American Pilgrimage #37

Continued from American Pilgrimage #32 (On my experiences at Deer Park Monastery, People of Colour Retreat, 2016).

Sunday August 7 was  the last day of the People of Color Retreat, and my last day in the United States. It was also 3 months before the election, something we all seemed to be aware of, every minute, every hour. As people of colour we knew what a Trump victory would mean, but we also knew the playing field would not go from good to bad, but bad to worse. And 3 months later, when those dark waters did break, the hysteria did not come from us. In any case, on our programmes, where it read 5.15. wake up, it also read, ‘Waking up this morning I smile — 24 brand new hours are before me.’

Trump or not, we were not there to despair. It was the ethos of this place, that “happiness is here and now”, regardless of circumstances. And no matter who the President is, there will be no final reckoning, no day of judgement or last battle. Our species would go on after our deaths (unless the worst really does come to the worst) and the essential struggle can’t be framed politically, or even in moral terms. It’s about something simultaneously simpler and deeper, the theme of the treat: “The Path of True Love”.


The day began with a ceremony, the transmission of the Mindfulness Trainings. I had done this last year, kneeling and bowing as each training was recited, a tremendously moving experience, but having done it before, I was content to watch the others. After it was over, a member of my dharma family came over to me. He had been speaking, in our sharing group, about how it was so hard for men to cry, how he envied the women who cried so freely in our sessions, but now his voice cracked as he turned to hug me. This made me laugh, but it also made me happy. I remembered a similar feeling 2 years ago, as if something in me had broken down, as if in place of all the criticism and disapproval, an entire community had expressed their faith in my good and loving nature. I think if communities and families everywhere were to do this today, the world would be a very different place.

After the ceremony, there was breakfast and walking meditation, and then the closing session of the retreat, a question and answer session.

Most of the questions were about how to merge our spiritual practice with social and political reality. There were many about anger — an unofficial theme of the retreat. ‘Black Lives Matter shone a light on what so many of us already knew,’ one said, while another explained how he wanted to have an open heart to his white brothers and sisters, but it was hard to challenge whiteness with love, especially when so many white people refuse to admit there is a problem, refuse to address their own pain and ignorance, even in meditation sanghas where the response was often a zen smile of transcendence which in fact concealed indifference, or hostility.

The Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams, and Zenju Earthlyn Manuel answered from the stage, together with two monks from the monastery. Zenju began by saying that the purpose of a POC retreat was not to politicise the dharma, but to include the political within the dharma. ‘We were not born POC’, she said, but became it by having to grapple with whiteness, schools, police and the racisms that have restricted our access to the world.  ‘We don’t suffer the absolute’, she said. ‘We suffer the relative. We don’t suffer that all lives matter; we suffer that black and brown lives are not mattering. We suffer in the bodies that we have.’


Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

The Reverend Williams added that we need to honour our suffering, not run away from it or try to ‘get over it’. Just because we feel pain it does not mean we should be better, and if we try to feign transcendence, to ‘Buddhize it’, we are only recreating the wheel of suffering. The suffering does not disappear; instead, we  we arrive at a place where we are able to smile at our own suffering, to relate to it rather than objectifying it as bad. ‘Only the wounded healers are able to heal.’

‘There is far too much focus on what white people can do for us,’ said the Reverend, and the term ‘allies’ only reifies a position of power; that we are down here and they are up there. ‘The work for white folks is to do their own work,’ she said. They are distracting themselves by trying to ‘give scholarships to people of colour’, ‘signing a cheque for our silence’, and only extending their own suffering by avoiding the deep emotional work required. ‘Don’t wound yourselves by getting into conversations about race with white folk if you haven’t healed yourself first,’ she said. ‘In fact, you don’t need to ever do it. We need to liberate ourselves even from the idea that there is something to liberate ourselves from. Some of us are activists, but for some it is enough to be kindergarten teachers, or architects, or to have a good sense of fashion. We don’t all have a place on the frontlines. But we all have a place on the frontlines of our own suffering, and that is enough.’

When I heard this last line I found myself in tears. Until that moment I had been nodding, taking notes, raising eyebrows, but suddenly I felt released, released by love. I had spent so many years getting into fearsome conversations with white people on the subject of race, arguing in panel discussions on stages, or over dinner tables or in bars (thank god I stopped before the era of Internet debate). In my twenties I devoted hours which would have been better spent sleeping, to deconstructing all the non-sequiturs in defence of whiteness, all the gaslighting. I had no idea how much I was hurting myself, retraumatising a mind that needed the coolness of rain, not more fire. The problem was that I didn’t love myself enough, had been turning myself into a martyr, believing my own wellness to be of little value beside the struggle, never quite realising that my own essence was not that of a fighter but of a human who needed love, that I could never be an effective warrior, in any case, until I healed myself.

It was only over the last ten years, after I began to meditate, that I learned self-care, had therapy, sought out loving company, gave up smoking, began to exercise, eat well, drink water instead of whisky. My writing and political engagement did not stop, but I began to put myself first. What the Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams was saying, however, the monks too, was far more radical; that I did not need to do anything at all other than be happy. This ran contrary to everything I had ever been told, which was that happiness and selfishness were the same thing.

When the session ended I went to pack my things and to say goodbye to so many friends, old and new. The following morning, I landed in New York where I spent the day with a friend from university before flying to London. I had hardly slept on either flight, and remember little of that day in Manhattan, of what we did. All I remember how good it felt to be with an old and much-loved friend, and how at the end of my life it would be moments like these that I would value, not my successes or awards or victories, not the times I’ve been vindicated or proved myself ‘right’. We live in a competitive world, but competition has never made me happy. Friendship has made me happy. Love has made me happy. I’ve always had these moments of happiness, but thanks to meditation they have been more and more frequent, mostly because I have learned how to steer myself myself away from paths that are bound to lead to suffering.

I learned this lesson once more as I readied myself to fly out of Newark and was told that my name wasn’t on the system, that I needed to rush to a different terminal and show them my passport to have any chance of flying. What I wanted to do was to start shouting  (I hadn’t slept for forty-eight hours) but somehow I managed to control myself, observe my breathing, ask them to repeat what I needed to do, smile at the woman, and eventually, I did get on that flight. I have my practice to thank for this. What could have been a dark moment, was only a little grey.

A lot of people ask me what meditation is, and I don’t always know the answer, but I think it is an act of looking. There are some things we can only see in silence, only see when we are still. What we do see can be terrifying at first, especially if we have lived for a long time without looking, though to go on like this is too exhausting in the long-run, at least for me, too unsatisfying. It’s very rare that I know how to live in the material world, and when my plans do come off, which is even rarer, they invariably take me to a different place to the one I had believed they would. The only tool I have that never lets me down is meditation, and as I sat on the plane and closed my eyes, I was relieved that I didn’t need to be in America, or any particular place, to do it.

The world may be getting worse, but the contents of my mind are still essentially the same: there’s fear, anger, and hatred, and also some spaces in between where I can feel calm, feel sure; peaceful, spaces where love can enter. This is why I do it. I live for these spaces now. Perhaps we all do. But if it wasn’t for meditation, I’d never have known they were there in the first place.



Posted in American Pilgrimage | Leave a comment

American Pilgrimage #36

Continued from American Pilgrimage #32 (On my experiences at Deer Park Monastery, People of Colour Retreat, 2016).

On Day 4 we hiked up a mountain. We did this on the last retreat, in 2014. This was the day I met my 78 year old friend responsible for my (inadvertent) consumption of (half) a marijuana cookie, a friendship that means the world to me now. And it was there I’d had a long and memorable conversation with one of the oldest monks whom everyone called Young Brother.

I remember him telling me how he’d had three lives, first as a stockbroker, then as a Christian priest, and finally as a Zen monk. The line from the Bible that most resonated with him was, ‘The kingdom of heaven is within’, and this caused him, ultimately to turn towards Buddhism. He advised me to go to Plum Village, to spend some time with Thich Nhat Hanh: ‘I truly believe he is the living Buddha, the living Christ, or our time,’ he said. But since that conversation Thich Nhat Hanh had had a severe stroke and Young Brother had died, only the night before, while we were having dinner.

It was also while we were on that mountain, two years ago that Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson Missouri. It was this, together with the acquittal of George Zimmerman the year before, that propelled Black Lives Matter onto the national and international stage to the point where near everyone, American or not, had seen footage of black people being murdered by police. This, I was certain, was one of the reasons for there being twice as many people hiking up that mountain now than in 2014, and for the thick fog of anger surrounding us all.

There had been all these changes in only two years. But it’s one of the basic truths of Buddhism: anicca, impermanence.


Young Brother, Phap De

This year, when Noble Silence ended, I began speaking quietly and softly with a new friend, about the things that had led us to where we were now, about our hopes for the future. But our conversation was broken quite suddenly when numerous people from behind began shouting, telling all the ‘LA people’ to congregate here, and all the ‘Oakland people’ to congregate there, for group photographs amidst much whooping and cheering (‘LA! LA!’ and so on). I, as the only non-US resident, was left on my own, though luckily another close friend who was equally uninterested in the cacophony  came and sat beside me.

It wasn’t just the fact of my physical exclusion that bothered me; there was a sense of cultural alienation too. In America (though this is hardly unique to America) the celebration of identity is a powerful cultural phenomenon. I’ve never liked it. To me it’s always a sign of insecurity, to the extent that it becomes an obligation. I’d go so far as to say that this is the totalitarian side of American culture, though many are unaware of it. But this is only natural: it has its roots in school and in summer camp. It’s there in Friday night football, in cheerleading, in the compulsion to separate into teams and raise mascots and chant and sing. There are positive aspects to  these activities too, but I believe they all have a role to play in weakening individual awareness.

It’s a forced extroversion too, and therefore inevitably discriminates against introverts. I once read there has only ever been one introvert President, and that was Nixon. I’m not trying to propose that Nixon become the standard bearer for introverts, but only that obligatory extroversion is a requirement of an increasingly nationalistic and self-aggrandizing culture. Something similar was and is present in British boarding schools too, the training grounds for empire, a less extrovert but equally totalitarian culture.

I had enjoyed the sharing groups in 2014 more than in 2016  because there had were fewer people, so it had felt more intimate and authentic; I’d felt safer. In fact, group sharing, is arguably a singularly American practice, finding its ancestry in Alcoholics Anonymous, and the confessional culture Oprah helped universalise, but it’s a conscious practice, almost by definition. But on that mountain with 250 people shouting out local affiliations, I felt I was in the presence of something unconscious and automated, and this left me a little depressed.

It hadn’t helped that during last night’s touching the earth ceremony there had been a certain amount of rhetoric about ‘this great country’ and ‘this great economy’, which I’d interpreted as needless nationalism (though others disagreed). Moreover, after we had made our way down the mountain, a friend introduced me to a woman from LA saying, ‘He’s from England, but we’ve adopted him into our Oakland group,’ which I found a very kind and loving statement. I told her I liked LA, to which she responded, ‘Stay where you are; we’ve got too many people here already.’ At this point, I was still reeling from Brexit, and was hurt to hear anti-immigrant sentiments at a People of Color Retreat, where I last expected them.

For that evening, the monks had planned a ‘be-in’, where each family would present a skit or sing a song or do a dance. It felt like an obligatory group requirement, which hadn’t been the case last year, and as the whooping and cheering had continued for much of the day, I knew I had reached my limit and needed to separate from the group. What I really wanted to do was to mediate, and so later that night, when everyone gathered in the Dharma Hall, I slipped away to the yurt and meditated for two or three hours. It was lovely, peaceful and focused just as I had expected it to be in this place (this was the first time I had done any really deep meditation at Deer Park). Later, when I took a walk through the now silent and dark grounds, I realised this place was indeed a traditional Buddhist monastery, but it had gone out of its way to accommodate modern, western lay people.


It’s something I hugely admire the monks for: they never attempted to  contradict the prevailing culture. Instead they accommodate it, walking towards it with open arms which enables others to walk towards them. But I, of course, was possessed of less serenity than the monks, and had to go away. Nonetheless, as I walked around the monastery listening to the laughter and drumming from the dharma hall, I felt only goodwill for the people there, and, most importantly, I felt I still belonged to the group, which might not have been the case had I remained.

