Embodied and Boundless: A Conversation with Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

Content warning: In this episode, we briefly mention suicide in the context of dealing with rage and racial injustice.

In this episode, we explore the ways mysticism cannot be embodied, the importance of cultural sanctuary as a place of safety, and the value of rage: “That is not the purpose of any spiritual practice, to wipe away what you have,but to take what you have,” said Sensei Zenju. “And rage is what we have.”

Transcript:

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [00:03]: Because that’s what happens contemplation becomes that place of rest when that’s not really what it is. Contemplation is very active and takes a lot of energy and a lot of work. If someone feels tired and exhausted and they want to go do a retreat, I say “no, don’t do the retreat. You need to go and sleep and get rest.”

Cassidy Hall [00:22]: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast about the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics, and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spirituality’s direct relationship with issues of social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor, and student, and I’m here to learn with you.

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel Osho is an ordained Zen Priest and the Dharma heir of Buddha and the Suzuki Roshi lineage through the San Francisco Zen Center. Zenju’s practice is influenced by Native American and African indigenous traditions. 

She was raised in the Church of Christ, where she was an avid reader of the Bible and adored the true mystic teachings on Christ’s path well into adulthood. She’s the author of several books, including most recently, The Deepest Peace: Contemplations from a Season of Stillness, Sanctuary: A Meditation on Home, Homelessness, and Belonging. And in The Way of Tenderness, she writes, “But if we were to simply walk past the fires of racism, sexism, and so on because illusions of separation exist within them, we may well be walking past one of the widest gateways to enlightenment.”

Sensei Zenju welcome to Contemplating Now.

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [01:48]: Thank you, thank you for having me and inviting me.

Cassidy Hall [01:51]: It’s really good to be with you. I got to speak with you on the Encountering Silence podcast. For this conversation, I’m wondering if you could tell us how you define “contemplation,” and how you define “mysticism” also?

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [02:05]: First of all, the word “contemplation” is rarely used in Zen Buddhist tradition, maybe in other Buddhist traditions, but I don’t know. But in Zen, it’s not really used. So when I used it in my book I was really kind of jumping out the box in some way, not on purpose. It just felt like that’s what I was doing. So contemplation, if you were to contemplate in the Zen tradition, then you’re not really doing––you’re not doing meditation, and you’re not doing Zazen, which we call meditation. To contemplate means you’re thinking, a pondering, wondering, so we don’t use it, because in our practice, we’re not pondering, and we’re not thinking upon something like when people say I’m going to go meditate on it, we don’t go meditate on it, although some people might but that’s not the point.

Zazen is a ritual up opening through the silence, and to see where you’re going to land, you don’t never know when you’re going to land. There’s no guided meditation either. So a lot of people have asked me to do guided meditations constantly they asked me that. And I understand that they don’t understand Zen, they know nothing about Zen when they ask me to do a guided meditation. Because a guided meditation is not allowing that open field, you know, that open way of allowing silence to speak through you in the stillness to activate the activated and to bring something different to you that you don’t know that you have never thought about. So I think it’s a ritual in that sense. So, contemplation to me, when I use it is I’m kind of combining Zazen, my meditation Zen practice, with once what comes through, then I contemplate on it. 

I may contemplate on it, but then I’m not I’m outside of the practice in that way, when I do that. Because I love to contemplate I used to be a daydreamer as a child. I love thinking on things. I do feel that I contemplate as a Zen priest but it’s not the practice itself that contemplation arises out of the Zazen, out of the stillness and meditation and silence then I may contemplate.

So “mysticism” is to me Zazen, you know, because Zazen is very mystical in the sense that you don’t know what is going to happen. There’s the unknown, there’s a discovery, and that’s the hard part about it because you know, everyone’s like, why I’m sitting here, you know, tell me what to do. You don’t fill in the space, you just allow whatever is going to come up for you to come up. And what you’re doing, which many mystics and all mystics I’m sure did and do, is taking that time to just be, period.  Just be, and then see what you sense into, you know, what’s happening and what’s around you. So just developing that kind of silence and stillness helps to navigate the world navigate life, you’re actually honing and cultivating a way of walking in the jungle of life. And so this to me, Zazen is most close to me to what may be a medicine man or woman in indigenous cultures––many, many, many, way before Buddha––because meditation is way before Buddha, did in order to hear and see and be able to create the medicine that’s needed for the people for themselves, and so Zazen is like that. And that’s the mysticism for me. It’s definitely steeped in what I already am practicing and probably was practicing before I even, you know, became ordained, or before I even walked into the gateway of Zen. I think I was already doing such.

Cassidy Hall [05:46]: Yeah, in that way do you see a connection between contemplation as you’ve described it as thinking on the things, right or… 

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [05:56]: Pondering, yeah.

Cassidy Hall [05:57]: Yeah, pondering. Do you see that as connected to ways that can form our role in social justice in the world? I’m thinking of something from your book, The Way of Tenderness you write about interconnected intimacy and you write that, “Interconnected intimacy that is messy, uncomfortable, and difficult but worthy and liberating to attend to.” And I think, you know, in my experience, when I do a sit, I never quite know what to name it. I just, you know, go there, right in the silence and stillness. And it always seems to be kind of a grounded, rooted meeting place for everyone else. And it reminds me of this interconnected intimacy, but I love also what you’re saying about, but if you go there to meet it, that’s not the way to meet it, so. 

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [06:40]: Right so you’re asking whether activism, social activism, or social justice work, is there contemplation in it? 

Cassidy Hall [06:48]: Does a contemplative practice help or undergird movements or activism and vice-versa?

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [06:56]: When you said in my mind went way out, like, “no!” because I feel that we have not been able to integrate contemplation or meditation with social justice. So we’re either doing one or the other. Okay, so they’re still quite separate, even if, in our minds, we think, ‘Oh, I’m an activist, I’m going to go out and do this and then I’ll go sit, well, that is what that is.’ You’re going out to, you know, activate, and you’re going to sit, they’re separate walks. It’s a good question because I’m very nervous about it in the sense of a person who’s been an activist and still considers myself that but I wouldn’t probably go out and do some of the things many activists do today for many reasons, not because I don’t think what they’re doing is profound, or needed. 

But I feel that people do not have a good ground and foundation and understanding of contemplation in order to be able to bring it to the movement, it’s not there. And it doesn’t mean you act differently, like okay, when we get there, we’re going to meditate and that shows that we got it. No, this is not true. What is true for me, and not just true for me, in my experience, and having been a very strong activist and organizing in my life, and then going completely into spirituality and coming out with both of them integrated, has been a profound experience for me. Because I am able to articulate the social issues and the way we are as human beings because of the contemplation that is influencing and our foundation to my activist work. Or if I were to speak, even in politics, that even if I speak politically, which I do, I’m speaking from that place. I’m not just speaking politics, and then I go rest because that’s what happens. 

Contemplation becomes that place of rest when that’s not really what it is. Contemplation is very active and takes a lot of energy and a lot of work. If someone feels tired and exhausted and they want to go do a retreat I say, “No, don’t do the retreat. You need to go and sleep and get rest because you need that energy to do this work.” This inner work is not, this is not the place you come. I have seen people come to retreats, and they think they’re going to get relaxed and then they get all upset, especially in Zen. Where you have to work, work, work, work, work, boom, you know, go to sleep and they’re like well, “This is worse than what I was doing when I was in the world. I’m working more than ever before.” It’s a different kind of work. You learn it that later but it’s a different kind of work. But if you are not prepared to sit because people think you don’t have to prepare to do it’s too easy. 

