I had the blessing to be born in a dharma household where my parents volunteered to host weekly meditation sittings in our home for a local Vipassana organization in Hawaii. We recited the three refuges in pali every night before I went to bed. Monks like Munindra and Sayadaw U Pandita would come to stay with us when I was growing up. Even Joseph Goldstein came to my home before I was old enough to appreciate his teachings. Though I sat off and on my whole life and did many day long retreats in my teenage years, it was my first 3 day residential retreat on the North Shore of O’ahu where I had my first deep transformative sitting- on the last day I had an experience of being perfectly at peace with myself exactly the way I was. As an insecure and awkward late bloomer this was a huge breakthrough. I did a 7 day Vipassana retreat in Burma two years later and had the same experience on the 5th day- total ease and equanimity with myself and the world. From there my dedication to this path deepened and solidified.
And as far as how I came to Buddhist practice, my parents were both Vipassana meditation teachers. And since I was born, really since I was a baby, we started welcoming people into our home every Sunday to sit and we would have a Dharma teacher come and lead a talk and lead everyone through a guided meditation practice. So Buddhism and mindfulness practice was something that was always in the background, even before I fully understood what it was and I started sitting when I was very young, maybe seven or eight years old off and on, but not seriously. And it really wasn’t until towards the end of high school I did one of my first residential retreats, and I remember on the third day of that retreat having the sense of being OK with myself exactly the way it was. And as someone who was a late bloomer and felt very awkward all through high school and actually had very low self-esteem for most of that time, the sense of self-acceptance and ease with myself was a really profound shift that I didn’t necessarily think was even possible. And so that was when I started to connect with the practice deeply.
Yeah, I recently watched my father go through a really challenging experience, my my dad had a stroke that turned into. So, yes, and my father experienced a stroke and was in the ICU for several days and chemo came out of it, and his healing process was profound for me to watch because he handled it with so much ease and so much grace, and so did my mom and I remember asking him whether he was ever afraid at any point. And he said to me, No, there’s nothing to be afraid of. This is what the Buddha talked about. You know, this is aging, this is dying. This is all part of the process. You know, if only thing, it kind of made all those things more real for him. And I think if he hadn’t had that foundation of decades of practice, he wouldn’t have been able to handle the stage of his life with so much ease and grace. And not that there’s not going to be moments that are frustrating and painful and hard. But. Seeing my parents go through this process really inspired me to keep practicing because we’re all going to have to deal with this, you know? And I’ve talked to friends who have parents that don’t have a practice and don’t have tools and they’re freaking out, they’re afraid and they’re not handling it very well. And that’s really hard for the people around them to watch and not really be able to do anything about. So I think it’s so important for all of us to have tools to handle these challenging emotions and challenging status of of life. When I look back at my life, you know, working at the symphony, I could I can sometimes fall into the trap of comparing myself to these people who are masters of their craft feeling like , Well, what I what have I done with my life? And when I think about it, you know, really what I’ve tried to master is. It’s just living my life with the greatest ease possible. And, you know, it took many years for me to cultivate this ability to feel like I can literally handle anything like I have no doubt that whatever happens, whatever crisis I’m confronted with that I will find a way to to get through it. And, you know, maybe not always gracefully the whole time, but I know that I can at least find moments of ease through any of life’s difficulty. And I know that’s not something that everybody can confidently say. And the only reason that I can is because of my teachers, because of my years of practice, because I’ve spent a lot of time turning inward and trying to tend to the wounds that I have that are still impacting my relationships, impacting the ways of being that I am in the world. You know, obviously, I’ve done a lot of different practices beyond just mindfulness practice, and I see so many of them as related. You know, I went through landmark and the foundations of landmark education were really about seeing things as they are and recognizing the stories that you create around that and finding a way to empower yourself through those challenges. And that, to me, is what mindfulness is, is being able to empower yourself through any of life’s challenges by recognizing that things just are what they are. And everything else is just a story we’ve created and that we can choose our thoughts and we can watch our thoughts arise and we don’t have to listen to them. We don’t have to jump on that train. You know, your mind is sometimes just full of shit, like you don’t have to listen to that, you know? So, yeah, I feel like, you know, my life’s practice is is my masterpiece. It’s not any particular project. It’s not an instrument that I’ve conquered. It’s really just and it’s an ongoing evolution, you know, like, I haven’t even begun to master it, but I least I at least have the confidence that I can get through this thing that we call life.
