The following interview between Tracey Huger, 2021 Resident and Sonia Marcus, Executive Director was recorded in February 2021. Tracey describes herself this way: Tracey Huger, originally from the Bronx, continues to travel through the South in search of new unique experiences. Tracey served as a Resident for 6 non-consecutive weeks, focusing on racial awareness and equity planning. We love and miss you, Tracey!
SM: Considering that we're a couple of people who grew up in New York City and from backgrounds that had absolutely nothing to do with Buddhism, it's kind of funny that you and I would meet here this year. So how did that happen?
TH: Yeah, it's the Universe.
SM: How did that happen to you?
TH: Well, I’ve had some meditation training a few years ago. I went to a 10-day course [Goenka] that was pretty intense; and after that, I really didn't practice very much.
Last year, I took a six-week course on mindful meditation, and since then, it's been incorporated, not necessarily in formal sits, but in the way I was seeing things. The space that it created and in the attention to the now, basically.
When this opportunity [Southern Dharma Residency] arose, I was like, “Oh, that's pretty cool. I do like the outdoors.” There was also a special project attached to it that I'm particularly interested in right now. All of that together made me try this out. The first couple of days here have been really interesting.
SM: Will you share more about that?
TH: It has been eye-opening; and one of those experiences that, once you absorb the space, you also really see who you are.
I learned that in my first 10-day meditation course. There, I was super defiant for absolutely no reason. I was imagining breaking out of the campus in Montreal that was in the middle of nowhere. But there was no way I would be able to get back home because they had driven me there! So, then I thought, what was I breaking out of? Nobody is keeping me here. I realized that I was defiant then.
Here what I noticed is my natural tendency to be academic and study. There's not a lot of people here because of the Covid restrictions. So, I just happened to pick up a book and began voraciously reading. That's what I needed to do.
SM: Guilty confession: Many meditation teachers at Southern Dharma will tell you not to read any books while you’re on retreats, but I have read some of the best books here at Southern Dharma when I was on retreat.
TH: I was reading [Eckhart Tolle’s] The Power of Now. It is all about stillness and an appreciation for now. As a New Yorker, whenever I have idle time my brain just really goes. I read 100 pages the first night. I couldn't get enough of it.
During the 10-day sit, I didn't have access to anything. I was sneaking paper to try to write in the staircase. I understand the value in that part because it gives you the separation. But there’s also a stillness that allows you to deeply understand, especially if you're reading something that's a program or appropriate for your current situation.
SM: I can tell you I was the same way, and still am to some extent. I thought I would essentially cogitate my way to understanding Buddhism and meditation. The practice has also been huge but it isn't necessarily the thing I was initially drawn to. I was captivated by the concepts.
TH: I think because I had some sort of meditation experience as a child I connected to the experience of it. It overlaps with my spiritual and religious background as well. I did not have a religion as a kid, though I'd been around people who had religion. So, I had some ideas of what they kind of do.
Until I was about 12 I thought I was Christian. Then somebody told me the tenets of Christianity and I was like, “Oh, no, that's not me.”
So that's been my experience with meditation, where I had already had certain experiences and I didn’t have a language for it.
SM: You were telling me about when you were growing up that you had the feeling that you were meditating, but didn't know what meditating was.
TH: Yeah, a good portion of my meditation started from watching sunsets. We happened to have a fantastic view of Manhattan from where we were in the Bronx. I could see the George Washington Bridge and a little sliver of the Hudson River. It was just beautiful. Every night I would just watch the sunset.
At some point, it just became like I fell into the sunset. I really can't explain it. It was a stillness that felt like I was going into a vacuum, and from that space things were clear.
I could see the people in their apartment buildings and the people on the street. I thought, why aren’t they aware of this? How could my family be doing things behind me, like watching TV, when this was happening?
I maintained [the practice] from 7 through 18, when I finally left our home. It was just like this thing that I had. It didn't really make sense to me why other people weren’t tapping into that.
SM: Let's go from there to talking about the South. You're seeing the South when you come to Southern Dharma, right?
TH: I came from New York through Atlanta. Basically, when you travel, you recognize what to expect of who you are. I got a taste of what it means to be a New Yorker in other places. Some of it is language. Certain words that I say, identifying me as New Yorker that other New Yorkers gravitate towards. So we tell our stories.
SM: ‘You guys. You know.’ Those are the ones for me.
TH: There's that sort of being, out of knowing I'm not originally from here. But I do have some roots, my parents are Southern. I'm comfortable with the culture and certain things that I can kind of relate to. But I've never experienced rural South except for my family’s farm in the plains of South Carolina.
