Mushim Patricia Ikeda: Taking the Great Vow Not to Burn Out
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Jan 14, 2017
Rahul: This week's theme is the Vow Not To Burn Out. I will hand it over to Birju, who to me, is the paragon of virtue, working at the intersection of mindfulness and fine arts -- and who is obviously very active in the ecosystem as well on so many different fronts. Birju, over to you.
Birju: Thank you so much Rahul. I feel so excited. As you mentioned, (1) Because it's such a topic that's dear to my heart, and (2) It feels like a complex one. Of course, the topic of is a microcosm of a much larger conversation. I’m very excited and grateful that we have as our guest today Mushim Patricia Ikeda
She’s a teacher, an artist and an activist with decades of experience. She's one of the senior leaders of East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California. She's a published poet. She's worked tirelessly for the upliftment of the marginalized, whether that's in education through inspiration or otherwise. I was intrigued to see that she has guided a month-long meditation retreat. She's received an honorary doctorate in sacred theology. She's been the subject of multiple award-winning films on the topic of poetry in spirit-based activism . Mushim, thank you so much for joining us today.
Mushim: Thank you so much. I’m really glad to be here in the community with all of you, who are on the phone right now, and who are also just participating in this great work. Thank you.
Birju: Wonderful. We'll just take this as a conversation and hopefully just dive deeper in the theme as one of the aspects I’d like to explore. But I just love to get started by hearing how you are feeling today
Mushim: I'm feeling great.
Birju: So I I'd love to take our listeners through a bit of your journey and then work towards what most feel alive with you today.But I love to start at the beginning. I noticed that you were born in Ohio and your father was a US soldier. I'm just curious what that was like.
Mushim: Thank you so much for asking. You know, Birju, I also work at the Diversity and Inclusion consultant. There are so-called dimensions of diversity or some of the major ways in which lines of differences are constructed and are perceived among humans in our society. I just turned 63. My birthday is New Year's. Something that I've only become aware of in the past two or three years is that I do come from a military family. I never thought about myself that way because my father was not a career military man although his younger brother -- my uncle George -- was. However, my father was a Nisei or second generation Japanese American. He was an American Citizen, born in Colorado and grew up on a farm in Indiana. Then, he was drafted into World War 2 as a Japanese-American serving in the US Army.
He was sent to Japan and put into the military intelligence unit as a translator, even though his spoken Japanese was so poor since he never had a chance to go to a Japanese school. It was his first language but he could never write Japanese. So here he is … A Japanese-American and an American citizen, serving in the Army while being discriminated against and while Japanese Americans are being interned. He is drafted with no choice unless he runs away which he didn’t do. Along with all these contradictions, as part of the American military, he is in Japan where he's never been before.
Yet he loves it. He found so many good things, so much structure, so many good friends and so much support for his education and development in the Army. The military really influenced his entire life in a very positive way. Talk about going deeper … Many folks on this call are aware of how complex and intertwined that even a tiny bit of history is, especially when we start thinking about our relationship to planting seeds for a compassionate society.
Birju: Yes. It does give rationale for my curiosity. We do value this prospective ancestry lineage and context in shaping who we are. Of course, that's just a piece of your broader context. But I am curious how being in the Midwest with a third-generation Japanese-American ancestry and your father’s lineage shaped and impacted your earlier journey.
Mushim: Thanks for asking that. It feels very clear to me. I grew up and born in Cleveland, Ohio. Our family was located between Akron and Canton, Ohio, out in the countryside. So it was a quiet rural area. At the time, it was in the sixties where suburban housing developments were being built. It was an area very much in the midst of transition. I was a little kid during the time of the Cold War.
So for those of you who are younger and who are not familiar with the Cold War, it was a period in the history of the United States in which the main tensions between the United States and Russia caused constant fear that we were going to be nuclear bombed by Russia. It was called the Cold War because it was a constant threat and fear of being nuked, bringing incredible anxiety.
So as a very young child, I would go to school and we would have air raid drills to practice what we would do if we were nuclear bombed. As a mother, I always say little children are not any more stupid than anyone else. They just have less experience than adults. We were a bunch of little kids but we weren't dumb. We knew what was going on. I certainly did. So terror, constant anxiety and the inability to have any control over the larger picture was what definitely lead me until I hit third grade.
I was an early reader and reading more by third grade, I was reading adult material. I thought then that this is the kind of world that we live in. I knew as a citizen of the United States that I was also part of the country who had a nuclear bomb and dropped an atom bomb on Japan. I just thought how could human beings be so cruel, so destructive, and so wantonly taken lives. These were weapons of mass destruction.
There I was as a third-grader near Akron Ohio. I would lie awake at night staring up at the ceiling, waiting to be bombed and incinerated by Russia, and thinking how can this be? If there is a God in the universe, if there is a loving and all-knowing and compassionate God, why don't we get some help here? Why can’t this be solved?
My family was not Christian. Basically what was happening in the world, what was happening in the United States, what my personal history was, and my Japanese-American lineage, it really all came together right around third grade when i was doing a lot of reading and a lot of thinking. This was the time that I went through a spiritual crisis that was very deep. I couldn't really talk to anyone about it.
I had an old friend. He would look at family photos of me starting from third grade. Before that, I always look like a really happy kid. Starting from third grade, he would say there you are again “Happy Face” because I was looked so deeply depressed because of a constant existential crisis in third grade due to the constant political crisis.
This was really where my spiritual quest began. It was very much tied up of politics, war, and aggression. Ultimately, the spiritual question was on how human beings can be so unthinking, destructive and cruel as well as to the environment.
Of course, the thing about nuclear bombs, they do not only kill people and animals but also ruin the environment. During the sixties, environmental concerns were coming up very strongly in the United States when Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring came out on the dangers of pesticides. My parents were very concerned with pesticides.
Birju: So I’m curious about this. To me, that's a very early stage to be asking these kinds of questions and the weight of these questions. But as I understand it, you went into this period of life where your primary interest seems to be moving towards literature and prose. Then, it came a point at which that didn't work anymore. If I understand correctly, you went back into the depths of the spiritual inquiry. I am curious if I'm even understanding this right, how did that emerge to become the primary focus?
Mushim: Thanks for asking. You did get it right and I feel I'm very well understood even though you’ve never met me in person. Thank you very much for taking that interest
So what I would say when I look back… There I am in Greensburg Ohio with my family and I’m the oldest of three children in my family. We were basically the only family of color in that area where I grew up. Every once in awhile an African-American child would appear in school when I was in elementary school, then, almost immediately disappear. I'm pretty sure it was an area probably in which there was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) influence. Certainly, it was not an area that was friendly to people of color.
During that time, Japanese Americans were known as the model minority. Our family fit that description perfectly, at least on the outside.
My parents’ primary value was education for all of their children. From the beginning, we didn't know how they would do it. What our parents did was that they both worked full-time as their primary focus was for all of us get a college education.
I remember my father was not very sparing in his analysis. My mother grew up in Hawaii where white folks are called haoles. Originally, it meant white foreigners in the Hawaiian indigenous language and then eventually it meant white people. So my father used to say: “You kids have got to be really smart, get really great education, and you are going to beat the haoles with your brains.
That was our mandate. We were going to be super-brainy, really brilliant and excel in school. That would be our way forward and path for liberation. As a matter of fact, between my siblings and myself, I joke we do have many academic degrees for a much larger family.
As a straight-A student kid, for me, I really knew that what was calling to me was poetry and creative writing. That was actually my path to liberation. As soon as I learnt how to read and write, how to put words on paper, I wrote my first book by first or second grade because of being an early reader. And I still have it on a paper downstairs. It was on cheap paper and folded it up. I made a little drawing of my brother and myself on a hill. It was called A New Day.
Here’s how it went: Once upon a time, there was a little boy and little girl, Stevie and Patti. So that’s me and my brother. An old woman came along and said: “Do not open this box and they did not.” So they lived happily. I ran out of the room so I couldn’t write “Ever After”. So that was my first piece of writing. It was reshaping, retelling, a changing of the narrative of Pandora box.
Here we are.. A strange old woman comes along. She gives us a mysterious box and tells us not to open. And we were like: “Fine, we won’t!” And evil will never come into this world. That was my very first piece of writing although I didn't have any analysis of any kind. These days, we have. We have a center for story-based strategy (change) that allows for changing the narrative for social justice work. The Executive Director is Christine Cordero. There is so much talk that we need to have a new story, many new stories. In this case, stories on what a compassionate society looks like, feel like, play like, and conflicts like – what that is. I already had started to do that from the very first moment I first picked up my pencil.
Birju: If I could jump in, I'm really curious about the social justice or your social change orientation interest. It wasn't like this kind of interest came out of left field. But you got to a place where you moved into a monastery after having done all of your education in this space. How do you go from saying I want to write about things that are socially minded to all right now time to go in and live very much aligned with these deep values?
Mushim: Thank you. To pick that story thread forward, I get to go to an undergraduate college to do my BA from Oberlin College in Ohio. I got some scholarship but my parents had also saved money for all of us. It was at the time at the end of the Vietnam War. Oberlin was known for its anti-war protests, progressive liberal arts, and very activist social justice kind of education.
I was a kid from rural Ohio. I just had no idea what I had landed in. I floundered around quite a bit. Where I found my home was in the creative writing programs so I began writing poetry of which was not particularly geared towards issues of social justice. However, in the program, we were invited by our teachers to write about what we knew such as writing about our grandparents and families. I was recovering and reclaiming that lineage of which is a very social justice oriented if we want to frame it that way. I became successful because of my parents training to excel, excel, excel. We’ve all been very fortunate that my family were blessed with a great many talents, teaching, and support.
Immediately after undergraduate graduation, I began publishing poetry and teaching poetry writing. I was successful and on the track to become a well-known and respected poet in the United States.I got my Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa graduate writers workshop. It is long being known as one of the famous graduate writers, if not, THE most famous graduate writers program in the world.
At the beginning of our talk, Rahul said that we need to foster our own transformations while planting seeds for a compassionate society. It was during that time I realize how it came home for me. I was part of artists circle consisting of phenomenally talented people. Not just writers, but it had painters, playwrights, and musicians. These were amazing artists in graduate school.
But there was a huge amount of substance abuse and a lot of harmful sexual behaviour. Many of our teachers were alcoholics and drug users. It was all kind of normal and encouraged. We were in the service of art. I just thought to myself I am not tough enough to do this. I am not even physically strong enough to sustain this way of life. I will die. This is not good.
Yet I had no idea of what some alternative would be. And it was really out of complete desperation. Again, I'm very good at floundering around. It’s not pleasant. I will flounder and flounder. I will try different things. I will reach out desperately. What about this? What about that? One of the resources that came up was reading about Zen Buddhism. It was also connected in philosophy to the poetry that I've been reading in translation during my career as a poet. I began reading all these books about Zen Buddhism. I thought I'm really resonating with this. It could be a path that could really help me and become a happier and healthier person.
Every book said the same thing you've got to practice Zen meditation. These books will be of no help whatsoever unless you find a teacher, unless you practice. This was not ninety percent but hundred percent of the books on Zen because it is a practice oriented path. I thought I’m in Iowa City where in the world will I find a Zen teacher or learn how to do Zen meditation.
Immediately after graduate school, I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan. I got a job as Office Manager of the Michigan abortion rights action league in a totally kickass office. We were training all grassroots, all women. These were incredible women activists. That was my introduction to activism for women's reproductive rights. I've been pro-choice throughout my life.
Here I was doing great work but I was earning hardly any money. I had to take in typing to supplement. I was not sustainable. I could barely pay my rent and food. I was going nowhere in terms of financial sustainability. However, there was a Zen Buddhist temple in town. I found it and it was just starting out. It was a Korean Zen lineage of which I've never ever heard before. I began practicing and learning Zen meditation with this group. They are still there. They’ve expanded and called the Zen Buddhist Temple, Ann Arbor. I got in there pretty much on the ground floor of that group, right after they purchased their own temple building which was an old house.
And the more I practiced with that tiny community as it began to grow, the more I realize that this was my path. This was my opportunity to go toward some kind of spiritual revolution of the question that had been torturing me ever since third grade that basically I had to solve. I knew I just had to resolve these spiritual matters for myself. That is why in May and June of 1983, I did divest myself of all of my meagre possessions. That was a requirement of going into residence. I moved into the Zen Buddhist Temple Ann Arbor as a full-time resident and trained there as a Zen student.
Birju: And from my understanding that began a journey into this whole path. I'm curious how did the ensuing time period support your growth? I don't even know what happened after that.
Mushim: A lot. This is where in my late twenties now and along the way I had been married after I finished undergraduate work. I married a very very wonderful person who in fact died this past summer at the age of 90 so he was quite a bit older than I. However very young in heart and he was a professor of French language and literature at Oberlin college. He was not my teacher,I hasten to add I’d never taken any courses with him and he was a survivor of the Holocaust, the Shoah in France. I think most of his family including his mother and father died in Auschwitz and in the concentration camps. He had been able to escape and come to the United States and he was promptly drafted in US Army not knowing any English.
So there was a story, and he has written his life story and published it. So again we see in a very instinctive way, how I constantly gravitated towards people and situations in which these giant beings of war of cruelty of destruction as well as of hope, and of a society which does help people to cross over into freedom, into saving their lives, into fostering their growth that that does happen. Those giant giant contradictions. So Keith and I had been married and then that marriage ended after a few years simply because I was in an ongoing existential crisis from third grade on and it was really gaining. So that's what led me to say alright I've got to go to graduate school and at least get my MFA in writing to take the next step and then from there I thought, “No this is not going to work, I need to figure out my spiritual path and then that will forward me into the Zen Buddhist temple at Ann Arbor Michigan.”
I trained there as a full-time resident under a vow of poverty. I helped to build that temple from 1983 through 1985 and that brought up even more questions for me about creating this society in which we wish to live. So there are two tracks. One track was our meditation practice, in which I did a lot of meditation constant meditation as well as a lot of work. Manual work, service to the community and Zen meditation. We did a lot of those things. My life’s spiritual growth was proceeding and I was going deeper and deeper into my practice as people say, while at the same time within this temple we had a residential core. We lived in quasi-monastic style and we had a lot of folks who were our sangha or congregation, who were lay people people who lived in their own homes and then came to the temple to practice. We had our infrastructure, our governance system, we had our mini society. We were a residential community and it brought up so many questions about, “Is this viable? Is this a good way to live? Is this the way to govern ourselves?” We were extremely hierarchical. It was a patriarchal model with the Korean zen monk master at the top. He was not only the spiritual leader. The bylaws had been legally constructed in such a way that there was a Board of Directors which I served on and the spiritual founding teacher was always going to be the President of the Board of Directors. And this is true, this was legal evidently, there was one vote. Guess who had it. It wasn’t me! It was always the President of the Board of Directors who always had the one vote.
Birju: I'm hearing this this inquiry into this consistent connection between this inner practice and systems and structures that perpetuate the kinds of social systems that we have in our society today.
Mushim: You absolutely get it.
Birju: I'm curious about connecting that to where my familiarity with you goes which is the East Bay Meditation Center (EBMC) which you have been a leader of for some time now and I don't know if it feels alright to you to put it in that direction but it seems like there's so many practices that you have learned from what may have not worked in that former life to the way that you've tried to evolve to what it means to do in your work now and I'm just curious if you might want to draw some contrast between?
Mushim: Well I could say is you and I have got to get together for coffee and I will buy you that coffee because even though we have never met in person you are just totally getting this. This is amazing and wonderful to me and I want to thank you very much. Yes, so basically I would say that in my monastic training, I did end up on again a spiritual quest wandering about as I do crossing the United States, practicing in various Zen and other
Buddhist centers and eventually my quest led me to my home of my spiritual lineage which is Korean Zen. I'm Japanese-American and my lineage is Korean and I was in the monastery for eight months from 1987 right after Thanksgiving and coming back to San Francisco August of 1988, after which I began slowly and painfully returning a long transition to a life to be a single mother. I had zero money. I arrived back in the San Francisco airport with my head shaved, dressed in robes and fifteen dollars to my name and I'm not talking about hidden savings or things somewhere. That was it. I have dealt with desperate poverty throughout my spiritual life which is why the vow not to burn out and to be sustainable is so vivid for me. To answer your question and we've all of this together all of the things that I experienced in my monastic practice and experience and they were wonderful things and then there were things that as a citizen of the United States and as a member of my anti-Vietnam war generation just coming from the background that I do with the social forces that have shaped me, with the women's movement - huge influence on when I was in undergraduate college it was really in high swing, all of those fantastic experiences and very hierarchical and quite abusive systems that were nevertheless not without their benefits. These are systems that are thousands of years old and the reason they've lasted for thousands of years is that they do function well and there are benefits within them on many many different levels. However coming from the generation I get I was all of the other stuff I was like hell no this is impressive I do not want to perpetuate this, I don't want to be the butt of any of this I am not going to do it. I am NOT going to do it and and I didn't know what that meant, I just knew i am not going to do it so fast forward to 11 years ago and I was living and raising my kid and I remarried to my son's father here in Oakland and with a member of the Buddhist peace fellowship writing about family life and child-raising as socially engaged Buddhist practice so I was gradually working my way back into Buddhist life and circles in an appropriate way for me as a very committed mother and I began hearing about this group which at that point was called East Bay Dharma Center.
I heard about this group and I in fact was invited to serve on its Board of Directors a number of times and at that point they did not even have a space and I just thought , “No, I will not attend endless meetings wrangling over the mission and the location. I'm not at all interested so I know you're in Berkeley this is no offense meant. I was not at all interested if this new group wanted to open a center in Berkeley. I feel there's a lot of great spiritual groups and meditation group from different lineages of Buddhism. Many are in Berkeley. I was an Oakland resident. My kid went to the open public school. I wanted something for Oakland. So in 2006 I believe there was a decision from the Board of Directors of the East Bay Meditation Center that it would be located in Oakland. A small storefront space on Broadway at 27 was rented and at that point I was asked for the third time to be on the Board of Directors and I said alright. If so we're really right around the time now of the anniversary of opening our doors on Broadway at 27. Moved the meditation center to a larger location, still in downtown Oakland and so at the end of last year 2016 was our first decade we had offer programs for 10 years. We are now in our eleventh year and exactly what you said my commitment, confidence, enjoyment. I have just gotten so much joy and happiness out of helping to build a East Bay Meditation Center as a board member and now I'm part time on staff. I've always been a Buddhist teacher and a Dharma teacher with EBMC. My enjoyment has been that it has for me been the dream that I've had for many years of being part of a Dharma based activist community that is trying to create, embody and manifest the values that we are also trying to teach.
Birju: Hmm, if I could jump in here, my understanding in this place is one of the most rare and unique places in existence around this idea of inner practice. I mean the New York Times had a large exposé on it a couple years back that I remember being quite inspired by. I'm curious if you could just share some of what makes it unique from an inclusivity, diversity governance lens that that you think could be lessons for others to learn from.
