When she was just 11 years old, Kaira Jewel Lingo already knew that she wanted to be a nun. She grew up in a residential spiritual community in an eight-story insurance building on the North Side of Chicago that emphasized human development, daily ritual and prayer, and global service. “I remember feeling as a young child that I had a purpose, that I was here for a reason, and it wasn’t about making money and consuming,” Lingo told Tricycle. “It was about seeing myself as a global citizen and knowing that everyone mattered and that my life should be about the good of the whole.”

Fourteen years later, Lingo ordained in the Plum Village tradition, where she trained closely with her teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, and has worked to support BIPOC communities and spaces of healing. In her new book, Healing Our Way Home: Black Buddhist Teachings on Ancestors, Joy, and Liberation, which she co-wrote with Valerie Brown and Marisela B. Gomez, she reflects on her own spiritual path and explores how embodied mindfulness practice can support us in coming home to ourselves.

In a recent episode of Life As It Is, Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg sat down with Lingo to discuss how we can learn to care for ourselves when we feel like we don’t deserve love, the power of calling on our ancestors, and what the concept of store consciousness can teach us about processing inherited grief and trauma. Read an excerpt from their conversation below, and then listen to the full episode.

James Shaheen (JS): Your new book is structured around the themes of ancestors, joy, and liberation, which you link to the Buddhist pillars of mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom, respectively. So can you walk us through these pillars? How do you view the connections between mindfulness and ancestry, concentration and joy, and wisdom and liberation?

Kaira Jewel Lingo (KJL): We can’t exist without our ancestors, and so mindfulness is really honoring where we come from. One of the definitions of mindfulness is to remember. We can’t be who we are without remembering who we come from and where we come from. Mindfulness is about recognizing and being present with what’s in this moment, and if we open up deeply to what’s right in this moment, it’s also our ancestors. Our ancestors are present in us in every moment. Touching the present means to touch our ancestors.

“Our ancestors are present in us in every moment. Touching the present means to touch our ancestors.”

As for concentration and joy, concentration helps us to be with what’s arising in a deeper way. And when we clear out the cobwebs and the various distractions that prevent us from being in touch with life as it really is, that is joyful. So when we concentrate, when we tune out the static of the things we get caught in, that is an occasion for joy. It’s a chance to experience freshness and aliveness. 

Wisdom and liberation are not far from each other. As we awaken to the wisdom inside of us, we become more and more free. We have more and more spaciousness, more and more peace, because we’re in touch with reality as it is.

JS: You describe joy as a powerful foundation from which we can look deeply at the roots of our pain and transform them together. Could you say more about the role of joy on the path to awakening?

KJL: Sure. I love the Buddhist psychology teachings that our minds are organic. From a neuroscience perspective, our brains are plastic. They are capable of changing, and whatever we cultivate in our mind is what grows. We know that our evolutionary tendency is to be more focused on what’s painful and negative out of a need for survival to avoid danger, but this means that the beautiful, nourishing, incredible things that are also a part of human life sometimes don’t get attended to in the way that they need to be.

“Whatever we cultivate in our mind is what grows.”

Mind training teaches us that if we can cultivate joy as a practice and learn to see things as they are and treasure what Thich Nhat Hanh would often call the miracles of life, we can bring more balance to our psyche. We can have more of a buffer so that when the inevitable challenges and difficulties of life arise, we have a reservoir because we’ve been nourishing the good. We’ve been training our minds to see what is beautiful, so when difficulties arise, we don’t get as bowled over as we would if we hadn’t been doing that kind of cultivation.

When we orient toward that way of looking, life becomes more joyful. It becomes more miraculous and more worth living. And so we actually have more energy to transform the pain and the wounds and the suffering because we know that life isn’t only those things because we’re actively training ourselves always to see the whole picture.

It’s not that orienting to joy means that we don’t look at our suffering or that we ignore the painful things. It’s the opposite. When we train ourselves to see the good, we can actually see the difficulty more clearly because we’re not going into a reactive, habitual avoidance of what’s painful. The more we train to see the good, the more we can be willing to be with what’s difficult because we know that’s not all there is. We have this inner fortitude that says, “OK, life can be difficult sometimes. And I can also be with that because I also know how to be with the beauty.” I would say the same is true in the other way: when we are able to be with our suffering, we can experience more joy. The two seed into each other.

JS: You also explore the importance of collective awakening and transforming our store consciousness in the context of inherited grief and trauma. So what is store consciousness, and how can we transform harmful seeds within it so as to reduce further harm to ourselves and others?

