American Pilgrimage #20

Dear friends,
It has now been a year since I returned from America. In the meanwhile, my website was unfortunately hacked and has just been reinstalled.This is my last American Pilgrimage post, though I will continue to write in this space.
A few weeks ago I began AMERICAN PILGRIMAGE the book. I thought, for a long time, about exactly what form a book would take, and realised that, though I wanted to keep the spirit of these posts, I really wanted to write about using meditation to heal from racism.
The first pages here are a taste of what is to come, but in the meantime I would like to thank everyone who has read these posts and, in effect, gone on this journey with me. Your comments and feedback and have been so loving and generous, and have turned my solitary meditation, thoughts, and writing into a dialogue which, as I’m learning, is essential for healing.


With gratitude and metta




1: No Mud No Lotus


WHEN I REACH the departure gate at Copenhagen Airport, I am led away into a dark room. Two Danish women, both over sixty, tell me to remove my shoes and belt. They rub my clothes with swabs of matt plastic which they feed into a machine called a ‘sniffer’. The sniffer will determine whether or not I am a bomb, based on the amount of residue from explosives it finds.

I try to joke with the women, thanking them cleaning my belt, but I’m shaking with fear and anger and humiliation. But I do not protest. I’ve heard too many stories, friends of friends who have been detained on suspicion; or missed their flights without compensation, or been blacklisted for international travel.

I do not want this to happen. I do not want to be denied entry into the USA.

Tomorrow, I will land in Los Angeles, and the morning after I will travel to the mountains of Escondido, outside San Diego, to Thich Nhat Hanh’s  ‘Deer Park Monastery’ where I’ll stay for three days on a meditation retreat for people of colour. This will be the first of several retreats I’ll sit across the west of the United States on an expedition financed by the Hemera Foundation, which funds fellowships for writers and artists with a meditation practice. For the last hour, I’ve been listening to a talk by a Thai Forest monk on self-esteem, feeling myself slipping into a new frame of mind, a new self, one who, for the following three months, will focus only on the dhamma, on the path.

And this, this dark room, is my first obstacle, though I’m not able to see it this way, not yet. As always when I’m stopped at airports or on the street for ‘random’ searches, it has taken me by surprise. When the sniffer machine gives me my score (zero, proving I am not a bomb) and I put on my shoes and belt, I’m still shaking.

I’m in the lounge now, at the gate, the place I was headed to before the computer display started flashing, and I’m an ordinary passenger once more amongst all the other ordinary passengers, except that, bar a couple of east Asians, everyone else here is white. The flight is delayed and they look languorous and board. A couple have boxes of pizza open, some have their feet up, are dozing, or playing games on smartphones. A baby is crawling across the floor. The dreadlocked white teenager in front of me is shoving a long thin piece of metal into a hole in his phone. I don’t know why he’s doing this, but it’s something I wouldn’t dare do, not after what I’ve just been through.

So my pilgrimage to America has begun and I’m filled with resentment and even hatred towards my fellow passengers. I keep looking back towards the dark room from which I emerged (everyone else walked through the main gate), and as far as I can see, no-one else has been ‘randomly’ searched. As far as I can tell, I am the only one. This realisation makes me suddenly sad. I’m almost crying now, looking at the other passengers as if there is a giant abyss between us, a chasm of difference. They are paying customers on a routine, boring journey. I am a potential terrorist, someone with without rights, someone who doesn’t belong, a threat. There is no-one I can complain to. Nothing I can do. Nobody cares. Most of them would probably think the search was justified. ‘If you have nothing to hide…’ This is the most inauspicious beginning to my journey, a prelude to the disappointment that awaits.

I sink, limp-backed, into my seat, a familiar cloud of stale depression filling my head.

And now I remember my meditation, a faint breath of hope. I close my eyes. Perhaps this is not a bad omen but a test, a first test. Residual paranoia tells me they might be watching me, thinking I’m performing some pre-murder prayers, but I shrug it off.

Meditation is something I’ve put my trust in, my faith in. If I know one thing I know this: right now, the only thing I can possibly hope to control right now is my mind.

When I open my eyes, perhaps fifteen minutes later, the worst has passed. I feel tired, but I know everything is fundamentally all right. Something bad has happened, and it has passed. Phantoms rose and fell, fear, grief, anger, panic, worry, anger, despair, all products of my mind. They have dissolved now, though they will surely return. It is my habit to react in these ways. What just happened was racism, and racism cuts deep. Racism hurts. I am carrying deep, deep wounds inside of me, wounds that I’ve carried with me since childhood, wounds no-one can see. This is the reason for my pilgrimage to America, even if I don’t know it yet. I’m going there to heal.



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