You just sit down, but you have to be prepared, your body has to be prepared to do it. If your body can’t do it, then the sitting practice is not for you. It really isn’t. There are other things maybe you could drum, paint, or something you know that has meditation within it you know, but to do to actually come to the ceremony ill-equipped is only going to make you suffer more. I did. I was suffering more because I didn’t understand I was coming in ceremony and meditation or you know anything. So practicing to be a contemplative, you’re practicing in that way you’re learning to have an embodiment, to be embodied, and to be boundless, okay, at the same time. But you can’t learn that with your mind, and you can’t talk yourself into it, although we do. Do I look like I’m, you know, balanced or whatever, empty? You know. 

So we try to talk ourselves into those places, and you can’t, you must go through the practice through the path in order to bring that to your political or activist movement, or actions. I would like to see more people speak on the integration of it, especially those who are going to teach both contemplation meditation and activism, if you’re going to teach all of that, then you must see it as an integration. So what I find in here is people either talk completely on the justice side or completely on still on the religious side, despite ethnicity, race, sex, anything, it doesn’t matter. I just hear it being still split. I might do it myself at times, but inside I don’t feel that you know, and there are some other people that I’m sure you know, have that ability, but I think it’s very few. It’s very…  It’s a rare thing because it takes so much time for you to embody that sense of being, like here and not right here and not here being part of everything in the world. That’s pretty tough. We’re not ready to be part of everything and everyone we talk about… sounds so beautiful, so romantic. But as soon as someone climbs the Capitol wall, we’re like, “Ah, you know, we’re not with them.” I’m going to separate myself from that, and we can’t, unfortunately, or fortunately. We cannot separate ourselves from that, because we’re human beings.

Cassidy Hall [11:57]: I appreciate you distinguishing contemplation, contemplative practices, meditation from rest. Because when we do begin to think about integrating contemplative life for contemplative practice and activism, those integrated without rest is bound for failure, right? I mean…

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [12:14]: Well, we get exhausted, you know, and depressed and hopeless and helpless, all these kinds of things will come up, and then you’re like, well, this is not going to change and then your rage is intensified, because, oh, we’re really not changing white supremacy it’s getting worse. And there’s a reason for that, too. We won’t go into that. But you know, right now, but there is a reason for that, and one of the reasons is simply is we keep invoking it. And so once we invoke it, and continue to invoke it, it will be it. It will be in the world. And we do have to look at it. I’m not saying we need to be silent on it. Because there’s white supremacy can the contemplation and meditation, allow you to talk about it in a different way so that we can land in a different place on the path.

Landing on anti-blackness, or landing on white supremacy is just one place on the path. And we know that we’ve been knowing that can we shift that a bit to say, that’s what I was trying to do with The Way of Tenderness to shift that language to talking about superiority and inferiority and how it gets systematized. That’s good, but it doesn’t invoke just the whiteness, it also invokes class, you know, rich and poor, it invokes all that is superior and dominant in a more integrative way than just this one thing because if we just work on this one thing, we forget that there is all the other things. So then we have to go, Well, I’m not going to do race, I’m going to do class. And then everybody says, “Well they’re together” when we know this. 

And I think contemplation for me, and meditation has taught me how to do this, you know. How to view the truth or view the nature of life, which means to view the nature of humanity, because that’s all I know. I don’t know how to be alive in any other way. And the interrelationship of that, and I push my students that way, too. So they really can’t talk about whiteness, we’re all black our Sangha. We don’t talk, I don’t want to, because it just keeps invoking, and centering whiteness. And so when they get upset, then what is that and what can we talk about so that when we come back to that place on the path or go, oh, okay, I’m going to do something different right here, and I’m going to do something, whatever I’m going to do is going to not only not center whiteness, it’s going to center wellness and transformation and movement for me, and for my people, my community, and my family. 

Cassidy Hall [14:35]: Yeah. In your book, The Deepest Peace you beautifully write about rage and making room for rage, you write, “I don’t quiet the rage for peace. Peace is not superior. Peace is persistent. Rage is persistent as well. I meditate while trembling with rage. Rage is here because love is needed.” Wondering if you could speak to the importance of not ignoring rage and how it can be this valued aspect of, yeah, peace, love, justice-centric emotion.

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [15:07]: Yeah, rage is that for me is accumulated anger over many, many decades, right. And I think generation I really think it’s just passed on it’s imprinted on the bone. You know, what you do is that when you come in, I don’t know. I didn’t come in interested, I didn’t come to contemplation interested in removing all emotions. I remember a teacher pointing out a student once he said, “I like that student.” And I said, “Mm her?” and I was wondering what it was and he said the way she is the way she moves and I saw her as kind of lost her personality in the practice like I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between her and a chair. There was just nothing there––wake up, what are you doing? And that is not the purpose of the practice or any, I think any spiritual practice is to wipe away what you have but to take what you have. 

And rage is what we have. And I take rage, and I have sat with it as sacred fire. I used to just let it go, flame, poof, and burn people up and everything. And then I started, like I said, this can’t continue, you know, otherwise, I’m not going to be in relationship and engaged in the world. And so when it would start, the next step for me was to take the rage and just hold it as sacred. In that, I don’t share it, you know, unnecessarily but I do use it. I think most of my writing comes from rage, even The Deepest Peace, can you imagine? That’s when contemplation is working. And you can deliver the message in which you want to deliver without burning people or burning places or burning ideas or just losing your own mind, you know. 

Cassidy Hall [16:52]: And burning yourself down, right?

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [16:53]: Burning yourself. Yeah. So it’s just like killing, I mean, rage can kill you. And literally, it is and has taken years off my life. I got a diagnosis that says, you know, I’m more like an 80-year-old, and I’m not nowhere near 80. That’s rage, that’s racism. That’s this life. And that’s why so many people have hypertension, African Americans have hypertension because, and that’s a killer. You know, we’re walking around like ticking bombs, you know. And so it was important for me to stretch that out my life out as much as I can, still is, given there’s this rage, so when I took it in as sacred, it allowed me to use that fire. To use that fire for my own healing and transformation because even when I did throw it out there, it was just like a mess. 

When you know, when you burn something down, it’s a mess. And so then you have to work on the mess. And that’s too much work or you need to go tell somebody, look, this needs to go this way. And if you do it this way, it’ll make it better for us. Now that can be said and told, but I find that exhausting too because then the person or people, institution, they’ll do it and it’s still embedded in all that you’re trying to break down, break away. All the oppression is still there, even in that work. So if rage is going to be there, if oppression is going to be there, then I say use it, use it, don’t fight it. Don’t fight with it, fight with it, fight it, but use it to come to the wisdom that these wisdom practices are offering. 

So a lot of people come they’re not looking for the wisdom. They… ‘I already have wisdom. I don’t need the wisdom of contemplation and meditation. I’m coming with wisdom.’ You know, like, let me tell you that’s wrong what you’re doing. That’s the wisdom I have. That’s not wisdom. We think we have wisdom. And I always ask people, “what wisdom are you relying on when you feel you’re being compassionate or loving and kind? What wisdom are you relying on, your grandmother’s? Some teacher? Some book? What insight yourself? What experience have you had of any of that? And how did you get there?” Other than that, then, you know, most of us need to be just pretty much silent. Even myself, I feel that, I do. You know, just keep your mouth closed because we’re all in progress and we don’t know, we’re always discovering ourselves and discovering life. 

