As a leader at Parallax Press (a non-profit publishing house founded and inspired by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh), Rachel Neumann publishes books on mindfulness in daily life and is committed to making these teachings accessible to readers of every persuasion, while preserving them for future generations. Her paradigm-changing approach makes her someone who respects the boundaries of establishment thinking, but at the end of the day, she’s essentially a rule breaker. She walks the talk when she says the mission is to ”alleviate suffering and contribute to a more just and joyful world”.
Parallax was founded in 1986, with the publication of Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Being Peace. With over 125 active titles in print, their bestselling books have sold over 100,000 copies, and are available in 35 languages. Parallax’s mission is “to publish beautiful, well-crafted books that nourish happiness and show the connection between the inner and outer work for peace and justice”. The company is a nonprofit publisher, committed to modeling a more sustainable and humane way of doing business. They offer an active free books program for people who are incarcerated and they also incorporate daily meditation and mindfulness practices as part of the working day. Doing social good is the Parallax default mode.
“Because of my childhood, I am always looking for ways to open up our home to the outside. Inviting people to stay for dinner is a priority and if it means having to unexpectedly feed eight hungry kids, so be it”. The concept of commensality (the very definition of sharing food and hospitality), is something Rachel grew up with, and which she actively promotes in her family life today. A perfect example of how she practices being engaged, available and connected, she describes her house as a “think tank” and gathering place.
In her 2012 outing and personal memoir “Not Quite Nirvana”, Rachel Neumann is uniquely positioned to talk about how a regular person attempts to incorporate mindfulness into the everyday. The book is a sweet, humorous and profound account of her search for understanding, in which she admits to often being impatient with interruptions and not listening deeply enough. It’s easy for the reader to identify with her attempts at compassion in a chance encounter with her stepmother later in their adult lives; the regular “coming home to yourself” to listen to one’s own needs; and to the interconnection inherent in the building of human social bonds. And this is a familiar one - we will all relate to the pressures of succumbing to the busy-ness of parenting, work and community responsibilities and the tendency to think that what you think is important is constantly being interrupted by other daily occurrences. In her book Rachel gently reminds us to think about cultivating connections and coming together in awareness.
This woman is a real “slashie”. She is a writer / activist /life partner / mother / business woman / vintage style junkie / fitness disciple and last but not least, editor to one of the best-known and most respected Zen masters Thich Nhat Hanh. She is also elegantly humble. Few women can tell you their Mother delivered not just their first born but their second child. Rachel can and does. And it gets more intriguing. Rachel’s early childhood was spent on a commune on the Salmon River in Northern California. With no indoor bathroom and no electricity.
“It was my parents’ attempt to create a utopia. They weren’t religious but they were trying in the 70’s to be their best selves, together with other families…” Her Dad was an artist and later an art teacher, (the stepson of world renowned philosopher and social theorist Herbert Marcuse), a total hippy with a motorcycle. Her Mom was an RN and midwife who grew up in Mexico City. To this day her favorite place in the world is still the Salmon River where as a “dirty half-naked child” she ran around, playing games, sharing clothes, drinking their goats’ milk and finding a “sleeping spot” to rest at the end of each day because there were no official bedrooms. Her best friend fashion photographer Ericka McConnell with whom Wati has worked many times, explains: “Rach is an organizer. We grew up on the commune together. She kept me in line when we were little when we had no structure, and she’s still “taking care” of me and my family today. We shared everything, and we still do”.
The core Buddhist virtues definitely guide Rachel in her life. But a questioning, challenging fiery nature is in her blood too, being the daughter of Osha, “a rebellious and angry child of German Jewish refugees – intellectuals whose only religion was rationality…” Steven Hopkins, Professor of Religion at Swarthmore College (Rachel’s alma mater), so perfectly described Rachel’s outlook and her book when he writes: “It is this blend of Nhat Hanh’s ‘engaged’ Buddhist ideals and a critical, skeptical political consciousness that gives Neumann’s memoir…its vital tensions and center of gravity. Do not judge others, for sure, but do not simply tolerate them either. Mindfulness and social critique exist in tension together”. This tension is clearly what distinguishes Rachel and creates the interesting approach to modern mindfulness which characterizes this book.
