Valerie Brown is positioned at the intersection of two traditions that can be very helpful to us all right now. She’s a Black woman who’s involved in racial justice work, and she’s a Buddhist teacher who shows people how to use mindfulness to navigate life’s challenges — challenges like, say, a pandemic, a huge economic collapse, racial injustice, and social unrest.
For 20 years, Brown had a high-powered career as a lawyer and lobbyist. Then she radically shifted the focus of her attention to Buddhism. She learned at the feet of the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh and was ordained as a mindfulness teacher.
I recently spoke with Brown for Future Perfect’s new limited-series podcast, The Way Through, which is all about mining the world’s rich philosophical and spiritual traditions for guidance that can help us through these challenging times.
We talked about the fascinating historical connections between Buddhist practice and Black activism. She explained how we can use mindfulness not just to soothe us as individuals, but also to tackle broader racial inequality today. And she shared some classic Buddhist mindfulness training, which she recently helped rewrite through a racial justice lens.
We know the coronavirus pandemic is disproportionately taking Black lives, and for Brown, that’s deeply personal: Her brother died of presumed Covid-19 just a few months ago.
You can hear our entire conversation in the podcast here. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.
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Valerie, tell me a bit about yourself and how you became interested in Buddhist meditation. You didn’t grow up with it, right?
I grew up in the People’s Republic of Brooklyn. And I grew up with a lot of poverty. My mother was a maid in the Hotel Manhattan and my dad was a tailor in the Bowery. We grew up on public assistance. Early on, there was quite a bit of violence. My dad left. And then when I was 16, my mother passed away. I became an independent student at 18, meaning I had no parental supervision and no parental support.
But I got really lucky. I got a job at Burger King. So I worked, went to City University, and made my way out, running to undergraduate school and graduate school and the big, important job as a lobbyist and lawyer.
In 1995, I attended a public talk given by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. The talk was at the Riverside Church, down the street from my brother’s apartment, so I just walked down. And everything that Thich Nhat Hanh was saying was the opposite of how I was living my life. I was this very type A, aggressive, bunker-mentality, hard-as-nails person, just running from tremendous internalized oppression and internalized racism. And I walked out of the talk thinking: That guy! Who is that guy? That day touched something, a spark…