The lesson I learned is that we will always have disagreements, cultural or political clashes, but we can’t lose sight of our common humanity, though sometimes, we have to separate  to remember this. After all, monks spend years in caves, cut off from everyone, and all I’d done was to take the evening off, but it was enough. I think it had something to do with regaining my balance, and my sense of autonomy, faculties that are of tremendous importance for all people, but particularly for Americans right now.

Whether Trump wins or loses, hysteria will surely follow, angry recriminations, or mindless celebration, and these things, in my opinion, are ways of deterring democracy in its truest sense, by limiting our self-awareness and autonomy. This is why I feel meditation and introspection are so beneficial to Americans today, in spite of all the nd talk of capitalist spirituality and cultural appropriation. Valid as these critiques may be, I still believe that the fact of simply being in a monastery, of sitting and walking in silence, will prove far more important in the long-run.

I don’t believe that progressive cultural shifts occur because of powerful leaders or strong emotions: I believe they occur because of increased awareness, without which action becomes meaningless or even counter-productive. I can only hope that we can focus on developing inner stillness and equanimity in ourselves rather than joining in the hysteria outside, because it’s these qualities that will ultimately determine our future, and not the results of the election. It has taken me a very long time to realise this but, to use Oprah’s phrase, this is one of the things I know for sure.


The View from the Mountain Top


Posted in American Pilgrimage | Leave a comment

American Pilgrimage #35

Continued from American Pilgrimage #32 (On my experience at Deer Park Monastery, People of Colour Retreat, 2016).

Day 2 began with a walk. All 250 of us headed up the hillside at dawn, stopping in front of a large statue of the Buddha where the monks conducted a short service. But I could feel anger inside me. And I could feel it all around me, building. It was an old anger, but the circumstances were new. We were all here together, people of colour, on a retreat whose purpose was to heal. This in itself, our collective presence and intention, constituted an acknowledgement of the First Noble Truth, the truth of suffering. And this, I believe, was the cause of the anger. Finally we were removed from society, from our obligations and pressures, and could look at ourselves, at our histories, and acknowledge that as humans, and as people of colour, we had suffered, and though the cause of suffering lay in our own minds, the anger was an awareness of the injustices that had befallen us all. On this baking mountaintop the anger felt like heat gathering, accumulating, settling inside the bowl of the sky. Only rain could bring the temperature down, but first we had to see it, to experience it.  Without awareness, there can be no healing. I have learned this.


Larry Ward, later that day, spoke about ‘serene reflection’, which I suppose is what we were doing. None of us were shouting, at least; no-one was running down the mountainside. Instead we were observing our breathing, smiling and bowing to one another. It is no wonder then that the anger was building. As Larry Ward said: ‘Serene reflection leads to non-serene discoveries.’

That evening the Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams echoed much of what I’d been feeling, that with each passing hour we were, collectively, beginning to appreciate the scale of the trauma we had experienced. The violence and abuse committed against people of colour was unbelievable, she said, so we were used to seeing it and denying it at the same time. And that denial is reinforced by whiteness. If it’s hard for people of colour to accept the harm done to us by white people, it is surely harder for white people to accept.

This was proven by the previous day’s drama in which one white person had tried to seek immediate absolution, hoping that by crying or asking to be hugged she could make the problem go away, or by ‘debunking to absolute reality’ — making statements such as ‘we are all human’ — one can deny the construct of whiteness and its effects on jobs, safety, incomes, and education. Another white retreatant had sought to suppress talk of racism by intimidating the group, hoping to shield herself from her own trauma this way, her own shame. As Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams said: ‘When we suppress something in ourselves, we try to suppress it in others’. This isn’t always a conscious act, she said; ‘often we can’t make sense of our behaviour, we feel out of control, we feel afraid of ourselves, and so we try to shut others down.’


