Alive in the World: A Conversation with Audrey Lin
by Richard Whittaker, Apr 28, 2009
April 2009, Oakland, California
I first met Audrey Lin at the Mehta home in Santa Clara where each Wednesday evening the Mehtas host an hour of meditation followed by a circle of sharing. Afterwards everyone partakes in a vegetarian dinner in silence. It's always a powerful experience and no two Wednesdays are the same since the mix of guests is always changing along with the thoughts and stories that come to life there. At the time of this interview, the Mehtas had been hosting these evenings for eleven years.
Whenever I attended, I would offer to help with car-pooling from the East Bay. There were always five or six people, often students at UC Berkeley like Audrey, in need of transportation. It's how I'd gotten to know her--from conversations on the way down to Santa Clara and back. And it wasn't long before I could see that she was one of those people who have the persistent need to find out what is Real.
With an ironic smile, my old philosophy teacher called this "the disease." He told me, "I'm afraid you're afflicted with it." I felt proud, actually. For the individual in the grip of this need, second-hand knowledge will never be enough. One will have to find the answers for oneself.
And so it was not entirely surprising when one day I got a proposal in an email from Lin. She sent it to a group of us, announcing her intention to walk to Santa Clara for the next meeting at the Mehta's home. Did any of us want to join her?
I admit to feeling a little alarmed. Was this really a good idea? My reaction was quickly followed by a pang of guilt as I realized I wasn't about to join her.
In fact, Lin's invitation--given on short notice--netted no walking companions. So she walked the fifty-some miles alone.
Her walk created something of a stir among us. The buzz came and then faded as the weeks went by, but Audrey's act stayed with me.
There's something compelling about any act of genuine courage. No such act is really a small act. Quite the contrary. It's impossible to measure such things; they exist in a special category. They are what Gandhi was talking about when he said, "Whatever you do may seem insignificant to you, but it is most important that you do it." Thinking about it all one day, it occurred to me to ask Lin to talk about her walk.
Richard Whittaker: I think it's courageous that you took this walk. Tell me what happened that made you decide to do it. Is it clear to you?
Audrey Lin: I was just talking about this at the Metta Center at our "hope tank." We call it a "hope tank" instead of a "think tank." Nipun [Mehta] came and we all went around in a circle and told our favorite non-violent moment. I couldn't think of anything and Nipun said, "Can I request that you tell us why you walked to Santa Clara?" [laughs]
It was a mix of a lot of things. To give you some context, I think it was the second Wednesday I'd gone to the meditation at the Mehta's home. Guri mentioned the book Planet Walker about John Francis who in the '70s, after an oil spill in the San Francisco Bay, decided to take direct action. He stopped driving and started walking everywhere, and he walked for 22 years. He walked up the coast to Oregon where he got his undergraduate degree. He walked up through Washington and started walking East. He stopped and got his masters and then his PhD in Madison, Wisconsin. Then he walked to the east coast, hopped a sailboat and went to South America, which he walked from tip to tip.
I was so intrigued by that. His story just is at odds with our whole sense of time and accomplishment.
RW: Right. He just started taking action in his own way.
AL: Yes. And I also thought it was really ironic that we drive two hours to meditate for one hour. What do we gain, and at what cost? One of those times I was just riding along in the car and thinking, and I said, "You know, one of these days, we should just walk down or bike down." People just laughed, but it stuck with me.
Another thing is I just spent a summer studying inspiring, great, incredible people and how they brought about change and transformed society and people and hearts. So being immersed in that kind of consciousness, on the one hand, and then living my life not completely on the same page with those ideals-still driving, still consuming, still feeding into our destructive habits-there's this cognitive dissonance. It just weighed my shoulders down.
Each semester, I've started out with the question, do I really want to be here? Because I believe in experiential education, and not just sitting in the classroom and being talked at and writing papers. I believe in the intrinsic value of things rather than doing things for a grade, or for some material gain.
RW: Could you say a little bit more about your interest in experiential learning?
AL: I believe we learn more naturally, and retain more, when we learn through experience. I'm grateful for all the lectures I've sat through and the books I've read, but I don't remember a third of it. The things I do remember are the things where I'm doing something, where I'm relating to people, where I'm connecting with my environment, with someone else, with an idea. Those are the things that stick with me and fuel me.
RW: Yes. I wonder if there aren't a lot of people who feel that something is missing, this other part of learning that you're talking about, real experience. Of course, some people drop out of school for that reason. It's not necessarily the best thing to do.
But you were feeling a gap between the incredible things you've read about Gandhi and the Salt March and, my God, huge things! And then driving down 880 back and forth to an evening of meditation. So tell me more about that decision. How did that happen?
