Each day, I take time to walk outdoors and spend time sitting in silence listening to my own inner experience and allow my body to be inhabited with my consciousness. I meet and allow all sorts of feelings, some of which are deeply peaceful and healing, and often, feelings that are painful. As I grow more comfortable trusting myself and my body, my awareness expands to that which is beyond me, the interconnected web to which I belong. I am “remembering my place in the community of life” (Suzanne Kirkus) and becoming more aware of how I make “an indispensable contribution to (life’s) totality.” (Larry Yang)
I walk each day wondering: What I will offer to life, to others, to the earth today? How can what I do, think and feel benefit all beings?
Here in my personal and communal spiritual practices and the actions I take in my life, I hope to find “The place where (my) deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (Frederick Buechner)
According to Choctaw Elder Bishop Steven Charleston, many of us long for a genuinely spiritual life, but embrace a kind of popular spirituality that keeps us from commitments. We long for connection, but have been raised with individuality (our “right” to do as we please) as the holy grail. We go along our merry way soul-searching, manifesting and looking for happiness, but are devoid of true interdependence, a circle of intimacy where we are held by, and hold others, in all our glory and fallibilities. Some of us have been raised communally, but often with the price of being segmented from “those others” who do not believe as we do, thinking them at least misguided, and perhaps dangerous. We spend a tremendous amount of energy proving how much better we are than they are, and separating ourselves from their humanity, and therefore our own.
(I do want to acknowledge that I am speaking for myself and many people. There are people who do live in deep interdependent communities and know each other intimately. I think of some Jewish, Indigenous, Black communities who have always maintained true communal spirit among one another, while not needing to demonize those outside of their groups—and I can learn from them.)
Here is an experience I had in 2020:
Being new to my neighborhood in April, I was still orienting to the rhythms and residents here, when the murder of George Floyd happened just a short distance from my home. When the crime that followed the uprisings increased, I began feeling tremendous fear in my body and noticed hypervigilant thinking and behavior in myself. Each day, I would sit with these uncomfortable feelings, soothing myself and knowing there was good reason for them to be there. And I was wondering if I could learn to relate differently to my reactions to the personal crimes happening to my friends and neighbors. Afterall, many people the world over (and throughout history) live with daily violence in their midst, particularly black and brown people. As a white person, I am used to not only feeling relatively “safe”, but have a sense of entitlement that I “should” be able to feel and be safe. And if I don’t, it must be someone’s fault. This line of thinking is part of the insidious white privilege within me and my white fellows.
How do I honor the true fear in my body to stay alert to danger, but also keep my eyes and heart open to the day, to others around me who may be in much more danger than I?
How do I befriend and live with the discomfort in my body… and stay engaged with my community?
How do I open to the truth of systems and circumstances that have led to high numbers of people in our city acting criminally as a way of life?
I began taking every opportunity to connect with people on my block I’d never met before. I reached out to neighbors to find out how they were doing and problem-solve on how to be safer as a community. I discovered my local newspaper The Messenger was a good place to learn about who my neighbors are, what they are doing to respond to the challenges folx are facing in our area—not just around violence, but around homelessness, domestic abuse, hunger, and health care. I found ways to actively offer myself and my resources to my community in ways that made me feel more connected—and safe.
But still my heart would not stop pounding, my hands would not stop shaking, I heard sirens even when there were none. So, back to my chair I would go each day to sit with myself as I was. One day, as I was feeling these uncomfortable feelings, I realized how I was bracing against them: Really trying NOT to feel the awful feelings. For some reason that day I was able to go a little deeper and let myself go into the terror that had taken up residence (or more likely, bubbled up from unconscious place where it had lived all my life). I softened my body to allow the feelings expanding through me, kept grounding myself, tethering my focus to my seat, my feet, and my heart, and the feelings moved through me like a wave. At first it felt like I’d be swept away, annihilated, from the intensity. But I stayed with myself and allowed it to morph and change as the feelings of shakiness, dizziness, nausea coursed through me. It peaked and then subsided some. I said to myself: What am I afraid of? And an answer came into my awareness: I was afraid that I was alone in going to the heart of the suffering our neighborhood, our city, our world faces. I was afraid that my beloved family and friends would not have the capacity to join me to wonder more deeply about the circumstances that spur uprisings, hate groups, armed robberies, racism, and suffering that could be addressed if our hearts, minds and bodies felt safe enough and could cooperate with one another.
With this answer, came clarity on what my purpose is going forward: Engage with people in my life in a loving way that invites safety, inquiry and honesty, so that we may begin to dismantle and repair the inequities, injustices, deficits, harsh judgement, greed and dissociation that live among us.
Over these months, I keep leaning into the discomfort within me, to build my capacity to meet my own suffering with care and support. My teacher Flint Sparks says that “what we meet in ourselves in a half hour on the cushion helps us meet life as it is the rest of the day”. We become familiar with and able to tend to our own reactivity, so that we have greater capacity to meet reactivity around us and still stay connected to our hearts, to each other, in aware and helpful ways.
Many questions arise in me, and some answers come as well. I discovered more spiritual teachers like Rhonda Magee, Steven Charleston, Lama Rod Owens, Joanna Macy, Adrienne Maree Brown, Jason Reynolds and Ibram Kendi through their books and social media. These authors invite me to have a vision based on the highest good for all beings, for this planet.
