Happy New Year!

Have you ever been to the Four Corners Monument, marking the place where four states meet? The quadripoint where a corner of New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Colorado meet also marks the boundary between two Native American governments, Navaho Nation and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Reservation. As you drive across the country, through hundreds of miles of stunning desert wilderness, signs begin to appear along the highway, saying, Four Corners! Four Corners! And the closer you get, the bigger the signs are, and the more often they pop up.

Do you remember the cartoon where a car driving through an empty countryside passes a billboard proclaiming, “Your own tedious thoughts next 200 miles”? In the sometimes monotony of long-distance driving, it’s easy to get excited: “I’m going to Four Corners! Can’t wait to get there!”

Then you get there. It is exactly the same rugged, remote, and isolated Southwestern desert landscape you’ve been driving through for hundreds of miles before. There’s nothing there! It’s an idea in emptiness, Four Corners. Just a bronze plaque and parking lot overlooking the vast sweep of mesa and mountains. It’s beautiful. But not more beautiful or any different from the sweeping land of boulder heaps, sandstone formations, shallow cliffs and rolling mesa seen through the windshield for hours and miles before.

New Year’s is like this. It’s the New Year in the culture, it’s in the air. There is a sense of a fresh start, rich with possibilities, despite our fears. And yet…it’s a complete illusion. In fact, we’re in the very same stream of life and consciousness that we were in the old year—only the landscape of our life is called the New Year now! Happy New Year!

We can use this holiday (& other conceptual calendar demarcations) to reflect on our intentions and make choices about how we’re going to be. During his years as a single Dad, the Buddha often told his son: “Use your actions as a mirror to reflect where you’re at in your life.” Our behavior becomes an open book—for the way we behave is an expression of the state of our mind, body, and heart. As we consider taking action (an action can be a thought, word or deed), we can be mindful of our intention and motivations. From Juan Mascaro: “Watch the thought and its ways with care; may they spring forth from love, born of compassion for all beings.” In this Way, may we all enjoy a truly HAPPY NEW YEAR.



Celebrate With Us

Last Saturday morning, we packed up the toys and food you donated for the Westside Children’s Center in cartons decorated with gold tinsel, red ribbons, and festive holiday cards. Then we all sat on the floor and talked about generosity. The children in our circle, aged 6–8, listened attentively as I described my puzzlement at hearing, “Tis better to give than to receive,” when I was their age. It seemed obvious to me then—it’s way more fun to receive than to give!

And yet, these young children astonished all of us with the depth of their wisdom. The 6-year-old appreciates a subtle reciprocity—people who don’t have enough to eat, or kids who have no toys to play with give her the chance to be generous. A 7-year-old talks about being someone that others can trust, so no one has to be afraid of you. Without knowing it, she’s echoing the Buddha, who calls that “the gift of fearlessness.” As they eagerly raised hands to voice their insights and observations, the children embodied clear, pure-hearted generosity.

This is the season of renewal of the light, celebrated in religious traditions and cultures around the world. With ever burning lamps, with enlightenment at seeing the morning star, or with the miraculous birth of a heavenly child, we welcome the return of light-filled days. In West Africa, people sing to each newborn baby, “The most generous task in life is to deliver the gifts you have brought to this world.”

In practicing loving awareness, we uncover the wisdom we knew as children of spirit, we remember we are that bright light. May you each find the joy of giving, the happiness of being generous and courageous. May you carry the lamp of a kind and open heart into the New Year!



Playing In The Wind

I can’t stop staring at the birds. The ocean is wild early this morning. Whipped up by gusts of cold wind, the water is silver-grey. Bright white waves break way out beyond the shore.  What captivates my attention is the birds, obviously playing in the wind.

Seagulls soaring, gliding, are strewn across the sky like blowing leaves. They hold out their strong wings and stay still, miraculously hanging in space, buoyed by the moving air. Alone, sometimes in pairs, wings extended, they float; every so often, they let themselves be swept sideways in a strange horizontal move. A few small birds try to join in the fun, but careen off in the powerful currents of air, unable to hover or hang glide. The gulls wheel and rise on their unmoving wings, then plummet down, flapping a few times to shoot up high again.