AL: It actually happened in mid-August when our mentorship program was ending. It was Chris's birthday. We all went to downtown Berkeley to write in chalk on the street-all positive messages. And all of a sudden these random people everywhere started asking us, what's happening? What are you doing? We said you want to join us and draw something nice?
People would write things like "Non-violence is love in action" or "Hope. There's nothing stopping us!"-and we'd draw pictures, too. All these kids were coming up to us. "We want to draw!" This was by the BART station and people were coming home from work. We wrote, "Welcome home!" So people were curious and they wanted to draw things, too.
It was incredible how it broke down all these barriers between strangers. So there was this guy, Ken. You know the Street Spirit newspaper? [yes] He was trying to sell those. "Want to buy a paper? One dollar." I was watching all these people pass by him. It's not unusual. There are so many homeless people.
So I went up to him and asked if I could buy him dinner. But when I went to my bag, "Oh, no!" I didn't have my wallet, and I felt so bad. But I had some chocolate banana muffins that I'd baked for Chris's birthday for all of us to have afterwards. So I said, "Can I give you a muffin?" He said, "Sure. I'll take anything."
What struck me about this guy was that he didn't have any sense of entitlement. He didn't have any anger. For someone on the street, that's a powerful script to have. And I ended up talking with him.
He told me a story about how one morning (this was when he had an apartment) how he woke up and really wanted to do drugs. But, no. He said, I'm going to ask God. So he closed his eyes and asked, "What should I do?" When he opened his eyes he had this urge to do the dishes. So he just went over and started washing them. He ended up cleaning the kitchen, and then the whole apartment. When he was done, there was a knock at his door. It was his sister who he hadn't seen in years and years! They spent the night together catching up. When she left, he thought, "Wow, those answers are out there! You just have to listen."
So after my mentorship program ended, I had a week before classes started again. And suddenly I was at a loss for what to do. I was totally not feeling like going back to school. There was no place I needed to be. I was just in a place of reflection or searching for that truth, and wondering. See, I really want to see people living much more compassionately. I want to see a lot of change happening and I want to help bring about that change if that's something you can even do.
So I went for a run and I thought about Ken. I thought, "Okay, I'm just going to ask." And as I was running back down the hills, this thought popped into my head: walking to Santa Clara. It was just such a perfect click! And I was so happy! I would walk from Berkeley and see everything I was missing on the drive. This was on a Saturday, and I left on Monday.
RW: I got your email and I wondered if you were really going to do that. It was kind of shocking, the idea of actually walking from Berkeley to Santa Clara to attend a Wednesday evening meditation. Then, of course, I wondered if anyone else would join you. But no one did, right?
AL: No. Well, Pancho [Ramos-Stierle] called and said, "This is a great idea!" But when I told him I was leaving Monday, it turned out he already had other plans. And Nipun sent me an email. "Oh, this is a great idea!" He told me about Reverend Heng Sure's pilgrimage all the way up the coast doing prostrations all the way. He said, "Why don't you start your walk at the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery? You can meet Reverend Heng Sure." So I got there and Nipun was there. He said, "Are you really going to do this?" I told him I was. "Are you okay with that?" he asked.
"Are you sure?"
I could sense him feeling a little bit responsible for me.
RW: He was worried, I imagine.
AL: Yes. For this young, childish-looking, college student. She seems pretty innocent. Later, after the walk, Nipun said, "Actually we were trying to convince you not to go!" [laughs]. So we met with Rev. Heng Sure and he told me about Peace Pilgrim, this woman who walked across the U.S. multiple times. And he gifted me with his book of letters he wrote to his teacher on his own pilgrimage. Then I left.
RW: You left and walked...
AL: I walked up Channing, took a right on Shattuck and walked down into Oakland. Then, in downtown Oakland, I turned left and walked past Lake Merritt and down E. 14th, a nine-mile stretch.
RW: Which gets into kind of a rough part of town. Tell me about some of your experiences.
AL: I remember, as I got into Oakland, that I became very aware of my race and my clothes and my privilege. Taking ethnic studies classes, these sociological positions really were fresh in my mind. These are things I grapple with all the time-especially the privilege part. So as I walked, I was getting into more and more black neighborhoods and I wondered, what would this be like if I was a black person? How would people look at me? How would this be different if I was a white person? It must be kind of funny to see this Asian American woman who looks like she's fourteen with a big backpack walking through these areas.
What's interesting is that when I was walking through the Fruitvale area and further down East 14th Street, which is a pretty bad area, I noticed that people really didn't notice me. I wondered if this is what homeless people feel in a nice area.
RW: So how did you know that people didn't see you?
AL: There was no eye contact. People were just doing their own thing. One woman was walking with three kids and she looked at me and asked, "Are you okay? Are you lost?" I was like, "Yes, I'm fine." She asked, "Are you trying to get to BART? I can help you." She just looked at me like, why are you here?
