Knowing What We Are Doing: Mindfulness and Racial Awareness

Published in the Feb 2018 Thoughts from Annie, Circle Yoga Newsletter:

Knowing What We Are Doing: Mindfulness and Racial Awareness

by Kaira Jewel Lingo

I recently heard from a college friend who I hadn’t been in touch with for over 15 years. In the middle of the night, up because of insomnia, she was reflecting on something I’d said to her and decided to look me up online. She Googled me and contacted me through my website. When we talked soon after this, she told me how important my explanation of mindfulness was for her so many years ago. She recalled I had told her that being mindful means whatever we are doing, we know that’s what we are doing. So in the last 15 years she has been walking along the river in Newark and knowing she is walking along the river. When she sits to eat, she practices to know she is sitting and eating. When she breathes in and out, she knows she is breathing in and out.

I was so pleased to find out that something so simple—that I forgot I had even said—had been so powerful for her all these years. In a sense what I told her was like a seed, which she planted in the fertile soil of her consciousness. By watering it diligently, it began to sprout into transformative insight in her daily life. Ever since I heard her share this, I have been inspired by it.

Earlier this month, I co-facilitated a retreat for 30 people of color near Washington, DC. It was a very powerful retreat. I shared this story with them as well.

As I reflect on this definition of mindfulness more, I see that part of knowing what we are doing is also knowing how and in what context we are doing it. This includes our different identities of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, age, ability and more. So, part of being mindful is being mindful of racism, sexism, homophobia, and many other isms that keep us from fully expressing who we are and connecting deeply and authentically with each other—in our relationships, our families, our communities, our workplaces, and larger society. If you are not in the dominant groups in any of these areas of identity, you have no choice but to be mindful of them. If you do belong to any of these dominant groups, it may be harder to be aware of them, because that part of who you are is taken for granted as the norm.

I was mindful during the weekend of the relief many of us experienced being in a gathering of people of color. While our experiences as people of color are not identical and our relationship to our many intersectional identities is varied, we each came to the retreat because there was a hunger to know ourselves and be known in a way that doesn’t happen in a predominantly white space, including in our spiritual or mindfulness-based communities. Many participants expressed how refreshing and healing it was in a spiritual setting to hear racism, privilege, oppression and discrimination explicitly named, as well as how to deal with their effects on us and practice to transform them. For so many people of color, our experience in many of our largely-white mindfulness and Buddhist communities leaves these realities unaddressed and invisible and therefore perpetuates harm.

Our spiritual communities cannot support our deepest transformation if they are not places where we engage with the issues of hatred and discrimination that we are all impacted by, whatever our race or ethnicity.

The month of February is our nation’s month of honoring Black History. This only has meaning in the context of the history of race as a concept in general, as notions of “blackness” arose because of and in contrast to the equally constructed and artificial notions of “whiteness.” As we attend to learning more about the contributions and history of African Americans, I also invite us to explore our own racial history this month and particularly to investigate the role of whiteness in our spiritual or mindfulness practice.

To help us explore, some questions you may like to ponder, journal about, or share in your mindfulness groups or sanghas are:

When did I know I was of a particular racial background? What event or awareness led me to know I belonged to a racial group that did not include other people?

How was this identity defined in relation to other racial groups?

How has this identity impacted myself and others over the course of my life?

And how do these identities influence the mindfulness groups or sanghas I participate in?

Wherever we are on the map racially or ethnically, it is important for all of us to contemplate how a history of white supremacy in the United States might impact our experience in our sanghas and mindfulness practice spaces.

If you look at most of the mindfulness summits and trainings that exist online around the world, what kind of person is presented as the norm for a mindfulness teacher or expert?  From my observation it is mostly white men, followed by a smaller percentage of white women, who are mostly middle-aged or older, educated, and middle-class or with class privilege. What does this say about how accessible, relevant, and healing these practices are to non-white, less economically advantaged audiences?

And this blindness and bias can be awakened to. Exploring the meaning and impact of race and identity is truly a mindfulness practice of knowing what we are doing as we are doing it, within the larger context of social conditioning, privilege, and power. Understanding this and looking deeply into it is the only way we can heal it.

Awakening can’t happen outside of our systems of oppression, free from racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, or an illusive gender binary. There is nowhere else to go to awaken. We only have this place and time, here and now. So it must be possible to wake up to the truth of our interbeing right in the midst of our separation, and unjust, unequal systems. My intention is for all of us to awaken together to the many places inside of us as individuals and in our collective psyche that need to be seen with clarity and compassion and lovingly healed.