This is very different. This is quite rural and a little... creepy. By the time I got up that interesting road, my thought was, “Well, I really hope I like these people because it's not going to be easy to get down!” Then there's a degree of commitment that's nice. Whereas if it were just across the street from a major highway, then it's like, “OK, if I don't like this then I'll just go.”
But it's also really beautiful. There is a little spot here carved into this wonderful thick forest in the mountains. You’re not just going up the mountain, there's a degree of leaving something behind. That's beautiful. This is a safe container, which you can use to explore various things.
SM: I remember when you arrived, you called your sister to let her know you had survived the trip.
TH: Yeah! I told her about that one lane road, but it's a two-way lane and it's very close. It's like the edge where you can totally fall off and you know, you have to go. And it's like a leap of faith.
After all that, she's like, “Why are you there? Why did you do this to yourself?” I replied, “I like adventure”. I know myself. I learn about myself as much as I do about the space I enter.
SM: When we were talking when you first arrived, I was just so delighted to hear you comparing it to a couple of other experiences you had of being in the Adirondacks and the Australian Outback. But this is your country. And it's not just your country, it's the region where your parents were born and raised, you know what I mean?
TH: Totally. But what I did in the Adirondacks and the Outback felt more akin to this. I went to the Adirondacks from the city by going that far north. That was just incredible and beautiful. But it has a different feel. This feels more rustic. I don't think "downhome", because that sounds derogatory, but it really is. It feels less manufactured in some ways.
Then when I was in Australia, we traveled through serious outback. There's nobody for days and you're on a dirt country road with big dust storms. You need to make sure you have all your supplies because nobody's going to help you if you break down and don't have water.
So that’s what I meant when I compared the experiences. And in some ways, that's scary. But for me, it was sort of like you get a sense of your humanity. It's the limits of being human and the need to really rely on others in certain ways and also prepare. And that's the feeling I got, even though there are resources available. There's a seriousness about this that is different from those other experiences.
SM: Another difference with outback Australia is here you're driving past houses that have Confederate flags flying on them.
TH: As an African American, there's always the fear that big cities are a little bit safer than other areas. But I try my best not to make assumptions because there's a cultural difference.
In New York, I used to say to Jewish people I would encounter – and I hope this isn't offensive – “Are you a practicing Jew or a cultural Jew?” There are practicing conservative and orthodox Jewish people. Then there are a lot of people who are what I would call culturally Jewish - they don’t have a history of practicing, but they still identify as Jewish.
That's kind of the South as well. There are people who see the Confederate flag as part of the culture in the South. That could mean sort of like “rebel”, or it's tied to their culture. And then there are those who take it as White Supremacy.
How you approach and identify them – you can't bring your assumptions there because you may get a response that's not reflective of who they are. If you encounter a white supremacist, most of them are not going to bother you. You can identify those who don't really want to be in your presence. You just leave it. What if you offer an openness? If they're not that type of person, they'll appreciate it. That's really beautiful. It's likely you'll find some sort of common ground and you'll leave there knowing that everyone within that situation is not what you think. They'll get some sort of appreciation of where you are, who you are, because they've had a real experience. I'm open to that. I've heard lots of stories, but I know how to approach people. You give them a chance.
SM: So you trust in your open heart on some level? That you'll connect with other open hearts and that ultimately trumps everything else?
TH: Yeah, it really does. You have to give it a chance because if you approach them with this sense that that's not going to happen, then it probably won't.
What was more sort of strange to me were all the Trump signs. That's more of an association. I thought that was interesting and wondered how they relate to me. Once again, there's various reasons why one would affiliate with one [political] party.
SM: Talk to me about coming to meditation from a different background than many others.
TH: From an African American experience, although I don’t represent all African Americans, my experience in my culture is that meditation, yoga, all those sorts of practices are not celebrated. They're not well known from our perspective. We haven’t adopted it. Therefore, there's a distance there.
Then there's expectations. Sometimes when you go into [meditation groups], not only are you not necessarily represented, but it also doesn't feel like it reflects you in a lot of ways. Once you enter that space, depending on how welcoming it is, you can go beyond that. It becomes a part of what's available to you as opposed to a cultural difference.
You're entering the culture of that space. You can adopt it and find a way that's very personal. I found that here. Definitely. I've noticed there are certain spaces that are so warm within its community, within meditation and yoga. They are naturally warm. Everyone is accepted.
When you think about it too much, you're separating in a way that's not necessary. You end up taking an idea that's from a white dominant culture and you should be accepted in every space. It changes to mean you're accepted because of your culture. I don't have that expectation. It's almost like the white bar that just gets dipped in chocolate. Now it’s black. Yeah. That’s not true understanding.
SM: That's right. Because that's not inclusion.
TH: No, that's not inclusion. It's nice to come into these very warm spaces where it's not just Black or White. We're dealing on a different level.
