GPS of the Mind (March 2014)
Shambhala Sun | March 2014
The GPS in your car
can tell you the best road to take, but what helps you navigate life? What you
need, says SYLVIA BOORSTEIN, is a...
GPS of the Mind
The GPS in my car
never gets mad at me, no matter how many times I turn to avoid the torn-up
street she has recommended. She just says, “Recalculating” and directs me to
turn right, and then right again, until I am back where she wanted me—on the
street blocked by construction.
Again I select an
alternative route. She quietly but firmly repeats, “Recalculating,” and I say
back, “Hold on. Keep talking if you want. I know where I’m going. I’ll soon be
where you want me to be.” When I finally rejoin the route she was aiming for, I
almost expect her to say, “Good girl, Sylvia! You did it,” but she never does.
We drive together quietly until the next time I need to disobey her
instructions and she is right there again, firm but never impatient, ready to
straighten me out.
I am trying to
cultivate a mind like a GPS. My mind GPS would be ever vigilant to where I am and
unwavering in clarity about my destination, all the while never losing its
patience and never challenging my confidence.
My car GPS supplies
a running graphic of a tiny car driving along my intended route and showing
roads branching off from it that it hopes I’ll avoid. It offers advance
warnings—“In two miles, keep left”—so I can avoid mistakes.
My mind GPS would
help me choose, moment to moment, the route that cultivates and maintains
wholesome states in my mind. Any detour would immediately initiate a warning
signal: “Leading to Unwholesome! Slow down! Consider! Maybe you need to back
up! Or turn around!”
I especially value
the Return Home icon on my car GPS, which automatically routes me back to my
home address in California. The Return Home icon on my mind GPS would
automatically reroute me to Mindful (for clear seeing), Concentrated (for
confident stability), and Wise Effort.
Mind GPS is
particularly helpful in moments of hurt or confusion, when we are most likely
to take the wrong route. Here’s an example of how mind GPS works—how moment by
moment it calculates my mental position and guides me toward the wholesome and
away from the unwholesome.
I’m with someone
beloved to me—a close friend or family member—and suddenly they say something
that startles my mind. Perhaps I hear it as an unjust criticism. Or it sounds
cavalier. Or foolish. I feel my mind contract around the remark, notice the
unpleasantness of that contraction, and feel the impulse to protest arise in my
simultaneously (but actually next) I see a “rap sheet” unfurl in my mind
listing the many, many times this person has said or done something similar,
thus building the case for a protest. But if my mind GPS is alert and steadily
intending toward the wholesome, I also see the possibility of relaxing the
impulse to act.
This moment of ease
allows my mind to return to its normally wider view that includes the many
sterling qualities of this beloved person. The confusion in the mind
disappears. I can carry on the conversation as if nothing more significant than
a sneeze had happened.
When I make the
right choice at this fork in the road—avoid the route that leads to tumult and
take the one that builds closer bonds of connection—I feel, “Whew! Just dodged
a bullet. I could have messed up the afternoon, mine and the other person’s,
and I didn’t.”
Or imagine this
recent experience: I was standing on a New York City street corner on a cold
November evening buying gloves from a sidewalk vendor. I was shifting and
tapping my feet side to side trying to warm them.
“Back up a little,”
the vendor said to the person behind me. “Don’t crowd in so close.”
“Hey,” the man
behind me replied, “I’m just watching the old lady dancing.”
I felt tears in my
eyes. I paid for my gloves and left. “Old lady?” “Dancing?”
I continued down
the street toward Lincoln Center imagining my mind as a deflating balloon, my
sense of myself as chic and sprightly morphing into old and humiliated, and
then giving way to a list of self-critical remarks beginning with “You should
have remembered to pack gloves!”
I was just about to
start an internal lament about how the evening I was anticipating was ruined,
how the zest for it that I’d felt in my mind was all gone, when I thought,
“Stop! The remark happened back there. The ruining is happening now!”
I started to laugh
at this point, thinking how easy it is for my mind to run away with itself down
a road going no place good. It’s as if it becomes intoxicated by a whiff of
drama—“Such a sad story happened to me today walking down Broadway”—that it
forgets that clarity, the plain truth, is the antidote to confusion.
The plain truth is
that I am an old woman. And I was, so to speak, dancing at the vendor’s stand.
And I did forget to pack gloves.
Also, I was meeting
a friend I love for an evening of dinner and a concert on a cold night in New
York City, where all the trees on Upper Broadway are wrapped in strings of
white lights. It was an easy decision whether to embellish the glove story and
suffer or to take the other fork in the mental road and rejoice in my good
fortune at being alive and well in this moment.
