Revisiting “Between the World and Me”

And have brought humanity to the edge of

oblivion: because they think they are white.

–James Baldwin

[This was first posted in 2015, but the current social climate has persuaded me to re-post this, and perhaps some other pertinent posts, as a response to what I hear out there.]

In his 1984 essay “On Being ‘White’… and Other Lies,”* James Baldwin laid the creation of the racist society that threatens our very existence at the feet of those waves of European immigrants who left behind their separate national/cultural identities to come to “America” and become white.

In his new work Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates picks up where Baldwin left off, explicating the idea, describing in heart-breaking personal detail this deeply rooted cancer, and painting a richly textured vision of what it’s like growing up black in America today, the America of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Written as a letter to his adolescent son, this book pierces to the heart of the moral bankruptcy that is being revealed in greater detail with each passing news cycle.

To say this book is profound, deep, pivotal is almost understatement. This book is a samurai sword cutting off the head of the monster that has arisen from the festering evil pit of “white supremacy”. It makes as clear as seems possible exactly how and why this situation has come to pass, exactly how horrendous it is, and lays out a vision of what just possibly could be a way through to a future for humanity.

Coates articulates so clearly the perspective, the experience, the human tragedy of Black America that it seems to me that anyone who reads this book would experience at least a crack in the armor of hate and apathy that perpetuates this evil situation. He allows one to get inside – as nearly as possible via the writers’ craft – how it feels, the fear and insecurity, the anger and loathing that permeate our streets. With the added dimension of the father’s deep sadness and fear for his son, that most deeply human quality of love and instinct for protection, he buries his message deep in the heart.

Tony Morrison says this book is “required reading” and that Coates fills the intellectual void left when Baldwin died nearly 30 years ago. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I believe it could open the hearts and minds of even the most mean-spirited, small-minded, low-life racists and haters, and if it could truly become required reading for our next generation, we might have a chance.

As you feel Coates’ love for his child, this so-familiar human emotion, his deep humanity comes through, and you understand in this deeply visceral way that his color, his appearance, his “race” is such a small and superficial aspect of who he is that one can only see, however dimly, what an absurd notion is “race.”

But this book goes far beyond debunking racism, far beyond a simple diatribe on the evils of racist white society. It provides a deeply honest inquiry into what it takes for one man to be free, a lyric anthem to the meaning of the struggle, and a truly profound vision of humanity at its heart.

Coates also makes it clear that the black people of America are not the sole victims of the flawed vision of life, which he calls The Dream, but that this habit of thought, this conception of the human role on the earth is creating a violent, authoritarian nightmare that is laying waste the people of the earth and the Earth itself.

“The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands.” [p. 98]

“The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.”[p. 111]

“Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of human beings but the body of the Earth itself.” [p. 150]

Coates’ vision for a transcendent future is not an overly hopeful one. But it likely is the best we have. “I do not believe we can stop them,” he says of The Dreamers, the “white” power elite who are destroying black people and the world. He goes on, speaking to his son, Samori, who is named for the late 19th century Guinean who resisted the French colonial powers:

“…because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom…. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.”

If we who call ourselves white can step off this stage, shed this absurd notion of whiteness, abandon the destructive pursuits of the ill-conceived ‘dream’, and learn to struggle, to find the meaning in the struggle alongside those who have suffered so much and know its lessons, then perhaps there’s some light at the end of that long dark tunnel we’ve made. Perhaps we’ll find our way together to a new story that includes everyone and everything.

[*For a PDF of Baldwin’s essay, visit Collective Liberation]

http://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Baldwin_On_Being_White.pdf

The backward step…

Maia Duerr, who does the online sangha — Waking Up to Your Life — I’m associated with, sends out a message each full moon, sharing Zen insights and life advice. This month’s message is particularly helpful and wonderful to me, so am sharing here. Hope others find it helpful also.

