Earlier this year I gave myself the gift of a silent mindfulness retreat. I spent a weekend in the beautiful foothills of the Georgia Mountains deepening my metta meditation practice.
Metta is Pali for loving-kindness. And this meditation does just that - focuses attention on the cultivation of loving-kindness toward oneself and others (benefactor, dear friend, neutral person, difficult person, all sentient beings). This is done partly through the internal repetition of phrases for each category.
The meditation always begins with extending metta to yourself. The idea being you need to first have unbounded love for self before you can have unbounded love for others. We spent almost an entire day of a three-day retreat meditating on the self, an indication of the difficulty we have seeing ourselves as worthy and unconditionally lovable.
I left the retreat full of love…and loss.
You see, I was the only woman of color – the only person of color, in fact - among the 30 retreaters. This has become a regular occurrence in my wellness pursuits, although I live in a diverse metro area.
My mindfulness practice encourages the acceptance of an experience for what it is versus lamenting what it isn’t. Even so, I feel loss when I’m The Only: loss of the opportunity to remove all of my protective armor, to be fully recognized, to exhale.
My sister-friends who have the means to participate in wellness activities – which I’m clear is a privilege – express reluctance about being vulnerable in what will likely be all-White or mostly White spaces. They fear experiencing some racial injury while in search of healing. The residential nature of retreats adds to this fear.
I get it.
As a psychologist who has spent 20 years researching and teaching about health, I can’t ignore the numerous benefits to body and mind of unplugging, finding time for self, just being. So I choose to continue participating in these wellness activities despite the drawbacks.
But the loss of opportunity persists.
When we broke silence, I questioned the retreat leaders about the lack of diversity among the participants and the need for more outreach to communities of color who are suffering in these painful times. Their response acknowledged the problem without much solution. One of the facilitators did emphasize that metta is centered on loving actions as much as loving feelings, which for her includes working toward a more just society.
Since this retreat, I have thought a lot about the notion of loving action. It reminds me of Wangari Maathai's telling of "I Will be a Hummingbird." In this fable, a hummingbird was trying to put out a raging forest fire by filling its little beak with water and emptying the droplets on the flames. When asked by the larger animal bystanders why it was doing something so useless, the hummingbird responded, "I am doing the best I can."
What is the best I can do? Although that answer is ever changing (thanks, Liz Roemer, for this wise tidbit), I know it’s more than lamenting the lack of wellness opportunities for women of color, especially since I have the skill to add to those opportunities. So I’ve started experimenting with creating what I wish for.
With the assistance of lots of amazing people, I facilitated a day-long faculty wellness retreat for women of color in May. This retreat was all about pausing, reflecting, renewing, and connecting through practices shown to reduce stress and boost mood. There was yoga, dance, mindfulness, sister circles, laughter, and tears.
As I was leading the last activity of the day, not coincidentally a metta meditation, I looked around the room at the 24 women of color in attendance and felt the power of our sisterhood. It was without exception the highlight of my professional career.
The positive response to the retreat was deeply humbling and motivated me to step out of my comfort zone and plan a weekend retreat for women of color faculty. It will be held October 5-7 in those same beautiful Georgia Mountain foothills.
I am clear that these retreats won’t singularly change the wellness industry or the individual, institutional, and systemic factors that injure women of color. They are, however, acts of love for my sisters and for myself. And that’s a start.
Special thanks to Nyasha GuramatunhuCooper, Michelle DiPietro, Kami Anderson, Joycelyn Moody, Michelle Boyd, and Nicole Guillory for their support in helping me be a hummingbird, not a bystander.
In peace and solidarity,