By Sheridan Wilbur
What world do we want to live in? The answer might emerge more like a koan.
Blake Hestir (he/him) and Ley David Elliete Cray (they/them) are both philosophers and teachers of yoga and mindfulness meditation who share a common interest in big ideas, inner transformation, and a deep concern for the well-being and flourishing of all living beings and the planet. They are also dedicated Koru Mindfulness teachers-in-training.
Blake and Ley, along with their friends and collaborators Choke (“Creating Her Own Kinetic Energy”) and Sarah Sampson are co-founders of The Mind Body Ecology Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to prioritizing Earth care and equity by caring for ourselves. Aside from teaching Koru courses, they have worked to integrate Koru mindfulness practices into their classrooms, consulting, and eco-retreat programs at the Institute.
““We both think of philosophy as much more than an academic discipline. We see philosophy as a practice, a way of living … Contemplative practices are part of that path, too, and Koru provides some fantastic techniques that can be interwoven with teaching and healing.”
– Blake and Ley
To learn more about them, their motivation and goals for the new year, we spoke to Blake and Ley, who are preparing to launch their eco-retreat in Costa Rica next May.
Blake: We began our Koru journey through the online teaching training intensive in June 2021. Ley found the program online and us, along with two of our TCU colleagues, Mark Dennis and Wendy Williams, attended. We’re interested in the field of contemplative studies and had worked with Holly’s book The Mindful Twenty-Something in class with much success.
Ley: We really appreciated Holly’s and Margaret’s attention to the research on meditation practice, and all the work Koru has done researching the benefits of the mindfulness practices for emerging adults. But what really sold us on the program was the emphasis on social positioning and inclusiveness—and that Holly had permission to use the Maori word ‘koru.’ There’s a respect and appreciation for different perspectives and traditions.
Ley: We try to approach the practices similarly––taking a cosmopolitan approach and honoring traditions. We don’t want to colonize the practices or do yoga in a way that’s irrelevant to or disrespectful of the tradition. We have a module on cultural appropriation––that’s all to say, we’re deeply impressed with Koru, and the use of the name ‘Koru’. Using it with permission, spoke volumes to us.
Blake: Yes, part of our practice is de-centering whiteness and in my own case, my cis-maleness––every day is a learning opportunity. We appreciate Koru’s gender inclusiveness, racial inclusiveness, age inclusiveness. Listening to people’s stories and learning from each other.
Ley: We’re interested in how experiential learning and mindfulness practice can promote well-being and flourishing and how they can be helpful in expanding our worldviews, promoting equity and social justice, and working through trauma. Philosophy also helps with that––at the very least helps us expand understanding of ourselves and our world. Buddhist philosophy and meditation–can’t separate those two. Philosophy is a practice—it’s something you do to live well!
Blake: Climate change, environmental degradation, and socio-economic inequity—they’re intimately intertwined. We address that at the Institute––the grief we feel about what we have done to the planet, the fear about what is to come, especially for our children, the anger we have about injustice––we can lean into these emotions mindfully and compassionately to empower ourselves.
Ley: I teach yoga for the trans community and do some philosophical consulting. I lead Koru 1.0 for queer populations––this is all an extension of my own practice and our programs at the Institute. It’s a big holistic umbrella, unified under ideas of inner and outer sustainability––developing and sustaining the activities and skills that serve us, help us feel better, listen deeply, and thrive.
Blake: We see ourselves as facilitating space for people to deepen self-understanding and grow. This is also good for the planet! As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “There is no difference between healing ourselves and healing the Earth.” Healing ourselves allows us to help and support each other. All living creatures. Mother Earth.
Blake: I like to use the word ‘cosmopolitan’ as our approach. We look to scientists like Richie Davidson and Christine Wamsler, and philosophers in the enactivist movement like Francisco Varela and Evan Thompson. Varela and Thompson approach the mind and self from the perspective of Western science and philosophy, but they’re also influenced by Buddhist and Indian philosophical traditions. They argue that mind and self emerge from self-organizing processes that tightly interconnect the brain, body, and world. We’re self-making beings in the world, like a dance. I think we need to learn how to dance with the world! And love more.
Ley: I’m inspired by a number of Black feminist authors, Angela Davis, bell hooks. Love is incompatible with abuse and power. Audre Lorde too, they have an irreplaceable perspective. bell hooks’ book, All About Love: New Visions is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read and has influenced the development of my practice and of myself more than perhaps any other work.
Blake: Yes, I love bell hooks. That’s a formative book for me, too. Rhonda Magee’s The Inner Work of Racial Justice is essential, as is Ruth King’s Mindful of Race. I’ve also learned so much from Buddhist and Native American authors, Nagarjuna blows me away. Joy Harjo is a favorite. Daniel Wildcat’s book Red Alert and Gregory Cajete’s Native Science have been very influential. I’ve learned so much about ecological interconnectedness and reciprocity relations from them. Spirituality need not be separate from empirical observation.