This is her message for the Full Pink Moon (which isn’t pink, by the way — its name comes from the herb “moss pink” which is coming out this time of year):

Full moon / April 2017

Stop searching for phrases and chasing after words. Take the backward step and turn the light inward. Your body-mind of itself will drop away and your original face will appear. If you want to attain just this, immediately practice just this.
– Eihei Dogen (Fukanzazengi)
In the Zen tradition I practice in, the phrase “taking the backward step” is often invoked as a way to affirm the importance of zazen (sitting meditation) in a fully engaged life. That may sound contradictory – isn’t meditation about withdrawing from life?
Not at all, at least not how I understand it. To me, “taking the backward step” is a revolutionary act, one we must do if we are to have a deep understanding of how the world works, and how we work within it. It’s only through that kind of understanding that we can then take skillful action that does not create further harm, and may perhaps even contribute some good.
When I started writing this letter last week, the U.S. had just bombed Syria, in response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons on its own people. Both of these acts set off a wave of reactions across the globe, and within my own heart. I imagine you, too, may have felt an urgency about responding. When the intensity of world events is that amplified, the notion of “taking a backward step” may seem impossible, and out of step. We have to do something, don’t we? Or at least that’s how it feels.
And then I think of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh’s stories of being in Vietnam during the war. Even as bombs dropped on nearby villages, he and his sangha continued to practice meditation, but they also went out to help those who were suffering. In his classic book Peace is Every Step, he writes about this decision:
When I was in Vietnam, so many of our villages were being bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries, or should we leave the meditation halls in order to help people who were suffering under the bombs? After careful reflection we decided to do both – to go out and help people and to do so in mindfulness. We called it engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?
We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help. If we maintain awareness of our breathing and continue to practice smiling, even in difficult situations, many people, animals, and plants will benefit from our way of doing things.
So as you hear the local and global news each day and perhaps struggle with how to respond, I encourage you to find ways to take your own backward step: a moment to re-connect with your breathing; a morning to take a long, quiet walk; a long weekend to go deeply into your practice. There is no better way to spend your time, for the benefit of all beings.
blessings,
Maia
(Maia offers lots of ways to expand and deepen one’s practice, so drop in on her website and check out all the wonderful stuff there! She’s also doing a beautiful retreat in New Hampshire in July which looks wonderful! — John)

No Hope, No Fear

Hope.

We all need hope.

Or so we think, and so we are told by everyone from politicians and salesmen to preachers.

But Buddhist teachers, notably Chogyam Trungpa and his student Pema Chodron, say that hope steals from us the only thing we really ever have: the present moment.

Hope is almost universally regarded as a positive idea, indeed as essential to our happiness and mental health, and its opposite, hopelessness — being ‘without hope’ or ‘beyond hope’ as it is often encoded in our language — is considered the realm of despair and fear, the sign of depression and despair, utter psychological desolation. In most popular psychological literature, the work of self-help gurus, and other widely read and highly regarded sources on the subject (not to mention TV melodrama, which thrives on the ‘hopes and dreams’ genre), hope is offered as the solution to depression, a remedy for feelings of worthlessness or frustration, the drug of choice for conditions of poverty and oppression, the ultimate ‘feel-good’ answer.

Hope, however, is highly overrated.

I say this often to folks, and without fail I get disbelief and scoffing, confusion or anger in response.

I’m usually unable to explain in a satisfactory way why I think hope is not what it’s cracked up to be, so I’ve been going back into the writings of Pema Chodron and the pithy slogans of the Lojong — that wonderful group of teachings from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition related in Chogyam Trungpa’s book Training the Mind — to try to sort out for myself, and perhaps explain for whoever might occasionally read this blog, why “no hope/no fear” is the better part of wisdom.

First, a simple statement of the essential thing here: hope is always based on the idea that things, oneself, conditions, should be other than they are. This assumption clouds our ability to see that true happiness, joy, and contentment come through acceptance.

It is critical at this point to make clear that, at least as far as I understand it, I’m speaking of this on the personal level, not the social level. As a socialist/anarcho/syndicalist, I’m committed to the idea of social betterment, working and planning to make the social conditions that prevail in our world better for everyone on the material plane. I don’t advocate accepting how things are organized in a world that is clearly run on the principal of violent domination and oppression of others as the path to material success. I have hope that this condition in the world can be changed, as a rational approach seems to require that we believe in the possibility of change for the better. This is ‘hope’ simply defined as seeing that something is possible and thus being willing to make efforts toward it.

