Off the Cushion and Into the Streets
© 2012 Toni Lester
Thanissara and Toni Lester met while participating in a program held at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California.
From the start, it was clear they shared a deep desire to show how mindfulness and spirituality-based traditions have supported their social change activism. They invited their friend, Lisa Moore from the Boston University School of Social Work, to help keep them on track. This is an edited version of that conversation.
Lisa Moore: What aspects of Buddhism have you found most useful to share with folks doing activist and community change work?
Thanissara: The most essential piece is the practice of meditation and inner reflection and how this informs our reactions and our relationship to the challenges one faces in the field. I was a co-founder of two HIV AIDS response projects in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, which has one of the highest incidences of infection in the world. AIDS has had a devastating impact on rural communities in South Africa. Doing this work is very activating in terms of what one experiences internally, especially in regards to one’s own conditioning. It can be frustrating and not easy to know how to respond. Without some internal awareness and self-reflection and also a sense of internal ethics, it is very hard to sustain an authentic, dynamic, lived, compassionate, discerning response.
Toni Lester: Whether someone is marching in the streets to protest the underfunding of Aids research or being a social worker for newly released prison inmates, they are engaging in the kind of activism that chips away at the systemic nature of oppression at its root. People like this are often outwardly focused on caring for others, but not for themselves. A typical social worker or urban schoolteacher who walks into one of my workshops usually is feeling emotionally overwhelmed. What I find most useful to share is a mindfulness-based approach that enables one to stop, reflect, and engage in a higher level of self-care. It’s not unique just to Buddhism, but Buddhism has a particular spin, which is this whole question of mindfulness and awareness of what is happening now. Things like going into the body and really becoming in touch with what’s happening in your body, things like being aware of your speech when you talk, the whole concept of wise effort in Buddhism, where do you put your energy and your intention?
Moore: How has your experience with Buddhism informed your understanding of the connections between spirituality and activism?
Thanissara: I was trained in a monastic school. There wasn’t very much sense of how to be an activist. There was almost no importance placed on that. The focus was on internal transformation, internal enlightenment. It began to become clear to me that my enlightenment journey should not be independent from an expression of awakening within the world at large, which became heightened in South Africa with the impact of the AIDS pandemic. It was impossible to sit during meditation retreat and not really feel the effect of what was happening. I didn’t really have a model from the Buddhist tradition that I trained in.
Lester: I grew up Christian during the civil rights movement in the U.S., so there were plenty of models for activism. In fact, one of the things that comes up for folks of color in Buddhist circles is the question, “Do I have to give up my religion of origin if I want to enter into a Buddhist space?” For me everything is welcome if it’s helpful. African-American activism is deeply rooted in religion and faith so they’re not seen as disconnected. What I learned from the time of my youth is that you had to engage in some form of activism. Western convert Buddhism is often associated with an over focus on the internal piece only. I want to bridge the gap between acting for change in the world and focusing exclusively on the self.
Thanissara: I think this speaks to the tension in community change work between the idealism of what we would like to see and the frustration or the difficulty of bringing about what is ideal and the reality on the ground. How to marry the guiding star of the idealism with the reality of what you meet, alongside the denial of problems that goes on. One thing that is difficult in all South African racial communities that I’ve met there, black and white, is that there is such a sense of people being activist from a survival level, sort of frontier, individualistic, survival level in the white community and in the rural black community, fear and competition in regards to the availability of resources. Apartheid undermined trust and community cohesion. So you can’t just make it as an ideal. You have to show that you yourself are turning up every day, working not just for monetary rewards or not just because you’re going to get something for yourself, but you’re actually putting yourself on the line so that people can see by example.
And then I do agree with what you’re saying Toni, it comes down to, what’s happening in my body now? How am I reacting? How am I freaking out? How can I be with this feeling of anger or despair or bitterness, or handle feeling betrayed, handle feeling like I’ve reached my boundary? Without any mindfulness or inner awareness, you’re kind of done, really.