I am aware that in our communities some of us are more familiar with exploring privilege and identity than others. If you are interested in going deeper, here are some resources for further reading and study:

Together We Are One: Honoring Our Diversity, Celebrating Our Connection, by Thich Nhat Hanh (his teachings from the People of Color retreats)

The Way of Tenderness: Awakening Through Race, Sexuality and Gender, by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation, by Rev. angel Kyodo Williams, Lama Rod Owens, with Jasmine Syedullah, PhD

Awakening Together: The Spiritual Practice of Inclusivity and Community, by Larry Yang

Dharma, Color and Culture: New Voices in Western Buddhism, edited by Hilda Gutierrez Baldoquin

Why is American Buddhism So White? from Buddhadharma, Winter 2011

In addition, here is an example of what one sangha that is practicing to be inclusive of all our different identities looks like:

East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, CA

At EBMC, they use these Agreements for Multicultural Interactions.

The Power of Our Minds--a mid-week reflection for World Wide Insight

Today's mid-week reflection is by guest teacher Kaira Jewel Lingo and is titled "The Power of our Minds". Kaira Jewel will be teaching an online course titled "Moving from separation to authentic connection: Heart Practices to bring more love into your life and the world", starting in late October 2018. For more information keep an eye on

Lately I have found myself inspired by reflecting on the power of our minds. And the teaching that each of us has the capacity to awaken and become a Buddha. That Buddha is actually our inherent nature already, here, now.

A practice Thich Nhat Hanh has offered is to call on the Buddha in us to come and help us when we don’t know what to do. He tells the story of being in Korea in 2003, in the demilitarized zone, leading a Peace Walk to encourage greater communication and understanding between North and South Korea. After giving instructions on walking meditation and mindfulness, he was to lead the walk. In front of him was a tightly packed sea of journalists with their cameras and microphones. He felt stuck. He didn’t know how he was going to walk when there was literally no space in front of him. In that moment he asked the Buddha in him for help. He released his resistance to the moment and instead surrendered. He asked the Buddha to walk for him. He took one step after another, solidly, peacefully, and a path opened up effortlessly between the cameras for him to walk.

We can really trust in the capacity of our minds, whose nature is awakening. This is true for each one of us, no exceptions. I was recently co-teaching on a retreat for people of color. We had twice as many people come than we were expecting so it meant a lot of extra work the first night to get everyone settled and organize ourselves. (We didn’t have a retreat manager). I didn’t have time to prepare for the talk I was to give the following morning. That next morning, in meditation, I sat there quite blank and then worried, unsure of what I would share in just a few hours. I asked the Buddha in me to help. I asked, “Buddha, could you please give this talk for me?” And I gave all my attention to my breath, my body and the meditation. I relaxed, not worrying, staying present. Ideas soon arose that were clear and useful for what I could share in the talk. I became enthusiastic and energized that I had the privilege to share something. And the talk went fine.

I recently listened to a dharma talk by Ven. Thubten Dongdrub, on The Potential of Mind. He shared that the mind is the one thing that doesn’t decay and can’t be destroyed, unlike so many things that are impermanent, that we can’t take with us from one life to the next. The mind is pure, powerful, it keeps whatever we invest into it, and faithfully returns this investment back to us. Nothing we do to cultivate our mind in the direction of freedom and compassion is ever wasted. 

We can all use our time wisely to invest in ourselves and in our minds. The mind is so precious. This human life is so precious. Each day we can do something to help the Buddha in us manifest more fully.

I recently participated in the Commit to Sit fundraising through iBme (Inward Bound Mindfulness Education), which offers retreats for teens, young adults and adults. We committed to sit every day in the month of May to raise money for the scholarship fund, as no teen is ever turned away for lack of funds. It was very energizing to commit to this and really stick to it. The momentum of knowing many others were doing this with me was inspiring. Now we are into June and I have effortlessly and without any special planning continued to naturally sit every morning. Though I sat most days before this Commit to Sit month, since doing it more intentionally and where I was accountable to others, it now feels easier and really good. There’s not any sense of pushing or cajoling myself to do it. A real return on my investment! :-)

Wishing you energy and ease as you invest in your wondrous mind and the Buddha nature in you.

Kaira Jewel Lingo teaches Buddhist meditation, mindfulness, and compassion internationally, with a focus on children, families, and young people. An ordained nun of 15 years in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, she is now a lay Dharma teacher, leading retreats in the U.S., Europe, Asia, Brazil, India and Southern Africa, and offering mindfulness programs in schools. Editor of Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, she also leads regular retreats for people of color, activists and artists. She explores the interweaving of art, play, ecology and spiritual practice and is a certified yoga teacher and InterPlay leader.  In spring 2015, she was spiritual practitioner in residence at Schumacher College, an ecological college, in the United Kingdom. She now lives and teaches in Washington, D.C.

Together We Are One

Together We Are One

Dear Thay, dear beloved community,

I had the opportunity to teach at a teen retreat recently, and a number of us staff were concerned about one of the youngest teens who seemed to have difficulty integrating into the larger group. The teen was shy and withdrawn, and didn’t come to activities. When they did, they would read a book rather than participate. We tried talking and listening to them and encouraging them to join in. When this met with some resistance, we simply accepted the teen and did our best to let them know they were welcome to be part of the group as they were. Other teens also reached out in different ways to help this teen feel connected.

