Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey is part of the guiding leadership of the Stone House—a retreat and training center for social justice activists in Mebane, North Carolina. The Stone House is run by stone circles, an organization dedicated to supporting activists and strengthening the work of justice through spiritual practice and principles. Vega-Frey is currently president of the board of directors for the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and in a teacher-training apprenticeship with vipassana teacher Michele McDonald. He and his coworker Claudia Horwitz recently received the Transformational Leadership Award from the Seasons Fund for Social Transformation in recognition of their collaborative efforts in demonstrating “a successful commitment to exploring the integration of spirituality and social change and modeling collaborative leadership within their organizations.” Wendy Johnson and Barbara Gates conducted this interview by phone in the spring of 2009.
Inquiring Mind: How do you see yoga and meditation as transformative for the social activists you train and supportive of their work to bring about social change?
Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey: At the Stone House we work mostly with activists and organizers who are fully engaged in creating a more equitable and peaceful world. These folks know that the problems of the world are complex and that it’s important to understand this complexity and develop appropriate skills to effect positive social change. What they often sense, but have less fully understood, is that our inner worlds are equally complex and that it takes a lot of work to cultivate an internal freedom that reflects what we’re longing for in the world around us. We activists don’t always take the same interest in what’s happening in our hearts and minds as we do in what’s happening in the world around us. We don’t always see the powerful link between the way we suffer as individuals and the way we suffer collectively.
Of course, this isn’t a new idea. People like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu and Aung San Suu Kyi, among many many others, have demonstrated that the ways in which we attempt to liberate ourselves from our own suffering can scale up to address how we work to liberate ourselves from broader systems and dynamics of oppression. More and more activists are becoming sensitive to the disconnect between our individual and our societal work for freedom, and they simply need some tools to engage the problem effectively. That’s what we try to provide at the Stone House.
IM: Could you offer us a specific example of how a lesson from this “internal” training is potentially liberative in the broader system?
JMVF: In our work at the Stone House, we bring together organizers working on a whole range of issues: immigrant rights, domestic violence, environmental justice and prison abolition, to name a few. People involved in these efforts often struggle to balance their burning sense of urgency to address the suffering of the world with a long-term understanding of the nature of deep societal transformation. It’s the same with internal spiritual practice. There are significant moments of change and insight, yes, but it also takes a long time for our very subtle patterns to unbind. So, in a way, I’m wary of claiming that this insight transformed this system in this concrete way because I think that the pace of deep transformation is slow. On the other hand, I have seen again and again that small shifts have power. They are important and beautiful and they happen all the time.
For example, there was a woman who came to the Stone House from an antipoverty organization to participate in our Soul Sanctuary program. This is a loosely structured retreat that includes periods of silence, meditation, yoga and informal conversation arranged so that people can start to develop a wisdom, a way of listening to what their needs are in the moment. This woman was exhausted, frustrated and depressed by the conflicts and contention between people in her own office and those working in coalition with her organization. One morning during meditation, she saw that her anger and frustration were actually rooted in a deep caring about her constituents; she was frustrated because she cared so much. This insight was simple yet profound. Later on, she came to realize that when colleagues expressed frustration with one another, strongly disagreed on strategy, or got upset with each other’s personalities, the way they were acting was probably rooted in their own caring about the suffering of others.
This realization was a fundamental turning point for her. She began to see that a recognition of shared commitment—shared caring—could be a powerful starting place for organizers who are working from different perspectives on a collaborative project.
IM: Did this insight come out of meditation and yoga practice or more from the group dialogues?
JMVF: I think it came out of the combination; the practice and dialogue built on each other. The insight during meditation that her anger was rooted in caring developed further in conversations with other organizers on the retreat who could relate to the same issue and shared their experiences with her. These dialogues, in turn, helped her find a meaningful language that she would be able to use later in communication with the people she worked with.
IM: Your own contemplative and meditation practice has been transformative for you in your social change work as well.
JMVF: I have actually been thinking about this a lot lately. It’s tricky. I often see a lot of mindfulness practice or other spiritual approaches or practices being offered as a way basically to make people more effective in the world, and it kind of freaks me out. It’s like, if you just sit for a bit every morning, you’ll become more snappy, more with-it, more confident and impervious. You’re going to fulfill all your tasks and manage your myriad responsibilities with grace and perfection. Everything is going to be way better. Your relationships will be healed, your troubles will end, you’ll become the person you’ve always wished you were.
For myself, I have found quite the opposite to be true. The deeper I go into my practice, the less functional I become in the world as it is. I come to care more about certain things and much less about other things that a society way of life prescribes. At this point, I feel like I have vastly less ability to participate in my own degradation or the degradation of others. I have less willingness to behave in ways that diminish my sense of purpose on this Earth and to perpetuate systems that diminish other people’s ability to follow the vision of their lives. And so, while I feel like internal practice can offer boldness toward greater integrity, from my experience this very often doesn’t jibe well with what is expected in order to be a functional member of society, or even with movement work. So I struggle with my own engagement in institutions and organizations and in the broader society, trying to find a way that feels healthy and engaged in making the world a better place for more people.
For example, about five years ago, I stopped paying my federal income taxes. There was a point during the Iraq War when I realized that I could no longer be directly supportive of a system of governance that was creating this scale of atrocity and horror. Instead, I decided to give the money that would otherwise be going to the federal government to other people or organizations that are doing what I believe to be important work of justice in the world.
I came to this commitment in part through the influence of two important mentors, Wally and Juanita Nelson, who have been war-tax resisters for many years and whom I have known since I was in high school. Both were dedicated civil rights activists and pacifists. Wally passed away a few years ago, but Juanita is now eighty-three and lives a very simple life in Deerfield, Massachusetts, growing an organic garden and living without running water or electricity. I can’t begin to express the impact I’ve felt from having such powerful influences during such an important time in my life. Among many other things, Juanita and Wally helped me realize that the risk associated with defying the federal government was so much less than the ethical risk of being complicit in its scale of violence and harm. It took me a number of years of really wrestling with this question before my sitting practice turned the tide for me. It was definitely through my meditation practice that I saw that my fear of the state coming down on me was far less than my moral dread of supporting its violence.
IM: Thank you so much for these inspiring stories. Do you have any closing thoughts?
JMVF: Only that I am deeply indebted to, and grateful for, all of my many teachers. I am particularly thankful to my teacher in the Dhamma, Michele McDonald. While training me to become a spiritual friend, she has been incredibly supportive of my sometimes awkward wrestling with my relationship to the dominant culture of Buddhism in our society. Many people talk about vipassana practice as if it were extracted “culture-free” from the context of Theravada Buddhism. In fact, many of us perceive it as translated through a particular lens of whiteness and “upper-middle-class-ness.” The dominant language is great, but it’s not universal—it’s specific. The cultural norms are fine, too, but they are particular. It’s a culture with wonderful strengths, but it just isn’t the whole story. So I am wondering: What is my role doing this work in the cultural context here in the South, as someone who is of mixed heritage with a Latino father and a white mother?
When I return to the roots of Buddhism and the situation that the Buddha encountered and created so long ago, it is clear that an amazingly diverse group of people were able to engage in the practice in ways that were really meaningful. I have come to see that the pursuit of offering the teachings more widely without compromising depth is a fundamental driving force of mine. And I know that I am not alone. Of course, the Buddha had perfect skillful means and could teach Dhamma that perfectly matched anybody’s particular character. So, you know, it’s humbling. But on the other hand, it also helps take some of the pressure off—since we can only aspire to that level of perfectedness!