Shih-In Ma is a social justice advocate who works to promote diversity and inclusion in Centre County.
The State College native and Penn State alum, left a corporate career at IBM to begin a journey of spirituality, self-reflection and meditation. Her journey has taken her around the world and included spending four years in India with Amma, who's known as the hugging saint.
Shih-In Ma teaches meditation and shares opportunities for others to gain better insight and understanding of those around them.
Cheraine Stanford Welcome to Take Note on WPSU, I'm Cheraine Stanford. Shih-In Ma is a social justice advocate who works to promote diversity and inclusion in Centre County. The State College native and Penn State alum, left a corporate career at IBM to begin a journey of spirituality, self-reflection and meditation. Her journey has taken her around the world and included spending four years in India with Amma, who's known as the hugging saint. Shih-In Ma teaches meditation and shares opportunities for others to gain better insight and understanding of those around them. Shih-In Ma, thank you for joining us today. Shih-In Ma Thank you for having me. Cheraine Stanford I think one of the things that you're probably best known for is a list or listserv of, you know, diversity activities and organizations and just events that you call the inclusion expansion opportunities. Can you explain a little bit about what that is and why you decided to start that? Shih-In Ma Well, actually, the IE what I call IEOs is a list of everything I can find locally to help people get to know and learn about the lives of to meet people outside their demographics. So coming from the Bay Area in California, honestly, I find this place to be pretty homogenous. And so. And I really love diversity. I've traveled a lot. There's so much to learn. And yet I think that people are at heart the same across cultures, across religions across any any of these kinds of demographics. So I started the list when I first came here, because I wanted to do this for myself. And finally, I guess this is two, two and a half years ago. It's like wow, maybe it'd be helpful for some other people. So now, now I do it pretty much about when I, as my time allows about every three weeks on the other piece of that, so for initially I was trying to leave myself out of it. Now I'm finding since I'm the editor and the curator of it, I guess sometimes I put things in so that people because most people who are really busy, so things that they can read things of links, because I find that at least what I learned in school in terms of history, what have lots of things were missing. And there's more and more coming out. And so as, as people, we, there's a process, it's psychological is also spiritual of projection. So I actually don't know what's going on with you, right? I just look and say, if she looked like that, if she had that facial expression, if she had that tone of voice, or he or whatever, that would mean this, right? So then we put our projections out, and we think that they're real. And so this is the beginning of, to me, biases of prejudice, of stereotypes and this sort of thing. So when and studies have shown that we tend to be really siloed in terms of who we run around with on demographics and in a place as homogenous as a State College, or even, you know, Bellefonte, where I live is even more homogenous, right? That then we actually don't get out of our, we don't get out of our silos and we can continue to have these misconceptions about each other. And it could be positive or negative. Cheraine Stanford So you're hoping that this list would help people go to spaces and places to do more of that learning about different kinds of people Shih-In Ma And meeting people coming to see lives that aren't their own. Even if they don't go for instance, there was a thing in Carlisle that there actually was an Indian School in Carlisle, where they were pulling what they called an Indian school where they were basically pulling Native Americans out of their homes, depriving them of the right to their language, cutting, their hairs, changing trying to change the culture, right? I read that and it's like, oh, you know, this is going on. So I put it in the list. I don't necessarily expect anybody to go but I'm hoping and this is what I've heard back from some people who tell me even just reading the list, they get little light bulbs of "Oh, yeah. What's going on? Oh, yeah, this is possible." So I mean, honestly, at this point with this list, maybe on a good day, good week, I go to one or two events in addition to my regular commitments, right. So I don't go to all of them, but even just knowing to get us to think outside of our usual life experience. That's part of my, my goal for that. Cheraine Stanford And you mentioned going to the Bay Area, you were in the Bay Area, but you grew up in this area. You grew up in State College. Can you talk about what it was like to grow up in State College? It would have been the end of the 50s, early 60s here. What was that like for you growing up as a child? Shih-In Ma Oh, it was so white, honestly. So for those of you who don't know, I'm Chinese American, in terms of ethnicity. So I had 600 people in my college class and when I started to get involved here, when I came back from India, I started to look at I went through the yearbook, starting to count because Cheraine Stanford You said 600 people in your-- Shih-In Ma