About "me"

Sean outside with sunset, carrying an infant in a blue sling

Hi. I’m Dr. Sean Oakes.

Here’s a photo from a few years ago, when my son River was just a few months old. Now he’s a bouncy, talkative 5 year old! And I’m a less bouncy, but still talkative, 50 year old. My partner Sara, River, and I live in Oakland, California, in the Temescal neighborhood. Our house is a few yards from Temescal Creek, now underground.

I’ve been in the Bay Area since I was one, and grew up out in Livermore, which was then a rodeo and vineyards town with a national laboratory (where my father worked), and now is one of the perimeter suburbs of Silicon Valley. This is land tended for 2500 years by the Ohlone and Miwok peoples, until the Spanish colonized “Alta California” in 1804, and the Americans “bought” the land (for $15M) in 1848 after defeating the Spanish in the Mexican-American War. These Brits and Spaniards are my cultural ancestors. I was adopted at birth from an American mother of British descent, Episcopals, and a Puerto Rican father of Spanish descent, Pentecostals. My adoptive parents were Catholics, from Italian and German immigrant families.

I grew up focused on classical music, and played violin, church organ, piano, and double bass, as well as singing and doing theater. My path in the arts took me from classical music to experimental modern composition, then into music for dance, performance art, and many kinds of movement work, including contact improvisation, authentic movement, Yoga, Butoh, and other kinds of somatic movement process. My arts life peaked with my getting an award for my work with an experimental circus, Circo Zero, and eventually getting a PhD in Performance Studies.

While I was training in all that, I was also searching for a spiritual path that could really carry me through what I was noticing was a rather unsatisfying existence, and I found Buddhism initially through Chinese nature poems. I trained in Zen for 6 years, then Insight Meditation (Thai Forest & Burmese Theravāda lineages) for 20, including a few years (cumulatively) of silent retreat, and a season as an ordained monastic (bhikkhu) in Burma/Myanmar.

My teacher Jack Kornfield encouraged me to start teaching in 2010, and to get a day job, which partly motivated the PhD. He also sent me to train in trauma, and I studied Somatic Experiencing and Organic Intelligence with Steven Hoskinson, which has had a profound effect on both my own healing path and my teaching. It turns out that all the disciplines were aiming for the same thing: getting to the root of why this life, despite all the privileges I grew up with, was so painful.

Gotama, the young man in ancient South Asia we now call The Buddha, seems to have had a similar kind of search, and I resonate in so many ways with his descriptions of the difficulties of life. And now, having immersed myself for my whole adult life in the discipline he crafted, I feel the blossoming of a strange confidence. A faith. That the path he laid out, called the Noble Eightfold Path, works.

The Buddhist tradition, especially for me the teachings preserved by the Theravāda schools in the Pāli Canon, describes the cause of emotional and existential pain so clearly. And then lays out a discipline through which we can undo the ancient tangled threads of ancestral trauma and inherited psychological baggage that prevent us from resting in the clarity and joy that is natural, once these wounds have been healed. This is true both for us as individuals, and for us as families, communities, and cultures, because every complex system follows the same underlying principles. Some of the most inspiring and necessary work in the Buddhist world right now is the unfolding conversation between the individual and communal approaches to practice; between the renunciate and engaged orientations to liberation.

May our practice together unfold in ever-deepening circles,
toward healing and liberation for each of us as individuals,
and for our families, communities, and cultures.
May our practice and all the choices we make
be in service of well-being for our beloved planet
and all beings who share this precious home.

Positionality: who I am as a teacher

Positionality is a term from critical theory now being applied beautifully in social justice discourse. It points out that the identities we carry (genetic, familial, cultural, social, inherited, learned, chosen, or projected onto us by others) not only determine what information and resources we have access to, but how (and even if) we receive and understand that information.

Basically, who we are determines what we know.

