“Just do it” With Breeshia Wade

Just do it: Don’t get too tied down to how it’s going to look. A lot of your vision will be transformed through the process of implementing it. That’s ok. For example, you can start today knowing that you have a passion for executing the law and think you might want to go into law […]

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Just do it: Don’t get too tied down to how it’s going to look. A lot of your vision will be transformed through the process of implementing it. That’s ok. For example, you can start today knowing that you have a passion for executing the law and think you might want to go into law enforcement. Then decide you actually want to be a lawyer. No, maybe a judge. All of these things are driven by the same purpose, but they’re just different ways of meeting the challenge. Don’t get too bogged down by form.

As part of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Breeshia Wade.

Breeshia received her B.A from Stanford University and completed her M.A at the University of Chicago. She also completed a two-year training as a lay ordained Zen Buddhist end-of-life caregiver via Upaya Zen Center. Over the past 5 years, she has supported people through grief and transitions as a birth doula and (Buddhist) end-of-life caregiver, serving in hospitals, hospices, and palliative care.

Breeshia uses her role as an end-of-life caregiver to encourage those who are not facing illness, death or dying to be open to what grief can teach them about sex, desire, life and relationships. Check out her program OmniPresent, an online community offering online courses and in-person workshops on how to build a life of meaning.

She is also the author of Grieving While Black, which advocates for using mindfulness as a tool to expand the world’s conception of grief beyond concrete loss.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us about how you grew up?

I grew up in a rural town called Chester, South Carolina, population just over 5,000. I was raised by a community of people, not just immediate family members, which included my grandmother, great-grandmothers, cousins, great-aunts and even great-great aunts. For the most part, we grew our own food, raised our own meat, and relied on each other for survival. I didn’t grasp what “free range” meant until about five years ago when I learned about factory farming, simply because our animals were always “free range.” The knowledge was imparted upon me because I made a fuss about the difference egg prices.

I also grew up Southern Baptist and attended a very strict Christian school associated with Bob Jones University.

My family was pretty mobile in general, even if the distance we traveled was short. For example, when I was younger, I showed a lot of academic promise, so many people in my family took turns picking me up, babysitting me, dropping me off etc. so that my educational options weren’t limited by the fact that my mom, dad, and grandmother had to work while my school was 30 minutes in the opposite direction of their jobs. One person would finish their shift at 4 a.m., pick up a sleepy Breeshia, bring me to their home while I slept and make me breakfast before driving me to school.

The strictness of my Christian upbringing faded when I moved to Maryland with another family member. I attended a loosely Episcopalian middle school before heading off to Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George’s County, which had a reputation for having the country’s highest number of African-American students pass AP exams yearly. Many ERHS graduates went on to attend excellent universities. It was wonderful to be surrounded by so many awesome Black students.

The last two years of high school I moved to Southern California. My family and I had visited previously, and we realized that we a) didn’t experience as much direct racism, and b) living in California for two years prior to college would give me better access to some of the best public universities in the country in case I didn’t get into my dream schools.

To be honest, I loved each new place I lived more than the last, though I did find that I am not a big fan of cities.

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

My introduction to Zen Buddhism in undergrad made a huge impact on me eight years ago. I recall going to my first meditation retreat for three days. I couldn’t actually afford the retreat because I was broke 🙂 But Oakland Zen Center sponsored me.

Being silent and solely focusing on your relationship to yourself and everything around you can be quite overwhelming at first. Most of us aren’t used to total silence, to enough stillness to simply notice what we’re feeling on a deeply intimate level — at least I wasn’t. I couldn’t put my hand on why it was so difficult to sit still, to not give in to the urge to tap my foot, clear my throat, or wiggle my body. But when I was given the opportunity to truly be with myself, I felt like someone had presented me with the most complex, beautiful gift (and terrifying, tbh).

