Vipassana teacher Spring Washam grew up in California and began practicing meditation at an early age. She has studied Buddhism for over a decade and spent more than two years practicing in intensive retreat. She is currently studying under Jack Kornfield in Spirit Rock Meditation Center’s teacher training program and is a cofounder and core teacher at the donation-based East Bay Meditation Center in downtown Oakland. Known for her joyful heart and loving spirit, Washam, at just thirty-five years old, is considered a pioneer in bringing mindfulness-based meditation practices to young adults and communities of color. Her ethnic background—her father is African American and her mother is white—allows her to navigate easily between very different worlds. Having also grown up with very little materially, she deeply understands the challenges that members of many marginalized communities face on a daily basis. Her mother, Lorna Joseph, raised Spring and her sister on her own, grappling with the many challenges of single motherhood. Spring Washam and Lorna Joseph joined Inquiring Mind coeditor Barbara Gates in June 2009 in Berkeley, California, for this courageous exchange.
Spring Washam: When I was a teenager and family life got really rocky, I developed a strong spiritual drive just to feel better. I don’t remember many spiritual conversations with my mom and sister, like, What do we believe? But my mom had all these self-help and metaphysical books around. I read them all. They were basically about how to work with your thoughts, how to heal your life.
I do remember that at thirteen I had a huge insight. I was caught shoplifting, and my mom got to select my community service. I fed the homeless at Glide Memorial Church. What a powerful insight into compassion—I really cared about all these people. I didn’t know them, but I cared. I was shocked. How could I love people I didn’t even know?
Lorna Joseph: I could tell that her experience at Glide had a big impact. She was different after that, much kinder. Thank you, community service!
SW: But it was also when I was thirteen that my mother met her current husband, Howard. I didn’t get along with him, and all we did was fight. It was so painful. In fact, it got so bad that at fifteen, I moved out. I returned to Southern California, where I was born and had lived for several years as a young child. I then entered a dark period; I was incredibly lonely and depressed. I never moved back with my mother. And my dad, who first left when I was five months old, had by now completely disappeared. Due to all the pain I felt, I had this toughness. I got in fistfights with other kids starting in junior high school, and I was even kicked out of high school due to fighting. My behaviors were incredibly high risk. In many ways I’m lucky to have made it through such a dangerous period in my life.
LJ: There was also the racial effect, the fact that when my girls moved to Northern Cal, I enrolled them in all-white schools where I think that, being black, you [turning to Spring] were subject to not feeling accepted. You had some pretty strong racial feelings for a while. As a white woman I think I overlooked your need to be in a multicultural environment. It added to your sense of isolation and anger. You had to work that through.
SW: It was like a stage, a step on the path of healing, when I realized racism and how painful it is. Anyway, I was really miserable for many years for a whole lot of reasons, so in Los Angeles I got involved in lots of different healing paths. Some of that was through the help of my mother; because I was depressed, she would send me tapes, self-help books, books about the power of mind. It was when I moved back to the [San Francisco] Bay Area at twenty-three that I first got involved in meditation. I happened to find a book, Man’s Eternal Quest by Paramahansa Yogananda, that my mother’s husband was throwing away. Although we didn’t get along, he was a catalyst for change. It’s a strange dynamic how the person you have the most problems with can be the most influential.
I read the book, and it was a turning point. I would go to the Paramahansa Yogananda temple in Richmond, California, and do these three-hour meditations. But I really didn’t know how to meditate; I thought, I need a teacher and instruction. Again, Howard pointed me toward my first instruction. He had gone to a retreat and told me about it. So I signed up for my first retreat, ten days in Yucca Valley, California. The teacher, Jack Kornfield, mentioned the Buddha a few times and I was like, Buddhism? But as soon as I did that practice, I knew it was my life. I was twenty-four.
Inquiring Mind: Wow. So you just took to it right away?
SW: Six months later I went on Gil Fronsdal’s retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The following fall I went to Barre, Massachusetts, for a three-month course on a full scholarship. I quit my job. Nothing else mattered. Remember, [turning to her mom] you were worried. Everyone was like, three months of silence? But you supported me through all of that.
LJ: At first I was concerned because I was afraid you were renouncing a normal life, which is how you spoke about it originally: “I want to be a monk. I want to go to faraway countries.” I was thinking, Is it because she has a broken heart? Doesn’t she want to get out there and try to meet somebody and have a normal family? And I worried that maybe you were being unduly influenced by one of the teachers, allowing them to control your life. But when you hung in there with it, I trusted that you knew what was right for you.
IM: How did you perceive that your daughter had changed? Was there something about the way she related to you or to your husband or to the rest of her life?
LJ: She was able to forgive. That was not something that had been easy for her when she was young. She was now able to allow people to not be perfect. One of the amazing things is that she forgave not just Howard—because he had been unfair to her on many occasions—but her own father too. She was able to reunite with him and have maybe not a super-close relationship but at least a relationship with him of a positive nature. She sought him out and didn’t expect him to be anything, just allowed him to be who he was.
