Lineage, Love and Justice with the Reverend angel Kyodo williams, Sensei

The Garrison Institute is delighted to present this recent Forum discussion between Fellowship Director Dr. Angel Acosta and the Reverend angel Kyodo williams, Sensei, in which they delved into the history of mindfulness in the West, contemplative entrepreneurship, and the liberative potential of meditation.

Author of Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace and Radical Dharma (alongside Lama Rod Owens and Jasmine Syedullah), she is the founder of the Center for Transformative Change and a dharma teacher and activist. At the heart of her thinking lies the idea that we all have a genetic predisposition for liberation, and mindfulness can help us get there.

She began by outlining the history of mindfulness in the West. “Mindfulness 1.0,” she explained, comprised the traditional (often Buddhist) monastic practices as they were first incorporated into a Western context. Despite their new setting, the monastic influence on the practice often took the form of long retreats or required temple fees, giving rise to an “elite” contemplative practice.  

Mindfulness 2.0 arose in response to this issue, providing greater accessibility to the mainstream while losing some of the traditional wisdom. The danger here, Rev. angel explained, is that they often became whitewashed or untethered from the values that guided their original contexts, becoming simple “tools” to achieve whatever aim their practitioners desire, such as becoming more productive in a workplace that devalues other forms of self-care.

Mindfulness 3.0, then, becomes the “marriage of the accessibility of Mindfulness 2.0 with the integrity of Mindfulness 1.0.” This mindfulness, she hopes, can be useful not just as a tool for fixing problems, like anxiety and depression, as it has often been billed. It can also be a way of life, “allowing ourselves to be more sensitive, aware, compassionate, in relationship, with integrity, building our capacity to tolerate difference.” In this way, it becomes central to who we are – “not just the things going on in the temple, not just the tools” – but the things that are alive for us in the everyday.

This idea becomes the foundation of Rev. angel’s work. This commitment to mindfulness as a way of life brought her back to questions of social conditions, to the embodied construct of race, and to the everyday suffering which gets in the way of true freedom.

In her words: “My dharma consciousness came far before my race consciousness. My dharma practice, my desire to situate myself in a truth, led me to want to navigate race. Not the other way around.”

And it became deeply instructive in learning how to navigate race. Mindfulness practices, she realized, were not just meant to lead to a “kinder gentler suffering” in an oppressive society. Instead, they could lead to a more dexterous, sensitive relationship to oneself, and thus to the surrounding world. That improved relationship, she saw, could be both the catalyst for, and the foundation of, a changed society. As Rev. angel explained: “I am learning one thing and one thing only: the causes and conditions of liberation.”

She is a vocal teacher, as well as a contemplative entrepreneur, for this reason. She pointed out the importance of not “ceding the ground,” explaining, “we can’t just abdicate responsibility for our practice, for the potential we see for things,” sitting back on the cushion instead of engaging with society. Instead, we have to get out there and communicate what we see and encourage others to join us.

In our society, the marketplace often tests you: “if no one is buying, you have to figure out how to communicate better.” At the same time, Rev. angel reminded us to “go where the love is” – where your skills and perspective are valued and respected and you can make the most difference. What does mindfulness look like, she wondered, when in an accessible, online class of three hundred people? What does a business model look like that is founded on mindful principles?

Rev. angel’s talk was powerful, motivating, and deeply committed to social change. In closing, she reminded us of the centrality of mindfulness to the inspiring work she does, expressing how she feels in a relationship of gratitude to “the only place I have any impact”: the here and now.

The Garrison Institute has long admired Rev. angel’s wisdom and work. Please click below to watch a brief talk she gave at GI, in which she explores how a contemplative life can give rise to a “more holistic system of systems that is conducive to climate health.” There is a bonus guided meditation at the end.

In 2017 the Institute humbly honored the Reverend angel Kyodo williams for her profound work. Respect for the vital nature of this type of work has, of course, grown exponentially in the last 6 years. Please click through to watch a brief clip of that event below.

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