BLM – A Personal Anecdote from a White Ally

I’ve been quite hopeful to see the Black Lives Matter protests in recent weeks. I was quite interested in their efforts in 2016. It was such a turbulent year. While doggedly watching every news update and listening to many podcasts on political updates, I was also reading Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”, and that book made the power and turbulence of 2016 really sink in. I came to understand the wider narrative of civil rights and how it was ultimately curtailed by Nixon and others, how Black Lives Matter is just one instance of a continued fight for equality because we never really came close to realizing it in the first place, settling instead to do the bare minimum, tuck ourselves in, and go back to sleep.

As such, it’s been sad in the last 4 years to see the cycle repeat. Nixon’s 1968 campaign of “Law and Order” was taken up again by Trump, and much like before, these issues were subsequently swept under the rug. Worse: they’ve been heightened by Trump’s outright moves to play nice with white supremacists like at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

Now, here we are. Something feels different this time. Now, there isn’t the false equivalencies of “good people on both sides” or “I can’t really tell the difference between different movements here — they all seem equally bad”. Public support has shifted. BLM is no longer a movement supported by the minority, rather the majority, and yet, I still see a lot of dismissive comments and outright refusals to even try to understand the details and messages.

This leaves me wondering about what I can say to impart the difficulty that blacks face in this country to those I grew up with in rural nowhere. How can I share with them in a way that gets the story across without pointing at data and analysis by experts? This is difficult. I truly come from a monolithic area, demographically. It’s very white, very dominated by a single religion, and very set with a small town mentality that does not have much experience beyond this cultural milieu. I’m certain that I never met any black people growing up, and I didn’t even, unfortunately, encounter many once I was in college.

Honestly, I’ve had the unfortunate “privilege” (saying that with the disdain of lack of experience) of being separated from my black fellow citizens for the most part, actually having spent more time with Africans visiting or studying abroad in America than with African Americans, but I have enjoyed the experiences I have had to bond and share with African Americans, when they have been in my life.

The one experience I feel like I can share where I really saw firsthand the unfairness and prejudice that blacks face from the police and society in general is the following, and I think it’s the best I can share as an anecdote from a supportive white ally.

One year, I lived in Boston to study for a PhD. That’s a longer story, but here, the focus is on the main summer job I had. I worked for a few weeks going door to door, canvassing for donations for causes such as Green Peace. This is a common summer job for young people, and there were a variety of fresh faces coming into the canvassing office from one week to the next. I wasn’t great at it — I’m more introverted than charming, but I was hardworking and articulate enough to meet the quotas of the first few days and keep the job a bit longer.

After making the first bar, they have you lead the new canvassers, or maybe they just had me do it because one of the office’s leads really liked me. In any case, I took a couple new recruits out to a suburb of Boston, West Roxbury, on a hot summer evening. One of the recruits was a young black guy who was eager to do well. He was energetic and affable, although he struggled a bit with the long script we had to memorize and recite as we went door to door — most everyone did (I honestly wonder about the strategy of this approach from a perspective of one who has studied psychology and pedagogy).

After I followed him and helped him with a few houses, I went one direction down a block, and he went the other. I told him to call me if he had any issues. Roughly an hour later, I got a call. He told me to come and help him, seemingly in a rush, and told me where he was — just down the block and around the corner. I got there to find the police questioning him, saying that someone had called them and issued a complaint. I assured them that we were just doing our job — going around and asking for donations. They let us go after some humming and hawing, and my young colleague was getting so nervous and upset that I could literally feel his internal squirming. I did my best to calm him and to defuse the situation by positioning myself as his team lead, taking the brunt of the police’s questioning. We continued the rest of the evening rounds together, although there was only about 40 minutes left at this point. He was clearly shaken and kept expressing how upset he was. I told him just to stay with me.

