No One Like Me

Lama Rod Owens on taking care of your own needs when you don’t see yourself represented in those around you.

Lama Rod Owens
24 April 2024
Illustration by Maia Boakye.

Question: I recently moved to a Buddhist retreat center where I am pretty much the only person of color. I knew that going in, but it’s been more difficult than I expected. I love the practice and don’t want to leave, but I feel uncomfortable and miss my own people and culture. What do I do?

Answer: I have one question: what do you need? It sounds like this space may be psychically violent for you. To be marginalized in spaces like these means you are doing much more emotional labor than others simply to stay in the space. Then, your main practice becomes negotiating the centering of whiteness and trying to survive that so you can then do the actual dharma practice you came to do.

There are people of color who survive spaces where they are marginalized. I am one of those.

So in connecting with what you need, you may come to the conclusion that your biggest need is not to work so hard to just be in the room. Integrating space is exclusively the burden of the marginalized and the under-represented, and working so hard at that level may not be conducive to the fruition of your dharma practice. It may also foster a longing for your people and your culture, which will also disrupt your practice. Moreover, this extra emotional labor may eventually lead to emotional burnout.

Figuring out what you need is an expression of compassion for yourself, which you will need in this situation. You may even discover that what you ultimately need is to leave this particular community. There are people of color who survive spaces where they are marginalized. I am one of those. It has taken a deep grounding in compassion and love for myself, and also deep compassion for others around me. It has also taken solid strategies of self-preservation. Until you are able to do this, then this situation may be detrimental for you. So connect with what you need in order to practice at your highest level, and see what answers arise from focusing on yourself.

Lama Rod Owens

Lama Rod Owens

Lama Rod Owens is a Buddhist minister, author, activist, yoga instructor and authorized Lama, or Buddhist teacher, in the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism and is considered one of the leaders of his generation of Buddhist teachers. He holds a Master of Divinity degree in Buddhist Studies from Harvard Divinity School and is a co-author of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation. Owens is the co-founder of Bhumisparsha, a Buddhist tantric practice and study community. Has been published in Buddhadharma, Lion’s Roar, Tricycle and The Harvard Divinity Bulletin, and offers talks, retreats and workshops in more than seven countries.