Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist - One Woman's Spiritual Journey
Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist is a beautifully written memoir in which Jan Willis charts her spiritual life’s journey towards self-love. An exceptionally gifted intellectual and a gentle soul by nature, Willis tells the story of having her self-worth consistently undermined by racism. She grew up in a Southern, Black rural town terrorized by the Klu Klux Klan, where she observed the “crippling effects” of the KKK on her community’s self-esteem. As a child, Willis’ mother referred to her intelligence as evil. Years later, even Willis’ full scholarship to an Ivy league college came with the cost of tokenization and criticism from her town. Willis’ spiritual path is a journey of self-acceptance and fulfilling her potential in spite of the oppressive effects of racism.
Her experiences of racial oppression in Docena, Alabama are vivid and disturbing. Her life’s story serves a reminder that some living African Americans carry these hateful memories with them today. Hers is a traumatic experience of racism many Americans would like to think of as an ancient history. This oppression spans from a girlhood memory of watching through the window as the Klan burns crosses in the nearest alleyway, to recent research on her family lineage, in which she speaks with a living local historian, a librarian who makes the cutting remark that Willis’ intellect is accounted for by a certain White male in her ancestry. Willis portrays racism as such a dominant force throughout her early life in particular, that when reading the book, I wondered when the focus on spirituality was going to kick in.
It comes during her undergraduate studies, starting when Willis spends a year living in India. She finds herself especially at home amongst the Tibetans there. After her study abroad, she and several friends travel to Nepal, where Willis stops to visit a Tibetan stupa. Willis meditates at the stupa, experiencing intense inner peace during her visit. A monk residing there invites Willis to stay and study at the temple. Though Willis returns back to college in the states to finish her undergraduate degree, she remembers her experience at the shrine and the monk’s invitation.
Upon graduation, Willis finds herself faced with the most difficult choice she would ever have to make: work for the Black Panther Party or return to the Tibetan monastery, the choice between, in Willis’ own words, "a 'piece' or peace?" Out of a commitment to following her own path, and with a university traveling scholarship from her Master's program, Willis returns to the stupa, where she spends a year dedicated to her spiritual practice. There she learns to live with both pride and humility, a challenge which, she remarks, is made additionally difficult for all African Americans due to the trauma of slavery.
She finds what she is seeking in Buddhism. Willis spends a year in Tibet living at a Buddhist monastery, and eventually goes on to teach Buddhist Studiesin order to give the gift of believing in oneself to others. Ultimately, as an adult, Willis settled into a life she chose for herself. She revisits her family, her hometown, and her father’s Baptist church. Having come full-circle, Willis expands the concept of her spirituality identity to see herself as a Baptist-Buddhist.
I found Jan Willis’ story astonishing, in part due to the opportunities which open to her at pivotal moments in her life. Looking back on her life’s accomplishments, receiving the praise of her students and her spiritual guide, Lama Yeshe, upon her teachings in the classroom, Willis recognizes that she has always had a lioness spirit, longing to really roar. This book is a powerful and vulnerable telling of a phenomenal woman’s life. Neither Black, Baptist, nor Buddhist, I found this autobiography beautiful and enlightening. I imagine that for readers who can more closely identify with Jan Willis’ experience, Dreaming Me offers a model of profound hope and inspiration.