That began my Buddhist journey. I was familiar with DBT and various forms of mindfulness practices, but a lot of those were geared towards some sort of ulterior motive. They encouraged me to be mindful so that I could be more “productive,” so that I could “calmly” and “peacefully” tolerate intolerable circumstances. Having space to develop an honest sitting practice that focused more on being grounded than peaceful, more on authenticity than camouflage was truly meaningful.

For most people, I think ultimate concerns are driven by grief and fear of loss-–-the reality of impermanence. And, I think it is expressed by all the things they subconsciously do to avoid loss, most of which is quite harmful to themselves and others.

Having the chance to develop a sitting practice through my first sponsored mini-sesshin really shaped my life’s work.

You are currently leading an organization that is helping to make a positive social impact. Can you tell us a little about what you and your organization are trying to create in our world today?

I use my role as an end-of-life caregiver to encourage those who are not facing illness, death or dying to be open to what grief can teach them about sex, desire, life, and relationships. I do this by writing books, including Grieving While Black, which will be published by Penguin this February, and teaching online courses for individuals and in-person workshops for businesses and organizations.

My years of experience guiding people through major transitions (i.e. birth and death) allow me to support large organizations in developing training that gets to the root of failed D&I initiatives, employee burnout, and fear of failure. My trainings range from working with sales teams in start-ups to uncover how an unexplored relationship with grief hinders growth (e.g. fear of failure) to helping white employees unpack how their relationship to impermanence negatively impacts an organization’s ability to attract and keep Black talent.

Grief is bigger than what’s already happened to us — it is connected to our fears, what we love, and who we aspire to become. Grief impacts our relationship with ourselves and one another, and our social location determines the amount of harm we inflict against others based on our inherent relationship to grief.

Grief doesn’t require a precipitating event, just a subtle awareness of the present moment and how that might impact the future. We feel grief during our saddest moments, like the passing of a loved one, and in our happiest ones, like the day we’re dropped off at college. It is connected to moments that have already passed, like a fight with our best friend, and to moments to come, like knowing we will lose someone close to us one day. Grief is knowing that we, too, will die. Grief happens at the height of our careers, within stable and healthy families, and while we’re in love as we become aware of the reality of impermanence.

Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?

When I was five years old, I remember sitting in my bedroom at my grandmother’s house watching the Fresh Prince of Bel-air on one of those old school tv’s where you had to move the antenna to get a proper signal (don’t worry, the Fresh Prince came on via satellite so it was all good 😉 ). Anyway, I remember looking at this awesome Black family living comfortably, and I thought to myself, “I want what they have!” Carlton was obsessed with getting into Princeton, following in his dad’s footsteps. I asked my mother if Princeton was a good school. She said, “yes.” I heard the show mention other schools, like Yale and Stanford. I asked my dad if Yale and Stanford were good schools, he said, “They’re great!” So, I decided I would get into one of those schools so that my family could have the things Uncle Phil’s family had.

Now, life clearly isn’t that simply, but five year old Breeshia didn’t know that. But, I did get into my dream school (i.e. Stanford).

Even when I walked across the graduation stage at Stanford, I couldn’t escape the grief that had driven me towards this purpose: witnessing and experiencing addiction, the loss of a parent, abuse, poverty, and hopelessness. All of these moments were present as I celebrated one of my proudest achievements, not to mention my fear of failure, and the sense of betrayal I felt around leaving my family in pursuit of a “future” where people who looked like us would hardly be present.

Through my own experiences of complex trauma and loss, I began weaving a path that made healing possible, merging lessons and traditions from my hometown with practices I learned while away from home. My journey led me to earn an M.A. from the University of Chicago in Religious Studies and then spend two years at a Buddhist chaplaincy training at Upaya Zen Center. I began to offer healing to others after deepening my Buddhist practice by receiving Jukai — a lay ordination ceremony predicated upon the formal acceptance of Zen Buddhist precepts.