Yeah. Vinnie Ferraro is one of my favorite teachers here in San Francisco, and I really get a sense of the love that he radiates any time that he’s he’s teaching. And, you know, he’s someone who’s been through a lot of challenges. You know, he was in jail. He went through addiction, you know, lost parents. But he lost his mother very dramatically at a young age. And yeah, went through a lot of hardship and was still able to love himself, was still able to find equanimity and share that with others. And. Every time that I hear one of his Dharma talks, you know, I’ve heard him and I think other teachers say that there’s really only one Dharma talk. You know, it’s kind of the same lessons that we keep hearing over and over and over again. But you know, we’re different people every day, and as we go through our lives, we need to be reminded of the things that we already know and when shared with in a different context and within. The space of new experiences that you’ve had, um, hearing the Dharma talk at the right time can really create a profound shift and give you the strength and support that you need to continue to be motivated and continuing your practice. And for me, my teachers to me are people who inspire me to keep practicing because I see that they are the living embodiment of so many of these teachings, and they’re not perfect that are just people, you know. And the best teachers I’ve had are very real about their own struggles with ego and, you know, all of these other things that we all deal with. And, you know, showing that. You can practice for years and years, and there will be some things that will will take continued effort, you know, but we’re all in it together . We can all practice together and encourage each other together. The impact of that for me has been has been really powerful. And yeah, and there are times when I really don’t know and don’t have an answer, and my teachers am able to to shed some insight on personal struggles that I’ve had and. That’s not something that I wouldn’t necessarily come to on my own without their help and their support and their wisdom and their guidance. So I’m so grateful to all of my teachers and I hope that I can. I can take what they’ve shared with me and spread it to other people in my life and continue to live it as well. You know, any time we see a teacher fall or see a song of a hit with scandal, um, I think it’s a reminder that, you know, teachers aren’t necessarily meant to be put on a pedestal. You know, anyone who has years of practice will have some wisdom that you know, that maybe you don’t have and they can share that wisdom. But, you know, even the Buddha, when when we pray about the Buddha, we’re not we’re not worshiping an individual, you know, we’re really. We’re really looking at something he did that any of us can do. You know, the Buddha found a path that any of us can follow. It doesn’t mean that we worship the Buddha. You know, we we we are grateful for his teachings and his practice, but he’s no different than any one of us. You know, we all have that Buddha hood within and we can just continue to cultivate that and and our teachers are also there to inspire us and guide us with their wisdom. But you know, they’re no better than any of us. And so I think just remembering that we’re all in this together, no one’s better than anybody else. And teachers can learn as much from their students, you know, and do.
