Nurturing Liberation

Thursday, February 20, 2014

         I was recently interviewed for the Huffington Post's article, "Celebrating The Diverse Spirituality And Religion Of African-Americans," and wanted to let folks see my whole offering as we were all basically edited down to a sound bite.  The questions were:

1. What does being Buddhist/spiritual mean to you? How do you practice?

2. How do you experience being a part of both the Buddhist/meditation community and the black community? How do these identities interact?

3. What inspires you about your faith?

           We all have within us a propensity moving us forward, upon whichever paths we choose, toward our own liberation and spiritual awakening; this unifying integration of heart and mind we call oneness.  The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama called this our "Dhammoja," in the language of Pali.  I’ve been training Vipassana (Insight) meditation for the past ten years and when I first learned of this concept, it tickled me, resonating with me on a variety of levels.  First of all, is sounds like a Pan-Africanist spiritual awakening movement, blending the words Damu (blood), Umoja (unity), Moyo (heart and spiritual power) Mojo (the creolization of Kikongo “moyo) and JAH (the old testament Creator, creative power) that could have surfaced in 1972 somewhere in the African Diaspora.  It also rolls off the tongue like the name for the Yoruba deity Yemaya, and sounds perfectly natural in the middle of a Yoruba praise song, transporting me to a living-room in Old Havana, Cuba where bata drums underscore chants from 50 Lukumi devotees dancing, singing, and channeling wisdom from our ancestors.  Thus by saying Dhammoja, I simultaneously reflect on all of traditions that have instructed my path; Rastafari, Christian Gnosticism, Kabalah, Sufism, Hiduism, Shamanism, the Yoruba and Kongolese mystical traditions via Cuba, and Tibetan and Theravadan Buddhism, all collectively fertilizing the soil of my heart and mind for awakening to grow.

            The Buddha spoke of the path as training and practicing.  I want to be very clear that it is a training, a repetition of coming back into mindfulness, back to awareness of the body, awareness of the breath, refocusing awareness inwardly, moment by moment.  We are training our hearts to open, training ourselves to let go of the unwholesome and embrace that which is wholesome, reconditioning our selves to be at peace with life as it comes.  I practice sitting and standing posture for 45 minutes as many times as I can, as well as a constant coming back to being mindful in whatever activity I’m doing, like bringing my awareness into my hands on the steering wheel while I’m driving, or into my feet while walking or standing on the subway.  It’s this constant letting go and letting be the rapture of thoughts that are away from the present moment that helps me let go of that which hinders my journey on the path, namely greed, aversion, delusion, ignorance, anxiety, laziness, and doubt. 

Teaching meditation has deepened my practice by inspiring me to investigate the Buddha’s teachings and apply them to my own stories of insight from trials and tribulations that I have gone through in life.  I was working on a documentary in Ethiopia, and teaching a group of teenagers Muay Thai boxing and my student Zelalem asked me to teach him about Buddhism.  I said, “Yeah, man, sure, it’s all about oneness, and non duality, and waking up from the illusions in life…” and I realized that I wasn’t able to explain the teachings in a clear, coherent manner.  When I returned from Ethiopia, I started practicing more and went on a 6 day silent meditation retreat for people of color.  I experienced a deep unraveling of the heart, reflecting on sources of dysfunction in my relationships, wounds that I had buried and avoided by years of seeking escape through smoking ganja and being romantic about things to a point of delusion.  I had never felt so much clarity, and had never reached levels of concentration that united me with all life in equanimity.

In 2010, my mentor Gina Sharpe suggested I apply for a scholarship to the Community Dharma Leaders program at Spirit Rock, a two and a half year teachers’ training.  I didn’t feel ready to teach, but applied and was accepted.  The program empowered my inner teacher and inspired me to instruct meditation and tai chi to incarcerated youth through the Lineage Project.  I have worked with urban youth for many years as a teaching artist, but always wanted to empower them with more tools that could bring balance and rooting during the emotional rollercoaster of youth in the city.  I also started teaching classes at New York Insight Meditation Center and now lead a bimonthly meditation group that meets at the Brooklyn Commons every 2nd and 4th Monday, called the New York Insight People of Color and Allies Meditation Group.  Western Buddhism has been very homogenous until very recently, and though Buddhism is a practice of liberating ourselves from toxins that cloud our interconnectedness, the People of Color movement in Buddhism has created a gentler transition into the mainstream community where folks don’t have to be the only person of color in the room all of the time.  When I started a sitting group with my friend Sebene Selassie, while we were in Community Dharma Leaders together, we wanted to create a space where everyone, especially first time meditators, were welcome and wouldn’t feel marginalized or silenced because our group is deliberately racially diverse, much like it was in the Buddha’s time when he was teaching many different people from different regions, cultures, casts and classes.

In this time of cultural narcissism, I feel like mindfulness practice is a perfect tool for snapping us out of self-centeredness and into interconnectivity.  Our awareness in this computerized society is constantly being pulled into commercial media, marketing campaigns, computer games, and social media, where we constantly construct more computerized identities to maintain. It isn’t until we are brought back into our embodied awareness, this knowledge that we are living in a body, that we realize that we are here in the unfolding now.  Buddhism can also be a hollow shell and can become another garment of self-identification, which can become yet another distraction.  This is why mindfulness is a practice, better termed, “mindfulnessing.”  My students at Elle McQueen Detention Center sometimes challenge my closing statements that we are all interconnected as a meditating family when we unite. They say they feel polarized by neighborhood, gang affiliation, occasionally race (they’re predominately African American), but when I ask them to look each other in the eyes, standing in a circle, connected knuckle to knuckle with cross-pounds, they pause. I tell them, “I respect your power and I honor your greatness.”  My intention is that they have the common experience of feeling seen, respected and honored in that moment, and are interconnected by that. I’m positive that for at least some students, the illusion that we are completely individualized islands blurs and evaporates, even for an instant.  And this is another step towards to freedom.  May we all be free.