A couple houses later, I rang the bell, and a 40ish white guy came to the door after his kid called out to him upon seeing us. He got right in my face and screamed at me about how rude it was to ring his doorbell at this time of night (it was like 8PM). It took everything I had to react calmly as he clearly was trying to instigate me and my colleague into starting a fight. His hot breath and stray spittle hit my face as he cried out when I reassured him this was just my job and that I would leave. Now, I’m sure you might say that this had nothing to do with my black colleague, and maybe you’d be right, but given the extreme reaction and the way the rest of the evening had gone, I would disagree.

We walked away, and the cops continued to follow us through the rest of the evening. We saw them drive by a few more times, but we weren’t stopped again. We went back to the meetup point at the end of the night, and I felt so upset and shaken on so many levels. I felt terrible to have been the one to lead this poor young man into a hellish neighborhood that didn’t respect his humanity. I felt terrible for it being clear that this guy wouldn’t show up again for this canvassing job and would have to go on the search for another, all due to a hateful neighborhood who stared at us out of their curtained windows in prejudice as we walked through it. I flashed back on a conversation I had roughly a year prior with a young black woman at a party in Seattle who had reacted to my news of moving to Boston that it was a really segregated and uncomfortable city. I hadn’t really fully understood it till that night, as it seems like a liberal haven, one of those “coastal elite” cities that conservatives rail about and oversimplify (there is a lot about Boston’s culture that is not elite in the slightest). Rest assured – racism is here, even in “blue” states. The only good thing I held onto after that night was the certainty that my presence and calm had probably kept that young man from a petty arrest or more hassling from those cops — FOR COMMITTING NO CRIME. He had done nothing but go door to door for donations, his job.

Found on morguefile.com

If you can’t do your job, a basic, common one, in this country without potential harm or arrest all due to the color of your skin, then there are deep problems, and we are anything but post-racial. Black Lives Matter, and that extends to many issues we have yet to tackle or even to discuss because this story certainly has to do with much longer issues of redlining, segregated neighborhoods, and a variety of social stereotypes both national and local. The problems are much bigger than just police brutality, and you owe it to yourself to learn more about the history behind this moment. Just like I said at the beginning — this time has echoes of 2016, which echoed 1968, which echoed… It keeps going.

Thank you for taking the time to read my simple little story, and I hope that it changes a few minds about how endemic these problems really are.

Respir(it)ation

Note: To fully appreciate the title and the topic of this poem, read about the etymology of “spirit” here.


Air brushes in
Rasping gently through
Tight passages
Winding its way
Deep inside
Lungs fill
Oxygen crosses membranes
Blood absorbs
*Thump, tha-thump*
Heart beats
And the entire body
Is provided life
Breath, air, oxygen
Spirit

What was moments ago
Outside, separate, part of the World
Other, inanimate, simple gas
Has, in a breath,
Intimately entwined itself
Into the depths of the body —
Life, animation, blood and energy
Respir(it)ation
Me

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Blood flow returns
The waste, the exhaust
Exchange CO2 for O2
— Lungs never empty —
Inside for outside
Outside for inside
— The answer to life’s mystery:
A chiasm between inner and outer?
Between Self and World? —
Air pressed back out
As diaphragm asserts
Body becomes World
As remnants of
Respir(it)ation
Are secreted
This is the great secret
No separation
Where does one end
And the other begin?

On Writing: Creativity, Practice, and Style

I’ve recently been thinking about the art of writing. For a long time, I’ve thought of myself as a lackluster writer. This thought holds sway in my mind because of some negative feedback I got from a couple professors I had back in my college days. However, thinking back in a more detached manner now, I realize that their perspective came from an evaluation which only valued a particular style — moreover, a style with a fairly narrow scope and a somewhat anti-creative bent. The style that flows forth for me when I simply write, simply let creativity manifest itself on the page, is not readily that style. You know what, though? That’s fine, and I’m not necessarily a bad writer because of it.