Sure. So for me, it was really important to try to find Sangha when I left Hawaii and wants to continue my practice, and luckily for me. So I went to Loyola Marymount and Insight L.A. was actually having weekly sittings on campus. And so I met Trudy Goodman and was sitting with her. And it was it was a funny experience of being like kind of the only young person in the room with a lot of much older practitioners, which was fine. But when I went to Burma and did my first weeklong retreat, I actually met my first boyfriend there on that retreat, and he was actually from Manhattan Beach, and he was the one who introduced me to against the stream. And so I started sitting with Noah Levine’s group in L.A., and they also have a chapter here in San Francisco. So when I moved to the same Cisco, I continued to sit with them. And yeah, when when our Sangha kind of fell apart last year, it was it was a really painful experience for a lot of us . And, you know, it was a valuable lesson too. And you know, none of us are infallible, like even teachers are not infallible. Like, we can all be committed to this practice and make mistakes and fall. But you know, you can separate the teachings from the teacher and and take with that just, you know. A reminder that really everything is impermanent and the containers of the practice are impermanent, but the teachings themselves are timeless, and you can carry that with you anywhere. Um, but yeah, that was that was a really challenging time for, you know, for me, like having practiced my whole life, maybe I wasn’t impacted in the way that someone newer to Sangha might have. And I think that was really heartbreaking. And this is kind of a tangent, but you know, it was it was heartbreaking to think about people who came to Sangha as a sacred, safe space, especially who were newer to practice. And, you know, within the against the stream community, there are a lot of people there who were there because of addiction recovery and have been through a lot of trauma and then to experience the safe, sacred place falling apart because of me too. You know, it was really devastating. And you know, I spoke with Michele MacDonald about this hour. You know, my teacher in Hawaii and you know, she was saying that I think in the West, you know, we did. The practice here is really still kind of new, like the positive practice in the West is still new and these structures for teaching and sangha are still new. And you know, there have been different scandals that have shaken communities. And, you know, maybe there’s a way to really create more support for teachers and how to teach, you know, in this safe way and the kinds of temptations that they will come across, you know, with with power really always comes. So many complications. And you know, one of my teachers, Matthew Brant Silver, talked about how, you know, when you’re when you’re a teacher, you really have to be constantly checking your ego. And so, you know, now that this has happened to, you know, many communities, I hope that moving forward in the light of MeToo and in this wake of a new world that we can create together. And I really hope that communities can come together and learn from these mistakes and talk about what we can do to maintain that, that safety, which is so vital, I think, to practice. Um, but more than that, I mean, I think no matter how often you practiced, we need people to remind us of the things that will so easily forget, especially because practices counterintuitive. You know, we’re all programed to cling to what’s pleasant, push away what’s unpleasant and. You know, having the teacher to turn to having Saga to turn to is is something that really helps keep me grounded and can remind me of the things that I already know but have forgotten, especially during a painful or challenging period of my life. And especially, it helps hold you accountable. I mean, I know that I, on my own have a really hard time maintaining a daily practice or even once a week sitting for an hour. And so having a community that I can go to and we’ll all close our eyes together for a certain amount of time, you know, just that. There’s an accountability there. That’s a structure that helps keep me on track. And I mean, I feel like again, you know, this work of turning inwards and being with yourself is some of the most challenging work possible. And having other people that are on that path with you really helps keep you motivated and helps you feel less alone. And I I don’t know that I would have continued practicing as long as I have if it wasn’t for the people around me, for my teachers, for my Sangha, for that community. And so beyond seeking out a weekly group to sit with, trying to create that community for myself, among my friends in any way that I can. You know, I have coworkers that during the challenging week will be like, Hey, let’s meet for five minutes and just sit together, you know? And that can be profound. You know, like having someone to hold you accountable is really, really powerful. And the energy that I get from sitting with another person is is much more powerful sometimes than the energy that I create sitting alone. I mean, you really can’t replicate that any other way. You know, ten people sitting together can be a more powerful experience than one person sitting. There’s an energy there. There’s a cumulative energy that’s there, that’s really sacred and really special. And I think we all need. We all need support and we all need encouragement to continue down any difficult road and in practice.
