After seven and a half years at a silent Zen monastery in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, Deborah Eden Tull was catapulted out of the tranquility of monastic life by a tick bite. Somewhere along her path at Zen Monastery Peace Center (ZMPC) in Murphys, California, she contracted Lyme disease working in the temple gardens.
Tull, who goes by Eden, became so ill that she had to leave the monastery temporarily for treatment in Los Angeles. While navigating her recovery and the abrupt shift from the peace of ZMPC to the bustling streets of LA, Eden had a mid-dream awakening. “I acknowledged that I had been given an incredible unique and invaluable training, and here I was in an urban environment full of adversity. There is so much opportunity for me to bring healing and teachings to people here,” she said. “So I began to teach and serve out in the world.”
Spirituality and service had long been familiar concepts to Eden. Her mother founded four nonprofits in the LA area aimed at tackling systemic homelessness and social injustice. Her father, a contemplative Christian, read books on Buddhism, Taoism, and Krishnamurti to Eden and her siblings.
When she was just 11, Eden had her first experience with the “avalanche of impermanence”: her father’s sudden diagnosis with malignant cancer. “I got to watch him go through his dying process in a way that only someone with a spiritual practice could do—in a way that was filled with gratitude, intention, and love alongside the heartbreak,” she told me.
This early encounter with death sent Eden into an existential crisis that lasted well into her college years. As an environmental studies and climate crisis student, she spent a year traveling to intentional communities around the world, looking for ways to best live in relation to the Earth. Her search led her to the Ladakh Project, an organization aimed at protecting indigenous cultures and relocalizing food systems in the predominantly Buddhist area, led by Swedish activist Helena Norberg-Hodge.
Eden later worked for Norberg-Hodge through the International Forum on Globalization in Berkeley, California. There, she met the environmental activist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy. “Her book Coming Back to Life deeply transformed me,” she said. “It evoked from me the work of engaged Buddhism and the work of ecodharma, rooting spiritual practice in listening to the Earth.”
When I asked Eden what informed her decision to ordain as a Zen nun, her answer was clear: letting go of ego for the sake of community. “I observed that even with the intention of living close to the Earth and living in a more harmonious way, the human ego keeps getting in the way,” she said of her time before ZMPC. “So that was the recognition that inspired me, when I was 26, to shave my head and give away my belongings.”
Following her years at ZMPC and her battle with Lyme disease, Eden draws on her activist background to combine personal and collective awakening as a “bridge” teacher. She describes her teaching style as “holding ancient tradition with care and integrity, while also including fresh forms of teaching and inquiry.”
These creative methods of teaching, which include Relational Mindfulness, Earth-based practices, somatic inquiry, and conscious dance, emphasize relational presence—a concept that has proved relevant in Eden’s personal life after relocating to the mountains of North Carolina in 2017. “I’ve been connecting with people from so many different walks of life, letting relational presence reveal our kinship and understanding, rather than a shared belief system,” she said.
To her, the experience of teaching in an entirely new area is both confronting and deeply healing. “When we’re willing, with courage, to step beyond our comfort zone and to engage from the heart, from authenticity, from vulnerability, with people we have never engaged with, a very important healing lies there.”
Looking ahead, she plans to open an ecodharma center with her husband and continue advocating for engagement—for “with the environmental, social, and spiritual crises of our times, engaged practice carries the medicine.”
Visit deborahedentull.com for more information.
Q: What is Relational Mindfulness, and what are the benefits of having it in one’s meditation practice?
Relational Mindfulness is the understanding that the subtlest form of love is attention. It is about paying attention to ourselves, to one another, and to our planet with more intention. In so doing, we affirm who we are as a collective.
At times, we draw an unnecessary divide between sitting meditation and “real life,” or even between how we relate within our sangha and with our world at large. Relational Mindfulness is about courageously bringing meditation to the beautiful, dynamic, complex, and messy field of human relationships, using everyday life to relinquish our identification with the mind of separation and restore a sense of shared presence, clear seeing, authenticity, and freedom of the heart.
The quality of every relationship we form stems from the quality of our relationship with ourselves; therefore, through every interaction, Relational Mindfulness starts by listening within, without judgment, to what is arising within us. We cannot genuinely connect when we are in the conditioned mind of projection, self-consciousness, attention-seeking, and othering. We cannot have impactful, real, and skillful conversations about healing the complex issues we face today with a “me versus you” mindset and the polarization it fosters.
“All intimacy arises from spaciousness.”
Relational Mindfulness is not a doing but an undoing, a process of inquiring, emptying, and remembering who we are, together. It is a practice of coming home to our bodies and listening to life as it unfolds moment by moment, relaxing into the innate power of receptivity rather than efforting. We bring awareness to our habits of shallow listening, in which we are primarily listening to the conditioned mind, and strive for extractive listening, in which we listen with an unconscious agenda. Cultivating deep, embodied listening expands to how we hear and relate to one another, and to the more-than-human world—the entire cosmos.
All intimacy arises from spaciousness. We can practice this spaciousness in our intimate relationships, with sangha, with strangers, at work, and in the domains of leadership and conflict resolution. We have the choice to use everything that arises to heal the tear in the fabric of human relationship, and to recognize triggers as a portal for personal, ancestral, and collective healing. If we are willing to make Relational Mindfulness a living inquiry into our own habits of the conditioned mind and underlying assumption that we are separate, we foster greater resiliency to navigate the times we face. We can facilitate deeper understanding, inclusivity, belonging, and collaboration within our communities. We can meet our shared grief as a sacred sobering that calls us forth into relational presence on behalf of our collective.
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