Mushim: Thank you so much for asking. Let's see I always say that we are a Buddhist based meditation center with a focus on diversity and inclusion and social justice. We are Buddhist based and what that means is that most of our programs are based in Buddhism which is a way of life and thought. Most folks know it' not a religion in the traditional sense of, its non-theistic. There are people who havehave faith in God and pray and there are plenty of Christian Buddhist there are Jewish Buddhist there are many atheist Buddhists, however it does not really posit a Creator God nor concern itself with Creator God. It is a way of life and thought in which our actions are extremely important. So we are based in in teachings and practices our interpretation are socially engaged interpretation in Buddhism I should say as well as our we do have programs on indigenous spirituality we've had interfaith programs which I've always been part of because interfaith dialog and interaction has long been an interest of mine. And we also have many many secularized programs of what would be mindfulness meditation and practices for stress reduction specifically for people who are involved in social justice organizing and social justice work and for everyone. And some of the ways in which we are different I always say East Bay meditation center is unique and we don't want to be. We would like to be a model for many other centers in major diverse urban areas to take our best practices to adapt them to change them, throw out what doesn't work, create or adapt or adopt what does work from any other kind of social movements or any tool that they they can get. We would like to be that kind of incubator for other groups to find their own way to do what we are doing. So some of the ways in which were different is that we decided early on we would operate on gift economics. What that means is that unless it's a fundraiser for any East Bay Meditation center program or class series or any event at our Center no one is ever required to pay a fee upfront fee in order to come through our doors and to hopefully benefit from the teachings and practices in the community that we offer.
So we're totally on a gift economics basis, people are invited to give what they can and we will be in 2017 launching a full gift economic initiative in order to continue with the education of our community. What gift economics means and how it operates, it is an economic system it is an alternative system to capitalism and so for that to work for us we need to always vigorously be educating our community and inviting people into a deeper understanding of how gift economics work. So that's one way in which we’re different from many centers the other way is that in order to carry out our mission of and vision is what's being called radical inclusivity and diversity and social justice.
We actually have infrastructure systems and policies that the board of directors have instituted which our community has understood and supported, not everyone, because that's diversity, however enough people that we just keep growing and thriving. So for instance in our events we have some events and programs open only to self-identified people of color or self-identified women of color or self-identified men of color we have some retreats that are open only to people who self-identify as having depression and anxiety or to people who have disabilities chronic illness or chronic pain. So there are some programs that are not open for all. For those programs that are open to all we have a registration system in which people are invited to self identify as either a white person or as a person of color and/or multiracial person, so those those two choices are there the minute you try to register for something at East Bay meditation center that requires registration and thus we’re able to keep track of the specifics and for events that are open to all we require that there be a minimum of forty percent registration of folks who self-identify as people of color and/or multi-racial.
Birju: Why 40%?
Mushim: 40% because we felt fifty percent would be even better but we didn't think that that we could consistently for everything guarantee fifty percent and still have enough registration enrollment to make some of our programs that are open to all a go.
Birju: : My sense of it is there is so much more depth here that we can make this entire call about this one topic alone, and i'm curious for those who want to learn more is there a place that you would point them to where you can dive deeper even if you don't happen to live in the Oakland area?
Mushim: Yes we have just launched in fact a new website and for those of you who go to www.eastbaymeditation.org for those of you who go to our new website i immediately apologized for any glitches you will find there we just launched it it was constructed mostly with volunteer work over years it has taken us years because it's been primarily volunteers, fabulous volunteers who put it together and therefore we’re now working on ironing out the problems and troubleshooting what needs to be done to make it really hundred percent functional. However it's perfectly fine as it is, so go to go to our website and we have I believe i'm not looking at it right now, a menu tab that must say something like diversity practices or something about how our registration work which gives an explanation and history of why we do things in the way that we do. We know that this does not fulfill everyone's needs, just to be frank we have lost some folks who have said no I just don't agree with with that. However what we have found is that it is not enough it's not nearly enough to say what is basically all other 501c3 religious organizations in the United States will say, and are required to say and that is, "We are open to all and we welcome everyone who would like to try out this particular spiritual path and this community. We have an open-door and we welcome everyone." That is not nearly enough we have found because since we do live in a society that does have dominant groups, we do live in a society in which there are not equal levels of power and privilege. What could easily happen is that one or more of the dominant groups of our society those folks could have come to EBMC and said, “Wow what a fabulous place! It’s run on gift economics so whatever my level of income is I can afford to come here. I love it here the people are so nice these are wonderful people.”And then those dynamics which may seem invisible to some do not at all seem invisible to people in groups that are targeted for oppression in our societies, then this would not be due to evil people saying, “We're gonna come to this meditation center and oppress other people”, it doesn't work like that. We're talking about embedded structural oppression systems, as exactly as you were saying, in which we could easily, without these policies, these practices, this vigilance, this awareness we could easily have become a meditation center in which pretty much everyone would be a member of one of the dominant groups of our society and that is not our mission, that is not our mission at all. We are solely dedicated to serving underrepresented communities.