KJL: Store consciousness is a teaching from Buddhist psychology that there are different layers of our consciousness. There’s our conscious mind, which is called mind consciousness, and then store consciousness is like our unconscious mind, which holds the seeds of all of our potential mind states and mental formations. Depending on the school of Buddhism, there are fifty-one or fifty-two kinds of seeds. There are wholesome ones like mindfulness, compassion, joy, and equanimity; there are unwholesome ones like greed, hatred, violence, confusion, and doubt; and then there are some where it depends on the circumstance whether they’re wholesome or unwholesome. And so the practice is to be aware of what’s arising from store consciousness into mind consciousness as soon as possible.

For instance, anger might arise if we get cut off in traffic. Before the incident happened, that anger was asleep in the form of a seed in our store consciousness. Then the incident happened, and anger now arises into mind consciousness. Now it’s an active energy. It’s awake. It affects our body, it affects our heart rate, it affects our digestion—it affects everything.

The first stimulus is not up to us, but what happens next is up to us. Do we feed that seed? Do we let anger continue in our mind? Or do we not feed that seed? The longer anger is arising in our mind, the stronger it’s getting at the seed level in store consciousness. So if we give it twenty minutes of airtime by ruminating on that experience or planning what we’re going to do in retaliation, then that’s twenty minutes of feeding the seed of anger, so the next time a difficult experience arises, we will get angry faster, our anger will be more intense, and it will last longer. It’s so important to take care of the quality of the seeds in our store consciousness so that the unwholesome seeds don’t get a lot of airtime and the wholesome seeds do. 

Thay would often give the example that we can think of our suffering like a crying child, and mindfulness is like a caring adult who picks up that child and holds them and soothes them until they calm down enough that we can resolve the issue. And so mindfulness turns toward the pain and says, “I’m here for you, and I’m going to take good care of you.”

We don’t abandon that experience. We turn toward it, but we also don’t let it take over. We don’t let it explode. We have this middle path. And when we hold a difficult emotion with mindfulness, it actually gets smaller at the root. When it has a bath of mindfulness, when it gets massaged by caring, loving presence, it weakens in our store consciousness. And the next time we’re exposed to something irritating or difficult, anger is slower to arise. It’s less intense, and it doesn’t last as long. Turning toward our difficulty with kindness and with awakened presence actually helps transform the seeds in our store consciousness to work toward our goal of liberation.

Sharon Salzberg (SS): You’ve said that your teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, taught you to call upon the Buddha and the ancestors for support when you felt like you were at your limits. Can you tell us about this practice?

KJL: Thay emphasized how the Buddha is in each of us. We all have a seed of the Buddha in our consciousness. What’s beautiful about this metaphor of the store consciousness is we all have all the seeds, and those seeds never go away. So the seed of the Buddha never goes away. Even if we do terrible things with our life, the seed of the Buddha is still there in our store consciousness. It may be very thirsty for nourishment, but it’s there. And so if the seed of awakening is always in our store consciousness, that means buddhanature is always there. We are a continuation of the Buddha, and it’s just a matter of how much time we spend on that channel. But the channel is there; that’s not a question. And nurturing the capacity to manifest that is what the whole path is about.

So when it doesn’t seem like you yourself have a way to do something, you can ask the Buddha to do it for you. And we can also ask the ancestors to support us. If we know that we are all of the wisdom, strength, and clarity of our ancestors that have gone before us, when we get into difficult situations, we can call upon them. Who knows how they may show up and how they may give us strength that we didn’t know we had! They may make things possible for us that we of our own selves wouldn’t be able to do.

It’s really about getting out of the way. When we think things are so hard, we can actually get stuck in that thinking, and we make it a selfing moment: “This is about me, and I don’t know what to do.” But if we just get out of the way and say, “OK, I can’t figure this out, but I know there are capacities in me and beyond me that can come through me,” that can help shift this situation. Then, it’s no longer about us.

We can think of ourselves as a stream. Our ancestors are upstream flowing into the present stream of who we are, and who we are flows downstream to our descendants and the people we influence. But it’s all one stream. And so when things are difficult, we don’t have to think of ourselves as alone and having to figure out the solution by ourselves. We just let the stream that’s already here, we let the Buddha that’s always here in our consciousness, and we let the ancestors that are always supporting us flow through and show us what to do to make a way.

Every human being has an incredible inheritance from their ancestors, and we can always call upon that to come through us and shift. More than anything, it’s a shift in our perspective of what we’re up against.

This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.

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