In the end, I spent
a relatively short time wandering on a side road of discontent before rescuing
the evening, but I could have done it sooner. I could have avoided a lot of
struggle by addressing the pain immediately. I could have, at the moment when I
heard the remark and tears came to my eyes, acknowledged to myself, “I’m in
pain!” Instinctively, I would have taken some slow, deep breaths—always a comforter
to anyone in pain—while I was paying for my gloves.
Perhaps I would
have thought to myself, “Relax, sweetheart. These things happen. You got
startled. You’ll be fine.” Holding myself in compassion would have inhibited my
mind from making negative judgments about myself. And, as I walked on, had I
felt that an echo of pain was still reverberating as confusion in my mind, I
might have brought my attention to the people all around me and felt supported
by their company. I might have appreciated the lights in the trees on Broadway
and admired the skill of the people who had strung them all through the
Here is the short
formula for recovering from confusing distress. This is the time when the GPS
for the mind is the most useful, since it is when we are in most danger of
taking an unwholesome path.
Acknowledge the distress. “I’m in pain” always works for me, regardless of the
particular flavor of challenge.
2) Do something to
regain your balance. Deep breaths usually work well for me.
3) Notice how your
mind, awakened, sees possibilities clearly.
4) Choose the road
that leads to happiness. Pay attention to the present moment, without opinions.
5) Enjoy the relief
of a mind restored to ease. This builds confidence and makes it a habit.
Such moments of
restoring the mind to comfort happen to me all day long. Things happen. It’s
incredibly easy to become annoyed. Or dispirited. Or bewildered by lust,
restlessness, or doubt. The Buddha named these energies of confusion the five
“hindrances to clear seeing,” because they arise in the mind in response to
challenge and subvert clear decision-making.
Probably most of us
can recall an instance of finding ourselves eating a slice of pizza or a
Dunkin’ Donut and thinking, “How did this happen? I was walking along the
street on my way home and suddenly the smell of pizza (or doughnuts) wafted by
my nose. Apparently I veered into the store, and here I am eating.”
Although eating a
slice of pizza or a doughnut is usually a benign action, sometimes—for people
with certain allergies or illnesses—it isn’t. Other impulses, those motivated
by clearly unwholesome impulses such as greed, anger, or revenge, are never
mind GPS remembers that between every impulse and resulting action is the
possibility of careful reflection. It signals, “Slow down. Think. Where do you
want to go? Recalculate!” The experience that triggers the mind GPS into action
is always a moment of realizing something does not feel right.
“Where do I want to
go?” is the reference point for my practice. If I say, “I think my practice is
working,” I don’t mean that I never fall into dismay or never act
thoughtlessly. I do. It means I become aware, sooner than I used to, that I’ve
taken a wrong turn and am heading into confusion and distress. That moment of
clarity dispels confusion and I recognize, from the sense of peace and ease I
feel in it, that I’m back on the right track.
is the central teaching in the Buddha’s Discourse to His Son Rahula. He
advises Rahula to think before, during, and after every action about
motivation. “Is what I am about to do (am doing, or just did) for my benefit as
well as for the benefit of all beings?” And, of course, the Buddha goes on to
say that if the answer is no, then the action should not happen or should stop.
Amends should be made for any negative impact that has already happened.
I think it would be
easy to misunderstand this instruction as mandating moving very, very slowly
all the time and hesitating before any move. That would make ordinary,
relational, everyday life awkward. I think it’s actually much easier than that.
I think that the Buddha’s instruction to Rahula (and to us) can be understood
as, “Cultivate wholesomeness—generosity, patience, candor, kindness—and enjoy
the pleasure of their ongoing presence in your mind. Notice any arising of
unwholesome states in your mind and discourage them. Steady your attention.
(Concentrate!) Recognize these unwholesome states as painful, temporal, and
insubstantial and be attentive to their disappearance. (Be Mindful!) Choose to
maintain a clear and untroubled mind. (Make Wise Effort!)”
I think as human
beings we are born with prototype mind GPSs preset to aim generally in the
direction of feeling safe and happy. We do the best we can to make our way
through the inevitable challenges of our lives. My practice goal is refining my
attention and intention so I am more able to hear my GPS signaling me to notice
either “You’re in pain, Sylvia. Recalculate!” or “You are holding steady in a
good direction, Sylvia. Continue!”
Sylvia Boorstein, Ph.D., is a cofounding teacher of
Spirit Rock Meditation Center and the author of many best-selling books on
Buddhism and mindfulness, including
Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life.
Inside the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine
Look inside the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine
FEATURING: Pema Chödrön's 4 Keys to Waking Up; bell hooks & Eve Ensler on fighting domination and finding love; Sylvia Boorstein's "GPS for the Mind"; Lisa Carver on Yoko Ono; Ruth Ozeki, Natalie Goldberg, book reviews, and more.
