Welcome to Reflections from the Mirror Project

This space—Reflections from the Mirror Project—is to capture how the conversations in the last year and 2019 are shaping the shared narrative emerging out of California’s experiences of health, wellness, and well-being.  Hopefully, questions that will help leadership training, support new policy ideas, and create new collaboration models will be a part of the sharing of conversations.

We wait to see what the journey presents as people, places, and insights begin to merge in this unique and vibrant state, California.

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Borders and Bridges

The long walk of  my friend Francicso Ramos Stierle – aka Pancho or Panchito – began on March 12, 2019.  It began as a way to honor the sacred act of migration – an act that occurs among all living species that seek to survive and dance with the rhythms of Nature. The idea came to him in final fruition during the Fall Gathering of 2018 at Commonweal.

Our deep bonding happened without words, over several days during early morning, silent meditations. Over dinner one evening, we talked about the news of the migration of people coming from South and Central America.  We shared stories about how we arrived in the part of the Planet we call the United States (this description, “the part of the planet we call…” is how Pancho describes  the arbitrary and imaginary lines created to mark nation states.  Our conversation turned to what was happening in that moment at the southern part of the state that meets at the San Diego – Tijuana region. We envisioned another Overground Railroad project in which people from California could join to walk toward Mexico and the pilgrimage would be to express something more welcoming and kind that what was being expressed by the federal government and “Customs Border Protection” (CBP), also known as the California Border Patrol. Originally, we thought it would be incredible to host a giant holiday celebration for the families migrating north; then, the realization that the heavens, human considerations, and timing would not work in favor of a year end rendezvous

The thing about Pancho is this: he is clear.  Pancho is a deep meditation practitioner, and his life is dedicated to being in service to others. He realized as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) that everyone and everything is so deeply interconnected that one small change could lead to huge differences in outcomes.  As a student of astrobiology and astrophysics, he understood that his doctoral research could be used as a facade by the institution and government to produce “safer nuclear weapons” threatening all life on this Planet.  In his realization of what might happen with his work, Pancho decided he could not allow the possibility of his studies to be used for such a purpose.  He loves the planets, the stars, the galaxies that exist across the universe(s) and his meditation practice gave him an appreciate for the preciousness of the life that each has been given.  As he puts it, “I decided not to cooperate with the University of California anymore.  I chose to leave the research I was doing and it opened up all of these most incredible ways to learn more deeply about the known, the unknown and the unknowable!”  

The fundamental practice of being in silent meditation aligns around compassion, wisdom, and love. In expressing and living in this way, a person can overcome the blind spots that get in the way of letting go of unhealthy ideas and actions.  Becoming numb to toxic conditions or insensitive to human needs can easilyhappen as a person gets caught up in what is called “daily living”.  Over time, a sadness or confusion about what is happening in our world can arise — and this is when the question of what to do to change things becomes a tug at the conscience, the heart, the being. At this moment insight is needed — and in many cases, there is no “figuring it out”.  Rather, it is time to go into a place where no one is telling you what to do, how to think, what is possible and not.  In a place of silence, determination, discomfort – things happen; lights turn on; connections are made.  What happens next, is up to each individual who has the experience.

The departure date of March 12 was identified when Pancho met with a good friend, Nipun Mehta.  The two had built a relationship around meditation in the home of Nipun’s parents for several years.  The trust and care between the two led to the creation of mutual love and insights.  March 12th was when Mahatma Gandhi started the great Salt March in 1930 to commit a massive act of nonviolent civil disobedience.  The intent was to defy and break the imposition of unjust British taxes.  Also, it was New Year’s Day of the Aztec calendar whose civilization flourished in Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City where he and his family grew up; and March 12th also happens to be the date upon which Pancho made entry into this world.

He was “feel-thinking” that the day was the right one – and he wanted to invite anyone else who wished to activate their desire to “do something” in the face of all that was happening.  So he began the walk with a half dozen or so others with whom he kept company in the days of slow movement across the region where he began – in Huichin, Ohlone territory, now known as East Oakland.  His intention was to go to the so called “border”. And the entire way, he would carry an image of what he calls the true “ultimate” selfie – it’s a flag of the Earth –  the blue marble. It is beautiful, unifying and peaceful all at once. He carried this big flag on a 6-foot bamboo pole for the entire time of the pilgrimage.

