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JoAnna Harper

Interview with JoAnna Harper

JoAnna Harper lives in Los Angeles, CA. She is currently a teacher in training in the Spirit Rock/IMS program led by Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and others. She was interviewed by former Communications staff member, Michael Wilson.

SR: What is your background and how did you find your way to Spirit Rock?

JH: I was born into a Catholic family, so I’ve always had something religious or spiritual going on in my life. And what I loved the most about growing up Catholic was not the traditional role that religion plays in the world or in families, it was the connection to contemplation and quietness and inner reflection. So, as a kid I was really aware of that. Even though I was quite rebellious and got in a lot of trouble, I really felt very connected to sitting in church as this kind of contemplative activity. In later life, through all my troubled years, I gave all of this up. But as trouble got too hard, I started seeking again. I didn’t want to go back to Catholicism but started investigating many different traditions. I was on the Native American path for about three or four years, then I moved into Hinduism and tried a guru, and started following different teachers in India. I became pretty disillusioned with the “out there, over there” guru model—the notion that some other external force or person or source was the answer—because I didn’t feel like that was true for me. So, when I started coming into contact with the teachings of the Theravada Insight tradition, it just really resonated with me—the idea that my actions, my speech, my way of thinking wasn’t necessarily going to change the paradigm or the world around me but it was going to change my relationship to it and to people. It felt very empowering to me to have that as a template or a formula to follow. So, I started again, as so many people do, at the Zen Center here in LA, and began reading a lot of books. After a while, I was introduced to Spirit Rock and started sitting with Jack and Trudy and met Noah Levine who became a really instrumental part of my growth and especially my teaching. It’s probably been about ten years since I was introduced to vipassana and Jack and that whole world. So, here I am.

SR: Did you start teaching as a natural consequence of practice? Was it something that was encouraged?

JH: Well, actually I started teaching when I was “Hindu”, and I have children. They’re now in their late teens but at the time I was really wanting to be able to find a way to practice and be with my kids—so, I started taking them with me to different retreats. Then my friends back at home would ask me to teach them and their children what I was learning. So, I started holding what I called a “children’s circle” in my living room—simply because people were interested and just wanted to know what I was up to. It grew to about 30 kids every Friday, and went on for ten years. So that was the beginning of my teaching and it was totally accidental—just a desire fed by these kids who wanted to learn more. And based on that experience, Noah Levine—who was then my primary teacher—asked me if I’d come and teach in the juvenile halls with him, because I had a good connection with youth. And that’s how it all started for me.  Later, we opened Against the Stream, which is our center here in LA, and I started teaching there. Noah is very supportive—he introduced me to Jack, who then invited me to Spirit Rock.

Again, it was totally by accident, not intentional. If anything, I went kicking and screaming a lot of the way, as I don’t like sitting in front of groups of people. Teaching was never my plan, but you know, last night I taught a group of 100 people. I still think, “What am I doing?” and “Why am I here?” But I keep doing it, and it’s great, and I’ve taught now with some really phenomenal teachers at IMS, Spirit Rock, and Against the Stream. We’re opening a new Against the Stream location in San Francisco. So, I teach full time, that’s what I do for a living. I teach everywhere from law firms to high schools to foster care centers and housing projects, and of course retreats at Spirit Rock or IMS. I also work with a lot of private students. So, it’s really my livelihood and my lifestyle, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I feel like I’m in the right place.

As a woman of color, I feel like I have a voice that I want to share. In my community, Against the Stream, there are a lot of young people but we’re still predominantly white, despite being diverse in many other ways. So, a big part of my voice is about inclusivity of all types, not just people of color but sexual orientations, genders, gender preferences—this is a platform that I have taken. I am known for my work with youth, teens and young adults, and adolescents.

SR: Could you expand on your experience as a person of color teaching to youth in the Theravada tradition?

JH: Working with all adolescents—ages 12 through 20—I approach mindfulness in a very different way. I do a lot of relational stuff with them—meaning that kids often experience mindfulness through their connections with others. Relationally, within the group, they have the opportunity to experience themselves in a way that if they’re just closing their eyes and trying to be quiet, they might not get the opportunity to do—especially if it’s facilitated, with peers present. Basically they become a sangha—the group that they’re sitting with and learning how to show up for one another for—by deeply listening or learning how to speak from a heart that is un-hindered by fear, or rejection, or not being liked. Sitting in a safe group in which all are willing to participate, and learning how to show up relationally—this is how I like to work with younger people. I actually just finished writing a chapter for a book called Teaching Mindfulness Skills to Kids and Teens (edited by Christopher Willard and Amy Saltzman) that’s coming out very soon—and the chapter is actually called “Right Now We’re Not Meditating,” because I might do five to ten minutes of actual meditation time with the kids during an hour-long class and the rest of the time is spent exploring different ways of showing up. Now with adults, I wouldn’t necessarily work in that way, although I do like to work relationally with people, because so many people are under the misconception or idea that our practice is just our formal sitting time and often forget that leaving the cushion—which we do a lot more than sitting on the cushion—is the primary step to living life more completely. Our practice is one aspect of living the complete Eightfold Path. So if I’m teaching a retreat, obviously we’re sitting. However, if I’m teaching a drop-in class, there will be a half-hour of sitting—to emphasize the importance of inner contemplation—but then I also really like to teach from a place of “how do you use that in the world right now?”—what do we do about racial violence and the oppression that’s going on in this country that I’m witnessing in the news, and through politics and all of those sort of things? So I kind of like to take it to a global level right now. It’s just what I feel like doing. But I’ve gone through years where I felt like the one-on-one interactions—teaching wise speech and wise sexuality, for example—were important to do with the adults. So I’ve sort of evolved and changed depending upon what I think is most important in my life at the time. But I definitely work differently with youth or kids or teens versus adults.

SR: I think that your mention of racial violence and the role of mindfulness—the role of Buddhism in addressing contemporary issues around racial violence—is really important. At times, there seems to be some energy for this in the Buddhist media but the voices are fairly disparate and not so loud. Would you agree? Or would you say that that’s changing?

JH: No, I would totally agree, but I think it’s just due to lack of knowing how, not to lack of care. A lot of people feel very inadequate at having that conversation. They feel, especially if they’re white, that they don’t have the right to be talking about it, that they don’t have the skill set to be talking about it. It’s a very, very touchy topic. It can bring up a lot of guilt and shame and rage in people. I’ve been in many diversity groups and trainings and people always get upset—whether they’re a person of color or whether they’re not. I’m noticing that Buddhism is getting much more on the climate change bandwagon and that’s the big thing right now, which is awesome, but I think it’s, you know, it’s a more comfortable conversation. And a lot of the leaders of our chief communities—at Spirit Rock and IMS—admit that they just don’t even know how to do this. They say, “we want to but we’re totally naïve and ignorant as to how.” So, I think that that’s probably one of the biggest things. And you know, I think Buddhists on the whole—unless we’re looking at Burma or places right now where violence is erupting, or obviously Tibet/China interactions—tend to avoid the topic of physical violence.

SR: Why do you think this avoidance is so widespread?

JH: I think it’s about not knowing what to say when they say it. There are certain conversations that I feel should happen every time there’s a gathering, and that’s one of them. And the more we can talk about it, the less sensitive of a topic it is. But right now it’s very muddled and people still steer clear. And even in my teacher training group, there are five people of color, but only three of us identify as such, which means we are willing to say, “I’m a person of color, I teach as a person of color.” So, out of 25 of us, only three identify as POC and there aren’t a lot of us coming up through the ranks. And there’s a lot of sensitivity to that right now, and there’s a lot of willingness to learn, but we’re not there yet.

SR: How do you think the practice is different for people of color as opposed to the predominantly white Buddhist tradition in the West? Is there a different quality to the meditation or are there different issues that emerge?

JH: Yes, there are. Every teacher of color or person of color might see this differently, so, I can only speak for how I’m witnessing it right now. But, what are the ultimate truths that Buddhism is pointing to? They are impermanence, not-self, and suffering. We are trying to liberate ourselves completely from suffering on the ultimate level, right? Freeing ourselves completely in realizing impermanence. Now, when I talk to a group of Latinas or Black women who have been oppressed in many ways at the workplace, witnessed the abuse of their children, or don’t have enough money to feed their families—it’s really hard to talk about ultimate truth when somebody is just trying to get by on the relative level. So, often in POC communities they want to talk about the on the ground, relative seeing that they’re dealing with day-in and day-out, and the oppression and the difficulties that they’re facing in this country. So it’s hard to say, “oh, well, there is no difference and there is no I”—it’s hard to talk from that place when they’re dealing with a different reality.

SR: That last statement is really important. Can you elaborate on how you reconcile the core Buddhist principle of non-self with the very real issues of difference and identity experienced by people of color?

JH:Yeah. So, that’s a hard one to teach with. When I am teaching to communities of color or just for myself, you know, I always want to break it down. I mean, another reason that I obviously love Siddhartha Gautama—this person that we have all been following for 2600 years—is because, historically, he was one of the first people to say, “No, everybody can be free.” We know that. Before the Buddha, women couldn’t be free, a certain caste couldn’t be free, certain uneducated people couldn’t be free—and then suddenly there’s this guy who’s saying, “No, everybody actually can be free.” And so, that’s something I point to a lot when I’m teaching to communities of color—that this practice in general is available to everyone—and that’s the invitation.So, first there’s the invitation.

And then second are these truths of not-self. But establishing some sort of connection to what really is happening and how we can respond in the moment-to-moment and day-to-day. And it might involve a lot of pain that might not go away. So that’s why I like to teach from the news today. But this isn’t really talking about the pain of what we all face, and the fear that we all face. The real question is, “how do we function within that, and stay kind, and cause no harm?” And you know, it’s big. It’s really big.

SR: It is.

JH: So I think, a lot of Buddhists and especially certain factions of Buddhism really want to kind of bypass that and not have to see any of that, and kind of create these beautiful little pockets that are unrealistic for a lot of people.

SR: There has been some movement in the direction of diversity at Spirit Rock and other Buddhist centers. One thing that I don’t see addressed so much is the related issue of economic diversity. Is that wrapped up in what you’re describing or do you think it’s separate?

JH: No, I think it’s definitely part of it. I mean it doesn’t allow for diversity—when we talk of economic diversity—that could be any color, obviously. But you know, IMS committed to filling 30% of their last two three-month retreats with people of color. So, they have this 30 percent quota to fill before they could fill any other spaces and they got the 30 percent both years. Now that’s amazing, that’s really great, and that retreat saw more diversity than ever and that was able to happen because they had scholarship money.

SR: Spirit Rock did something similar by offering full-scholarships to self-identified POC and young adults for its one and two-month retreats this year. 41% of the retreatants received scholarship assistance.

JH: That’s fantastic. I’m so happy to hear that, and I think Michelle Latvala [Executive Director at Spirit Rock] shared that with us when we (Spirit Rock teacher trainees) were there. And that’s exciting. But you know, I’ll be teaching the POC retreat this year at IMS, and they still have one non-POC teacher who’s always there. Maybe this is IMS wanting to be part of it for their own evolution. But there’s also part of [the POC retreat practice] that feels like it’s a really separate thing, and that’s why the integration is happening—inviting the POC’s into the other retreats. Right now, there are two separate groups. There are people who won’t go to a retreat at Spirit Rock unless it’s a POC retreat—just because it’s too hard. I mean, even I have a hard time. I always count heads when I walk into retreats—meaning, “How many more people that reflect me are in this room?” But that’s a big part of why I want to keep teaching and why I want to keep teaching in these communities.

Fortunately, I’m getting a lot of invitations—which is great—and I know a big part of that is because I am filling a needed niche, but I don’t care. If that’s the only reason they’re asking me, that’s fine—I’ll do that. But I’m just really happy to be able to be here at this time when it feels like a lot is changing. And people, like I said at the beginning, are afraid to have this conversation—they don’t know how to have the conversation. So, in a way, they’re providing a greater platform to those who are willing to speak..

SR: In your work, you talk about the practice of relational mindfulness. And that seems like a strong articulation of interconnection which sometimes gets lost in the practice.

JH: Yes, for sure. And you know, obviously this is perpetuated by silent retreats. So, when you’re going to practice, you’re actually not relating at all other than by holding precepts, respecting others’ speech—and all of that is highly-valued, but it doesn’t give a lot of time or space for talking about sensitive issues or sharing lifestyles and that to me is very important.There is often a lot of conflict avoidance—people are well-meaning and don't want to harm, so they avoid the harder conversations. And I think for some people it’s just easier to say, “Oh, everything is okay.” But that’s not a good practice in the long run. So, this new generation of teachers that is coming up—and I’ll just use me as an example—I’m not conflict-avoidant. And that doesn’t mean that I walk toward conflicts and I want them to happen, but having the hard conversations the right way, using our practice, using our mindfulness is really beautiful and intimate—and it can help guide people on the path just as well as being in silence. Especially using the three path factors of speech, livelihood, and action— they’re a big deal and so if we actually walk into those with the structure of our mindfulness and our wisdom, then that’s really helpful. But like I said, a lot of people want to avoid the conversations.

SR: Are you optimistic about the possibilities for inclusivity at Dharma centers like Spirit Rock?

JH: I feel really hopeful about this next generation of trainees that are coming out—and we’re excited to be working together and moving forward. Some of us are more outspoken than others, but the ones who aren’t are kind of excited to hear it! And hopefully we’re not going to be pushing against a huge, unmovable machine—as of right now it doesn’t seem so, especially with Michelle Latvala at the helm and certain people on the administrative side who are really willing to look at everything. Yes, it seems like a lot can happen.

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