That’s why homage is paid to the ancestors who have gone through it, you know. And in most traditions, people who say ‘oh no, my sister or my brother is an ancestor the day they die’ –– well, no, not in most spiritual paths. That person who has just died is learning how to be wherever that is. If there is anything, they’re not capable yet. And so some African tribes, they don’t even listen to elders, they listen to ancestors only. Elders is like, eh, because they’re still in the learning process, the living process.

Cassidy Hall [19:49]: So I recently attended a conference titled Holy Rage, Holy Hope. And it was the Samuel DeWitt Proctor conference and I was one of a handful of white people that attended. And in learning how to most deeply respect and revere the prophetic spaces, the prophetic nature of Black spaces, I’m reminded of your words in, The Way of Tenderness when you talk about, you write, “Creating and entering sanctuaries allows us as people of color to address the circumstances that are specific to who we have been born as, on our own terms, without interference. The desire of those who are not people of color to enter the spaces where people of color face these issues betrays a disregard for the uniqueness of the work that must be done within these cultural sanctuaries. It indicates an unjust sense of entitlement on their part.” And I wonder if you just could maybe speak to the importance of those sanctuaries? 

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [20:40]: Yes. Maybe, should have written more in that area of that part of the book, because I’ve gotten that question many times. A spiritual path requires when you enter to strip down to be exposed to be seen, and all these kinds of things. It requires a place in which you can do that and feel free. It’s kind of like if you go to the doctor’s, there are some doctors you would not undress with, some you will, you know, you can feel whether or not this is going to be safe for you to do this, while you’re taking care of the things that are bothering you. You’re suffering, you know, do I want this doctor to touch that, where… this? Well, that’s the same thing. So I feel that we need places to do that, just to do the stripped-down, and then be able to walk the path we’re in. 

We’re understanding more about internalized oppression and walking that path so that when we’re in situations of racism, we’re also understanding the internalize oppression part of it not just blanket racism, or white supremacy or anti-blackness or any of these things–– it’s all there not just that piece that’s out. There’s the in and the out. What I’ve seen in some cultural sanctuaries, when I say cultural a lot of people think I mean Black or people of color, but anything, it’s of the culture. So I’ve heard of lawyer Sangha’s, women Sangha’s, all kinds of Sangha’s, right, or gatherings based on various aspects of culture –– artists. I feel that there’s always this truncation, you know, like, Oh, we need a special place, because we’re so in BIPOC, Black, Indigenous People of Color, need a special place because we’re so weak and vulnerable. And that’s not really true. It may be true, but that’s not everything. You know, or we’re wounded and I think that that’s a misperception of cultural. And so, one Sangha member did a Dharma talk at a Sangha. And the guy says, “I think we need to start a cultural sanctuary,” because he had read the book, right? That same part you’re reading, you know, he was a white male. He says I think, you know, from his heart, I knew it was coming from his heart, “We need to start a cultural sanctuary.” And I said, “Why you have one, you’re in it. It’s your Sangha. Right here, this Zen Center is the Cultural Center, the culture is Zen and it’s what it is, and you work within that culture.” Because not every person of color wants that either, too, that’s an assumption, you know. I feel that that’s the truncation and the lumping.

But I feel that we do need spaces, I needed it when I went into Zen, I was fortunate enough to enter a people of color group. I didn’t know what it was, what people of color was, at the time, I didn’t know what people were talking about because that language came from academia world, and I wasn’t in academia, in that sense of the word. You know, like I had already done, I had my Ph.D. So I was like, what’s this people of color? You know, I went to one Zen Center in Berkeley, and they said, “Well, they have a people of color group over at San Francisco Zen Center,” and I go, “Okay,” and then we would come to Berkeley Zen Center, me and my partner, we come to Berkeley Zen Center, and they said, “Oh, well, you know, there’s a people color group.” So I said, “What is this thing about the people of color group?” And so finally, we just left Berkeley Zen Center and went to the people color group. And it was great. It was perfect. It was what I needed. 

But it was interesting what they thought I needed. And when I thought I needed it, and that I understood something about what they were saying. So I think that is important. What I find too, is that and what can happen, I would say is that cultural groups, when they get together can be embedded in their own culture. And I remember when I was in the people of color group, I asked the teacher, I said, “Are we not reifying our wounds here,” because that’s all I’m hearing is the wounding stories. I really wasn’t interested in hearing the wounding stories, I wanted to transform and get well, you know. I wanted to do the practice. And so it was okay to tell those stories. That’s the stripping down and but I wondered, you know, were we reifying something because Zen especially, is the ceremony and there’s rituals. So if you’re in there reifying what makes you suffer in the ceremony in a ritual you will continue to suffer, you will just continue this it will just be invoked, invoked, invoke just suffering. And so I just feel for people to be careful around that. What is the purpose of the cultural sanctuary in relationship to the path, the spiritual path? And I have to always constantly tell students, “this is not a social club.” You know, can we just like, just hang out, I mean, I went somewhere and then came back and they had gone to a concert together, I said, “That’s not the purpose,” because something’s going to happen out there, you’re going to bring it to the Sangha. And it will have nothing to do with doing practicing Zen. Now in other traditions, maybe that works, I don’t know. 

But I feel that if we’re in there just to come together just to talk about the wounding, talk just about whiteness, you know when my students get on that I get, stop, you know, we’re not doing that. So, you know, I want to hear about Blackness. You know, one student said, “Well, I think this is when the kind of neo-KKK,” I don’t know, “were walking down the street with the torches,” the tiki torches and everything walking into parks that time, and one of the students says, “I want to go down and sit in the park and meditate.” And I said, “I won’t be with you.” “Why?” I said, “I’m not going but you can do that. But we’re not going as a Sangha either. We’re not going to have our little banner saying, Still breathing is out here. No. But you can go there if you want. And he’s like, “Why?” I said, “Because when that Black boy died, Tamir Rice, you didn’t say, let’s go anywhere. Why didn’t we get our banner and go there?” 

So I’m just trying to… just so that people can see where the attention is. And we all know where the attention goes, that’s what happens. That’s what life is. I think we have to have attention. I’m not saying, you know, turn our back. But I think we have to have a broader picture. I don’t care if all Zen Centers were diverse, or all white people, suddenly were not racist. What is that going to do for me? What do we think that’s going to do for us? I don’t know what we’re thinking. That’s like, if my partner could do it this way, we have a good life. And you know what that kind of partnership is, pretty bad right? Suffering. So it has to be more rounded. And I think contemplation and meditation can bring that other aspect, if we’re interested in it, which I call a spiritual justice. And I talk about that in the book, too, to create a spiritual justice. I’m not the first to talk about it. I mean, Martin Luther King, Jr. that was his whole sermon in one big sermon, really, you can just say, this was one big sermon, spiritual justice, you know. The spirituality part is if we can consider each other interrelated as humans, and as of God, then we would have justice, you know, so that’s why I do believe in justice work. Because in that day and that view justice work in trying to change somebody’s minds and attitudes is hard work. And I’ve tried it, I’ve done it, I’ve done diversity work. And I told somebody, I can’t do it. And they say, “You can’t, we’re making $10,000 a month, come on, make the money.” I said, “I can’t, I’d be spending all that money in therapy,” because they’re going to… that’s like a wall. That’s like walking into the brick wall going ‘bunk.’ And they said, “Well, you don’t have to do it with any results.” And I said, “Oh, well, okay, that’s interesting.” Then why should I use my entire life? Why should I sacrifice myself for absolutely nothing, for the money? That’s not enough.