Do seagulls feel joy? I’m riveted by the pure, silent pleasure of their wildness. I imagine my arms outstretched, catching the wind, lifting off the ground and swirling over the beach with them. They fly as we do, coming close to each other, then veering away, just as we do, intersecting, separating, dancing in the whirlwind of life.

Often when we meditate, we’re like a couple in an on-again, off-again relationship who keep drifting apart then finding each other again, our mindfulness meandering in and out of awareness. Can we play in the ever-changing winds of craziness and caring, of fear and delight? Can we open and stretch our wings like seabirds in a storm, extending steady minds and quiet hearts to the turbulence of these times?  May we move with joy, steadiness, and grace through the wildly uncertain weather to come.



Let’s Make it Real!

Our annual retreat with Ram Dass ends at the beach under a soft grey sky; two Hawaiian healers lead a beautiful blessing ceremony in a sprinkle of raindrops. For the finale, Ram Dass is rolled across the sand into the ocean in his special wheelchair with big rubber wheels. He swims gently out in a sea of retreatants, steered by his companions. Soon, a big crowd is swimming together, offering flowers and following his lead in the Ocean Swim Chant: “Oh boy, oboyoboyoboy!” Followed by, “Oh joy, ohjoyojoyojoy!”

It’s a perfect expression of gratitude for the gift of opening our hearts, right in the midst of personal losses — people struggling with grief, bereavement, cancer, tough jobs like working with Syrian refugee children. Each evening, Krishna Das and his band play devotional music called kirtan. It’s an ancient, sacred practice of quieting the mind by connecting through music, chanting together in a moving, rollicking call and response sing-along. With each passing day, the powerful energy of love grows stronger, creating a poignant, joyful field of compassion.

In the same way, at InsightLA we create a field of caring that includes those in our greater community who are going through hard times. As the year comes to an end, we ask, “How can I help?” This season of giving, we’re asking not only for your support for InsightLA, but also for families at the Westside Children’s Center, http://westsidechildren.org/. Would you please be willing to donate food, new or gently used toys and children’s books, and/or new school supplies to help at-risk children?

We’ll have a donation collection area at InsightLA’s Olympic Blvd. center from now until December 17th, 2016. We invite you and your family to join us at 9.30 am on December 17th at 1430 Olympic Blvd. to help box the items people have kindly donated. For questions please contact ajay@insightla.org.

Through our offerings, we can all participate in the loving spirit of this retreat. Direct giving and service is an act of love that strengthens the heart of our community. Let’s make it real! Come taste the happiness of generosity as we “Love, Serve, and Remember.”



The Open Heart Already Knows by Alisa Dennis

The shockwaves from the election have dissolved, and while the feelings of heavy heartedness, bewilderment, and dread continue to visit me, the feelings are not as intense as they were several weeks ago. As a student of astrology, I am grateful for the full moon in Taurus and the Sun in Scorpio on November 14th.  I feel this constellation is supporting us in focusing our intentions. Taurus is compelling us to reflect upon what we hold most dear, to ground ourselves in our bodies, and to take a stand. The vibrations of Scorpio are urging us to dig deeper, to look beneath the surface, to step out of our bubbles so that we may understand truths that have been buried. We are doing this on an individual and collective level. I am heeding the urges of these planetary callings in ways that resonate with me: mining for truths in my personal and planetary history, expressing my love of the mysteries of life in my art, and creating safe-enough spaces for people, especially people targeted by oppression, to share their voices.

The Dagara people of West Africa believe that every human being is born with innate gifts that if nurtured, can support the healing of imbalances. What’s your calling and how might you bring it to the world during this time of great change?

A couple of nights ago, I went to see Venerable Dhyani Ywahoo give a talk at a local spiritual center. She is a 27th generation lineage holder in the Cherokee Nation. She is also a Zen Buddhist teacher from the Vajrayana tradition. She beautifully blended the ancient wisdom traditions of the Cherokee with the Dharma. Her talk resonated with me, especially when she said that politics is a way to argue about what we already know is true. I agree. At times politics seems like a distraction from the truth, designed to confuse and entangle, keep us separated, and in our intellects instead of our hearts.

