A Conversation with Michelle C. Johnson and Rashid Hughes

The Whidbey Institute is excited to welcome Michelle C. Johnson and Rashid Hughes to the land for their Rest and Refuge Retreat on August 8-12. Spiritual teachers Michelle C. Johnson and Rashid Hughes will be guiding participants through a transformative experience focused on deep rest, restoration, and connection with nature and the elements. Michelle, an author, activist, and racial equity consultant, brings her expertise in dismantling racism and creating ritual in justice spaces to the retreat. Rashid, a meditation teacher and restorative justice facilitator, will share his rest-centered meditation practice, the Four Pillars of R.E.S.T., offering a path to rediscovering belonging and meaning in the present moment. Together, they will lead sessions in movement, self-study, meditation, and yogic teachings, providing a unique opportunity for participants to find peace, wakefulness, and harmony in a supportive and contemplative environment.

Michelle and Rashid shared with me a conversation they recently had to learn more about their work and what they hope to offer participants through their Rest and Refuge Retreat.

Michelle: Rashid, do you want to share first about who you are and what you’re up to in the world? 

Rashid Hughes: I’m Rashid Hughes, and my pronouns are he/him. I kind of consider myself to be, I guess, an intersectional contemplative practitioner and someone who loves to explore what it means to be well and happy and engaged in the world. For me, contemplative spirituality really provides this approach to tending to our inner wounds while also accessing a sense of wholeness through touching into something more expansive within ourselves, beyond the wounds and trauma. Something a little truer and maybe more primordial, I guess, is who we are other than the wounds and where they hurt, not disregarding the wounds and where they hurt, but we are also more than that. For me, contemplative spiritualities provide this lens, this motivation, this conviction that it’s important that this inner awakening, this heartfeltness, also shows up in how we live and are in the world as well. So that’s a little bit about what I’m curious about and what kind of makes me happy to think about. 

Rashid: What about you, Michelle? 

Michelle: My name is Michelle. My pronouns are she and her. I live on the ancestral lands of Cheraw, Tutelo, Saponi, Catawba, Occaneechi, and many other tribes in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. And I’m up to many, many things in the world as we both are, and actually have been thinking about the evolution of my work and practice and how I describe myself now as compared to even a year ago. I’m a healer and activist, grief doula, shamanic practitioner, and someone who’s quite curious about what it means to be alive right now given all that is unfolding on the planet and what’s unfolding politically, culturally, and socially and related to the planet and climate chaos and curious, constantly curious about how to stay grounded and centered in myself and also centered in my dharma, my duty, my practice, my work in response to what is unfolding. 

I love being in this exploration of what to offer and what to offer now and what my gifts are in response to the collective and the greater good. I’m also a yoga, spiritual practitioner and teacher, space holder and facilitator, and I really think about all that I do as a practice in facilitating change and not being prescriptive in what that change might look like but inviting people into deep transformation and without an attachment to the outcome, but more of a witness to the journey of transformation and how it happens individually and collectively. I’m also someone who is thinking about grief and some of the themes that we’ll be talking about in this conversation related to rest and refuge. I’m someone who’s unafraid to say, my heart is broken, or I’m not feeling well, or I’m tired, or I don’t know what’s going to happen to us. When I say us, I mean the collective. And often, I do speak this into spaces not as a way of projecting or placing something on the group, but instead, it’s my way of speaking to what’s truly moving through me, both the sorrows and joys as well because they’re certainly present and emerge in this space and exist alongside the heartbreak or sorrow I might feel. I believe it’s medicinal to speak about what is moving through us in a culture that has really conditioned me only to share when I feel good and to minimize human experience to one thing or another instead of the complex emotions, experiences, and layers, we move with and through. That is a little bit about who I am, what I’m up to in the world, and what is moving through me right now. 

Rashid, I would love to hear some about rest and refuge. I know our retreat is focused on rest and refuge, which means many different things. And I’m smiling because we tend to change our facilitation based on what is happening for us, what’s happening in the world, the people that come together. I’d love to hear some from you about these themes of rest and refuge, why they exist now, and how you’re relating to the themes that we typically explore in a retreat or a facilitation space. 

We need to be able to step outside of that momentum for moments and periods in order to not only heal but also remember our fundamental wholeness.

Rashid: For me, rest and refuge are really associated with embodiment and embodiment in the sense of accessing this, the authenticity of being human. And that also means pointing to and embracing our need to slow down, to not always be in the process of accumulating, building, and extracting. We need to be able to step outside of that momentum for moments and periods in order to not only heal but also remember our fundamental wholeness. For me, rest is really about embodying this capacity to feel and to remember who we are. It’s not necessarily the opposite of doing, but I would say that it definitely requires us to be intentional about how we understand who we are. And I think for me, a lot of my work around rest and a lot of what I hope to offer during our retreat is for people to really look at the narratives that dominate and that they’ve incorporated as defining who they are in this moment in time. 

And is there space for slowing down in that? 

Is there space for letting go, and is there space for joy in that? 

And is there space for just reflection, contemplation, and meditation within that? Because as our society, the momentum of our society, like the founding principles of our society rooted in colonialism, settler colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalism, often the goals of those interrelated, I guess I could say forces are to cause us to move away from remembering they’re there to encourage us to become dislocated from our hearts and embodies and from each other in the world, the planet. So our hope is with the refuge of this retreat might be our bodies, our hearts, deep listening, lying on the earth and allowing those points of refuge to bring us back home, bring us back to our hearts, and kind of bring us back to love in a sense, if we can use that word, and to see how that creates this capacity for transformation, for change, for healing. 

Michelle: I’m always thinking about my grandmother, Dorothy, my paternal grandmother. She just came through as I was listening to you, and she came through connected to these themes of rest and refuge. I have a memory of her from childhood. She was very spiritual, and she would drink her coffee and read the devotional. Sometimes she would tell me a little bit about the devotional and what she read. She would pray, and then she finished her cup of coffee, and she would say, “That was so good.” I’ve been thinking a lot about her, and I’m thinking about rest, the world in which she lived, and the world she experienced. There are some similarities to how I experience it, and there are so many differences given the pace of the world and technology and ways that we relate to one another that are different from how she related to spirit, to nature, to her friends, to her faith community, to her family. There are just some differences, given how fast things feel like they’re moving and the way I think we receive information. I’m thinking about watching her move through her morning ritual, which she moved through every morning. I wasn’t with her every morning, but every time I was there in the morning, she moved through the same ritual, and I’ve been reflecting on it because it was her way of taking a moment to herself. 

It was her way of remembering who she was. It was her way of coming into wholeness and remembering that it was her way of connecting to God. It was her way of connecting to those around her and thinking about how to be of service. She was taking a moment to come into herself to feel what was going on, to connect to something bigger than her, which then is connected to how she moved through her day and be of service to the world. These are all themes that feel rooted in why we rest and places of refuge. 

And some of what we talk about in our work is that, as you said, coming back to self, that wholeness, the systems that are in place that are designed to fracture us and move us away from self and move us away from being of service and move us away from experiencing ourselves as a point or place of refuge. And so everything that we offer is to bring us back to that place. It’s always rooted in something bigger than one person, right? It is what is my rest practice and also for the sake of what is my why about why I rest and why I am contemplating finding points of refuge. So I’m just thinking about what a strong impression witnessing my grandmother, Dorothy, take a few minutes every day to come into herself in that way has made on me and thinking about the importance of rest in a context where I think so many of us are deprived of rest because of how things move and the pace and by design, or for me sometimes it’s that I get so excited about doing things. 

That’s different than productivity for me; it’s different than workaholism. I get excited, and then I’m in this generative, creative space, but I don’t always honor filling up my cup in that generative space, which is pouring out and pouring into. So I’m thinking about the culture we’re in, which certainly includes workaholism, a focus on productivity, and doing more and more is better. And then that process of, I feel so creative right now; things are flowing out, but we need to then come back to ourselves and pour into ourselves. So that’s what I’m thinking about right now related to rest and refuge and how important practice is. So this practice, this consistency, having a practice that can bring us back, particularly in times that feel so chaotic, is one way that we talk about it and even when it’s stormy and uncertain. So that’s a little about Dorothy and about rest and refuge and how I’m relating to it right now. 

Michelle: Rashid, is there anything else you want to add about our retreat and why we are offering these themes now? 

