inner city

Healing Trees

By Vaughn Lovejoy My work with TreeUtah, a nonprofit tree planting organization, allows me to work with inner city schools, neighborhood projects, and ecological restoration projects. I came to this job out of concern for the natural world. Though it, my heart has opened to the beautiful, young children living amidst poverty, violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, and broken families in my community. I have come to see that environmental and social issues are connected, and I have tried to use tree planting and mindfulness to address both issues.

This year we introduced the Healing Tree Program. We plant a tree to bring healing to the neighborhood or schoolyard where it will grow. I explain to the elementary school students that for thousands of years, trees have been a symbol of the unification of heaven and earth. The roots of a tree go deep within the earth and the branches reach into the sky. I explain that the earth is like our body and the sky is like our mind. If mind and body are brought together in harmony, then like a tree, we can be a blessing to our community.

Before we plant the tree, I have the children imagine a tree of light in their hearts. I suggest that they may plant a healing tree in their own inner world, where they can go for nourishment and safety whenever they need to. I tell them that like the tree we are planting in their schoolyard, the trees they plant in their hearts need care. I tell them that I spend time every day taking care of my inner healing tree by paying attention to my breathing. On my in-breath I imagine healing light nourishing my tree and say "healing" silently. On my out-breath I imagine loving light going out to the world and say silently "loving." While following this practice, the children and I plant the tree together.

Vaughn Lovejoy, True Holy Seed, practices with the Salt Lake Community of Mindfulness in Utah.

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Being Born a Person of Color

by Larry Ward mb37-Being1

It is a miracle to be born. It is also a miracle to be born as a person of color. While it is true that most of the people in the world are people of color, it has rarely been seen as a miracle but rather as an overwhelming burden and devastating curse. Attending the People of Color Retreat at Deer Park Monastery was a deep joy for me. It was healing to practice with such a multicultural Sangha.

It is a rainy day here in Asheville, North Carolina. The city is surrounded by fog; the air is thick and it is often difficult to see clearly. I catch only glimpses of the green trees through the large raindrops that are nourishing the earth. My journey with the spiritual aspects of being a person of color has been like today’s weather––a lot of fog interspersed with glimpses of clarity.

While growing up in the inner city of Cleveland, Ohio, my greatest resource on my journey as a person of color were my parents and the inspiring men and women of the civil rights movement. My parents taught me to be respectful of everyone regardless of their color. They taught me to love my African American roots. They taught me the value of living a spiritual life. Through their storytelling, they also taught me the pain of discrimination, prejudice, and racism.

The inspiring heroes of the civil rights movement taught me to find my own dreams and discover my own courage in fulfilling the task of social justice. They taught me to think globally, as discrimination and prejudice know no borders. They taught me to act with compassion on behalf of the whole society.

Discovering a path of practice, supported by my teacher and the Sangha, has and continues to bring me deep healing and transformation which penetrates every fiber of my being and brings me peace, freedom, and understanding. This has come about through the continuous practice of recognizing and embracing my suffering, my anger, and my fear as a person of color. I have come face to face with the self-esteem complex in the seeds of my psyche and the collective psyche of our society. I have become more intimate with the pain of being devalued, threatened, and harmed; in so doing I have become more connected with the despair of my ancestors.

Through the practice of looking deeply I was astonished to discover how much hurt there was in every cell of my body. When the tears come I know they are the tears of my ancestors that are my self. I have learned to practice recognizing and embracing the gifts and positive energies of my ancestors that reside in every cell of my body.  I am learning to heal the negative patterns and energies that I have inherited. When the sadness of the wounds of time rises up within me, I go to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha as my refuge. I can truly say that through the practices the Buddha taught, my tears have become Dharma rain, nourishing my compassion for myself, my race, and all people.

I have discovered that my transformation and healing is the transformation and healing of my ancestors. I have learned that the roots of exercising bigotry towards others often mask a profound doubt in one’s own value, worth, and dignity. I have come to see that racism and discrimination at their roots are manifestations of the three poisons of which the Buddha spoke: hatred, greed, and ignorance. The practice of the mindfulness trainings are my raft over this ocean of disease. I am learning not to add to my suffering by caring for my body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.

This does not mean that all of my habits of mind and body that cause me and those around me to suffer have been removed. Nor does it mean that our society is rid of the mind of violence, hatred, and ignorance. It does mean that I feel safe and unafraid with my practice, my teacher, my family, and my Sangha supporting me. I enjoy sitting, lying, and walking meditation as they refresh my body and my mind. I participate in days of mindfulness and retreats whenever possible. This nourishment keeps me from losing hope in myself and hope in humanity.

Yes, it is a miracle to be born. It is also a miracle to be born as a person of color. I am touched by the miracle of all peoples, all places, and all times as I come home to the miracle that is myself.

