These days, I feel a cyclone of emotions and thoughts at any given moment. So much in our world, so very much, is wrong, has been wrong, will be wrong…
Fear is triggered, and I become grasping, clinging, desperate. Ideas appear in fits and spurts. I become irritable and distracted. I feel nauseous and short of breath. The ego urges “fix it, fix it, fix it!” The desire to heal and solve and fix is so strong that I worry I might actually be losing my mind – I feel unhinged, unsettled, frantic for something to do.
And then, I remember what I’ve forgotten, again. I remember that the best thing (and only reasonable thing) to do when I feel like this is to stop.
Stop and sit.
So I sit down on my cushion and breathe in and out. A tear lands in my lap as I feel the weight of the suffering that threatens to overwhelm me. I stay sitting and let the fire within me blaze fiercely, consuming my fear from the inside out.
After 20, 30, 40 minutes, I open my eyes and look around the same room in the same world with the same conditions – but I am whole in this body again. I stand up and find that I can put one foot in front of the other. I can wash the dishes. I can read to my children. I can do my work, my small part for justice.
I can live in this unbelievable world with a broken heart still beating, still choosing to love.
I can feel the energy of this moment. There are voices speaking out that never have before. There is a crumbling of the societal pact that violence against women is acceptable and should be “gotten over.”
I am not a victim of overt sexual violence. I can’t point to any one specific incidence in my life and call it “sexual assault.” As such, I’ve considered myself more of an outsider – an ally to women who are survivors of gender-based violence, but not a “survivor” myself. I call myself a feminist, but I have, in fact, lived most of my life only semi-conscious about what it means to identify as a woman.
Last week, that changed. As I read other women’s stories of abuse inspired by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s brave testimony, something inside of me broke open. I found myself crying at their stories, but my tears were about more than empathy. They were tears of personal pain. I was feeling the trauma of my own lived reality as a woman.
All of a sudden, I could see the thousands of little ways I’d internalized patriarchy and sexism – the avoidance of conflict, not taking up space, not sharing my truth, caring too much about how I look, dismissing the pain of inappropriate comments or sexist jokes, being overly caregiving and self-sacrificing – and how these ways of being shaped my life.
In seeing these examples of my own internalized oppression, I felt a deep sadness followed by outrage. But outrage toward whom? This system damages us all (women and men). It imprisons us with its ideas about who we’re supposed to be, what’s acceptable, who’s deserves what, etc. My passive participation enables it to continue.
Systemic trauma is real. I study it and talk about it in my workshops. I often bring up examples of racism, white supremacy, and intergenerational poverty. I talk about how these systems of violence traumatize individuals and groups, and that trauma shows up in their bodies and brains. But I never flipped the mirror around. I never fully acknowledged that the systemic trauma of sexism lives within me, too, in this woman’s body.
I am grateful to the many women who are boldly facing and sharing their own trauma right now. They’ve empowered me to see mine. And they empower us to see that #MeToo goes beyond specific incidences of gender-based violence. We are a collective of survivors challenging a common perpetrator – slowly dismantling this massive system of violence, one #MeToo at a time.
I first learned this phrase from a meditation teacher years ago. It sounds simple, but it has powerful implications.
“Right now, it’s like this.”
I am sometimes overwhelmed by the painful emotions of acknowledging injustice, especially when I’m confronted by my own responsibility for it. I’ve made choices about where we live, what school our kids go to, what communities we engage with, etc. that are only choices because of my racial and economic privilege. Housing discrimination, inequality in education, de facto segregation, access to public transportation, and a myriad of other systemic issues give choice (and therefor power) to people like me at the expense of many others.
Currently at my learning edge, I’m discovering the implications of accepting opportunities afforded me by an unjust, deeply biased system. When I examine this, it feels like I’ve been receiving gifts from an ill-intentioned stranger, giving to me only to get what he wants. It brings up a queasy feeling to acknowledge the unintended debt I’ve acquired. (Read more from Eula Biss about “opportunity hoarding” and “white debt”.)
There is no way to pay off this debt. I feel the discomfort.
“Right now, it’s like this.”
I accept what is real in this moment. I accept the debt that this body owes. I accept that things are this way right now. But I don’t accept the continuation of this system. Once I've let myself see the truth of injustice, I cannot look the other way.
With this acceptance, I feel stronger. I’m not wasting energy resisting truth or indulging in denial, apathy, or despair. I am energized for the fight. Acceptance arms me with love, compassion, and wisdom for the revolution of consciousness we so desperately need.
“Right now, it’s like this.”
White folks in racial justice circles often experience shame, guilt, and confusion. We unpack our invisible knapsacks of white privilege; we notice biases we didn’t know we had; we start to discover the personal, relational, and systemic dynamics of racism and white supremacy. And what arises within many of us is the inevitable question, “So, what can I do about it???”
My experience with this question is that it represents a longing to “make it better” in a couple of different ways: we genuinely want to help heal the suffering of racial injustice, and, we desperately want to end the discomfort of being on the “bad” side of the equation. I know this experience and the sensations of it well. Even as I type this now, I can feel the tightness arising in my chest and up through my throat, the drawing down of muscles in my face, the tears forming in my eyes. We don’t want to be here. We don’t want supremacy lived out in our skin. It hurts. If you identify as white and can hear what I’m saying, just sit here with me for a moment and feel this. If your mind wants to jump to judgment or “fixing” or trying to justify or validate your experience as a “good” white person, just watch that happening and bring yourself back to here, now, feeling the sadness of this legacy that we are a part of.
