on refuge + resistance | becoming a sanctuary

On Monday, I was overcome by emotion at the devastating stories of Muslim immigrants being cut off from their rightful homes — families, livelihoods, and beloved communities — here in the U.S. and of refugees, who had been promised entry on asylum, being sent back to waiting gallows. I became teary-eyed and shaky as I thought of my multinational clutch of friends, and of my family members, living and deceased, and ancestors, who have migrated within or emigrated from other parts of the world to this nation. The What-Ifs spiraled through my mind: What if friends I know are deported or denied re-entry? What if the ban extends to any immigrant who does not have full citizenship and my dad (who is not Muslim nor from a Muslim country) too becomes a victim of this gross xenophobia?

Angry and proud, I carried the flag of my father’s island into a city council meeting to show my support for a resolution to make our community an official sanctuary for all immigrants.

My family has crossed many borders and belonged to many nations.

My father is from Trinidad + Tobago and came to the U.S. with his steel pan band in the 70s. His father and his maternal grandmother island-hopped from Barbados to Trinidad. I’m told our people are scattered throughout the Caribbean. I have cousins from both islands who are now legal residents in the U.S.

My maternal grandmother is a 1st-generation U.S. citizen whose Canadian parents immigrated to Pontiac, MI. Her maternal grandmother was a Jew from Stuttgart, Germany who, at 17 years old, immigrated to NYC in 1880, then crossed the northern borders into Canada. Her maternal grandfather was a slave born on a plantation in Virginia. He enlisted in the Union Army, fought in the Civil War, and moved to Buffalo, NY following his honorable discharge before crossing into Canada.

My mother welcomed people of all cultures into our home and, when I was a child, even hosted two Belizean women as guests for a short stay. In her almost 40-year career in social work, she wholeheartedly served refugee and other immigrant communities. She bonded with them, kept in touch after their services ended — they invited her to dinners, baby showers, and birthday parties. She became a trusted friend who their children called Auntie or Gramma.

My extended family and friends come from many nations or are descendants of immigrants or are married/committed to and have built families with immigrants or descendants of immigrants.

My neighbors are from Vietnam and Cuba — I’ve watched their children grow up alongside my son.

There is no part of my life or my heart that has been untouched by an immigrant. 

My hope is that the #LoveLansing City Council acts in alignment with our mayor’s pledge to protect our refugee and immigrant community and resolve to declare my hometown a sanctuary city.

So ask me again why I am outraged? Why I’m sad? Why I feel threatened? I’ll gladly repeat it over and over and over: It’s literally in my DNA to give a damn!

Read our Mayor Virg Bernero’s pledge via Fox 47 News.

criteria for skillful communication


Last December, I was invited to give a presentation to fellow members of my local Facilitators Guild on the 4 Gates of Speech after referencing them in one of our monthly meetings. As I prepared, I discovered overlapping ideas across various wisdom traditions and expanded my presentation into a list of Criteria for Skillful Communication below. 

Cultivating skillful communication is more than an intellectual endeavor. It is an embodied mindfulness practice comprised of Deep Listening and Skillful Speech.

We learn to listen deeply by paying attention to our thoughts, perceptions, bodily sensations, and emotions while listening to others and while speaking. Through this process, we can discern what to say, how to say it, and when, if at all, to say it–which is the foundation for impeccable speech.

Intention: To foster understanding and compassion.

Actions: Draw upon silence in order to give full awareness to our experience in the moment and to reflect on our speech before, during, and after speaking.


Before speaking, let your words pass through these gates.

Origins in Philosophical + Wisdom Traditions

I. 3 Sieves/3 Filters ~ Attributed to multiple sources (i.e. Socrates, Quakers, poets).

Is it True?
Is it Kind?
Is it Necessary/Useful?

II. 4 Gates of Speech ~ Possibly Sufi; misattributed to Buddhism.

Is it True?
Is it Necessary?
Is it Helpful?
Is it Kind?

III. 5 Factors of Right Speech ~ Buddhist; from the Vaca Sutta (italicized text mine).

It is spoken at the right time.
Will it be Heard, Received and Understood? Does it Improve Upon the Silence?

It is spoken in truth.
Is it Factual, Sincere, from the Heart?

It is spoken affectionately.
Is it delivered Gently, Kindly, with Compassion, Equanimity, Empathy?

It is spoken beneficially.
Is it Useful, Constructive, Informative, Necessary, Life-Affirming?

It is spoken with a mind of good-will.
Is it offered with the Clear Intention to Not Cause Harm, to Inspire, to Comfort, to Support?

[16 December 2015]

in the dharma circle

So what does this look like in action? Following our meditation practice, Sangha exercises the capacity for skillful communication through a discussion on a selected topic of contemplation.

