Strong Back, Soft Front | Omega
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Today, Roshi Joan Halifax offers a stirring 26-minute lecture on being a "war baby," early lessons in unconditional love, and what it really means to be of service, all from Omega's 2013 Women and Power Retreat. Later, she leads a 14-minute mindfulness practice (starting at 27:38) and shares her core teaching: cultivating a strong back, soft front.

This episode is part of Season 2 of Omega's award-winning podcast, Dropping In. This season, we're bringing you teachings from our treasure trove of audio archives.

Season 2 is curated by Omega's digital media director Cali Alpert. Join her for new episodes of Dropping In to explore the many ways to awaken the best in the human spirit.

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Cali Alpert:

Welcome to Dropping In from Omega Institute. I'm Cali Alpert. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our Rhinebeck, New York campus is temporarily closed. But we're still here for you. Now instead of dropping in on campus in real time, we're dropping into our treasure trove of audio archives to offer you talks, teachings, and practices from some of Omega's most memorable workshops and conferences. Today, Roshi Joan Halifax offers you a stirring 26 minute lecture on being a war baby, early lessons in unconditional love, and what it really means to be of service. All from Omega's 2013 Women in Power Retreat. Later, she'll lead you on a 14 minute body mindfulness practice, and talk about one of her core teachings. Cultivating a strong back, soft front. So put some time aside for yourself, get comfortable, make sure you're not behind the wheel, and drop in.


Roshi Joan Halifax:

So I'd like to share with you a little bit about my own story, my little narrative, which relates a lot to what it has been to climb out of if you will, the constraints of our culture and society into a more global identity and global caring for the world.


Like some of you in the room, I was born during the Second World War. And we were called war babies. It's like, thank you. That was interesting as I got older. And my parents would refer to me as a war baby. I thought oh my poor mother, what happened to her? But it was also a time that I feel just in terms of what my mother must've gone through giving birth to me. At a time when the vision of war, this was 1942, was so overwhelming in the United States.


And it wasn't because there was social media. It was because everybody in our country was involved either in the Mediterranean theater, or Germany, or the Pacific theater. And it was really something that was overshadowed my young years.


The other thing that really made a huge impression on me after I got over being very, very sick were the air raid drills. Does anybody remember those? Where the atom bomb was being threatened to drop on us. And you'd hear this air raid siren. We were in grammar school, and then you'd get under your desk. Holy Moses. Are you kidding? You just heard about this atom bomb in North Carolina, one that just happened to drop off a plane in 1961. Little mistake one, little trigger wasn't ignited, so we didn't have one.


But anyway, but those two experiences were very minor, even though they made a big impact on me. Because my life then really got ignited as a peacemaker at the social level. But something happened to me physically that was really important. And that was one morning I woke up when I was four years old and I couldn't see. And it was a situation that actually lasted for several years. I was sent to children's hospital up in Boston, in this endeavor to figure out what was wrong with me, but I'd gone blind.


And my parents brought into the house an astonishing woman to care for me. I think they had no idea how astonishing she was. But I was blind. I was also paralyzed on my left side. And my parents were those typical kind of post-war parents, busy making a world which made it possible for me to do all the things that I've done. But I had very little regard for, for decades. I'm sure some of you know what that's like.


And this woman that they hired, her name was Lilla. Lilla Robinson. And she came from Coconut Grove. She was not of course allowed to live in our community. My father went to Coconut Grove, picked her up every day, and she was driven to our house in Coral Gables, Florida. And I was bedridden, and in a kind of somewhat pitiful state.


And her mother had been a slave. It just shows you how not long ago slavery was in our country. And not only had her mother been a slave, but this woman had a sense of freedom. She was exactly what Brene Brown talks about. She was completely vulnerable. She sang every hour that she was in our family working, taking care of me. She was a total riot. She had the positive appraisal mechanism completely engaged if you know what I'm saying. She wasn't a victim. She wasn't victimized. She didn't feel sorry for herself as far as I could tell. And by the way, she had three daughters in addition to me, and they all ended up being preachers. Which I would say something rubbed off.


