Sista Survivor: Claire Jones’ memoir of Buddhism, Barbados and Boldness

Author Claire Gittens-Jones

Claire Jones is a Black artist, writer, playwright and entrepreneur. An immigrant from Barbados, she survived domestic violence as a child and has now built a strong marriage and family despite financial and health struggles. She’s seeking representation for her upcoming memoir Sista Survivor, which among other things describes how she finds strength through Nichiren Buddhism.

You speak pretty frankly about racism you and your family had experienced, including times when you feared for your safety as the only Black family in some areas. That was a wake-up call for me as a white person to understand better how serious this issue is for many Black people. What would you say has enabled you to survive this level of discrimination and hatred?

First of all, I am glad to hear it was a wake-up call for you. I have shared my story regarding racism numerous times with white folk who seem to ‘get it’ only to become disinterested or walk away once the issues continue to escalate. They find it too onerous to care enough to stay. The wake-up call for those who are not Black is finally right in their faces (January 6, 2021). As a country, we can choose to deal with what is obviously at the root of our problems or, once again, turn away and continue to be oblivious. In this country, Black folks shared our stories repeatedly but only encountered backlash (BLM Movement).

Listen to my podcast ClarityIsJustSoHip: ClarityTalks- Facing Our Truths.

“This my land remains safe and tranquil” is a quote from the Lotus Sutra. Every day, as a part of my meditation and prayers, I recite a portion of the Lotus Sutra. This particular section is at the heart of my Buddhist practice. The above quote is one that I have embedded in my life. The lotus flower itself thrives in mud and remains undefiled by said mud. I see this beautiful representation as a metaphor for my life. My life’s journey as a survivor of domestic violence made me a fighter. I have had to fight to overcome so much loss and tragedy to self-actualize that I developed an enduring resilience. The crazier life becomes, the more determined I am to push back to live to see another day. I survived all of the hatred and discrimination because I see myself as the lotus in the muddy pond: the mud can never defile my true inner essence.

Born and raised in the Caribbean, I encountered more instances of classism than racism. Since settling in the American suburbs with my small family, I faced numerous examples of discrimination. As a stay-at-home mother, I quickly learned that my black skin destined me to spend much of my time alone with my toddler in the early days of motherhood. During those early days, my daughter and I were excluded from play dates with the all-white groups when we tried to join the Y. When the time came for her first vaccinations, she was traumatized when they gave all the shots at once. She was afraid of shots and needles for many years after that experience. I later was told by an African-American friend there was a stigma against Black women regarding vaccinations. She told me we were perceived as uneducated about the importance of vaccinations and believed not to vaccinate our children, so they grabbed my child, thinking I would never come back in. Much later in her teens my daughter was called a monster because she had dreadlocks. When we moved to our all-white neighborhood, we were called n****r bi**ches while we walked to pick up mail. This rejection even reared its ugly head when we were the only Black family amongst Americans living in Tokyo, Japan, as expatriates.

Experiences like these were lessons that made me stronger, helping me become clear-eyed about my invisibility as a Black woman here in America.

Throughout your story you have various dreams, both as a younger person and as an adult, such as reuniting your entire family. Some you can accomplish, but others you have to learn to release. How did you determine when to keep working towards something and when to let go gracefully?

My life has always been multi-faceted. Sometimes there was so much coming at me all at once I had to make space for priorities. I migrated to this country with the primary goal to gain a high school diploma and enter college. The larger and more distant goal was to publish my writings, share my story, and help marginalized women like my mother and me to self-actualize. Never once did my experience living under domestic violence leave my mind and heart. The violence informed every aspect of my existence, at first in very negative ways, so I made decisions that caused me great harm. However, when I found Buddhism in the early 90s, I realized that my choices were unhealthy and took began taking responsibility for those choices. Little did I know the journey was going to take years to stabilize.

When I first started practicing Buddhism, one of the leaders told me I had to take responsibility for my life; I need to stop living my life as a victim. It was challenging to hear this advice, but once I chanted and prayed about it, I saw the wisdom in her guidance. It was then that I started to decipher and weed out which goals needed to stay and the ones that needed to go. This process has not been easy, and sometimes, I held on to situations that were best left alone because of habit. However, by focusing my daily prayers and chanting, I learned over time to channel my energy in healthier directions.