Lester: Absolutely! Once in a while someone working for the disenfranchised in an institution will come to a workshop very upset because there have been large budgetary cutbacks, and people are working under great stress and duress with limited resources. Perhaps the person is working with a difficult supervisor or has actually become that difficult supervisor to others—and they are engaging in this narrative of “awfulizing” about “them.” And so my suggested goal to participants for that week might simply be to try to be mindful of their own speech by looking at their intention before speaking and the overall impact their speech has on their physical self and others. So this person might say—“Why should I have to do that? I don’t see the connection between that and my justice work.” A week later they might come back and say: “Wow, I can see that I’m mostly speaking from a place of anger and blame. And I’m quick to speak. I don’t give a lot of time to it before I talk. My heart races fast. I’m getting a slight headache.” These are powerful tools, just to shift your awareness and to use that to transform yourself and maybe your situation.
Thanissara: So you’re helping people also recognize the symptoms of being out of alignment with a deeper awareness or flow of mindfulness of carefulness.
Lester: The thing is, in a way idealism can sometimes be your worst enemy. It’s such an amazing thing to want to do good in the world and be a part of that change, but it can also make you so—another topic of Buddhism—opinionated, holding such strong views that you can’t see what’s called for in each situation on a moment to moment basis.
Thanissara: Yes, idealism can blind one to the really hard work that needs to happen within yourself. You just can’t use it as a blunt instrument of how you want it to be, or how it should be, or how others should be. This kind of work demands a lot of internal growth and maturity to meet the places where things aren’t going to accord with your idealism at all necessarily.
Lester: Some social change agents feel that if injustice is occurring, they shouldn’t have to wait to be enlightened to take definitive action to combat it. They want to yell and protest in the streets. They equate mindfulness with ineffective passivity.
Thanissara: This is such a profound statement in a way because the idea in some Buddhist circles is that enlightenment is the main focus. The modeling from the Buddha was he didn’t really respond and teach until he was awakened. And so he himself put all his efforts into awakening and there’s no doubt, someone that is more awakened, someone like Mr. Mandela in the transitional period of South Africa, his consciousness was able to affect a whole country. But the work that he had to do to get there was enormous. However that sets the bar really high. Do we have to wait until we become a Mr. Mandela before we respond? No.
Lester: Another person often pointed to in the same way is Mother Teresa.
Thanissara: Yes. But Mother Teresa and Mr. Mandela started somewhere, they started with a lot of doubt and challenge and not always getting it right and finding their way. Often, I see particularly in the privileged, economically empowered community in South Africa, which is traditionally white, that it’s almost like, “why bother?” I see that in the meditation circles. The world is too big. The problems are too big. Just work on our little internal square centimeter on our cushion and sort it out internally so our life is a little more peaceful and we can negotiate our psychology a bit better. There needs to be some middle way between finding ways of responding, and the confidence and faith in the effect that you can have to do so, as well as the willingness to make mistakes.
Lester: Now I’m venturing out on a limb but I’m thinking of the story of Jesus. He’s supposed to have had moments of deep doubt and despair. And after Mother Teresa died, they found her journals. It sounded like she suffered from serious depression and doubt. All these things are part of a piece. I think we over-idolize certain people like Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela. It’s as if the popular western Buddhist narrative is to not really explore the full depth of their fragility and doubt and the transformative effect that kind of struggle can have on one.
Moore: So what do people feel most challenged by in those teachings within Buddhism and also what do they feel most resonates with them in their activist or care-giving work?
Lester: The people I have worked with are most challenged by the role that structural inequities play in all of this, meaning things like systemic racism or systemic homophobia or economic disparities. Those inequities are not related to a particular person or individual. Those are structural systemic problems and the question is how to frame that within a Buddhist context. I think people get most challenged by that. They don’t see the connection there.
The question I am often asked is: “How can all of this navel contemplating help us get nationalized healthcare for all, end systemic racism or stop all the unfair profiling of certain ethnic groups that is going on?” My response usually is that it doesn’t have to be an “either / or” situation. That it is possible to work on behalf of the marginalized for change in the world and do that work from a place of spiritual centeredness. And one of the most important attributes of centeredness is patience.
Thanissara: Sometimes it takes a lot of courage and it’s frightening. I’ve been in places where I can be patient because it’s the least risky thing to do, to sit it out, because I know if I challenge the status quo, there is a price to pay. It might be a lack of support. It might be the loss of friends. It might be I find myself alienated. It’s a very scary thing to do. In terms of responding to these profound social injustices you are going to meet fear when you get to those edges, when you run out of patience. You can apply patience and compassion, but at a certain point there needs to be challenge. I can see it in myself. I have to discern sometimes quite carefully, what am I going to challenge? What am I prepared to pay for the challenge that I need to make? Again, there’s no rulebook about it. It’s the internal awareness which has intelligence and discernment within it, and also receptivity.
