Articles January 1, 2001

Interview: All in the Family

Betsy Rose

This year, long-time Spirit Rock presenter Betsy Rose retired from her service to the Family Program.

Spirit Rock - SR: Betsy, what attracted you to sharing your gifts with the family program these past fifteen years or so?

Betsy Rose - BR: I had met and started singing with Thich Nhat Hahn back in ’87 and began writing songs that were quite youth-friendly and family-friendly, based on just simple Dharma teachings. His teachings are so universal and simple because they’re so profound. In a very simple way, he puts things very concretely. All of that made songwriting with him very, very easy and rewarding.

So I began to sing at some of his retreats, especially family retreats. And someone at Spirit Rock who was involved in the very early efforts to forge a bit of a family activity day of some kind or just a day when families could come together got a hold of me and asked if I’d like to come and join them and offer some music. I was thrilled. I don’t know if I’d even heard of Spirit Rock. I probably had, I must’ve, but it was a delightful invitation. So off I went, and that’s how it started, and it began with just singing at family days, and then Seth Castleman came on as a family program teacher, and he created the first retreat and invited me to come and be part of that.

And you know, what attracted me was so many things. I mean, one was just having the opportunity to meet and sing with so many families and children with this music that was so new to me. I’d been a singer songwriter since I was a girl, but my music had been more social justice and human songs, songs of human emotions, and so forth, and I was new to the Dharma. So it just gave me a wonderful opportunity to write and sing new kinds of songs, and it felt also just wonderful to be embedded in a community that had a very value-driven kind of underpinning, that was a spiritual community but in a very inclusive way.

I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist in those days, but it just felt like the values we were lifting up were universal and beautiful. And I loved being part of a community because many artists are very solo entrepreneurs and kind of live in a world that is competitive and hierarchical. There are just lots of things that go on around the arts that are not the most positive, and here was a place where I was completely welcome. I didn’t have to vie for any stature, I was just included. And the last thing I’ll say about it is that being around the practice and being around wonderful teachers. I’m thinking of Seth, Noah Levine, Shoshana Alexander, and Heather Sundberg. I just learned so much from being around their teachings. I feel like I got inspired as an artist by being surrounded by beautiful teachings and very wise teachers taught me and helped me. So that’s some of what comes to mind.

SR: That’s great . . . You’ve kind of answered this, but how did you grow as a musician and teacher during that time?

BR: Right. I kind of did, but the only thing I would add is just that I’m very grateful and very aware of how the teachers I worked with that I just iterated, as well as Gary Buck, former program director, James Baraz, Gil Fronsdal, Julie Wester, the people who in some way really contributed to the family program, how all of them were so inclusive. I mean, I really was a baby Dharma practitioner, and I was elevated to this place, I had a cushion in the front of the room way before I knew what the heck I was talking about.

But there is something about the arts—I think artists can channel things that they themselves may not fully understand. I don’t quite know how to explain it, but I know the way children say these amazingly wise things that they just pull out of the ether, out of the soul of the universe, without having lived the experience—it feels like that.

And so what I loved about these teachers was how they made space for me. There was a spaciousness, there was inclusiveness, there was a welcoming of my gifts, and I think they told me and shone back to me what my gifts were when I didn’t really know. I think that’s so often true in life that we don’t really know what it is that we do, we just do it. But they were very perceptive, and they really were committed to creating a Dharma community that was rich for those who came to it, and they loved the families, and they saw that I had something to bring, and they wanted that for the families. So they didn’t bother about how long I’d been practicing or how much teaching I’d done. They just wanted the best for the families, and they thought I was part of that. So I feel like it’s been a total honor, and I just bow to those beautiful teachers that accompanied me along the way and really made me who I am right now.

Spirit Rock has been a petri dish or a training ground or something for me. I’ve grown up in the Dharma at Spirit Rock. And it’s very hard to let go of some of my intimate involvement with it. I know I’ll always be involved, but this is truly the end of an era in my life. And it’s very challenging to know when it’s time to let go, even when you love something, and I could do this for the rest of my life in a certain way. But I know that my life needs to open up to other possibilities too.

SR: What are some of the plans for this next chapter? What’s opening up for you?

BR: What I’m opening up space for are three main things that are wanting to be on the front burner, and I had to move some things off to a side burner to make room for them. One of them is very related to the Spirit Rock work, it’s taking this mindful music into the secular world. I’ve been doing that for a number of years. I’ve been part of the mindfulness in the schools movement and have done programs in numerous Bay Area and Northwest schools, and East Coast as well, sharing some of the core songs that came out of my work with Spirit Rock. They are really wonderful vehicles for helping children not only learn but, perhaps even more important, retain the practices of breath awareness, self-calming, kind words to self and others, as well as noticing what’s going on. Just the basic things that make a person able to make choices make wise choices in the middle of difficult situations.

And the songs are such a retention tool. It sticks to our brains. Having a song that says, “Equanimity, everything’s gonna be all right, equanimity, I got balance deep inside,” with a kind of jazzy rhythm—they remember that! There’s a really neat video of me teaching with kids in schools, and equanimity is part of that, and also another funny one I wrote, “If you’re happy and you know it; take a breath . . .” It’s just fun to see how this music is traveling out into the big world. I’m developing training for teachers and parents or other adults so that they can use this music in their classrooms, in their homes, in their therapy practice, or in their work to pass on some of the skills I’ve learned over the years about leading children in song. Kind of taking a song and really teasing out of it the teachings and the discussion and the activities that will make it really rich for children.

The second area I’ve gotten very drawn to is the whole area of aging, end of life, bereavement, and the kind of “heavenly messengers” (old age, sickness, death, and awakening) work. I’m almost 64. I have one parent who died three years ago. My mother is 92 and failing a bit, and when my dad died, it really brought to the surface a lot of songwriting moments for me. I had a very profound experience being with him in the two months prior to his death, a very profound experience with hospice. I learned a lot about how it is to hold impermanence close to our hearts with a lot of tenderness because when someone we love is leaving, we can talk a good line about impermanence, but we still may not want them to go. So I have been writing a lot of songs about that. I wrote a CD called “Long for this World,” and it’s a very simple recording of the songs that I’ve written since then. So I’m doing more work with hospice, with conferences on aging and end of life and loss and bereavement. I’m going to be visiting Spirit Rock’s Heavenly Messengers program in November and doing some singing in that context.

And then the third area, because it’s kind of fun and I’m in this midlife place where I am about fulfilling some long-delayed dreams for me, so in the next two or three years, I’m planning some big travel possibilities. I’m hoping to do some trekking in Nepal or maybe walk part of the El Camino de Santiago. I’m hoping to go to Kenya to connect with the women’s project there that I’ve encountered over the years and sing some of my songs as part of their program that draws women out of sex trafficking and prostitution, and domestic violence and creates a safe space for them to get counseling, community, and job training. They sing some of my women’s songs. It’s a whole other realm of my work, with women and empowerment through song. So I’m hoping to go visit them.

I’d like to take music to children and women in other parts of the world and learn from them, learn their songs, and share some of my songs. So these are big, big, big dreams but, you know, one little step at a time. Some of them may actually happen.

SR: May it be so, dear Betsy. May it be so!

For more about Betsy, see her website: