By Angela Dews
Participants at the Healing Our Families, Building True Community: People of Color Retreat at Deer Park Monastery in September 2005 collaborated on an elaborate mural. According to artist and writer Brett Cook, the project was “an interactive, multidisciplinary, revolutionary experience in mindfulness that culminated in a large public work illustrating what makes a happy community.” For photos, video and a story of the process, go to homepage.mac.com/brettcookdizney.
I am feeling increasingly that my New York Sangha is a family. Still, this brother and sister connection at people of color retreats brings a joy that startles me when I look up and see us walking, sitting, breathing, smiling, and listening to Thay. My brothers and sisters who are Asian, Black, Latino and Native are not the same as me, but there is something we share about living in a power structure where white privilege is a given.
Some of us were concerned about the presence of white folks at this year’s Deer Park retreat. I quickly noticed them, then had to let it go. In fact, I was glad that mixed race couples could share that space, but was glad that my Dharma discussion group was all people of color (a must, I think). And, because some of the white folks were friends, I was able to tell them:
- I didn’t necessarily come to talk about race and culture with my people of color; although I did.
- I definitely didn’t come to explain anything about my experience as a Black woman to you; although I did.
- I didn’t come to hear what in your life experience and political viewpoint makes you the same as me; although I did.
- I didn’t even come to take part in the late night “rap” sessions; although I envy the sharing that I missed.
I came for retreat and healing and to learn. I came to be in a rare space with my teacher. It turned out that I could talk about the anger and despair I was feeling about politics in Harlem, which had just about worn me out. And it was a gift not to have to apologize or start from the beginning.
Thay told me things that I needed then and that I need daily. Among the things I remember: mindful consumption is essential for community building; harmony is possible; your way of life is your message; don’t think because you are poor you are helpless; anger is not the only source of energy.
Two More Gifts
Sister Jewel talked with me about my ancestors. She gave me the idea and the “permission” to go to Abyssinian Baptist Church and clap hands and sing about Jesus being “right on time,” because I need the community. I’m going to take a Jewish New York friend with me to Abyssinian. Months ago, we crossed tribal lines by deep listening in a conference room in a seaside hotel in Vietnam. I accepted his invitation to Brooklyn where I felt happy, breathing and walking with his Sangha family. He’s already been to my Sangha; now he’s coming to Abyssinian.
For years I failed to add the third refuge to my practice because I felt alienated from Sanghas full of white people. Meeting practitioners and teachers at people of color retreats (including two at Spirit Rock in California and two sponsored by Insight Meditation in New York), who were usually the lone practitioner of color at their Sanghas, inspired me to find a local home. I am also inspired to continue to seek out their company whenever the gift is offered.
Angela Dews, Peacemaker Strength of the Heart, practices with the Riverside Sangha of the Community of Mindfulness New York Metro.