Home. It’s a complicated place.
Knowingly or unknowingly we carry with us the patterns we learn there: kindness, cruelty, devotion, violence. We often orbit our ideas of home like a moon – neither part of nor separate from. Homes are places that we move toward and run from.
Born in Brazil in a traditional Catholic family, Oakland psychotherapist Maria Torres knows this well. She has been an intimate observer of homes for many years. She works at UCSF in a clinical research program, working with preschoolers who have experienced domestic or community violence, separation or death from a primary caregiver and other forms of trauma. The intake process is detailed and graphic – it’s essential to understand what the child heard or saw – but bearing witness to the abuse, neglect and violence day after day, even vicariously, is traumatizing. Her daily meditation practice and her work with the nuns of Aloka Vihara have saved her. “I’d have totally burned out if I didn’t have that support,” she gently sighs.
Maria learned Transcendental Meditation as a young adult, using the technique to relieve stress but she hungered for more of a spiritual practice. She learned of S.N. Goenka’s teaching through the documentary Doing Time, Doing Vipassana and quickly signed up for her first 10-day silent retreat in North Fork, CA.
“I was practicing Vipassana for 10 years when I met the nuns,” she recalls. “I would do my 10 days and come back each time with a lot of enthusiasm, but I really missed having a sangha.” She is deeply grateful to Goenkaji for introducing her to Dhamma and the power of a daily practice and she thirsted for more guidance and knowledge from an accessible teacher and the support of a sangha.
She attended her first supporters’ meeting for the Aloka Vihara nuns in September 2009 in San Francisco and found her interest kindled. When the nuns moved permanently to the Bay Area that December, Maria was among those who instantly found in them a home. “There was a community and a place with a dhamma talk every week, a tea where I could go and listen and ask questions. It was wonderful – warm and welcoming.”
She was drawn to the feminine energy the nuns brought – warm, soft and down to earth. “It felt very humane,” she recounts. “They didn’t put on airs about being above others. They were so connected to all of us who were there and I so appreciated their humor. It really allowed me to translate the practice into my daily life.”
The weekly talks were sometimes opportunities to explore difficulties at work and how to skillfully deal with them. At times, the intake stories would come back to her as intrusive thoughts. Initially she tried to block them, but Ayya Santacitta suggested that she instead give them space to see what happens. Her first reaction was “you have no idea how horrible the things I hear are,” but she accepted the instruction and practiced turning her attention to the sensations in her body when these thoughts arose. This simple return to breath allowed her to open her heart and make space within for the passing of the suffering of others that she felt vicariously.
With the nuns’ move to Placerville, CA she misses the community of the sangha, but she maintains her daily practice and meets with the nuns as often as possible – when they travel to San Francisco or when she can make the 2 ½ hour drive north to their new monastery.
Maria is on the eve of a big transition. She turned 65 in 2016 and is planning to retire. While her heart calls her to be a part of the monastic community, she decided to return to Brazil for a time to be with her parents while they are still on this earth. She also feels the pull of family here in the US.
“It’s such a joy to be a grandmother. My daughter lives here in San Francisco and my granddaughter, Maeve is almost 7. And my grandson, Emmet is 5 and lives with his family in Austin, Texas. But my mother seems so frail. She is 87 and my father is 91. My mother raised 6 kids and she did so much for us. I consider it a big honor to help her, to make the quality of her days a little better,” she explains.
Eventually she expects to return to the US, hopefully somewhere near Placerville so that she can be closer to the nuns. “In the beginning I had no idea how to behave around them. I didn’t know the monastic etiquette but my friendship with them has developed. Now, 6 years later, they feel like good friends. I want to live near these nuns, to have as much contact with them as I can to continue my practice, learn and support them.”
She deeply admires their bravery and their contribution to bringing new life to the Bhikkhuni order. She worries that many Westerners have difficulty understanding people who don’t work for pay and live on alms. “My wish is to convey how much goodness they bring—not only on a personal level but with what is going on in the world, such as climate change. And being a Latina lesbian myself and a person of color, I really appreciate their addressing issues of race and gender in their teaching.”
Maria knows that many of the changes she went through here in the US were difficult for her mother, who is a deeply devoted Catholic. But they share a love of women who commit to a spiritual life. “I grew up Catholic, went to Catholic schools my whole life and nuns have always had a special place in my heart, Maybe there’s a positive transference there. “
It’s a conversation Maria and her mother may have when they are again together in that complicated place called home.