No Description

But this does not only happen among white people. People of colour frequently try to shut down such talk too, unable to face their own traumas, their own feelings of shame. But if we want to heal, said the Reverend, we can’t stop talking about our pain: we had to accept our own reality, our own humanity, and this was why we were here, in this monastery, at this retreat. As another speaker would say, we created the label People of Colour to label our pain.

The struggle, then, becomes between the dharma and whiteness, whiteness the construct, whiteness the neurosis, whiteness the social ego, as illusory as the individual ego, but as ubiquitous. But of course, whiteness will fight back, fight back inside our minds as well as without, and this is the struggle, this is why we need to practice.

As I have discovered personally, a clouded mind is liable to accept another’s version of reality, or of themselves, often drawn to the argument delivered most volubly, or from the most rooftops. Even after I intellectually rejected whiteness, and capitalism, the two dominant ideologies in western society, I found myself drawn to the worldviews of others without knowing my own mind well enough to have something to verify them against. This, I believe, is the reason why fundamentalisms of all kinds, religious and political, are so successful, the reason why we look to cult leaders or politicians to save us, to Trump to ‘make America [meaning ourselves] great again’, or to Hillary to save us from Trump. Because there are large voids, or clouds, obstructing our self-awareness; perhaps  we are incapable of serene reflection, perhaps our minds are too agitated, too unstable, too flickering, too afraid.

The dharma helps us resist this. Once we begin to know our own minds, we become less susceptible to the worldviews of others, less receptive to bulling or brainwashing. Oprah has a question she is fond of asking her interviewees, a question I’ve been trying to answer — ‘What do you know for sure?’ I asked a ten year old this recently and he said, ‘Nothing’, his face perfectly deadpan. This is how I feel much of the time, but there are also times, usually after practicing, when the emptiness yields, when I can feel my own loving nature, my own goodness, when I know for sure, or almost for sure, that this is who I am. And then the critical voices returns.

When people speak of a cosmic struggle between good and evil, I believe this is what they are talking about, that dialogue between the angel and the demon, between Jesus and the devil, between the Buddha and Mara, between all of us and our doubts, our demons that chip away at self-esteem which, I suspect, is the same thing as self-knowledge. And when our self-knowledge is incomplete, we become susceptible to the voices of those critical demons, be they parents, teachers, friends, competitors, priests, or politicians. We allow others to tell us who we are, that we are less than whole, less than lovable, less than good.


When we allow ourselves serene reflection, the results are often terrifying at first because we learn that we don’t like ourselves. Certainly, this was my first, big realisation after I began to meditate, a realisation I kept repeating while crying as I’d never cried before. But once we can accept that realisation, hold it, look at it, we can go deeper, come to better understand this thing we call our self, and understand there is nothing evil or unlovable or’bad’ about it. Instead of simply believing those voices that say  ‘You’re bad’, ‘You’re stupid’, ‘You’re useless’, ‘You’re ugly’, we begin to hear them, to realise they are not our own voices, and this is the beginning of healing. My hope is that ultimately we can all reach a stage wherein we discard those voices completely, wherein we love ourselves fully. I haven’t got there yet, but this is something I hope to know for sure.

Posted in American Pilgrimage | Leave a comment

American Pilgrimage #34

Continued from American Pilgrimage #32 (On my experience at Deer Park Monastery, People of Colour Retreat, 2016).


On the afternoon of Day 1, I had a long talk with a friend about a piece I’d read  by Ronald A. Kuyenda about the antidialogical nature of whiteness. ‘You just blew my mind,’ my friend said,  and I nodded. I’d felt the same when I read the piece. I realised how many years I’d spent attempting to discuss racism with those beholden to the logic of whiteness (white or p.o.c), and how futile the exercise was. The reason is this: race is a construct; it has no ‘actual existence’, and yet the world is structured according to its logic; therefore, arguments defending racism cannot be rational, because there is no rational defence of racism.

As a result, defenders of whiteness resort to an apparently inexhaustible supply of irrational statements, which the interlocutor has to deconstruct (there was a twitter hashtag called #whiteproverbs designed to expose this and, in a spectacular piece of antidialogic irony, thousands, including the BBC, responded by accusing its founders of racism). When I used to engage in these conversations I would finish exhausted, frustrated and dispirited, as if my opponent had flung me a Sudoku puzzle, followed by another and another, which I sweated over while they watched.

