By Michelle Dominguez, proud teammate at Social Justice Partners Los Angeles
A spider, a runner, a hiker, and a leaf became some of my greatest teachers this year. In a search for enlightenment, I went on two silent meditation retreats. That’s five days of alternating sitting and walking meditation from 6:30 am to 9:30 pm with no speaking or eye contact. When I tell folks about it, most people respond, “I wouldn’t be able to go away and stay silent for five days!” Which made me wonder, how many of us have the support and spacious conditions at work to even allow for such time off?
Some organizations see rest and reflection time as productivity loss, characteristic of white supremacy culture’s focus on capitalism, urgency, quantity over quality, and progress as bigger and more. I am grateful I spent 10 days this year in silent meditation, a privilege that many nonprofit workers are not granted due to supremacy work cultures. During this time I came to four profound, professionally enhancing insights as it relates to my nonprofit work. Here are the stories behind these four insights:
The Still Spider: On Presence and Connectedness
White supremacy culture’s individualistic value perpetuates oppression, but we can imagine something different when we understand that we are all connected.
The retreat grounds are on gorgeous land which has many hiking trails, and I was on a quest to hike them all. I woke up early one rainy morning to wander through a forest trail. The sights of the towering green trees, the sounds of the chirping birds, and the smell of wet earth were all sensational treats in contrast to the 15 hours a day spent with my eyes closed or softly focused as I meditate.
As I stepped downhill, I noticed a silk thread shining from a sunray. It was a web, the home to a spider that lay still on its intricate creation. I carefully stared at the spider and its web, studied where the fiber connected to the trees beside it, and did a slow limbo to avoid destroying the spider’s resting place.
The following morning, my waking thought was, “I am no more or less important than that spider.” Had I not been more present to notice the web or more mindful with my step, I could have mistakenly disrupted that spider’s life. I felt empathy and a deep connection to the creature.
It was a lasting insight for me about the importance of being present in my work processes and with my colleagues. White supremacy culture’s individualistic value perpetuates oppression, but we can imagine something different when we understand that we are all connected.
The Fit Runner: On the Stories We Make Up About Others
I thank my brain for using cognitive shortcuts to get by the day, but if I’m not careful it does lead to bias and creating a false reality.
I had completed every hiking trail but one, which was an incredibly steep, two-hour hike. I was suffering, sweating profusely, and climbing uphill when a fellow retreatant passed me as he ran downhill. I thought, “Wow, this guy is pretty fit to be running downhill on a long trail in this heat! He really has his shit together.”
Well, it turns out he did not have his shit together, literally. I crossed paths with the runner again as we left the retreat. Now able to speak, I complimented him for running down the trail. He laughed and first hesitated before sharing, ”the reason I was running was because I really had to take a shit. Five minutes after I ran past you, I was squatting in the woods using my mask as toilet paper because I couldn’t hold it in anymore.”
I burst out laughing and told him he made my day. I was reminded how easily we make up stories about other people when in fact, we don’t know their personal experience. We do this with strangers, loved ones, colleagues, and when reading grant applications and donor profiles. I thank my brain for using cognitive shortcuts to get by the day, but if I’m not careful it does lead to bias and creating a false reality. Pair this without presence and connectedness and it can lead to serious harm, but take the space to reflect and we can positively impact our communities through mindful decisions.
The Distant Hiker: On Lived Experience
“those closest to the problems are also those closest to the solutions.”
The day after the steep hike, I went on an easier hike with a lovely bench under a shade tree. I sat on the bench to take in the view of the rolling hills and noticed in the distance a speck moving up that steep hike near the spot where the runner had passed me. The moving speck was another hiker, and I was struck by how small they appeared from my comfortable spot on the bench.
I could have easily disregarded the speck, just as I could have ignored the spider, but I remembered how I suffered on that steep hike, sweating in the sun and struggling to catch a breath as I tried to reach the top. I realized that the moving speck was a whole human being, and while I could not fully understand their experience, I made yet another cognitive shortcut and assumed they may be suffering as I did. I felt empathy for them and realized, “this is why following the lead of those with lived experience is important.”
I learned about the value of following the lead of people with lived experience through my work at Social Justice Partners Los Angeles (SJPLA). A colleague framed it for me as, “those closest to the problems are also those closest to the solutions.” I was reminded of this as I sat on the bench looking at the distant hiker. Had I not direct lived experience of that steep hike, I would not have paid much attention to the moving speck; but because I had, I felt intimately closer to the hiker despite the miles between us.
The Falling Leaf: On Systems
I think the more we can engage in systems thinking… the better we can understand the complexity of the problem and implement meaningful, systemic solutions.
I had just finished eating lunch outdoors as I sat on a bench. Witnessing the retreatants at mealtime is an interesting, rare sight. You don’t see people mindlessly scrolling their phones as most of us surrendered our device at the beginning of the retreat. Instead, you see quiet, slow, still people like myself post-meal, staring at nature. At this moment, my eyes followed a yellow leaf dancing side-to-side in the air, drifting towards the floor after it had fallen from the tree. I immediately thought, “it was simply the leaf’s time to fall.”
I thought about how ridiculous it would be to blame the leaf for falling (“You should have been stronger, leaf!”). If we wanted to place blame for the leaf falling, do we blame the wind for pushing the leaf to its brink, the tree for not holding onto it longer, the water for dehydrating the tree, the weather for changing, or Earth’s axial tilt for causing the seasons? When you think about it, isolating agents and pointing blame in this situation sounds ridiculous considering the intricate ecosystem involved in one leaf falling to the ground. But, this is exactly what we do when we approach problems in our communities.
Let’s look at housing and homelessness as an example. Some “blame the leaf for falling” and believe people experiencing homelessness are at fault for the “choices they made” which impact housing insecurity. Others blame federal, state, and local governments for lack of accountability. There are also agents that impact factors like housing availability and affordability, the job market, mental and physical health, poverty, racism, classism, and more.
The seemingly distinct issue of “homelessness” is actually several complex systems interacting and evolving like a living organism. I think the more we can engage in systems thinking, as defined by Drs. Derek and Laura Cabrera from The Cabrera Research Lab, the better we can understand the complexity of the problem and implement meaningful, systemic solutions. This is what one yellow leaf taught me.
This year, I’ve come to understand nature is one of my greatest teachers; I have the above four insights to show for it. While insights can be a very personal matter that retreatants may choose to keep to themselves, I’m happy to share with you how they’ve enriched the mental models I rely on at work.
More important to me than the insights themselves is my hope that our sector creates healthy workplaces that tend to the wellness and wholeness of our people. Let’s foster spacious work conditions that support employees taking time off to do as they please, whether that be a meditation retreat or otherwise. Let’s promote rest and reflection at work, not because it “enhances worker productivity and business operations,” but because we treat our colleagues with the same care we wish to see in our communities at large. And in our time of rest, if we do happen to gain some insights, we may choose to share them, and our sector can choose to listen. But if you need some work inspiration, step outside–there may be a spider, a runner, a hiker, or a leaf giving out free lessons.
Michelle Dominguez (they/them/elle) is a Queer and Trans Los Angeles native born to Colombian immigrants. After a decade-long career in higher education student affairs, they switched sectors in 2021 to join the team at Social Justice Partners Los Angeles. What brings Michelle joy? Quality time with loved ones, mindfulness, audiobooks, vegan chocolate desserts, and Disney magic. You can find Michelle on LinkedIn and tip them via Venmo @MMissy003.