I said, "No, I just want to walk. Thank you."
She's like, "Okay. Well, where are you going?"
I said, "I'm going to Santa Clara." [laughs]
She says, "You're walking to Santa Clara!? No, honey, you've got to take BART for that! Take this bus, and then hop on that bus, and then you got to get on BART." [laughs] And I said, "Okay. Thanks. But I'm just going to walk."
She just looked at me. "Well, alright."
I almost had a feeling of guilt for walking through there like how some research student might feel going into some community as an outsider and studying them. I was just walking and wanted to meet whoever I happened to meet up with. My aim wasn't to do research, but I felt like that outsider intruding.
Then as I kept walking, I noticed in one neighborhood I got this sense that there were drug deals going on all around me. I could just feel it. There were all these cars parked with doors half-open with these guys looking out kind of shifty-eyed with music coming out of the cars. They weren't making eye contact. I think I was just so much out of their context, that they just weren't seeing me.
RW: They're not looking for connection, but it was more than that?
AL: It's something you just feel in the air. Even with North Berkeley versus South Berkeley you get two different feelings. Walking through Oakland, when the sign came up "Welcome to San Leandro," I remember feeling the sense of relief and lightness. It was cleaner and there were sidewalks and grassy lawns. I thought, so this is why my parents wanted a stable secure life for me.
I wouldn't want to raise my kids out in East Oakland, either. It's pretty intense. I remember sitting at a bus stop and watching two kids, three or four years old. There was a young man, probably younger than me, watching them. I was sitting there, taking a break. I remember watching the young man. He was talking into his phone, and all of the sudden he got real angry and started swearing. Meanwhile, this little girl is cozying up to me. I was talking with her, "What's your name? Is that your brother?" Meanwhile he was wandering off. No one was watching him. He was climbing a chain link fence, really, really high. And this young man starts shouting into the phone and swearing. This little girl starts clinging tighter to me, and puts her hood up. She's scared.
I'm watching and "Oh, my gosh"-the state of life for these kids, being raised in this environment. I could see their need for some sort of validation and comfort and security, guidance, some sort of structure. Then the bus came. As the little boy was getting on the bus, I said, "You're a good climber." I wanted him to know that he'd been seen. And I wondered, where are these kids going to be in ten years?
So along the way, just watching, seeing little kids being neglected and watching adults in these states-I just don't know what to do sometimes. I want to connect with them and, really, [emotion comes up] I want to have some sense that it's going to be ok. That's it's not going to go who knows where...?
RW: One evening as we were driving back from the Wednesday night meditation I could hear that you really want to know what's real. And that has stayed in my mind about you, Audrey. You can follow a person like that for years. It's a life-long investigation. So how do you feel about me characterizing you this way?
AL: I think it's pretty accurate. I don't know when I became more into philosophy. I guess you could call it that. The love of knowledge, right? I remember in high school when I was a junior and senior, I'd always be asking that question: What is real? Is this real? It's interesting to revisit that-because my world has expanded so much from there. I've encountered so much this last year. But, at the heart of it, I'm still asking this same question.
RW: Yes. So you got into San Leandro. Are there other things you'd like to tell? You still had something like 25 or 30 miles to go.
AL: Two things stuck out for me. Right after the walk when people would be talking with me about it, it helped to show me where my own prejudices are. As I was walking, I'd notice what kind of people I was more receptive to. How do I see this person right in front of me?
In San Leandro there aren't as many benches as there are in Oakland, and I felt like sitting down. At the first bench there were a couple of kids, and I wanted to sit by myself. So I kept walking. I told myself, I'll sit at the next bench. When I got there, someone was sitting there, too. But I still wanted to sit by myself. Then I thought, "Do I really want to sit by myself? Or is it that I'm just not comfortable sitting next to a black man?"
So I decided to sit down next to him. I said, "Hi, How are you?" He said, "I'm good. How are you?" I think his name was Robert. I found out he was from Oakland and I asked, "Do you like San Leandro better than Oakland?" He said, "Yes, definitely!" He said it was so much better for his kids. He was telling me there are good and bad parts of Oakland and I asked which were the bad parts. "East 14th St." he said. "Oh, I was just there yesterday."
We had a great conversation. Then the bus came and he left.
RW: You challenged your own anxiety and it turned out being rewarding.
AL: Yes. There's a problem of projecting one's fears on people. People can sense fear or ill will. And we can also sense love. And we respond to what we sense.
RW: Yes. And some of us may be aware enough, at times, to know that I'm afraid and I'm projecting my fears on someone and still be in the grip of it. It's not like I'm asking you to solve my problem, but it is an issue.
AL: Yes. That's something I grapple with. But just name it in your head. "I'm afraid of this." In theory, I don't agree with this fear, but it's there nonetheless.
