Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Thoughts on Being White, Racism, Dharma Practice and Forgiveness



I am not comfortable giving advice or dispensing “shoulds.” At the same time, I have waded into the swamp of racism and white supremacy and can report my own realizations as I continue to scrape off the muck. So this is an interior monologue that I share because I’ve learned a lot from other voices and we can only do this together.

We see them everywhere. On the internet. Cable TV. Family gatherings. White people who feel judged, feel rejected, feel misunderstood, feel hated by People of Color “just” for being white. And, if I’m honest, I must admit to having had twinges of those feelings myself. “I’m a good person...why do you blame me?” What is really going on?

First, any pull to blame People of Color for our own feelings is misplaced. Even if there are some who hate all white people, and many who feel pretty ambivalent about us, I would be astonished if that were not at least a part of the response to being the targets of a powerful system of oppression for generations. The real cause of those reactions and of the discomfort that we white people feel is white supremacy. This system has perpetrated inequity, terror and violence on Black and brown people for hundreds of years. Every time progress is made to overcome this evil, it morphs and calls itself by other names to continue protecting - well, people who look like me. And so far most of us have remained either blissfully ignorant or took part in the project.

Another source of my own discomfort was revealed by peeling back the layers. When I look deeply I realize that I feel brokenhearted by the barrier - no, rift - no, chasm - that has been constructed between myself and other human beings because of the system of white supremacy. Some of us want to skip the step of fixing the problem and go right to “we are all one.” When that is not well-received, again, the go-to is to blame People of Color and feel rejected and hurt.

I feel an urgent need to change things and, also, helpless. I feel rage at the pain being inflicted and deeply frustrated at my own complicity in it. I harm people I care about just by existing. So much easier to blame them for not seeing me as “one of the good ones” - or to blame myself and feel hopeless - than to sit with that pain and find my own path through it.

As a person who does Dharma practice I’m fascinated by the way that the concepts of “awakening” and being “woke” share some underpinnings. Both concepts are looking for authentic manifestations, but can invite pretense for those hoping to join a movement without doing the hard work. And both realities are processes rather than destinations - never really “finished” but always finding the next layer to explore.

Like the process of awakening, I’ve found that living in, trying to understand, reacting to systems of oppression is not about discovering the “correct” behavior and mimicking that. Right Action follows Right Thought. And that takes practice. 

Similar to working with difficult emotions in meditation, I find that I need to bring attention to places where my real thoughts and questions regarding race and racism live - notice and label them - and let them move through. This can be uncomfortable, even devastating. Sit with discomfort. Sit with not knowing. Sit with despair. The more I can do this, the more my authentic racist/anti-racist self emerges; the more I find where fear holds me back from doing what I know is right; the more I can clear away the messages installed by a racist society and find Right Action.

Ultimately everything is paradox. The ideal and the real coexist. There is no such thing as race, and racism is all too real. We white people must learn to forgive ourselves or we won’t be able to do what is required to ensure that all beings are free. So forgive yourself. And, at the same time, don’t ever expect People of Color to forgive you. Be okay with that. Or sit with the discomfort.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

An Autumn Dream In Which I Wake Up

 Last night I dreamed that I was up in a tree that had already lost its leaves. I was there with some other people who were eating a meal, but soon I began to swing on a branch and the branch tossed me into a somersault and laid me gently in the grass at its feet.

I was next to a steep hill that went up and up, covered with many varieties of trees, many colors, including evergreens that were tall and stately. The grass was lush and green, but the trees were in various stages of changing color or dropping their leaves.

Eventually I became aware of a kind of communication coming up through the ground into my body from the trees and the grass all around. It was energy rather than words or symbols and I felt it in my whole body rather than heard it. The words to describe the message are inadequate but I have no other means to convey it. I was made aware on a physical level that I am one with all that is – with the earth and all that grows upon it. Further, I was made to “know” that this is true regardless of what, if anything, I “do” (or don’t do).

I don't remember ever having a dream like this, one that contains communication in a mode that I don't consciously use or experience. But I do "feel" like this sometimes when I am chanting with a big group of people.

I post it here partly so that when it fades I can revisit it and remember, partly to share this experience with others who may have had similar experiences. I'd love to hear yours!

Life is just so amazing!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Refuge In the Sangha

Though I have never taken part in a formal ceremony, I have "taken refuge" in my heart many times. "I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha."

The Sangha. In all my years of meditation and Dharma study I have not fully connected with the last of the three refuges until today. I am so grateful.

Right now my beloved partner of 25 years is undergoing open-heart surgery. Right NOW. This whole experience is amazing - in the sense that I'm amazed, awed, by it.

I've learned so much from John about connection. I used to be deeply embarrassed at how open and forth-coming he is with a wide variety of people. I didn't want anyone to know "our business" and felt deeply unsafe about sharing.

The family "story" in my family of origin is about being self-reliant, not asking for help and not sharing vulnerability. It was seen as true that the world is fundamentally unsafe and most people are either too self-involved to care about others or could actually mean us harm. This seemed "right" to me emotionally even as I explored other ways to be in the world.  In an alternate universe, no one would know John is in the OR right now and I would be struggling alone with panic and fear.