Today, I am very careful regarding with whom I speak about racism (including to whom I mention I’ve attended a people of colour retreat). Racism isn’t a subject I ‘like’: to me, it’s a word laden with centuries of violence and brutality, and these antidialogic responses are a part of that history and present day reality. I have not yet healed sufficiently so that these responses do not hurt me, but I have healed to the point where I have the wisdom not to seek out these conversations. I have learned the importance of protecting myself, and I have learned that I am not under any obligation to engage in these anti-dialogues (another myth of whiteness).


Example of a ‘#whiteproverb’

I mention all of this primarily because of what happened in the sharing sessions later that day. We split into six families, each named after people of colour who had died recently. Mine was ‘Remembering Sandra Lee Boggs’ a compound of Sandra Bland, killed in police custody in 2015 after failing to signal while changing lanes, and Grace Lee Boggs, the writer/activist who died last year just shy of her 100th birthday. I enjoyed the sharing sessions less this time as there were twice as many people, which made it far less intimate, but as always I was inspired by the ability of others to speak so sincerely from the heart. I realised that the more honest we are able to be, the more evident our common humanity becomes, the more able we are to recognise that the things that divide us are constructs, whiteness and patriarchy included.

One young woman began to cry when she spoke about trauma. She did not go into the details, but I almost did not need to know. I related. I also cry because of trauma, so feeling love and compassion for her was easy. As Larry Ward said, hatred builds categories, love dismantles them. However, as one member of our group pointed out, these constructs have a huge impact on our lives, and I knew that once I returned to the world I would have to face them, for the outside world doesn’t function like a sharing circle at Deer Park monastery.

In a sharing circle there are rules to ensure gentle, loving, respectful discourse. It used to be called Dharma Discussion, but the name was changed to Sharing to emphasise that we were not there to contradict or advise but to speak about our experienceswhich had the effect of revealing our shared humanity as opposed to inviting competitive, ego-based responses.

At the beginning of the retreat, one of the organisers had said that monks or lay residents of the monastery who identified as white had agreed to step back and give up the space to us, though they would help by working in the kitchens etc. I felt moved by this. It didn’t suggest division to me but it’s opposite: commonality, common cause. These white allies were helping to realise a space in which people of colour did not feel secondary or like minorities, felt safe, felt like the space was theirs. I was grateful for this.

I didn’t realise that there actually were two people on the retreat who identified as white and had signed up as allies, permissible if there was space. But later, after Sharing, I learned that there had been incidents involving these individuals in their respective families. One had shouted at the group, telling them they had to help her to find her community, to find who she was meant to be, railing at them for not helping her. A friend had responded by saying that he cared for her, and her obvious pain, but that she was taking over the space in a way which disrespected the rules of the group. Others said they were feeling unsafe, that they did not feel comfortable enough to share now.

The second individual shouted at the group too, but aggressively (instead of passive-aggressively) saying, ‘I’m sick of you all talking about racism. It’s not just you. I have had racism from blacks and Mexicans. If any of you talk about racism, I’m going to point you out!’ Some of the younger members of the group began to cry after this; others were silent throughout. I had been disappointed by the first anecdote, but this was shocking, and it was very sad to think that some of the younger retreatants might leave having had negative or even retraumatising, experiences. As for me, my safe space did not feel so safe anymore.

The following morning the organiser announced that those two individuals had been asked to leave the retreat, intimating that from now on, these retreats would be for people of colour only. She was telling us, she said, because she wanted it all to be open, that there were no secrets here, and this, I realised, was essential. She was not afraid to do this. She knew she was doing the right thing. Later that day, during Sharing, several more monks joined the families that had been so troubled the day before, showing great concern for all , focusing on the core need — to heal, the reason we were all there in the first place.

