We’ve been focusing in the last few posts on meeting the challenges of finding our center without being self-centered. Because men have been in charge for millennia, the central narrator of our human story has been male. So much so that when I was a child and started to write a story, I wrote it from a male perspective. History is his story, not her story. Women have been peripheral, serving in supporting roles. Finding our center means letting go of any vestigial perspective of the male as the central character and the narrator of life.
Just so, because in America that central male character has been of European descent, even though men of African descent may be raised as the center of their families, doted on by mothers and sisters, in the larger culture they are being fed the same story from the same white male narrator’s perspective. They may balk at it, but it’s there. It has the power to stop them from living with the sense of freedom and ease that white men take for granted, and sometimes it uses that power to stop them from living altogether.
Our practice of meditation and reflection reveals how off-center we have been living. In time we learn how to ride the waves of impermanence with equanimity. We feel a sense of interconnection with all life, comfortable with the simple fact that our consciousness seeded and grows in this particular body, in this particular place and time. Fully inhabiting this moment of being, we radiate lovingkindness and compassion — not giving ourselves away, but shining the light of being in a way that is beneficial for all life.
In this particular moment on our planet, we collectively have a shared responsibility and opportunity to shine our light. Right now we can:
- Take care of the health of ourselves and those around us by social distancing, wear masks when in public indoor spaces, and look out for each other.
- Without violating #1, stand up for justice and the fair and equal treatment of all.
Number one would seem pretty simple and straightforward, and yet in some places, it has turned into a political issue as if wearing a mask is the left-wing version of wearing a MAGA hat! The level of intolerance in the US is almost electric. And yet, at the same time, the level of compassion, kindness, and sense of community has never felt higher. How is it possible that venomous intolerance and a boundless heart can ride together?
The second item on our shared To Do list is challenging since the most instinctive and powerful way to address injustice is to take to the streets, join hands, and raise signs to show unity. One of my students was working on her sign for a protest march, and we exchanged a few emails as she refined what she would put on her sign. She finally decided on “White Silence = Complicity”. Succinct so it could be writ large and be visible from a distance.
So this dharma-post is me not being silent and complicit. Let’s see how I do. Because we each can only speak from where we are, I hope to bring to the conversation what we’ve been developing here in our meditation practice and exploration of the Buddha’s teachings.
If you’ve been a student of Buddhism for long, you know that there really aren’t that many teachings. They all gravitate around the central theme that the causes of suffering are greed, aversion and delusion; and the end of suffering comes when we recognize the nature of impermanence and no separate self that needs defending. (See if you can see the cycle of delusion causing greed activating hatred and delusion in what follows!) These messages are taught again and again, but each time the teaching seems fresh. Why? Because each time we are seeing it from a different perspective and under different conditions. The dharma doesn’t change but we do.
In the same way, many of us have lived through periods of peaceful protests, violent riots and looting. We know from experience the nature of impermanence. This too shall pass. But we also know that life never returns to any moment we’ve known before because everything that happens changes everything that happens after that. Some may mourn that fact and some may celebrate it; some may see it as the fulfillment of some end-times prophecy and others as the solution to an endemic problem. But it is neither, is it? It’s just life in its ever-changing state, the way clouds never come to some final shape but keep arising out of nothing, forming and reforming as they transit across the sky. This is the nature of all life.
This cloud, this particular moment, may seem like other times, but it is different. Why?
For one thing, since the ubiquitous use of smartphones and social media has made it possible to record and broadcast events, the disparity between how some police treat black men and women in America and how they treat whites has been laid bare before us. Each death captured on camera enters our shared psyche, affecting our understanding of the world, and we struggle to make sense of it.
This brutality has been happening all along, but now that we are seeing it we can’t unknow it. We can’t go back to believing the myth that justice is blind, or that every police officer by definition is there to protect and defend us, regardless of the color of our skin. This most recent incident, where we watched in horror as a police officer kept his knee on the neck of George Floyd for almost nine minutes, even after he had passed out, was horrifying and infuriating. But so were all the other videos we have seen over the past years, as well as the news stories of other deaths less well recorded, and the knowledge that the deaths of many women of color are not even noted. So why are the protests now so much bigger and in so many more places, even in little towns across America and everywhere around the world?
