This past Sunday Roshi Amy “Tu es cela (You are this)” Hollowell gave the dharma talk at our Sunday Morning Zen Program. Amy leads our sister sangha (Buddhist community) the Wildflower Zen Sangha in Paris.
We met almost twenty years ago when my husband and I, working with the Zen Peacemakers, went to Paris for a conference in September 2001. We met in the wonderful conference center in Chartres, France where the famous Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres is located. The cathedral, designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, is considered “the high point of French Gothic art.”
Even before the Gothic cathedral was built, the town of Chartres was a place of pilgrimage. Some sources say, Chartres was a pagan site originally dedicated to the traditional Mother Goddess with whom the Virgin Mary is often fused. The cathedral is perfectly proportioned and I remember sitting in it and feeling its strong, nurturing, peaceful energy - much like the energy I feel at the end of a 7-day silent meditation retreat. I remember seeing a labyrinth painted on the old stone floor and imagined how many people had walked it in meditation. Chartres remains a highlight of my spiritual experience.
I left Paris early on the morning of September 11, 2001, and in mid-air, somewhere over Idaho, thecaptain announced that our plane was being diverted to Calgary because the airspace over the United States had been closed. That was the beginning of my, and the whole nationʻs, 9/11 experience.
Bearing in mind all of these events, it was wonderful to see Amy again. She had been a serious Zen student then and is now an accomplished Zen teacher. She guides students in France, Australia, Ireland, UK, Portugal and Spain. That day they, connected by the Zen Life & Meditation Centerʻs FaceBook Live page, all listened to Amy speak from Chicago! I love technology when it works beautifully like this.
Amy mentioned in her talk why she named her zen community Wildflower Zen Sangha. She said that wildflowers grow everywhere - in cracks of cement, in rocks, on mountainsides - everywhere. Theyʻre all different according to their particular environment. She also said , “Our nature, is also wild in the sense that we are not limited by what we think we are. We can free ourselves of these identifications - we can be free. we can be anything…”
Several times a month, I volunteer to go to the Cook County Department of Corrections to teach women meditation in Division 4. Cook County admits roughly 100,000 detainees annually and averages a daily population of 9,000. Last Thursday marked a year that Iʻve been teaching meditation there.
I am aware of how comfortable I now feel walking through security and greeting the guards as compared to when I first began. I was very fearful back then.
Entering, thereʻs a long concrete walk from the Security Office to where the women are housed in Division 4. The walk has tall chain link fences on both sides topped by barbed wire. There are also big bales of coiled barbed wire on the ground on the other side of the fence.
Last Thursday was a beautiful day. The breeze was cool and gentle with blue skies and puffy clouds. I noticed blue wildflowers, that looked like chicory flowers, poking their delicate heads through the bales of barbed wire on the sides of the concrete walk way. I thought, “Such beauty in a place of great suffering.”
My class is held in a room that has cement floors, artificial lighting, and tough plastic chairs stacked up in colors of maroon, gray and black. I arrived first. Then the women came in - mostly women of color - blacks and Latinas. A couple had been to the class the week before and looked happy to see me. They said that they had been practicing the meditation I taught them, and that it had really helped.
That day twelve women showed up, most of whom had never been to the class before. These women looked wary, like they were very stressed out but trying not to show it. Some looked rather scary and it was these women whom I especially paid attention to. My first thought was to not look in their direction. But my meditation practice is about working with fear and not turning away. I found by the end of class, these women looked absolutely different, “normal,” and not scary.
We began with Donna Edenʻs Energy Medicine exercises - about 10 minutes of breathing, tapping, and specific movements which really helped them to smooth out their energies. Then I read them a powerful letter from Fleet Maull who co-wrote the workbook, “The Path of Freedom,” with Kate Crisp. In his foreward, Fleet talks about developing emotional intelligence with the help of mindfulness meditation to free himself from the prison of his own making - his mind.
Whenever I give meditation instruction I always talk about being embodied. This is not an easy thing to do in America where the body is valued only in service to our consumerist culture.
So last Thursday, I added hula to my class. Hula is a wonderful way to feel embodiedwhen you begin to connect your mind and body while you dance. The women were very excited to get up and start to move to the simple yet powerful steps of the Hula. A few women were initially very uncoordinated, but I told them not to worry, to be patient because their neurological pathways were just getting connected. It takes time.
Since we didnʻt have music, I decided to sing the classic Hawaiian song, Pua Mana, for them. It was glorious, really, singing a Hawaiian song for 12 women detainees - all having a blast dancing their first hula in Cook Countyʻs Department of Corrections Division 4. And when the dance was done, they all looked like completely different women. Their faces were bright with smiles and excitement. Wildflowers grow everywhere.