No, no, sorry, high school, in my highschool class. So out of that I could count approximately 10 of us of people of color. Right. So, as much as it's, well, Centre County, I believe I read was 88%. White, right? As much as that's 88% white now, it was a lot whiter then. So, there was racism, there was name calling, there was bullying. And it yeah, it's, you know, I, I'm here, I've done a lot of inner work to heal from the trauma that and some issues with my family of origin. So I know how much it hurts. And that's part of the other reason I'm involved in, in some of this. I also know which is that we're, as human beings I believe that we're capable of enormous good and also of causing enormous pain for other people. It's, it's worth the oppressor and the oppressed. We both hold what at least I find for myself the capability of both within within ourselves within myself. So part of this is to actually do my own inner work on my biases biases on my, I try and get people to take implicit bias tests at Project Implicit, they're free, they're all across all different kinds of demographics, getting we can't change something that we're not aware of. And none of us likes to be on the receiving end of bullying, of disparagement of discrimination. And so I think the flip side is that we have a moral duty to look inside ourselves and find out where we might be perpetrating these same kind of behaviors on other people. Unknown Speaker What do you think are some of the biggest issues that are facing us in Central Pennsylvania? That's our local community? What are some of the issues that you're seeing? Shih-In Ma I think that people are really busy. I think that culturally, I'm actually I'm reading a book right now by brother Wayne Teasdale called "The Mystic Heart" and he, he says that our culture is so focused on consumerism, this is not just Central Pennsylvania consumerism and entertainment. So, I, you know, I don't have a TV, I haven't had a TV for probably 20 years, right? That we get, we're looking for distractions, right, we're looking for so whether or not it's shopping or it's drugs or it's work, or what we're looking for distractions, we're not actually coming being present to ourselves. And so as a result of all these distractions, we're also not being present to what's going on in the community. Also, because of the siloing, I just talked about, about people, you know, there was a study by what PRRI I think that said that and this is a US study not Central Pennsylvania but 75% of white people had no people color as friends, right, 90% only had one, one or less people of color as friends. So, we have so much and religiously, you know, most Christians stick together, Muslims stick together and we I mean, it's just, we're just continuing this kind of compartmentalization. So, to me that's one of the things that makes me the saddest here. And then, when we're so distracted then we're actually not finding the common goodness in our heart so that it's a child of God, the Buddha nature, the whatever you want to call it, the essence of of the truth of who we are, which is totally independent. It was totally connected, which is sharing the same divinity because we're watching television. So, I think that that distraction is, is a problem. I think that not having conversations that we need to have. And you know, I'm as much, I don't want to say, to blame, but I find it's hard to have conversations about hard topics. But I think we need to have, we need to have those. And yet, we also need to be able to be open to opinions and worldviews that aren't our own. Because otherwise, we're just preaching to the choir. Cheraine Stanford After growing up here, you went to Penn State. Shih-In Ma I went and got a Bachelor's in math. And then I went to the Peace Corps for two years in Ghana, west Africa, which changed my life actually one of the major life changing experiences, I came back here and got a degree in engineering and then I went off to Arizona to work for IBM. Cheraine Stanford So let's step back. Why was the Peace Corps experience so life changing? Shih-In Ma Because, you know, I grew up middle class, right. And so I actually went to the Peace Corps believing that there was three essential externals to happiness, three essential to happiness, a roof over my head running water and electricity. And then I got stationed out in a village at the end of the road, for which there was electricity from the village just in the evenings. So one thing that I discovered was that externals won't make happiness, happiness doesn't really come. I mean, there's some minimal I think things that make things easier, whatever, but really, happiness is independent of external circumstances. Another piece that I found out about, and it still actually informs, hopefully, how I treat other people and how I live is these people had, for the most part, so little materially, and they were so generous and so kind. I mean, I'd stand in line in the hot sun, for waiting for a bus and people who didn't know me, and would never see me again, would actually push me forward in the line. So basically, usually by the time the next bus came, I was there in the front seat, and they were still standing in line. Over those two years, there was a whole other way to live. There's a whole other way to treat strangers to treat people who don't look like you to treat this than frankly, what I think a lot of us do in this culture. Cheraine Stanford So you went to Penn State, got your undergraduate degree in math, went to the Peace Corps, got your masters in engineering, and then moved to the west coast to take a job at IBM, Shih-In Ma Actually Tucson, Arizona, Cheraine Stanford Tucson, Arizona. Shih-In Ma And from there, then I moved, I transferred with IBM to the Bay Area in California. Cheraine Stanford So why did what were you doing for IBM and did you enjoy it? Shih-In Ma Yeah, I actually I did a lot of things I went in as an engineer. I ended up in finance. I had a couple stints in management. I was the you know the assistant to a functional director, I did business system reorganization, a lot of different things and what I finally came to realize about that was for myself that I could do a lot of things but really why I went to work was for the people. And also I found out I didn't like management. So I'd say yeah, I enjoyed it, but in the meantime, there was always this kind of I don't know. I finally started looking looking inward and I realized, so following on from Peace Corps and externals, I had all the externals but yet there was something that was not really happy that was kind of depressed. And so that's why I ended up on this spiritual path or going on this inward path. So it's included some 12 steps and therapy. And then, you know, actually, we treat some things in the Christian the Buddhist, The Hindu, even the Sufi tradition, so I don't actually differentiate much across traditions. But this and then, in 1993, my therapist actually told me to read a book called "Tibetan Book of Living and Dying". I read that book and it's like, well, either the Tibetans are all 100% crazy, all of them, or everything I believed about life was subject to change. And so I thought, well, probably it's not the first thing so I became open to a lot of possibilities that I'd been conditioned against, or educated against. And so I went on retreat, and had actually a massive spiritual insight if you want to say an enlightenment experience. It closed it went on for the whole morning after lunch, and then it started to close but after that, I kind of lost my motivation to for the corporate world. I knew there was something more and I wanted it again. So a lot of the rest of my life has been focused on coming to live more with what is gnown and I don't mean known with the k-n-o-w like head knowing but g-n-o-w like gnosis with this with, with what, with what's known. Cheraine Stanford And so you left that corporate job after more than a decade of being there. What gave you the courage to do that? Shih-In Ma It just wasn't, it wasn't fulfilling. I had a little bit of money saved up. So, you know, I thought I could hack it for a while. And actually, one of the things that really helped me was, I had a mentor there. My boss, he became a friend. And at one point, he finally looked at me, he said, You know, I was talking to him about quitting or not, and he finally looked at me, he said, he said, "It's time for you to go," he said, "You've outgrown this place." So that kind of affirmation from him really helped me to decide to go. Cheraine Stanford If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU I'm Cheraine Stanford. Our guest is Shih-In Ma, a social justice advocate working to create an inclusive community in Centre County. Cheraine Stanford One of the things that I know you did was to spend four years with Amma, who's known as the hugging saint. For our audience who might not know, she does what her name suggests. She travels around the world and in other places and people wait in line for hours to hug her. She's hugged millions of people. How did you end up there? And what was it about her that drew you to her? Shih-In Ma Well, basically, the short of it is I well, I ended up with some back pain due to a car accident and physical therapy. None of this biofeedback didn't fix it. And somebody told me try yoga. So I started to try yoga. Then I started to feel energy running in my body. And about that time, I'd actually read about Amma two or three years earlier in a book by Linda Johnsen called "Daughters of the Goddess" about 10 women saints in India, and I was really drawn to her in particular but, you know, I was still in my box, say, prejudice box about, you know, thinking of Hinduism and Hare Krishnas at the airport when I was growing up. So I had to overcome that bias that prejudice. So finally, I read about her in yoga journal and said she was coming an hour and a half from where I live. So I took the day off work, and I went up to see her. And there was some sense of, well, recognition, you know, with this hug and just these tears, and it's like, oh, this is what's possible in a human body. I want that and that was, that's the beginning. That was the beginning. So I'd been every time she'd come to California, I would see her even though I was practicing Zen Buddhism, and really involved with most of my time at a Zen monastery, but when Amma would come to town, I would leave, I can go, go spend time. You know, we have physical bodies. We also have energy bodies, sometimes they're called auras. So my experience of being around Amma is that the shakti, the energy. It's like getting my aura clean. There's some purification, some healing that's going on about getting my aura cleaned, getting things, heaviness and things taken out. But, but I just, yeah, this is, you know, honestly, I think if Christ were reincarnated he would be Amma. Cheraine Stanford So I think if people looked at maybe your life journey, the path they would call it unconventional, maybe non-traditional, but when you when you look back to the things that you're doing now, these spiritual experiences you've had, is there a through-line that you see, is there a path that you can see when you look back over your life? Shih-In Ma Well, I think it comes down to spiritual issues. [Inaudible] would say "Your Buddha nature is always calling for you." Right? I think there's something in the Christian tradition about God is always calling us home. There's a question about why were we born why, we're not this body, that consciousness comes into the body and when we pass away, it leaves the body. So the question about why were we born? Why did we take this incarnation? I think that's a question that we need to answer. So whether we answer it while we're still young or whatever, by the time you hit your deathbed, I think most people are going to be my father, for instance, you know, when he was on his deathbed, we're going to face that question sooner or later. When we stop our distractions there is there is this calling and this call is always calling us home. Cheraine Stanford And your call home literal home. You did come back to State College. How did you end up coming moving back to State College? Shih-In Ma Because my mother still lived here. And so I was four years in India and every time I'd come back, she was in her early 90s and I'd come back and you know, there's just a little bit of kind of going downhill. And then the next last time I came back, it was like the slope had steepened. And it just got really clear to me that my brother has a full time job in New Hampshire and so it got really clear that I needed to come back and take care of her as as, as a daughter, and also as part of my spiritual practice. It's probably one of the hardest things I've ever done. Cheraine Stanford What was hard about it? Shih-In Ma Because there was trauma in my life growing up. So whatever wasn't healed around that, actually, some stuff came up, you know, when I was living with her. And because I had found what I thought was like a home there, I was working at the temple, helping the priests with the poojas and things and teaching people how to make the offerings and all I really had found, had found something and also with the people who really prioritized their spiritual life, both with say the Zen monastery that I was at and also with this, whereas here, I find I get kind of dispersed and I can get distracted, I go shopping on Amazon or whatever because people don't prioritize that here. But basically coming back to the town and not knowing anybody and starting over, with actually no clothes and whatever and starting over again. Cheraine Stanford So when you moved here you were living in a monastery? Shih-In Ma Yeah, well, I was came from Amma's ashram, monastery in India. So, I did the four years there, and then I came back, came back here. Cheraine Stanford And that healing that you have talked about the spiritual, you know, inner work that you've talked about. Do you feel like your life has been better doing that work? Shih-In Ma Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, at one point in my life, I, my vision of life was that, I mean, I was really depressed that you even though I was doing fine at IBM, right, so that you drive, you're going down a tunnel and when you die, basically you're a train going down a dark tunnel when you die, you hit the end of the tunnel, right? And now you It's like totally I mean, life is a mystery. It's a joy. There's so many blessings. So, I feel really blessed about it. But people wouldn't know that actually from talking to me or looking at me that this is where I've come from. But it's, it's possible. It's possible. Cheraine Stanford How did you come to teach meditation to women who are incarcerated? Shih-In Ma I actually practice with the local Zen group and they were wanting actually one year they were wanting calendars. So I started to collect calendars and collected like 1300 calendars because there's 1400 ladies. So the next year, they asked the Zen teacher that's associated with the group, I mean, if she would teach Zen, and she said, well, she would teach Zen if I would co-teach with her. Right? And then we could trade off or whatever. Well, she got really busy and she only went in once. And so I've been teaching this is at Muncy women's prison. I've been teaching there for three years now. So I don't You know, I was really surprised that she said that and I don't really feel qualified in some way. But, but I know a lot about ending suffering. There's the, in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions there's that pain, old age, sickness and death are inevitable. Suffering is optional. So the high-level view is suffering is caused by attachment and greed, by hatred, and aversion, or by delusion and ignorance. So basically, the power in that is that we have a way to influence or to change, practice our responses to things so were not always in reaction to things and especially to things we can't change. Cheraine Stanford And how does meditation, what role has that played in your life and how, what impact have you seen it have on the women you work with? If, if there has been anything. Shih-In Ma Meditation I think has helped me slow down it's helped me to come inward, to come inward and to be more centered. I don't worry as