However, I wanted to take these lessons beyond my sitting mat, beyond tight-knit end-of-life caregiving and Buddhist communities and make them visible, meaningful, and accessible to more people in society. I wanted to distill these insights into language and practices that anyone could use, even if they didn’t have a ton of money or want to go on a meditation retreat.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I would say discovering new versions of myself, which continues to open up how I experience and witness others. This isn’t 100% positive or negative. I’m neither constantly swooning by the light and possibility in people (or myself) nor am I entirely blinded by the faults.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

When you are doing impactful things, it can have uncomfortable, and ambiguous, results, even though you’ve played your part in showing up. I see this in my own work, supporting people in facing fears they’ve spent a lifetime avoiding, in order to grieve them.

Most of us did not grow up being able to express anger, conflict, or hold boundaries in a healthy way, and that leads to issues setting and holding boundaries later in life. And, if you grew up in a conversative or fundamentalist environment, usually anger, conflict, and boundaries often were expressed as: punishment, violence, isolation, and loneliness. Hell, look at our criminal “justice” system. Anyway, this is especially true if you grew up viewing “God the Father,” as vindictive in Their anger, punitive in Their justice, or absent in Their presence and love after you’ve either failed or disappointed Them.

Sometimes, I’m asked to facilitate or intervene in family dynamics that were toxic at best, abusive at worst. These dynamics are always complex, and often the dynamics developed out of a family’s malinformed attempt to be “good people,” and to raise “good people,” a phrase loaded with so much unexplored grief (a topic I cover more in-depth in my classes).

In these situations, I’ve set boundaries with people who expected to implicitly diminish my personhood, just as they diminish the personhood of everyone else around them (e.g. mothers who view their children as property instead of people or white coworkers who only want to interact with a coworkers Blackness when it can make them feel good etc.).

There are people with whom I’ve worked who have not liked hearing how their desire to be seen as a “good white person” made the Black people around them responsible for their grief. There are people with whom I’ve worked who have not been happy when I’ve pointed out how their fear of their own agency feeds into power struggles they’re having at home. They get angry, and I’m ok with that. Anger is a powerful emotion that can point us to where work needs to be done. I know I’ve done my own work in watering the seeds that will ultimately lead to their transformation, maybe even healing, even if I’m not present to witness it.

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I define making a difference as showing up authentically and being willing/able to answer when life calls you to do difficult work, especially internal work because this type of work has the largest impact on the world we interact with. Making a difference doesn’t have to be about big gestures. It doesn’t need to gain the attention of everyone around you, though validation is always nice. Making a difference is about being invested in something greater than your own ego and doing what’s necessary to fulfill your role in a greater purpose. We are neither meant to take on huge causes alone nor to single handedly end an injustice. We’re meant to each show up and do our own small part in making a difference.

Many young people would not know what steps to take to start to create the change they want to see. But you did. What are some of the steps you took to get your project started? Can you share the top 5 things you need to know to become a changemaker? Please tell us a story or example for each.

Ok, my first piece of advice-–do not tie your purpose, your passion, or anything that gives you meaning directly to a paycheck. At least not at first, not unless you have access to some other form of income that can sustain you such that your work isn’t crushed and manipulated under the pressures that come with capitalism.

It wasn’t until I had an entirely new career that I separated the job that paid my bills from my life’s purpose. This gave my spirit, and work, room to grow without being strangled. I know a lot of people curse having to work during the day while working on their passion at night, especially if their day job is demanding and leaves too little time and energy to truly make progress on their dream. But I think it’s a blessing to be able to allow your passion to grow, however slowly, without having to tie it to your survival. When your purpose/passion is too quickly linked to your ability to pay rent, buy food, have health insurance etc., then fear of failure and resentment can creep into places they do not belong. You can’t create positive change from that space.

Embrace failure: And develop a loving, intimate relationship with it. So many people want to appear invincible and strong, especially on social media, but the quicker you can get comfortable with failure the sooner you can embrace your successes.