What really got me and many others was this glaring contrast: In the same news cycle where a black man was being murdered before our eyes for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill, a white man who had already killed at least two people and was on the run, was being addressed by a law-enforcement officer in front of news cameras, making a heartfelt plea for the young man to turn himself in, saying “We know this is not who you are.”
So, let’s get this straight: A white man who murders is temporarily not himself. He is an inherently good guy who just made a bad mistake; but a black man who knowingly or unknowingly passes a counterfeit bill is inherently bad and deserves to die on the spot, crushed to the asphalt and asphyxiated by a knee in the neck, while telling the officer politely, “I can’t breathe.”
So stark was the contrast between these two simultaneous events that there was just no way to write it off in our brains.
In the same news cycle was the white woman in Central Park captured on video calling the police because a birdwatcher/nature volunteer asked her to please put her dog on leash. Her words on the phone to the police about an African-American male threatening her were chilling: She knew his vulnerability — that as a black man in America he could be killed without question for doing nothing out of the ordinary — and she used it to put him in danger. Because he asked her to obey the law.
So people took to the streets all over the country and then all over the world. Because, due to the internet and the shared experience of a global pandemic, many of us see ourselves as a world community now, intrinsically interconnected, all vulnerable to the same virus, all connected by blood and by moral outrage. People are marching not just for George Floyd, but for Breonna Taylor, an EMT shot eight times in her own home by police on a mistaken identity drug-warrant execution; for Ahmaud Arbery, out jogging when two white men in a truck murdered him; and for the long painful list of names that are just the most recent of what are being seen as modern-day lynchings.
That historical reference reminds us that none of this is new. This has been going on ever since people on the African continent were torn away from their families and ancestral villages, isolated from their languages and cultures, shipped in chains under horrendous conditions to the Americas, where they were sold and enslaved for generations, deprived of all human rights, forbidden to learn to read, denied the simple freedoms most humans anywhere in the world take for granted, including the rights of husbands, wives and children to stay together as family. And then, many generations later, their descendants were released from physical bondage without any recompense for their years of labor or the labor of their ancestors. Labor which, had they come of their own volition with the freedoms of other immigrants, could, like them, have voted, moved about freely, owned property, developed a support network of relatives and friends, benefited from their own labor, created businesses, pursued education and careers, and accumulated wealth that would have passed down the generations, just like any other American. To ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ you need to have boots, not shackles.
Every wave of immigrants that came to this country benefited from the labor of the darker-skinned inhabitants that had built so much of what made America a beacon. These new immigrants were told by their bosses and political leaders that although they were low on the totem pole of the social hierarchy, at least they were better than those of African descent. Those in power knew that if you give the downtrodden a scapegoat to blame for their poverty, they won’t hold you accountable for poor working conditions and low wages — a principle still being used today.
The immigrants who were able to work the system climbed up the ladder of American dreams, while laws prevented those in the black community from doing the same — laws against property ownership in many communities, including mine until the mid 1960’s; labor unions denying membership to qualified black workers; voting laws that purposely excluded them, to name but a few of a very long list of legal and social inequities. For Americans of African descent, there were many missing rungs on the ladder of American dreams. What successes there were, and there have been many, were made in spite of all these limitations. What astounding amounts of smarts and determination it took to accomplish what rich white men were simply handed on a platter! But many poor whites admired, and continue to admire, the rich ones whose success came through no effort and look down on even the most brilliant, educated and successful African-Americans.
And why? Because of the lies that were (and continue to be) told to them to keep them from questioning the lucrative set up. Without the time, energy or inclination to look more closely, they bought into the invented idea of ‘race’ — a concept originally created to justify enslaving people. Biologically, there is no such separation in the human species. But if there’s economic power to be had, those who, out of fear, believe themselves to be separate, with an identity fortress that needs to be constantly shored up and defended, will find a way to prove to themselves that they are good people by creating or buying into a belief that those they oppress are not like them, and that makes it all okay. Here’s just a hint of that kind of thinking: Back in 1861, the new Confederate government was based upon “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.” (Known as the Cornerstone Speech.)
