Fat Dharma: Dawn Haney on Teaching Buddhism for Body Liberation

Dawn Haney, along with co-teacher Nina Herzog, will lead the upcoming online course “Fat Dharma” at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. Here, Haney talks to Lion’s Roar about the healing potential of integrating the wisdom of fat liberation with Buddhism to create a more inclusive dharma.

Dawn Haney  •  Lilly Greenblatt
5 July 2024
Dawn Haney

On July 9, Barre Center for Buddhist Studies will begin a four-week online course titled “Fat Dharma: Liberation for Our Heart and Bodies.” Taught by meditation teacher Dawn Haney and psychotherapist Nina Herzog, “Fat Dharma” aims to create an inclusive community for fat-identified people to explore the traditions of Buddhism and fat liberation together in an environment free from anti-fat bias and the influence of diet culture

Dawn Haney spoke to Lion’s Roar about “Fat Dharma” and the transformative healing power found in the intersections of Buddhism and fat liberation, the importance of creating welcoming dharma spaces, and challenging the ways diet culture and anti-fat language have been used to present traditional Buddhist teachings.

Lilly Greenblatt: What is “Fat Dharma”?

Dawn Haney: The short version of what “Fat Dharma” is is bringing together the two lineages of Buddhism and fat liberation, which have been necessary for my own practice of actually being mindful and connected with my body. In some ways I feel like this course is going to help us define what Fat Dharma is in a fuller way.

There’s a network of people in fat bodies who have made their way to practicing Buddhism, and at least in the US, Buddhism has sometimes been tied to ways to practice “self care” and “attend to our health.” Through that particular lens, Buddhism has somewhat unconsciously picked up the idea that diet, exercise and mindfulness fit together in this “wellness triangle” that I would really like to break off from Buddhism.

Fat Dharma is really for folks who are bringing together both Buddhism and fat liberation practice — where our bodies are actually just fine as they are and don’t need to be changed. We don’t need to be a certain weight to be healthy. We can talk to our doctors about what health might actually mean for our individual bodies.

“A big piece of fat liberation for me is about welcoming our bodies as they are and cutting through that internalized shame about having a fat body.”

So much of the “weight loss” that I was taught as a child actually feels very harmful to my body. It wasn’t actually supporting my health. A big piece of fat liberation for me is about welcoming our bodies as they are and cutting through that internalized shame about having a fat body. Bringing that together with dharma practice — being mindful of my body, and mindful of thoughts and emotions — all of these practices are actually good tools to help me learn how to connect with my body that I’ve been so dissociated from.

In my twenties, my mind was totally blown open when I started thinking about both fat liberation and dharma at the same time. For me, they feel very related in trying to learn how to reconnect to the fact that I have a body. I actually needed wisdom from both of those traditions to have any chance of connecting with my own body. And yet at the same time, I felt very alone in fat liberation spaces. Nobody was talking about religion at all — certainly not Buddhism or mindfulness.

Then in mindfulness spaces, nobody was welcoming of fat bodies. There’s that subtle place where dharma has glommed onto wellness. I was getting diet talk from teachers who wanted to talk about greed and talk about one of three topics: ice cream, chocolate, or cake, as the main instruction for understanding greed. 

As the course description notes, you’ll be dropping that interference of diet culture that some teachers have used to present concepts like greed. Do you find these interjections of diet culture are always the teacher’s own bias and are not actually related to the core teaching? How do you plan to address them?

Dawn Haney: I don’t know that I can confidently say that there’s nothing in the core teachings as they have been passed down that we need to look at. To me, that’s part of the reason to start getting fat people together to talk about our experiences with dharma.

Greed is often taught all about food. Food is just so central. Once I noticed the pattern, I was just like “I don’t feel like anybody gives me any other examples except dessert food.” There’s probably plenty of other things to talk about with greed. We could talk about money, we could talk about time. There’s a lot we could talk about beyond food.

For new practitioners, we often start with mindfulness of the body, which is maybe something from the core teachings that I’m starting to own differently. I haven’t necessarily read this in the core teachings, but I feel like because that’s a place we’ve agreed to start, it’s almost become the introduction that we think will be easiest for people. But in my own experience, mindfulness of the body is almost the hardest of the practices. I have explicitly been trained to be completely dissociated in my body. So when I first started practicing twenty-something years ago, even just trying to notice my breath and notice my body led to my brain being full of extremely uncomfortable and violent thoughts.

I was basically ready to just give up. I thought mindfulness wasn’t for me. I thought I didn’t need it. I was very grateful to have had a teacher in Durango, Colorado, Erin Treat, who was like, “Hey, we actually have choices about where you’d like to start. If being mindful of your breath and body isn’t working, let’s try sound,” like something that’s external to my body, but is still at that sensation experience. Sound doesn’t ask me to feel into all of the various wounds that I have about what my body has been my whole life. It was transformational and felt like such a big deal to be offered something different than breath and body. 

With David Treleaven’s work that’s come out since then around trauma-sensitive mindfulness, I think folks have a greater sense that we have choices about where we can start people. But before then, it felt revolutionary to be offered something different. There are other entry points for people whose connection to the body is uncomfortable, which isn’t just fat people. I think we live in a culture where we’re trained to be uncomfortable in our body. What does it mean to really reflect on that and give people some other entry points? I think it’s a big deal.

