I was lucky enough to be able to mark the official end of Black History Month with a touching and all around inspiring interview with Dharma teacher and spiritual mentor Kaira Jewel Lingo, a nun for fifteen years in the international Plum Village community of Thich Nhat Hanh. Below, we speak about her thoughts on Black History Month, the importance and impact of mindfulness and meditation on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities, and her upcoming book on navigating difficult times of transition.
Kaira Jewel Lingo is author of the upcoming book We Were Made for These Times: Skillfully Moving through Change, Loss, and Disruption which is launching in Fall 2021. It offers accessible advice on navigating difficult times of transition, drawing on Buddhist teachings on impermanence to establish equanimity and resilience.
Why was it important to you, to focus on teaching Mindfulness and Meditation to BIPOC?
Kaira Jewel Lingo: I want to start with a story. After accompanying Thay [Thich Nhat Hanh] and the community on numerous tours through the US and seeing how very white they were, Larry Ward, another Black woman practitioner, and myself approached Thay and we asked if he would teach a retreat for BIPOC?
He looked at us and then he looked at his skin and he said, “I’m a person of color.” So he agreed, and in 2004, we had our first BIPOC retreat in the Plum Village tradition. We thought we’d get 70 people but four hundred came. It was amazing to see there was so much thirst for the Dharma. When we created a place that was safe, they were so happy to come. I remember that first night of the retreat looking out at a sea of now brown, yellow, red, and black faces was so empowering and remarkable!
When I disrobed and returned to life as a layperson, I really wanted to keep supporting folks of color to have access to the Dharma. It really makes a difference for people to be able to see a teacher who looks like them, to see other people who look like them, who had similar experiences that they had, in terms of facing white supremacy on a daily basis. So every year, beginning in 2015, Marisela Gomez and myself would offer a retreat for folks of color in Baltimore, and that’s become an annual thing.
That was a real love and joy of mine to offer spaces that are welcoming and sensitive to that experience. It’s important for me as someone who also identifies as Black, Indigenous, and a person of color. There’s also something about being able to create spaces for people’s more specific identities—and I identify also as Black—to be able to be in a community where we can unpack the specific experience of being of Black and African descent. That allows for some healing that wouldn’t otherwise be possible for me. So, I might be holding space [for others], but I’m also really deeply benefiting from just connecting.
What is the impact of meditation and mindfulness on the BIPOC individual?
Kaira Jewel Lingo: I feel what’s so powerful about Thay’s [Thich Nhat Hanh’s] teachings is the invitation and the possibility of coming home to ourselves. That has a special meaning for BIPOC folks who have often been kidnapped, and stolen from their homes. Who have been denied the right to establish a home. Who’ve been kicked out of their homes. Who’ve been redlined out of being able to purchase or live in certain places. There’s been a lot of removing BIPOC people from their homes, from their ancestral lands.
So a teaching that helps people to find our true home inside of us is very powerful. This teaching is the teaching of liberation; it’s about getting free, and that has been the deepest thirst for so many “communities of culture” as Resmaa Menakem names it. So the practice of meditation and mindfulness offers a path to liberation in terms of freedom from our suffering, hatred, and internalized violence.
It also can help us to deal with really painful emotions, and not just our own, but our ancestral inheritance that has both incredible beauty and resilience but also traumatic retention and deep suffering. So, [there is] the [Plum Village] practice of Touching the Earth, for example, very powerful practices of transforming ancestral suffering, of taking refuge in the earth. Of letting ourselves be held in something bigger than ourselves as we heal our own and our ancestral trauma, from our family, spiritual lineage and our land ancestors.
I want to discuss a bit of your upcoming book We Were Made for These Times: Skillfully Moving through Change, Loss, and Disruption that’s coming out. You discuss moving forward through trauma and tough times. There is a lot of trauma in BIPOC communities, what do you think your upcoming book can do to address some of that trauma?