A couple weekends ago, I went to an author’s reading. The author was Neil Gaiman, a famous writer of the magical and fantastical. He took some questions from the audience about writing, and he focused on one thing: to succeed at writing, simply write and put it out there. We live in a time when communicating your message with others is easier than ever. This doesn’t mean that you’ll make millions off of your creative works, but is that really success with writing? Isn’t the purpose merely to communicate with others? You can write, write, write away and get that message out to others across the globe. His feedback on “writer’s block: Feeling stuck? Don’t know what to create? Create something else and come back to what you’re stuck on later. There are always more things that need to be written.

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I thought this was really wise counsel. For myself, one of my points of feeling stuck in the creation of this blog has been two-fold: 1) at times, I don’t know how to complete something that I’m trying to write – the thoughts and analyses getting stuck in the process of creation; 2) I have absolutely been certain that I am horrible at poetry – getting even more negative feedback in the past. Eventually, however, I moved past these blocks by just starting to write poems, tersely putting the ideas on the page and deciding to put them out there whether they are any good or not. In many ways, that process of creative writing was the impetus that got this blog started, but I’ve gotten bolder with these stylistic experiments over time, and almost always, when I doubt my writing, or more particularly, my style, those posts get the most feedback and the most likes.

Where am I going with all of this? It’s simple enough. Let me use one more metaphor: growing up, I had a “runner’s build” – lanky with strong legs. I never imagined that I would have any upper body strength, but when I reached my 20s, I started spending time at the gym, doing calisthenics, and challenging myself to get better at pullups and pushups. Now, I have big shoulders and arms from all that work. My point? If you want to write and be creative with words, go do it. Try different things. Write academic analyses, but also try writing a haiku poem from time to time. Work with meter and rhyme, but also explore powerful ideas. Try being creative in any way you feel interested without worrying about others’ feedback or your strengths or weaknesses. With time, you’ll get better at it, but it’s not about self-absorbed concern about you and your excellence – it’s simply about the act of creating; practice the excellence of your style and form, and it will get easier to write often, deeply, and well.

 

Shadow

Shadow
Wispy lack – a “no-thing”
Not solid, no entity
A lack, a hole – privation
It is where the light does not go
Not the opposite of light
Rather light’s non-being
Intimately entwined
A chiasm

The fact that existence
Remains always
A potentia – a becoming
And an unfolding
Not Static – Dynamic!
Likewise, our darkness –
Not a thing
Not a reflection of “Me”
Seen as more solid,
Stranger
And more powerful (?)
Rather, the wispy lack of certainty
That bubbles with our attempts
To solidify “Identity”

Just as Self is a construction
So is Shadow a dynamic engagement
Of Being’s Non-Being

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Rebirth

From dead earth
Life springs anew
Green stalks grow
Bright flowers bloom

Nature’s cycles
Birth, growth, death
Unfolding
In every breath

Before & after
We conceptualize
But Now is
Presence of our lives

Be with this
Each moment – rebirth
This emptiness –
Celestial mirth…

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May this inspire you to presence in the rebirth of every moment. May spring’s blooms help with this inspiration.

Gassho!

Dreams and Waking Life

Fantastic places
Strange situations
Wonder & Terror
Exquisiteness & Hideousness
Uncanny: familiar yet foreign

Yet, all of it,
Ephemeral
Wisps of nothing
Real?–Yes
Rife with meaning & emotion
But also,
Empty

The secret?
Waking life is the same
Transient, in flux
Not concrete,
An unfolding of myriad magnificence

The dream yogi begins,
Repeating a reminder:
“This is just a dream”
Both while awake
And while asleep

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On Memories

Here’s another philosophical entry from Morning Pages. This one jives on both hermeneutics (with some inspiration from my reading of the Tractatus by Wittgenstein as well) and Buddhism (at the end) with a final nod to some of the thoughts I encountered in David Loy’s The World is Made of Stories, a philosophical masterpiece of hermeneutics in its own rights. I hope that you enjoy and ponder your own experiences from this.


(The opening of the entry dealt with thinking back on an event from almost five years ago and memories of it.)

