December 28, 2022

Buddhist Ethics and a BIPOC Weekend Retreat: A Conversation with IMS Teacher JoAnna Hardy

JoAnna Hardy has been practicing and teaching insight meditation for almost two decades, but her spiritual life didn’t begin there. Before coming to Vipassanā, JoAnna studied and practiced in a wide range of other spiritual traditions, including Catholicism, Native American religions, and Hinduism. Theravada Buddhism and its system of ethics resonated with her and today she teaches mindfulness and insight meditation in-person and online at IMS and Spirit Rock among other meditation centers, at the University of Southern California, and on digital platforms such as AppleFitness+ and Ten Percent Happier. She is passionate about sharing the teachings with young people and co-authored a book,Teaching Mindfulness to Empower Adolescents, with Matthew Brensilver and Oren Jay Sofer. For more information on JoAnna, visit her websitehere.

In February, JoAnna will lead two online programs. The first, Mindfulness & Ethics, will look at the five precepts as guidelines for living an ethical life. This program, part of a nine-month online exploration, Essential Mindfulness, will be held on February 6, 13 and 27 from 7 pm to 8:30 pm ET. To register, clickhere.

The second program is the BIPOC Weekend Retreat: Refuge in Belonging which she will co-lead with IMS Teacher Devin Berry from Friday, February 10 at 6 pm ET to Sunday, February 12 at 1 pm ET. To register, clickhere.

Here, JoAnna speaks with IMS Staff Writer Raquel Baetz about these programs, providing a quick look into what participants can expect.


What drew you to insight meditation and its system of ethics?

Most Buddhist lineages, not just the Insight tradition, really asks for personal responsibility. With Buddhism, we’re not handing our lives over to an external circumstance or source. The Buddha is constantly pointing us back to ourselves, and how our thoughts and actions have an impact and the constant reflection on that. For me, in my personal life, taking on the ethics practice was one of the biggest reasons I appreciate it.

The five precepts within the Theravada lineage helped me realize the harm I had caused a lot of people in my life. With the precepts, the reflection on our behavior and how we move forward with this new information becomes very different. This is not a put down of any other traditions, but for me, having that empowering experience of knowing that this isn’t me following a set of rules or laws, it’s asking me to check it out for myself. “What am I doing right now and how is it influencing and impacting the people around me and myself?”

I love to invite people from all traditions to this practice. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to meditate and to practice insight meditation.

You say that the Buddhist system of ethics encourages self-reflection and personal responsibility. As someone who was raised Catholic, what are your thoughts on this system of ethics in comparison to the 10 Commandments?

The five precepts act as guidelines, they’re not rules like the Commandments. They’re guidelines on how to live a life that leads to less harm.

The 10 Commandments are based in fear. They say that if you do this bad thing, you will go to this terrible place. I remember, as a kid, going into the confessional, and saying, “I did this, this, and this, so how many Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s do I need to do to be absolved?” Where in that did I hold any responsibility at all? It was handing it over to somebody else and then just like that, I was free.

The five precepts are not meant to impose anything on anybody else. They’re not in place to judge anybody for doing them or not doing them. They’re a reflection for ourselves. So, when we do something, how does it make us feel? What’s the residue or the aftertaste that we have when we’ve said something unskillful to a friend or to a coworker?

And what our mindfulness practice helps us do is recognize the experience of that in our own bodies. When we get still and meditate it’s our experiment—a petri dish for experience.

I don’t feel like we meditate to become great meditators. We meditate so that we can walk through the world in a more skillful, wholesome way—a way that causes less suffering.

So, it’s very much a feedback loop of action which is what the precepts are all about. How are my actions impacting others and myself? And then, what does that experience feel like? Let’s investigate this. This is where we put our investigation practice into place. When I investigate that, this happens. And when I feel like that, then this happens. So, we’re constantly having this action feedback loop on our internal experience.