The company of others was always welcome and mutually beneficial to taking on the conditions that were encountered:  changes in weather, meeting people along the way, foraging for food, and searching for shelter. (They left with nothing – literally, no food, no water, no currency, no intoxicants, nothing but their certainty of receiving all they would need was met with exactly what they expected:  generosity, curiosity, and supportive words and gestures that took care of everything necessary during the pilgrimage.). It was a pilgrimage, with meditation anchoring the day and night.

The response of the heavens gave the pilgrims a clear endorsement:  rainbows appeared and stayed with them for nearly 45 minutes in their first week;  farmers greeted them and offered fresh fruit, nuts, and a place to rest/wash up; and people brought them many questions and advice for how to be safe on their walk.  

At some point, others left and Pancho was left by himself.  Perfect, again./p>

When Pancho began the walk alone, the feeling was of a different kind.  Lots of solitude, no idea of when and where encounters could turn into unexpected delays – but the flag garnered a lot of good will, with many people expressing agreement and understanding that this was a true photograph – it is us and we are all in it together.

The core was about exploring this issue:  We may be living in a time when laws and borders that limit the migration of people who need to move to survive – should be raised as an issue to examine.  What does it mean to have restrictions in the name of nationality when we are living in a time when it is clear we are inextricably tied to one another across the Planet

For some, the idea is preposterous, for Pancho and many others, there is no question that it is time to hold space to both honor national origin and to internalize the fact of our politically-maintained notions and practices being at odds with conditions that are clearly saying it is time for the world to work together.  Harmonizing is necessary for many reasons – the most obvious of which, is human survival and prevention of the collapse of societies across the globe. What do every day person think?

The migration of thousands of people leaving untenable environmental conditions, man-made conflict, and crushing poverty — has sparked a new kind of conversation that has to happen.  But it won’t happen until there are actions that will raise the question being posed by the pilgrimage. It is not just a question of justice and the need for a civil society to follow the rules of law.  It is not just a question of sharing resources that will meet the needs of newcomers. These are things that we are capable as a society of working out. How do we know? Because we have met much more challenging conditions.  This is best evidenced by the fact that we have figured out how to travel human curiosity into the galaxy and beyond, and we have created tools to study other life forms or places where our life form might survive.  This is a field that Pancho knows well from his training and education. He is certain that if people wish to do it, solutions to the many imagined “problems” related to the migration of people can be solved.

On June 15, 2019, Pancho was detained while trying to cross the so called border to attend to a people’s assembly in Tijuana. He became the first “Mexican” deported to the part of the Planet we call the U.S. by the Mexican police. Confused by what to do with any human being who shows up at the border proclaiming to be “a citizen of the World” with no ID, he was handed to the U.S. Customs Border Protection where he was imprisoned for two days. Later, the Mexican authorities realized the absurdity of the situation –as they found old information about him– and he was released from the U.S. jail, “allowed” to enter Tijuana and he was “repatriated”.  Since then, he has connected with pastor Gustavo Banda and his wife –also a pastor–, Zaida Guillén, a couple who has been ministering to refugees from the parts of the Planet we call Haiti, Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, Brazil and even Mexico. They live in a place called Cañón del Alacrán (Scorpion Canyon) – where hundreds of migrants have been offered a home.

We are in conversation weekly/daily about what is next.  The idea is to share thinking and events and occurrences with those who cannot go to the so called “border” now;  but who can offer strength in the spirit of knowing that it is possible to ease some of the suffering that exists because we have not yet had the conversation that needs to happen.  We are building bridges from spirit to soul; intellect to conscience; and head to heart. Meditation made it happen for Pancho. It is an act of healing and compassion and wisdom that is sorely needed by individuals and communities across this glorious Planet.

Look forward to more stories from the place of the Planet we call Mexico in the weeks to come.

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Healing is Why I Do It

Billy TiangWhat is the part of our California narrative on health and wellness when it comes to formerly incarcerated people?  Those are the folks who are coming home from prison, back to community, having paid their debt to society, and searching for ways to re-enter communities and families, in a different way than when they left.  The answer:  A lot of healing comes from medicine that is readily available within.

