How to Embody Kindness
Spirituality & Health|January/February 2022
Lessons from a lifetime of spiritual adventure
By Stephen Kiesling. Photographs by Leila Rose Fanner

Willa Blythe Baker began meditating when she was eight years old and developed her practice through a pair of three-year meditation retreats to become a lama in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. She also earned a doctorate from Harvard and founded the Natural Dharma Fellowship in Boston and the Wonderwell Mountain Refuge in Springfield, New Hampshire. All that has led to an embodied practice called somatic mindfulness—a practice that wonderfully dovetails with what we know from modern neuroscience. Her marvelous new book is The Wakeful Body: Somatic Mindfulness as a Path to Freedom.

Let’s start back in the late ’60s, in Berkeley, California, when your spiritual adventure began.

Well, it actually started earlier than that, in Portland, Oregon, in the mid-’60s. My dad was a professor at Reed College during the heyday of all the crazy psychedelic stuff. Our neighbor was kind of a cult figure, a legendary English professor who had these wild parties. We were tamer than he was, but still, my dad was pushing the envelope in his way, wearing a baja jacket and cowboy boots to class at a time when the dress code was a suit and tie.

When I was three, my parents divorced and my mother got a job at UC Berkeley. She was a professor of cell biology, and when I was eight we started Transcendental Meditation together. She took me down to the Berkeley Flats, where there was a TM center in a big old house converted into an ashram, populated by swamis in peach-colored robes. TM became kind of a mother/daughter thing.

My TM teacher gave me a secret mantra. Because I was a child, she’d have me walk or do a puzzle while saying my mantra. When I was about 10 or 11, she started transferring me from the child practice into the closed-eyes, sitting technique of TM.

It strikes me that the stated goal of meditation back then was different than what you write about now. The quest for enlightenment was a purely mental state—and that was often demonstrated by how the mind can dominate the body.

TM advertised levitation—psychic flying. My mother studied TM and learned to levitate—or at least tried to. The reality of levitation was an awkward kind of hopping that seemed really silly to me. Your new book was enormously helpful to me because it reframes the quest. What you’re talking about is a unified mind and body.

Yes. Being a young person at that time, I was a little caught up in the mysticism and “miracles” of those traditions. But slowly, through the practice of meditation, I started to see what the real miracle of meditation is. It’s not that you can do magical things with your mind, but rather that you become more intimate with yourself. As you become more intimate with yourself, you notice the ways you are suffering. These are human sufferings, so by extension, you become more intimate with the sufferings of others, also. A natural byproduct of meditation is to discover that compassion is innate to yourself. The miracle of meditation is that it opens this doorway to love and compassion and kindness—a sort of kindness that is deeper than a manufactured sense of kindness, deeper than a cognitive sense of kindness. It’s a more embodied and innate kindness that you begin to access for yourself and by extension for others through practice.

Another miracle of meditation is that it helps dissolve the separation between body and mind and between self and world. It helps us become less dualistic, more integrated with everything in and around us.

That’s lovely. How did you make the jump from TM to Buddhism?

That transition really started in high school when I began to read books on world religions. I knew early on that I was a seeker. But there is one moment that I remember from eighth grade when we were reading Siddhartha in class and my teacher wrote the Four Noble Truths on the chalkboard. He wrote “Life is Suffering,” and then he turned around and looked at all of our faces to see our reactions. My first reaction was, “Hell yeah! I feel pretty miserable. We’re all miserable.” Middle school is a hard time, and I was like, “Oh wow! Buddha gets it!”

The Buddha’s First Noble Truth helped me feel less alone at that moment in my life. But over time, I began to realize that Buddhist teachings are not obsessed with suffering. Not at all. The teachings are very much about joy and looking for the causes of happiness.

You write that part of your own awakening to embodied meditation began in college with your struggle with body image.

Yes. Before I went to college, my body wasn’t something that I thought about very much. But then in college this inner voice took over—almost like it was in the campus ether. It was subtle: It crept up on me and suddenly I was counting calories. A scale appeared in my room, and I started looking at myself in the mirror to see if I was thin enough. I had never done these things before and I didn’t know what was going on. It was this strange, unspoken tyranny.

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