Cassidy Hall [27:56]: The way you’re talking about this feels like when I imagine you know, the conflicts of our world, our country today, it’s almost like this really strong binary energy. And you’re talking about the work that’s much bigger, much more below?

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [28:12]: Yeah, because it’s on the ground, it’s at the ground at the base, where Thich Nhat Hanh called transformation at the base, and I’m teaching that right now with my students and what that means, you know. And how that affects what we manifest are what comes into being because what comes into being comes from the base comes from our perceptions come from, you know, our mental formations, and all these kinds of things we learn in our practice. It comes from that so we can know the list, but if you don’t understand how perception or mental formation or being embodied affects what you do in the world, helps you understand what’s happening in the world, there’s going to be something missing. 

And I don’t say you have to do Buddhism, either, or meditation because they…or contemplate, I think those are for particular kinds of people who have that nature. Most people do not, they have another kind of temperament and you have to find what works for you. What would be that place in which you would awaken to everything, despite the horror in the world, despite or because of the horror in the world? What would you be doing? What would you do? What do you do? You know, I have people that come, “oh, you know, stuff, I can’t meditate. Every time I sit down, I just suffering, I’m just suffering.” And I was at a meditation center when I was teaching and I said, “Well, I think you need to stop meditating.” I said, “You can just like, go on home right now and rest. This is not for you, not now.” 

And I don’t know why folks think it’s for everyone because it’s not. It’s only for those who are interested in going into this kind of deep nothingness this deep unknowing, this way of discovering those who want to walk out on the metal and not really know what’s going to happen out there. But the practice is teaching you so you keep running into it–the racism, then, now it’s time to use this and to be with it, not to still be back when I was first discovered that my skin was not welcome, the color of my skin was not welcome. If I lived there, I think I’d have been dead by now, I would have committed suicide, I would have. It is just too deep and too heavy, to not feel you belong on the planet. Or that you can never have a full life because of the color of your skin, or because you don’t have any money or all these things they say you have to have in order to have life. 

So if you don’t discover life, then you’re going to think you need all those things to have life and you’re going to just suffer. We’re just going to suffer anyway, without all of that. And then we suffer the suffering, which I did. I did… All the things I speak on are my experiences, not necessarily something I just read, but the experience of being in practice and the experience of being in life coming together, because I wanted to see, why bother?

Cassidy Hall [30:58]: In your work, you also write a lot about the connectivity with nature and the earth. And I love what you wrote about this death of an oak tree, in your book, The Way of Tenderness you wrote, ‘The sudden death of oak trees, where I live in Oakland is like a clear cry naturally emerging from nature, just as cries emerged from groups of people when they are ignored or mistreated.” And I love that being able to see the fullness of life in nature.

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [31:26]: Yeah, that piece is interesting to hear that again, because these things repeat. And so I don’t know the repeating till I hear it sometimes come back to me. We are the earth. And we know that, we are of the earth, we are the earth. And anything that’s happening in the earth is happening to us, all living beings. So like when that tree fell, I just… it was me falling off that cliff too, and how old that was and how unstable and unpredictable life is. And I’m writing right now I wasn’t going to write another book. But it looks like it might be one I was hoping it was just going to be an essay, but it keeps going. And I’m doing basically an account of our kind of daily life, our daily embodiment of earth. The daily and how to bring again, integrating so it’s not earth, and how beautiful it is, is earth in us, us as earth. There’s this mystical place of life, that is us as earth, you know. And when you contemplate and meditate, that gets… become so clear. If you’re not meditating and contemplating your partnership, or your job or your whatever, you’re not reifying the things that are hurting you, you’re just allowing yourself to be open to receive, which is what Buddha did, which is what Jesus did any, Sojourner Truth, you know. Harriet Tubman, name any of these people, and that’s what they were doing. That’s what they had to do in order to enhance their sense of the world, and their understanding and the nature of life. So that they could do the work that they were doing––fear or not, with fear and without fear with both. 

So, I feel that looking at the earth and embodying the earth is important to understanding who we are, you know, you can understand transformation by just being in nature, right? You understand it completely. And so you can take that understanding because the reason why I understand it is because it’s you. When you look at the tree dying, you know that as you. A tree falling off a cliff, if you don’t feel that I don’t know, something needs to stimulate you to feel that interconnection, of all that’s around you.

Cassidy Hall [33:46]: Yeah. Yeah. Sensei Zenju, one question I want to end on, I’m actually going to change based on our conversation. And that question is who is, someone and I’m going to say someone or something that embodies mysticism for you?

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [34:01]: First it’s very hard to embody mysticism. I don’t really think it can be embodied. I think it comes through some people at particular times, for those who are open and ready for that, like Buddha was. He was just a person that had a mystical experience. Now did he embody them, maybe later but I don’t think so in the beginning. So when I think of people who I feel live in that realm, I think of diviners. You know, people who do divinations, those who have been trained to be seers, that’s another word. I see seers, I see myself in there too, as seers so when I think what comes to mind are the people I know who are seers, who work with the earth, they work with the unknown, they work with the dark on to bring forth any kind of medicines be that messages or whatever they worked in that realm. And some are still in some indigenous parts of the world living and some are not. 

I actually met a whole… I didn’t know they were diviners till 20 years later, a whole group of diviners from Africa. And I think about them all the time, and they were Dahomeyan, and how they were and how I felt to be a part of them and I didn’t know them, the whole community, I don’t even know them, I didn’t even know their names because it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to know the mystics’ name, or where the mystic live, or who the mystic’s mother was. Those are all irrelevant to a mystic because it’s not of the body. It comes through it, the conduit so many conduits have come. 

Ramana Maharshi I feel is a mystic and his presence spoke. I think that that’s a mystic. That’s very powerful to me, that one’s presence speaks. I know my teacher transmitted to me, but I couldn’t tell till years later. Because I remember I chose her because she was so joyful in ceremony and ritual, I said, “she really loves Zen and I’m really having a hard time here. So I’ll just choose her,” and I did Zenkei Blanche Hartman, who has passed. And then after all the years, 20 years, I could hear myself sounding like her talking to my students about, oh, you know, so excited about this ceremony and that ceremony and this ritual and that ritual. And I just get so excited when it’s time for us to [unknown] and retreat. And they’re like, “What is wrong with her,” you know, like, “These things are not fun. That’s not fun.” That’s how I knew that that got transmitted without her telling me. I was walking with that, the joy of that and how I was able to stay in a place that where people didn’t look like me, mostly, were… have a different culture. It was a cultural sanctuary, in which I was not from. What saved me was that mysticism is not embodied.

Cassidy Hall [36:52]: Well, thank you, Sensei, for this beautiful conversation and for taking the time to be with me today. I really, really appreciate it.

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [36:58]: All right, thank you.

Cassidy Hall [37:03]: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of contemplating now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.

Everybody Can Be A Mystic: A Conversation with Therese Taylor-Stinson

Transcript: Episode 1, an interview with Therese Taylor-Stinson

[00:00:03] Therese Taylor-Stinson: I think those words, Mysticism and Contemplation seems spooky to people, but I think everybody can be a mystic.

