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.

25 years of contemplative training in Rinzai Zen, Burmese vipassanā, Haṭha Yoga, and Authentic Movement, with concurrent training in postmodern dance and performance art, grounds Sean’s study of subtle states. He studied music composition at CalArts (BFA, 1993) and Cornell University, studying with Steven Stucky. In San Francisco, he trained in dance and performance with Kathleen Hermsdorff, Keith Hennessy and Jess Curtis, butoh with Katsura Kan and others, piano with David Arden and Myra Melford, and Authentic Movement with Bill McCully. He co-directed RUJEKO Performance Collaboration with Keren Abrams from 1997-2005, creating a group and solo ritual performance language deeply informed by meditative practice. 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, emphasizing open-ended process and community spiritual practice, and Luminous is This Mind, a solo performance installation for 1-2 audience members at a time in complete darkness. Sean is a participant in the Body Politic Think Tank at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and a new father.


Contemplative Practice

Sean Feit Oakes, PhD, E-RYT 500 teaches Buddhism, Haṭha Yoga, and Organic Intelligence® with a focus on the integration of meditation, philosophy, and self-inquiry with trauma resolution and social justice. He has studied in Zen, Tibetan, and Theravāda 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.

Other primary teachers include Eugene Cash and Sylvia Boorstein (Insight Meditation), Anam Thubten (Mahāyāna), Sayadaw U Janaka (vipassanā), Alice Joanou and David Moreno (yoga), and Steven Hoskinson (Somatic Experiencing, Organic Intelligence®). Sean teaches at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, East Bay Meditation Center, and Namaste Yoga. Sean received his PhD in Performance Studies from UC Davis in 2016, writing on states of consciousness in Buddhist meditation and experimental dance. He lives in Oakland with his family and beloved community.

More writing on my relationship to contemplative practice…

Positionality Statement

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/sutra 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. To support teaching at mainstream yoga studios, I also hold E-RYT500 certification through Yoga Alliance, though their model lacks any form of lineage or standards and I do not consider it meaningful. I teach Hindu and Yoga texts primarily in Yoga Teacher Training programs, and some of those workshops are open to the public. My primary general public “spiritual” teaching is in classes and retreats structured around Insight Meditation, a Western spinoff from 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 process of formal study in the Indian and Southeast Asian traditions is long and complex, more than I have undertaken myself outside of Theravāda Buddhism, or am able to offer. In sutta/sutra study workshops I read 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 perform a couple currently oppressed identities — mixed-race (English/Puerto Rican) and queer (bisexual) — 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 around the gravitational forces of power, which create supportive and delusional structures around themselves.

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: Discourse on Identity)