Be open to your own shadowside: We all have one, but don’t fret! Where there’s a shadow you’ll find the sun. Knowing your own shadowside allows you to keep an eye on how you might inadvertently jeopardize your purpose. It also keeps you open, without jealousy or fear, to when someone else needs to step in to facilitate the process.

Surround yourself with good people, and let them challenge you: There’s a difference between affirming you and always agreeing with you. Good people are good to you and for you. They support you in your purpose and encourage you to grow, which is not always pleasant (but it isn’t toxic).

Just do it: Don’t get too tied down to how it’s going to look. A lot of your vision will be transformed through the process of implementing it. That’s ok. For example, you can start today knowing that you have a passion for executing the law and think you might want to go into law enforcement. Then decide you actually want to be a lawyer. No, maybe a judge. All of these things are driven by the same purpose, but they’re just different ways of meeting the challenge. Don’t get too bogged down by form.

What are the values that drive your work?

Authenticity, presence, and courage.

Many people struggle to find what their purpose is and how to stay true to what they believe in. What are some tools or daily practices that have helped you to stay grounded and centred in who you are, your purpose, and focused on achieving your vision?

Meditation and finding time to create every morning. In other words, before I give other people access to me, I set my own intentions and create my own visions.

In my work, I aim to challenge us all right now to take back our human story and co-create a vision for a world that works for all. I believe youth should have agency over their own future. Can you please share your vision for a world you want to see? I’d love to have you describe what it looks like and feels like. As you know, the more we can imagine it, the better we can manifest it!

I imagine a world where fear and the numbing of our emotions doesn’t drive so much of what we do, and the result of that numbing/lack of awareness (e.g. wealth, status, power) isn’t viewed as progress.

We are powerful co-creators and our minds and intentions create our reality. If you had limitless resources at your disposal, what specific steps would take to bring your vision to fruition?

I would continue healing my own mind and spirit so that I could create art, courses, and tools to heal others.

Perhaps I’d host a TV show where I enter into the lives of millennials struggling with things related to grief (e.g. toxic relationships, social media addiction, FOMO, fear of failure, career obsession etc) and guide them in identifying, addressing, and healing that grief in order to open up more conversation around grief and it’s manifestation, beyond concrete loss and Death. Kinda like Marie Kondo on Tidying Up, but I’d explore the closets and cabinets of people’s inner lives.

And, of course, I’d keep writing.

I see a world driven by the power of love, not fear. Where human beings treat each other with humanity. Where compassion, kindness and generosity of spirit are characteristics we teach in schools and strive to embody in all we do. What changes would you like to see in the educational system? Can you explain or give an example?

Starting kids with the awareness of their own grief and fear of loss from an early age so that they have context for how to deal with difficult emotions (i.e. anger, fear, jealousy, impatience) by knowing where they’re coming from (i.e. fear of loss, or impermanence). This would also equip kids with a greater sense of clarity in defining their interests and goals, and it would set them up for more fulfilling relationships. Most people 40+ wish that they could start life over with the wisdom they’ve gained over the years when it was neither the passing of time nor a mass of experiences that magically gave them wisdom; it was their awareness, of many things, but often loss, whether that loss had already taken place or was just a speck on the horizon.

It neither takes decades of experiences nor the irreversible loss of time to gain certain insights around what’s valuable to us and how to go about having a meaningful life and relationships. Wisdom isn’t gleaned by simply having experiences; wisdom is gained by opening oneself up to experiences (i.e. awareness) enough to be transformed by them. That can happen at any age. We can give a piece of that to our children. We could give them the gift of themselves, which would change their relationship to time.

Think about it — what if kids were given more time to build a meaningful life simply because they had more information about their relationship to grief and loss?

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Consider your ultimate concern, and find ways to do work that addresses it.

Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Honestly, my wife, because I think she’s an incredible person, and I’ll take any opportunity to be alone with her.

But, if you mean someone famous (and alive)…then maybe Serena Williams. I just like her energy. She seems thoughtful and chill.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Feel free to check out my work and pre-order my book, Grieving While Black.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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