How are you approaching these four weeks?

Our overall framework is to work through the four noble truths to have some structure of Buddhism that helps us feel grounded in the core teachings. There is suffering in a fat body. There’s a lot of it, including some that happens at our dharma centers. We’ll look at some of the causes of suffering, and then the flip side: that there is that possibility of ending suffering. Part of that is resisting diet culture and weight loss as something that is required for being comfortable in our bodies.

Then we plan to explore the eightfold path as a clear instruction and pathway to liberation. I think that’s going to be a helpful way to dig into both our experiences of what suffering is in our bodies and how we can bring together practice from fat liberation and dharma spaces to do something different.

In your invitation to the course, you mentioned the disappointment you’ve felt in dharma spaces. Has that feeling changed over the years? Has it gotten better or worse?

It really cut through once when a teacher — who I really loved — tried to talk to me about studying my practice through willpower. That was something that really broke through for me — how much of the subtle versions of diet culture have been built into Western teachers’ conversations about mindfulness and dharma.

“That’s part of the beauty of mindfulness: the opportunity to be present with our own experience and to do that in a group. When we haven’t had that before, there’s a lot of alchemy and possibility for healing.”

There might be some folks in the world for whom willpower works. I don’t know those people, but I try to leave it open that if it works for someone to just really push their way through something, it works for them. For me and the people that I tend to be around, that’s actually part of the trauma of our childhoods; to keep pushing through things as if there’s no opportunity to notice our own experience and take care of ourselves and what we actually need.

For me, willpower is such a loaded word. In my own healing journey through therapy and practice, “willpower” almost doubles down on my incapacity to practice. My childhood history is to resist things that I’m forced into. For me, it’s asking me to push through my actual embodied experience, my actual emotions, the actual context I’m in. It’s like “Here’s what I think I should be doing. Here’s how I think I should look.” It’s almost like overcommitment to the thought of what I should be — a dysfunctional commitment to my thoughts about the future, or my shame about the past, rather than any kind of commitment to the present. Willpower does not work with my actual intentions here to practice with presence. 

Even well-intentioned practices like mindful eating can easily be co-opted as an exercise in willpower, or a way to eat as little as possible and obsess over what you’re eating.

As we were thinking about causes for suffering and all the body shaming that is part of that, we were like, “Well, maybe we just need to have a dinner party where we’re eating together on Zoom.” We’re eating whatever we’re eating. We can bring a perspective of mindfulness and community into that, but it’s not to control the eating that we’re doing.

It’s to find pleasure in the eating that we’re doing, or just to feel the experience of “Oh, this is crunchy.” Part of it would be to experiment and find out what the instructions around eating could be that don’t bring weight loss into the picture and the body shaming that automatically goes with that.

Some people might be ashamed to eat on Zoom and they’ll be like “I’m going to have my camera off.” And that’s OK. What’s that experience like? Notice that experience. Notice how that feels. Some people might be like, “Here’s my smorgasbord of all the different treats. I’m going to eat the cake, and the ice cream, and the chocolate.” Have that experience and get to feel like it’s a place where they won’t get ridiculed or shamed.

It’s been really enjoyable to try to make sense of this with my co-teacher and collaborator, Nina Herzog, who brings her psychotherapy experience of how just being present with our experiences is a form of healing. It’s especially for folks who are wounded and traumatized by how they’ve been treated by other people around their bodies. That’s part of the beauty of mindfulness: the opportunity to be present with our own experience and to do that in a group. When we haven’t had that before, there’s a lot of alchemy and possibility for healing.

What do you hope emerges from this course?

This feels like the beginning of really bringing together folks who have also been thinking about this in their own practices. Once you start looking at these subjects, there’s so much there, and I think we’ll be just starting the conversation. We won’t be finishing it or getting to all of it, but really starting to understand the conversation.

A couple of books came out in 2019 and 2021, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings and Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness by Da’Shaun L. Harrison. Both really delve into where some of diet culture came from originally as anti-Black perspectives. Those books were very meaningful for me to link together anti-Blackness and anti-fatness, and consider how that then plays out in dharma spaces, where the thin and white people are more welcomed and comfortable, and feel more like seen and accepted in the space.

In my dream world, dharma spaces will be able to at least have some basic understanding of how to be more inclusive of fat people, which might include comfortable chairs, seating, or benches that work for fat bodies and be more helpful for people to at least get in the room.

Even seeing the words “Fat Dharma” is completely mind blowing. I’m already picturing that there’s going to be some good wisdom that comes out of this for people to be able to speak to the next layer of folks who are living with feeling ashamed of their bodies. There’s a lot of folks for whom that shame is a common experience, whatever size or shape of body they might have.

To learn more about and register for “Fat Dharma: Liberation for Our Hearts and Bodies” visit the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies website.

Dawn Haney

Dawn Haney (they/she) braids together wisdom from Buddhism and social justice traditions, understanding identity, power, and change through their own experiences as a white, fat, queer, nonbinary femme. A former co-director with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, she teaches with the East Bay Meditation Center and the global Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program. You can find Dawn online at dawnhaney.net

Lilly Greenblatt

Lilly Greenblatt is the digital editor of LionsRoar.com. You can find more about her at lillygreenblatt.com