Interviews with Karuna Students: Rees Sweeney-Taylor

Our next Karuna student interview is with Rees Sweeney-Taylor, director of the Berkeley Shambhala Center (a Buddhist meditation center in Berkeley, California, USA). Rees is both a Karuna graduate student, and now an assistant teacher for Karuna. He says that his interest in Karuna began for a few different reasons. “There was a confluence of a few items,” he explains, saying that his work in Shambhala was one main motivation.  “I knew I was taking a job that was going to be working with people a lot. As director of a meditation center, I wanted to deepen my ability to relate to people, to understand them, to be able to facilitate good meetings, to be able to support people if they’re coming to me in crisis, or were having challenges. That was probably the primary interest.”

In addition, Rees says he was very interested in Buddhist psychology from a more scholarly perspective. “I wanted to learn more about that. he says. “And I was very drawn to the Karuna faculty, Melissa Moore, Sandra Ladley and Susan Chapman. And I also was writing fiction at the time and I was interested in how contemplative psychology could inform my creative process.”

Work and Creativity: Karuna’s Impact

Now, after three years of training in Karuna, Rees says that one main benefit has been a growing sense of attunement with everything around him. “I definitely feel more attuned to my world” he shares “…generally, to environments and people that I’m meeting with, to what they’re bringing to situations. I can sense better if people are having challenging times and then be able to relate to them in those spaces.”

When asked if Karuna Training has impacted the work he does with Shambhala, Rees responds “Absolutely, yes. Everyday, I think that.” He goes on to say that “It’s been a journey, just being in any job where people are coming in, you are meeting a lot of people and meeting people where they’re at. I’m developing a sense of confidence to bring my whole self to the job.” Rees says “I feel like it would be a very different past three years if I hadn’t been training every few months, in the Karuna context.”

And what about Rees’ writing? He says that for unrelated reasons, he’s been writing less lately, but he has still felt the impact. “I think there was a deepening sense of the reality of the characters that I was creating, a sense of empathy with them or being able to live from their place. That was intriguing.” He hopes to bring this into more of his writing in the future.

Lessons for Personal Relationships

Rees says that Karuna training has also played an important part in his personal life.

“I really think it’s important not to see Karuna as a professional training for only people who are in therapeutic professions or social work, although it is very powerful for that” he explains. “It’s really for just about anyone who has significant relationships that they want to develop, and develop empathy in. Therefore, it is really for anyone.”

In his own life, Rees says “I have a sense of being more attuned to the most important aspects. Just the awareness that I carry with me now, of what’s in the room with me, it is less likely that I’ll be having a conversation with myself when other people are there. I’m actually listening and aware of where they are. I’m connecting with them. And then some of the some of the facilitation skills can be very helpful if conflict arises in relationship with family and friends. Just being able to speak from my own experience and listen to their exchange.”

This personal transformation may be in part due to Karuna’s cohort model, which Rees says is one of his favorite parts of Karuna. “We’re going through with a group and getting to know those people so well over the course of two years, three years if you do the graduate program.” he explains “That feels fairly unique.” Rees says he’s also inspired by the broader social potential of Karuna. “I’m inspired by where Karuna can go further and will go further in the future, in terms of addressing larger social issues and really developing as society develops.” he explains. “That larger aspect beyond just the personal and relational is another powerful part of it.”

Exploring Social Conditioning and Race

Rees says that the Karuna teachings have been especially helpful in his graduate practicum, which was a process group exploring what it means to be white. “I knew that I wanted to work with the intersection of contemplative psychology and race.” explains Rees. “I’ve done another program called ‘Untraining’ which was looking at social conditioning, and in particular how white people are socially conditioned into a racialized society. I was very struck by how the deep emotional work that Karuna invites would be applicable to that. I had a co-facilitator, and we designed the three month series of gatherings for 12 people who identify as white. We would meet every other week for about three hours and have meals together and then use Karuna methodology and teaching to explore our whiteness, and what it means to be white.”

It turned out to be a challenging project. “It’s difficult work and I felt challenged in the facilitator role.” he recalls “It’s work that I’m only just learning myself.” Still, Rees says that he felt like the project brought people together. “I think that people connected.” he says “I think that was maybe the biggest takeaway for people, is the sense of connection and sharing it together and having those difficult conversations together. It created some bonding that was powerful.”

Rees says that this sense of safety was only possible because of the training he received with Karuna. “There were times when people would just share very openly about their experience” he explains. “And I don’t think I would have really felt confident holding that if I hadn’t gone through Karuna. We used particular methodologies from Karuna that I think opened up the space and allowed people to share. If I hadn’t been able to use those tools, I don’t know if we would have gotten to the same place.