Cassidy Hall: Welcome to Contemplating Now a podcast about the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spirituality’s direct relationship with social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor and student, and I’m here to learn with you. For early access to episodes, go to patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. On today’s episode, the founding managing member of Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Therese Taylor-Stinson, joins us. She’s an ordained deacon and elder in the Presbyterian Church and is a practicing spiritually director for over 15 years. Therese is a graduate of the Shalem Institute and a member of the Chilean Society for Contemplative Leadership. In 2015, she founded the Racial Awareness Festival in Washington, D. C. An author and editor, she is the co-editor of Embodied Spirits: Stories of Spiritual Directors of Color and the editor of Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around — Stories of Contemplation and Justice, and her work appears in Kaleidoscope: Broadening the Palette in the Art of Spiritual Direction. Therese is also a certified emotional emancipation circle facilitator with the Community Healing Network Incorporated and the Association of Black Psychologists. In 2018 Therese won an Indie Author Legacy Award in the area of social awareness for her editing of Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, and she was named a collaborative bridge builder by Grace and Race Incorporated. So, Therese, welcome to Contemplating Now. And thank you so much for joining me.

[00:02:06] Therese Taylor-Stinson: Thank you for having me, Cassidy. I’m really happy to be with you.

[00:02:11] Cassidy Hall: And as you well know, because we’re friends on some social media sites, every chance I get, I quote your words from your book. Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around Stories of contemplation and justice. And in that book, in the epilogue, you write, “So that contemplation can be whole. It must consist of both inward solitude and reflection and an outward response to the situations in which we find ourselves present and awake.” And that’s entirely what this podcast is about. So my first question for you is this — was action something that was always tethered to your understanding of contemplation? Or did that come later for you, or was it the other way around?

[00:02:54] Therese Taylor-Stinson: So I think that the word “contemplation” is a relatively new term, at least in terms of using it in connection with spirituality. It wouldn’t be until I guess I went through the spiritual guidance program that I would begin to think about how contemplation fit into my cultural context, and I was not getting any of that from the program I was going through. The program was rich, and I enjoyed it, but it really did not inform me about my own cultural context. And so our final paper could be using one of the themes of the program or one of the particular mystics that were held up during that time. Or we could do a research paper. My paper ended up being more of an exploration than a research, but I decided to do some extra reading––20 more books. I had to find different books. That is how I introduced myself to Barbara Homes and read her book Joy Unspeakable, among others. Albert Raboteau’s Slave Religion and Peter J. Paris’ is I think it was The Spirituality of African Peoples, 20 books that I read to try to see how it fit in with what I had just learned from mostly European mystics. There was some history given, and so I know that some of the people in that history are were people of color, but they were never identified as that in the program that I was in. So was action always tethered to my understanding of contemplation? I think I always saw in my own spiritually journey that out of my introspection, contemplation being defined as deep thought, out of my own idea of mysticism that there would be some action. And I know that in Indigenous practices, action is the outcome. And then I think it may have been during the time that I was writing my final paper. I had gone with SDI to an SDI conference that was in Houston, and at the end, they always have, like a little pilgrimage to different spiritually related sites in the city. And I’m not going to be able to remember the name of the museum right now off the top of my head. But anyway, we went to this museum and there was a book in the museum about contemplation, and it was called a “contemplation and action,” and in that book there was a chapter on contemplation and action in world religion, and L. A. Meyer Zola, who was the editor for that volume, wrote this, “Modern humans are constantly tempted to seek spiritual life in sheer method, or else in some kind of blind rapture, ringing with spontaneity and rich in creativity, contemplation needs both. Method in itself leads to dispensation and quarrels. On the other hand, inspiration in itself without the help of method will lead to vein strivings toward creativity for its own sake. Contemplation soars above the archetypes, and from these back to the point from which everything arises. Action is linked to the Greek begonia, which led to agony. Action in itself is always a sacrifice. When we leave the paradise of contemplation and descend into the earth of action, everything, including mystical action, becomes sacrificial. But [unknown word] signifies struggle contest as well as anguish. And that’s a terribly speaking, an unseen warfare. It may well be that the point of failure in contemporary civilization was precisely the failure to realize the necessity of constantly fighting against evil.” So what I take from what he writes there is that the whole idea of contemplation or mysticism is that from that arises the action that we take in the world. And an Indigenous beliefs, their mysticism isn’t so individualistic where it’s about oneness with God. In Indigenous beliefs, mysticism as they would call it–and I really don’t see a big difference between mysticism and contemplation. I think contemplation is just a new word. A newer word, Let’s say. In that mysticism is always for them, what’s for the social good. So there’s always some reaction or action after a time of contemplation or mystical consideration of what’s next.

[00:08:09] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, I love that. And I love I want to unpack a little bit more what you said about kind of just the word contemplation being a new word. And I’m just struck by the way that that can be such a hindrance and make what contemplation actually is in the form of mysticism or otherwise almost inaccessible just because by language were almost complicating what it actually is, what’s actually happening.

[00:08:35] Therese Taylor-Stinson: So I remember there was only one other person of color in my cohort when I went through the spiritual guidance program and toward the end of our cohort, Spiritual Directors International had a conference in the Washington DC area, and so we decided to go. But in in that cohort we had a conversation –we were the only two persons of color in the cohort, and we began a conversation about, you know, where are other people of color? We know we’re not the only contemplative that are people of color. And so then we go to the SDI conference and look around and we see a few others. And it turned out to be women, African American women that were reading some of the same books we were in asking the same questions. Where are people of color? We had dinner with them that night, and then we decided we would––SDI helped in that they had networking tables at the ending luncheon where you could invite people to have a conversation about whatever topic. And we started going around finding people of color and asking them what they come to our networking table. To my surprise, to my ignorance, perhaps because we were in the Washington DC area, I hadn’t really connected to the international part. And so I was thinking I was going to be calling African Americans only to the table, and we ended up with people from around the world, actually. And we were not a large group of people of color, but someone from Korea, someone from Puerto Rico, some people, different people from various countries in Africa, which was wonderful. And we were all asking, Where are the people that are like us? We’re sure we’re not the only ones.

[00:10:35] Cassidy Hall: and correct me if I’m wrong. But it sounds like Are you getting to the origin story of the spiritual directors of color network? 

[00:10:41] Therese Taylor-Stinson: Pretty much, yes, because at that table we talked. Everybody was saying, Where are the people like me? We decided that we would take each other. Actually somebody other than me, although it was in my head, somebody other than me said, “You know, maybe we could write a book or something,” and I was like, “Yes, let’s write that book.” And so we took names and phone numbers, contact information. At the end of that conference, we all went in our separate directions except for me really. I went home, I started telling my friends, they started telling their friends, so we started gathering people that I hadn’t even expected to gather after that, and then the people who I had their names and addresses, we started the network very loosely, and we wrote our first book and it published in March of 2014. And I remember one of the people on our conference call who was writing in the book is saying, “This is the first organization I’ve ever heard of that’s written a book before they’re even incorporated.”

[00:11:51] Cassidy Hall: Even the origin story of that is a demonstration of contemplation’s role in action and justice. And can you maybe just express a little more how you see contemplation’s role in social action and social justice in our world?