SJ: That’s true. At that first retreat, there was this huge opening of compassion. I had an experience of sitting in complete samadhi. Somehow I didn’t have a wandering mind, so I didn’t experience the usual beginner’s struggle. That came later. Those first ten days were like a reprieve; my mind locked on to the breath. I was in total peace. I felt this huge sense of connection. I don’t think I’ve ever been back to quite that state. The big opening happened there. I remember calling my mom on the phone at the end of the retreat and going, “My whole life changed!”
Immediately when I came home I felt I had to go into nonprofits. I had been working in an advertising agency, and when I returned to work, I thought, This makes no sense to my life. I just left. I got another job right away working on behalf of kids, trying to get homes for African American boys languishing in the foster care system. So my whole world became about serving the community and trying to help myself get better.
Of course, my relationships with my family went through big changes. When I had moved out as a teenager, I was convinced that I wouldn’t talk to them anymore. I felt like there had been this betrayal and that I was against them. But I couldn’t live like that any longer. The forgiveness came, and I was committed to repairing; it was too painful not to. Even with all the dysfunction, I still loved my family and I didn’t want to be separated from my mother. And I also had to be connected to Howard to be connected to my mother, because they were together.
IM: Were these specific insights that you had on the cushion, or was it more that your whole way of seeing life had shifted?
SW: When I was sitting I felt these rifts, like big sores, and the practice highlighted them. Every thought was about my mom and her husband and my family. My first three-month retreat was just mourning. My teachers can testify to that. A lot of the suffering in my stories was about “I don’t have something” or “I can’t heal this wound” or “I can’t relate to my family.” I kept asking, “What do I do? How do I be?”
Joseph Goldstein especially really helped me to have compassion for the whole situation. What I got was, hurt people hurt each other, something like that. He talked about the karma: we suffer and we can’t be there for each other. Or if we could, we would. It was simple things that he would say. He would explain to me about how everything is unfolding lawfully. I saw how my mom’s husband had suffered so much with his horrific childhood of abuse. I had compassion for that. And for my mom because of her horrific childhood.
I also began to see how I contributed to our bad relationships—that as a teenager I had been rebellious, angry, disrespectful, not easy to deal with. I came to see I was hurting them too by what I would say and do, that the whole picture involved more than just “I’m a victim.”
IM: How did you draw from your practice in transforming the relationship with your mom’s husband?
SW: At first I thought it was all about him doing this to me. You know how we get. We’re absorbed with ourselves, right? And then I noticed, no, he related to my mother in a dysfunctional way and to my sister in a dysfunctional way. I saw that it came from his depression and his own suffering. And that made it easier to just say, Okay, this person is wounded, but I can still love him and work with him.
IM: That’s another aspect of your story that is so moving, how when you transformed through Dharma practice, those changes in you rippled out. So when you acted in a new way toward him, did he change, too?
SW: I think he saw the sincerity of my devotion to the Dharma and that I was trying to be happy. He has a heart, and he has also been working so hard on himself, so he has kept changing over the years. Of course, it became easier for him to hear me when I tried to talk to him because I had softened in my speech. If you sit for three months, you become aware of what you’re saying, how you’re saying it. I wasn’t as aggressive. I still had my moments; I’d had this “attitude” as a tough girl for so many years, right? I remember on retreat that I could feel it cracking. I was like, I’m exposed. I’m not tough. My heart really began to open in a big way.
The anger dissolved on a lot of levels. The practice of metta and compassion has had a huge effect on my inner transformation. And the ongoing retreats have all been a continuation of my healing process. Memories of sexual abuse came up and other memories that my mind had repressed because it just couldn’t deal with them. I was able to be with all of that with a lot of support from the Insight Meditation Society teachers and staff. A deep bow to Joseph Goldstein, my refuge during some of the most difficult periods of my practice!
IM: I’m getting the sense that your other family relationships were also transformed through practice, those with your siblings and your father. Your heart opened to the pain of being estranged.
SW: That cut-off feeling is the worst, to feel all alone. Not feeling like I had a mother or a father or a sister—I felt so isolated. I was reunited with my father, his wife and their four younger kids when I was twenty-three. It was in the middle of my spiritual pursuit. I immediately felt an intense love and protection for them. I continue to support them and send them cards and presents. I also reunited with my older sister. With all of the stress in our family, she had gone in the other direction, just shut down. She didn’t talk to me for a long period during our teen years. She and I were really different, but I did love her. Now we’re very close. My spiritual life has definitely impacted her. We’ve gone on retreats together. We’ve even lived together. Our relationship has definitely been repaired through spiritual work.
LJ: They’re best friends, and they couldn’t even be in the same room together when they were younger! [to Spring] Now you just reach out to everyone much more than I ever could, including those who seem different from you—family and people in the community. I really respect that.
SW: Recently I had a huge insight while on a retreat. It was an incredible sense of interconnectedness and compassion. Since then it has been difficult to hold grudges and resentments. Everyone is suffering, so how can I be angry at anyone? I saw that so clearly, like, Oh my god, we’re all in this together.