I remembered seeing two monks hugging one of the women who had left the previous evening, comforting them, and I felt great love and respect to them all for dealing with the situation so calmly, compassionately, and fearlessly. I myself had felt a stab of fear if not guilt, when I heard those two individuals had been asked to leave, and now I realise why. I think people of colour have been trained to put the needs of white people first, and in my head there was an oppressive, bullying voice telling me I was a racist for being there,  warning me those individuals might return to punish us, accusing us of discrimination, or even terrorism!

My conditioning was the product of years of bullying and intimidation which had led a part of me to believe that white people are more important than people of colour, more important than myself, to believe they had a right to dominate. It is a view shared by many, and there’s even some comfort in it. It stops us having to confront one’s outrage, our trauma, the pain of injustice, the need to do something about it.

I remember when I was ten standing in a row of mostly working-class people in Lancashire and waving a flag at the Queen as she passed in a Rolls Royce. I remember the joy and jubilation that most people expressed. It was reminiscent of how so many Indian women have been trained to view their husbands or son-in-laws as divine, to take so much pleasure in subordinating their own needs to theirs. It takes courage to break these binds, and it takes love, because, finally, this relationship isn’t healthy for anyone. As Larry Ward said, white people are just as traumatised as we are, and this was evident from those two explosions that took place within the sharing groups. The hierarchy had proved itself harmful to all of of us, proving that dialogue about racism cannot take place until both sides heal their own wounds sufficiently.

That evening, when I returned dharma hall to meditate, I focused on my breath, determined to do as Thich Nhat Hanh advised and ‘not to direct my energy there’. I needed my energy for myself, to heal, and I was thankful that I still had a safe place to do this.

mlk with ven. thich nhat hanh, peace activists tumblr_majvz3FOt21rq6k5yo1_500

Posted in American Pilgrimage | Leave a comment

American Pilgrimage #33

continued from American Pilgrimage #32

I hadn’t slept that first night at Deer Park Monastery and was awake at 4.30, though meditation only began at 6. I didn’t care. I needed to meditate. It was a problem I’d had last time: amidst all the monastery’s activities, I couldn’t find time to sit my usual two hours. This sounds ridiculous, I know, but my intended solution this time was not to worry about it, to just devote myself to the timetable. But I hadn’t anticipated the level of agitation I would experience, the collective cloud of trauma, anger and grief that had formed so quickly on this baking mountaintop. Meditation is the only way I know to turn clouds into rain and so, abandoning my attempts at sleep, I left my tent and went into the dark hall, wondering how on earth life had led me – who used to smoke cigarettes to dispel my regular morning hangover – to this place.

After meditation we touched the earth, prostrating several times which, in contrast to last time, I found quite unpleasant and difficult. We then practised qi gong, which I enjoyed as it helped diffuse some of the anger, and after breakfast and service meditation (separating the trash, for me) we had our first dharma talk by Brother Larry Ward, the man responsible for establishing the People of Colour Retreat and one of the founders of the monastery.

The Labyrinth of I-Making: Larry Ward at TEDxSoCal

Deeply inspired by the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Larry has spent his life committed to non-violent social change, healing, and transformation on a global level. He served on the staff of the Ecumenical Institute and Institute of Cultural Affairs for twenty years as director, academy dean and master teacher.

The previous evening I’d been talking to a friend about how American Buddhism had taken on so much of the aesthetic of American Christianity, about how the Sunday service at New York Zen Center had felt, to me, very much like sitting in a church (a feeling I didn’t much like after the punitive services I’d had to sit through at my C of E primary school). Larry Ward began by saying he wouldn’t be doing much sitting down; he had to stand and talk because he was raised in the Baptist Pentecostal tradition, and he proceeded to begin exactly in the manner of a fiery preacher. Had it been in another language I’d have assumed he was telling us all we were going to hell, but in fact he was talking about loving-kindness. It’s ironic, because later he told us how a dharma student should never be misled by the personality or the words or a teacher. But his American aesthetic was important too:  Buddhism is syncretic and malleable, has always mingled with whatever culture it has landed within, whether in Tibet, Japan, or China. So why not in America? More importantly for us, Larry Ward was able to relate Buddhism to the experience of people of colour in America. We needed this.