Click titles below to read excerpts and select complete articles.
this issue's editorial:
ANDREA MILLER on why this issue of the magazine shouldn't be considered special.
On retreat with Pema Chödrön at Omega Institute, the Shambhala
Sun’s Andrea Miller explores these four essential ways to walk the
When we honor life but don’t make it a big deal, we lighten
up, open up, and become more joyous. The fancy name for that, says Pema
Chödrön, is enlightenment.
Awash in the pain of betrayal and a failed marriage, Laura
Munson practices Pema Chödrön’s teachings on loving-kindness. It’s hard but it
The GPS in our car tell us the best route to take, but what
helps us navigate life? Sylvia Boorstein shows us how to stay on the
Fighting domination, finding love, connecting with our
bodies—feminist leaders and meditators Eve Ensler & bell hooks
In war-torn Congo, Eve Ensler learns what love can
When we and our work are one, says Roshi Pat Enkyo
O’Hara, even the most mundane of life’s activities are profound and
Vacationing on Hawaii’s Big Island, Judy Panko Reis
suffered an unspeakable crime. Decades later, she sees that out of even the
darkest violence a new life can emerge.
Performance artist Lisa Carver celebrates Yoko Ono,
who taught her to do what “isn’t done.”
At her grandfather’s grave, Rachel Neumann’s anger
erupted, but who was there to yell at in those long-buried remains? We are all
like empty boats bumping against each other.
Taz Tagore, one of the two founders of New York City's Reciprocity Foundation, on taking
kids from the streets to a new life. (It starts inside.)
She was the kind of person who might suddenly ask, “How do
you know love?” Natalie Goldberg on loving and losing a special friend.
Reviewed by Karen Maezen Miller
This issue’s roundup features books on conflict resolution,
yoga, stress reduction, ecology, and more.
Ruth Ozeki on Ono no Komachi
Shambhala Sun, March 2014, Volume Twenty Two, Number 4.
Books in Brief (March 2014)
Shambhala Sun | March 2014
Books in Brief
Suicide and Loss
By Robert E.
Lesoine with Marilynne Chöphel
Parallax Press 2013; 176 pp., $14.95 (paper)
practitioner Robert Lesoine was at the dentist with his mouth full of equipment
when his cellphone rang. It was his best friend’s ex-wife calling, but she was
screaming and crying so hard that she was incomprehensible. Finally Lesoine understood:
his best friend had killed himself. For two years following this loss, Lesoine
kept a journal to help him work through his profound grief—the shock and
disbelief, the rage and sorrow. Unfinished Conversation incorporates
moving sections from the journal, plus writing prompts, meditations, and other
practical suggestions for finding support in the wake of a loved one’s suicide.
Lesoine’s collaborator, Marilynne Chöphel, is a marriage and family therapist
who specializes in the treatment of acute and relational trauma.
WIND AND RAIN
The Life of
Story by Ven. Miao
You, art by Yan Kaixin
Buddha’s Light Publishing 2013; 160 pp., $9.95 (paper)
Publishing is translating a series of Chinese graphic novels telling the life
stories of great Buddhist monastics. Wind and Rain is the biography of
the Rinzai Zen monk and poet Ikkyu. Rumored to be the illegitimate son of
Emperor Go-Komatsu, he was a fifteenth-century vagabond who is celebrated for
attaining enlightenment at Lake Biwa when a crow cawed. Wind and Rain is
the sanitized, all-ages version of his story. There’s no mention of his
notorious consumption of alcohol or his late-life lover, Mori, a blind singer.
The emphasis is instead on Ikkyu’s deep commitment to justice. From a young age,
he criticized the corruption he saw in both the aristocracy and Buddhist
institutions and he sought out teachers who, like him, shunned material wealth
and titles. Amid the hardships of war, he organized relief for the poor and
helped create and rebuild temples. Ikkyu passed away in his eighty-eighth year
in the middle of autumn.
BUDDHA’S BOOK OF
and Peace with Mindfulness Meditation
By Joseph Emet
Tarcher 2013; 224 pp., $15.95 (paper)
The first noble
truth in Buddhism is dukkha, which is most commonly translated as
“suffering.” But as Joseph Emet points out, some leading translators are now
rendering this Pali word as “stress.” Buddha’s Book of Stress Reduction
begins by exploring the stressful impact of our to-do lists. The average
toddler smiles six hundred times a day, but as we grow up our focus shifts from
the present to future goals, which limits our happiness. Emet is not suggesting
we throw away planning or any of our other adult life skills, but he is
recommending that we take more time to enjoy the present moment, even in the
face of the need to get things done. Emet goes on to address the myriad
elements of stress, such as past wounds, worry, irritation, anger, fear, work,
LOVE LETTER TO
By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press 2013; 144 pp., $14.95 (paper)
activists get a bad rap for being dour. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, however, is
anything but. Instead of finger-pointing and calling for austerity, his
solution to our environmental crisis is mindfulness. Through mindfulness, he
says, we realize that the Earth is not simply the ground beneath our feet—we are
the Earth. Every cell in our body comes from the Earth and is part of it. “We
are a living, breathing manifestation of this beautiful and generous planet,”
he says. When we know this, we fall completely in love with the Earth, and as
with anything we love, we naturally do whatever we can to take care of it. I
particularly appreciate Thich Nhat Hanh’s heartfelt description of seeing for
the first time photos of the Earth taken from space. He saw a glowing jewel and
recognized the Earth’s fragility. “Dear Earth,” he thought, “I didn’t know that
you are so beautiful. I see you in me. I see me myself in you.”
The Art of Transformation
Edited by Debra
Smithsonian Books 2013; 328 pp., $55 (cloth)
Yoga: The Art of Transformation is the sumptuous catalogue of a recent
exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. A
visual feast, it also offers essays by scholars tackling the convoluted history
of yoga. In today’s yoga studios, it’s commonly believed that the earliest
evidence we have for yoga is a third-millennium BCE clay seal from the Indus
River Valley. According to scholar David Gordon White, however, this depiction
of a figure seated in a cross-legged posture is not conclusive evidence
that yoga was practiced at that time. After all, images of figures in this very
same posture also hail from ancient Scandinavia and other locales. Additional
thought-provoking angles covered in this book include the fact that European
bodybuilding influenced modern yoga, and that yoga is not just connected to
Buddhism and Hinduism but is also deeply connected to Jainism and Islam.
Indeed, Muslim interest in yoga dates back a thousand years to the scholar
al-Biruni, who translated Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras into Arabic.
A Zen Approach
to Conflict Resolution
By Diane Musho
Shambhala Publications 2013; 218 pp., $16.95 (paper)
When she was
growing up, Diane Musho Hamilton’s extended family had parties at her
grandmother’s house. By 9 p.m. the conversation was always lively, but by 1
a.m. arguments were brewing and soon someone was storming out the front door.
Hamilton was sometimes at the heart of the fray, at times an ally in the fight,
and at other times an unbiased observer. Curious about these different roles,
she went on to study mediation, and Everything Is Workable comes out of
her many years of work in that field. This book offers readers a new way of
thinking about conflict. It unpacks what Hamilton believes are the three
personal conflict styles and the three fundamental perspectives in any conflict
situation. Conflict is an inevitable part of life, Hamilton teaches, and if we try
to eradicate it in one area, it will simply manifest elsewhere. What we can
do—what we will ultimately find more useful and satisfying—is to accept
conflict and integrate it into our spiritual path.
APPRENTICE AT BEDTIME
Tales of Compassion
and Kindness for You to Read with Your Child—to Delight and Inspire
Watkins Publishing 2013; 128 pp., $16.95 (paper)
Some monkeys had a
penchant for stealing the king’s peaches and plums, and they were so wily that
the gardener was never able to catch them. One day, the cook’s daughter
suggested laying an enticing trap of cake. Sweets, she said, would make the
monkeys sleepy, and sleepy monkeys would be easier to catch. The shoemaker’s
son also had an idea: he’d make dazzling high heels, which the vain monkeys
would be unable to resist. It’s difficult to run away, he said, when wearing
impractical shoes. A few days later, the monkeys slipped into the orchard and
found a cake stand weighted down with cream-filled cupcakes and tree branches
hung with pumps. Indeed, the monkeys could not resist. They ended up trapped in
the king’s zoo and it took them a good long while to escape. “The Monkey
Thieves” is just one of the stories from the children’s book The Buddha’s
Apprentice at Bedtime. Like every story in the collection, it’s a modern
retelling of a Jataka Tale and it exemplifies a principle of the noble
eightfold path. Do not be greedy or vain is what this story teaches.
Editorial: Buddha's Daughters (March 2014)
Shambhala Sun | March 2014
At the retreat I report on in this issue, Ani Pema Chödrön
talked about a dream she once had. In the dream, she was in the country,
perhaps at a monastery, and everyone there was busily preparing for the arrival
of Khandro Rinpoche, one of today’s preeminent women Vajrayana teachers.
“Ani Pema,” Khandro Rinpoche said when she finally arrived.