Our skillful speech has the opportunity to become refined by three factors: silence, bowing (gassho), and breath.  

We speak from discerning through silence — using the sacred pause to garner clarity of thought/feeling and to measure those formations alongside the (3, 4, or 5) criteria named above.

We bow when we wish to speak. Sangha bows in return.
It is an embodiment of our commitment, as speakers, to speak skillfully and, as listeners, to listen deeply in order to cultivate our skillful understanding of what will be shared. 

We bow again at the completion of our sharing. Sangha bows in return.
It is an embodiment of our commitment to give space for understanding to unfold and for discerning whether to contribute a subsequent insight, question, or experience.

We pause and breathe, for at least 3 full cycles, to center and ground ourselves before contributing to the dharma circle.

The pausing, bowing, and breathing not only bridge the sacred energy of mindfulness to the practical aspect of turn-taking. But these practices also disrupt common communication patterns and de-condition our habits of interrupting, cross-talking, or sparking side conversations.

Whichever of the 3 Sieves, 4 Gates, or 5 Factors resonates most with you, use these criteria to gauge the quality of your awareness and ensuing impulses to respond when holding conversations. It can be jarring for practitioners who intentionally cultivate deep listening and skillful speech to recognize how wide the gap is between how we experience and participate in communication inside and outside of the dharma circle.

skillful communication | anti-oppressive communication webinar


Anti-Oppressive Communication Webinar
with Autumn Brown + Maryse Mitchell-Brody
Icarus Project


zen + the art of celebrating your dopeness

Don’t let this stop you from reveling in
your own real, hard-won dopeness,
or from believing in yourself…

But does everyone else need to know?
Are you still dope if no one hears you say it?

Our lives have meaning beyond the public gaze. In the intimate spaces that we do not share with the online world is a life on our own terms, in the company of un-Instagrammed friends at un-tweeted gatherings, where we remember that being truly known is reserved for the people who might not even know our Twitter handle.

~ Rebecca Carroll


Without question, our lives do not have to pass the public’s litmus test of “likes,” “shares,” or “Amens” to be full, rich, valued, and meaningful. We all wish to be understood and embraced. To be heard and seen means we have a voice and a visible presence. Together these factors forge the life-affirming human need for connection. With family and friends, being seen, heard, understood and embraced is the grounds for skillful communication and nurturing healthy loving relationships. In community and professional spaces, this is the grounds for expanding one’s opportunities, solidifying partnerships or collaborations, and establishing one’s capacity to contribute in meaningful ways.

In social media? Well, I hold the same questions and frustrations as Ms. Carroll about the trend that conflates self-trumpeting oversharing with being authentic, vulnerable, and transparent. There are many a comment, photo, tweet of mine that have gone unpublished when, pausing to give space for a second thought, I wondered if it was necessary, helpful, true, and kind? Even when my “idea” meets those criteria of skillful communication, the ancient spiritual wisdom frequently prevails. These four gates of speech are the touchstone I use for cultivating skillful communication whether in private personal spaces or the public sphere. To relinquish thoughts, images, perceptions and emotionally-driven ideas is a way of strengthening non-attachment and equanimity.

When a thought is unshakable, I am moved to share. I do so in full recognition that there is power in curating galleries of images that represent our wholeness.

Especially for women of color who advocate holistic health and wellness, mental health awareness, LGBTQ inclusivity, and social justice.

Especially when mainstream media feeds us heaping troughs of deep suffering.

Let us be saavy enough to cut through the false presentations and attention-hungry pretentiousness. Let us commit to skillful communication and check our intentions before we make public record of our mental formations. Let us flood the atmosphere with authenticity, integrity, kindness, and peace. Let us continue to transform social media and reclaim the space to express our wholeness, vitality, beauty and joy.

This image is a tribute to my dear friend + spiritual sista, Vi, in honor of her 30th birthday!

Read Rebecca Carroll’s full article, “The Digital Wellness Charade,” on TheGuardian.com.

awakening the voice of self-love

Be careful how you are talking
to yourself because you are listening.

~Lisa M. Hayes

At the beginning of the month, Sangha decided our aspiration for study and practice in February would be (1) to dissolve the inner critic and (2) to awaken the voice of self-love.

We all have experienced the harsh self-defeating tones of an inner voice that chastises, doubts, belittles, and discourages us. We may struggle to hear the gentle voice of compassion that encourages, nurtures, assures, and reminds us of our strengths, gifts and possibilities.

This two-step process of dissolving self-criticism and awakening self-compassion invites us to first shine the light on the deep roots of that oppressive, self-defeating commander.

Can we see the seeds of fear, unworthiness, shame? Can we see all the hands that planted and tended them? These internal and external messages that feed and strengthen that critical voice?

