by Kristie Ryōnen Valdez-Guillen
Zen practice requires mindful presence: an earnest presence with what is right here, right now. I will be the first to admit that I struggle with this on the cushion! My mind loves zipping around a laundry list of things it could or should be doing, my body finds any minor discomfort an inconvenience worthy of shifting around endlessly to avoid, and my spirit struggles to settle into the here and now, especially as a trauma survivor.
And yet, all my wonderful teachers here remind me, lovingly and in good humor, that the only way out is through. Especially when I do not want to be mindfully present, that is exactly what I must practice. “Just sit,” Roshi Egyoku, Sensei Faith-Mind, Sensei Senshin, and Rev. Myoho repeat with saintly patience. “Just sit.” And so I try. And still, I fuss. And still, I struggle.
I find that the more sangha members I talk openly with about my struggles on the cushion, the more I find that I am not alone. We are all comfort queens, eternally seeking the coziest posture. We are all pain-averse, continuously hoping that practice will bring peace and enlightenment that allow us to float above life’s troubles. These do not make us bad practitioners, they make us humble bodhisattvas in our own little samsaras, on and off the cushion.
The only way out is through.
Our practice calls us not simply to cultivate physical and spiritual solidity, but to practice this stillness as we move about our lives. For whatever reason, practice seems to make a little more sense to me in motion. Whether this is walking meditation, or the kind of practice that life has so abundantly provided through incredulous amounts of trials and tribulations this year – simply moving allows the dharma to come alive for me.
While moving through my life, I am given many opportunities to learn and practice not knowing, bearing witness, and loving action. Most prominently, I am called to engage these practices when I hear my Black brothers and sisters crying out for racial justice on the streets. When I see Indigenous communities disproportionately and lethally impacted by COVID-19. When I witness headline after headline reporting another transgender woman of color being murdered with no justice. When I read about the enormity of the trauma Latino immigrant children are being subjected to in detention centers.
My vows make embodied and clear sense to me here. Listen. Do not presume you know their pain, even if you have your own as a queer woman of color. Work to liberate all beings from suffering, including racial and gendered injustice. This vow to liberate all beings from suffering isn’t a colonialist quest to save an “other,” but a decolonial calling to liberate all interconnected beings – including ourselves – from the constraints of racist, colonialist, and otherwise intersectionality oppressive structures. We do this not only by cultivating mindful samadhi on the cushion, but also by practicing loving kindness, compassion, and equanimity when we are asked to confront our own roles in perpetuating the suffering of others.
I am called to engage these practices when I hear my Black brothers and sisters crying out for racial justice on the streets.
It’s here where many of us begin to shift on our metaphorical cushions – looking for that physical comfort, that spiritual peace, that mental solidity above all earthly troubles. Or maybe our minds zip around through lists of all of the ways we, too, have suffered, or all of the ways we are good people. Or perhaps we negotiate with the magnitude of the grief this reckoning creates – saying that we can turn our mindful attention about anti-racist practice out toward others. Can’t we just donate or call others out, instead of looking within ourselves, our own families, or our own communities? Practice requires that we ask how we, too, enact harm and benefit from oppressing others, if only indirectly. Practice requires that we stay with what hurts, and how we hurt others.
The struggles we face in practicing off the cushion are all so valid. Evasiveness is my propensity on the cushion, and I empathize deeply with it as others struggle through evasiveness off the cushion. Anti-racist practice is an in motion practice that requires all of our courage, vulnerability and strength. It requires all of our willingness to be here and now, especially when we are confronted with our little Self discomforts, and propensities to run from pain. There is no easy answer for how to resolve generations of racial and colonial traumas. But as we practice together and work to imagine a more liberated world, I paraphrase my wise teachers’ advice: the only way out is through. I hope you’ll continue to join me in just sitting, just being here and now. Just bearing witness. Just now knowing. One breath at a time.
Ryōnen is a ZCLA resident and member of the ZCLA BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) Group.