Instead, a huge network of friends and family has been following John's story through e-mail lists, Facebook and the CaringBridge website. They know where he is right now and are holding him in light and love. And they are holding me, too. Many have texted or e-mailed me. I feel my connection to them and know that John and I are not alone. At first it felt awkward to send news of John's illness to so many people. But as the situation unfolded I felt my inner "story" shift and change to allow the possibility that we truly are connected and can not only give but receive strength and comfort during a difficult time. The world feels like a safer place today than it did when I was young. For that I am grateful to John for opening that door and to the Buddha for walking the path and leaving footsteps for us to follow.

Om Mani Padme Hum
I am grateful to everyone who is holding that loving, healing wish for John. The Sangha.

May all beings be safe.

May all beings be happy.
May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Confessions of a Devotional Atheist: Kirtan, Death and Life

What am I (a Jewish/Lutheran, raised atheist, ex-Long Island girl) doing sitting on the floor in a large room filled with people singing in Sanskrit? The series of events that first led me to participate in a Kirtan and Meditation weekend with Krishna Das and Sharon Salzberg (in March 2009) reads like a path of breadcrumbs left by the divine.

Yet I am not a likely candidate for divine intervention, having been raised without religion. In fact I still lean toward atheism in my world view - but I've left a window open a crack to allow me to hear the universe singing. In a mischievous mood I sometimes call myself a Devotional Atheist.

My mother had a long-term terminal illness and, back in 2008, I had the sense that she would soon be approaching the end. I was trying to find some relationship with death that didn't involve overwhelming terror so that I could be present with her and supportive with my father, my brother and my children.

Meditation practice and reading was helpful. I came across a book about aging by Ram Dass (that wonderful seeker of new paths who wrote Be Here Now back in the 60s) and I learned that he had had a stroke. Then I discovered the moving documentary about his life after the stroke (Fierce Grace). In one scene we see Ram Dass sitting in a wheelchair weeping with joy amidst a crowd of people swaying and dancing. The music just reached out and grabbed me. It was like hearing my first Beatles song. It was Krishna Das.

Krishna Das (affectionately called KD) is also originally from Long Island and, as he likes to say, Jewish on his parents side. There was something instantly familiar about him - a brother from another mother. His voice is deep and soulful, very genuine and open. I was fascinated by the call and response singing that I later learned was called Kirtan.

I've always loved singing along to popular music of my generation - the R&R generation, especially in large groups such as at a concert. Kirtan with Krishna Das has some of that quality of emotional resonance with an added dimension. Because the words are not in English and are not "about" anything in a worldly sense, Kirtan becomes akin to meditation in some ways. As KD says, "nothing to join, nothing to believe - just sing." 

Of course, there is a history of devotional chanting in many eastern religions and many of the songs are actually either the names of deities or prayers. Repetition of "the name" is seen as a way to free ourselves from obsession with ourselves and develop compassion and devotion to selfless service. I find that it also helps me to quiet the chatter that plays in my mind almost constantly. And, though I don't "believe" in anything in particular, kirtan helps me "listen" without judgment to the universe as it is.

During my mother's last days in the hospice house, I was staying at my parent's house nearby and spending the days at her bedside. I would wake spontaneously at 4 AM, sit in meditation and then chant with a KD recording. I am so grateful that I found kirtan practice in time to help me be present and open for my mother's last days. And when she died, I was able to be there for my father and hold grief in such a way that our family had a loving focus.

I was even able to write and deliver the eulogy at the burial of her ashes (at my father's request) - a challenging proposition in a family with no religious rituals to fall back on. Ultimately I cherish my non-conformist family. In some ways, the lack of a formula for dealing with life's big transitions made it necessary to be present with what is and relate to that in an open way.

I attended several live kirtan events with Krishna Das this year, both before and after my mother died. I find these events provide something basic that is hard to find in our modern society. There is a non-judgmental acceptance of everyone in the room. Everyone is on their own path, yet there is strength in feeling our unity and the unity with all that is.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Welcoming Prajna

Prajna means "sharp, illuminating and compassionate inquisitiveness."

After a lifetime of fighting with the world it seems another approach is needed. The world as it is poses many contradictions. It holds heart-breaking pain and inequity - and awe-inspiring beauty. It has been too easy for me to despair at the first and overlook the second. Too easy to feel driven into angry battles that can not be won with anger, and to miss the chance to make a quiet difference because it feels like too little. Or to cringe away from painful truths and make them invisible rather than feel their sting.

Practice has shown me a way to see and act differently. And incited many questions: Is it possible to find compassion for all while still opposing destructive actions? Is it possible to change the world with love? What am I? Are we truly all one? What is compassionate action? Am I strong enough to really look at what is? What does it mean to be authentic? Can I sit with not-knowing?

For me practice has been less about the answers and more about the questions - and the sitting with not-knowing. When my mind is not in frantic reaction, I can often find a way opening to more skillful action.

I am grateful to live in a time when I have access to the words, the teachings, the practices of those who have explored these paths throughout the centuries.

I am also grateful to live in a time when I can easily share things that I discover and find useful - and open a dialog with others of like mind/heart. That is what this space is for. Prajna. Open heart, open mind. May all beings be at peace and free from fear.