When I moved to Seattle, WA two years ago from Philadelphia, PA I was surprised at the difference in sangha culture. It took me awhile to find a practice community, mostly because there is only one in Thay’s tradition (the Mindfulness Community of Puget Sound, urban sister practice center to rural Mountain Lamp) and I lived quite far from it. When I arrived at MCPS a year later, I was happy to see such a strong, deeply-committed community but I wondered: where were the younger folks?
Practicing with elders is wonderful and incredibly enriching, but I also felt like I needed an opportunity to connect with people who identified as I did in the world (or perhaps were ‘identified’ despite their best intentions by society at large) and were going through some of the same life transitions – being a student, starting a career, building intimate relationships, understanding my own and others’ sexuality and sexual identity, understanding my own and others gender identity, etc.
I was lucky enough to participate in a few Wake Up events in Philadelphia and was eager to continue to explore Wake Up’s healing spirit and energy. As a person of color, I am aware that practicing with people who share my identities is a powerful gift, a chance to heal pain and suffering that might not otherwise be touched. In my experience, personal positionalities – whether societally imposed or self applied – require strong, contained spaces of practice to breach the walls that keep us separated – walls full of pain, fear, suspicion, loss, and heartache. We come together within our identities to remember our strength, resilience, connection, and to fall in love with life all over again.
After a few months of practicing with MCPS, I was approached by the folks putting together the PNW Wake Up tour to see if I could help in organizing. With the help of the People of Color and Allies Sangha of Seattle (POCAS), a room was secured for an event on the University of Washington’s Campus. MCPS also supported the tour by allowing the practice center, Dharma Gate, to house a non-residential weekend Wake Up retreat and to serve as a dorm for the tour facilitators. What a great experience!! Singing, laughing, crying – practicing together helped shift so much pain and suffering in the hearts of the retreatants. There was so much joy nourished, so much happiness shared – writing about it makes me smile even now! The experience convinced a few of us that a Seattle Wake Up group was possible – a month or so later firstname.lastname@example.org was born.
Seattle Wake Up wanted the chance to practice together with other Wake Up sanghas across the Pacific Northwest in a retreat setting, so when I was asked to be part of a planning team to help put together a 5 day retreat at Mountain Lamp, I readily agreed. My greatest aspiration is to share the dharma with those who would like to receive it – those seeking comfort and spiritual nourishment. I was not about to pass up the opportunity to be of service. What I didn’t know was how much the experience would serve me.
Arriving at Mountain Lamp, I was awestruck: the hills rolled and the birds and butterflies sang for me. I was so eager to meet all of the retreatants and to practice with them in this sacred space. We laid out our goals. We wanted to:
(1) Create a format that would allow for mindfulness instruction but emphasized the fact that we were all on retreat together. Our peer facilitator format allowed for instruction without hierarchy, a central way of being within the Wake Up movement;
(2) Create opportunities for leadership development within the Wake Up Sangha. Central to this was helping folks learn how to invite the bell – as a central form of our practice, it was important for us to make sure everyone who wanted to had the chance to invite bells for at least one activity, no matter what their exposure might have been before. After all, if you don’t start somewhere you won’t be anywhere!;
(3) Finally, we also wanted to make sure that retreatants had FUN! Sitting and walking meditation is wonderful ,so we sought to have a strong practice schedule that left plenty of time to apply our mindfulness in activities such as swimming and canoeing in a lake, hiking, singing, dancing, and even a bonfire complete with vegan smores!
During the first day of the retreat, one of the retreatants and I began talking about our experience with the fifth mindfulness training, specifically around compulsive over-eating. This is something that has caused me a lot of pain and suffering in my life from a very small age. I have tried every book, every diet, every behavioral/cognitive trick, but have never been able to relieve the suffering nor get help. My new friend shared some stories and literature from a twelve step program that sought to help compulsive over-eaters like me with a solution that works: one based on deep spiritual work. The next day I stopped next to a beautiful old tree, (I always turn to trees in my moments of greatest despair – their solidity and steadiness soothe me) preparing to go on a trip to the lake, when I started sobbing. Huge waves of anger, resentment, frustration, loneliness, and despair welled up in me and moved through my tears – my new friend had shown me what my heart had been searching for – I needed the kind of help that came from connecting with others. I needed the strength of a power greater than myself. I needed a sangha dedicated to the alleviation of the compulsion to overeat. I finally had a solution – I was ready to begin the process of surrendering my years of pain and isolation. What a relief!
The physical retreat ended June 30th, 2013. I went to my first twelve step meeting July 1st, 2013. I have surrendered 13 lbs and am working, one day at a time, to surrender even more. I have no idea what I would’ve done if this retreat had not happened – if I had not been invited to show up for others and been gifted with the capacity to show up for myself. I feel that the balance between formal practice and time spent in community is what helped make my transformation possible. My heart was able to open wide and let in the light and love of a kind friend in the practice. This balanced format, for me, is the epitome of Engaged Buddhism – engagement with every moment, with each other, and most importantly, with ourselves. My dis-ease, once hidden away in the darkest corners of my heart, was showered with the light of compassion and understanding generated from our sitting, walking, and sharing mindfully together. I do not know what would have happened to me had this retreat not been there. I’m grateful to all those who have supported Wake Up in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the world, because thanks to them I do not have to find out.
May all beings be free from suffering. May they all be happy and healthy. May all beings be loved and cherished. May they all know peace.
Maria Y. Rodriguez is 30 and an aspirant to the Order of Interbeing. She has participated in Wake Up events in Philadelphia, PA and the Pacific Northwest. She is a Wake Up Ambassador for Seattle Wake Up, where she currently lives. Her dharma name is Compassionate Light of the Heart.