That’s what I really love about these guidelines, as I like to call them. I don’t even like to use the word “conduct” so much, even though that is the word that is used in the suttas. But I feel like “conduct” can be off putting. Even the word “ethics” can feel off putting for some. I prefer to use “training” or “guidelines.”

What should participants expect with the online program Mindfulness & Ethics?

Over the course of this program, I will break down every one of the five precepts. For example, with the first precept—do not kill—that does not necessarily mean stabbing somebody who’s sitting next to you because you don’t like what they said. But, for example, how do we feel as humans that we can do whatever we want to animals, plants, and insects? I’ll offer people the space to reflect on how we behave as the dominant living being on the planet.

With the second precept—not taking what isn’t freely given—we will explore how all of us are taking in some way—from the land, nature, our earth. And although it is for our survival and often necessary, there is also greed.

I’m not going to say you shouldn’t do these things. I may give the homework of go home today and live with the first precept and just see for yourself.

I like to hear the insights people come back with for themselves. People can get very creative and have deeper insights themselves than what I could ever offer them. Because I don’t know how each person is living in their world. There are certain things that I can’t possibly know about people’s lives. It’s not for anyone else to judge or dictate what’s working. We must decide what’s working and what’s causing us more suffering and what’s causing the world more suffering.

So, this tradition doesn’t hand us the answers. Instead, it asks that we do the work of exploring, as you say, what’s working and what’s causing more suffering. In another interview, you spoke about feeling into the ‘why’—asking ourselves why we’re doing what we’re doing when we’re doing it. How does this work?

One of my litmus tests for myself—and that I share with others—is asking myself, How do I feel when I wake up in the morning? Do I feel remorse for something that happened yesterday—something I did or said?

Sometimes we’re doing something because somebody else has influenced us. We see how other people are doing things, or we’re on the bandwagon of some political party or the people we hang out with are doing this thing, so we decide that that’s the thing we’re going to do too. And sometimes people don’t ask themselves how they feel about it, or they worry that they won’t belong to the group anymore if they don’t feel the same. It’s challenging but necessary to know why we’re doing something.

When we look with curiosity and investigation in our practice, the bigger question isn’t the mental why, but it’s the wisdom—the deeper why. What’s really going on here? What is making me do this thing? What am I acting out? So, I love that question, “why?” And to keep asking it. It’s really this inquiry into why I’m behaving how I am.

If we go back to the five precepts, why am I smashing that spider? It’s certainly not bigger than me. Why am I afraid of a spider? Where did that thinking even come from?

I teach young people and I ask them to think about “Why am I having sex with this person who doesn’t care about me and who I don’t care about when I’m feeling hurt or sad after?” Whatever the behavior is that causes people to suffer. Why do I do it? Why do I always live in this regret?

Then we have this added benefit of the forgiveness practice. A big way that I can forgive myself is the commitment that I won’t do that again. That’s what helps me. I have a dharma talk called Don’t Walk Down the Ice Cream Aisle and it’s all about why we continue doing that thing that we know harms us or somebody else. Often, it’s not about the thing that we’re doing… they aren’t intrinsically harmful, like sex or ice cream, it’s more about when we suffer or have huge regret after because we aren’t living in alignment with how we want to. That’s the inquiry.

Once we get to the deeper why, that’s where real liberation and freedom comes, and we learn that we can live with feelings like sadness or loneliness instead of retreating into the behavior that comes out of the feeling to try to cover it up or to try to not feel it. Instead, I can live with these experiences. I can hold these feelings instead of retreating into behaviors that come out of those feelings that can cause a lot more harm.

Ajahn Sumedho, a monk in the Thai forest tradition, said, “Our practice is not to follow our hearts. It’s to train our hearts.” This reminds me of your teaching, i.e., it’s up to us to explore our own behavior so that we can change it when we need to. Does that sound right?

Yes, and we find when we become more caring, we want to spend more time with other caring people. We are attracted to people who are also moving through the world in the way that we move through the world. And this goes back to why the precepts were put in place—so that we are more caring with each other.