He began by saying that it wasn’t only people of colour who were traumatised by racism. All white people, he said, were traumatised by it too. I understood this. Days ago a German friend was saying how every German, when they are around 11 or 12, learns about their history, about Nazis, and becomes traumatised. Back in June, in Vermont Studio Center, an African American artist had showed us his photographs of lynchings with the black people photo-shopped out so we had to focus on the white people, on who they were, on how they were. In Britain, the denial is stronger than in Germany (where denial is illegal) but British people know. They know their country was built on colonialism and the slave trade. In fact, they feel it most keenly when they’re denying it, because guilt is a reaction to trauma too; it produces wild, irrational, often violent reactions, like twisting a knife out of one’s own gut and into another’s.

As I learned last time at Deer Park, however, we simply cannot escape our ancestries. We are our ancestors. We are our parents. Our parents’ trauma is our trauma. And this applies to white people too. How could it not? The moment one identifies as white, one identifies with a history of genocide and violence, and there is no way out of this, just as, for People of Colour, there is no way out of our histories of oppression and humiliation.

It’s a spectrum, Brother Larry continued. We all feel hate and anger (raga); we all crave (tanha), and we are all subject to moha, which is usually translated as delusion, but could also be indifference, or numbness. But with the practice, we can move across the spectrum. He illustrated this by explaining how as a young man he had a T-shirt that read, ‘I’m the meanest son of a bitch alive,’ while his T-shirt now read, ‘I am a river’.  I related to this, had been thinking the same thing in the dharma hall about how troubled and cynical I used to be.

Darwin is misunderstood, said Brother Larry. He didn’t say survival of the fittest. He said survival of those best adapted to their environments. And when it came to the human species, this was people of colour.

The moment he said this, before I had time to think about it, I found myself crying. I understood it so well. I had never wanted to change. I had had to. And change was painful, had felt like dragging my body over hot coals for the first few years. What I wanted was to feel loved, and safe, and accepted, but I didn’t get this, so I had to adapt. Adaptation was surgery without anesthesia in a response to the initial wound which was mutilation without anesthesia. I had never asked for this. But looking around the dharma hall, I suspected very few of us did. On the other hand, how many of us would have been there had we not been scarred? I can’t bring myself to say that I’m grateful for racism. I just can’t. But maybe I will one day.

Brother Larry listed some of his traumas. He had been shot at by the police when he was  eleven for playing baseball in the wrong spot, pursued by the Klan, and recently, his home had been firebombed by racists. He had gone straight to Plum Village, and to Thich Nhat Hahn, who told him, ‘Do not direct your energy there.’

nmf-adaptation-quote (1)

This, I was grateful for. I recognized it immediately as great wisdom, though it took weeks to process. At Deer Park a bell rings at random intervals during the day when we stop what we’re doing and direct our attention to the breath. I have put such an app on my phone (Mindbell). Only days ago, I was  thinking about the Muslim woman on a beach in France, forced to take off her clothes by the police, and found myself saying, ‘Fuck you’ to imaginary cops. And then the bell rang. I stopped, observed my breath, and looked out the window. There had been a violent rainstorm earlier and now sky was incredible, a fractal composed only of blacks and greys even though it was still daylight. I directed my attention to this, and later, when I was calm, I sat to write a piece on the burkini ban.

Sometimes tanha is translated as craving, sometimes as clinging. I think clinging can also be understood as the mind’s tendency to obsess, to grasp at the negative, to close its fist around this darkness. ‘Don’t direct your energy there’ does not mean ignoring reality or becoming apolitical, but not engaging in repeated acts of psychological self-harm, not reliving our traumas over and over, not trapping ourselves in a misery loop. This sounds easy, but to not direct one’s energy there after a traumatic or painful event takes tremendous control over the mind. But I believe it is possible.

Now, every time my bell rings, I go back to my breath. I find myself going there even when the bell hasn’t rung, and for longer and longer periods of time. Misery still comes, pain and anger still come, but I can move on more quickly, retain my calm for longer, all by not directing my energy there. It’s a lesson I will have to have to learn and re-learn, but I am coming to believe that this is the essence of all wisdom — to know where to direct our energy.


Posted in American Pilgrimage | Leave a comment