Wati recently caught up with Rachel and asked her about her writing routine and other lifestyle topics.
WATI: What’s the writing process like for you? How do you find the discipline to focus and be productive?
RACHEL: Master Thay (pronounced “tie”) will typically send me a transcript of the beginnings of a book. This is what I work with. I can spend up to a year on one transcript.
I spend at least 30 hours in front of the computer writing per week. In order to be effective in that time I figured out that I need to exercise about 10 hours per week.
So 30 hours I’m on a computer, 10 hours I’m with my body, and the rest of the time I am fully engaged and with my family. This has become something that’s set in stone for me. If you have to think about it, you can talk yourself out of anything. I always schedule it so my family knows in advance. For me that means 2 nights a week and 1 Saturday morning that I’m working out for at least 2 – 3 hours per session. Because I am taking time to take care of myself, I can in turn be a happy, attentive, impressive parent.
I travel quite a bit to book fairs etc. around the country and internationally. When it comes to successfully managing the children, I never hesitate to use my “village”. My own home is always an open house to anyone and everyone, so I never feel guilty about relying on friends to do pick-up for example.
WATI: What are examples of how you practice mindfulness in the family context?
RACHEL: At every family meal we hold hands and one family member gets to strike our Tibetan bowl. We sit for about a minute in silence. Sometimes we close our eyes but basically it’s our “We’re all here” bell.
We sometimes have talks about Want versus Need. I talk to our daughters about the cycle of things, how things are made and what needs to happen for “fast fashion” to be made, for example. If they understand the process, hopefully they will think twice about asking for certain things to be bought for them. They don’t get TV but they watch movies. They love their nano blocks and their Sasha dolls. (*Sasha dolls were made in Germany in the late 1960’s and are known for their individualism, unique expressions, and beautifully and carefully made clothes).
WATI: Can you share a little on beauty and aging?
RACHEL: After college when I was in my 20’s I straightened my hair. For days people treated me as if I were more professional, conservative and traditional. It was odd. I felt less unique. And it was so much work, it became futile, being someone I was not. One day I walked by a shop window and saw my reflection but for a fleeting second did not realize that that person was me. I finally decided to embrace the curly hair girl in me. I have accepted that the curly girl is who I am and that I can’t be someone else’s ideal. I do have a straight hair wig that I pull out sometimes when I want to be that girl, but otherwise I always go curly.
The earlier you know yourself the better. Having a sense of self is so important. I’m hoping I’m teaching my girls this. It’s so important for them to listen to themselves. Even before they listen to me, their Mother. I want them to listen to their own hearts and minds first and foremost. That’s why meditation is key. We are listening to ourselves. The more we listen, the more we discriminate, between what’s important and what’s not.
WATI: Blackberry? iPhone? Paper?
RACHEL: Blackberry. As a writer I like a keyboard. But I don’t worry about having the latest technology. In fact I’m not going to show you my blackberry because it’s falling apart and has duct tape all over it! I also love my Miro notebooks.
WATI: How about your style?
RACHEL: I love anything vintage from the 1970’s. Maribel in Lakeshore (Oakland) has the best finds. It’s sparse and curated and beautiful.
WATI: Can you talk a little about the martial arts that you practice?
RACHEL: I practice Kajunkenbo martial arts in Oakland. I like the idea of having confidence in my own body and projecting that self-confidence every day. Self-defense is about taking care of yourself and knowing how to say no and setting limits. It’s really an extension of my mindfulness practice. If we practice taking care of ourselves, then by natural extension we can then take care of others, as well as the world.
Check out : http://parallax.org/
Book jackets from http://parallax.org
Photography by Ericka McConnell