I think it’s so easy when you’ve been in a romantic relationship with someone to. Get caught up in and past mistakes, and it’s really challenging to approach each day with a fresh and clean slate. And I think that’s where practice can become so valuable in terms of. Really starting from the present instead of relating to someone from the past. And it’s such a trap, you know, it’s it’s really, really difficult to be vulnerable and and be afraid of being hurt when someone is hurt you in the past. But like any great relationship, takes effort, just like practice takes effort and. I think the willingness of two people to start each day fresh and begin again and begin again and begin again is what’s vital to keeping a relationship going and having a relationship that’s worth hanging on to. You know, it doesn’t mean walking away and throwing away something as soon as things get hard gets hard. As soon as something gets hard, you know, walking away from it, really. Makes it impossible to to create a strong relationship that lasts over time, and so how do two people? Find ways to begin again when they’ve made mistakes and when they’ve hurt each other. I think so much of that starts with trying to live in the present, you know, and relate to your partner from a space of love and compassion and being present with them for who they are now, not who they’ve been in the past or a year ago or. Yeah, it’s funny because I’ve always wanted to have a partner that was dedicated to the practice, and I’ve never actually really other than my first boyfriend. I’ve never dated somebody who was like a Buddhist practitioner who practice mindfulness, and that definitely has created a lot of sheltered relationships. I mean, I’m definitely not attached to. I think it’s I think it’s easy as someone who’s who spent decades of her life practicing to think that she might be the more evolved person in a relationship if I’m with someone who doesn’t have a meditation practice. And you know, that’s really a tricky trap because, you know, there’s so many different paths towards the same thing, which is, you know, how do I learn and grow and evolve as a person? And, you know, I’ve dated people who, you know, didn’t have. Any experience with necessarily Buddhist meditation practice, but they were aware and awake in ways that I wasn’t. You know, they had come to certain understandings through their own, you know, paths of understanding human psychology or whatever it was and recognizing that, you know, I’m not going to have all the answers and as much as I would love to to be with someone who was on the same path as me. I think really, there are so many different ways for for people to awake. There, there’s so many different ways for people to wake up and so many different paths for people to evolve and. That we should all be aware of of of our egos and thinking that we’re the one who’s more evolved. You know, and and yeah, just again, you know, I think that for a relationship to work, it really takes a lot of effort and dedication to being present and living in the moment and letting go of the past . You know, we can’t have a healthy relationship if we cling on to past resentments. And so whatever tools that you have to learn to let go and just live with love and live with presence, I think that really can create something really beautiful between two people.
Yeah. I mean, one of the things that’s been interesting for me as far as how my practice has shifted in the last year and a half, is that, um, you know, going through some very painful personal experiences of heartbreak and loss, you know, mostly romantic heartbreak and loss. I found myself for the first time wanting a relationship with God. And as someone who grew up in a Buddhist household, you know, my parents never spoke about God, and I never really heard anyone talk about God outside of where I went to school, which was a school founded by Christian missionaries. I went to hell in Hawaii, and we would go to chapel service very frequently, and I always found myself turned off by the concept of God just because that word is so loaded and this idea of God has been used to oppress people and. You know, there’s so much baggage around this idea, but I remember RAM dass talking about this idea of fierce grace and that some of the most painful, difficult experiences in our lives are actually a moment of of grace where we can we can tap into God’s love because we’re so vulnerable. And one of my meditation teachers, he shared with me this this quote from I think it was Hafeez who said something about, you know, don’t surrender your loneliness, let it cut you more deep. And there’s something about those moments when when you feel deeply lonely, but you feel closer to God. And um, and so I found myself, you know, yes, the practice was very powerful and helping me be with my emotions and sit with my emotions and watch them arise and practice letting them go. But I felt like I wanted something larger, something that felt more personal. And so talking to God and calling it God, you know, which in the past might have just talked about the universe and universal connectedness? And I really think those are all the same, you know, different words and different languages, all describing the same thing that I feel very connected to when I’m meditating, when I’m practicing mindfulness, you know, when I’m present and I sense this deep connectedness with all beings and all things, to me, that is God. You know, we are God. We’re all a part of God. And you can call it whatever you want. But you know, I think that. There’s there’s different ways of blending, you know, spiritual practices and finding what works for you. I mean, even the Dalai Lama was always telling people, Don’t abandon your own practice to convert to Buddhism like you can be a nun and practice Buddhist Vipassana meditation. You know, you can be a Catholic nun and practice Buddhist meditation. And so, you know, for me, I find that I can be open to these other traditions. And once I decided that, oh, I can pray to God and I have a relationship with God. It actually shifted the way I viewed other spiritual practices and the way I viewed people who came from a Christian faith and talked about Jesus and hearing people talk about God. It made me actually feel closer to them, like more connected to that as well. Whereas in the past, and I think this might be common among Buddhists as well, is there’s a sense of ego a little bit around our way is the best way. You know me, though we’re not supposed to have this idea. It’s like, you know, for me, like Buddhist practice always offered something that none of these other spiritual traditions did really. In the same way, because this idea of, you know, getting your stream from a higher, higher power really took away the sense of empowerment you get from your own personal practice. You know, having vipassana and mindfulness and meditation being something that you do alone and turn inwards to find as opposed to turning outwards. And I suppose for me, wanting a relationship with God, does it negate that I can still turn within to find equanimity? It really just broadens that because God is with it and everything is all part of it. And so in a moment, I can turn to one practice and another moment I can turn to a different practice. You know, one day I might use Metta. one day I might say, dear god, you know, and pray to God and create intentions with God. And. And yeah, I find that that works really well for me. You know. And so I think that. People should be encouraged to explore.
