Spring Washam is a founder of the East Bay Meditation Center, one of the most diverse and accessible meditation 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 powerfully written chapters that get to the heart of mindfulness, wisdom, and compassion.
Woven throughout the book are stories from the author’s life, family, and community, along with many soulful, heartfelt stories from all over the world. Washam’s teachings truly focus on strength, courage and wisdom, 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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About the Author
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BLOOMING IN THE MUD
My very first memory is a happy one. My sister and I are sitting on the kitchen counter looking down into our small, rusty toaster. It's a Saturday morning, and we're watching cartoons and eating cinnamon toast. For a three-year-old, it doesn't get much better than this. When the toast finally pops, I smother it in butter, sugar, and cinnamon, then joyfully leap back onto our old, green couch. I was so young then, I could never have imagined the twists and turns my life would have in store.
I came into the world December 26, 1973, at St. Mary's County Hospital in Long Beach, California. My birth was not the celebrated, magical moment we all hope for. It was the opposite. My parents' relationship, which had always been rocky, completely unraveled during my mother's pregnancy with me. A couple of days after I was born, we moved into a tiny apartment in a large housing complex in Bellflower, California, a low-income neighborhood between east Long Beach and Compton. We were surrounded by gang violence, gunshots, sirens, and helicopters buzzing all night long. My father was in and out of the house during my first three years, and then one day he was gone. Even though I was so young, I was aware of feeling the tension and stress in the air. By the time I was five, I remember thinking, "This is gonna be a tough life." As a child, my heart reached out for my mother and even for my absent father but instinctively I knew they were just wounded children themselves and I was on my own.
My parents met in Long Beach in the late 1960s while sleeping in the living room of a mutual friend named Billie, a prostitute and drug dealer who, my mother said, had a beautiful heart. When they met, my mother had just left her first husband, whom she'd married in Tijuana at age sixteen, and my father had just gotten out of prison after serving a year for check forgery. They were young, homeless, and completely down on their luck. Neither had family and both were looking for someone or someplace to call home.
Within days, they'd fallen head over heals in love. Desperate to bury their pasts, they took off in an old Cadillac to start a new life together. Like so many of their generation, they were also searching for meaning and simply wanted to be happy and free. My father had a longing to study meditation and Eastern philosophy, and their road trip was meant to be a great spiritual adventure.
But their Cadillac broke down in Reno and, on an impulse, they decided to get married there. My father was a dark-skinned African American, and my mother is of European ancestry. Interracial couples were very controversial in the late sixties and they had a hard time finding a minister who would even talk to them, let alone marry them. Finally, they were married in a tiny Nevada chapel and, from that day on, they were subjected to hatred and racism almost every single day of their relationship.
Neither of them had had much formal education, and their lack of steady employment and access to affordable housing kept them on the move constantly. It was one big disappointment after another, and the initial joy they once shared unraveled into years of pain. The constant struggle of their lives began to take a toll on the relationship, and the happiness they'd briefly shared was replaced by mistrust, accusations, and constant fighting. They'd wanted to put their past behind them, but the traumas they'd suffered growing up just kept haunting them.
As children, they'd both endured extreme neglect and severe physical abuse by their fathers. Their violent upbringings mirrored each other's almost exactly. In an attempt to salvage their fragile marriage and create something beautiful, my mother was convinced she needed to have children. She longed for the loving family she'd never had. My father already had two kids: one had died tragically and the other he hadn't seen in years. Despite his plea not to have more children, my sister arrived first and I came shortly after. That didn't bring my parents closer; in fact, the tension between them mounted.
My father became increasingly erratic and unstable, and he spent nights partying and sleeping with other women. They both got lost in addictions, my mother to food and my father to drugs, money, and life on the street. He would disappear for days at a time, eventually months, and my mother was left alone to fend for herself. She worked as much as she could and, with Medi-Cal and food stamps, we got by. By the time I was born, my father had pretty much abandoned the family, leaving us penniless, vulnerable, and on our own.
During years of traveling around the world and teaching mindfulness meditation, I've heard hundreds of unbelievable stories of individuals facing adversity that have opened my heart and given me faith and courage. I am particularly drawn to stories of people who overcome pain and trauma to create beauty and end up helping others. It's not where we start that defines us; it's where we end up that transforms a good story into a brilliant one. The challenges we face in the beginning become the gifts that inspire the ending. Those who overcome great suffering in pursuit of personal freedom provide us with the inspiration we need to meet our own challenges with strength, wisdom, and courage.
I've collected many moving biographies — accounts of Tibetan and Indian yogis, mystics, hermits, musicians, shamans, activists, artists, clergy, and masters from many spiritual traditions — and I'm constantly reminded of the strength of the human spirit to soar, even in the darkest situations. Our narratives are the stories of ourselves and of our people. Some of us are the descendants of slaves and others have fled war-torn countries with nothing. Some grew up in wealthy families that looked perfect on the outside, but were filled with violence, abuse, and confusion within. Some of us are from middle- and working-class backgrounds, and have not yet looked deeply into the causes of our suffering. There's never a need for shame about who you are or where you come from. Learning to embrace your history, identity, and ancestry is an important step in the process of healing and growing. When we reflect on our own stories, it can feel like we'll be stuck in the mud forever, but this never has to be the case.