Political debates about building walls feel like the macro reflecting the micro. All of us build walls within our own hearts: between the parts of ourselves we like and dislike; between the parts we are proud of and the parts we are ashamed of. These walls get projected outwardly on larger scales. What walls are erected in your heart? Dig deeper…. When we begin dissolving these inner walls perhaps different kinds of people will be elected to public office. Our elected officials are embodiments of the nation’s collective consciousness.

The Dakota Indians have an ancient tale that says evil people keep their hearts in a secret place, separate from the body. The heroine or hero must find this secret place and destroy the heart that perpetuates harm through ignorance, greed, violence, bigotry, and deception.

During these politically divisive times, I find myself donating to causes that reflect my values. How might you be the heroine/hero who destroys the hidden heart by deepening the heart of love, kindness, generosity, and compassion?

I have been relying on my meditation practice to steady me during these turbulent times. My breath and body have been my ground in a world that feels groundless. Being able to meet my worry and fear with loving allowance, has helped me to know that this awareness is bigger than whatever it is holding. I feel into its subtle currents of calm, gentleness, and equanimity and know I am held in love.

When I reflect upon the recent battles lost and won, truths repressed and raised, I am reminded of how layered and complex this life is, how long the arc of justice is, and how when we turn away from what we already know is true about justice and injustice, history repeats itself over and over again.

A couple of weeks ago, the mantra, Gate Gate Paragate Parasumgate Bodhi Swaha, began to ring in my ears. Reciting it has comforted me during moments when the struggles of life have felt overwhelming. It expresses an ever-present movement toward awakening that has no endpoint. We never arrive, but are always on the way to greater awareness. Knowing there is nowhere to get to; that this life is about the awakening of my heart, gives me some measure of peace, dropping me into the present moment and into One Heart.

Perhaps opening to the wisdom of this mantra will offer you comfort whenever the journey feels arduous and long.


Alisa Dennis

The Lions and The Intelligent People

They sit on thin straw mats covering the cement floor, two circles of young Darfuri refugee women wrapped in long colorful headscarves, huddled together conspiratorially. One group, calling themselves “The Lions,” are careful to lower their voices so the group across the mat, the self-styled “Intelligent People,” won’t overhear their strategizing. They are two teams of Little Ripples preschool teachers, locked in a tight race on the last day of their mindfulness training in refugee camp Goz Amer. The team that can best demonstrate their skill at teaching what they’ve learned this week will win. Yasmine (Joslyn Hitter) and I, Tahani, pretend to be the children they’re teaching.

It’s a friendly but tough competition; everyone concentrates on putting forth their best effort. While both teams do a great job, it’s the Lions who finally triumph. The Intelligent People sigh and accept the verdict. Afterward, we all come together to appreciate what we’ve done during our time together. How different the spirit of this gathering is from the fierce election contest that took place recently in the United States, watched intently by the whole world.

The upset win of the ‘Lion’ unnerved and devastated many who considered themselves the ‘Intelligent People.’ And those whose candidate won feel vindicated and energized. No matter how we feel about the election, from the perspective of mindful awareness, whatever unmasks bias or prejudice in us is a wake-up call—to be welcomed, and learned from.

On this Thanksgiving, may we include in loving awareness everyone who needs care and protection—everyone. May we count our blessings with gratitude and grace. May we help ensure all people can enjoy the privilege of having shelter, reliable electricity, Wi-Fi, and running water, in their homes!! And good food to eat! May everyone have a chance to cherish and fulfill the immense promise of this life. May we vow to treasure and stand up for the rights of all beings, in every way we can.



Camping, For 13 Years

Each day of our teaching in the refugee camp, we play a variation of a Susan Kaiser Greenland’s mindfulness game for children called “Mind, Body — Go.”* Our Little Ripples preschool teachers are young and they love to play! We sit and take turns rolling a ball across the circle. Each time the ball rolls to a new person, she notices how she feels in her body and her mind. Ahmed translates the answers:

“My mind is happy, my body has good energy.”