So when I was diagnosed with bipolar, I had already been practicing for pretty seriously for about seven years at that point. And it’s really hard to practice when you’re depressed, you know, you know that meditation is is something that’s helpful. But actually force yourself to sit and meditate when you’re depressed can seem impossible at times. But I think for me in those moments when I was able to be present and be mindful, it created a little bit of space, a little bit of ease. And I think so much of practice is really about that effort of beginning again, beginning again, beginning again. And even if you can’t sustain it for long periods of time, really just any moment of ease in the midst of so much heaviness and suffering is is grace. And I think now having been stable for many years now. one of the things that. That I find really valuable about practice is not just staying grounded, but also I think it’s so crucial to be self-aware and be mindful so that I can sense if I am beginning to lose balance. Look, if I notice that I have a lot more attention or a lot more anxiety, I am being mindful of that will allow me to say, OK, now it’s time to slow down. It’s time to implement some self-care as opposed to if I were just going and going and going and not taking the time to really check in with myself and be with myself, I wouldn’t notice if things were beginning to slide or slip or be off. I think that’s so crucial, you know, when it comes to mental health to just, yeah, to just be to be self aware and just check in and know how to nurture yourself and give yourself the self-care that you need.
Oh, definitely sitting and practicing gives me a sense of my interconnectedness to all beings around me and cultivates a lot of compassion for all beings around me. And that’s not just people, that’s all creatures and beings on this planet. And when I think about what’s happening in the world right now, it’s pretty terrifying. You know, the kind of destruction and. We’re it’s. Are they now more than ever if we recognize that we’re all connected and that every little action that we take has an impact and that every life on this planet matters? Then we can start to take actions in our own lives to help lessen some of the damage. You know, even if that’s just using a little bit less water, eating a little bit less meat, you know, there’s so many things we can do to contribute to our planet knowing that again, we’re all part of this and all of us have a right to life. All of our lives are valuable and precious. That, to me at least motivates me to try to be a little bit gentler and have a little bit less of a footprint. Um, and it’s hard, you know, I mean, you look on Instagram and you’re fed all these materialistic, you know, visions of things to lust after places to travel to. And of course, airplane travel also has a huge environmental impact. You know, we’re constantly being fed and wanting more, wanting more like our devices are designed to become archaic in like a year so that we want the next scene of new hot thing and it’s in our faces more than ever. So again, if we can start to slow down and sort of see things for what they are, you know, see advertising for what it is. See influencers as really just, you know, the stories that they that they’ve created versus the reality of what’s what’s the true value, you know, and what is what is it that really makes my life valuable? Because what I’m able to just find peace and joy with being present wherever I am that I really don’t need so much anymore. I can really find joy and ease with almost nothing. And so what I consider the impact of my lifestyle on the world around me and being able to be happy with less, um, you know, I see things like minimalism trending now and a lot of influencers actually pushing minimalism. And I think, you know, as much as people look at millennials as, you know, the most self-absorbed generation ever. I think a lot of us too are actually turning away from, you know, some of the things that older generations valued like we don’t necessarily need to own our own cars. You know, we’re happy with this sharing economy. We’re happy with less. We recognize that it’s not all about the stuff that you own, it’s it’s about the life that you’re living. And a lot of people are using social media as a means to spread messages of mindfulness. And so I think that the more that we can live this and the more we can share that with people and the more we can stay connected to what matters, the more we