Here is part of the conversation that took place between the Mirror Project and a former lifer who was released after 22 years of incarceration in California’s prison system.  (And then, within 24 hours of freedom, he was detained for 6 months by ICE until being released on bond.)

I asked what part of the narrative on health, wellness, and well-being comes from his experience as someone who is a former prisoner having served more than two decades inside. After 22 years in state prison, he had clarity and firmness in his reply.  The crime was both serious and violent – kidnapping, armed robbery of international tourists traveling to Las Vegas on a bus.  He and his co-conspirators held up about 15 people and created a terrifying experience for the victims.  No one was injured.  No one was killed.

The defense had to try the case because there were no reasonable offers, even for those with no criminal history, a past that included being a part of the national guard reserves, and college education that was unfinished. 

“When did you start to meditate?”

He replied, “I think it was about 5 years before I was released.  I was going to a Buddhism/meditation class inside; the guy leading the class wanted us to take refuge and I didn’t feel right about making that kind of commitment inside there.  I just went (and there were very few who attended) because it was a quiet space.”

“Why did you stay with it for years?”

After a slight chuckle, he said, “The other guys thought it was sort of weird in the beginning – but I kept doing it because it seemed to calm me down and give me more clarity about what I had done.   The meditation is really healing.  I think the main point is HEALING.  I used to sit facing my locker so I wouldn’t be distracted by the action around me.  At first, it was challenging.  But then after a while, I noticed something.  The guys would quiet down when I was doing my meditation and I thought to myself, ‘Wow.  They’re showing me consideration.’  And that was really something.  It was like, ‘Hey, they are being human.’ “

“Did other people ask or join you in our meditation?”

He said, “Nah, but they left me alone and I also noticed after a while, that the area around me got calmer, too.  So I think when you meditate, you can affect other people and the space. At least, that’s what I experienced and that was cool.  I think the practice is something that is very individual.  You either get it, or you don’t.  And it’s not easy to do, even though it looks like you’re just sitting there.  But when you do it – a lot of things are going on inside your head and you have to confront things that you can easily ignore when you’re just living your regular routine.”

“How was it when you came out – was there a difference in the meditation experience?  And why do you keep on meditating now?”

He thought for a minute and then replied, “You know, when I think about it – it’s weird. Inside you are constantly thinking about freedom, and being able to do whatever when you get out.  And when you get released, it’s kinda frantic because you have to look for a place to live, work, re-establish relationships with family,  and all that stuff is really stressful.  Freedom is not an easy thing.  So when I came out, I knew I had to keep my practice because I experienced how much it helped to keep me stable and clear when I was in prison.  It doesn’t cost anything, it’s something you can do no matter where you are, and the effect seemed to be the same. “

As life would have it, when this former prisoner re-engaged with family and community after being released, he had the support of a re-entry program that was culturally sensitive and accessible in southern California.  He also found the regular sitting with Gift of Compassion – a weekly connection to communities and people, beyond the formerly incarcerated.  And, over time, with consistency and commitment to the practice and self, another community was discovered.  That is a community that uplifts humanity, the spirit, and struggle as a part of living.

He continues to face life with courage,  knowing struggle is a constant companion.  Yes, he is “free” – but anti-immigrant sentiment bleeds over to refugees, refugees have no pathway to citizenship, work requires an education or opportunity to come into view.   The heart and spirit are strong.  His material circumstances are equally tough.

He has an aging mother to care for because his older brother is on the streets, homeless and drug-addicted.  Younger  brother (by a different dad) has his own family to take care of and is constantly traveling for work.  And his extended family (all refugees) can barely make room for his mother to survive by providing a small apartment for her to live. 

After gaining freedom, he realizes, “I am it.  And because I took so much from my mom, from now on I will make sure to take care of her.  My goal is to get an education and work with young people to prevent them from making dumb mistakes that can take away the good years of your life.  I want to study sociology.  I also will apply to get into an apprenticeship program to become an electrician.  I was in line for this but then got detained by ICE so lost my place and then, because of a deportation order, I could not get a work permit.”