But it was an amazing experience to be in her care, because she never seemed tired. It was never a duty. It was all about relationship, connectedness. It was all about natural safety, even though she lived in a very unsafe neighborhood, and her mother had been through such intense suffering.


She knew what freedom was. She knew what it was to be really awake. She was so cool. And as my faculties began to come back, needless to say, I noticed there were some distinct differences in us. And those differences piqued my curiosity, but also my dedication. Because I realized I had just been in the care of the world's nicest human being. And somebody who wasn't running a caregiving trip on me. That's why I said be very mindful as you interact in these dyads. Because man, if we start beaming love at each other from a base of authenticity, it's really stinky.


So I just lit up in the care of this person. I also had really nice parents. So they loved golf, and the country club, and they had their values. And I'm grateful because I certainly came to not appreciate golf or the country club. Nonetheless, I'd really gotten the straight shot. It was like transmission from this woman, about what it is to love unconditionally and fearlessly. What it is to be completely transparent. What it is not to let your filters of fear distort how you're relating to another person.


And years later, I was in a car accident. It's like oy vey. It's in Los Angeles. I was working for SDS, Students for a Democratic Society. I forgot what I had inked onto my feet. Not permitting, but anyway, when I had the car accident. It was probably something like war is, whatever.


Anyway, I had this car accident. Fractured my pelvis, my arm, my head, and everything. I was really in not a great situation. Driving up to San Francisco, very exhausted from all the work we were doing trying to get draft dodgers out of the country. And was going up to the Bay Area to do some work up there of that nature, and got completely creamed and so on and so forth.


Ended up going back to my family home, and there Lilla was still taking care of me. And of course, now I was around 21 or 22. And it wasn't about infantilizing me. It was more about a relationship of empowerment. I felt completely empowered in how she cared for me.


So I wanted to mention these little bio details, and I want to just mention a few other things. About 10% of the women in this room were in our twenties in the 1960s. It was an incredible time to be a woman. I mean first of all, sex was free. So that was great. You got, wow. I was brought up in this very restricted community. and this whole other thing, wow, that was fascinating to know that I had a sexual body. Everything around me, I was actually sent to church schools. And everything was really prim, and proper, and nice. And then boy, the '60s happened and it was like wow, that was fun.


So it was sex. It was drugs, psychedelics. Do you remember those? Some of you might have engaged in mind altering substances. Because we wanted to have vision. We wanted to experience non-duality. We wanted to be in this profound state of so-called cosmic consciousness. And it was really fascinating and fun, kind of.


And then there was the music. Do you remember? I mean, I just danced by brains out in the '60s. How about you? I mean, this was really, and actually I'm so glad because then I became an academic and I sat down a lot. So I was like wow, embodied.


But the other thing is, is that the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement were happening in this time. And it was such a powerful time for us to work together as tribes, as women, as interracial groups, as young people. We had this very deep sense of optimism that we could really make a difference. And by the way, that has not changed for me. Otherwise, why I bother? If you know what I'm saying, but it might not be in this lifetime.


So at this point in my life, it was really also essential that I encounter Buddhism. Because I began to get a sense of, and Krishnamurti said, "The only revolution is the revolution within." So I'm engaged in these very adversarial, aversive kind of moves in my life. And then all of a sudden I realized wow, I discovered when I was four years old and went blind, I had an interior life. Wow.


And in my early twenties, it just came loping back around. It was like a recursive process. You have an interior life. You are more than how your culture has defined you. In fact, you're only beginning to discover who you really are. And you'll never see the full picture probably. Even at the moment of death, the Tibetan Book of the Dead was just making its way in the 1960s into our consciousness. But it was more about wow, I can kind of wake up right now. And I can turn my attention not only outward into service, which is really important for me personally. I get so much joy out of what I do with others, not for others. Please notice the preposition. Okay. What I do with others. But also that I could turn my attention internally, and create the conditions for much greater resilience, for more mental pliability, for more neuro-plasticity. That term wasn't around at that point. But that I realized I could change not only my mind, but my body. And what we're discovering is we can also change our genetic expression. We can turn our genes on and off, contingent upon where we are, and how we are where we are. Wow.