Kaira Jewel Lingo: I try to tell pieces of my story and the book really came out of an inquiry: how do we move through difficult times? I think we are in really difficult times right now. [The teachings] came out as a course on Insight Timer right before the pandemic. I had no idea there was going to be a global pandemic. But it was a 10-day course and it was amazing how people were resonating with it. People stuck in their apartments for three months [during the first lockdown], were saying to me, thank goodness that you shared these teachings because they’ve really been helpful for me. So, I talk in the book about what to do when we don’t know what to do. How to come back to the place in us that can hold us, and how to calm and soothe our strong emotions when we’re deeply upset and actually in danger because of our own inner turmoil. Because we need to be able to be balanced where there’s so much pain with the pandemic, with the multiple pandemics of climate change, racism, economic decline, insecurity, and political division. To be able to nourish our joy and to be able to appreciate what is. To nourish [ourselves] is a really important skill to be able to employ.
I also talk in the book about how to maintain our balance, our equanimity. So that when life hits us, we might bend, but we don’t fall over. We find our way back to our center bit by bit. As BIPOC practitioners, with the trauma that we face, there really is a core in us of something trustworthy, something healthy, and sane, and strong, and powerful that we can nourish and grow—and celebrate and rejoice in.
We don’t get there by denying the pain, the suffering. We have to be open to the pain and the suffering. And so I tell my personal stories of how I have moved through difficult times and times of transition. Because part of what traumatizes people is what happens right after the traumatic event. Whether or not the person is acknowledged, is held, is given space to feel what happened. And if we have a practice of coming home to ourselves, then when traumatic things happen, we have a way to take care of them, to care for ourselves, to care for each other.
These practices give a kind of place for all of that to land. So that it can be processed and understood, so that it doesn’t traumatize us as much as if we were just to pretend and ignore or suppress it—or overly identify with it. The practices give us a way to honor what we’re experiencing and take care of it.
Black History Month is all about honoring, celebrating, listening, and most importantly learning. With that in mind, what lessons about Black history, around trauma and mindfulness, do you think that we should really be carrying with us all year long, not just during the month of February?
Kaira Jewel Lingo: My encouragement for myself and everyone is to read about how oppression works. Meet with groups who are looking at how oppression works. Listen to and practice with people who you feel are trustworthy around these things, read their books, like Larry Ward’s America’s Racial Karma, Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands, Ruth King’s book Mindful of Race, the Lama Rod’s Love and Rage, angel Kyodo williams’ Radical Dharma, and so many others. So many wonderful people of all backgrounds looking at how to understand race, how to understand what true liberation means on all of these different levels.
But make a commitment to be with people who are studying this. I teach this, but I have so much to learn. I want to always be trying to understand how trauma works, how white supremacy works, how racial capitalism works, and how all kinds of oppression work.
So for Black History Month, and I love that the Black Lives Matter movement speaks of this month as Black Futures Month, because we are working for a future where every human life is valued, and Black lives are honored and celebrated. The inspiration from this month I would say is: learn about Black culture, learn about Black people. There are some wonderful movies with important pieces of Black history and Black culture that haven’t been told. I would encourage folks to watch things about the history of Black folks in this country [the United States]. Wherever you find yourself, study, learn, and get together with other people. Open our hearts and minds to see how we aren’t separate from each other. We suffer, we have joy. Claim that history and experience as your history too.
It is my hope you were moved by reading this interview with Kaira Jewel as much as I was by the chance to interview her. Please take this time to check out some of our other fantastic reads by our Black creators whose work to educate, entertain, and enlighten have made such an impact in our world.
Kaira Jewel Lingo is a Dharma teacher who has a life-long interest in blending spirituality and meditation with social justice. Having grown up in an ecumenical Christian community that bridged a new kind of monasticism for families with working with the poor, at the age of 25 she entered a Buddhist monastery in the Plum Village tradition and spent 15 years living as a nun under the guidance of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. She received the lamp transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh and became a Zen teacher in 2007 and is also a teacher in the Vipassana Insight lineage. Today she sees her work as a continuation of the Engaged Buddhism developed by her teacher as well as the work of her parents, inspired by their stories and her dad’s work with Martin Luther King Jr. on desegregating the South. She is an author of the forthcoming We Were Made for These Times: Skilfully Moving through Change, Loss and Disruption (Parallax, October 2021) and editor of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children. She teaches and leads retreats internationally and is known for interweaving art, play, nature, ecology and embodied mindfulness practice in her teaching. She especially feels called to share the Dharma with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, activists, educators, youth, artists and families. Visit kairajewel.com to learn more.