"Going Home" by angel Kyodo williams
3 June 2010
The most difficult part of engaging in a Buddhist practice for me had always been the idea of doing it within a community. On the outside, I was friendly and communicated well with people. But that was something I had taught myself a long time ago to cover up the sadness and loneliness I had experienced earlier in my life. As I got older, I didn't feel that sadness all the time, but I realized that I still had a tendency to be by myself and do things alone.
So, after a while, I went searching for a Zen teacher who could help me. I had read that in Zen practice the relationship between a student and teacher is very intimate, so I took my search very seriously.
I found Sensei Pat Enkyo O'Hara, who leads a meditation group in Greenwich Village in New York City. I guess because of that and because Pat is so open and welcomes everyone, our sangha, or community (which I've been with now for four years), seems like a misfit group. Village Zendo has a few lawyers and writers, a potter, a pathologist, some activists, a martial arts master, a few therapists, an architect, a finance wiz and some college students. Some of them have money and others don't. The ages range from 20 to almost 70. They don't seem to have anything in common at all. And when I first got there, everyone was white except for one very fiery Japanese woman whose spirit I really loved. I think I got used to this strange group because they were so different from each other, so I didn't stand out quite as much.
About a year later, I came to a very, very hard place in my life. I didn't know which way was up. The business I had put all my heart into failed. I moved out of the city to an isolated area in upstate New York. The roommate that I moved upstate with had once been a close and trusted friend, but when she moved out, she took some of my things with her and left some of her bills behind. And finally, my relationship fell apart.
At first, I was so depressed that I stopped eating for nearly three weeks. I felt weak, dull, and disconnected from everything, as if I were not really alive anymore. It was as if I had stopped breathing and it would just be a matter of time before I collapsed. I had no money and was too depressed to find a job. My life was like a bad dream, and I was stuck in it. Having become accustomed to keeping my deepest feelings to myself, I was positive that no one could understand where I was and I was certain they didn't care. So I just stayed home, alone and miserable.
Then one day I received a calendar from the Village Zendo in the mail. In just a few days, the weeklong summer sesshin, or retreat, would begin. Sesshins are periods set aside for intensive meditation practice. You leave your daily life behind to take an opportunity to look deeply inside yourself and "touch mind." By that time, I was desperate to get out of the hole I was in. So, strange as it seemed even to me, I went to stay in a big house with 30 or so people to try to be by myself, but not alone. I didn't think the retreat would solve my problems, but at least I would have to get out of bed in the mornings and there would be three meals a day. Thankfully, the retreat would be silent, so I wouldn't have to talk to anyone.
When I got to the retreat, I kept to myself and didn't look at anyone. I could barely see anyway. My eyes stayed heavy with tears that wouldn't fall. I was determined not to draw attention to myself, and I didn't want anyone to try to "fix it" for me. What was broken inside me was mine alone to deal with. Before I knew it, four days had passed.
When you are very, very sad, wounded in a deep place, it is not only impossible but futile to keep your suffering hidden. If trapped, pain eats away at your insides and destroys your spirit from there. So while I didn't run around looking for a shoulder to cry on, I didn't stuff my sadness or bite down on it to keep it in check, either. I was grateful that no one said a word to me. Even though my deep sadness was apparent, they did not try to comfort me. Once, during a break, I stood looking across the big lawn. I was completely engulfed by my sadness. Julia, a warm English woman who always managed to be taking care of our group, handed me a tissue. I hadn't even realized I was crying. She handed me the tissue without a shred of judgment and just as quickly left me to my own space.
That same day, I finally went to the private interview to talk with my teacher face-to-face. As soon as I sat down, I blurted out how screwed up I felt my life was, how I had failed miserably in so many ways and couldn't stand my own self anymore. I beat myself up for a few more minutes before she looked at me and said, "You have to be gentle with Angel."
Pat Enkyo O'Hara Sensei is a middle-aged Irish-American woman. Sensei is what Zen teachers are called. At the time, she was a professor of new media at New York University. In some ways, we couldn't have come from more different places. But she looked at me so knowingly, it was instantly clear that all the categories, labels, and differences were unimportant.
She wasn't just looking at the young black woman sitting there with her face contorted in pain. We were not black and white or even teacher and student. We were just two human beings acknowledging suffering. Pat was seeing me and my pain. She was sharing my pain with me. In that moment and for the first time in weeks, I felt my despair lighten. I left the room noticing that I was finally breathing again.
That retreat was the beginning of not just healing the pain I was dealing with in that moment, but of opening my heart wider, expanding my vision farther than I had ever realized was possible. I had taken refuge in my teacher and my sangha. Through the simple acts of giving me just what I needed without asking for anything in return, Julia had pointed out to me that my dignity was still there. Pat, of course, taught me without teaching that I had to have compassion for myself in order to have compassion for others. Gentleness toward ourselves and others is too hard to come by.
As for the rest of the people to whom I never said a word and who never spoke to me, by being silently supportive and allowing me the space I needed to both acknowledge my sadness and not be isolated, they collectively taught me that healing begins at home, and that home is wherever you make it. For the first time, I understood Community. Our strange group had become a family and a home for me without my ever noticing it. While I was the only black person in the group, I directly understood that it was not about people looking the same, doing the same things with their lives, or being the same at all. It was an agreement to be mutually respectful and supportive no matter who you were. Everyone agreed to serve the community in this way. And we all benefited.
Taking refuge was not hiding after all. It wasn't weak or even passive. It was placing my trust in my teacher, in the lessons I gain from my own experience, and in my community. When I needed them the most, they all became a place in which I could begin to heal. When you are aware of what you are doing, placing your trust in someone or something takes a lot of courage. It's an act of bravery. It acknowledges that you are not alone in the world and that there is a connection between you and all things. It's like money in the bank. When we honor our community, maintain it, treat it like the precious treasure that it is, it returns our investment a thousandfold. Where can you get better results than that?
Excerpted from "Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living With Fearlessness and Grace" and reprinted with permission from the author.
Angel Kyodo Williams is a spiritual teacher, activist, artist and founder of the Center for Transformative Change. A social visionary and leading voice for transformative social change, she is the author of Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living With Fearlessness and Grace.