Lila Kate Wheeler and Lama Rod Owens will be teaching Satipatthana in Dialogue with Suffering and Oppression at BCBS from December 6-9, 2018.
Insight Journal: The name of your upcoming course is “Satipatthana in Dialogue with Suffering and Oppression.” Can you share with us how the idea of this course came about and what you will be covering?
Lila Kate Wheeler: The topic was Lama Rod’s idea, I can’t claim credit for it. We’ve collaborated before, and are passionate about dharma and justice; and about exploratory approaches in practice, relying on lineage traditions. We’ve also been eager to explore further together with an interested community. The issues facing our communities are urgent. We see a commonality between ancient Buddhist teachings and contemporary understandings, ways they can enrich each other.
It’s clear we need to refresh ourselves, learn, and take action to care for each other and our world.
We will practice the Satipatthana Sutta’s four frameworks – body, feeling tones, mind and liberation – as a lens to focus and look into the roots of suffering and relief. We will also represent contemporary notions of justice, like intersectionality — if you don’t know what it is yet, you will. As the course title indicates we’ll put the traditional teaching and contemporary understandings into conversation with each other. My late Burmese meditation master, Sayadaw U Pandita, told me at the end of an intensive loving kindness (metta) retreat: Metta cannot remain as an internal meditation, it is not strong enough to be called metta until it is completed with acts of body and speech. Mindfulness and wisdom, too, are incomplete until they are practiced in visible ways..
So our retreat will include teachings, silent meditation, structured dialogue and open conversations. We are excited to see what emerges.
Lama Rod Owens: I was so grateful for Lila’s willingness to explore this topic together. Recently I have gone through a discernment around how I teach dharma and decided that whatever I teach it will have a component that relates directly to the practice of justice in the world. I believe that we are desperate in our community for dharma teaching to be linked directly to how dharma should be practiced in the world. It’s nice to learn metta but what does that have to do with being called a derogatory name on the subway? How can I call on goodness and positive goodwill when I am being threatened and especially when I am pissed off? I am always having to practice in this way because as a black man in American society, I have a higher risk of facing unjustified violence at even given time. I need my dharma practice to meet the anxiety of what it means to be embodied in this way in this given time.
Moreover, I am also committed to making our foundational dharma texts accessible for people like me who need dharma not to just feel good or who practice dharma as a hobby, but who need dharma to save our lives and to make our lives meaningful in a way that counters the deep and sinister devaluing of our lives. I see the Satipatthana as an important text that I am interested in bringing into conversation with issues of identity and social justice. I am interested in how the teachings encourage us to remember our goodness through mindfulness. For me sati (mindfulness) is about disrupting my deep conditioning and learning how to look at why I do the things that I do and how these things promote love and reduce harm for myself and others. I am interested also in how sati is about disruption and bringing attention to the pain that disruption causes and reframing our relationship to that pain as a part of healing. I think that all this will be an experiment in the retreat. I hope that there will be a fruitful discomfort in the retreat. The work of waking up is not always fun or pleasant. It is simply necessary if we care about ourselves and others.
IJ: Meditators are likely to be familiar with working internally on their own suffering and pain around oppression; however, this course will be looking at how the Satipatthana can be used externally. Can you speak a little bit about that?
LKW: We will work internally, externally, and both internally and externally. In our contemporary context, both retreat and daily life instructions teach mindfulness as an internal practice. Its benefits are mapped by MRI and singular brains are called outstanding or abnormally wonderful or just normally messy. This leads us to feel as if the individual were the context for examination. But a fuller practice of sati was originally and beautifully mapped out by the Buddha in the Satipatthana Sutta–the Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness–to include being aware of the bodies, feeling tones, minds and liberation internally, externally, and both. This is very rich territory that hasn’t been explored enough. In the Sutta, additionally, there is the notion of ‘clear comprehension,’ not leaving our intelligence behind. This clear comprehension provides a gateway for Rod and me to introduce some of the contemporary teachings.
LRO: I do not think that most meditators are extremely familiar with working with suffering associated with oppression. Some of the topics I hope to explore is privilege-based identity locations, which is only to say I am interested in how being situated in privilege identities is an obstacle to understanding social oppression. A few of these locations include being able-bodied, and male identified. To practice an awareness of suffering we must be willing to turn our attention to the reality that what we enjoy comes at the cost of marginalizing others. This is an insight into the nature of interrelatedness as well as karma. Compassion or karuna reminds us of the suffering of others. I hope in this retreat that reminding can be further directed towards helping us understand that what we take for granted as being normal often comes at a cost to others. If we can learn to soften our hearts some then we can make more room in reducing as much harm as possible and begin to share more resources and make more room for others.
IJ: The course description implies that working with the satipatthana can assist in working with racism, class, ableism, patriarchy, gender, environmental violence and body shame. What is the key area of personal interest to each of you in these topics?
LRO: My intersectionality or my collection of identities is skewed towards the disprivileged side which means I am more marginalized than center in this culture. As a dharma practitioner, I am interested in the cultivation of wisdom and compassion not just for myself but for all beings. I am attuned to oppression because my identities offer me some insight into how we can use dharma to undo the harm from these oppressions. Because many of us do not understand the privileges we enjoy, we are creating harm for others and we maximize that harm when we refuse to practice with the relative manifestation of dharma. I talk about race, class, and body shame because I experience social oppression around these identities.I talk about patriarchy and gender because I am in a social context that privileges my gender expression as a man and I am interested in disrupting that privilege to reduce my suffering and the suffering of others. And environmental violence is the violence that will impact all of us regardless of identity.
LKW: Growing up in Latin America I saw the injustice of privilege and the brutality of poverty very young; and I knew what it was to be an outsider. I felt helpless to change the forces that had caused me to be born into a life where I’d be the one traveling inside a car while someone else, my age and gender, was born into a life where she was standing on a rubbish heap with a baby brother or sister on her hip. As I matured I experienced sexual violence and gender oppression personally; the pervasiveness of internalized body shame; and the fear and self-doubt typical for being embodied female. It never occurred to me I could change these things even though I knew they were cruel and wrong. So initially the dharma teachings came as a promise of relief for personal sufferings. Now it has become obvious that being white made living in a self-help bubble easier for me. But as the news these days shows, harmful attitudes and habits of separating ‘self’ and ‘other’ take form as hateful, untruthful speech, cruel actions and even laws that cause suffering for everyone: poor, black, brown, disabled, queer, immigrant, female, old young, and other folks — even animals and plants, and even those who have privilege. Often there is such blindness and smugness within spiritual communities. Let’s allow our deeply caring, wise hearts to open and flower.
IJ: People who have been hurt or traumatized by racism, class, or patriarchy, have had their emotional safety zone damaged, and therefore have more reluctance engaging with others in that way again. How can using the wisdom of the Satipatthana assist in rebuilding social engagement?
LRO: Mindfulness is an important tool that helps us understand how to look at the roots of how and why we suffer. We use it to remind ourselves of our basic goodness and that we are not what our surroundings or others tell us we are. We can develop deeper compassion and love for ourselves which helps us to heal from the trauma of oppression. And sometimes mindfulness helps us to understand that we should not be in certain social engagements and that’s fine especially if it is reducing harm and healing trauma. What has helped me the most is the practice of reminding myself that I am not what the world says I am and that I am basically a Buddha. This is what I remind myself of and that Buddha is committed to doing no harm.
LKW: What Rod said! We have deep nobility as human beings, we also have patterns that cause harm. The point is that we can increase our ability to choose how we respond to each of these aspects in others and ourselves. Sati and clear comprehension provide leverage.
IJ: Do you have any advice for those who are overwhelmed and discouraged by the dysfunctional patterns so prevalent in our society and culture right now?
LRO: Everything that is happening is supposed to happen. We are going through a kind of evolution right now that requires us to face the truth of how we have been living together. This is very tough. I remind myself that this world is an illusion and the space I get from that contemplation helps me to practice deeper compassion for myself and so many others. I trust my practice each day and allow my practice to guide me through these times.
LKW: Discouragement and overwhelm are natural human responses to crises and abuses of power. We are all traumatized to some degree — though some are more protected, others more exposed. To open our hearts to the broader situation, we need skills to find peace and balance internally, peace enough to be strong. Everything is constantly changing; even patterns that look solid. If we act in alignment with justice and compassion, we can help the changes we want to see. Supportive community, spiritual friendship are indispensable. Others extend our reach. Remind us when we forget. Support us to recognize internalized oppression or privilege with compassion, and the wisdom that these patterns can change. Sati, mindfulness, allows us to choose the wisest response available to us at any given time.
IJ: Thank you Lama Rod and Lila Kate. We deeply appreciate your views and welcome your wisdom.