The Inner Activist
Place of residence: Northampton, Massachusetts
Main roles: activist, meditation teacher
Occupation: Meditation teacher
Buddhist history: Studied Vipassana with Ruth Denison (1979), and S.N. Goenka, Joseph Goldstein and Michelle McDonald-Smith. Also studied with Thich Nhat Hanh, and Tsoknyi Rinpoche. Resident teacher at Insight Meditation Society (1989-1991). Leads retreats in USA and Germany.
Main Buddhist lesson: The power of taking refuge
Much of social activism takes place in meetings. We are now organizing a candlelight vigil with speakers to talk about war and the possibility of peace in Iraq. I find myself sitting on a hard metal chair, in a poorly-lit church basement, facing an agenda impossibly long for the designated two hours.
I have been to several recent rallies where the speakers only spoke of pain and suffering. This time, I want some speakers who will be uplifting. Others disagree.
When I feel my heart harden, I call on myself to give an open ear and disengage from my attachments. I repeat several mantras to myself: “It is more important how you relate to what is happening, than what is happening,” and “Pay attention with an open heart.” When I have lost it, I say: “I forgive myself. I am a student still learning on this path of life.”
I have the absolute confidence I am building peace and not war.
I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, to political activists Myrtle and Monty Berman, who fought for African freedom. Driving into the (black African) townships with my mother, I was shocked to see the stark poverty and lack of facilities. Facing so much suffering burnt an impression into my heart.
In 1979, I joined a demonstration at a California weapons facility, to stop sending arms to Central America. Some members of the group bickered with each other and were quite nasty. Standing under the sky of stars, I saw that we had no idea of how to be peaceful, although we had a wonderful vision of peace. Yet, I didn’t know how to model the change I wanted.
The next day, I sat down in my little cabin and wrote a prayer asking for a teacher. I painted a design around the prayer and hung it on my wall. A month later, a friend invited me to a Vipassana retreat led by Ruth Denison. I hated it. I faced a torrent of negative emotions, which seemed impossible to work with. So I vowed I would not return. Six months later, I was back. On the fourth retreat, I experienced a deep opening, and knew I had found something extraordinarily valuable.
In the Vipassana tradition, there’s a quality of mind called appreciative joy, which helps bring about equanimity. I sometimes spend 20 minutes giving thanks. When I feel overwhelmed with disappointment, I start by giving thanks for very obvious gifts, like being able to see and hear, for being able to use my arms, for the trees in the local park. After a while, a rhythm takes over, and I find myself appreciating things I haven’t been conscious of.
When I touch my inner beauty through meditation, and honor its expression as a lesbian, I am also provided with a vision that guides me. The practice has offered me a way to challenge my hatred of homophobia, and to look at those parts of my identity that are held as a defense.
Of the many differences between men and women, gay and straight, I think the most important issues have to do with access to political, economic and religious power, and how this inequality springs from our personal and social ignorance. I believe we need to work on the personal and institutional levels for transformation, which is why I divide my time between meditation retreats and social activism.
This is a significant time in Buddhism, because so many women can practice the Dharma. There are now numerous female teachers, who reflect our reality as women. We have retreats led by women, and books from women teachers. We are coming closer to the full expression of the Dharma, in both its feminine and masculine expressions.
This article can be read in its entirety in Mandala