Birju: There are so many areas that come up from the richness of this dialog, and there's probably two areas that I’d really love to touch on if it feels it’s in your flow to dive more into. You know that the theme of today's call focuses on burnout and I'm just curious about giving your perspective on this mixture between contemplative practice and doing work in the world. Where is it that see the opportunity and the need for dialog on burnout, and I'm also curious I mean EBMC is one of the things that you do, but you have your own bleeding edge and I'm just curious if you could even briefly speak to what is most alive for you now in your work.
Mushim: Thanks very much for that that invitation. I am fortunate enough to be the guiding teacher of a year-long program at the East Bay Meditation center called Practice in Transformative Action and the acronym for that is P-I-T-A. Practice and transformative action or like pita bread and we're now in our fourth cohort that began meeting together in September. We go September through July. This is my fourth cohort and it is secular mindfulness for agents of change and social justice activists. And as I was contemplating after many years of being a socially engaged Buddhist writer and practitioner and I thought to myself and at the community activists active of mainly in the Oakland public school that my kid went to as well as in other spheres of Buddhist activity in the United States issues of race racism the other isms and I thought well what is it that I can most offer to these wonderful people in my year-long program who are all agents of change and who are social justice activists? And because if mindfulness meditation practice simply becomes kind of another thing on their list of things to do to make the world a better place it will only add to their sense of burden and then be a factor of burnout. I clarified early on that what I saw as the major danger for agents of change and social justice activists in circles I’m in in the Bay Area, which is quite active, but also internationally and beyond, because with the internet it's easy to be part of many wonderful groups who are working on causes around the world. What I thought is is we need we need tools to address and prevent burnout and we need to go to the root of it we need to ask ourselves why if there are things that we can do to not burn out why we're not doing them, what is this momentum and this compulsion to burn out that I at least i have seen very widely in my early activist work and there was just kind of a whole period earlier in my life where being an activist meant martyring yourself with the cause burnout was expected and everyone was expected to work themselves into the ground and always be unable to make rent and you know if you had kids God Bless you because no one knew how you were going to be able to raise them unless you inherited family money. So what i did was I formulated and invited everyone to take the what I call the great vow for mindful activists and this was published in an article I Vow Not To Burn Out in Buddhadharma magazine in the Fall 2006 issue and to my amazement that has gone modestly, or maybe I wouldn't even say modestly, this has gone viral. And it was published on the Lions Roar website-- the the larger organization that publishes Buddhadharma magazine. It was published online with some great artwork and I have been getting reports that people around the world are taking the vow to to not burn out.
And it goes like this, ‘Aware of suffering and injustice I - Mushim-’ so you can insert your own name if you want to take the vow which you don't have to ‘I Mushim am motion and working to create a more just peaceful and sustainable world. I promise for the benefit of all to practice self-care mindfulness, healing and joy. I vow to not burn out.” And because in order to not burn out for people who are passionately committed to social justice for whatever, many many reasons, for the liberation of their own families, their own communities as well as being able to share the benefit of that work with communities that were not directly part of, that we’re allied for instance we need to have I feel a pretty strong intention to not burn out, and to build a community in which people are friends, will say to us, “Hey you said you weren't going to burn out and I see you on the path to burnout, in fact you're so much on the path to burnout that you are not even able to step back from your own situation and see that you're going to ruin your own health and well-being and in the process you'll be ruining our health and well-being because you are our friend and we love you and we care about you.” An intervention of sorts, and why put our friends into the position where they feel they need to do an intervention, which is very unpleasant and doesn't always work?
We can do our own mindfulness intervention and say, “Okay I have vowed to not burn out on a daily basis, get up in the morning and say “what am I going to do today to both achieve my goal, go in the direction of my goal that's helping to build a more just and loving and caring society and sustainable world, and not burn out all of that together what's my personal plan for today?”
Birju: I'm really grateful that you you were able to at least touch on this piece and and now that we have the context of where it's coming from in your own background and I'm just so grateful that you shared with us the the spectrum of at least a piece of your journey and i just want to share that it at this stage we're going to be transitioning a bit to invite others into this dialog as well. I'm just grateful that you provided the overview to us.
Mushim: thank you very much and once again if folks are interested in this you can read the full essay I wrote on Lions Roar or just google it with my name Mushim and you will find it.
Rahul: We do have a couple of questions that have already rolled in from the online chat. The first one is from Jackie Farley who says, “Hello Mushim, so glad that you're offering this opportunity to share tools to avoid burnout. Now at age 66 I'm just beginning to get a clue about my own propensity to overdo it and I've decided it’s a form of greed because it makes me feel so good, working for what I believe, however at a certain point I've noticed that my greed becomes counterproductive and I crash and burn so what do I do? and she answered her own question a little bit but I would love to hear just a little bit more around what your answer to that question. How to avoid burnout?
Mushim: Thank you and first I want to say “Hi Jackie!” Jackie is one of my oldest friends, a wonderful Zen practitioners. So, Hi Jackie it’s great to see your your your own analysis because I think you've done it. We can be greedy about anything, oftentimes the word greed is associated with greed for so much money and we're going to screw everyone over in the process. Or just you know just getting all this stuff and hoarding and then that's going to be an evil act. However we can be greedy from the Buddhist point of view for good things we can be greedy to help others, we can be greedy to get enlightened, and be of benefit to all beings. Greed itself can take many different forms. The greed to do more and more the greed that says this is such a good thing and a good cause I think i'll sign up for three other causes and then suddenly I’m up at three in the morning and I'm angry at my family and uh you know I haven't got my car maintenanced and so that’s going to cause me problems and then my life starts to fall apart which makes me even angrier and more irritable. That path of greed is what we need to look at in order to assess one of the great questions, that is not a Buddhist question, it's a question for all of us on Planet Earth now, and that is the question of “How much is enough?” So the question of enoughness, how much is enough for me to be happy, how much is enough for me to be of help to the world, how much is enough for me to meditate, how much is enough for me to be watching Netflix, that question of enoughness of balance of sustainability and of well-being -- that is to use a great Zen word, the koan of the work that we're doing.
Rahul: I love that.The concept of finding one’s personal sufficiency and then only working at a pace that allows one to maintain that. Beautiful. We also have a comment on the web from David Doane who says he is sort of responding to the question of how not to burn out, so he says being in the present, relaxing and responding honestly and openly to what is happening staying away from expectations and predictions focusing on process and not outcome being clear about what I am responsible for and what I'm not responsible for, so those are some of the tools that help him. We also have a someone online so I'm going to go to that.
Alissa: Good morning! Mushim I was in your process in transformative action, in your queue and I actually fought you on the vow not to burn out and then eventually took it after I reconciled with what it meant so thank you for that piece of coaching. It’s made a real difference in my life because I notice that when I was presented with that vow it seemed so lovely you know like it seems so simple and it's actually not simple necessarily and especially if you're feeling just a profound amount of urgency in the world with all of the issues that are happening on our our collective watch and and the need that I often feel to address those but but I so appreciate the balance that the vow affords. That was my comment and then I have a question and it may sound sort of silly but you know in the sort of social and political place that we find ourselves in, I mean with all of the things happening in the world, I'm gonna ask it this way, “Do you think we’re doomed as humanity?”
Mushim: Thanks Alissa. So what I'm hearing you saying is considering what we know, and of course we're all perceiving things differently, however there are different bodies of information and knowledge. But considering what we know about our situation nationally and politically as well as globally and environmentally and other spheres of perception and analysis as well considering all of this are we doomed. What do you mean by doomed?
Alissa: I asked it in a general way maybe to be slightly funny but also do you think we have a chance as collective humanity to survive? And do you feel hopeful and what gives you hope and and on the flip side do you have a sense of impending doom or how do you grapple with that?
Mushim: Thanks that's that's actually a really good question. And if you’ve been listening to this call then you’ve undoubtedly noticed that I’ve felt doomed since I was in third grade. So that the whole doomed thing and at that point and then as I was growing up we were always doomed. I mean we were always doomed Alissa. I remember when I was in college there was a whole movement called ZPG or Zero Population Growth and people were asked to consider that if they have children they should only have one. like if you had a family with two-parents in it that you should only have a maximum of two children. in other words that there should be an attempt worldwide not to increase the population of human being on the planet and there was this whole doom scenario of how we're overpopulating the planet and we're all going to go down in flames and the planet will be all ruined and everything like that. So that you add on to the Cold War narrative that I grew up under where Russia was going to nuke us and then there was going to be environmental disaster because of pesticides and keep rolling forward until today where we have global climate change which by the way I do believe then yes we are definitely doomed we are totally doomed and as far as I can see human beings have done this to ourselves. The Buddhist analysis is that we have done this out of greed hatred and ignorance or delusion. The roots of suffering. And we're talking a lot of suffering obviously not only human beings but to other living beings and to the planet itself, to the waterways, to the earth, to the air. It's almost inconceivable that we are being asked to conceive it and to to do something about it.
So in the midst of all of this doom and a great deal of gloom do I feel hopeful? Yes I feel very hopeful and I feel functional hope and I feel practical hope because I don't have any other choice. I am the mother of an only child who is going to turn 28 in April as I mentioned he is a product of the Oakland Public School K through 12 and which there's a lot of activist story there as well as all the things we've been talking about -- inequity and poverty and racism and all of those are playing out in our public education systems. Lack of budget for the kids, and the reason that I'm hopeful is because unless there is hope that manifests in practical actions to help one another then the only other alternative is to be passive and to say well since this ship is going down I'm just going to try to be personally comfortable myself as much as possible and wait to go down with it. I don't think that's even viable or useful. As human beings, it's been remarked upon by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk one of the leading experts on trauma these days that the hallmark of what makes a healthy human being, a functioning human being is that we need a sense of purpose, we need a profound sense of purposefulness. And that is often damaged in trauma due to being crushingly overwhelmingly uncontrollably abused and traumatized or traumatized by a disaster beyond our control. One can feel a sense of an inner collapse and despair. I don't want to live like that I can't live like that and I have been a mother, have been a spiritual practitioner. there's got to be a direction in which I can go and so a lot of my own cultivation of my practice has been to say that we hold both of these things simultaneously we can hold multiple realities on one hand yes we're doomed and on the other hand yes I am profoundly hopeful.