As a survivor, I lived in a constant state of desperation and anxiety. It took many years of psychotherapy and focused spiritual practice to bring clarity, awareness, presence, acceptance, and gratitude into my life. Today I am finally beginning to thrive and live not to just survive.

You and your husband stayed together through a whole lot of relational and other issues. How were you able to weather so many storms as a couple?

When I became ill, I had to face my marriage’s fractures and fissures by first acknowledging those same ‘fractures and fissures’ were within me. In our Buddhist practice, we learn that our environment is a reflection of our inner life condition. Therefore, if we look within, we will understand why things are the way they are in our external environs.

As I continue to heal, the effort to understand my life’s deeper machinations is still ongoing. The most important thing for me is to continue my journey to self-actualization, which I’m doing by sharing my story to help other women like myself who come from broken homes and survivor backgrounds. When I was under severe duress from multiple fronts, I placed my life and my marriage in the care of the higher power. Focusing on the serenity prayer, “God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” created the space, clarity, and calmness needed to cut through all the noise. I faced the truth about my marriage, and I am at peace regarding my choice.

When we first got married, my husband and I promised each other to never go to bed without saying sorry if we hurt or disrespected each other during our waking hours. However, as our challenges grew and financial support and familial support dissipated, the distance grew between us. This situation was allowed to go on until I became ill and faced my mortality. The illness brought our relationship sharply into focus. As I navigated the new issues related to my health, I met the many problems in my marriage that went unattended. During those initial years, we grappled with issues that challenged our life choices as a couple and as individuals within a marriage. However, once again, my Buddhist practice allowed me/us to confront and face everything head-on. It was tough, but the past six years taught me that one should never take the marriage institution lightly. It takes two healthy individuals who respect each other as individuals and are willing to compromise as a couple to make a marriage work. After 22 years of marriage ours is still a work in progress.

How did you discover Buddhism, and how has it helped you cope with life’s challenges?

Many years ago, when I was at the lowest point of my life, I questioned the effectiveness of worshiping a Christian god. Although I came from a broken home, my mother taught my brother and me the importance of faith to heal and move our lives forward during the most challenging times. She raised us in the church, and I was confirmed before puberty and became a born-again Christian in my early 20s. However, something was missing in my life. No matter how much I prayed, my life remained heavy and unfulfilled. Little did I know that a spiritual practice inspired by a monk called Nichiren, born in the 1200s in Japan, would foster my self-actualization; little did I know that one day I would wake up at the foot of Mount Fuji, Japan where the Buddhist temple resides. Neither did I know that this Buddhist practice would save my life.

When I left Barbados in the mid 1980s searching for a better life, I continued to pray and ask for guidance. It took me until now to realize the ‘thing’ I sought was always within me. I now know that ‘thing’ is an my inner power unique to me and reinforced by the power of my daily and consistent Buddhist practice. However, my life continued to spiral out of control, and I continued numbing myself with alcohol, weed, and sexual relationships to get away from the internal pain. During one of these ‘numbing’ binges, in a small, single-windowed room in Brooklyn, NY, I decided to end it all. I smoked massive amounts of weed, drank copious amounts of hard liquor, and took some pills. The emotional and psychological pain was so overwhelming I could not take it anymore; I did not see my life’s value. I laid on my bed and went into a deep sleep. Fortunately, looking back today, I am grateful I woke up the next day. Unexpectedly, plainclothes cops greeted me as I opened my door to make a quick run to the bathroom. They were about to arrest my neighbor. I later learned he shot someone through a door at a birthday party the previous day.

A few days before then, I made a drug run with him. This moment was when I decided my life had to change. Shortly after that, I discovered the Buddhist chant of Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo in a dank subway station in Manhattan. When the chant was passed to me it was as if a shot of lightening passes through my body leaving my dreadlocks on end. I immediately asked the stranger who told me to say the chant what the hell was that! Out of nowhere he came up to me, and offered me the elixir for my life. It is because of this chant that I am here today. I later was further inspired to continue chanting when I read how this same chant allowed Tina Turner to break away from domestic violence in her life. She wrote about her journey in her book I, Tina: My Life Story. She is a devout Buddhist for many years. Her book was instrumental in my decision to share my life story of domestic violence and the power of this practice to change one’s life for the better.