So in the '60s, the sense of agency, of autonomy. And also the basic refusal because of this kind of vaccination from this astonishing woman at a very young age of not being a victim. And it was also very clear to me that women were not respected, were marginalized, were paid less, were regarded less. But also, that we were subject to sexual violence and horrendous psychic abuse. And I made an internal choice based on this sense of commitment, not to buy into the program. That one of the most disempowering things that we can experience as women is to identify with the role of victim, but also not to stand in our power and to call truth into being. And that was one of the great gifts again, of being so sick as a child. And having the right relationship in that experience where I could have identified with being completely pitiful.


Another thing that happened that was really critical had to do with work I was doing at Columbia University, in cross-cultural anthropology. Where I saw so clearly the threat to our cultural and planetary well-being by the diminution of diversity in cultures. That our differences is where our health is. That we don't want to move into a sort of mono virtual culture, which is now being driven by our technology. But that we as women must come together in all of our differences and develop profound appreciation for those differences and build on those differences. Instead of trying to become one homogeneous tribe, but to really knock down the boundaries and have all of us in the game together.


So I love the questions that Elizabeth posed to us last night. I mean, we know from ecological theory that ecosystems that have very few species are subject to much more rapid collapse than ecosystems where there is great diversity. We also know that fear can blot out those differences, and that our work is actually to deal with issues related to fear. And that the three most common responses to fear we see in caregivers in the medical system, this is the population I primarily work with.


I'm usually, it was just my little... i had a hair don't for years as a Zen priest, but I grew my hair out. Because I have to go into the hospital, and it creates perturbations and various projections. But many of the people that I work with in the healthcare system are women, are women caregivers. They're doctors, there's nurses, more and more women are becoming doctors. I mean, I worked at the University of Miami School of Medicine in 1970s through '72. It's really interesting. The whole first year class that I worked with, there were 139 men. And there was one woman. Her name was I remember June Kramer. Well, now the odds are tending toward us. And by the way, the employment odds are tending toward us. It's really interesting except for janitorial services and electrical engineers. But it's really fascinating how women are moving into the major vocations all related to some form of service or another.


So this vision of what is it to be both a contemplative, that is to be deeply respectful of your interior life. And at the same time, to engage the world in terms of two different dimensions. And again, Buddhism has been this phenomenal template for this. Because in a way, the life of Mahapajapati, the mother of the Buddha. The archetype of Guan Yin, of Avalokiteshvara, the feminine flection of Guan Yin. And Miao-Shan from China, all give us big clues of what this is about. What is it to have a contemplative life and at the same time, be totally dedicated to service? Not helping others in the sort of conventional sense, but to live it as an imperative.


And there's two streams that I think are really important in terms of engaged practice. And again, going back to Brene's work, did someone call from above? To Brene's work, it's not as if you put the cloak of service on to defend yourself from a path of discovery, a path of initiation. That's the last thing you would ever do if you want to last in the world of service.


So there are two streams, and one of those streams is our direct service to each other. It is going into the prison system. It's going into Congress, it's going into hospice. It's going into the really dry, desert places that are crying for the kind of women that you and I are. That really need us. And boy, those worlds need us now more than ever.


And this is direct service. And it is really powerful at an intimate level, a level in terms of your character development. Not just to be dealing with the big picture issues and trying to change the world, but putting yourself in the trenches. It's really where it is at. Because there, you get to see your stuff.


