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Sunday, May 12, 2019

How Mindfulness Can Help Us Wake Up to Oppression and Suffering

Jade Bryan is the author and illustrator of Dragon Girl, a children's book based on the Lotus Sutra and traditional Buddhist cave paintings.

In this interview, Jade shares her thoughts on Buddhism and mindfulness with Catharine Hannay, editor and publisher of

Catharine: The basic premise of Dragon Girl is that an 8-year-old girl

from a very privileged background realizes there must be more to life than toys, treats, and jewels. She wants to wake up, but she’s surrounded by people who aren’t awake and can’t see beyond the walls of the palace. 

In your opinion, how can kids help adults to wake up to the suffering in the world?

Jade: I believe that kids are more awake than adults imaginewe can learn a lot from how they see the world! 

Kids can teach us a great deal about compassion and wisdom, two core principles of Buddhism. The first step towards both is deep listening: not just letting words float by, but actively absorbing them with sincerity. Listening to ourselves is, of course, key to mindfulness practices; but so is listening to others. 

If we listen to the stories kids tell, I really think that adults can find many sparks of wisdom in that place of deep listening. I’ve gained so much wisdom from listening to kids’ ideas and perspectives. Kids have natural creativity, empathy for others, and a willingness to think outside the box in ways that are difficult for us grown people to access, let alone acknowledge. 

In the book, nobody listens to Dragon Girl, yet she’s more wise than any of the grown-ups. When her voice is finally heard, those who listen wake up. 

A lot of the time, adults don’t value what kids have to say, and it’s really our ignorance that prevents us from witnessing truth. If we listen to all perspectivesespecially children’sI believe that we can wake up from the restrictive, blinding adult conventions we cling onto so tightly. 

I think our inner child is the place that many Buddhists call “Buddha-nature”: the pure light within us all. After all, isn’t every one of us a kid on the inside? 

Catharine: In the story, Buddha recognizes Dragon Girl’s goodness and wisdom, but the boy monks don’t think she can be awake/enlightened because she’s a girl. 

There’s been a lot of criticism of discrimination against women in certain Buddhist lineages. Do you think this is changing in recent years?

Jade: The history of women in Buddhism is very complex. My relationship with Buddhism is particularly complex, because I am both the oppressor and oppressed: I’m a woman, but I’m also white, Western, educated and so on, therefore I speak from those particular positions of power, informed by certain worldview. 

Because there are so many schools and lineages, the Dharma is interpreted very differently according to cultural perspectives. On an institutional level, like pretty much all institutions across time and place, Buddhism is complicit in perpetuating violence against women (and other oppressed people). 

Even if it seems paradoxical, like all institutions, Buddhism is not free from violence, even when—in my view—the spirit of the dharma is inherently anti-violent. The legacy of these violences are ongoing, but I do see tremendous resistance happening, both within Buddhism and society in general. 

I very much believe that Buddhism is compatible with feminist and social justice views, and in fact that these perspectives all work towards the same goal (ending suffering). It’s cool to see how the Dharma is being used to advocate for women’s rights and equal treatment in our cultural moment.

There are many people using the Dharma to advocate for women’s rights in ways that are relevant to our place and timeperhaps more necessary than ever. Buddhism, despite its complicated and sometimes dark history, has also been a source of empowerment for women. For example, Buddha let women into the monastic order thousands of years ago, when the idea of women being anything other than a wife and mother was unheard of. That's pretty revolutionary even by today's standards. 

One of the very first published anthologies of women’s writing was authored by Buddhist nuns, among the few historic documents that record women’s lives in their own words (or at all). This was in the 6th century BCE, which is incredible to think about! Becoming a Buddhist nun was (and still is) an alternative to traditional female duties, often providing previously unheard of educational opportunities.

I think as society on the whole becomes more aware of these deep-seated issues, Buddhism will change with it. Even more so, Buddhism is a vehicle that can be used to promote changes to heal societal traumas which lead to oppression and suffering. We can “wake up” from these patterns that have placed some lives as more worthy of dignity than others.

Catharine: You’re currently collaborating with your mom, children’s book author Tracy Bryan, on a series of books about neurodiversity, and you’re active in the LGBTQ2IA+ community in Toronto. Do you have any advice for how the mindfulness community can be supportive of different perspectives and experiences of the world?

Jade: Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams, a Zen Buddhist priest, says that “without inner change, there can be no outer change. Without collective change, no change matters
.” I think the hugest part of supporting different perspectives is first and foremost being open to them, making space for change inside ourselves! 

With political movements like #metoo and Black Lives Matter, people in power are finally seeing how widespread our society’s trauma really is. All of us have a role in this. This suffering has always been there, but we are only just starting to wake up to it, because society is built around making it invisible. 