As the week went on, the teen seemed to feel more comfortable joining in some activities and seemed to be less isolated in the big group. Then at the closing ceremony of the retreat, teens were invited to stand up, come into the center of the circle, and share something with the group. This teen, who at the beginning of the retreat appeared quite awkward and ill at ease, walked slowly to the center of our circle and shared very clearly and with great dignity that the retreat had helped them a great deal, they had learned important things, and they would be taking all of us with them after it ended. Then even more surprisingly, after the closing circle, this teen – who had spoken very little to others that whole week – stood at the door offering free hugs to anyone who wanted them!

The power of a group of people practicing sincerely together is enormous. Things that have not been possible for us up until then become possible.

I have had this experience on a number of occasions in my life of practice. When I was a nun, there was a time I felt very overwhelmed before large retreats were to begin. I felt that I just couldn’t continue in the situation I was in, so I went to Thay and shared with him that I wanted to go to another practice center until the big retreat was over. He reminded me that it is exactly in situations of overwhelm or great challenge that we must apply the basic practices of mindful breathing and mindful walking. We must use every moment to stay present and not allow our despair and anxiety to take us over.

He invited me to reconsider and stay in the situation I was in, without running away from it. He told me I did have the capacity to handle what seemed too much for me. I was struck by his confidence. As I listened to him, resistance to my situation softened and I began to relax. Something in me recognized that he was telling me the truth. I did have the capacity to hang in there, even if it was difficult.

And he was right; I was able to weather that storm. The Sangha was there, practicing diligently around me, and this nourished me tremendously. And my own practice was my anchor. And I actually enjoyed the retreats! Because of the Sangha, because of the practice, I was able to do what I thought I couldn’t do.

Now we are all facing a time of great division and destruction. We see walls and bans and gulfs widening everywhere we look. We ourselves, or those we love, may be targeted and under attack. We may feel isolated, numb, or helpless. And it is precisely in moments like these that our practice of stopping, calming, breathing, and walking is most needed – as is our practice of coming together to support each other, to build Sangha. We practice precisely to help us meet moments like these.

I take great nourishment from these post-election words of Clarissa Pinkola Estés:

“My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.

You are right in your assessments. … Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is that we were made for these times. Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement.”

As we have learned often from Thay, a good practitioner is not someone who never feels despair, fear, anxiety, or overwhelm. A good practitioner is someone who knows how to take care of all of these feelings when they arise. And our practice has prepared us, is preparing us, in each breath, in each step, to meet the suffering and challenges of this moment in history.

When we are grounded in the basic practice, our mind still and calm in the present moment, we see the truth behind the story of separation. We see that no person is our enemy, no person need be eliminated. Only ignorance and hatred need to be transformed, in our own hearts and minds, and in the collective consciousness.

As Joanna Macy relays from the Tibetan Shambhala prophecy, “… it is not a battle between ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ because the line between good and evil runs through the landscape of every human heart.” We need to learn to see ourselves in those on the other side of the political or social spectrum. And we need to learn to see them in us.

This doesn’t mean we remain silent or passive. As the Ninth of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings encourages, “We will do our best to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may make difficulties for us or threaten our safety.” We must speak out, but without hatred, without furthering the story of separation. We can write love letters. We can set up spaces of listening so that groups with conflicting values can come together and learn from each other through sincere, respectful dialogue. Rob Willer’s TED talk, “How to Have Better Political Conversations,” offers a helpful perspective on this.

In preparation for a Day of Mindfulness for people of color this past winter, my friend, Beth Sanchez, researched what helped people who were involved in white supremacy groups to have a change of heart and give up their position of hatred. What she found in reading a handful of stories was that these people did not let go of their views because they were shamed, judged, persuaded, cajoled, or logically convinced. What shifted their hearts and minds in each case was kindness. Another human being seeing and affirming their humanity by simply being kind.

We were made for these times. We can rise to the challenge of seeing ourselves in the “other” as we take action to prevent injustice and protect beings from harm. There is a line from a Plum Village chant: “Once I have a path, I have nothing more to fear.” The path is clear. As the Buddha offers in the Dhammapada, “Hatred never ceases through hatred. But by love alone does hatred cease.” We are called to love, to be kind, to see that no person is our enemy.

With deep gratitude for the presence of the Sangha, for your practice and support,

Kaira Jewel Lingo

Written for the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation, Spring 2017 outreach letter

Kaira Jewel Lingo teaches Buddhist meditation and mindfulness internationally, with a focus on activists, people of color, artists, educators, families, and youth. She began practicing mindfulness in 1997. An ordained nun of 15 years in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, she is now a lay Dharma teacher based in Washington, D.C., leading retreats in the U.S. and internationally, offering mindfulness programs for educators and youth in schools, as well as individual spiritual mentoring.  Visit to learn more.