Rashid: Yeah, something that was coming up for me was around, for some of us, part of our work means stepping outside our condition, ways of thinking and understanding who we are that’s centered around our own personal willpower and individualism and isolation, and specifically meaning that we can, some of us have had to say, I have to do this by myself. I have to do this alone. And it’s unfamiliar to say, actually, I’m going to intentionally be in community during these times and actually work with myself, not as this individual that’s isolated and not in relationship to other beings, but actually allows us to see that we’re moving and all the things that are moving through us aren’t happening in isolation. And I think one unique thing about our retreat is that there’s a lot of time for practice where we go inward, but there’s this deep sense of orienting and opening outward in a sense that reminds us that the inner work is also on behalf of a deeper remembering of our shared belonging and our oneness with life. That means developing wisdom and clarity to see that we aren’t meant to move through life alone in all seasons. And that part of our responsibility in waking up to the internal rest at our core and the truth of who we are means doing practices that bring us back to this larger sense of awareness of our belonging. So the guided visualization practices, the practices that invite us to connect with ancestors and guides and like our inner resource community, our inner community, fire ceremonies, and going for walks in nature and really just taking time to be in conversation with other people around what we’re struggling with, where we feel stuck, where’s it hard for us, where is it hard in life? Where does it hurt? All of these are ways that we are reorienting ourselves in a way that helps us to see ourselves through clarity rather than only through conditioning and beliefs that we’ve had to adopt in order to survive. That’s something that I really enjoy whenever we facilitate our rest and refuge retreat. We’re able to go inward, but it doesn’t stop at the self. The self becomes this more expansive feeling of being in relationship, remembering that we aren’t alone, and remembering that we do have resources that we are able to access to support us in doing the work of healing, being well, and being of service to our world. 

During our retreats, we weave in the nature that is around us as a reminder of the reality that we are nature too, and then invite in all of these different practices in the hopes that healing will happen within the context of our circle and as we’re in ceremony.

Michelle: Yeah. I love the way you just described that, and I’m feeling the energy of that and the flow of our space holding and retreats and what you named about. It feels like there is plenty of time for self-reflection within the context of community and for community healing to happen. And that there’s this, it feels like natural flow that happens with it, where there’s enough room for people to contemplate what they need based on how they’re showing up, while also remembering they’re building community and relationship with the others who are interested in these themes of rest and refuge and wholeness and healing and dreaming, and the inner resourcing practices and contemplative practices and everything. And the energy of fire and the elements and the different layers to self, the more dense layers, the body, and then the more physical body, and then the more subtle which may feel connected to soul or spirit or that more expansive understanding of who we are and the engagement with nature as well. During our retreats, we weave in the nature that is around us as a reminder of the reality that we are nature too, and then invite in all of these different practices in the hopes that healing will happen within the context of our circle and as we’re in ceremony. We hope people will take something with them, a resource, a practice, a conversation that happened over dinner with someone, a walk in the woods that they went on by themselves, or during a time when they commune with nature. We want people to take something with them as they transition out of the retreat. I’m excited about it. It’s coming up in August from August 8th through 12th, and we’re both excited to take this to the other coast. Both of us live on the East Coast, so we’re taking it to the Pacific Northwest. 

Michelle: Anything else you want to share, Rashid? 

Rashid: Michelle and I laugh a lot, so everybody on retreat feels just the natural joy that we share with facilitating with each other and laughter and joy, and I would say just having fun is a part of what we hope to create on the retreat for everyone. So why is this really important work? Part of what we offer is space for just our humanity to come through. So, I always enjoy that part of facilitating with you Michelle, and hopefully, those of you who come to our retreat will be able to access a sense of joy, laughter, and happiness as we do this deep, sometimes difficult work. 

Michelle: Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned that. It’s true. We do laugh a lot, and we vibe a lot and flow into spaces and unfold in real-time, and there is a lot of joy, and I’m so grateful that we’re doing this together, Rashid, and that we have so much fun. There’s laughter even in the depths of what we’re exploring and the themes we’ve named so much. So we definitely invite that in and bring that into the space through our relationship with one another. So glad you mentioned that, and I hope folks join us. Thank you, Rashid. 

Rashid: Thank you. ‘Looking forward to it. 

Michelle: Me too.

Visit Rest and Refuge: Restore Your Spirit for more information and how to sign-up.

March 29, 2024

People & Partners
Social Justice

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