What would you say to people who criticize meditation and self-care and say that people should be out campaigning to change things in the world that are unfair rather than learning to meditate and accept them?

I would say that is their opinion, and they are free to choose the direction they want to go with their lives and views, just like I am open to choosing mine. My faith is my personal and private choice. As time has gone on, I realize it is best to only speak about my spiritual preferences without forcing my views on others and, most of the time, only when asked. I live my life with Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo at its center. I allow actual proof of this practice’s benefits in my life to show its power to those who care to see. As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding; you can see how I have lived my life and how I have overcome and am still standing strong rooted in faith. I do not have to go out campaigning in the world to change unfair things. I have to make the positive causes to change my own life from the inside out, and those choices will ripple outward, creating positive effects where needed in the world, big and small, seen and unseen. My life is not guided by what people say, do, and think because I alone am in charge of my life and choices. What others do is up to them.

Recently, my daughter, who was born into Buddhism, had to reflect on the kind of people she allowed in her life, and she told me this:

Suppose your environment is toxic or people around you refuse to be accountable or take responsibility for negative behavior and actions. In that case, it’s time to focus on yourself and what you can do. That can mean leaving that hostile environment or cutting off friends or family. Sometimes when you run into these situations, you can only reflect on these interactions as lessons for your own life.

During our discussion, I gave her comfort by saying, “if its not there, then its not meant to be.” A lot of times one must find the courage to move on without closure. Some things or situations simply cannot be closed and we have to come to terms on our own. If we look at life in this way, it can make things a little bit easier.

You’ve had a lot of health problems as well as financial struggles. How do you think the American healthcare system, or America in general, could better serve people to help them build decent lives?

The healthcare system here in America is difficult to navigate for everyone. It is even more so for families like ours. Everyone in my small family deals with challenging and complicated health issues. As a Caribbean Black/African American family, we have learned to advocate for ourselves and not take everything at face value. Each one of us faced incidences of discrimination with American healthcare. As a cancer survivor, my husband dealt with an inferior anesthesiologist who made things unnecessarily difficult for him during his care. My daughter, who was diagnosed with high blood pressure at eight, fought to find a doctor who understood how the traumas from bullying and racism in school affected and infected her life. At age 21, she is now figuring out how to face GAD, agoraphobia, and PTSD caused by racial trauma. She had to fight for six years to get her diagnosis. We cannot find an affordable Black psychologist who deals with racial trauma in our area no matter how hard we look. There are only three Black psychologists/therapists licensed in our state.

As for me, I took the reins of my care in my own hands when the doctor who diagnosed me disclosed how serious my illness was with my teenage daughter sitting in the room with a monotone voice lacking empathy. She did not allow me to sit with my child and explain my condition in a more calm setting. Her choice caused unnecessary stress at an inopportune time. However, I learned to be grateful for these instances because I grew more determined to take charge of our health as a family each time. We are all very proactive when it comes to our healthcare as a result of our experiences.

What advice would you have for other women who face struggles similar to yours? How can more of us become ‘sista survivors?’

First and foremost, learn to view setbacks as the lessons your life needs not as failures. Over the last six years, I learned to value and take responsibility for my life and choices. I came to believe my life has value. It took a debilitating illness to make me face the true nature of my life, and I did so by applying clarity, awareness, presence, acceptance, and gratitude to every aspect of my life. I would say to all women who face similar struggles to try applying these principles to their lives: to value, respect, and take responsibility for their lives now. Take responsibility for your choices. Do not wait until the bad decisions you made in your lives catch up with you. Stop and assess your lives right now, at this moment, and begin to make the changes necessary to bring about positive outcomes. If you have resentments towards others, burn them and if you are in toxic relationships, remove them or work to remove them from your lives. When or if you have children be conscious of your choices because they are usually watching. Pray for the happiness of those who hurt you as well as for those who support you. Give back to the world even in minute ways because you did not make it here on your own. As for your dreams, take action in big and small ways to make them a reality. Most of all, invest in yourselves in ALL forms. Please know that you are worthy and have a purpose here on Earth.

You can see my thoughts more fully on this in my essay, A Sista Survivor’s Battle Cry: Sista Survivors Rise, Rise Above the Chaos on Medium.

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