To identify these embedded roots may also unveil a cycle of self-abuse that we easily trap ourselves in. As one practitioner pointed out, we recognize that we’re beating ourselves up and then reprimand ourselves to be better and nicer to ourselves! But how will such self-lecturing ever help us eliminate self-judgement when the critic thrives under abrasiveness?

Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to “cradle” our suffering (in the form of anger, fear, pain, judgement etc.) as a mother would a child. So when the critic begins its denigrating rant, we neither silence nor strengthen it. We embrace it with a gentle acknowledgment, “Ahh! I see/hear the suffering.” We do not abandon ourselves, convinced that we’re being weak or wimpy. We whisper words of kindness to soothe that wounded voice. I understand. I am here for you. You are hurting. I love you.

Receiving such tenderness, the raging critic begins to soften and relax—to exhale its relief at being seen, heard and understood. Now there is room to sow and water seeds of compassion. We keep exercising the voice of compassion by speaking to ourselves in a hushed and soothing tones. We retrain our inner critic by filtering its skills of observation and analysis through the four gates of speech (a Sufi and Buddhist practice I wrote about in a musing about mindful communication in motherhood) asking, Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it helpful? Is it kind? We learn to assess our choices and decisions honestly, using words that nourish and support rather than berate us. With skillful effort, we develop a booming voice of wise and compassionate discernment.

So practice gently, relentlessly, and lovingly to awaken and constantly feed the voice of self-love. What’s been helpful for me in moments of self-doubt is to remember what another friend in sangha shared. Inspired by a story she’d heard about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, she echoed his words of encouragement in a tender lilting voice: “Don’t be afraid, you can do it.”

To stop and communicate
with yourself
is a revolutionary act.

~Thich Nhat Hanh

Last week I shared a reading from Sandra Ingerman‘s Medicine for The Earth (a going-away gift I’d received from a friend when I left Brooklyn, NY  in 2003), which provides a template for the transmutation—or ability, as Ingerman defines, to transform poisons in the body and environment—of negative, self-destructive communication to healthy, harmonious self communication:

Words and thought forms create a vibration that goes far into the universe, creating musical notes. We need to look at whether we send out harmonious notes into the universe, which in turn create harmony, or whether we send out disharmonious notes, creating chaos and illness. We call down the powers of the divine and call into being with our words…The seeds planted will decide what kind of plant grows.

We rarely pay attention to the power of the words we use. In our ignorance we end up calling into being a great deal of chaos and pollution. We do the same with our thought forms. If the divine created us in its own image and the divine is perfect, then we are perfect. If we say things about ourselves that is against our perfection, we move out of harmony with the divine inside and outside us, which can cause illness. For example, if you say that you are not good enough or if you believe you are not worthy, your words are out of harmony with divine creation.

You must work on bringing your words and thoughts back into a song of harmony. Without this harmony there can be no union. Without harmony and union there can be no transmutation. The universe sings glorious harmonious notes. Is the song of your life and beliefs harmonious?

EXERCISE [an excerpt]:

Imagine your life as a garden. What seed words do you want to plant, nurture, and watch grow? Choose your seed words carefully.

As you begin to notice the energy and vibration of words, be more conscious of the words you use in your conversations with others. Think about what you are calling down for yourself and others. Think about what plant will grown out of the words you planted.

To heal the earth through transmutation, you must speak to yourself and others with words that create a vibration of love, harmony, and union with the divine. With words you can decree that pollution be reversed. Parts of the formula for transmutation used here: Intention: Words create intention to heal or create illness.

Love: Words that have the power to heal embrace the vibration of love. Love heals.
Harmony: Harmonious notes sent out into the universe will create harmony reflected back to you in your life and the environment.
Union: Where there is harmony, there is union. Union is the energy behind transmutation.
Focus: You must have strong focus to create the intention to use healing words.
Concentration: It takes a great deal of concentration to be aware of the words you use in your self-talk and your conversations with others.
Imagination: You must be able to imagine the energy and vibration that is sent out with the words you use.

Related Musing

On Mindful Consumption

on mindful consumption: magic of deep listening + skillful speech

essential food

nothing can survive without food.

everything we consume acts to either heal us or to poison us.

we tend to think of nourishment only as what we take in through our mouths, but what we consume with our eyes, our ears, our noses, our tongues, and our bodies is also food. the conversations going on around us, and those we participate in, are also food.

are we consuming and creating the kind of food that is healthy for us and helps us grow?

when we say something that nourishes us and uplifts the people around us, we are feeding love and compassion.

when we speak and act in a way that causes tension and anger, we are nourishing violence and suffering.

…nourishing and healing communication is the food of our relationships.

~ Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh
The Art of Communicating