French-born Danielle Levi Alvares left teaching French Literature at Boston College to become a yoga student and then a yoga teacher. Yoga led her more deeply into meditation, which she studied with a number of Zen teachers, including Thich Nhat Hanh, whose Interbeing: Commentaries on the Tiep Hien Precepts she translated into French. In November 1991 she met Jon Kabat-Zinn on a retreat he was teaching. Soon thereafter, Kabat-Zinn hired her to teach Stress Reduction in Spanish for a pilot program with an inner-city community in Worcester, Massachusetts. Under the auspices of the University of Massachusetts Stress Reduction Clinic, she has continued to teach “Reducción de Estrés” to low-income Hispanics. Along the U Mass model, she combines meditation, yoga and discussion and provides tapes for participants (this time in Spanish). Steven Smith and Carol Wilson, teachers from the Insight Meditation Society, interviewed Danielle Levi Alvares. They joined her at the Family Health and Social Service Center which provides space and many of the referrals for her mindfulness-based stress reduction classes.
Danielle Levi Alvares: Before we started teaching in the inner city, we thought, if the dharma is universal, why not teach mindfulness here? But we recognized that we didn’t know exactly how to teach in this context. So we started with a model based on the U Mass Stress Reduction Clinic and adapted as we learned.
It is very difficult for the people that we work with to make a commitment to a course which meets regularly over eight weeks, even with the door-to-door taxi service and childcare that we provide. Many of them have life stories which make what you read in the paper sound like fairy tales. Living here is like living in a war zone or a refugee camp. People are surviving on practically no money, crowded together in very small spaces. And they are exposed to a lot of drugs on the street. Most of our students are women, and a very high percentage of these women are or have been sexually abused by their fathers, their brothers, their uncles, their husbands or their lovers. The men have often been sexually abused as well. And there is enormous domestic violence. So they are very hurt; they have a tremendous sense that they are not worth anything and that they cannot do anything to help themselves.
It is particularly challenging for them to show up for class every week. Their kids are sick; they need to see countless doctors; a family member is in jail. Dates and times are imposed by the welfare system or the court system. They don’t have the power to say, “I can’t come to an appointment. I’ve got a class!”
So for them to think that they are worthy of this offer is already amazing. And when they actually show up for Class #1 and stick through it, I almost feel as if I don’t have anything more to teach them. Showing up and sticking through a class is, in itself, a major step!
Most people come here because they want to be more peaceful. In Spanish, there is an expression “infermo de los nervios” which means I’m sick with my nerves. So, while they are referred to us by doctors and nurses and social workers—and many do have health problems—they come to us saying, I want to heal my nerves.
As I have gotten to know them, I have come to see how, in ways over which they have little control, their lives are extremely noisy. The kids are crying; the neighbors are yelling; the TV and radio are blasting. They are pulled out of the moment by constant distractions. I offer them the encouragement to turn off the music literally and figuratively and a way to enjoy this very moment in their lives. And I offer them my belief that they have the resources to find peace in their own lives and to take care of themselves.
I see some amazing changes over the span of eight weeks. When one woman started the course she was tyrannized by two alcoholic brothers. They would come over to her house to ask for money, and she would give it to them. There would be a lot of fights. Now, since she has taken the course, she is not letting her brothers in her house and she is refusing them money. The brothers have noticed the change. They are furious with her for taking the course and they are furious with me. Here is a woman who had no boundaries. Now she is saying, “Sorry. This is my time and my space. If you want a drink, you find the money. I’m not helping you.”
Like many others who go through the program, this woman has also changed physically. She is losing weight, which she needs to do because she is diabetic. She looks prettier, arranges her hair, is starting to dress nicely, to put on makeup and earrings. She told me that her husband noticed her change in appearance and that they have revived their romantic life. When I talk about this woman and others like her, I wish I had taken “before” and “after” photos!
Even when their lives are shattered, I am inspired by how the people I am working with manage to love and to find ways to express their divinity. Soon after one of my patients graduated from the course, she found out that one of her sons had been arrested and jailed for drug trafficking. The terror of every mother in this community is that a son or daughter will fall prey to drugs or become a dealer. This woman came to me devastated. “What am I going to meditate for? My son is in jail.” I asked her, “Did you talk to him?” She said, “Yes. But I’m so angry at him I don’t even want to talk to him.” And I said, “Did he ask you anything?” She said, “He asked me for a Bible.” And I said, “Did you get it for him?” She said, “Of course.” Then she asked me, “Can I send him the tapes from the class? I want him to have those tapes.” She was in the midst of a major crisis, hitting bottom, if you will. She was unbelievably angry with her son, but she wanted to bond with him. And she was helping him as best she could. She wanted him to have the tools that had helped her, even though at this very moment, these tools were not helping her.
At first I thought that there was a separation between me and the people who come to the course. I was frightened to drive here and frightened that I might find my car smashed when I came out of class. I felt that I didn’t know the lives of the people I was working with. I’d never been poor and I’d never had an abusive husband. I wondered, can I really help? And I wasn’t sure I could. Now I see that I can, even though I don’t have the same traumas. I don’t feel the separation any more. I have other traumas, lighter, heavier, who knows? Now I feel at home. When I work here, I do the work I want to do on myself.
My practice here is to trust. During the eight weeks that the participants sit in the classroom, most of them are shy. They won’t talk at all, or maybe a little bit. They are not necessarily verbal or articulate. I forget how this work touches people at the heart until they come to the final meeting and tell their stories.
But when they do begin to talk, sometimes I feel as if I’m seeing the phoenix rising from the ashes. I think of one woman who started the course homeless. When you looked at her, she seemed to be disappearing into the woodwork. She didn’t want to exist. Since she’s been in the course, she’s found a living arrangement with her sister. She doesn’t have her own cooking space or phone, but she’s working on it. What she does have is her own room, her own TV and her own closet so she can have her own things! The other day she came in here dressed in bright colors, with a little lipstick. She said, “Before this course, I didn’t know I was here.” When they talk about the changes they experience, it can blow you away!
But I don’t know what will evolve over the long term. We have some “star” students, people who are really getting it, people who are using the tapes three times a day to meditate and do yoga. And some have lifestyles which might allow them to become lay monks right in their own little homes. So we hope to empower our students to trust in their ability to take care of themselves and to help them create a bilingual community-based sangha.