I am in San Francisco, one of the homes of American Buddhism. I’ve been staying with a dear friend, a seventy-eight year old woman who had the distinction of working with the Black Panthers in Oakland and tripping acid with the hippies in Haight-Ashbury. I met her on the first meditation retreat I did in America, the People of Colour Retreat at Deer Park Monastery, but I feel as if I’ve known her for lifetimes.
A few days ago we meditated together in the morning before she went to take a shower and I searched the kitchen for something to eat. I found cake, and then some brownies which looked good. I ate part of one and then stopped, concerned. When my friend returned she confirmed my suspicion: after having abstained from intoxicants for five years, I had just taken a sizable bite of a very strong marijuana cookie.Like so many people, I used to be very fond of getting high. Sometimes it took my anxiety away and sometimes it increased it, but I liked the colours, the way music sounded, the conversations I would have, the laughter,pleasant feelings, and absence of pain. That evening, however, when we meditated again, I found myself wanting the feeling to go away. I could not focus, was unable to separate my thoughts from my awareness of them.
During meditation, I usually experience two streams of consciousness: one consists of my thoughts, feelings, sensations, and breath, and the other my awareness of them. Under the influence of marijuana, my awareness had become weak. Much of the time I was simply drifting along on the tide of my thoughts, a single stream of consciousness. It was pleasant — marijuana is pleasant, most of the time — but I had lost my awareness.
Over the following days I visited the wonderful San Francisco Zen Center, and two People of Color sanghas, one in the Mission, and the other in Oakland. During the end of the sit at the Mission, the teacher spoke of loving ourselves, of being kind to ourselves, and I realised how much shame I still carried, how I was slowly getting better at practicing self-love, but found it hard nonetheless and suffered because of this. I remembered how, when I was high, I hadn’t been aware of this. Of course, many would argue that a blissful, stoned, ignorance is preferable to painful awareness, but if this were the case, then the practice of meditation would be unnecessary.
The second dhamma talk in Oakland was about how we hold our pain and trauma in our bodies, how when we meditate we find pieces of ourselves we have repressed and integrate them into the whole. This made absolute sense to me. I remember how nine years ago, after my first vipassana course, I couldn’t stop crying, how I kept saying, ‘I don’t like myself’, how this was a truth I had always been too ashamed, too frightened, to confront.
Sitting in that dhamma hall I realised that shame can only exist in isolation. As the talk continued, and people asked questions, sharing their experiences, it was clear that we were all battling very similar demons, all trying to come out of self-hatred and to love ourselves, be kinder to ourselves, feel our pain with tenderness and compassion, without judgement. For me, it feels like learning a new language. I’m taking baby steps, but the days I’ve spent in sanghas like this have helped me very much.
Every Wednesday 5:30-7pm Liberation from suffering is the ultimate aim of Vipassana practice. In this sitting group for practitioners of color, we will cultivate joy, presence, and wisdom on and off the cushion, with periods of silent meditation, discussions, and dharma teachings. All persons who identify as people of color are invited to attend.
From time to time, I meet people who react with scorn or even outrage when I mention People of Colour retreats. I feel irritated when I hear this, and very rarely explain. It’s hard to speak of vulnerability or pain while being interrogated or attacked. But in this, my non-responsiveness, lies the answer. In order to work with our deepest traumas we have to feel safe. Coming together enables us to do this, to feel connected and loved so that we can go deeper. For me and many others, racism, and whiteness — the belief in the racial superiority of white people and the inferiority of people of color – is a tremendous obstacle to feeling safe. Racism has caused us to feel perpetually unsafe, threatened and afraid, needing to build walls around ourselves, alert to dangers that may or may not materialise, always alive to the possibility that we might encounter a racist micro or macro aggression. For many of us whiteness was an initial causes of trauma, of our feelings of shame or self-hatred or inferiority, wounds we all need to heal from.
Being among People of Color can help to reduce that fear. It doesn’t eliminate it, for we carry it with us wherever we go, but it helps. We feel safer, more secure, more able to close our eyes and sink to the depths of our selves, to cry if we need to, to touch our broken hearts. So many people I know, myself included, have experienced racist encounters while on retreat and the results can be devastating. On retreat, with our defences lowered, we are more vulnerable to retraumatisation and there have been cases of people who have given up their practice entirely after such incidents. This is the reason, or one of the reasons, why People of Color sanghas exist.
In a few days I am going back to Deer Park Monastery, the place where this journey began for me two years ago. But this time I will arrive with friends, and to a place that feels, if not like home, then at least like a sanctuary from the horrors outside. And America is a horrifying place right now. In spite of the progress achieved by Black Lives Matters, racial violence continues unimpeded, and now the threat of fascism is becoming a reality. People are terrified, talking in terms, quite literally, of fight or flight. But racism has left deep wounds in the American psyche and until these wounds are healed fascism will always be a threat, Trump or no Trump.
The only way that threat can be removed is by healing the spiritual wounds racism has caused to whites and non-whites alike. I am going to Deer Park to heal my own wounds, but by doing so, I know I’ll help others to heal, and the process will continue after we leave, affecting all we come into contact with. It’s the only long-term solution I can think of, as fragile and delicate as it is, for if we neglect love and compassion then Trump and his constituency win, regardless of the result in November. As always, I am grateful for the opportunity to and I pray that everyone may find ways of their own to heal . This gentle, near imperceptible work has never felt more important.