The ‘hope’ that I consider to be highly overrated, and in fact a detriment to happiness, is that hope which posits that one’s personal happiness is dependent on the external conditions in which one finds oneself, and thus concludes that the only path to joy and peace is for things to change in our surroundings. I’m certainly not saying that one should not work to improve the conditions of one’s life, I’m simply saying that to conclude that such improvements are the necessary and sufficient path to joy and happiness is an error of strategy and a path to perpetual dissatisfaction. Once we decide that things being better in our external conditions will make us happy, we will always find things that need to be ‘better’ in order to maximize our happiness.

As Janis Joplin sang in “Work Me Lord”, “The worst you can say about me is that I’m never satisfied!”

For most of us, that’s the essential problem. We never have enough of whatever it is we think we need to be happy.

So the true solution, the true path to happiness, is not hoping that things will get better, or even working to make them better because we ‘haven’t lost hope.’

No, the true path to happiness, or better, joy and contentment, is learning to see that what we have is really enough. What we need is the clarity of mind to accept ourselves as we are, without that nagging feeling that we’re just not good enough, just not strong enough, just not whatever-it-is-that’s-lacking-this-moment enough — and that as soon as we get that, we’ll be fine.

A basic teaching on this comes in Lojong #15, “Four practices are the best of methods.” One of those ‘best practices’ is, as Trungpa says, just let it be without scheming to get pleasure and avoid pain. There is much in these teachings about flipping the normal human proclivity to seek pleasure, avoid pain. It’s built into our program by the evolutionary journey, so it’s not a “wrong” thing, it’s just that it doesn’t work very well when it comes to developing into a spiritually mature, compassionate person. If we were still out there on the edge of the forest scrabbling with the little beasts for carrion, it would make sense. In our world, it’s counter-productive. In fact, it’s precisely the program that has produced this world of violence and oppression, so there’s probably a very good argument to be made that giving up hope and fear is the best way to elevate society to a more humane, fair and compassionate state.

Most of the talks in Pema’s book When Things Fall Apart are permeated with the notion of ‘no hope/no fear’, and her book The Wisdom of No Escape is specifically dedicated to this idea. It’s important to understand that in all of this, there’s no sense of this being what one “should” do. It’s rather offered in the spirit that if one finds one’s mind turning to the dharma, turning to the path of compassion, here is some heart advice on how to make that happen in your life.

So if you don’t like the idea of giving up hope and fear, truck on down that road. When life turns you around, perhaps you’ll come back to these teachings with a new openness, a new willingness to see how it plays out in your life.

In a chapter in WTFA titled “Hopelessness and Death”, Pema says:

To undo our very ancient and very stuck habitual patterns of mind requires that we begin to turn around some of our most basic assumptions. Believing in a solid, separate self, continuing to seek pleasure and avoid pain, thinking that someone “out there” is to blame for our pain — one has to get totally fed up with these ways of thinking. One has to give up hope that this way of thinking will bring us satisfaction. Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide.

A little further on in the book, she says:

Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment.

[I will continue with a second installment on this theme in a couple of days — I hope! :)]

[And I have! Hope rewarded! Next]

Relationship as spiritual practice – John Welwood

A few excerpts from a good, but difficult, article published on Lion’s Roar. My wife and I have been reading this, on recommendation of her sister, but I can’t say that we’ve understood it’s application to us personally yet. Perhaps others may find insight into this and be of assistance.

The intro says:

Living with someone we love, with all the joys and challenges, is one of the best ways to grow spiritually. But real awakening only happens, says renowned psychologist John Welwood, in the charnel ground where we acknowledge and work with our wounds, fears, and illusions.

Welwood:

..the ego acts as a survival mechanism for getting needs met while fending off the threat of being hurt, manipulated, controlled, rejected, or abandoned in ways we were as a child. This is normal and totally understandable. Yet if it’s the main tenor of a relationship, it keeps us locked in complex strategies of defensiveness and control that undermine the possibility of deeper connection.