In practice this means that it’s important to be clear about what influences are at play whenever anything is being communicated. This writing is a “positionality statement” around my work as a teacher of Buddhism and Yoga speaking to the difference between how those traditions are understood and taught by people who grew up in their South and Southeast Asian source cultures and how they can be understood and taught by me as a North American convert and academic. My writing this statement, in concert with many of my peers, is part of my community’s ongoing practice bringing to light the complex dynamics of post-colonial religious transmission. My aim is to contribute as best I can to a growing equity and decolonization of these practice lineages I have been so blessed to participate in.

Study of the root traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Yoga can be deeply fulfilling and inspiring for Western practitioners. It has been one of the most profound ways I have taken refuge, and consider study to be one of the most respectful and transformative ways to engage with a foreign tradition. So often in Western Buddhism and Yoga practice, students focus only on the meditation or yogic cultivation practices, leaving behind the devotion, ritual, and study that often is so central to practice in the Asian source cultures. 

My focus on sutta/sūtra study comes from my love for these traditions and texts, and the strong belief that respectful engagement with another culture’s heritage is a condition for deepening wisdom and understanding, not just internally or “spiritually”, but as citizens of the world devoted to peace and care for our fellow travelers. I also understand that engagement with these texts and traditions has for centuries been fascinating for privileged Western liberal humanists such as myself, and that along with material and intellectual colonialism, India and much of Asia have seen their sacred traditions appropriated, mis- or re-interpreted, and used in ways the sages and devotees who developed the traditions could never have envisioned. 

The harmful effects of this appropriation are real, and I acknowledge that my postmodern, discipline-blending, convert work with Buddhism and Yoga, even with a conservative approach and my most sincere devotion and intentions, can be an expression of appropriation and colonialism. I try to teach and practice in a way that amplifies active resistance to appropriation and colonialism, and to support privileged practitioners to more deeply educate themselves about the traditions and cultures they are inspired by.

I offer classes, workshops, and retreats engaging with many aspects of the Buddhist and Hindu Yoga traditions. My primary practice and teaching authorization is in Theravāda Buddhism through my mentor Jack Kornfield of Spirit Rock Meditation Center. Following training with David Moreno, Anne Cushman, and others, I also hold E-RYT500 certification as a yoga teacher. I teach Hindu and Yoga texts primarily in Yoga Teacher Training programs, as well as online in the context of my History of Yoga course, and other places. My primary public teaching is in classes and retreats structured around Insight Meditation, a Western descendent of Thai and Burmese Theravāda Buddhism.

Even with “teaching authorization” in Insight Meditation I do not view myself as an expert in Buddhist or Hindu traditions or texts, and study of them with me does not constitute transmission or initiation into their lineages. The Western lineage of Insight Meditation has a close relationship with its Theravādin ancestry, but is separate in many ways from the traditional teaching hierarchy which is much more fully based in the monastic saṅgha. I was blessed to be ordained into that community briefly, and consider my time in robes to be among the most precious times of my life.

In many settings I read Buddhist and Hindu texts with students, bringing in interpretive perspectives from commentaries, oral tradition I’ve been blessed to receive, modern psychology, trauma work, and critical theory as feels necessary. Reading together we wrestle with the ideas and implications of these teachings, and always bring it back to our own lives and actions in a complex world. Study of these texts with me (outside of a university setting) has elements of both Religious Studies, where faith in the doctrines being studied is not assumed, and religious study, in which faith is the cornerstone. The tension between these two modes of study is potent and unresolved.

Though I express a couple currently oppressed identities — mixed-race (English & Puerto Rican) and queer (bisexual) most prominently — my appearance (white-passing), gender (cis-male), education (high), social class (middle), physical ability (high), and visible sexual preference (heterosexually married), among other markers give me significant privilege in our culture. I understand one of the responsibilities of privilege as the imperative to be transparent about it, and vocal about how it plays out in relationships, communities, and institutions.

It is my hope in naming some of the forces at play in my own being to contribute to an ever-increasing precision in our culture around the gravitational forces of power, which create supportive and delusional structures around themselves.