Every day, we’re seeing how suffering is rooted in intersecting oppressions: sexuality, class, race, disability, mental health, gender, and other social divisions that dehumanize people. We’re seeing how people’s dignity and respect are beaten down. But we’re also witnessing how people resist and reclaim their humanity, no matter how much suffering they’re living in, which is just so profound.

Nobody is a victim, and nobody is evil, we all are complex human beings and have the capacity for change. Everybody, even without knowing it, is always already fighting for liberation in the best way they know how.

It took me a lot of self work to see how people’s suffering is rooted in the systems around us, and how, like it or not, those systems live inside me because I have been born in them and breathe them in every day of my life (no matter how mindful those breaths are!) 

Mindfulness has been the key way I’ve been able to see these things at play inside myself. I have learned so much about how mindfulness can help to deconstruct the ways I replicate trauma and violence in the world without even knowing it—a fish living in toxic water. One idea that has drastically changed how I see mindfulness and the entire world is of “radical dharma.” 

Radical Dharma is the title of Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams’ book, co-authored by other black and queer Buddhist teachers. They believe that the Dharma can be used to seek compassion in the face of systemic violence, particularly anti-black racism, but also all oppressions in our society. They believe that by deconstructing these systems compassionately inside ourselves, we can work towards social liberation, both of which are interdependent. It’s one idea that I try to embody in my everyday life, and continue to cultivate, because this work is never done! 

Mindfulness really is inseparable from ethics, because we can’t reduce suffering (of ourselves or others) unless we look at everything and everybody as interconnected. Collective suffering is our own suffering—-but so is collective healing.

We're in a time of witnessing our culture's shadow; how institutionalized violence manifests in all of our relationships, especially those we see as “normal”. As this suffering is coming to light, though, so is the call for change. The time has come for love and connection among human beings. 

Voices which have been historically silenced are finally being heard, and collective spiritual healing is key to these transformations. I believe that Buddhist principles are powerful in helping us to uproot social ills and cultivate seeds for a more enlightened world. That’s what Buddha was all about! He was a revolutionary. 

This change starts within us, and within our mindfulness communities. By changing ourselves from the inside out, we can inspire many generations of dragon kids and change our whole world.

Catharine: You’re studying Buddhist spiritual care and psychotherapy. Do you have any guidelines for when a client might be in more need of spiritual guidance or more in need of psychotherapy?

Jade: Everyone has spirituality, across faith traditions or even without faith tradition. It's how people make meaning out of the universe and their lives in it. I think spiritual fulfillment and psychotherapy go hand in hand---both are about supporting people to make meaning in their lives. They have the same goal: reducing suffering.

What I’ve learned is that it’s important to embrace a diversity of cultural backgrounds, especially here in Toronto, where we have people come from all over with very different viewpoints. At the same time, realizing that we’re all humans in search of meaning and connection helps me to put into perspective the aims of both psychotherapy and spiritual guidance. And any form of caregiving, teaching, or mentorship, for that matter. 

On their own, each can be limiting or even harmful: for example, when doing meditation you have to be careful because it can uncover trauma, which Buddhism doesn’t necessarily have a concept of, and without tools to process that, it can re-traumatize people. 

This can sometimes make it worse, because people aren’t always given the resources to work through the issues that come up while meditating, and many spiritual teachers just aren’t given the training to support people who are experiencing more severe trauma or mental health issues. 

Western psychotherapy based in a medical view is also limiting, though, because it does not work for everybody, and often neglects the connection between mind and body. It can be based sometimes on pinpointing a “disorder” as opposed to recognizing people’s strengths and resilience. 

People's potential for greater meaning making is something I have come to find wholeheartedly in Buddhism. Ultimately, I think that both psychotherapy and spiritual care can inform one another, and fill in the gaps where the other falls short.

Catharine: What do you do in your own personal mindfulness practice, and how does it help you with your work as a counselor and artist?

Jade: I think that a lot of the time when we hear “mindfulness”, we only think of sitting mindfulness meditation. While sitting meditation is certainly a wonderfully helpful practice, it’s really difficult, even for people who have been practicing a long time! I think that can be intimidating for some people—-especially kids who have trouble sitting still (like me!) 

What I love about mindfulness is that it can be applied to everyday life, in small or big ways. Art is meditative for me, and creativity sustains my spirituality. I also love walking meditations, and taking mindful breaths through the day. 

One breath can change your whole outlook. And if it doesn’t, that’s okay too. There are always more. You have to breathe anyways, it may as well be mindful. 

One painting can bring out an inner spark of wisdom. 

Walking through nature—or the city, taking in air, feeling the breeze; these are all ways of cultivating mindfulness when sitting meditation is not always possible. 

I do practice guided and silent sitting meditations (alone and in groups), but I think the main chunk of my practice is the everyday acts. And, of course, the biggest part of that is play: if we all find a sense of playfulness in our lives, we can get in touch with ourselves and the truth. Play is liberating, and, I think, the most potent spiritual act.


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