The charnel ground is an ideal place to practice because it is right at the crossroads of life, where one cannot help but feel the rawness of human existence.

The chaos that takes place in your neurosis is the only home ground that you can build the mandala of awakening on.
-Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Trungpa Rinpoche suggests that if we can work with the “raw and rugged situation” of the charnel ground, “then some spark or sympathy or compassion, some giving in or opening can begin to take place. The chaos that takes place in your neurosis is the only home ground that you can build the mandala of awakening on.” This last sentence is a powerful one, for it suggests that awakening happens only through facing the chaos of our neurotic patterns. Yet this is often the last thing we want to deal with in relationships.

Trungpa Rinpoche suggests that our neurosis is built on the fact that:

…large areas of our life have been devoted to trying to avoid discovering our own experience. Now [in the charnel ground, in our relationships] we have a chance to explore that large area which exists in our being, which we’ve been trying to avoid. That seems to be the first message, which may be very grim, but also very exciting. We’re not trying to get away from the charnel ground, we don’t want to build a Hilton hotel in the middle of it. Building the mandala of awakening actually happens on the charnel ground. What is happening on the charnel ground is constant personal exploration, and beyond that, just giving, opening, extending yourself completely to the situation that’s available to you. Being fantastically exposed, and the sense that you could give birth to another world.

 

Fleeing the raw, wounded places in ourselves because we don’t think we can handle them is a form of self-rejection and self-abandonment that turns our feeling body into an abandoned, haunted house.

Intimate personal connecting cannot evolve unless the old love wounds that block it are faced, acknowledged, and freed up.

The only way to be free of our conditioned patterns is through a full, conscious experience of them. ==  …allows you to digest unresolved, undigested elements of your emotional experience from the past that are still affecting you: how you were hurt or overwhelmed, how you defended yourself against that by shutting down, how you constructed walls to keep people out.

As they become willing to face and embrace whatever stands between them—old relational wounds from the past, personal pathologies, difficulties hearing and understanding each other, different values and sensitivities—all in the name of loving and letting be, they are invited to “enter into reality.” Then it becomes possible to start encountering each other nakedly, in the open field of nowness, fresh and unfabricated, the field of love forever vibrating with unimagined possibilities.

A girl’s story

This story in four parts is wonderful and terrible, almost a tragedy, though the epilog redeems it. It is a story that America needs to hear, one that reflects realities many wish to deny. Whatever our own story, or that of our loved ones, we can be happy and consoled that we haven’t had to suffer through this.

If you don’t understand what’s going on with trans people, this is a very good place to start. A place that will take you to the heart of it, and open up your heart just a bit.

Allison’s story.

Stifling dissent

Six journalists were arrested in DC last Friday during inauguration unrest, and the charges sound like the prelude to a repressive authoritarian regime.

The charges are vague, and were applied to a fairly large group of people who were all swept up in a mass arrest. The Guardian:

An arrest report for Engel provided by Washington DC’s metropolitan police department said he was arrested after hundreds of people gathered at the intersection and “numerous crimes were occurring in police presence”.

“The crowd was observed enticing a riot by organizing, promoting, encouraging, and participating in acts of violence in furtherance of the riot,” the police narrative said. “The crowd was observed braking [sic] windows, lighting fires, vandalizing police vehicles, burned a limousine, and other acts of violence. The damage was determined to excess $5,000.00.”

An arrest report for Rubinstein stated only that “numerous individual [sic] were arrested” for violating the district’s laws against rioting.

Jack Keller, a producer for the web documentary series Story of America, said he was charged and detained for about 36 hours after being kettled by police at 12th and L streets on Friday morning and arrested despite telling officers that he was covering the demonstrations as a journalist.

Some 200 people were arrested, and the National Lawyers’ Guild said the police had “indiscriminately targeted people for arrest en masse based on location alone”. That’s pretty clearly just designed to suppress dissent and discourage reporting on any resistance. Being in an area where crimes are being committed should not be grounds for arrest and detention.

….

The Guardian report on the first two – and then four more.