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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Reverend angel Kyodo williams. Rev. angel is an author, activist, master trainer and founder of the Center for Transformative Change. She is the acclaimed author of Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace. Rev. angel applies wisdom teachings and embodied practice to social issues, and is a preeminent thought leader of transformative social change. With Sounds True, Rev. angel will be a featured presenter on our new [A] Year of Mindfulness program. It’s a year-long offering where participants receive guidance from a diverse group of leading voices, discovering new techniques for bringing mindfulness into every part of our day while receiving ongoing support from a community of practitioners. A Year of Mindfulness begins on February 13, 2017. You’re welcome to find out more information about A Year of Mindfulness at SoundsTrue.com.
This episode of Insights at the Edge was originally recorded as part of Sounds True’s Meditation Summit, which was a gathering online with 30 different meditation teachers who each shared a different practice from their tradition and approach. In this episode adapted for Insights at the Edge, Rev. angel and I spoke about how many people become drawn to meditation through the sense of retreat, but it is actually our re-engagement with the fullness of what is that is the most valuable aspect of meditation.
We talked about what she calls a warrior spirit, the cultivation of a willingness to engage with the world to shed the ideas of who we are in order to find out who we actually are, and how this allows us to be in an empowered relationship with the world. We talked about how we can find our joy only when we are released from a sense of fear and ignorance that keeps us from experiencing the joy that is always here. Finally, she shared with us a practice, a meditation practice that she calls Effort and Release. Here’s my conversation with Reverend angel Kyodo williams.
To begin with, I [would] love if you could speak some to the intersection of meditation and social change. I think for many people, they don’t get how those two things are actually connected.
angel Kyodo williams: That’s great. I actually don’t get how they’re not connected. You know, we manifest the life that we live in externally and it’s completely founded in our life, the way that we relate to ourselves internally as well as the way that we relate to others internally. So the self-talk that we have, the degree of noise in our mind and the way that our minds are racing, whether we’re fundamentally present or not present both to ourselves and to others, has a direct relationship to how we show up in the world, what we find permissible in terms of what shows up in the world, what we choose to engage with in terms of levels, various forms of oppression, whether those things, we feel shut off to those things, whether we face them, whether we confront them or whether we simply disappear and focus only on our own lives.
To a great degree, our ability to be present and to develop our capacity to be present wakes us up to the entire phenomenal world of what is going on in front of us, and particularly if our meditation is geared towards tending to our own suffering and what it is that is underneath all of our own lives, we begin to touch our own suffering and the direct result is that we are immediately connected to being able to feel, hear, and see the suffering in the world. For me, what that has done, it has drawn a bridge from my inner life directly to what is happening in the world and then that calls for a response.
If you truly hear your own suffering, you then hear the suffering of others because there is no “just us” and the natural, I think, organic response when you truly, I want to say, both hear the suffering in the world, but also have a sufficient sense of grounding in your own relationship to yourself, then you actually feel called to respond, and what we call that is compassion.
TS: Now you gave your initial response saying that you don’t get how meditation and social change are disconnected, and I think for people for whom they’re disconnected, let’s start on the meditators’ side. I love meditating. I love going on retreat, being deeply internal. I feel too sensitive for the world. The world is to coarse for me. I’m in a space more of eternity and I just don’t feel connected. That’s my experience with meditation. Someone might be in that space and for them it’s not very connected. What would you say to that?
aKw: I mean, I think it’s an important aspect of meditation. I think it’s an important point and part of the journey of meditation to actually retreat. It’s also a significant, and I think certainly the greater part of the historical Buddha’s life was to actually reengage and enter the world. From the perspective of having been able to touch the depths of one’s own inner life and have that disconnect so that you can hear, it’s like putting on headphones when you’re in a noisy place.
You close out the rest of the environment so that you can really hear yourself think and breathe and feel, and distinguish the difference between what is happening outside and your degree of reactivity to what is happening outside, but ultimately you take the headphones off and you get back out into the world. So I think that it’s very much a part of the unfolding of our practice and the depth of our practice to choose to reengage the world as part of how we integrate ourselves and our own lives back into the fullness of everything that there is.