Then, for me, if I'm not living according to my values, if I'm not fully, to the best of my ability embracing something out of fear, then when I die-and we're all going to die-what's the point? What's the point of living if you're not really alive? What's the point of living half-heartedly? You have nothing to lose. That's how I look at it.
That's why I took this walk. I didn't really second-guess it that much. If I end up always asking, what if? What if? Then I won't have really lived. I want to be able to die and to say, I'm happy. I did what I could.
I still have fears. They pop up. And a lot of times, those fears aren't about anything real. It reminds me of my new year's resolution last year, not to be embarrassed about anything. Embarrassment comes from a rejection of oneself for some sort of social norm, right? None of that is rooted in anything real. Knowing yourself is something real.
When I first got to Berkeley, I'd never seen homeless people. I had lived in the suburbs. I was terrified, and it really bothered me. But after living in Berkeley for a few years, my feeling about homeless people began to change.
Here's a story. I met this guy named Eddie Zang. He came to speak in my Asian American Studies class. He had been in prison for twenty years for a robbery he committed when he was sixteen. His family moved here from China and they were really, really poor. He got into drugs and into a bad crowd. He was in San Quentin. He got his GED there. He started the first poetry slam in San Quentin. He started writing. He did lots of stuff.
He'd actually just gotten out of prison when he talked to our class. I ended up talking with him afterwards and we went out to lunch together. You've heard how in prison it's very segregated racially? So in class someone asked him, "How do you talk to black people? How do you talk to white people? How do you talk to latino people?" His answer was, "I just go up to people and I say, Hi. My name's Eddie. What's your name?" [laughs]
It's so simple!
RW: Great story. Now I know on the walk you stayed the night with a friend. What other moments stand out that you haven't talked about?
AL: There are so many. And I'm still thinking about it all. But I do want to talk about Deepak. The first night, I'm in San Leandro and I'm thinking "maybe I could sleep here. Or maybe there." I had my sleeping bag. It was getting dark. I didn't want to sleep on someone's lawn. There were no trespassing signs. I didn't want to break the law. And so I just sat down. I thought, well, maybe I'll just eat a snack and turn on my cell phone to see if anything comes up. I had all these messages! And about a minute after I turned it on, Deepak called. Hello Audrey! Where are you? I'll come and pick you up.
I debated, but decided maybe it was ok to take this. He came and picked me up and he had all these ideas. You stay at my house tomorrow and I'll take you to Freemont and you can walk from there. "No. You're taking me back here tomorrow and I'm going to keep walking!" He took me out and got me ice cream. It was interesting to suddenly be on track with someone, because I'd just been on my own.
RW: You insisted that he drove you back to the same spot?
AL: Yes. So we went to his home. His wife, Mandi, had to work the night shift at the hospital, but she told Deepak, you call her every hour until she picks up the phone! Their generosity was another thing in itself.
RW: The next day you continued, and how did that go?
AL: I walked through the rest of San Leandro and Hayward and down into Fremont where Deepak and Mandi live. I stayed there again. The next morning I got up really early because I knew I had a long ways to go. But Deepak got up and fixed me breakfast: No, no! You have to eat this. And he packed all this food for me. So much kindness! At the same time, to what extent do I accept all this and to what extent is it too much?
But they told me life is a marathon, not a sprint. You don't have to do everything the first time around! I said, "Okay" [singsong voice] And I thought, "It doesn't matter. I'm going to walk." [laughs] But it was nice to hear those words and they've stuck with me.
It was really awesome because later that day I was walking along the Great American Parkway. You know, before Chromite? It was about 7:15. And I saw Deepak walking towards me and we walked the last few blocks.
RW: Not only did you have all those experiences out in the world, but you had these experiences with your friends and their caring. Is there anything you'd like to add?
AL: There are so many stories, but now sometimes it seems like a dream. It's like doing a Vipassana retreat. It's a complete experience. This walk was only three days, but I experienced things first hand.
A couple of times people offered me rides and I really got scared. This guy pulled over. "Where are you going? Can I give you a ride?"
"No, I'm going to walk."
"Come on. I'll give you a ride."
"NO!" -I don't know what hit me.
RW: You would have to admit, wouldn't you, that there are things to be afraid of?
AL: Yes. But I've heard so many stories of how dangers have been transformed. I know that's possible, too. That was the main time I got scared. I noticed how my body reacted. But you have to put yourself out there to get some street smarts. You can't live in a bubble all your life. And having encountered all these things on an experiential level, I take my experiences with me wherever I go.
I love this quote from Kurt Hahn who founded Outward Bound. He said, "There is more in us than we know. Perhaps if we can be made to see it, for the rest of our lives, we'll never settle for less."