Two identities, on paper

Performance Studies

Sean Feit Oakes, PhD is a scholar, performer, and Buddhist teacher, researching the intersections between contemplative and creative processes. His current work explores states of consciousness in experimental dance training and intensive meditation practice, integrating Buddhist scriptural study, trauma physiology, and social justice. He completed his PhD dissertation in Performance Studies, “‘This Very Body is the Bodhi Tree’: The Performance of Contemplative States in the Western Jhāna Revival & Contemporary Movement Theater” in 2016 at UC Davis.

Dr. Oakes studied music composition at CalArts (BFA, 1993), and Cornell University. He trained in dance with Kathleen Hermsdorff, Keith Hennessy, Jess Curtis, Katsura Kan and others, in piano with David Arden and Myra Melford, and in Authentic Movement with Bill McCully. He co-directed RUJEKO Performance Collaboration with Keren Abrams from 1997-2005, focusing on improvisation as ritual. In addition to solo and directing work, Sean danced and/or made music with Scott WellsAngus BalbernieThe Bodycartography ProjectSeth EisenAVY K ProductionsLeslie Seiters Little Known Dance Theater, and Keith Hennessy’s Circo Zero. Sean’s music for Circo Zero’s Sol Niger (2008) won an  Isadora Duncan Dance Award for Best Sound/Text 2007-8.

Recent work includes The Midnight Club, a participatory late-night performance installation and training model, and Luminous is This Mind, a solo performance installation in complete darkness. Sean is a participant in the Body Politic Think Tank at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and is writing a book on identity, adoption, positionality, trauma, and Buddhist theories of rebirth.


Contemplative Practice

Sean Feit Oakes, PhD, E-RYT, SEP, teaches Buddhism and Haṭha Yoga with a focus on the integration of meditation, philosophy, and self-inquiry with trauma resolution and social justice. He has studied in Theravāda, Zen, and Vajrāyāna Buddhist lineages, including training as a monk in Burma, and is authorized to teach Insight Meditation by Jack Kornfield. He completed the Dedicated Practitioner (DPP1), Mindfulness Meditation and Yoga (MYMT2), and Community Dharma Leader (CDL5) trainings at Spirit Rock.

In addition to mentor Jack Kornfield, Dr. Oakes’ primary Buddhist teachers include Sylvia Boorstein and Eugene Cash, Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, Anam Thubten, and Sayadaw U Janaka, with whom he ordained as a bhikkhu for a Rains Retreat in Burma in 2002. He studied yoga with Alice Joanou, Rachel Shaw, Amanda Moran, and David Moreno, and taught mindfulness-based āsana and prāṇāyāma for 10 years. He trained in Somatic Experiencing (SE) and Organic Intelligence (OI) with Steven Hoskinson, and integrates the complex systems approach from OI in work toward a distinctively Buddhist approach to individual and collective trauma resolution.

Sean teaches at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, East Bay Meditation Center in downtown Oakland, and online with Insight Timer, Yoga International, Liberate Meditation, The Sutra Project, and other lovely organizations. He received his PhD in Performance Studies from UC Davis in 2016, writing on states of consciousness in Buddhist meditation and experimental dance, and lives in Northern California on ancestral Pomo territory with his family and beloved community.

Sutta: Discourse on Identity

At that time the Blessed One said to the monks: “I will now teach you identity, the arising of identity, the cessation of identity, and the path to the cessation of identity. Listen and pay careful attention to what I shall tell you.

“What is identity? That is, it is the five aggregates of clinging. What are the five? They are the bodily form aggregate of clinging … the feeling … the perception … the formations … the consciousness aggregate of clinging. This is called identity.

“What is the arising of identity? It is craving for future becoming, which is conjoined with lust and joy, delighting with attachment here and there—this is called the arising of identity.

“What is the cessation of identity? It is the abandoning without remainder of this craving for future becoming, which is conjoined with lust and joy, delighting with attachment here and there, its vomiting out, its eradication, its fading away, its cessation—this is called the cessation of identity.

“What is path to the cessation of identity? That is, it is the noble eightfold path: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. This is called the path to the cessation of identity.

(SA 71, tr. Anālayo)

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