Profession: Executive Director of New York Insight Meditation Center
Location: New York
Tell me about your first name. It’s a Ge’ez name. Ge’ez is an ancient language that’s connected to Hebrew and Arabic. It’s the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Ge’ez is used in all the Ethiopian churches’ scriptures. Sebene means “halo.” But my parents didn’t know that when they named me.
They didn’t know what your name meant? It’s my great-grandmother’s name. They knew that it was the word for a cloth that covers the Ten Commandments in church services. All the members of my family have beautiful names that mean things like “bountiful.” My brother’s name, Asgede, means “they bow before him.” But I grew up thinking my name meant “cloth.”
Where did you grow up? I was born in Ethiopia, and we moved to Washington, D.C., when I was 3. I grew up there.
Did you grow up in a religious household? No. Unless Marxism is a religion.
How were you introduced to Buddhism? My brother joined the Hare Krishnas when I was in high school, introducing me to Asian spirituality. There was a Hare Krishna temple in a townhouse near Dupont Circle. It was a hub of the hardcore, straight-edge punk rock scene in D.C. I used to go to lectures there, and there was something that attracted me, but it wasn’t my thing. Then when I got to college I majored in comparative religious studies. That’s what really brought me to Buddhism.
When I was younger, I didn’t take practice so seriously. At Ordinary Mind in New York, the sittings were on Saturday mornings at 10 a.m., and Barry Magid would lock the door to his office exactly at 10. I can’t tell you how many times, after a late night out on Friday, I would either not go, or I would rush to the subway and practically hear the lock turning by the time I got there. But in 2005, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, and there’s nothing like cancer to deepen your practice. Since then, my practice has really been about wanting to wake up. I had a recurrence in 2010. The cancer had metastasized to my bone and was stage 4. I’m doing okay now, but illness has really clued me in to the terminal condition of any life, and really makes me want to be as aware and open and kind as I possibly can. Not always so easy, of course.
Before you became Executive Director of New York Insight Meditation Center, you worked with underserved communities and on youth empowerment. How has your previous work influenced what you do here? One of the things that’s become really important to us at New York Insight is that we are New York Insight. Being in this diverse city but not having that diversity reflected would be incongruous with everything we’re trying to do. And just to say that our doors are open and our hearts are open is not enough. We have to figure out ways to make those barriers lower, if not nonexistent. So in that sense the work that I’ve done in the past is connected to my work here.
And do you do outreach work? How do you get the word out to the people who might not know about New York Insight? We’re not proselytizing Buddhists. But we know that people out there are practicing. We’re lucky to have our guiding teacher, Gina Sharpe, and the People of Color Retreats that she leads. The People of Color group is our largest sitting group that meets continuously. Walking into a room of 60 people of color meditating together once a month is very powerful—it’s like an energetic magnet.
My buddy Joshua and I started a sitting group for people of color and allies out of my living room in Brooklyn. One time I was there, and there was this young guy who been sitting by himself for two years in his bedroom. He didn’t know where to go, and through word of mouth he heard about our group. And now he’s one of the most regular participants. He came to New York Insight a couple of times, but his world is not Manhattan. So that’s part of it: making our space welcoming, but also providing other spaces where people can practice.
What are some of the challenges you face running a place that’s supposed to offer refuge from the crazy urban world beyond your doors? One challenge is being sustainable—being able to make this work while also meeting our goal of being economically accessible and preserving a dharma model. Doing that in a city where our rent is as much as our payroll is really challenging.
Another challenge—and I really believe this is a diversity issue, too—is providing for families. We work with people until they have kids and then after their kids are gone. But in between it’s sort of “You’re on your own.” Sometimes I think that in our tradition there’s this idea that you’re a dedicated student only if you spend all your free time practicing formally. Parents don’t have that luxury—a lot of people don’t have that luxury, especially people who are in partnership with people who aren’t practitioners. So that’s a challenge: as the dharma evolves here, what is it going to look like in day-to-day life for people?
When you’re not working, what do you spend your time doing in New York? What do you do to restore your energy? I read everything and anything. I love film. My husband’s a cinematographer, and we met at the New York Film Festival. And I love art—I find it really nourishing and sustaining. Part of the life-work connection for me is that I want the dharma here at New York Insight to be more relevant—sometimes we get solipsistic and inwardly focused as a community. I would love for us to make more connections to the art world, to philosophy, to science.
There’s so much dharma in this city, and I’m nourished by it. Being in conversation with the rest of the world also sustains my practice. I think that there’s this idea that the dharma is like a special little flower that needs to be very carefully planted. But I think it’s much more rhizomatous. It’s completely graftable, and it can spread and take root in new places. I like to believe that the dharma can take care of itself. It’s so much more resilient and creative than we think.
Rachel Hiles was Tricycle’s managing editor until June 2013.
Photograph by Maciek Jasik