”My mind is happy, my body has fever.”

”My mind is happy, I have a headache.”

Occasionally, a teacher with bloodshot eyes says, “My mind is tired…malaria.”

As I learn more about life in the camp, I marvel at the dedication and grit of these teachers. Quite a few are also nursing little ones, and every day at home they haul heavy jugs of water on their heads, wash clothes, grind flour… Although they may have a head or body ache or a fever, they are so committed to the children’s education that they show up to greet them at 7AM, no matter what.

Well-fed and healthy, I know how I feel sitting in that same circle—sweating in 100+ degrees, thirsty flies landing by my eyes and nostrils, perspiration evaporating instantly in the psychedelic heat. When I tell Ahmed how impressed I am by their devotion to their work, he says, there’s no choice: “Here, we never have seven days in a row of feeling healthy.”

Oumda Tarbosh is a leader. He tries to stay cheerful and optimistic for his family and for his community. But he readily acknowledges that people are traumatized, malnourished, and often feel hopeless. In a quiet voice, he describes how hard it is to survive. “Here are destroyed lives,” he declares flatly, sitting heavily back in his plastic chair.

Feeling Oumda’s moment of deep sadness, I, too, feel sad—overwhelmed by the interminable exile and ongoing genocide in Darfur, Sudan. I wonder, what difference can I possibly make here? We don’t even know if America will keep funding essential UN food and refugee programs under the new administration. Can you imagine running for your life, hiding, camping out, and then being forced to stay at your campsite for 13 years? And yet—the welcome, warmth, and appreciation we feel from Oumda, Ahmed, and the teachers, the excitement and happiness of the children, fill our hearts to the brim. Like a sunflower to the sun, we can all turn our hearts towards one another. We can choose to love and care. With a little bit of mindfulness, we can create and cherish moments of peace and joy, and find ways to serve our world.



InsightLA in Darfur – Trudy’s Diary 3

After the soccer demonstration, the Little Ripples pre-school teachers and the soccer coaches gather for our day of mindfulness. Friday is a holiday here, there’s no school. So we work with the adults (mostly young adults!) without the children, they’re coming on their day off. We begin with a traditional blessing offered by Ahmed, who translates for us, too. We play a game to break the ice, and Joslyn and I take time to introduce ourselves by talking about our families, and why we are here. The initial greeting from the women here is, “How is your family?” So I tell about being inspired by my father’s research and training work in Africa on behalf of W.H.O.; Joslyn shares that her father was born in a refugee camp in Germany, Baumberg. Everyone is riveted by the story of her grandmother’s escape from persecution in Poland, walking all the way to Uzbekistan, and her four years of wandering by foot before landing in the refugee camp.

We are aware of the unspeakable violence and loss they’ve all witnessed in Darfur. Some of them are older and fled as teenagers, some were younger; all saw their villages destroyed, their mothers and grandmothers and sisters raped and often killed, their fathers, grandfathers, all family members shot, dismembered. Though they hold it with dignity and grace, all are traumatized by the cruelty of al-Bashir’s genocide. Oumda led a community of 7500 out of Sudan to Chad, walking and hiding. The mindfulness practices we’ll share with this group are carefully modified to take good care of the immense trauma carried by everyone.

My mood is different today. Last night I didn’t sleep well. Once the children leave, I seem to be tuned in to the sadness of our new friends. The camp that had beauty yesterday looks squalid and bleak outside of the Little Ripples ponds and classrooms. My heart is heavy, filled with sorrow. Fatima is a majestic, tall mother of three. She tells everyone she was so happy at the beginning of the summer, overjoyed with the gift of she was given of birthing twin girls. She fell in love with them! And then, a couple months later, they got sick with malaria, and died. Now, she says, her happiness has gone away.

It’s hard to listen, knowing this is a preventable, curable disease — IF you have the money to buy medicine. The children are vitally important. Their exuberance brings pleasure and delight to life in the camp. The teachers devote their work to the future of these children, who are the future. Without their presence today, the group is serious, more subdued. Attentive and appreciative, they listen and willingly practice mindful walking, both slow and fast, with us. We end this day taking turns drumming and singing to lift our spirits, and learn to say, happily, “Bukra, Inshallah”.  بُكْرَ Tomorrow, God willing!