Ley: Our goal with the eco retreat programs at the Institute and teaching Koru in the wild is to make learning exciting again, make learning inclusive and expansive, experiential. Coming from a queer theory perspective, my goal is to break the binary down between teacher and student. I learn when I teach Queer Koru, I learn as much from the participants as they do from me. I’m hoping for something similar on these retreats. We have to make sure we have a varied and diverse group. We want many viewpoints and welcome disagreement, that’s how we move forward and make progress. As long as it’s a collaborative disagreement.
Blake: The synergy of the group. When we get on the ground in Costa Rica, we plan to build that community, cooperation, coordination––a community of trust, compassion, kinship and mutual support. We expect it to be a powerful experience. Many of the meditation events I’ve been to are in artificial environments.
Blake: Ours is an eco retreat, we’re practicing outside, not in vacation retreat spaces—in fact, we’re trying to get outside the distractions of our phones and laptops, away from imposing Western structures and institutions, to connect more deeply with each other. Conscious, mindful traveling has been one of my greatest teachers. I want others to have that experience. The Buddha did not become enlightened sitting in a temple––he was away from home, with trees and other animals.
Ley: To me, when I hear retreat, I think vacation, this is not that. We’re going to be learning from each other, discussing topics like climate change, inequity, authenticity and meaningfulness, and balancing that with experiential practice through things like storytelling, yoga, mindfulness meditation, forest bathing, and mindful hiking.
Blake: The retreat doesn’t end in Costa Rica, work still continues. We’re raising awareness of climate change and providing opportunities for people to go deeper into mindfulness practices that can promote flourishing––and maybe develop some eco-leadership skills to take back to their communities and organizations.
Ley: There’s an activist component as well. One of my hopes is that we want this to be transformative for everyone, learning from each other––this is the match we light that sparks a fire within us as we continue our work to make the world a more equitable and sustainable place. We have a vision of where we want to go and what values are going to guide us.
Blake: Our partners Choke and Sarah are amazing and such talented space holders and teachers––forces of nature. Choke draws from her ancestral Taíno and Aztec lineage of healers. She founded the widely-respected Fort Worth Woke Book club and holds meditations, sound healings, tea services, and discussion circles for the community, particularly Black and Brown folks. She’s an incredible artist who works from a deeply spiritual center.
Blake: Sarah is the founder of Art of the Circle, an organization that provides training and consulting to schools, businesses, and individuals using circling practices based in restorative justice, SEL, and mindfulness. She’s trained in MBSR and restorative justice, and now facilitates MBSR trainings, in addition to teaching yoga and leading yoga trainings. She’s currently apprenticing with Amber Ryan for 360 Emergence, a conscious dance practice focused at the intersection of personal and collective healing. And she and Monica Blossom lead the nationally renowned Dallas Ecstatic Dance. We love them.
Ley: We all bring diverse skills and perspectives, and employ different methodological approaches and are sensitive to each person’s unique situation. For example, loving-kindness meditation is powerful, but it can be challenging for some. Sending love and care to people you already love is not hard, but sending love and care to people that challenge you––that can be such a transformative experience, yet for those who suffer certain sorts of trauma, it can be triggering. Sending affirmations even to those who challenge us––that’s such a big step to building bridges to our own healing–doing the inner and outer healing work. And we can do it!
Read more about Ley and Blake’s work at The Mind Body Ecology Institute.
Sign up for their summer retreat (May 26 – June 6) in Costa Rica here.
Interview edited for clarity and length.
Blake Hestir (he/him) is Professor of Philosophy and the associate director of CALM Studies at TCU in Fort Worth, Texas. He is director and co-founder of The Mind Body Ecology Institute. His teaching and scholarship focus on ancient Greek philosophy, philosophy of mind, philosophy of self, and existential phenomenology, as well as ecology and contemplative studies. He is the author of “Plato on the Metaphysical Foundation of Meaning and Truth.” He is a certified RYT-200 yoga instructor and an ecstatic dance facilitator, and is completing his certification as a Koru Mindfulness Meditation teacher with additional training in Koru Trauma-Informed Mindfulness.
Ley David Elliete Cray (they/them) is Director of LGBTQIA+ Programming at Charlie Health, the largest fully-virtual provider of intensive outpatient therapy for young adults and adolescents in the United States. Ley is co-founder and co-director of The Mind Body Ecology Institute. As a (200-hour) certified yoga instructor, Ley offers classes for trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming persons in the DFW, Texas area. They teach yoga and meditation to adolescents and young adults at a virtual clinic specializing in intensive out-patient therapy. Ley is a professional philosophical consultant, certified through the Logic-Based Therapy and Consulting Institute and registered with the National Philosophical Counseling Association, and is currently pursuing their teaching certification in Koru mindfulness.