An Urban Retreat for People of Color By Valerie Brown Copyright 2010
“The value of a person is not his race or caste, but the value of his thinking, speaking, and acting. We are noble not because of our race, but by our way of thinking, acting, and speaking.” -Thich Nhat Hanh, Colors of Compassion Retreat, Deer Park Monastery, Escondido, CA (2004)
After months of planning, hundreds of emails, meetings, and discussions, the Sanghas of the New York City and Philadelphia areas held our first People of Color Days of Mindfulness, supported by the monastics of Blue Cliff Monastery, on April 17 in West Philadelphia and on May 22 in Manhattan. These were the first People of Color Days of Mindfulness held outside monastery walls. For me, these days of practice marked a real “growing edge” of the Sangha and a unique moment to bring the collective energy of mindfulness to the heart of the largest cities in the United States.
Planning these events involved extraordinary attention to details. We made efforts to ensure that people of color from a wide array of backgrounds—Indian, Vietnamese, African American, Latino, and many others—felt cared for and loved. The Philadelphia Planning Team, all people of color, worked joyfully, knowing that our mindfulness in the present moment would form the base for our practice and the entire Sangha. We were well supported by Philadelphia area Sanghas, including Peaceful City Sangha, Lilac Breeze Sangha, Open Hearth Sangha, Willow Branch Sangha, and Old Path Sangha. The Philadelphia Shambhala Meditation Center Sangha offered considerable support as well. For the NewYork City Day of Mindfulness, the organizing team was supported by the Community of Mindfulness NewYork Metro and NewYork Insight Society. We took each email as an opportunity for practice.
Safe and Supportive Practice
The Philadelphia Day of Mindfulness would not have been possible without the loving support of the monks and nuns of Blue Cliff Monastery. Their mindful practice and sharing of personal stories was inspirational. Their words of encouragement and insight about handling difficult emotions, being aware of what supports us, and what to do with erratic practice, led to the emerging of a deep theme: the importance of connecting with like-minded people.
Many people were new to the practice or had practiced meditation in isolation for years. Initially, we came together with a sense of hesitation and fear. Slowly, we released these feelings through sitting meditation practice, gentle movement, rest, and outdoor walking meditation on the city streets. In group discussions, many expressed deep gratitude for creating a safe and supportive atmosphere where people of color could practice together, knowing that our practice would benefit not only ourselves, but the entire Sangha. By the end of the day, there were tears, laughter, and a strong desire to continue what was started.
Learning to Love Ourselves
For many of us, the gifts of time and space have become increasingly hard to find, especially in New York City. This People of Color Day of Mindfulness was a huge gift to us. The gifts of time, of space, of being truly present to ourselves—all these were ways of learning to love ourselves. I recall the words of Sister True Vow: “When you give yourself space, you give yourself love.”
We explored acknowledging and embracing our fears as they arise, and practicing listening deeply and communicating in a loving way. When asked about how to deal with difficult, harmful, deep-seeded patterns of communication, Sister Fulfillment said, “The greatest inspiration for your loved one is the fruit of your practice… Our transformation is the best we can do to help our loved one.”
Walking Meditation in the Big City
Perhaps the most moving moments for me were during walking meditation on the sidewalks, which were full of city life. I was particularly moved during the Philadelphia event. As we turned a corner, directly in front of our group of sixty people were two homeless men sitting on a park bench. They were visibly fascinated, sensing the peace in our movement. In Manhattan, the experience was even more profound. People stopped and looked in wonder, knowing that something they could not explain was happening as our group of seventy-five people walked by mindfully.
I grew up in New York City and know the streets well. Normally, I am in a rush, walking, thinking about my destination or a project. I live by the language of speed, pushing myself to do more and try harder, and I am rewarded for it at work. But on this day, despite the traffic, crowds, people on skateboards, people walking their dogs and eating from street vendors, it all seemed so very interconnected, and our group of people of color seemed to fit beautifully and seamlessly into the flow of city life. A feeling of great luxury and ease came over me as I walked slowly, feeling the soles of my shoes on the cement sidewalks. Going slowly while everything around me moved at high speed, my experience seemed almost surreal. As I looked around me, some people stopped while others seemed unphased by it all. At that moment I felt so much freedom—freedom from deadlines, projects, and pressing obligations. It was a moment of great happiness.
A Step Forward
Both of these People of Color Days of Mindfulness came together organically. I am sure that we as a Sangha benefited those who participated and those who witnessed our energy of mindful walking, as well as those who assisted us but did not attend the events. The Sangha has made an important step forward by offering both Days of Mindfulness to the wider people of color community. Many people who attended had never participated in this type of event, but were very open. I am hopeful that the Sangha will continue to offer urban practice days for people of color, knowing that mindfulness at its core is about developing a heart of love.
Valerie Brown, True Power of the Sangha, was ordained as an OI Member in 2003. She is a founding member of Old Path Sangha in New Hope, PA, and has attended every People of Color Retreat since their inception in 2004 at Deer Park Monastery. Her essay on mindfulness is featured in Thay’s new book on People of Color, We Are All Together.