"Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love." ―Martin Luther King Jr.
Esalen’s first online retreat was a free community offering entitled “Building Bridges of Belonging: The Inner Work of Healing from Racism and Moving Towards Positive Social Transformation.” More than 60 participants attended the online retreat in early June, which was facilitated by Jessica Hartzell and Lacy Shannon of Esalen's Community and Advancement team, and Programs Specialist Tanja Roos, and led by two Esalen faculty: University of San Francisco law professor Rhonda V. Magee, an expert on mindful teaching and learning, race and law; and Kamilah Majied, a social justice leader and mental health therapist.
“This offering began with the intention to raise awareness within our community on a topic my team was thinking a great deal about prior to and during the COVID-19 closure,” says Community and Advancement Associate Jessica Hartzell. “When George Floyd was killed on May 25, suddenly a test run of a passion project became a highly relevant and extremely tender topic on the forefront of everyone’s minds. We planned this offering because we wanted to do this work ourselves. It supported Esalen’s mission, which is enough of a reason to raise it with this specific community. It’s why we are here.”
The two-day offering featured a series of interactive sessions that explored the personal and interpersonal work necessary to cultivate a deeper sense of wellness and belonging. Storytelling, gentle awareness practices and guided self-reflection were included as Rhonda and Kamilah shined a light on racial justice in the era of COVID-19. Several breakout sessions comprised of three people each offered attendees an opportunity to share thoughts and feelings about participating in the retreat, ways to embrace the inner work required to begin healing from racism and much more. A prominent insight emerged: In a world where all are interdependent, eliminating racism from our ways of thinking, acting and interacting can literally save our lives.
“I don't think a single person in attendance of this timely offering was left unaffected,” reflects Esalen Director of Programs Cheryl Fraenzl. “Esalen is known for its workshops on individual personal growth but working together towards collective advancement of all is the next iteration. After the brutal death of George Floyd and the country found itself on a massive uprising of voices calling for justice and equality, everyone at the retreat knew the significance of the moment and how important it was to hear their offering. Rhonda linked mindfulness as a practice, not just for well-being but for waking up—waking up to the ways we've had our very consciousness structured by and through unjust systems. We've become disconnected from each other, our core humanness as brothers and sisters. Rhonda and Kamilah offered the community of listeners a gentle but poignant call to honest reflection and to be agents of true change.”
Rhonda and Kamilah have been change agents for some time. In addition to being a nationally acclaimed speaker on mindfulness and social justice, Rhonda is an insightful author. In her book, The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming our Communities through Mindfulness, she considers the “ecology of social justice” as threefold. She writes: “We need an ecological approach to justice that includes inner work, interpersonal work and intercultural systemic work—meaning, working within ourselves and between ourselves, and then working to change the systems that we’re living in.”
As a professor for nearly 20 years, Kamilah has taught clinical social work and instructed faculty and students worldwide about Buddhism and mindfulness practice from several perspectives, including mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, mindfulness and racial justice, Buddhism and mental health, and mindfulness practices to preserve the environment. She offered the opening remarks at the first White House/U.S. Buddhist Leaders Conference in 2015, which addressed climate change and racial justice. There she touched upon the great joy that can emerge from great sorrow, noting that if we turn "towards the sorrow as if it were a teacher and decide to learn from it," we can appreciate the challenge. Kamilah's book, Joyfully Just, which she co-authored with Dr. Vaishali Mamgain, will be released later this year.
Planting the Seeds for 'Building Bridges of Belonging'
The genesis for the inaugural online retreat actually began last year. In May 2019, Rhonda first came to Esalen as part of a spring workshop called "Mindfulness, Transformation and Vitality: Tools for Powerful 21st-Century Women" led by Esalen faculty Shauna Shapiro, Cassandra Vieten and Elissa Epel. It was at the time that Tanja says she discovered that Rhonda possessed “an extraordinary heart, deep knowledge of mindfulness practices” and a remarkable ability to hold healing space around deeply challenging topics. Over time, a May 2020 workshop was created—"Building Bridges of Belonging: The Inner Work of Community Healing and Societal Transformation"—with Rhonda and Kamilah set to co-lead.
In preparation for the in-person workshop, Tanja had been in conversation with Rhonda, Kamilah and Jessica about possibly finding support to curate a cohort of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), recruited by faculty, to attend the workshop at Esalen and participate in pre- and post-gatherings. With the onset of COVID-19, the workshop was cancelled, but Tanja and Jessica continued to dialog and ultimately developed a fully virtual experience.
“These are the vital conversations that need to be held within communities, families, businesses and organizations—in our public and private lives,” Tanja says. “It was a tremendous honor to have Rhonda and Kamilah leading the way. If we endeavor to truly, individually and collectively confront the systemic racism threaded through every aspect of our lives, then we need to develop the ability to sit in the discomfort as we peel back the layers. ‘Discomfort Resilience’ was a term used during the online retreat and it seemed to resonate with many participants.
“Looking at this work through the lens of mindfulness engages us in a lifelong practice, where all feelings are welcomed and explored with curiosity,” she adds. “This approach supports individuals in doing the inner reparations first, before initiating right-action in the world—seeking justice as a form of love enacted in public.”
Mindfulness was key earlier this year when the Esalen Development team was renamed Community and Advancement in an effort to shift a departmental focus to a deeply integral part of what makes up Esalen—the humans who gather at and around Esalen Institute. Centered on mission impact, the department’s offerings include working toward the realization of a more just world. “I think that involves building a community through shared experiences of healing that makes an impact on the world around us,” Jessica adds.
Many participants provided vital feedback during and after the retreat.
"I commit to speak this truth to power and challenge the tendency to put this on the back burner because we are told, 'it’s not so bad. We can do that later,'" shared one participant during the retreat. "I hear that a lot. No more waiting. No more back burner."
Another attendee shared that they felt "grief and also commitment for the long haul."
“Before the retreat, I was a ‘quiet supporter’ of Black Lives Matter, which is to say I offered no support at all,” says Chris Altizer, an executive coach and martial arts and yoga instructor who also partook in the offering. “After the sessions, I have realized that what I’ve lacked is courage. Specifically, the courage to meet people with privilege—people like me—wherever they are in the awareness curve. I felt attending this session was an example of ‘necessary but insufficient.’ Meaning, I can attend sessions and workshops with fellow travelers at or near the same place on the ‘awareness curve’ to increase my insight and build my resolve, but what has become obvious, especially in the last few years, is that people are only farther apart and we need to increase awareness and gain attention of more people if change is to happen.”
Chris went on to say that the workshop also “fed his soul.”
“But it isn’t enough,” he adds. “People like me—an American-born, English-speaking, able-bodied, heterosexual, property-owning white man—have got to get into it with those whose support is required to make real change. I have the opportunity—the privilege—to go to people like me wherever they are on the awareness curve. This means I have the opportunity, maybe the obligation, to speak to family members, friends, students and others more directly about privilege and social injustice.
Jessica says additional feedback revealed that participants were pleased with the opportunity to bring attention and intention to a topic that was lighting fires in people all over the country.
“One person shared that they forgot the retreat was virtual at times and felt deeply present with the group," she shares. "Another participant mentioned that they were profoundly uncomfortable with the experience of breaking out into smaller affinity groups and were confronted with belonging and not belonging in a way that was upsetting. Attention and intention, presence and discomfort—these are all things that evoke Esalen for me. Do I think we cured systemic racism? Of course not. But I think we engaged in a conversation and added a ripple to many ponds.”
Learn more about Rhonda V. Magee here.
Learn more about Kamilah Majied here.
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