"My birth was not a celebrated and magical event. My parents’ relationship had always been rocky and, sadly, it completely unraveled during my mother’s pregnancy with me.
We lived in Bellflower, California, a low-income neighborhood between Long Beach and Compton, in a large concrete apartment building surrounded by chaos. Gangs were commonplace and I became used to the sounds of gunshots, sirens, and police helicopters.
Even as a small child I felt a lot of love and compassion for my parents, and I recognized early on that they were themselves survivors. My father left soon after I was born and my mother worked as much as she could for us. With state aid and food stamps, we just got by.
I wasn’t allowed to play outside very often, so my earliest memories are of my sister and me jumping up and down on an old green sofa in our tiny living room. I can remember thinking at an early age, “Wow, this is going to be a very difficult life.”” — Spring Washam
A well-known meditation teacher, author and visionary leader based in California and Peru and the author of A Fierce Heart: Finding Strength, Courage and Wisdom in Any Moment,
Spring Washam “understood even as a child that she was going to have to bloom in very muddy waters.”
Considered a pioneer in bringing mindfulness-based healing practices to diverse communities, Spring and I discuss why getting a wake-up call is not hard, but choosing to answer is.
When you answer the call, things are going to change.
BJB: In A Fierce Heart you write, “Cultivating a fierce heart is about learning to embrace the most painful aspects of our lives. We have to open up…become willing to use every condition, challenge, and misery as a teaching, no matter how bad it feels…” What is the most profound lesson you garnered from looking at pain as a vehicle for healing?
SW: I think the deepest things I’ve learned about working with pain, difficulties and trauma is you learn how strong you are, what you can endure, what you can rise from.
You learn and trust that everything rises and everything passes.
In some ways we’re testing ourselves — life is a series of tests.
One thing I really appreciate about working with difficulties is if I can open to the experience with compassion, I grow that capacity within myself to be more compassionate. If you can work with suffering skillfully and mindfully your heart opens in a completely different way.
BJB: Can you talk about what you refer to as the Great Calling and how it is often misunderstood, misdiagnosed and viewed as a problem to be solved?
SW: This is what I refer to when you’re being summoned onto a higher path; there’s another way to live, there’s another expression within you that you want to live out or play out.
The Calling is when your life stops working; what used to be exciting or make you happy stops making you happy. It’s like you reach a crossroads and start to outgrow the life you have and that’s when you know a new chapter is going to start.
Something starts “cooking.”
Suddenly you start to have a dream of something different and you’re being drawn to different things whether it’s meditation, yoga, healing arts or nature. It may lead you to want to change your religion, explore things that may be taboo, or live in a spiritual community or quit your job.
The Calling is like the Universe is “knocking on the door” saying, “Hello! Wake up! There’s another life out here for you.”
That can be exciting and also scary for some people because they’re used to being the same predictable person and want to break out of that.
To not view it as a problem, I would suggest to be open to it as a spiritual opening — an awakening of some kind. It’s important to listen to it.
It’s all about accepting what’s happening and seeing it as something leading you onto a new path, which is always about happiness. Growth is about happiness. It’s getting unstuck, it’s movement, and it’s that creative flow versus what you want to hold onto. At this time I might encourage you to start meditating, walking in nature, or maybe go on a retreat.
The dilemma is that we don’t know what this new life looks like, so some part of you is still clinging to old habits and old identities. If you can see it as an adventure, and see it as an awakening experience of something trying to get your attention, and connect to that, you can see it as a beautiful moment.
The Calling is a new voice.
BJB: How is the Great Calling different from the Dark Night of the Soul?
SW: In my mind the Dark Night of the Soul is about letting go.
It’s a huge initiation, a period of purification that allows you to experience a profound opening. After you’ve been initiated there is a lot more openness and flexibility of the heart and the mind.
You’re listening now.
BJB: In what practical ways do you integrate your spiritual practice on a day-to-day basis when a challenging situation arises?
SW: When I was new to the practice, I had the idea of sitting on a cushion to meditate for 20–30 minutes, ringing the bell and saying, “Mindfulness over! I did my 30 minutes.” There was no recognition that this is a lifestyle.
Now, don’t get me wrong, a 20–30 minute session is great. However, overtime, you began to see every moment as practice.
I no longer see my practice as compartmentalized.
If I’m driving in traffic and someone is honking or if I see a fight I’m still aware. The awareness is there.
I like to practice moment-to-moment now.
Am I here?
Am I in my body?