[00:12:06] Therese Taylor-Stinson: I think that everybody should have some contemplation, some periods of introspection in their life, and for me, those periods of introspection, whether it’s figuring out something where you feel stuck or, you know prayerfully considering what it is that you’re called to do or whatever brings you to that place out of that place should come some response of some sort. So I guess what I was explaining to you and telling you that story is that in the midst of this cohort, learning about contemplation, learning about being a spiritual director, reading about contemplative practice and, you know, reading the many European mystics and everything like that–out of that came that action for me to want to write something that made it relevant to people of color as well as hopefully finding other people of color who were having a similar–maybe not the same, but a similar experience. And out of that came our first book, Embodied Spirits.

[00:13:23] Cassidy Hall: So we already explored a little bit, thinking of contemplation and mysticism as kind of interchangeable. So kind of along with that, in your contemplative life and your life of mysticism, do you see a difference between being a mystic and being an activist?

[00:13:39] Therese Taylor-Stinson: I think you can be an activist, so I think those words, “mysticism” and “contemplation” seems spooky to people, but I think everybody can be a mystic. You know, mystic means––the root of mystic is “myst,” which is the same root is mystery and mystic, you know, basically means that you you’re living with a certain amount of uncertainty and whether we like it or not, we all have some uncertainty about things. And I think the only difference between a contemplative or mystic or whatever you call the person and the normal person who might be living with uncertainty is that we embrace it. You know, other people may, and we live in a culture that you’re supposed to have the answer for everything. So we live in a culture that if you’re just sitting around, you know, embracing uncertainty, then you’re not very well credentialed or something. But I think we all live with it. You know, I really think that those words, and I remember that being one of the discussions we had is we were starting the Spiritual Directors of Color Network. One of the things that came up for us is how can we make this journey that we’re having less spooky, you know, less, um, something that only certain people, only certain individuals can have that experience because if we’re having that experience, surely there others of us that are having that experience now some of us may be uncomfortable with that uncertainty and not want to take this path. But I think all of us are capable of having this path, and even whether we call it “contemplation” or “mysticism,” I think an activist somehow comes to the conclusion that this is what they’re called to do, or this is what they have the energy for. And they may have been in the midst of the active-contemplation or mysticism, without maybe calling it that.

[00:15:48] Cassidy Hall: I love that I did not know about the root of mysticism and just the idea that it’s just a willingness to go into the unknown, to just go there. That’s beautiful.

[00:15:58] Therese Taylor-Stinson: You know, in Indigenous practice, that is the way they see it, they don’t you know, they believe in the spiritual world. You know, I don’t know if they call it “mysticism” or not, but they believe that, you know, whatever energy we get to do certain things are coming from the supreme being and given to us for community––to give our gifts in community and you know, very deeply and very broadly, I think that’s why we’re all here. Just like the trees air here to exchange carbon dioxide with oxygen with us and all of the ways the planet works to sustain life here. I think we’re all here for that same reason––whether we know it or not.

[00:16:47] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, yeah, right. Along with the Spiritual Directors of Color Network and some of the other things that we’ve discussed about spiritual direction, it’s striking to me that, a lot of spiritual direction programs are lacking. Black mysticism, Black contemplation. You know, we go to Howard Thurman a lot, but beyond that, I mean, there’s a lot missing.

[00:17:12] Therese Taylor-Stinson: And we haven’t gone to Howard Thurman a lot, actually. I know that people who go through seminary, particularly Black people who go through seminary, and if they go to a historically Black institution, they may learn about Thurman. If you go to Howard University, you will for sure learn about Thurman. Thurman worked there as a matter of fact at one point. But generally I don’t think that there is a lot of emphasis on Black spirituality. Particularly, I don’t even really think it’s just this country. I think that whiteness and colonialism is been, you know, spread throughout the world. But what I know about most, I guess, is the United States. And so in this country we live in a culture that from the Constitution has been you know promoting whiteness. And so in my book Embodied Spirits and in my paper that I wrote for my final paper for the program and published in SDI’s Presence Journal, I talk about how as I was reading I read a story from Albert Raboteau, where he talks about the enslaved. Actually, he doesn’t talk about it, but he’s explaining it in the third person. So there’s another person who’s observing the slave behavior, particularly around religion and Christianity, I guess. And he talks about how the enslaved––many of them, not everybody, but some of them had sort of a rule that you didn’t even try to read the Bible, which we weren’t allowed to do it one point anyway. But you didn’t even attempt to read the Bible until you were able to experience God or the Holy for yourself. And so isn’t that contemplation isn’t that mysticism to have that experience of God before you start reading the Bible about God, they that was the way they did things. And in my writing, I wanted to compare that with someone that was a reliable source for most people. And so I found a text by Thomas Merton, who explained contemplative practice in the very same way that the African people brought here into enslavement were practicing it without even knowing. I don’t know if they use the word “mysticism” or anything, but these were things that they had. The story about on the slave ships, when they were being brought over here, they were all packed together, and they were actually deliberately intentionally separated from people who spoke their language. The way they shared their pain together was in what the slave-catchers and and the ship people called “the moan.” They would moan in away together that I can imagine might have even been kind of a harmony with them, really expressing that they were having the same experience with one another. So this mysticism, this contemplation, which they probably never called it, was part of their very core of who they were. Particularly here in the United States, we make words for everything, but we know that when when Jesus was teaching and and when we go back to some of the languages that were the Hebrew and and the Aramaic, they were imprecise languages, and one word could mean many different things depending on who was talking and what they were saying.

[00:21:03] Cassidy Hall: The power and the truth and the rawness and the again the physicality, like going, again, going to the unknown––and right without having to put words to it or say it, right? That is holy.

[00:21:17] Therese Taylor-Stinson: One of my favorite books, Gerald May, I don’t think he was a founder, but he was one of the principals, and I think, one of the initial people in the gathering of people for the Shalem Institute. And he wrote a lot of books for Shalem and helped them, you know, to develop their spiritual guidance program. In his book Will and Spirit, he talks about, I think it’s in the chapter on energy, but he talks about how the experience of a thing is different from when we begin to talk about it, the moment we begin––just like me now talking to you now, the moment I begin to try to put words to it, it’s no longer the experience. That the truth, the truth, the raw truth of a thing is something that you probably don’t have language for.

[00:22:09] Cassidy Hall: Amen. So one thing I want to move into which you know we’ve kind of been getting at this whole conversation is this idea, this concept, of “public mysticism.” And this was first introduced to me by Rev. Dr. Barbara A. Homes in her book Joy Unspeakable. And I wonder if you could unpack that a little bit for us –– the significance of public mysticism, what it is to you, what it means?

[00:22:31] Therese Taylor-Stinson: So again, going back to African mysticism because Christianity is not the only place where you find mystics. There are mystics in the Christian tradition, but they’re also mystics Sufis in the Islamic tradition, there’s mysticism in Buddhism, there’s mysticism and a lot of places including Africa. And so in Africa, and among Indigenous people, so you know, Native Americans perhaps as well––There has always been a sense that whatever it is that you are receiving from you know the source, however you define or call that source, whatever you are receiving is for community, communal interest. At the core of most cultures, community is more important than the individual, and so whatever is given the individual, whatever gifts are given the individual, they are meant to be used in community. And reading Barbara Homes, but even considering that for myself, there are many public mystics that perhaps have gone unnamed as such. Even Thurman himself, I don’t think many people really referred to him as a mystic, you know, but he was, and he was a public mystic. He offered his mysticism as his public protest, you might even say. Some people were upset with him because he didn’t join in the civil rights demonstrations and everything, but he girded, undergirded the whole movement in contemplative practice, though I doubt if they were calling it that at the time. If you think of an Islamic, a Black Islamic figure, Malcolm X was probably a mystic, he often spoke in those kinds of terms. Harriet Tubman was a mystic, a public mystic. And, you know, I’m thinking that Thurman, his grandmother, was in an enslaved person, probably around the same time Harriet Tubman was doing her thing. And I don’t know what all Thurman may have heard from his grandmother, but surely he’d heard of at some point of Harriet Tubman, and I can’t imagine that he didn’t from his grandmother and Harriet Tubman, just from her life, learned some of the things that he was teaching people of color about internal freedom, you know, and how Jesus himself self-differentiated although we’ve kind of made Jesus into a figure who sits on a throne and all of that, Jesus was one of the people on the margins. But he was able to self-differentiate himself from their condition in a way where he could find the genuine and himself and out of that be of help to others on the margins with him. And eventually it got him in some trouble, but, you know, we can all be getting in some trouble if we aren’t going along with the status club.