This is one thing we can do. We can stick with it when it hurts. It sounds simple, but I believe in this process as a profound path to healing ourselves and our communities. We practice (and it is a practice) waking up to our own direct experience of racism and white supremacy. We realize our own personal suffering here. And from this place of truth and sadness, skillful action is possible.
Skillful action can mean many things – it can mean investigating these issues in greater depth through the many resources that exist today to help us learn more; it can mean joining a racial justice discussion group or forming one where you live, work, or pray; it can mean donating to POC-led racial justice organizations; it can mean advocating for racially-just policies in your home community. But underlying any of these is the most basic of skillful actions: living each moment with greater awareness.
This is the commitment I’ve made to myself. I want to see racial bias when it come up for me. I want to feel the emotions and sensations that accompany each thought I’ve been conditioned to believe. Each time I do this, something subtle shifts inside - there is a little more openness, a little less judgment, a little bit of compassion. In that moment of awareness, I am more skillful in how I relate to myself and others. Each experience like this contributes to a changed mind (literally). With this practice, I can be more skillful in how I challenge racism and white supremacy in my personal interactions with the communities and institutions I’m a part of.
So, this question for me becomes less about “what can I do?” and more about “how can I be?”
I am making a commitment to start this blog because I feel inspired and driven to share what’s on my heart and mind these days related to mindfulness, justice, and trauma.
The intersection of contemplative practice and social justice has long been seeking my attention. In the past few years, I've discovered a growing number of resources about bringing mindfulness to race as well as bringing up race in mindfulness circles. Some leaders in this area like Rev. angel kyodo williams encourage white folks to do their own work internally and in white spaces. In an effort to more seriously take this advice, I am using this space to explore my own experience of waking up to racial injustice through a lens of mindfulness.
My acknowledgment of and interest in racial justice began with a trip abroad in college. Ironically, I had to leave the country to see how race played out in another place – the Dominican Republic – in order to “awaken” to racial dynamics in a personal way in my own communities and country. In the DR, fairer-skinned Dominicans are favored over darker-skinned Dominicans and Haitian immigrants. I saw this dynamic play out in the orphanage where I lived and in the communities beyond it. Even young children acted out roles of power and privilege over their darker-skinned “brothers.” I remember trying to step in when it turned to bullying. I remember feeling outraged by the injustice of it. And then I went back home to the States, where racial privilege was the air I was breathing without even noticing...
For most of my life, I let my white privilege “protect” me from having to acknowledge race. Living in a society steeped in racist ideology from birth, surrounded mostly by white folks growing up, I unconsciously exempted myself from facing my racial privilege. After more direct experiences with racism and a powerful couple of years in grad school for social work, I woke up, and I started to see racial injustice everywhere.
So finally, in my mid-20's, I had become outraged by racism and white supremacy. I discovered a lot of shame and fear arising when I participated in race-based discussions with mixed-race groups. I “said the wrong thing” many times, driving me deeper into discomfort (aka "white fragility"). I would feel inspired to engage on the topic out of a sense of caring and responsibility, and I admit, a hope that I could “fix it" on some level. And then I would encounter that familiar discomfort of my own pain and the "unfixableness" of it, and I would retreat, hiding away in other work, pursuing other passions. Of course, this retreating is an option afforded me only because of my privilege. People of color cannot just “retreat” from daily life or "opt in" when they feel inspired to consider issues of race.
I can no longer retreat - I am facing this struggle inside myself with a renewed commitment. I am inspired by Lama Rod Owen's directive to "go to the frontlines of your struggle." My frontlines are in here and out there, meditating, reading, writing, and connecting with others about my part and our parts in this racialized world.
Racism causes suffering and deep harm for all people - for people of color more directly and violently than white people. It absolutely pervades all that we are and do if we don't consciously face it. Can we turn toward this suffering and harm with love so that it may be transformed in our own hearts and then beyond?
I bring up love because it's at the center of everything. For me, mindfulness is about love, about bringing love into every experience of this being-human. Love is the force that makes it possible to live fully – love for others and a deep love for oneself. To share my own ignorance and suffering is an act of love. To recognize the ways in which I’ve caused suffering for others is an act of love. To investigate the constructs and lived realities of race and racism in my own life is an act of love. And I'm deeply inspired by the countless acts of love that I've been witness to as others engage with this work.
In this humble blog, I will continue by bringing love to the table for a discussion on racism, my role in it, and how we can do our own work to challenge it with mindfulness.
In this article written for the Mindful Schools community, Grace explores her own awakening to bias, the origins and manifestations of bias, and how we can use mindfulness to challenge it in our daily lives.
Read Grace's article: Race-Conscious Parenting: Using Mindfulness to Challenge Bias,
first published in Issue #69, May through August 2018. Copyright © Crazy Wisdom, Inc., 2018, www.crazywisdomjournal.com.
The Power to Be Blog explores the use of mindfulness in shifting both individual and collective awareness toward a more just and loving world.
Grace Helms Kotre, MSW, shares mindfulness as a tool for empowerment with youth and adults in schools, organizations, businesses, and private lessons. Grace sees mindfulness as a radical and powerful tool for promoting justice, healing trauma, and bringing greater peace into our daily lives.