If you were to write your own autobiography, it would be filled with triumphs and tragedies, laughter and tears. Each of us has stories of how we came to be the person we are today. Although our circumstances are unique and our backgrounds diverse, the threads of all our journeys can be woven together into a beautiful, integrated tapestry.
I compare my life to that of a lotus flower, which can bloom for a thousand years in the muddiest of waters. The unfolding petals of the lotus represent the awakening of the heart. At the age of five I had the thought, "This is gonna be a tough life." But how else does one learn to bloom in the mud? I can now look back with the eyes of wisdom and see the perfection in everything that has happened. I needed all of it, every ounce of mud, in order to bloom. Part of the beauty and mystery of life is that we are in a continuous state of growth, very much like the lotus flower. The Buddha said that in a human life, we experience ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows. None of us is free from either.
Cultivating a fierce heart is about learning to embrace it all, even the most painful aspects of our lives — every experience and all of ourselves. We have to open up to everything in order to transform it. We become willing to use every condition, challenge, and misery as a teaching, no matter how bad it feels or how dark it gets. Some of the wisest and most courageous people I know have also bloomed in mud. When we allow the shadows and the suffering in, they become the vehicles for our healing. Heartbreak, loss, and the worst betrayals become the fuel for transformation.
We can learn how to use the mud and muck of our lives to wake up and grow. When it feels impossible, that is exactly the time when we need a fierce heart the most. Let it all burn in the cosmic fires, so you can forge your fierceness and grow stronger and wiser. No matter what you've been through, now is the starting point, so if you're feeling hopeless or at a loss, please trust me when I say your greatest moments are yet to come.
ANSWERING THE CALL
There comes a time in life when you hear the Great Calling. This archetypal theme, appears in stories, fairy tales, movies, and the great myths from around the world. It appears in the lives of awakened beings, including the Buddha, Jesus, and countless others throughout space and time. When we hear this inner voice, it is our summons, a holy message that we're at a crossroads and a new chapter of life is about to begin.
The Great Calling is an invitation to adventure. It's the yellow brick road beckoning us on to a higher path. When we respond to the calling, it becomes a powerful force for change that unlocks ancestral memories. We go inside ourselves and reflect on who we are and why we are here. If you can feel this calling of your heart, it will guide you like a GPS system helping you navigate the long road home.
Two thousand, six hundred years ago in India, prince Siddhartha Gautama was born under a host of favorable signs. His father, a wealthy king, was intent on grooming his son to be his successor, but when Siddhartha was just a few days old, a wise sage proclaimed that the prince would become a world-renowned spiritual teacher.
Siddhartha grew up having a privileged life, with every imaginable luxury and opportunity you could imagine. He excelled in the arts, philosophy, and sports. He married a beautiful princess, had a handsome son, and lived pleasurably within the walls of his father's grand palace. But when he was twenty-nine years old, Siddhartha felt a deep dissatisfaction in his heart. He was tired of being walled up, even in a palace, and longed to explore the world around him.
After countless requests to see the countryside, Siddhartha's overprotective father finally relented and let him visit a nearby park. Upon hearing the news, the gods and spirits arranged for the prince to encounter a series of signs designed to get his attention and show him his true path in life. These signs are known as the Four Heavenly Messengers.
The first "messenger" was an elderly man, covered in wrinkles, bent over, and barely able to walk. Siddhartha's father had only allowed beautiful, young servants in the palace, and the sight of the old man frightened the prince. He realized that his youth would end some day and he too would grow old.
The second heavenly messenger was a sick man, covered in bloody sores and writhing in pain while lying on the floor of a mud hut. Siddhartha felt profoundly sad and sat helplessly beside him. The king had forbidden those who were ill from entering the palace, and Siddhartha had no prior experience of illness. When he realized that everyone becomes sick, his heart grew heavy.
The third heavenly messenger was the most shocking of all. Siddhartha encountered death for the first time. As he wandered through a small village, Siddhartha came upon a funeral procession. A body wrapped in cloth was being carried to the charnel ground for cremation. Siddhartha watched the deceased's family overcome with grief and weeping loudly as they carried the lifeless corpse down the road. Siddhartha stayed at the charnel ground for hours, watching as the body burned and the ashes were put into the river. The shock of death cleared away the delusion that he would live forever; he understood that death awaits us all.