TS: Reverend angel, I have a feeling that many of our listeners and viewers are not familiar with you. This will be their first meeting with you. I’m wondering if you can just give people a sense of how you became attracted to Zen. What called you about Zen?
aKw: Well, I think that certainly what called me in the first order is just a sense of that sense of retreat. I would say there’s my initial touch of Zen. I ran into the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and it felt like it was just speaking my language. You know, someone suddenly decoded my internal relationship to myself and my own world and it was there at the ground. I began my own haphazard practice of sitting in a closet and the kinds of things that we do.
Then the thing happened to me that happens to many people. I had an experience of great suffering and loss in my life. My grandfather, who was very dear to me, passed away and Zen was there to catch me on my practice. The meditation practice was there to catch me and that encouraged me to deepen that practice because what it enabled me to do is to be able to pay attention to my own experience. Actually I came to realize that I was not living my own life. I didn’t even know what my own life was.
I was lots of things that were labels that were outside. I was African American. I was mixed race. I was female. I was queer. I was cool and New Yorker. I was a café owner. There were lots of things that were foisted upon me or that I took on and that I engaged. Also as a result of racial construct, I wasn’t necessarily worthy. I wasn’t necessarily going to go but so far. There were lots of identities and labels that I came to realize that weren’t mine as in, I was carrying them around with me, but I don’t even know where they came from.
What the practice enabled me to do is to actually be able to distinguish a sense of my own voice, where I was, who I was, what was the ground that I stood on when all of those other labels were taken away, when I didn’t have those things to relate to. In many ways that correlated to the feeling that I was in as a result of that suffering. It’s like, it’s all gone and what of this matters? The Zen practice enabled me to discover for myself what actually mattered to me, and then to rebuild from that inner place of grounding and rebuild, and then go outside and take that out.
TS: I know you talk about Zen calling forth a warrior spirit in you and in committed practitioners. What is that warrior spirit and how does meditation connect us to it?
aKw: Yes. I would say that it’s even more than Zen for sure. Over the years I’ve really come to understand and it really is this cultivation, as I was speaking before, of a willingness to actually engage the world. For me, when you find a solid ground, and I don’t mean a ground we falsely believe that nothing is going to change, but you find the ground of groundlessness, actually, that things will change and they will keep moving and they won’t always be the way that you want them to. That you will suffer, but you will also be able to—that will allow you to experience a great joy, that you can find joy in the midst of suffering. In fact, that’s exactly where joy lives.
When you get in touch with that for yourself and you give yourself the opportunity to cast off all of the ideas about who you are and get in touch with who you really are, for me what that means is, you are then empowered to actually be in relationship to the world, so I think many of us retreat from the world or resist because we have a sense of being overwhelmed by it, that it will overwhelm us. That we won’t be able to survive; that if we actually hear the suffering, we won’t be able to tend to ourselves. It’s just that it’s just too much.
Paradoxically the opposite is true, that when we are deeply grounded in our own being, we discover that there is no separate us and then them, and so we have a generative capacity that comes from—a liveliness that comes from being able to touch this ground, to be seeded, to be rooted in this ground of our own being. That warrior spirit is what comes forth from that, which is, “Oh, yes. I’m willing. I’m willing to engage the world.” Like, “Bring it on because I’m not afraid anymore that the ground is going to disappear beneath me because it wasn’t there to begin with.”
That’s actually empowering as opposed to overwhelming or disempowering. It’s when we lose the idea of looking for something that’s going to hold us up or fix it or keep it in place or keep it from going astray, when we release ourselves of that idea, paradoxically we’re actually empowered to really engage with what comes at us in life without a sense of, “How do I figure out where the safety net is at?” You let go and you say, “I can actually just jump out there because there is no safety net. The safety net is me and whatever it is that I unfold in my life is what I have to work with.
TS: You said something that really caught my attention. That if we go deeply into our suffering right at the heart of it, at the center of it I think you said, is where we’ll find our joy. I noticed as you said that, I had a question mark come up inside me. I thought, “Really? That’s where I’m going to find my joy, right in the middle of my deep suffering and the world’s deep suffering? Really?”
aKw: Absolutely. Yes, I think we have been, as Spike Lee would say, bamboozled and hoodwinked into believing that our joy exists in some kind of other place, that when we finally get to this other place—I think that the Western expression and the way that we have put forth the conversation about Buddhism and Dharma in general has also helped to cultivate that sense of like, “Oh, there’s this other place that we’re going to get and once we arrive at that other place, it will all be better.”
Really the place that we most need to go deeply into and to tend to is a place in which we—the places that we are most ignoring, the places that we are most avoiding, the places that we are most suffering because when we don’t touch our own suffering, what we do is we actually create more suffering. We expand the darkness around us, so ignorance is actually deepened, and we allow ourselves to create, I want to say like roadkill. We leave behind roadkill of suffering in terms of how we relate to other people, how we relate to the world, what we allow to unfold in terms of patriarchy, in terms of racism, in terms of xenophobia that we see quite a rise of in our country in the last little while.
We allow those things to happen because actually we feel overwhelmed by it because we’re not tending to the suffering in ourselves. When we get into the suffering and what it is that we’re avoiding, we’re relieved. We’re relieved of that sense of fear and becoming small, and trying to fit into smaller and smaller containers, and that’s where our joy is found. I’m not saying that in the middle of our mess there’s a big ice cream cone. That’s not what I mean by find joy in the midst of our suffering. I’m saying that we find our joy because we’re released of a sense of fear and ignorance that is what keeps us from being able to directly experience the joy that is actually always there and always available to us in life.
TS: Reverend angel, I so appreciate the fearlessness in which you talk about being with our suffering. I want to understand more how you feel people can cultivate that kind of fearlessness in themselves. I think for some people, when it comes to facing, whether it’s intergenerational suffering or the pain in the world, there’s a part of them that just freezes and puts up a defense and says, “I can’t do it.” Here you are speaking so eloquently about just, walk right in.
aKw: Yes. This is the main subject that I’m interested in these days, is really that it’s time for us to practice what I call—and enter into what I call a radical Dharma. Radical, we’re sort of freaked out about that word because we have all kind of strange connotations of it in this country, but when I say radical it comes from the root radix, which means whole or complete, so to have a complete Dharma, to have a complete truth.
The complete truth means to be willing to investigate not just the parts of ourselves that feel like, “I can navigate that. I’m ready to get to that.” But rather to be really willing to cultivate our sense of a skill. Right? Sort of like entering into the cold beach water. You put a toe in and you put a foot in. You get an ankle in. You get in up to your calf and then your knee. But you have to be willing to keep stepping in further and further again in order to be able to swim in the great ocean of life that is available to all of us.
I think out of our cultural proclivity to package things, we have generated and passed on a kind of relationship to our inner life, to our spiritual life, to our practice life, to Dharma that is packaged and it is well-maintained and it’s stuck in a particular place, where we put it on Tuesday evenings from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Really the idea of such a powerful and potent practice as is meditation, is to actually to draw the lens back as far as we possibly can and on to the entirety of our lives, and so that is the entirety of our trauma, the entirety of our wounding, the entirety of our history, the entirety of how take care of ourselves, how we relate to ourselves and others. When I say others, not just the others that we feel comfortable with, but the people that we feel most other from.
For me, that’s a radical practice, and so my own practice has been to keep saying, “And where have I not yet looked and where have I not yet looked?” And to be willing to investigate the places that I have not yet turned the light of the Dharma on, to turn the light of my practice on, to bring into, to invite into my meditation practice and really to sit with those places, and allow what is true for me and what is real for me to come up, and to do that without judgment and to feel what I feel, and to allow that to simply be there, to be in relationship with it, and then to carry on from there.
I think that what it is, is not so much that I’m choosing to be a warrior, but rather when we clear the things that are in our path, when we just take care of the stuff that’s in our path, that’s hidden because we’ve been taught to avoid it and to make it go away, that what emerges is the warriorship, the fearlessness that is actually just true for all of us. It’s how we come.
TS: At this point, Reverend angel, I would love it if you could take us through the practice that you’ve offered to teach as part of the Meditation Summit, a practice on Effort and Release. How to practice? To begin could you introduce the practice to us?
aKw: Yes, sure. This practice comes from my own experience with yoga. I have developed a practice I call Fearless Yoga. In going through the Yoga Sutras, the classic text in yoga, there is a part that talks about these two essential elements to practice, and I translate them as effort and release. That is to say that on the one hand we want to really establish the basics of our practice, the firm foundation, building in the structure and giving it everything you got.
So really show up to your practice, you really show up to the moment that’s in front of you, and then you release. You release all of the effort so that what you’re not doing is that you’re not continuing to effort as part of the practice, that the effort is actually made up of this, I want to say, blending or integration. It’s really a blending of effort on the one hand and release on the other. The reasons that I developed that practice, I do a lot of work with people that do social change and there’s a strong orientation towards doing, getting things done, accomplishing.
I think that we brought a lot of that sensibility, the sort of doer, the work ethic of like, “We have to do. We have to accomplish something,” to our mindfulness and meditation practices in general. What we’re doing actually is creating more anxiety around the very practice that’s intention, I think, is ultimately to liberate us from a sense of doing anything other than being who we are. So Effort and Release is about how to practice really being who you are.
TS: I’m glad you’re going to teach this because I think that often people with their meditation practice end up feeling either the saying, “Too tight. Too much effort,” or “Too loose.” Before you know it, they’re collapsed and falling asleep, so I’m curious to know how you’ll balance these two or blend, so let’s do it.
aKw: OK. What I want to do is first set out a basic understanding of what it is we’ll be doing, as I spoke about it a little bit. The idea is that I’ll give instructions. We’re setting the foundation and we’ll build a structure of a meditation, a seated meditation posture. The idea is that everything that is not necessary to maintain the structure of the posture, so whatever we don’t need that actually maintains the inner workings that hold us up is what we’re going to let go of. That’s the basic idea, effort on the one hand and then release, and allow ourselves to simply relax into it. Another way of saying that, also we say the upright and flexible.
We start with actually finding our ground. I like to use the same basic instructions that is used in a Zen how-to-sit instruction that’s given by a 12th century Zen master, Dogen. He gives these instructions and basically says, so you want to find your comfortable seat. Really find your sits bones and make sure that they’re really, really firmly connected to the seat beneath you, whether that’s your cushion or your chair, whatever you’re sitting on. I think for many people, we often miss out on that particular instruction. We tend to sit up high, where our sit bones are not fully rooted.
The way that you want to do that is actually grab a hold of your buttocks and pull the buttocks so that you can actually find the bony protrusions underneath you, and connect them firmly to the seat and to the cushion. You want to have a sense of stability so that when you think about moving, that moving doesn’t automatically happen. You want it so that you’re so firmly rooted that it takes some effort actually to move you from your seat, and so you want to have a strong and solid seat.
From there, we’ll build upwards. You want to press your crown towards the sky so we have a firm ground and then the dynamic tension of pressing the crown towards the sky. What that does is to create a length in your—so you want to have a length in your spine. There’s an instruction that says, have your ears against your shoulders. Ears against the shoulders means that there’s also dynamic tension so that you’re creating width. We often think of meditation as sort of like long and skinny way, or we get up very high and then we collapse because we can’t keep that up.
I think actually the key thing in creating a firm structure is actually to have a wide base that’s under our bottom, but also to have a sense of width and relationship from the left to the right. The way that you do that is really to push your shoulders outward away from your ears. That’s ears against the shoulders and that’s what that means, so you’re pushing your shoulders out. You’ll know that you’re doing that because you’ll feel a sense of your rib cage expanding, exposing the heart, and you’ll generate more of a sense of relationship with the world, rather than other forms or approaches to meditation that actually tend to turn you so far inward that you actually feel cut off from the world.
