, yet it went unrecognized, like my ethnic and immigrant background.
At various changing points in my life, IMS had been a place to “meditate” about my life, especially hard times: my second divorce, my second and third back surgeries, my diagnosis of fibromyalgia, professional burn out, and the decision to leave academia and become a yoga/meditation teacher. It had become an annual tradition to sit with former social activist Michelle MacDonald and her teaching team, Rebecca Bradshaw and Jesse Vega Maceo-Frey with a former colleague from Amherst College and long-time friend. Having lived in the area, I had organized many events to bring social consciousness to the Latino/Latin American/Caribbean communities, and as I became a committed meditator, many of our discussions with this colleague throughout the years evolved around how to combine social justice with contemplative practices, and how to integrate meditation into our academic careers. Against this background, I could notice that Joana Macy’s adaptive response to the sorrows of our time had been spiritually bypassed at IMS. I came to the realization that I had lost my spiritual refuge from the world. I could no longer trust an institution that invalidated who I was, and which didn’t represent my values or even acknowledged my suffering in the right, respectful way I deserved. My heart ached and I decided to leave early.
On the last day, I vowed to the Buddha statue in the Dharma hall. Even after everything that had happened, I felt grateful that my prayer to align my heart and my mind had been heard as I was stripped off from all the solid identities I had felt mine. I remembered saying at the beginning of my request for a better room that I was not attached to the outcome. I had truly let my identities go, and expected no change in return. Yet I felt frustrated and overwhelmed with the lack of support and justice for everyone to get a chance to be heard and appreciated, regardless of race, culture, religion, immigrant status or ethnic background, as it was said in the opening remarks. Was being a “good yogi” aligned with being defeated in social justice efforts? Was it easier to talk about social justice in Africa, India, Latin America, as expressed in Dharma talks calling out for compassion, love and mutual understanding than in the United States? Mandela’s reconciliation treaty was brought up in one of the Dharma talks as an example of “good practice,” instead of recurring to a social revolution in South Africa upon his release from prison. From the way I spoke from my heart, it never occurred to me that I was “revolting,” or that “reconciling” meant arriving at a spiritual compromise of one’s identities because No Self/Anata was something to look forward to.
I stood out in my own silence and it hurt, having found no solace when it came to my well being and mental heath on this retreat. I felt defeated over no competition, silenced over no attempt to revolt, indoctrinated under no school assumptions of “who” carries “what” teachings, and most importantly, rejected for speaking up for my own identities. I understood then that only those who have lived through oppression, discrimination, and the effort to bring about social change in our daily lives know how much a new practice, not a fancy discourse, for the inclusion of people of color is needed in Dharma institutions, for everyone’s healing. All I could perceive from the white teachers leading this retreat was fear and the inability to actually embrace diversity and let go of power so that “others” could be treated equally. Perhaps only when white teachers faced their shadows, lack of understanding, and shortcomings as Dharma leaders, only then Latinos/as and other people of color groups would feel fully included in Dharma communities. Until then, any discourse on diversity and equality falls through the institutional cracks of IMS and Spirit Rock as leading institutions of Eastern traditions and the Dharma in the West.