I remember the first time I went into the Penitentiary of New Mexico, I mentioned it last night, into the north facility death row, maximum security. And I suddenly I realized whoa, I was being perceived. Wow. Gosh, these people aren't called cons for nothing. Wow. They can read me like a book. Wow, they can read each other too. That's how they survive. And I suddenly realized that this was the school I needed to be in order to be transparent to the world. It wasn't the school of my buddies, my friends, or my lovers, or even my teachers. It was a school that was completely strange, not much different than the school that one goes to when you care for dying people. Your stuff is hanging right out there in front of you. Your authenticity, your integrity is totally visible. It's embarrassing sometimes.


So part of the reason why this work of service seems important to people is that you're helping others. But at a deeper level, you're waking up yourself. It is there that you develop character.


In Zen, we say bodhisattvas do not seek easy situations. This is not about you seeking comfort. This is about finding exactly the edge where you're going to grow, where you can stretch yourself just as yoga teaches us. If you overstretch, you harm yourself. If you don't stretch enough, you're a stiff. We want to have that kind of pliability. And it's in this work of service, direct service to others, that this is found.


The other stream is called social action. And that is a vision that we are accessing, where we actually are able to perceive the systems in which we find ourselves. Whether it's economic, or governmental, or medical, or family, or educational. Whatever these so-called systems are that are engaging in structural violence. And structural violence, which is a term that was coined by Johan Galtung, a Norwegian sociologist and peacemaker. Is this experience that many of us know as women. Where we as people who have been born into a woman's body are marginalized, are abused. But it's not just women. It's people of color, it's people of sexual preferences, it's ageism, and so on and so forth. It's the SES socioeconomic status that some enjoy and others don't. It's the privilege of our identity, whether identity earned or identity by accident.


And it's our commitment to actually participate in the systems that we are subject to. That we are part of in transforming those systems, so that structural violence won't be perpetrated on others or ourself. So when we speak about engaged ...


When we speak about engaged spirituality, this is what we're addressing. We're addressing the experience of direct service. How we can lend our lives to others and steward come alongside individuals or communities, nations who have less access to certain resources than we have. Whether it's as a nurse, or a volunteer, or a doctor, or whether it's as a prison guard, or a prisoner himself or herself. And how do we directly engage in actions? Our votes count as women. And wow, they really count now. And what's that fantastic moment in Congress? Elizabeth ... you just rock my socks. That's a woman who knows how to send her voice, and stand in her power and love, and call others to task. How many women can we put in government today? Not to be daughters of the patriarchy like poor old Margaret Thatcher. Gosh, that was a tough one. But the women that are emerging on the political scene today.


So how do we do this? How do we cultivate the kind of women that are really essential in terms of global transformation to become not only leaning into society and culture, but leaning deep into who we really are? What is it not just to be a smart woman like certain people are really smart, but they're not wise. What is it to be a wise woman today? And how do we cultivate the bones of wisdom instead of the bones of hysteria? So I tell you, it is not just about softening. It is also as Brene Brown has said, it is also about strengthening.


So what I'd like to do is just to take a few moments if that's okay, just in breath. Invite us to put our little papers and pens down. And I promise you, this is not about converting to Buddhism, Christianity, or anything. Your inner life is where it is at so that your outer life can have meaning.


I'm going to invite us to actually close our eyes. And once again, sense into the body. And if your feet are on the floor, it's like putting your hand on the tiller to direct your attention to the physical sensation of your feet on the floor.


And notice if your energy is rising up, and see if on the next in breath, your inhale can actually root your attention into the soles of your feet.


And a little [inaudible 00:28:41] aside, I worry to see all these young women on these high, high heels and platforms and so on, really losing touch with the earth. I mean, we have to come home to this earth in order for there to be an earth for our children. Our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren. And the way that we do it is by getting really grounded. And again on the next inhale, with the inhale let the attention. If you're sitting with your legs folded, let it rest then with the sit bones, sits bones. Or if you're seated, with your feet on the floor, attention. Very gently, but firmly know what it is not to have your attention dispersed or divided. But the ability to have the kind of concentration and presence that you would offer to a dying child. That you would offer to your beloved grandparent, or to your beloved.