can be conscious of the other lives and beings on this planet, the more we can live in a way that’s that’s healthy and creates a more sustainable future. I mean, yeah, I definitely think that mindfulness practice is vital to cultivating a sense of interconnectedness and compassion for all beings, recognizing this global interconnectedness really universal interconnectedness and is really something that motivates you to live a life beyond. Yourself, um, I think I think practice, I think I think mindfulness practice and tapping into the sense of interconnectedness is really something that encourages you to reflect on the impact of all of your actions and how they affect the people around you, the beings around you, on this planet. Um, and it also gives you a sense of self-awareness that you wouldn’t have otherwise self-awareness as far as not only what your impact is, but what’s really motivating a lot of your behavior day to day. You know, am I buying a lot of things and clothes because I really want to feed my ego or some kind of insecurity that’s there? You know, I find that the practice is able to give me the ability to be happy and find joy and ease with less. With the simple things and not need to feed such destructive behaviors like mindless consumption, endless consumption. And yes, seeing that we’re all a part of this, that we’re not separate the we’re all in this together. Um, this practice really encourages us to live in a way that can create harmony and can create sustainability for future generations.
There’s literally no part of my daily experience that isn’t influenced by the dharma and my mindfulness practice. It is my trust in the freedom and beauty available in each present moment, especially since taking my Year To Live class and meditating on our impermanence, that guides my heart and mind throughout the day. When I take the time to set aside my phone look at the world around me I find every day little sights and interactions profoundly moving: two friends on the sidewalk in an extra long embrace, the light peeking through leaves on a tree, the pink and purple hues of the sky as the sun rises and sets, the taste of a juicy strawberry. This trust and practice grounds me in chaotic moments throughout my work day when I remember to step back and breathe. It gives me patience when I encounter challenges with people in my life and also allows me to open my heart wide and tune in to the love I feel for not just my friends, family and sangha but every being (big and small) I pass on the street, sit next to on the bus.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have many wise and compassionate dharma teachers in my life, some who were like aunties and uncles growing up in Hawai’i, some who became friends, all who continue to inspire me with their dedication, their knowledge, their love, their authenticity, most notably Michele McDonald, Steve Smith, Graham White, Gavin Harrison, Kamala Masters, Lynne Bousfield, Trudy Goodman, Noah Levine, Matthew Brensilver, Vinny Ferraro and Gene Lushtak. They’ve shown me that my teacher can be any person anywhere any time- a challenging and confrontational individual, a beggar in the street, each has the ability to open my eyes to a greater truth and dig deep within myself to open my heart even in moments of doubt or anger or confusion or sadness.
I wish I was sitting for an hour a day morning and night but my daily sitting practice doesn’t generally last more than 10-15 minutes; I try to attend the weekly sitting groups at Against The Stream at least once a week which last about 30-40 minutes
I’ve been sitting with Against The Stream for over 10 years now.
I’m a filmmaker/photographer/one-woman production crew
This practice has helped me through every difficult experience I’ve ever had. I once broke up with a boyfriend in the middle of a day long retreat and went back to finish it; I needed the solace of the dharma in that moment more than ever. I also went through months of heavy depression in 2010 following a brief manic episode during which I had been diagnosed as bipolar. It was to this day the most painfully confusing time of my life. Though it was difficult to practice during those months mindfulness did provide me with a bit of space during moments when my depression became too heavy. With meditation and regular exercise I’ve been able to stay off medication for years and retain a stable mental and emotional balance.
© 2021 Jack Huynh | Orange Photography
Annual update on progress of project.