This practice is actually designed to allow us to feel fully present in relationship with the world. I’ll step back and say also the ears are aligned with the shoulders as well. That means that you’re not pitching forward nor are you setting back, so your ears are really well aligned with the shoulders. Your nose is aligned and against the navel so you’re not tipping either to the left or to the right. The nose is aligned with the navel, so a plumb line, drop straight down, and also against the navel. That is to say that you have a dynamic tension where your navel is held downward by the broad base underneath you and your nose is headed upwards with the crown of your head.
Again, this creates the sense of dynamic tension so now you have a strong base, you have dynamic tension going to the sides, as well as up and down. As you could see, you’re really pushing all of your being outward. You can think of like the David where everything is pushing outward and in relationship. Simply allow your elbows to just fall down by your side. The instruction I often give is to act as if you have an egg underneath your armpit. It’s a raw egg, so you don’t want to squeeze it and you don’t want to flack your arms out so far that the egg falls out and breaks, so it’s a soft rested place.
Just allow the hands to—people think a lot about the hands. Just allow the elbows to pivot in and then just rest of your lap, or if you like a particular way of holding your hands, a mudra of having the hands folded on top of each other, you can do that as well. Finally, just do a little bit of swaying both to the sides and then back and forth where you can feel the sweet spot that’s in the middle of both of those directions.
Finally, one long out breath. I like to begin with an out breath because we’re often overstimulated, and so in breaths stimulate us. If we begin actually with one long out breath—I give the instruction in this way. You actually want to set that posture, so strong foundation. Find your sit bones. Crown to the sky. That’s sit upright. Bring your ears against your shoulders and aligned, and your nose against your navel, also aligned. Your center of gravity is dropped down into your belly as you bring your arms alongside of your body, pivoting the hands in to rest on your lap or on your knees, wherever is comfortable just so that you’re not pulling the arms forward and that when you imagine what happens with gravity in 20 minutes, that it’s not pulling you in any particular direction. That when gravity pulls down on you, you find yourself still grounded and centered.
Now you’ve got all that effort and energy that’s pushing out in these different directions. Finally, with one out breath you release all of the air that you have in your belly, in your chest. I truly mean everything, so all of the air that you have. It would sound something like this. [Breathing out] When nothing is left, you simply release the diaphragm and then continue with a natural breathing. As you do that one long out breath, what you’re also doing is with the out breath is letting the effort that is involved in pressing against the nose, the nose and the navel, the ears and the shoulders, you’re letting the muscular effort go. You’re allowing the muscles to simply rest on the skeletal structure and not applying any more effort.
The only way that that works is if you set the foundation from the beginning, which is why we went through it very meticulously step by step. Once that structure is there, once you set a ground, once you have a rootedness that is a solid base beneath you, really having given yourself fully to extending, to broadening and being wide in relationship, but also extending into your full length, and I like to say that that’s extending. When you open into your full length you’re actually expressing your dignity, your inherent dignity. Then releasing with one out breath any kind of effort, any sense of there’s something to do, there’s something that you have to accomplish.
You do that both physically and symbolically by letting it go in your mind on the out breath. If all of your attention is actually on that out breath, then there is nothing else to be thinking about, so you’re fully placing your attention there and simultaneously letting go of the efforting that is involved with your muscular body. All that is left, all that remains is the solid foundation and the solid structure that you have created for you to simply relax and to be with.
One more time. We just walk through that very quickly so that it doesn’t feel disconnected from the instructions. You create the solid ground by finding your sits bones and you’re going to sit upright pressing your crown towards the sky. Broaden, widen into a sense of relationship by pressing your ears against your shoulders and lengthen into your dignity by pressing your nose against the navel. Allow your center of gravity to drop down and rest in your belly because our belly is the center of our action and it’s where we keep what matters to us rooted and at the very center of our being so that we can maintain what’s important to us. With one full out breath, you’ll give one full out breath, and it’s really complete, as you do that, releasing all muscular effort that’s not necessary to maintain the structure of the posture, so complete out breath.