Really being an ally of this earth. Really feeling that connection. The gravitas. Not the little tootie tootie energy rising up. No, the gravitas of what it means to be a woman in today's world. Our deep responsibility when we take a stand to be completely present.


And feel gratitude. Probably most of you have two feet. Not everyone in this room might have two feet. Maybe you have one foot, or maybe you have no feet. But feel gratitude to be able to find your seat or to metaphorically, to have a footing. And let that sense of gravitas be really deep in the body and throughout the body. And notice if there's restlessness, on the exhale, just give space to the restlessness. You don't have to invite it to breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or tea. Just return to the body, this precious human body.


And gently shift your attention now to the back. And maybe you have back problems, but we're speaking not only of your physical back, but your metaphorical back, your psychic back. Your capacity to uphold yourself in the midst of such complex conditions. The tsunami is heading toward you, of rage. And you are able like a stock of bamboo, like a palm tree. And coming off the back of your chair maybe, even not just slouching in, but to really have this strong back where you're both pliable. And it's the same time you have this ability to keep it way together.


And on the next inhale, take the breath again, deep into the body, giving room for the back to expand. It's hard to do that if you're all folded over on yourself. So what is it to uphold yourself in the midst of conditions? Feel it. Embody it. Be it.


There's a word that we refer to describing this quality. It's equanimity, it's balance. It's our capacity to hold all beings and things in the equal regard. Notice if you feel restless. Hold that in regard too.


And gently shift your attention now to the front part of your body, soft front. And on the in breath, feel the chest open, feel your belly as the breath drops deep into your body. And the quality that we refer to here is that of equanimity and compassion. This is compassion supported by equanimity. Strong back, soft front. And how the breath sews the dorsal and ventral together into this unity. It's really two sides of the same coin of this life that we as women awaken to.


And you know a lot of us are strong front, soft back. Instead of allowing ourselves to be really open, to be vulnerable. We've defended ourself, many layers of iron between us and the world. And we want to shift that strong front, soft back, the back of fear, to strong front compassion. Sorry, strong back equanimity, soft front compassion.


Let the shoulders drop. Some of us, we're almost wearing our shoulders like earrings. We feel the weight of our responsibility. See if we can both uphold ourself and relax. Strong back, soft front.


And just concluding this short practice together, I ask you to recall someone who has been really wonderful to you. Someone who's been really kind, who's helped you out in a pinch, who's plussed you. Who's turned toward you with such considerateness. And see if you can just turn into that moment of grace or blessing. It could have been a grandparent, could have been your puppy. Someone or some being who really perceived you. You open the door. There's your dog just looking at you with those limpid eyes. Or you're a baby, or a mentor.


And on the next inhale, really breathe in that basic goodness. That is who you really are as well. Because the pup or the person didn't offer you that kindness to get something. It just was the natural thing to do.


And remember that whatever you learn or cultivate in this time together, this is really about benefiting the whole world. And let that sense just settle into your bones as you open your eyes.


So I would like to finish this session with a poem. That's okay. This is a poem by Margaret Atwood. "The moment after many years of hard work and a long voyage, you stand in the center of your room. House, half-acre, square mile, island, country, knowing at last how you got here and say, 'I own this.' It is the moment when the trees unloose their soft arms around you, the birds take back their language, the cliffs fissure and collapse. The air moves back from you like a wave, and you can't breathe. 'No,' they whisper. 'You own nothing. You are a visitor, time after time, climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming. We never belonged to you. You never found us. It was always the other way around.'"



Cali Alpert:

Thanks for dropping in with us. If you enjoyed today's episode, please check out our many online learning opportunities featuring more of your favorite teachers and thought leaders. Visit the learn online section on for more information. Dropping In is made possible in part by the support of Omega members. Help Omega remain a source of hope and healing, and receive special content, invitations, and discounts designed to support Omega's engaged community of members. Visit today.

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