As the prince continued along the road, he saw the fourth messenger, a monk dressed in simple saffron robes, carrying a bowl, and with a small bag slung over his shoulder. The monk smiled radiantly as passed by, and Siddhartha felt an air of peace surrounding him. The sight of this peaceful man who had let go of everything awakened in the prince the deepest yearning he had ever known. The monk reminded Siddhartha of what he had been born to realize, who he really was, how he was to spend his life. He understood the signs he'd seen and, as the sun set in the west, Prince Siddhartha looked at the world around him with new eyes.
It takes courage to answer the call, and if you choose to do so, your hero's journey begins. The archetypes of hero and heroine represent the willingness to face and overcome obstacles on the journey to freedom. Shortly after Siddhartha's day outside the palace walls, he silently said farewell to everyone and everything he'd ever known. He rode his horse to the edge of a forest and on the banks of the Neranjara River, he ordained himself. At that moment, the identity of the prince died, and all that remained was the unshakeable desire to be free.
If we listen carefully, we can hear a voice trying to get our attention and wake us up. The first sign, or messenger, comes when our lives are no longer satisfying. We lose interest in the things that used to make us happy. The winds of change are blowing, and an unbearable restlessness grips our spirit. The call speaks to us in questions: Who am I? What is my purpose? What am I doing with my life? This inner voice can be frightening, questioning the very foundation of all we've held on to — relationships, views, choices, status, even our identity. We need to pay attention to this calling, or the voices will get louder and even more disruptive.
This self-inquiry can take us to other parts of the world or into new communities, and certainly into new parts of ourselves. We may be drawn to things that are unfamiliar, some that are taboo or even dangerous. In an attempt to discover our deepest truths, we may take up artistic pursuits like dancing or singing, or explore our sexuality, or even join a spiritual community. It's a process of self-discovery, and as we move toward a deeper understanding of ourselves, a radical shift begins.
This process is often misunderstood and can be mislabeled as a medical problem, a midlife crisis, "Saturn Returning," or even a nervous breakdown. It can seem we've gone temporarily mad; we might even feel crazy. The Great Calling is usually a time of uncertainty. "Don't shut down the breakdown," I tell my students. "Whatever needs to unravel, let it." This unraveling can take you in a million directions, but if you pay loving attention, even to your fear, it will bring you to a deeper connection with yourself. Listen to your heart and trust the direction you're being pulled. Something inside you already knows what to do.
The call to awaken is powerful and can be shocking and confusing, especially to those accustomed to our behaving in predictable ways. This process of transformation is rarely comfortable, and we might try to suppress the calling out of fear. Please understand that your unhappiness is one of the heavenly messengers. What we used to take for granted no longer works. The communities we were involved with and the life we've led no longer make sense. Everything is up for grabs. "You want freedom? Let's do this!" The Buddha's story is a dramatic example of someone listening to their inner voice. Indigenous people describe it as the Call of the Ancestors. When what has been comfortable isn't working anymore, it is a prompt to move you toward what you're being called to do. Life is shifting; you are changing.
Don't shut down the process. Drowning out the voices that are trying to get our attention won't work either. The highest part of ourselves will keep knocking on our door, saying, "Now is the time to enter the path. It's why you are here. Remember who you are." The Great Calling is the first stage of the spiritual path, an archetypal shift. It's the one call you have to take. It's lifesaving. Bow to the wisdom of the ancestors and trust the divine intelligence that's guiding the process.
When you say yes to the call, the people, situations, and opportunities you need to move forward will present themselves at the perfect moment. A thousand invisible hands magically open, each offering you loving support. You might find refuge in a spiritual teacher or set of teachings. Synchronicities may appear through books, images, YouTube videos, and messages from friends. You're thinking about going to Egypt, and someone shows up at your house with a book on Egypt. Or you're thinking of quitting your job, and you keep running into people everywhere who have just quit their jobs. Spirits are watching over you. The universe is revealing itself through you.
You may be guided to go on a vision quest or visit holy sites that hold power and meaning for you. You may have visions, dreams, or even experiences of non-ordinary states of consciousness. Look around and notice that there are signs and symbols everywhere, all signaling that something important is happening. The Earth herself is your guide, encouraging your effort to wake up and live with more freedom. Sacred objects, animals, rocks, crystals, and other items may appear in unexpected ways. All are part of the Great Calling, signs that something important is happening.
Excerpted from "A Fierce Heart"
Copyright © 2017 Spring Washam.
Excerpted by permission of Parallax Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsTable of Contents
1. The Lotus that Blooms in the Mud
2. The Great Call
3. Buddha Nature
4. Buddha: The Doctor and the Four Noble Truths
5. School of life
6. Buddha Nature: The Jewel in the Lotus
7. The Time is Now
8. Death & Rebirth
9. The Underworld
10. The Great Chief of Compassion
11. Hello/ Goodbye
12. Acceptance & Surrender
13. Riding the Rollercoaster
14. Facing Our Fear
16. Love is the Answer
18. The Body
19. Cleanse and Detox
20. Blessed Community
21. Taking Refuge
22. Heart of a Warrior
23. Heart Facts