Moore: The final question—Is there anything in particular about your own life path, especially your spiritual life path, that you bring to doing this work of activism and social change that is meaningful to you?
Thanissara: I’ve been influenced by my working class background and my experience with gender inequities within Buddhist monasticism. I’ve found myself more in the marginal place, reflecting on structures that were influencing and shaping my life that felt diminishing to me. So I think I’ve always had this feeling of somehow needing to challenge [reality,] or find my own reality, or not accept what was proscribed for me as a woman.
And then in South Africa, apartheid is still playing out—very much so. On a daily level one is confronting such a deep sense of the discrimination and economic discrepancy. I’ve struggled to find a way of responding. The catalyst for me was when the pandemic hit and it no longer became viable to sit on a meditation cushion at our comfortable Buddhist center when people are literally ten minutes away dying. Before, no one in the white community had even walked into the Zulu community and seen how people were living, even though everyday members of the Zulu community come to work at the center. Just to go over that boundary, to go into the community by walking ten minutes down the road became a challenge, and it set off the whole dynamic which created change.
Lester: One thing that’s really coming up for me lately is that I came up in the era of Brown vs. Board of Education. Brown, the 1950s Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial apartheid in the US, was supposed to change everything. But the backlash against Brown was incredible and continues even to this day. It is also true that many positive things have occurred since Brown, even though so much more needs to be done. That is why I think the whole concept of patience with what can be the slow pace of change is so challenging and potentially so rewarding. Cultivating patience can be a form of deep empowerment, especially when it is joined with the effort to move forward progressively and mindfully.
Thanissara: I think that may be a good way of finishing off our discussion, Toni. By looking at the positive things that have happened, and can happen, through individuals and collectively with the willingness to engage the challenge and the struggle to bring about change. There is this feeling of impotency or disempowerment, but as you say, if you look retrospectively and how things have been in our lifetime, it usually comes down to people really offering resistance and trying to find more positive ways, speaking out, speaking the truth, stepping over those lines.
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Thanissara is one of the co-founders and guiding teachers of Dharmagiri, a Buddhist contemplative community located in Southern Drakensberg (Khahlamba in Zulu) on the border between South Africa and Lesotho. From an Anglo-Irish background, she started Buddhist practice in the Burmese school in 1975, and spent 12 years as a Buddhist nun and disciple of Ajan Cha, being one of the first women to take ordination in the U.K. During her monastic life she became interested in the placement of the feminine within Buddhism and helped found dharma retreats for families and children at Amaravati Monastery which later led to the establishment of the Dharma School in Brighton, U.K. Thanissara and her partner, Kittisaro spent 7 years as founders and guiding teachers of the Buddhist Retreat Centre, (BRC) in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa and started the Woza Moya HIV/Aids Outreach which operates in the nearby community of Chibini. She and Kittisaro currently raise funds to support The Khuphuka Project, an HIV/Aids Outreach on the border of Lesotho and KwaZulu. They teach internationally in Europe, the U.S., and Israel and regularly host one to three month retreats at Dharmagiri Hermitage.
Thanissara is also a co-facilitator of the Community Dharma Leader Program at Spirit Rock Meditation Centre CA, USA. She has an MA in Buddhist Psychotherapy from Middlesex University & the Karuna Institute, U.K., and has written a book of poetry, Garden of the Midnight Rosary.
Toni Lester is a writer, teacher, activist and creative artist. Her book, Gender Nonconformity, Race and Sexuality—Charting the Connections, is published by the University of Wisconsin Press. She has a plus 30-year meditation practice and counts among her mentors Larry Yang, Jack Kornfeld, and Sonia Sanchez. Lester is also an award-winning composer whose music often addresses questions of faith and spirituality.
Copyright 2012 Toni Lester (not to be used without permission)
Photo: Pro Tibet demonstrator Lobsang Palden, right, sticks his head through a banner while protesting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to the United Nations, Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2010 in New York. (AP Photo/David Goldman)