SM: I'm glad you felt that way while you were here. Let’s come back to something you were saying to me about how, in African-American culture, things like yoga and meditation or maybe other types of alternative wellness or spiritual alternatives are not necessarily part of the landscape. It's that there's a certain level of distrust, right?
SM: I was wondering if you could say a little more about that.
TH: Well, within our cultural traditions, Christianity plays a huge part. There's a sense of a direct [spiritual] connection within the yoga and meditation traditions that make them feel very different [from the belief in Jesus]. Like, it may not be something that can be adopted and still maintain one’s Christianity - which is not true. It's not a dogma. It's a perspective that actually weaves well into Christianity and other sorts of religions but it must be embraced as such before one can see that.
Then there’s the way it's been marketed as sort of an elitist practice or for a particular type of person. If one doesn’t want to be that, that can feel like a barrier. In work and academic spaces we often find ourselves not being the dominant group or in small numbers, but we can pretend those spaces are neutral by focusing on the work, the knowledge or our performance. Yet, in the yoga and meditation space the practice itself can feel like a cultural experience, and we're not necessarily going to want to adopt a different culture. Once again, if one gets past that first layer, the actual practice itself is available to everyone; but one has to want to, and feel one can, make that jump. It's like the knowledge in the classroom that is available to everyone, if one gets past the artifice of elitism that exists around it. Those barriers or limited access points, they're not really necessary.
SM: I always think of it as the packaging that goes around it. It's like the practice itself is just light. That's all, just light. It doesn't have any cultural dimension or real religious dogma, necessarily. Some can put this box around it that says that it’s for these people and it's done this way. But once you break that open, it's just the light that's shining.
TH: Yeah, and we focus on the package so much.
That's how I can speak to that Southern person with the Confederate flag and find common ground. I’m waiting to find out what's cool and neat about them. It's like a beauty. Once I find that, I'm super excited because it's like, "Oh, I have that, too! Ok, now we're going to speak on that shared level."
Then, it becomes clear because I've gone through the steps of kind of understanding who they are. The language - I already know it. It's not like I’m trying to translate it. We're both speaking the same language. Even if I stumbled a bit, we already broke through the barriers and vice versa. I know we're trying to work on this level, so, I will say, "I don’t agree with this or that; but we’re both still here." I love that!
SM: I think that’s the heart of the South.
TH: Yeah, it is.
SM: Tracey, you applied for a residency with us and you expressed a particular interest in working with us on anti-racism work, racial diversity, inclusion and equity. Say more about that.
TH: Well, 2020 has been an interesting year and the summer was definitely racially charged. There was sort of an awakening, an opportunity for people to really think about how to deal with racism in this country. As a result of that, I was getting so much information, a lot of it from social media, and I felt disheartened by it. At the same time, my white friends were approaching me and wanting all this information.
I noticed there were a lot of books and these beautiful reading and watch lists. But, for me, it was slightly overwhelming. I couldn't imagine feeling a sense of urgency and being directed to read a list of books. So, I developed a website [studentsneedteachers.com] with the hopes of encouraging others to feel the pain of racism. I want people to feel it and understand that that feeling is what will drive their curiosity because they’ll have a more innate knowledge of it.
The site starts with short, powerful videos. The first talks about the history of racism and systematic oppression by Kimberly Jones. She does this analogy to Monopoly that’s just beautiful. The next one is a young man, who looks like a child, talking about a list that his mother gave him and he’s been forced to learn. Not every kid has to do that but Black people are burdened with adjusting to unfair systems. The last video poses the question of complicity. An educator, Jane Elliott, makes an audience aware of a difference in treatment that can’t be denied, and suggests it is now their responsibility to do something about it. She broke it down so beautifully. This is the problem, and we have to move forward because inaction is consent. So this was my mindset. After George Floyd, we're all aware there is a bad situation. I was gathering all this information with the hopes of helping others gain a way into the issue.
When I saw the Residency, I thought I might be able to combine the spirit of my meditative practice, with a taste of the interesting culture that exists here, while learning how cultural awareness could be incorporated into it. I could get information about the needs of the community and what it feels is lacking, because it's not about pushing out information. It's seeing where curiosity is, what gaps in information there are, and how we can make the experience personal - because that's important.
SM: What are the key things that you’re taking with you from this experience that started with driving up into the mountains and going up the crazy gravel one way road?
TH: Well, I am aware that I am definitely from the city. (laughs)
Mostly, I felt the importance of not erasing our differences in the service of peace. Also, if I continue to explore anti-racism, my meditative practices can inform it. However, to be effective, I’ll also have to confront and explore my own racial traumas.
SM: Thank you, Tracey. It was a nice conversation to have with you. I’m looking forward to delight in your ongoing journey and your insights. Thank you for letting us share Southern Dharma with you.