This is stressful. Can I feel this?
I’m kind of practicing in all situations in a way now; therefore, it’s easier. The 20–30 minute practice in the morning will help the difficult moment in the afternoon. It gives you more capacity.
We want to look at this as living awake.
Also, you want take care of yourself. It’s not that you want to put yourself in every difficulty. You want avoid certain things. And I’d like to say something to the people who follow your work and my work that are very sensitive:
We are understanding that we are actually very sensitive.
So when you’re on this path and you’re starting to practice and you’re attuning more to awareness, feeling your body, opening your heart and maybe you’re going through the Dark Night process, to be a little protective of your environment.
Know where you’re going. If you have a very hostile work environment, there is some preparation you’ll need to do.
Also, look at places where you thrive, where your body is happy and where there is joy. Waking up is also noticing how you respond to any environment. You want to align your environments to more holistic and healthy environments and to less drama anywhere you go if it’s possible. Not everyone can do that but by becoming more sensitive, for example, when you hang out with certain people notice how you feel when you leave.
Is your body cramped up?
Do you feel sad?
It’s a practice. The emphasis on the word ‘practice’ gives a lot of compassion and patience to the mind.
BJB: You write about a harsh and demanding experience you had in the Peruvian Andes hiking in the mountains. I had a similar experience in Honduras of not wanting to feel the physical pain and discomfort of pushing through an unbelievably difficult climb. How does discomfort of that experience relate to the proverbial climb out of mental/emotional pain?
SW: I was in the Andes Mountains in high altitude with a Shamanic group and that day did something to me. As I was trying to climb I was with two people who said, “You just do it. Why are you having so much trouble?” What stood out to me about that particular story is I started crying because I couldn’t do it. I had on shoes that had slippery soles, there was wind and of course the elements always come into play. It was as if my physical experience was mirrored by the outer experience of the weather.
There was something about the breaking point, when I said, “I cannot go another step,” and then I did.
I had no control, but I survived. That prompted me in a deep way.
BJB: How do you maintain faith when you don’t know the way forward?
SW: This is the question of our time because so many people are reaching out and going through this Dark Night, rebirth and awakening.
In Tibetan Buddhism this state is often referred to as the Bardo — between lives.
The word ‘Bardo’, a long period which can last for 49 days, usually refers to people after they’ve died on a physical level before their next birth. It also can refer to this level when we’re between lives — something dies off but you don’t see the new life. You’ve made it through the Dark Night but you don’t see the dawn.
The biggest thing I recommend people do when they’re in this state is to take refuge deeply in their spiritual community. You have to show up and wait it out.
It’s not only faith, but also deep patience.
We don’t like to be in uncertainty, we just want to know, but we don’t in those moments. But it will reveal itself. It always does. We have to have patience and take refuge in our spiritual friendships.
When you don’t know what to do, become a beginner again and go back to the basics — to the foundation, to teachings, classes, to a meditation and keep walking.
Keep showing up and clarity will appear.
BJB: What has been the most surprising and unexpected part of your spiritual journey?
SW: I think my movement from a Dharma teacher to working in a Shamanic world, seeing myself more as a healer, traveling in Peru, starting my organization in Peru and working with Indigenous people and plant medicine. That evolution and opening into the Shamanic world has really surprised me. My next book will focus on merging Dharma practice with ancient plant medicine and the evolution of consciousness and how that can help the world.
BJB: Having relayed so much information as a teacher of mindfulness what unanswered questions do you have?
SW: My questions are about how to be effective; how to communicate and transmit teachings on a larger scale to help. It’s also about touching the hearts of my community that look like me. That’s why the cover of my book was very intentional. I’ve always had an interest in reaching diverse communities with knowledge, information, love and compassion.
As a teacher, I want to help reduce suffering. That’s what I’m here to do and questions about how to do that or what more I can do are often on my mind.
There are many people who want peace over fighting, camaraderie over separation, and who are ready to demonstrate goodness over deceit. These attributes are not absent in the world, but in need of being highlighted and placed in the forefront for more people to observe and witness. Kindness begets kindness, loving action begets more loving action and the unison of hearts strengthens the iteration of compassion, humility, and love.
This is why it’s important to seek out people, places, gatherings and reading materials to create more experiences of awakening in the world and in our lives.
At this moment, we are the ones being called to “to bloom in very muddy waters” to contribute the best that we have, and all that we are, toward creating a world that supports everyone.
We are all being called to “light up the darkness.”