InsightLA in Darfur – Trudy’s Diary 2

Early this morning we watch the girls soccer team warm up and show us how they play. Because the soccer field is a long walk from where the classrooms where we teach are, their practice took place at the Little Ripples school. The girls have never had a chance to play before the refugee community decided they wanted iACT to help them start the Soccer Academy, and their skills are just beginning to catch up to their enthusiasm! Hundreds of children with the motivation to practice flock to the open field behind the camp after school. In the searing heat, the oldest ones practice at 3, the next oldest at 4, and by the time the little ones have their turn, the sun is lower in the sky. Seeing the children, many literally dressed in rags, have so much fun playing and cheering goals brought tears of joy to my eyes.

You’ll see in the photos that they practice mindfulness before warming up, then they stretch, practice kicks and footwork, then, without missing a beat, they flop down to do strengthening exercises on their bellies in the dirt. I can’t help but think of lucky LA kids who go to their sports practice wearing bright clean uniforms, lugging a duffel bag full of shiny new gear. It’s strange to live in a world where children can’t all have what they need — where some have so much, and countless others nothing much at all. And it’s inspiring to see the dedication and love of the four coaches, and how the children respond so eagerly to their coaching. These four coach the hundreds of kids who show up to learn and play! Joslyn taught a streamlined standing body scan they can do with the children to help built awareness of the mind-body connection.

You can see their photos below.

To learn how to support iACT and see video of Trudy in Darfur:

Trudy Visits a Little Ripples Pond

InsightLA in Darfur – Trudy’s Diary 1

Here I am, eating freeze-dried dinner in my mosquito net, ‘cooked’ in the microwave in our rustic kitchen next door .There was a mosquito in my little room so I took refuge in the wonderful pink bed net! We then figured out that mosquitoes don’t like the cold, and turned on the air-conditioning up — it worked! Joslyn and I have the luxury of two adjoining rooms with a little tin door in between. Across the courtyard is the bathroom; a square metal container with toilet and yes! a hand shower nozzle. The trickle of cold shower is perfectly refreshing for rinsing off the dust and heat of our first full day in the camp.

Today we get to see what iACT is doing here; we walk all around, beginning in the original buildings housing six Little Ripples programs, freshly painted white with blue trim for our visit. It was around 9AM when we arrived, just in time to see children lined up holding each other in a hug to wash their hands before their meal. I’m amazed how these very young kids are in their small groups, each eating calmly and mindfully from one big bowl of sweet rice, probably their only meal of the day — sharing without grabbing or pushing at all. Clearly they’re learning the core lessons of peace, sharing, and helping each other. I couldn’t help but wish that Donald Trump could attend this pre-school!

The highlight of the day is observing the teachers and children in their outdoor classrooms, called Ponds. Each one is located in a family dwelling, made of an aluminum roof, concrete floor with woven mats, blackboard, banners, and two dedicated teachers with their many little students. The enthusiasm of the students and the joy of their teachers bring tears to my eyes — tears of wonder and gratitude, that such a program exists in this forsaken place! Although destitute, without any hope of being able to return home, the refugees have created a highly organized, democratic community here. It is with immense respect that they welcome us as InsightLA friends of iACT, which has given the refugees the opportunity, know-how, and trust to lead and develop their Little Ripples pre-schools and the Soccer Academy they long to have.

Around noon, we walk through the camp to see the soccer field. It is so hot that the air singed my nostrils! I’ve never experienced such intense heat before, way over 100 degrees; it’s like being ironed by the heat — I felt strangely calm, thoughts all smoothed out, sipping the now hot water we brought, stopping to rest in bits of shade. We end the day with a meditation back in the Little Ripples courtyard, surrounded by a large, growing circle of murmuring children of all ages inching closer and closer to us, growing more still as we do. Their energy of curiosity, eagerness, and welcome reminds us why we are here.

More to come…