much. I mean, I used to worry a lot. But now it's like the thoughts come up and it's like, oh, it's worry, because actually, it's really hard to have a thought that's in the present. We either are in the past or the future, or there's a saying, which that with one foot in the past, and the other foot in the future, right, we're peeing on the present, right? It's true. Cheraine Stanford I've never heard saying. Shih-In Ma So, so I think it's really, it's really helped me that way. So I actually, as I said, I'm not I don't consider myself depressed anymore. And I have a lot more trust and I think calm, hopefully, you'll have to tell me, somebody else will have to tell me more kindness and more compassion than I did. For the ladies particularly the ladies at Muncy they say it's helping them, they don't always practice the whole lot, but it's helping them also. I'm just, for the most part I take in Rumi I take in Byron Katie, which is one of the best ways of working with, she's a nondenominational teacher, "Loving What Is", one of the best ways of unknotting thoughts I've ever found. So I take in whatever I think helps them and mostly just to my aspiration, to see them and help them see themselves in their true nature. Because I think that's one of the steps what we can find is what the Christians call I guess, the fruits of the Holy Spirit. So you know, kindness, compassion, patience, this sort of thing, we don't have to become a better person, this is who we are. When when, when things, ego, whatever gets thinner, then we are we are that we are love. We are this loving awareness. We are, we are that so, you know, I spent a lot of my life trying to be a better person. But basically, that's like beating yourself up trying to be a better person, which is just another form of violence. Cheraine Stanford Tell me about singing in Essence 2 which is a local choir that performs music from the African and African American tradition. Have you always enjoyed singing? Shih-In Ma Yeah, I've always enjoyed singing but this is the most I've ever, ever, ever enjoyed singing. So somebody told me about this choir, four years ago, or something and I've joined I basically set my whole schedule around this around this choir. I love the music. It's devotional, but mostly, it's this energy again. So that, Shakti, Holy Spirit, whatever. I mean, I go to rehearsals, and a lot of times I go tired, maybe I'm kind of whatever and I leave flying, that the energy is coming through in the music, Cheraine Stanford The work that you are doing now, to try to bring some inclusivity to the area. How do you think people can better connect with each other? Shih-In Ma By trying to put ourselves in each other's shoes. So when I go into, say, a fast food restaurant, and then I look and I, you know, I try and imagine what is it like to live on $7.25 an hour, sometimes, like, when things happen to people of different demographics, or whatever, then I try and change the picture kind of like, you know, the the woman that Brock Turner raped, has got, now got her book out, right. And one of her questions was, well, would he have he got a six months sentence, right, that actually only spent three months in jail for being caught. I mean, a lot of people rape and they don't get caught. And her question, one of her questions was, well, if he had been a person of color from, you know, lower income underprivileged status to whatever would this have happened? You know, and honestly, I think no. So, even looking at something like that, and then knowing what the statistics are some amount of knowledge and this sort of thing and then trying to imagine what would it have been like if the demographics were different? I think that's that's one way to help. I think there's another way I came to a point maybe a year and a half ago or whatever where I was, and I'm still working on it, to be honest, where it's kind of like I was really struggling with people who had different views than I did. So I've got a bumper sticker on my car from American Friends Service Committee that says, "Love thy neighbor, no exceptions." And that is my that is my aspiration. Cheraine Stanford So, you're involved with groups like Community and Campus in Unity, Community Diversity Group and the Interfaith Initiative. What do you hope the impact or the work that you're doing and others are doing in this space, what do you hope the impact will be on this area? Shih-In Ma I hope that we will help create, I think the world that we all long for, you know, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama has said, everybody just wants to be happy, we all want to be safe, to have peace, right to to not struggle for our basic existence. So this we all share. And I think, but individually we need to come together. We need to come together but we need to take action as individuals to both inward inward actions internal process and also outward in the world in order to to help create this paradise. Cheraine Stanford Shih-In Ma, thank you so much for being with us today. Shih-In Ma Oh, thank you, Cheraine for having me. Cheraine Stanford Shih-In Ma is a social justice advocate who works to promote diversity and inclusion in Centre County. Shih-In Ma teaches meditation and shares opportunities for others to gain better insight and understanding of those around them. Hear more Take Note interviews on our website at wpsu.org/takenote. I'm Cheraine Stanford, WPSU. Transcribed by https://otter.ai