Having a vision keeps my mind focused when my body becomes dysregulated so that I can hang in there with myself, come inwards and tend to what is happening in order to process it, discover its meaning, integrate it.
Metta practice is often a way I discipline my mind away from negative thoughts that do not feed my vision. It connects me with my heart, and with my spiritual communities and others who say these words across the globe, across time, to invoke the intention we have behind our actions, thoughts and feelings:
May all bodies have safety and live with ease.
May all hearts be open, kind and strong.
May all minds be boundless, clear and present.
May we awaken together in peace.
I believe that how we move into this new paradigm of 2021 and beyond depends on how well we tend to our communal spirit– how we sense into and tend to the entity of all beings on this planet, not just individuals or small groups. We must tend not only to ourselves and our beloveds, but seek loving connection with those with whom we disagree and do not understand. The old ideology of “us versus them” must become obsolete in every way if we are to integrate and heal the whole of life on this planet.
To do the work of tending our communal spirit, we must first share and process the discord and differences we have with those we love and care about—especially when we do not share similar beliefs and experiences. When we practice speaking honestly with each other, and listening fully to each other, we begin the healing that can then expand into wider circles of our communities and the world at large.
Together, whenever we meet disagreement between us, or find ourselves getting into the trap of “us and them”, we can pause, wonder into the situation, look to see if we can bring more Love into the room, and meet the details of our challenges with care and respect.
Let us inquire openly, listen deeply, work with our own reactivity so we can witness others as more than their reactivity, and keep true to a vision that supports a loving, cooperative evolution of humanity.
How do we live in service of love?
What can we do when we find ourselves qualifying “love”, or are unable to feel love or compassion for certain human beings?
We are off to a challenging beginning in 2021, and we have a long road ahead of us as we face the truth of who we are individually, as a country, as global community. The ugly underbelly of our discord continues to show itself to us, and our bodies and hearts are reverberating with these awakenings. For me, I am attempting empathy to sense into the hatred, rage, and righteousness of those who would harm others, those who stormed the US Capitol, and those who think their way is best and are not willing to bravely go toward other ideas in order to negotiate a workable solution for all. I believe that woundedness underlies all hateful and divisive actions. I seek to understand the nature of that woundedness, how to contain it, examine it, heal it.
I have many questions about what experiences, cultural norms, and ancestral legacies have influenced our beliefs and feelings. We can be curious about the foundations of our current situation, the beliefs we hold dear, our reactivity when these are threatened.
The field of epigenetics explores how our ancestral heritage influences how we react to experiences in our current lives. You can Google the “cherry blossom experiment” for an in-depth look at how the experiences of our ancestors may directly affect our own subconscious responses. Resmaa Menakem writes in his book My Grandmothers Hands about how each of us have nervous-system wiring directly related to what happened to generations of our ancestors. Knowing that my body was born with a certain default setting helps me tend to it with more compassion and encourages me to think about healing the collective, not just about my own personal healing.
When I am faced with something I cannot bear, I often leap to judge it, explain it, or fix it. My teachers invite me to turn toward this suffering and see it as it is, to be curious, be present, look for ways to connect with it instead of disconnecting.
I know that when I get angry, hurt or scared, its harder to stay present and see clearly what’s happening in front of me. I sometimes get overwhelmed and either fight back or distance myself, and I often have felt I must appease certain people who potentially had power over me.
I am sad that I have spent so much of my life trying to feel “safe”, but it has made me, slowly over time, more aware of the dearth of basic safety that most people of color and all who live in poverty experience daily in far deeper ways than I ever have.
I know that no healing, no meaningful connections happen if safety and care are not available for human beings. That’s true for all of us.
How can we create physical safety for each other —food, shelter, meaningful work, rest, health care?
How can we create emotional/spiritual safety — the ability to express the range of human emotions and devotional practices, and be accepted and included by others?
When we offer these safe havens for our beloved family and friends, that is wonderful.
When we work together to create these forms of safety and include those we don’t understand or agree with, we are serving the highest forms of love.
To work together, we must create safety for each other, for our vulnerabilities, needs and desires. We could build something new, inclusive, and all be better for it: healing could begin to happen.
I am walking these days with the questions of how I can help create more safety — physical, emotional, social— for myself, for others, and for people who don’t have it. I can not define what safety or engagement means for others. I must listen to hear beyond my own thought framework.
As a person with resources, some that I earned, some gifted to me, and some that were afforded to me by virtue of my caste, I feel a responsibility to turn toward the suffering around me, not to judge it, but to meet it with active hope.
No doubt, I face my own fears, limitation of character, and ineffectiveness in my efforts to heal myself and others. But as long as my fellows suffer, I do too.
Father Richard Rohr says we are in the time of “pulling back the veil”, a time of being shocked into recognizing a different order of things than we are used to seeing. He invites us to wake up to utter realism, to this time of “Disorder being incorporated into Order”.
Another teacher of mine, Dr. Raja Selvam, has said for years that we need to “become more comfortable being uncomfortable” so we can show up heartfully to meet what is difficult and offer our best selves.
Through listening into silence, tending to my heart and bodily experiences, turning toward others to address discord and cultivate intimacy, I practice facing what is true with openness and wonder. I offer myself to life.