“Did you see the sunrise this morning?”
“No, Rinpoche, I didn’t. I was too busy.”
Khandro Rinpoche laughed and laughed. “Too busy to live
life?” she asked.
Since having this dream, Pema Chödrön says that whenever she
finds herself getting all caught up and habitually, compulsively doing
something, she thinks, “Too busy to live life? Too busy to be there for the sun
coming up or to notice anything?”
Did you happen to notice anything unusual about this issue’s
table of contents? That is, did you notice the names of the contributors? From
Ruth to Rachel, Laura to Lisa, they are all women. But we’re actually hoping
that you didn’t notice. Look at the cover—we haven’t made a big deal out of
there being only women on these pages or otherwise touted this as a “special”
issue. As we see it, the presence of women’s voices shouldn’t be something
special. It should be normal, and we’re treating it that way.
The reality, though, is that the publishing industry still
has miles to go in terms of gender equality. For some truly eye-opening
statistics on how many men versus women are published in magazines or have
their books reviewed, visit www.vidaweb.org, a website dedicated to women in the
literary arts. Spoiler alert: Women are given significantly less ink than men
in America’s magazine heavyweights, including Harper’s, The Atlantic,
and The New Yorker.
And this gender inequality in the publishing world is emblematic
of a wider problem. I’m thinking about violence against women, an issue that’s
addressed in bell hooks and Eve Ensler’s conversation “Strike! Dance! Rise!”
Ensler, a rape survivor herself, has spent seven years in Congo working with
women who’ve been brutalized and sexually assaulted. She and hooks grapple with
such complex questions as: How can white people help people of color without
reinforcing the framework of white privilege? How can trust grow between those
who have privilege and those who don’t? And after suffering violence and
trauma, what practices can help us come back to our bodies?
This issue also features teachings by three of America’s
most remarkable women Buddhist teachers, each practicing in a different
tradition. In “The Work of the Moment,” Zen teacher Pat Enkyo O’Hara asserts
that it doesn’t matter if we’re a garbage collector or an engineer; all work is
valid and meaningful. If we’re hung up on the status associated with our job or
the results of doing a particular activity, then we miss out on the opportunity
to fully experience the joy in the task at hand.
In “A GPS of the Mind,” Insight Meditation teacher Sylvia
Boorstein offers a fresh, modern take on classic Theravada wisdom for
choosing—moment by moment—the route to wholesome states of mind. If you’re a
Gen Xer like me, the word “wholesome” might come off as a little too unironic,
but keep in mind that wholesome is what makes us happy, while unwholesome is
what keeps us suffering. And, irony aside, who doesn’t want to be happy?
Following the article about my retreat experience with Pema
Chödrön, there is a teaching by her on shunyata, or emptiness. She says
that letting your thoughts go and just seeing what’s there when they’re gone is
a way of experimenting with shunyata. “This is actually the essence of
mindfulness practice,” she continues. “You keep coming back to the immediacy of
your experience, and then when the thoughts start coming up—thoughts like bad,
good, should, shouldn’t, me, jerk, you, jerk—you let those thoughts go, and you
come back again to the immediacy of your experience.” When we experiment with
shunyata in this way, we discover the open, boundless dimension of being.
If you enjoy the many varied voices of women in this issue,
you might wish to check out Buddha’s Daughters: Teachings from Women Who Are
Shaping Buddhism in the West. This anthology, which will be released on
April 8, has been created in partnership between the Shambhala Sun and
Shambhala Publications. It features teachings by Khandro Rinpoche, Pema
Chödrön, Pat Enkyo O’Hara, and Sylvia Boorstein, plus nineteen other remarkable
women teachers. In the Buddhist tradition, women have diligently practiced for
the last 2,600 years, often without recognition. We hope this anthology, as
well as this all-women issue of the Shambhala Sun, will serve as an
inspiration for today’s women practitioners.
—ANDREA MILLER, Deputy Editor
Strike! Rise! Dance! - bell hooks & Eve Ensler (March 2014)
Shambhala Sun | March 2014
Strike! Rise! Dance!
EVE ENSLER & BELL HOOKS on fighting domination and finding love
They’re two of the
most fearless women we know. bell hooks, a longtime contributor to the Shambhala
Sun, is a public intellectual who tells truth to power—and to all of us.
Eve Ensler is an artist-activist who has changed women’s lives with her play
that became a movement, The Vagina Monologues, and a global celebration
of women’s empowerment called One Billion Rising. Prepare to be challenged by
their dialogue on “Beyond the Body” held at The New School in New York City.
bell hooks: Eve and I agree that love begins with the body.
So we want to start our discussion with the whole question of
our bodies and where the love is.
Eve Ensler: Maybe I’ll start with how trauma and
violence take love out of the body, or at least make it hard to have love in
the body. How do we get back into our bodies after we’ve been traumatized? How
do we get back to the love in our body? How do we take back our bodies and see
them as these stunning miracles that were given to us? Just the way they are.
Because of the
methodology of violence, so many of us have become separate from our bodies. We
have become objects to ourselves. When I got cancer, and I woke up after nine
hours of surgery and had lots of organs and nodes missing, it was the first
time in my life I was in my body. I felt how amazing it is to have a
body! How incredible it is to have a body! It was like I hadn’t been getting it
my whole life. I didn’t get it. I have a body!
bell hooks: It is domination that separates us from our
body. People who read my books know I use the phrase “imperialist white
supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” [laughter] It’s not so much that I like
that phrase, but it connects all the forms of domination that are enslaving us
in the world today.
separates us from our bodies no matter which of those forms it takes.
Especially, we want to think about white supremacy and patriarchy—forms of
domination maintained by violence—that are primarily enacted on the bodies of
women and children. White supremacy has divided us along the lines of
bodies—black and brown bodies exploited, oppressed, and dominated by white
Eve’s new book, In
the Body of the World, is a memoir of her seven years working with women in
Congo. There are not many white women who put their lives on the line to help
protect and serve black women’s bodies. In fact, there’s hardly anybody at all
who puts their lives on the line for the redemptive saving of black women’s
bodies. So, I’m hoping that Eve will open her heart and share with us some of
what motivates her.
Eve Ensler: Seven years ago I interviewed an
extraordinary man named Dr. Denis Mukwege, who was nominated for the Nobel
Peace Prize this year. He is a surgeon and gynecologist who is devoting his
life as a Congolese man and a doctor to healing women who were being
eviscerated and raped and destroyed in war. Dr. Mukwege asked me, “Would you
come and help, because we’re completely alone and we’re drowning? We’re
drowning in the rapes; we’re drowning in the violence; we’re drowning.”
I went because he
moved me to my core. I went because the injustice that has been wrought on
black women’s bodies has always moved me to outrage. I spent weeks with women
at Panzi Hospital who had been eviscerated by a war over a mineral that is used
in our cellphones. I saw the hundreds and thousands of women’s bodies that were
literally being destroyed because of greed.
I was shattered.
Something changed in my life forever. The connections we’re talking about were
so clear—this colonial, capitalist plundering of a country, and of women’s
I met with many
Congolese women and asked them, “How can we serve you? What do you want us to
do?” I’ve been taught by activists throughout the world that our job as people
of privilege is to go and listen and serve. I have a motto over my desk that
says “Shut up and serve.” It’s not our right to dictate what people should do.
It’s none of our business. Our job is to find resources so people can do what
they do best.
The seven years
we’ve worked in Congo have been radically transformative for me. I watched the
women determine what they wanted, which became a community for survivors of
violence called City of Joy. It is owned by them, run by them, directed by
The women who come
there are all survivors of gender violence, so the first goal is to transform
their enormous suffering. But then we train them to be leaders. This morning I
was talking to the extraordinary director of City of Joy, Christine Schuler
Deschryver. We just had our fourth class graduate, so that’s now at total of
300 women who have graduated. It’s a miracle that happened because these women
had the resources to do what they do best. I think that’s what I’ve learned
about service—to be present when you’re needed and disappear when you’re not.
bell hooks: I want to ask you a hard question, Eve.
Because of internalized racism, when a white person comes to serve or help
people of color, we can put them in a position where we almost worship them and
not raise the kinds of critical questions we would ask people of color. So how
do you avoid reinforcing the framework of white privilege, for instance through
their gratitude? I think it’s a real question for privileged people of all
kinds when we go to serve people who are without privilege.
Eve Ensler: It’s something one struggles with. Look, I
grew up in a racist world. That conditioning, that story, is in me. So if I am
dominating, I want to be called on it. I want to be pointed out. Because we
need to keep decolonizing every day.
I’m just beginning
to understand the nature of true service, which is how we do the work and yet
know we’re not separate from the struggle. Gratitude would mean that I’m
somehow separate from the struggle, as opposed to being engaged in it. Why
should anyone be grateful to me? I’m part of this same struggle to end
capitalist patriarchy and racist practices. That’s what I feel my life is
devoted to, so where is the outside and where is the inside? I’m working to get
out of the outside and be more in the inside, if that makes sense.
bell hooks: Yet we are affected by how people perceive
us. Years ago when I wrote Ain’t I a Woman? I was accused of being
homophobic because I didn’t use the word “lesbian.” My lived experience in my
little Kentucky town had always been as an advocate, as an ally who could be
counted on to stand up for lesbian and gays. But as a nineteen-year-old who was
just beginning to create feminist theory, I felt that I shouldn’t say anything
about lesbianism because I didn’t know enough about it. I wish I could find the
words to talk about how crushed in my little spirit I was by that criticism.
So we don’t always
have control over how people respond to us, and that’s where the integrity of
one’s intentions are very important. Because—let me be totally honest—a lot of
times when you get slapped down, you want to just stay down. Then you have to come
back to your commitment to service.
What does it mean
to be a servant leader? I feel my life has been committed to militant,
visionary feminism, to using whatever insight this mind has to push
people—especially women and men of color—to be more engaged in the ways that
feminist thinking can alter our lives.
You know that Sweet
Honey in the Rock song that says Sometimes you look for friends, and friends
just can’t be found, and sometimes you’re standing all alone? That’s when
the strength comes in, and it comes from the level of your commitment and the
belief that you’re making a difference. For me, that rests on a larger
framework of spiritual practice. You keep asking yourself—through meditation,
through prayer—“What should I do? Where should I go?”
In the case of Eve,
her commitment to go to the Congo is dangerous. It’s about that kind of choice.
Many, many times I have thought about Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, two
wonderful Jewish boys and a black boy who died fighting for voting rights, and
asked myself, “What is it I’m willing to put my life on the line for? What am I
willing to give?” That is a question we have to continually ask ourselves: What
are we willing to give? What are we willing to do?
Eve Ensler: When you serve, there’s ego that’s operating
and then there’s the reason you’re there, which is to transform reality.
Sometimes they’re at odds. When The Vagina Monologues first started,
Rosie Perez and Lisa Gay-Hamilton had this vision to bring it to Harlem and do
this incredible women of color production. As we worked on it, all kinds of
class and race issues came up. Finally, they came to me and said, “We’ve
decided we really don’t want you in the show. We want it to be an all women of
thinking, “I’ve just been disinvited from my own show—but yeah, absolutely, I
will not be in the show.” Because this was a production looking at violence
against women of color, and women of color wanted to own that show. Part of me
felt really left out, but another part of me said, “The bigger story is
operating here. Shut up and serve.”
There’s that lesson
again. And in the end it was absolutely the right choice. But my ego wanted to
be in that show with all those amazing women! So part of service is learning to
let it go. It takes a lot of service and spirituality and coming into one’s
center to know the right places on that axis of service.
bell hooks: Most of America’s intimate social relations
are governed by racial apartheid. Many white people don’t have people of color
in the dailyness of their intimate lives. People may work in an office with a
black person, but when they go home their world becomes white again. In that
world of intimacy, the deepest forms of racial apartheid continue in our lives.
So, Eve, I want to
hear more about your own process of decolonization. Because part of how we get
away from imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is to decolonize
our minds. That’s true for all of us, irrespective of our color. What led you
to place your body within a sphere of equality with other bodies, and with
bodies of color?
Eve Ensler: To a large degree it was being a survivor
of violence myself. I came from a white middle-class family in which I was
treated with contempt. I was violated regularly. I was raped. I was beaten. I
was exiled from that family at a very young age, and I think as a result I’ve
always identified with people who have been annihilated and eviscerated,
bell hooks: But part of it—and this is where we link up
from two very different class and race locations—is your critical reflection on
what is taking place in society.
Eve Ensler: Absolutely. I grew up in the 1960s, and I
witnessed the incredible injustice that was being done to black people. My
witnessing of the racial oppression that existed in this country had, of all
the things in my life, including sexism, the deepest impact on me. I felt
called to that, but it took me a long time to understand how to be in that
struggle in a way where I would be welcomed and could serve in a meaningful
way. And be trusted. I think that was a big part of it.
bell hooks: Where does the trust come between dominator
and dominated? Between those who have privilege and those who don’t have
privilege? Trust is part of what humanizes the dehumanizing relationship,
because trust grows and takes place in the context of mutuality. How do we get
that when we have profound differences and separations?
Eve Ensler: I’ve always wished we could talk more
deeply about the distrust. Sometimes it feels like the Civil Rights movement
happened and then there was a blackout. We just stopped communicating. It was
as if it all got better—we were living in a post-racial world. As opposed to
examining on a much deeper level—on an emotional, political, and spiritual
level—what really goes on between people. What are the dynamics, what are the
thoughts, what are the feelings?
Congo is a perfect
example of this question of trust, because it was probably one of the most
colonized and pillaged places in the world. When Dr. Mukwege first invited me
to come, he was sure I wouldn’t show up, because everybody else promised they
would and then they didn’t. But I did show up, and every time I came back, they
would be even more amazed.
It’s taken a long
time to develop trust, but walking through that fire of distrust is part of
this struggle. To come up against people’s distrust and say, “Okay, it’s
completely legitimate distrust, and I’m going to keep showing up in the face of
it to see if we can move forward.”
Part of it is
understanding that it’s much bigger than you. You’re struggling on a much
bigger level for something. And also that when it hurts, it hurts! When people
don’t trust you, it does hurt. But that doesn’t mean you don’t keep going.
bell hooks: As I’m sitting here, I’m trying to imagine,
where are the spaces of change? In Congo, Eve has helped create the City of
Joy, which is one space of enormous change. But in the U.S., black females are
up against a media that is so powerful, and our bodies are part of this
plantation culture. Where is the space in popular culture where we can talk
about the black female body having dignity of presence and being? And not being
a body of despair.
Because behind all
of this trauma is grief and despair. Young black girls feeling that no one in
our society pays attention to the traffic in black women. No one noticed all
those black females who disappeared in Cleveland. No one talked about it, but
we are still talking about JonBenét Ramsey. Most of us cannot name the four
little black girls who were killed in the Birmingham church bombing. We can’t
recite the names of Carole Robertson, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Addie
Mae Collins the way we can rattle off the name of JonBenét. Even small black
children know who she is and that something had happened to her. How can we
have a world where the bodies of all women, and especially women of color, can
be defended and protected?
Eve Ensler: As Terrance McKenna says, culture is not our
friend. We have to unplug from the culture and create our revolution where you
are. We’ve become passive recipients of a culture that is not only dividing us
from each other but from ourselves.
bell hooks: Thich Nhat Hanh says that you are what you
are watching. Technology has made it so we consume so many more negative
images. When I saw that Miley Cyrus video, which people forced me to watch
[laughter], I kept thinking about how ugly the bodies were, how ugly the
message was, how degraded sexuality was. Yet everybody was watching. These are
things we have to be willing to take the action of stopping.
Eve Ensler: Last year we organized the first worldwide
One Billion Rising day to end violence against women and girls. I look at the
videos from that all the time, because it inspires me so deeply to see women
around the world—particularly women of color—taking up space in places they
hadn’t taken space before publicly. Dancing and moving and being alive. Being
sexual and being free and being beautiful and not being contained and not being
oppressed and not being stopped and not having their energy distorted or muted
or misinterpreted or tamed or undone.
So how do we create
spaces—through art, through energy, through writing, through discourse—where
women can come into their bodies and their power? I look at those videos from
India and Africa, where women were dancing for hours. You can see the energy
that got unplugged from the gateways, which had been filled with trauma. To see
them come into that aliveness gives me so much hope for the possibility of
creating that in the future.
bell hooks: But the reclamation of the body also has to
be a place where we acknowledge that the body is just that, the body. Love
begins with the body, but where do we take that love? The act of loving our
bodies as women of color is itself an act of resistance and decolonization. But
then what do we do? Where do we go? How do we live in a world that isn’t ready
I would suggest
that we have to invent our own psychic cities of joy. We have to create spaces
where we’re not looking for the dominant culture to validate us. As people of
color, we know white supremacy exists, but we’re still looking to that world to
give us affirmation. We don’t want to acknowledge that, as part of our
liberation struggle, we may have to create other venues where there isn’t
necessarily a lot of money to be had.
So let’s think
about the role of cooperation in helping us create a solidarity of resistance
that allows the colonizing process to be challenged, that lets decolonization
be there every day in our lives. Decolonization is a healing practice that has
to be ongoing. They tell you in AA that your recovery is ongoing, and for those
of us who live in the belly of imperialist white supremacist capitalist
patriarchy, our recovery is also ongoing. Our decolonization is ongoing and we
have to remain critically vigilant.
there any practices that you recommend—meditation or prayer—to bring us back
into our bodies and our spirits?
bell hooks: I really believe in great therapy.
[laughter] Any time you have good therapy that is healing, it brings you into
your body. It answers the questions that your body raises. And I definitely
depend on spiritual practice, meditation, affirmation, as part of that healing.
Eve Ensler: I really believe in dancing. [laughter] If
the women of Congo have taught me anything, it is that dancing is the answer to
trauma. The women of Congo dance like no other people I’ve ever seen in the
world—they dance in a way that is transformative on the cellular level. I’ve
seen a woman who’s gone through terrible trauma, and the women gather with her,
and they dance and they dance. The fact that we put dancing down is an indication
of the patriarchal confines we’re in. I think people should dance all day long.
I think it should be a part of what we do.
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