“Every time I mess up is a chance to practice.” ~ Marshall B. Rosenberg
“We will do our best to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may make difficulties for us or threaten our safety.” ~ From the Ninth Mindfulness Training of the Order of Interbeing
“Our survival as a species depends on our ability to recognize that our well-being and the well-being of others are in fact one and the same.” ~Marshall B. Rosenberg
“Anger may be a source of energy, but when you are angry you are not lucid. You may say or do things that are destructive. That is why it’s better to use the energy of compassion or the energy of understanding. People should know that the energy of anger can actually be transformed into the energy of understanding and compassion. We don’t have to throw any energy away. We only need to know how to transform one form of energy into another.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
I am breathing in and out with awareness as I write this. I want to acknowledge the aspect of change and transformation in this time—and for me, it feels monumental, even overwhelming as I look on the world I live in and see what I want to change. In the past six months, we have been forced to stop. All of us, to stop doing what we do and to see the interconnection that exists between us. As a species, we had the time and availability to have our hearts and minds penetrated by injustice and White bodied people had the opportunity to hear and see the pain, the heartbreaking consequences of White supremacy. White people did not have the luxury to believe it wasn’t happening in their neighborhood, and that somehow they are exempt from the responsibility of creating a new White culture that does not trade in violence and oppression.
If you are White reading this, I am wondering if you want to step away because this feels like someone else’s’ problem? If you are BIPOC reading this, I am wondering if you are feeling exhausted from a life dealing with this stuff and you don’t have the capacity to take in any more? And what I am wondering more and more, is how are we going to do this important work and stay connected without alienating each other? How am I going to talk to my White brothers and sisters about making space for non-White culture without scaring them, making them think they will be unsafe and unprotected. Without making them wrong and bringing more division? How do I stay connected to my Black brothers and sister’s who will wince when I say the wrong thing and sound like a White lady who does not understand that justice and equality are not causes that can be picked up and put down, but life and death for people who are born into Black skinned bodies? I am not going to tell People of Color that they need to be patient with the processing of White folks, who feel exhausted after a month of waking up to the nightmare of systemic racism and want to be soothed. I think it is time that as White people we need to start with ourselves. We need to hear the truth without running into defensiveness, denial or attacking. We need to breathe and stop, take care of the feelings we are experiencing, and come back to this issue, again and again, if we are going to make any real change.
This is a time when we are tested and called to use Right Speech. We know we can create heaven or hell with our words. How do we remember that we belong to each other when we see that even among those who want the same thing, there is hurt, misunderstanding, and righteous indignation? I look to the Buddha’s teaching about saying what is difficult, “In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them” (MN 58.3). I think it is the right time and even as careful and kind as we are trying to be, we will hurt people and make them angry and get mad and invariably make the other person an enemy, unless we go slowly and do a lot of pausing.
When we have hurt others, the Buddha offers a path, “Having performed a verbal act, you should reflect on it… If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful verbal act with painful consequences, painful results, then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the Teacher or to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having confessed it… you should exercise restraint in the future.” (MN 61). The Buddha tells us that we should acknowledge the harm we cause with our speech. We do not make excuses and say the other person is too sensitive; we own the consequence of our action and work to do better—even when the intention was good, we own the pain of the outcome. This is an important point, as we navigate our relationships in the world. The refusal to acknowledge how our words land is an action that stems from aversion and delusion which in turn creates negative karma. We can see this easily when someone feels hurt or shamed by our words and starts avoiding interactions with us.
Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that, like it or not, we are in relationship with all beings on this planet. When we feel harmed by another, we tend to isolate and avoid as a way to protect ourselves and stay safe. We imagine that removing ourselves from another is a way we can punish them for unskillful speech. Thay (2013) writes, “We want to show the other person that without him or her we can survive very well. This is an indirect way of saying, ‘I don’t need you.’ But that’s not true. When we suffer, we need others. When we suffer, we should tell others we suffer, and we need their help” (p. 79). Thay gives us a mantra to remove the pride that keeps us stuck in isolation, judging, and hatred, “I suffer, please help” (p. 79). Right now, there’s a lot of suffering. If I believe I can get rid of those who are making me suffer—I am perpetuating the very culture of division, stratification, and blame that I am wanting to erase. I become part of the system that seeks to dominate and “win,” and have power over other beings and prove my side is “right.” We don’t ask our enemies for help. It feels too vulnerable. But that’s exactly what we need when we are hurting…we need help.
It feels huge right now to think about a paradigm shift in culture, where society is not based on the dualistic notion of winner and loser, or dominance and submission. It feels like a revolution of thought, the same one Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King spoke of, the creation of the beloved community. We can’t do this work when we dismiss and discount others when we leave them behind because they aren’t evolved enough. The only way we can do this is if we all pick up a rope and begin to turn this giant boat around. We need many hands; we need many hearts. I think of the Plum Village song, No Coming, No Going, and the lines, “because I am in you and you are in me,” this inseparable truth that we affect each other. We matter to each other and we need help. We are all suffering, please help us.
May we all trust our light,
Nhat Hanh, T. (2013). The art of communicating. Harper One: New York, NY.
“Right Speech: samma vaca”, edited by Access to Insight. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sacca/sacca4/samma-vaca/index.html