Not surprisingly, some police officers hold those beliefs, too. And they are in a position to act upon those beliefs, feeling justified in mistreating people with different features or pigmentation. And many are able to do so with impunity. When my grandson previewed this post, he added this historical note: In 1704 South Carolina created the first public police force, called “slave patrols,” to chase down, apprehend, and return runaway slaves to their owners, deter slave revolts, and discipline enslaved workers who violated rules.
Another thing that may be making this moment different is the recent concerted effort by African-American authors to provide Euro-American readers with a way into looking at racism and their own feelings, beliefs and assumptions with more clarity and compassion, instead of looking away uncomfortably or believing racism doesn’t affect us. And, perhaps most importantly, they extended an invitation to work together, and ways to be an ally. We crave labels, believe we can’t function without them! To be given the gift of a label called ‘ally’ makes it clear what our role in all this can be. We feel emboldened to stand up and be counted, allied for equal treatment and justice, instead of sitting silently by, complicit.
The last difference about this particular moment that I’ll mention is that those who have been sheltering in place for months have had an enforced period of calm and time for reflection. Add to this the exponential growth in people practicing meditation over the past decade, which also provides the opportunity for clear-seeing. In a period of calm and contemplation, we can look at the threads of thought and emotion and recognize that they do not define us, they are just false narratives that have traveled through generations, often unquestioned or even unnoticed. But the effects of these threads can be seen and felt, especially by those who are most personally impacted. When we don’t feel we have to defend them, it is easier to see them without looking away. And looking away is pretty much what most of us have been doing for far too long.
As we take the time to look, we can recognize the habit of mind to categorize, to label, to accept without thinking, and to react out of fear. Hiding from or denying thoughts isn’t useful — in fact, pushed underground they do more harm. So now we shine our light on them! These threads of thought are just patterns tied into experiences, memories and the cultural messages all around us. When we can see them this way, it is not so threatening to acknowledge their existence and their fallibility, and then let them go.
Acknowledging that the habit of mind is to categorize and file away, we have the ability to really look and see it all. Maybe we can let it be a messy wonderful collage, without needing to tidy everything up and answer every question we ever had so we can feel we ‘know’. We don’t know! And that’s a liberation in itself.
Let’s not, for example, file all African Americans as ‘victims’ and all police as ‘evil’ or any other kind of labeling. If all we do is shuffle our thoughts and file them differently, even revelations about the nature of white privilege and the treatment of those who don’t have it just get formed into new versions of judgments, assumptions, beliefs and enemy-making. To get some perspective, we need to step back a bit, take a wider view, see the whole picture to whatever degree we are able. Perhaps we can see the patterns of delusion activating greed, and those caught up in greed stirring up aversion (hatred) in those they wish to take advantage of, so that they live in delusion that causes suffering all around and on down the generations until we wake up.
Can we step back without turning away? Can we see the arising and falling away of patterns in the rich, often awe-inspiring, and, yes, sometimes painful tapestry of life. Can we let the images of police officers taking a knee be part of that tapestry, without erasing what that other officer’s knee has done? Can we shine a light on it all?
Can we appreciate, woven deeply and brightly in that tapestry, the beauty of the African-American community, vibrant with a rich culture that is self-nourishing and inspiring to people everywhere. Much of what is finest about America can be directly attributed to this community and other communities of color whose histories and cultures are deeply rooted in this sacred land.
Individually and as a world community, we have many challenges to address. Among them: How do we right the wrongs? How do we change the patterns endemic to the system? How do we create a fair and just community out of one that is so lopsided and warped? And how do we create a sustainable life for all beings?
Because the long threads woven of patterns of thought and emotion seem so tightly entangled, it may feel impossible to change. But change is inherent. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” May each of us, resting like a radiant jewel in the center of this precious moment just as it is, set our wise intention to shine the light of awareness and compassion to bring about clarity and healing for all beings.
May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be peaceful. May all beings be happy.
Here is a list of resources that Buddhist meditation teachers are sharing if you are interested in exploring further or contributing:
Black Lives Matter
Color of Change
Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.
Showing Up for Racial Justice
“75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice”