Spring Washam is a founder of the East Bay Meditation Center, one of the most diverse and accessible Dharma centers in the United States. In A Fierce Heart, Washam shares her contemporary, unique interpretation of the Buddha’s 2,500-year-old teachings, with short chapters that get to the heart of mindfulness, wisdom, loving kindness, and compassion.
Woven throughout the book are stories from the author’s life, family, and ancestors, along with many soulful, heartfelt stories from all over the world. Washam’s teachings focus on social action, multiculturalism, and youth, making the Dharma welcoming to as large and wide a community as possible. Anyone who has suffered will benefit from the life-saving teachings of this charismatic teacher. Her humor, enthusiasm, and energy are a balm.
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Spring Washam is a meditation and Dharma teacher based in the Bay Area of Northern California. She was trained by Jack Kornfield and now leads retreats throughout the country. Spring is one of the founders of the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland where she teaches and leads meditation groups regularly. She is also a member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council. Spring is considered a pioneer in bringing mindfulness based healing practices to inner–city communities. She has extensive training in indigenous healing practices and works with students individually from around the world. Learn more at springwasham.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter 1: The Lotus that Blooms in the Mud
"You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it."—Maya Angelou
It is documented that an individual lotus flower can live for a thousand years and that the unfolding petals, when blooming, represent the awakening of the heart. As the national flower of India, the lotus symbolizes both purity and unconditional love. It is a sacred symbol and meaningful to spiritual and religious people throughout the world. What is most enchanting about this captivating little flower is that it blooms directly in the mud.
I have a genuine passion for stories about people who rose above their painful and traumatic life experiences to create beauty and help others. The stories of those who have overcome great challenges in pursuit of personal freedom are so inspiring. Over the years I have collected many moving biographies that include true accounts from Tibetan and Hindu yogis, mystics, hermits, musicians, shamans, activist, artist, clergy and spiritual masters from diverse spiritual traditions. I am continually reminded about the strength of the human spirit to bloom even in the darkest hour.
Throughout history, influential leaders and well–known spiritual teachers have experienced enormous personal suffering. Overcoming abuse, injustice, poverty and abandonment are common themes in the lives of many great beings. Some suffered at the hands of their own family members; others were targeted for the questions they asked and for the ideas they expressed.
I have heard hundreds of powerful stories over the last decade of teaching meditation retreats and classes. These stories not only opened my heart but also gave me faith and deeper compassion. Each one of us has a touching story of how we came to be and why we are the person we are today. Some of us are the descendants of slaves and others have fled war torn countries. Many in the west grow up in middle class families that look perfect on the outside yet are filled with violence, abuse and pain. Whether you grew up in a wealthy suburb or in the inner city, each one of us has to overcome our share of pain and personal challenges.
The Buddha said, "In this human life we will experience the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrow of life." No one is free from these experiences. Over time, we learn to grow from the bitter and the sweet. But here is the interesting point: Part of the beauty and mystery of living is that we are in a continuous state of growth, exactly like the lotus flower. Often the difficult challenges we experience early in life inform and ultimately inspire us.
Living in the Mud
Like all those before me, I started out with numerous challenges to overcome. I came screaming into the world on December 26, 1973 at St. Mary’s county hospital in Long Beach, California. My birth was definitely not a celebrated and magical moment; in fact, it was quite the opposite. My parent’s rocky relationship completely unraveled while my mother was pregnant with me. My parents fought day and night throughout my mother’s pregnancy, so it’s no surprise that I was reported to be the world’s grumpiest baby, prone to frequent tantrums with ear–splitting screams of rage. My mother always blamed herself for my grumpy disposition—she attributed it to all the fights her and my father had while she was carrying me.
My parents met in the late 1960s in Long Beach, California, while crashing on the sofa of a mutual friend name Billie. Billie had a good heart. She was also a well–known drug dealer and prostitute. My father had just gotten out of prison where he had served a one–year sentence on a check forgery charge. My mother had just left her first husband, whom she had married in Tijuana, Mexico at the age of 16. They were both down–and–out and looking for a loving place to call home. Within a couple of days they were madly in love and running off together on a new adventure. They were both curious about spirituality, especially my father; he was interested in metaphysics, meditation, and eastern philosophy.
My parents took off in an old Cadillac, excited about their spiritual quest to come. During a road trip to Reno, Nevada, they decided to get married on a whim. This presented numerous challenges because my father is a dark–skinned African American man and my mother is Caucasian. An interracial couple was still very controversial in the late sixties and both of them were exposed to hatred and racism on a daily basis.
Despite their initial optimism, they encountered constant difficulties and unforeseen challenges. Neither of them had much formal education, so unemployment and financial problems kept them moving from place to place, stuck in a very transient life style. In addition to those challenges, they both grew up in homes where they suffered severe child abuse at the hands of their fathers. Today, they would have been diagnosed with post–traumatic stress disorder. Sadly, their abusive childhoods informed their lives, but so like many others they carried the weight of their trauma as best they could. My mother was my father’s second marriage. While still a teenager himself, he fathered two children during his first marriage, a daughter who died tragically falling down a flight of stairs and a son whom he saw on rare occasions.
My father was strongly against having more children because of the failure of his first marriage. My mother, however, had her own ideas: She desperately wanted a family of her own. In spite of my father’s resistance, my sister arrived first; I was born two years later. This put enormous tension on their fragile relationship. The stress of having more children, racism and financial pressure bore down on my parent’s relationship, which began to quickly disintegrate. My father began spending more nights out in the streets hustling, doing drugs, partying and seeing other women. He eventually began disappearing for longer and longer periods of time; when I was finally born he had pretty much all but abandoned his small family.
After I was born we moved to Bellflower, California, a low–income neighborhood snuggled between east Long Beach and Compton. My earliest memories were of our large, concrete apartment building surrounded by inner city chaos. I grew accustomed to the sounds of gunshots, police sirens and helicopters buzzing throughout the night. I wasn’t allowed to play outside often so my sister and I spent many joyful hours jumping up and down on an old, green sofa in our tiny living room, while eating cinnamon toast. My mother worked as much as she could, however, there never seemed to be enough money, so we received state aid and food stamps to get by. In spite of the stress and difficulties, my mother was a very loving, strong and kind-hearted person who always dreamed of a better life for us.
This is where my story all began and it’s a common one: Many of us born into difficult, even dangerous situations with unprepared parents. When we reflect on our personal stories, it might feel like we might be stuck in the mud forever, but this is never the case. No matter who you are or where you come from you, like the lotus you can begin to bloom. Whatever has happened in your life up until this point does not affect your ability to blossom NOW. There is no need for shame; in fact, learning to embrace your history, identity and ancestry is part of the first step. It’s a part of our growing process. Many of the most inspired and awakened people who currently live and walk on this planet have also bloomed in the mud. For the mass majority of humanity this is usually the start of the journey, so let’s begin.
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