[00:25:42] Cassidy Hall: Amen. So we’ve talked about going into the unknown as this mysticism and contemplation. And I wonder if we could talk a little bit about looking at it in the reversed so in the reverse. So what could collective protest and, you know, movements today like Black Lives Matter, tell us about contemplation. So, looking at the public movement, what does that tell us about mysticism or contemplation?

[00:26:07] Therese Taylor-Stinson: I think this goes back to what I was saying earlier you were asking whether an activist was a mystic as well. So everybody may not, or they may embrace in different ways that which is uncertain or unknown. But I think there’s just something within us, I mean, it’s part of the life process, you don’t know everything. And if something is meaningful to you and some kind of way and meaningful enough for you, to put your life on the line because Black Lives Matter people have definitely put their lives on the line many times, you know, arrested, you know, they could have ended up very easily, like Breonna Taylor or George Floyd or something. Whether they call it “mysticism” or not, the ones that I know, they do feel some deep spiritual connection and and some deep calling to do this work, otherwise, it would be impossible to do, I think

[00:27:10] Cassidy Hall: At the end of the day, some of the most mystical things that we’re attached to don’t and won’t and don’t have language. We can’t talk about it because it’s so deep or it’s so collective, it’s so just full of the truth and love and beauty that we all need.

[00:27:28] Therese Taylor-Stinson: And and it drives us to action and sort of lends to the Indigenous belief that these things are meant for us, for public service, for community. And so whatever the private experiences isn’t really that important. What’s important ism I find this situation that I’m feeling called to act or to speak or to do something to make life better on the planet.

[00:27:55] Cassidy Hall: Yeah. So recently you and I had a brief email exchange where we were we were talking, and you reminded me of the value in the importance in not using the term “BIPOC” in the way that it minimizes individual story and limits the depth, um, that could be expressed by an individual. I’m learning, and I’m doing my work and I’m processing all that. And I was really humbled that you were willing to express this to me because it just showed me another way that whiteness and in my participation in whiteness, has co-opted language and shown kind of this laziness towards learning and understanding. I’ve also seen that whiteness and white supremacy has done this with contemplative language, which is a lot of what we’re talking about today, too. Just even, right, this need for language about contemplation and these kinds of things. And also how whiteness is kind of framed contemplation as inactive. All this to say I’m learning a lot about the range in the importance of embodiment and all of contemplation, including language and how one talks about it. So I wonder if you could share a little bit more about how the fullness of story of personal story impacts our ability to contemplate or go to a place of mysticism.

[00:29:13] Therese Taylor-Stinson: So for me, it’s not even about story. It has to be with me being a human being with an experience that you cannot define with an acronym. You know, if you say I’m African American, that says something about who I am and where I came from. If you even say that I’m a Black person in America that says something about my experience and and who I am, you know. But if you call me a “BIPOC,” that means nothing, you know, and you’ve clumped me in with a lot of other people whose experience may not be the same as mine, and they have their own identity and cultural identity that they would like to lift up. So, you know, I am retired from the federal government and in the federal government, acronyms are everywhere, so I’m used to acronyms, I’m not someone who doesn’t know anything about acronyms. But the thing about the federal government is when they use acronyms, they’re talking about agencies or, you know, things, objects, perhaps they given acronym to. They’re not talking about people, and human beings have stories, but even more than that they have identities. And so to clump a bunch of people together –– And as I start pushing back against the acronym “BIPOC,” I also myself, I want you to know I’m not just smacking you on the hand, because it made me look back at myself when I’m talking about the community that we define as an LGBTQ community, we’re using an acronym, but these people have names too: they’re lesbians, they’re bisexual, they’re transgender, they may like to call themselves queer, you know. So they’re not “LGBTQ.” Because that doesn’t explain anything that makes them, that just clumps a whole bunch of people. It makes it easier for us to name them that way, you know, if we’re writing or talking about them, but it takes away their humanity. That’s the way I see it.

[00:31:26] Cassidy Hall: Yeah. And I mean I really value that in this discussion. It reminds me of, I was just writing a paper, I was just finishing a final paper on Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey, Queer Womanist Theology, you know, in that book she talks about how “oppressions on one level intersect with all oppressions on other levels” and kind of recognizing how intersectionality can point to the dynamic of God’s image, but at the end of the day, it’s all a purely separate image of God on each and every person. At the end of the day, you know, all those oppressions, stories of oppression and marginalization are entirely different stories, entirely different experiences. And, as you say, specifically, people. I mean I identify as Queer and my queer experience is different from my neighbor’s Queer experience, who maybe was rejected by their family or something like that. And it’s taking the time and the willingness to not be lazy and being able to fully see each other.

[00:32:27] Therese Taylor-Stinson: I can see if you’re writing a note to somebody using the acronym because, especially with our phones and everything. But if you’re writing a book or, you know, if you’re having a conversation and you’re talking about people, you should identify who they are and not trying to make them an acronym, that that seems very disrespectful to me.

[00:32:53] Cassidy Hall: Thank you for that. So in our world today, how at this time are you experiencing God and mysticism or activism? And what is your hope for the future of mysticism and activism?

[00:33:08] Therese Taylor-Stinson: So I identify myself, is an anti-assimilationist, and so I don’t clump myself––I mean, I do see blessings in my life, but I don’t clump myself with the privileged or whatever. But I feel in this time quite privileged as I understand the plight of many people of color who are more vulnerable to this virus, who I sit in front of the television and cry like It’s my own son being suffocated under the knee of a police officer who doesn’t care. Or I hear about a woman named Breonna Taylor who carries my last name being shot for no reason in her own house, awakened out of her sleep and shot, and then nobody does anything about it. And then a Black man, an attorney general, gets up and justifies such a thing? I could get very emotional about now. I’m a spiritual director at heart, everything I do comes out of that. And so my clientele has doubled, people are being introspective and I get to sit with them and people of color in particular, because that’s who I always really wanted to be able to sit with. So to be in this moment and sitting with people who are saying “what is mine to do” and you know “where do we go from here?” It’s a privilege and a blessing, you know that I get to experience. And because we’re on Zoom to be able to experience the varieties of ways of worshiping and considering different kinds of things, I think this time that we’re in ––as a matter of fact, I’ve been telling many of my directees that it’s something that I learned in my own experience that when trouble comes I used to get very anxious and disturbed about trouble, I didn’t want any, but what I’m learning now is that it’s an opportunity to learn, and it’s an opportunity to discern direction for your life. And I have done that and it’s brought me to this time here where I get to share with other people, you know those things. And so I don’t think that this time of pandemic and racism and craziness, I don’t know what else to call it, and all the things that are going on right now––I see blessing in the midst of it, and I get to experience some of it where I know there are others who––I have lost a couple of people that I know, but I have not lost ––at least not yet, lost close family members. I have not been sick myself in that way, and I’ve been able to sit with others and offer blessing and love and hope and to experience community. I don’t have any complaints except that I wish we could stop this because I do know that the numbers of people who have died and the situations that many people, particularly people of color find themselves where they can’t even find a place to wash their clothes so that they don’t be sick, is something that I am quite aware of.