Larry Ward, True Great Sound, received lamp transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh in 2001. Living in Asheville, North Carolina, he and his wife, Peggy Rowe, are co-directors of The Lotus Institute, which shares Thay’s teachings throughout the world. They live on four acres of land where they plan to build a lay practice center.

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Awareness in the Body

Tai Chi and Mindfulness

By Robert Wall

mb54-Awareness1

Kids love to move, and they love to investigate. I tried to keep this in mind as I planned a qualitative pilot study to see if combining tai chi and mindfulness practice would hold the interest of middleschool students. This mix of practices not only held their interest, it also produced positive outcomes.

I conducted this study in 2005 in a Boston inner city middle school where I was doing my nursing training. When the school nurse heard that I was a tai chi teacher, she suggested that I share this practice with the students. Being in a school setting made it easy to offer this class as an elective when kids were in school and had no other demands on their time. I designed a class that lasted one hour and met weekly for five weeks.

In my own practice of tai chi and meditation, I had learned that the body is of prime importance, as it offers many gates a person can go through to discover himself or herself. The Buddhist practice of awareness of the body in the body is one platform for discovering the essential oneness and uniqueness of life. Thay’s teaching emphasizes the importance of the body as a gate to enlightenment. He continually brings us to present-moment awareness of each footstep, each breath, each smile. I wanted to offer my students this practice that could help them in their own self-discovery. I shared what I had mastered: a tai chi form and core skills from mindfulness-based stress reduction meditation.

Love of Movement: Tai Chi

Tai chi is a martial art consisting of a formal and precise series of interpenetrating steps that engender well-being. Tai chi can be challenging to teach; it is not normally taught to children under age sixteen because of the attention and focus required. While yoga, dance, and sensory awareness practices may be more accessible to children and can be fun and full of self-discovery, they may not reach into a place where self-regulation occurs from the simplicity of sitting and breathing, or taking a precise step with correct posture.

mb54-Awareness2Teaching tai chi to the students provided an opportunity to introduce koans. The use of koans, non-linear stories or questions that can lead to insight, intrigued twelve-year-olds who were learning to manipulate abstract concepts. In one class I offered three boys the koan, “What is the door which is no door?” I showed the boys how to stand in horse stance, an important position in tai chi and chi gong. They made a slight torque of the knees outward and tilted the pelvis so that when I pushed with gradual force sideways on one boy’s hip or knee, the force of my push was directed downward into the earth through his skeletal structure (see photos on left). No resistance on his part was needed. No matter how hard I pushed, the boy’s core structure was configured in such a way that the push went into his feet. One boy understood this very readily; when he took any element out of the correct posture, he found he had to use muscular force and effort to resist the push. The koan opened up for him: the effortlessness he felt in non-resistance to the push when he was in horse stance was “the door which is no door.” Koans such as this one directly challenged linear thinking while revealing something the boys could sense physically but not put into words.

Love of Investigation: Mindfulness  Practice

At the beginning of each class, I asked each student to affirm that he or she was choosing to be there. I asked them, “What brings you here?” I introduced abdominal breathing and deep relaxation, which incorporated a body scan. I also introduced sitting and listening to a bell to hear sounds with equanimity.

In one exercise, we used an investigatory approach to explore the non-food elements in an apple. One boy, whom I will call Marcus, was particularly reticent to learn anything. When we began looking at the non-apple elements comprising the fruit, Marcus became more attentive. He had never thought about an apple this way before. I touched on the reality of migrant children whose families harvest the apples and who may not have insurance or housing. Immediately Marcus told me he knew what it meant not to have health insurance: his grandmother could never get the medicine the doctor prescribed for her. He had known what it was not to have housing when he and his brother lived for a time in a shelter.

We sliced the apple, heard its crunch, and smelled its fragrance. We were surprised by the coolness wafting out with the sweet smell. Marcus turned the slice in the afternoon sunlight that flooded the second story metal and glass room. He found a vein in the apple. He looked at the back of his hand and saw the veins there. He traced them with his finger and said, “Wow, the apple and me are the same.” After we let that sink in, we took a bite and tasted the sweetness, holding all these elements in mind with each bite.

This project taught practices to children who live in an urban environment that continually exposes them to power and aggression. Even in such a setting, the students made statements that showed they felt increased well-being, calm, relaxation, improved sleep, less reactivity, greater selfcare, self-awareness, and a sense of interconnection with nature as a result of taking the class.

I invite readers to consider offering to children in a school setting a movement practice such as tai chi, yoga, or chi gong in combination with exercises that introduce and encourage mindfulness practice.

mb54-Awareness3Robert B. Wall, Truly Holding Virtue, is a family nurse practitioner and a Buddhist chaplain at Mass General Hospital, Boston. He belongs to the House Sangha of Salem and Marblehead.

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