And here’s the end of this chapter of  his story:

Governor Jerry Brown, in his last week in office, granted this man a full pardon for the crimes he committed as a youth.  The effect:  no more criminal history, ability to lift the deportation order, and life continues….as a refugee from Cambodia.

Not bad, so far. Life, for now, is good. 

Meditation continues to heal.

Posted by admin in Mirror Project

Early Renditions

Armando in reflection

In 2018, the Mirror Project launched as a two-year program of the Gift of Compassion / Commonweal (south). The conversation and art project aims to explore what, if anything, is California’s shared narrative on health, wellness, and well-being.

The first quarter of 2018 was a planning and outreach phase in which individuals were contacted to ask for input and a chance to meet.  The goal was to reach a diverse cross-section of people who live and work in California.  The rest of the calendar year was dedicated to meeting with individuals and communities across the state to ask how what they see as a shared narrative thread in a very dynamic population. 

In 2019, after more than 15 interviews, 3 community conversations, and countless hours of internal processing of contributions made, a foundation for deeper understanding about California’s narrative has begun to take form. 

The final set of conversations with individuals will be completed in the first quarter of 2019. A complete body of artwork, inspired by these conversations, will be produced along with a plan to disseminate and engage a much broader audience throughout the remainder of the year. 

There appears to be a shared narrative about health, wellness, and well-being in California and it is being co-created by the diversity of this state.  Further, people are seeking transcendence toward equity, justice, and compassion.

Not only has the Mirror Project found viewpoints that diverge, it also has reached across disciplines, so that activists/organizers, educators, philanthropy, health policy experts, faith leaders, and former prisoners have all been a part of the conversation.  In many instances, the unheard voices of California have been captured.  And the spirit of determination and creativity and soulful dedication is undeniable.

Here are reflections on what has been emerging:

  • Californians are self-aware on every level. As individuals, there is a quality of “early adopter” behavior that transforms into trends that take hold across the country.  As communities, there is a quality of co-creation that repeats again and again, especially in communities of Color where economic, social, cultural marginalization has taken hold for generations.  As part of a larger, societal phenomenon, public discourse about the ways people can change national health policy is cutting edge. 
  • The values of equity, opportunity, and justice are drivers. Among those who are actively and consciously engaged in changing negative health conditions and increasing access to health services/care, these themes are a constant.  Activists are organizing to take more control over access to knowledge and processes to change all kinds of negative conditions in communities from toxic air/water exposures, to recognizing the existence of food deserts, to the lack of affordable housing, to violence prevention, to reentry from years of incarceration.
  • It is not just about money. The most disenfranchised and invisible members of communities across the state are being seen as Californians wake up to the reality that some of the most critical threats to the population are environmental conditions that are beyond financial fixes.  There is growing recognition that in order for threats to health and well-being to be minimized, a shift in consciousness is needed.  Therefore, many are engaged in leadership development – especially among young people.  Also, those who manage and direct financial resources are seeing and hearing the voices of organizers in communities.  Innovative grant making strategies are being adopted in order to account for the lessons being shared from communities who have organized.  Finally, the experts in health regulatory and policy development are moving in a direction that recognizes the importance of ensuring that more people are provided with options for health care access because it is clear that the costs of failing to maintain the health and wellness of a population could produce collective financial disaster.
  • Families forgotten. The rural parts of the state continue to suffer a disproportionate burden of struggle as access to care is limited by geography, the shortage of health care providers, the closure of hospitals, and the income/economic disadvantage among rural versus urban populations.  The intersection between health maintenance, access to care, community economic conditions, and the culture of rural communities is being eroded. Click here to read stories about the quality of life in California’s rural communities has been virtually lost.
  • The reality of inter-connectedness and the importance of spirit and soul are readily recognized in California. Whether it is in the form of church, temple, mosque, forest, sea, or the results of hard-driving organizing — the population in California recognizes that health outcomes are related to something beyond conventional therapies and interventions in clinics and hospital settings.  Almost every individual and in community conversations, when asked about what drives continuing effort – the response was related to the belief that humanity, dignity, compassion are fundamental.

California is, without doubt, a leader in advancing beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors related to health. In this first 2019 entry, we begin to share.

Posted by admin in Mirror Project