With that, casting the eyes downward. If that’s too difficult for some people, you may start with your eyes closed, but I encourage you to actually keep the eyes slightly open so that you let light in and you remain in relationship with your surroundings. Then simply notice your breath and whatever the quality of your breath is. It may be short. It may be long. It may feel deep or it may feel shallow. Perhaps it’s very smooth or perhaps it is feeling unsettled. Whatever it is, there’s no need to actually change it in any way, so there’s no effort involved in noticing the breath as it is, other than the effort of attention. And keeping the attention on this single point of the breath.
Where you choose to keep your attention on the breath should be wherever it feels most noticeable, most prominent, most alive for you, whether that’s the nostril or by your lips if your slips are slightly parted, wherever it is—maybe it’s your chest. Maybe it’s your belly. Wherever it is, is not important, but rather that you are comfortably able to keep your attention or to bring your attention to the breath. Consider that that is the single point of your practice for this time.
Here’s the other key part of the instruction. Whenever you notice your attention has left your breath. It may happen in just a second. It may happen in 10 seconds. It may happen in 10 minutes. It doesn’t really matter when. Whenever you notice that your attention is what I call other than the point, meaning it’s other than the point that you have chosen to focus on, you simply pick the attention up and bring it back to the point. Here is what it is. Anything that is other than where you have chosen to put your attention is other than the point, so you don’t have to struggle with some exact position, but rather, “This is what I’ve chosen and this is what I’ll be keeping my attention to keep it on point.”
When it’s any place else, when it’s thinking about dinner or it has wandered off to the sounds that are far away outside of me, whether it’s replaying the conversation that I had earlier or something that happened in the past that I wish I could have done differently, or even if it’s wondering, “Why can I not keep my attention on this point?” that’s still other than the point. So you simply bring your attention back to the point of your meditation.
In this way, what we come to understand is that meditation is not so much, in this particular practice, it’s not so much about whether you keep your attention on a particular point, but rather it’s about whether you choose to bring yourself back to the point once you have lost it. So there is a releasing of a fixation on staying on the point, but rather allowing ourselves to develop the capacity to notice when we’re some place other than where we choose to be.
Let’s just practice that for a few moments in finding that place of attention and the point that we want to focus on.
As we notice our attention in some place other than our chosen point, as we will notice, the most important thing is to choose to bring our attention back to whatever our point of focus we have chosen [is]. The effort is to place our attention to notice when we have gone some place other than where we choose. Without judgement, pick up the attention and put it back, and then release anything else that is other than simply maintaining the fundamental structure of our practice.
In this way we can release a sense of over-efforting while still having a strong foundation and structure. We can release a sense of anxiety about having to stay in the right place. We can release a sense of accomplishment, knowing that simply the willingness to choose to come back to wherever we choose to have our focus is the meditation.
Finally, as we draw our practice to a close, we can simply bring a sense of gratitude for the entire range of experience that we have during our practice, both the times that we were on point and the times that we were off point, and especially the times that we decided to come back to wherever it is that we choose to make our focus, as many times as we need to do it, over and over again, and just appreciate the entire experience for what it is.
TS: Thank you, Reverend angel Kyodo williams. I feel a joy to be on the planet at the same time that you are, so I want to thank you, and also for participating in Sounds True’s Meditation Summit. Thank you so much.
aKw: Thank you so much.
TS: You’ve been listening to my conversation with Reverend angel Kyodo williams. Rev. angel, along with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, George Mumford, and many others will be featured presenters in Sounds True’s A Year of Mindfulness, a new year-long online offering which features broadcasts each month and trainings to bring mindfulness off of the cushion into every area of your life. A Year of Mindfulness begins on February 13, 2017. For more information, please visit SoundsTrue.com and look for A Year of Mindfulness. SoundsTrue.com, many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.