Spiritual friendship is a big deal on the path. It’s hard to be a caring person living surrounded by people who are causing a lot of harm. A lot of people feel like that when they first start their practice. They’re cautious and may feel alone at the beginning because they’re behaviors are changing. They might not want the same things anymore. They might not care about excessive shopping or all these things that in the past might have really been exciting and a turn on.

So, at first, I think it scares people and it can even feel boring. Especially when we’re living in a world of political rhetoric that generates hate and the feeling that we want to toss fire back.

It’s an interesting place when people choose the path, but it doesn’t have to silence us. It doesn’t mean that we can’t be allies and outspoken and get things done.

I like to let people know that this is not about just being kind, nice, and spiritual all the time. We live in a society that needs us and that needs people who have compassionate hearts and sacred activism.

So, yes, we definitely get more tender, more open, more caring of ourselves and of other people. We stop wanting to put poison in our bodies or in our minds, and at the same time we can’t live with our heads in the sand.

It’s this balance—that is where the wisdom and discernment piece comes into play. What’s too much? When do I need to pull back? When is it time to move forward? When do I feel grounded and settled enough to move forward? Do I know what I’m even saying? Is this wisdom or delusion?

Is there anything else you’d like people to know about this program?

Don’t be afraid of it. It’s a beautiful exploration of how we walk through the world. And it’s not judge-y. I don’t want people to feel like they’re going to come into this and have to give everything up that they ever loved. It’s not like that. There might be some renunciation in it, but it’s not all about that.

It’ll be quite fun and interactive. It’s open to all levels of practitioner. And it’s applicable to everybody’s life. There’s nobody who’s above it.

In February, you’re also co-leading—with IMS Teacher Devin Berry—the BIPOC Weekend Retreat: Refuge in Belonging. What can participants expect over the course of the weekend and is it open to all levels of practitioner?

This is absolutely open to all levels. IMS is doing something different this year with the in-person BIPOC Retreat, so now every other year, the in-person retreat will be for experienced practitioners and then the next year will be for all levels of experience including beginners. So, we are doing an online retreat that is for all levels of BIPOC practitioners this year.

IMS Guiding Teacher DaRa Williams is teaching the experienced practitioners in person this year, but we didn’t want to not have the space for all levels, so IMS decided to include an online retreat in the in-between years.

So yes, this weekend is for all BIPOC practitioners. And the fact that it’s online means that it’s for everybody all over the world which is super fun and helpful. It’ll be a short, sweet dive into the practices of wisdom and compassion.

What are your thoughts on the importance of affinity spaces?

What many people feel when they’re in a White dominant space in which the dominant language and world view is geared towards certain ears, minds, and hearts, people of color can often feel left out and invisible. When we’re in a retreat space, where we really should be able to put everything down and just be in the safety of a space—to have the double-talk happening in our heads—can feel unsafe. Someone might be thinking, “that doesn’t work for me or apply to me.”

These affinity spaces have been created so that we can put all that down and be surrounded by others who also experience being the minority in these dharma spaces. Of course, it’s hard to lump all BIPOC people into one because there are many different BIPOC experiences.

Even with that said, there’s still a different level of understanding and belonging for all BIPOC people as other in this country. So, for the teachers on these affinity retreats, there are things we don’t need to explain. There are ways we don’t need to qualify. We just share in a different way.

Thinking about insight meditation in the West which historically—and even still—is predominantly White, can you speak to the importance of affinity spaces in this context?

I can’t speak for all Insight centers in the West, but IMS and Spirit Rock have been putting a lot of work into growing the diversity in teaching teams, which hopefully has an impact on the inclusivity of the communities at large. The teaching teams look a lot different than they did 10 years ago—even five years ago. The teacher trainings have put in a lot of work to accommodate growth.

As we move forward, the spaces are changing. We aren’t totally there yet. It’s a work in progress. But you know, I feel very fortunate that the places where I teach and practice are putting effort into it, and that they’re asking us how to do better. We all want to do better.