[00:36:33] Cassidy Hall: And I love that, you know, you’re talking about having more directees and more people wanting more introspective. And it’s striking that, you know, that’s what we’ve been talking about that is public mysticism: going into the unknown and doing that collectively. I mean, that’s beautiful. Who’s someone for you or people for you that embody mysticism? So maybe some mystics that we don’t normally think of.

[00:37:06] Therese Taylor-Stinson: You know, this might be controversial for some people, but I think Jeremiah Wright is a mystic, I think Traci Blackmon. I’ve seen her, I’ve been in her presence when she preaches and everything, I believe she’s a mystic. I think Barbara Homes is a mystic. You know, I want to talk about and I’m talking about Black people also, not so much others. But I see ordinary people in my life who demonstrate for me mysticism. You know, maybe in some of my directees, if they’re not there yet there on the journey. So and then, you know, as I mentioned, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King Jr., you know, Howard Thurman––so many people in some kind of way practice mysticism. And I believe the people that I named, even though they aren’t named that publicly so much, they knew. They knew who they were. But again, the personal experience with the divine was not as important as how they poured it out into the community.

[00:38:24] Cassidy Hall: You know, just for for a second I want I want to go there with you on Jeremiah Wright because recently in a class we were studying the relationship between Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright, a man named Professor Joseph Tucker Edmonds came and talked about this idea of –– we essentially only accept these, palpable domesticated prophets–– whereas someone like Jeremiah Wright, who was actually living out and living into the words of James Cone, you know, but we can handle Cone’s words in a book, but we can’t handle it in the flesh?

[00:38:59] Therese Taylor-Stinson: James Cone was a mystic.

[00:39:01] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, and I think there’s so many mystics in our midst that we’re not willing to go there with and, you know, white people in particular white people, especially white people––mostly, to embrace the fullness of the prophetic in our presence, I mean––

[00:39:17] Therese Taylor-Stinson: Which is nothing new, if you read the Bible. The prophets were not popular people. They had all kinds of crazy things happen to them, including Jesus, you know, he got killed. So, you know, it’s not a popular thing to do.

[00:39:37] Cassidy Hall: Therese, could you unpack a little bit more about what it means to be a certified emotional Emancipation Circle facilitator?

[00:39:45] Therese Taylor-Stinson: So emotional emancipation circles are for people of African decent or those who identify as Black. And they are circles where we confront the lies that have been told that we have absorbed and we try to get past that and learn about the beauty of our own culture and experience and to be who we are and proud of it and not let it be something that continues our trauma or the trauma of others. So in our circles we have seven keys, the EEC’s were created by an organization called the Community Healing Network in Incorporation with the Association of Black Psychologists. It is a tool that has been given to us by professionals, and then we go through a training and organize groups, and wherever we live in the world to talk about those things and to heal ourselves and become more comfortable with who we are as people of color.

[00:40:59] Cassidy Hall: So, Therese, you mentioned something about the racial Awareness Festival. Could you share more about that?

[00:41:04] Therese Taylor-Stinson: It’s always the third Saturday of October. So right now we’re just beginning. Planning, we’ll start to advertising, send you something about it, if you like, or you can even Google “Racial Awareness Festival,” I’m sure and find out something about it. 

[00:41:21] Cassidy Hall: And yeah, obviously, in speaking with you, I mean, before we talk today, it is obvious to me that I am speaking with a mystic. So I thank you for your work. Um, your sacred and holy work and presence in this world. And look forward to your books. More of your books, rather, I’m looking at two of your books right next to me and more of your work. And thank you so much for joining.

[00:41:48] Therese Taylor-Stinson: Thanks for having me, Cassidy. I appreciated talking to you.

[00:41:51] Cassidy Hall: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now, to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes, join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song “Trapezoid, instrumental” by EmmoLei Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emmolei Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in Partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in Partnership With enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical resources and tools head over to enfleshed dot com. One final quote from our guest today from her book Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around. Stories of Contemplation and Justice: “It seems that some people who call themselves contemplative have merely found a way to justify their own procrastination or to explain their introversion or to defend their unwillingness to change in the face of injustice. Remaining silent when there’s a need to speak. I have learned that our practice of contemplation requires integration into our callings and lifestyles. So that contemplation can be whole it must consist of both inward solitude and reflection and an outward response to the situations in which we find ourselves present and awake.”

New Podcast: Contemplating Now

NEW PODCAST ALERT 🚨

Contemplation has been a part of my life since I was a child taking long walks to pause and process. In 2011, after reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, I quit my job and traveled to all 17 Trappist monasteries in the United States. But as I journeyed, I sensed there was something lacking. As a Queer white woman, it took me an embarrassingly long time to recognize what was missing: voices and truths beyond white, male contemplatives like Merton, Rohr, and Keating. Voices speaking into the work of justice and liberation, while also hosting a contemplative interior life that fed their activism. Rev. Dr. Barbara A. Holmes speaks of  “public mystics,” leaders whose “interiority and communal reference points” must intersect, including Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Sue and Howard Thurman, Rosa Parks, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and more. 

Since 2017 I’ve co-hosted the Encountering Silence podcast with my colleagues Carl McColman and Kevin Johnson. Through 100 episodes of interviews and discussions about the importance of silence, I continued to be drawn to the contemplative lives of the marginalized. Now in seminary,  I continue to see the ways a white-washed, patriarchal contemplative Christianity hinders collective liberation and justice.

The founder of Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Therese Taylor-Stinson, says contemplation “must consist of both inward solitude and reflection, and an outward response to the situations in which we find ourselves present and awake.” The Contemplating Now Podcast was birthed from the desire to learn from scholars and activists who embody that fullness of action and reflection. During my studies for my MDiv and MTS at Christian Theological Seminary, and in my own contemplative practice, research, and deconstruction, I realized how whitewashed the field of contemplation was and began to seek out the work of Black women and nonbinary folks. In this podcast, I wanted to give them the mic and bring attention to their important contributions to the study and practice of contemplative spirituality and mysticism. My goal is to listen and learn from my guests alongside you. 

How to find it and more info:

Find it on all podcasting platforms, and if you’re so inclined, leave a review to help other folks find it more easily.

The Christian Century (progressive Christian magazine based in Chicago, the “journal of record” for mainline protestants, the first to publish “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963), will be hosting the podcast on their site.

This labor of love project is created, produced, and edited by me. With no funding or financial support for the project, I hope you’ll consider helping keep the work afloat by joining me over on Patreon.com/cassidyhall

I’m also delighted to have support in the form of loving-kindness from my friends over at enfleshed, an org which offers liturgical resources focused on collective liberation. Thanks also to the brilliance and eagle-eyed editor Jessica Mesman.

Finally, I am so very grateful to EmmoLei Sankofa for her delightful music in the opening and closing credits, and a perfect logo from my pal, Patrick Shen.