Rahul: I love that. If it would be fair to summarize: There is no useful choice but to be hopeful.
Mushim: That’s what I think!
Rahul: Alissa I know you had several other questions that you said online I wonder if you wanted to ask those or if we want to move on?
Alissa: Thank you they all got answered.
Rahul: I’m curious Mushim about how your spiritual practice informs your understanding of narrative. I mean we heard that hope is the only useful functional option but there's something about understanding that it's one thing to sort of create a new story and another force that recognizes that any story is just that, which is a story. So how how does your of spiritual practice reconcile the tension between these opposites.
Mushim: Tell me again what the opposites are.
Rahul: Well you've worked consistently I think in kind of redefining narrative and you've had this narrative also of doom since the third grade and you know all of these are really just narratives in a way. And I think spiritual practice is one thing that that has the potential to help us see that regardless of the story that we're telling ourselves, it is simply a story, so I wonder if that's an interesting tension for you, or a question that's come up. Or do you actually feel like we have to invest in one story and more fully own it.
Mushim:That's that's a many-layered questions so what I will say about that I think that whether we have to invest and fully own one narrative over others is a moot question. I think that most human beings, myself included, to make sense of our lives we do form a dominant narrative and that of course is going to be challenged and that hopefully hopefully will change and evolve however there's usually a kind of a dominant narrative like this is who I am this is what I stand for these are the people and causes i stand with this outrageous need this not so much because of my culture because of my generation so on and so forth so that there is that narrative and in the way that I was trained in Zen meditation something that I really thought about a lot or experienced is what my original teacher once said to us that meditation is entering timeless time. You’re getting the Zen flavor there Zen people are always saying those kinds of exasperating things. How can you have time that’s timeless? And of course the answer to that is, “Go find out”.
My understanding of what that means is when we are in the flow of the deeper concentrated levels of meditation, in the Buddhist tradition that might be called samadhi in the Theravada or southern tradition there are various levels of deeper meditative concentration called the jhanas. So whatever name we have for them there's going to be a common human physiology that researchers are now hooking meditator up and measuring brainwaves and things that are going on in our bodies and breaking it down quantitatively so that's that's very interesting that new neuroscience of meditation. So whatever the readings might be on whatever you're hooked up to you I know from personal experience that experience exactly of in a state of contemplative or meditative concentration that experience of being in a sense of timelessness, where there's no beginning there's no middle there's no ending, there's no as Thich Nhat Hanh’s folks have a saying, "There's no after there's no before," that those reference marks completely drop away and there is a new and a different way of being that is often perceived as being profoundly liberating, profoundly open and refreshing and transformative.
You were talking about the opposites so there’s this timeless time and then there's a narrative of doom. The narrative of doom is obviously a linear narrative, it is on a timeline on which presumably there was a state in which things were better or were not doomed, and then there were causes and conditions that are leading in this case the planet or societies down some kind of path of other things happening with an overwhelming momentum and then on that timeline at the far right hand like on the left hand there is the non doomed state and then everything is rolling along and on the far end there is doom and destruction and that's the F-I-N.
So these are polarities or these are different aspects of our human experience and our capacity for human experience and I believe that both are needed that we don't necessarily have to go around like Chicken Little saying “We're doomed in the sky is falling,” however to have a sense of purpose and of working in a linear way towards trying to build this compassionate society which is the goal of ServiceSpace and so much of the work that good folks are doing, so there there is that sense of linear life and purpose and being goal directed and strategic but unless in my opinion we have through our spiritual lives whatever practices we do this experience essentially that we always have access to timeless time in which everything is so different. The ray of sun that comes through I'm experiencing right now coming through my front windows I feel it on my cheek I feel it on my forehead that in this moment there is so much contentment there's so much radiance there's so much gratitude for this gift that we can recall being an alive person in in the world right now. That all of this is absolutely true simultaneously.
Rahul: Mmm I love that answer and I feel like this call itself has been very much in line with your description of a timeless time which you call open refreshing and transformative. So thank you so much Mushim for joining us. It's my privilege to ask a final question that we ask all of our guests which is how as we how can we as the broader Servicespace community support your work.
Mushim: the answer to that is very easy you as the larger service space community can support the work that I'm doing by not burning out.
Mushim: By doing the opposite not only not burning out but also loving your life living your life in such a way that you're able to share joy, feelings of hope, transformation and practical tools and strategies as well as just a human element of knowing that we can and will do this work together, if you can do that in your own way that is what will support me.
Birju: I am smiling so large from your answer
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