Trips into memory are so strange. I think that we can readily grab onto them too much. A memory is like a painting–an interpretation of a landscape and a moment of time. It’s a perspective–necessarily limited, and like a painting or a picture, the image itself fades with time, and our interaction with it now in the present is another interpretation. We see it from our current understanding, and it’s difficult to know/remember that our nostalgic reliving of a previous experience is an interpretation of an interpretation–not absolute, not complete. This is the beauty of it: our experience is artwork–a tapestry that is woven over and over again.

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Free image found at morguefile.com, like many others on this blog

Although it is a truth (I experience what I do; that is true), it is not the Truth. It’s not a science or an in-depth recording of the “facts” (we might point out here that even these are interpretations, but more methodical, at least). Understanding this can allow us to be more compassionate to ourselves and others. It can allow us the clarity to see our place in the universe… How can we find enlightenment if we are unfamiliar with the nature of our delusion? We can’t if we grasp with certainty and dogma onto the legitimacy of our perspective, our experience, as the Truth. We have to be open to see our story-ing and to try to see beyond it to other perspectives. Sometimes, revisiting a memory gives us just enough of a jolt of our current story in the act of juxtaposition that we are pulled beyond in just a moment… It’s not always the case that we cling to memories without the realization of interpretation; sometimes, they’re a reminder of just that–we are built of stories, all of them interpretations, all the way down…


 

May this help you see your memories and your experience with insight and wisdom.

Gassho!

 

A Moment of Gratitude

My last post left some residual inspiration for gratitude, and I spontaneously wrote this opening to my Morning Pages this morning.


Thank you, journal, for all of these blank pages, and thank you for existing–thanks to all, from the person who made you, to the hundreds of years of history that brought about written language and the practice of journaling, to the millions of years of evolutions that brought about human beings with all of our wonders and curiosities, and to all of the myriad conditions of the universe that made these moments of writing open wide. I’m grateful for all of it, even the very painful moments that I write down at times. This moment is not those moments, but it would not have come to be without them.

May I continue to see all of these aspects of my journal with the diamond eye that really sees things as they are.

Unknown


May this inspire you in your own practice of gratitude.

A bow with hands together: gassho!

Reiki: The Five Precepts (Gokai – 五 戒) – 3rd Precept: Gratitude

Just for today:
Don’t hold on to anger
Don’t focus on worry
Honor all those who came before
Work hard on self-improvement
Be kind to all living things
– Reiki Center App, Windows Phone

Now:
Peace
Faith
Gratitude
Actualization
Compassion
– My shortened mantra of the precepts


“I want”–there may be no more fundamental aspect of our psychology, or at least, our standard psychology of samsara. Freud placed the wanting aspect of the self as the original identity of the psyche. In doing so, he hardly broke the mold (no matter what the psychology or literature textbooks might lead you to think)–stealing from and echoing his precursors in Western philosophy, reaching all the way back to Plato. No, this position is not new or radical. Reading Plato’s “Phaedrus” will quickly disabuse the reader of any notion that Freud’s positions regarding the systems of the tripartite psyche or the driving nature of desires were revolutionary. He took a lot from Nietzsche, Plato, and his mentor, Charcot, at the very least. However, Freud succinctly identified a part of our experience with his descriptions of the id as primary: we feel driven through life by desire. In a certain sense, how could it be otherwise?

On another philosophical note, Aristotle’s entire system is about the becoming of things into their end product (a woefully quick and dirty summary that does not do full justice to this dynamic thinker). His physics and his understanding of behavior are teleological–that is, everything is oriented toward its telos: its goal, its fruition, its end. Desire drives us towards ends. For Aristotle, the end that all behavior aims at is happiness (eudaimonia–which is not quite the same as our standard understanding of “happiness” now; just as one swallow does not make a spring, for Aristotle, a fine moment does not make eudaimonia. Rather, eudaimonia is always in action, always in development through a well-lived life by sets of standards that cultivate excellence requiring an ongoing examination and engagement). We desire happiness and we act to move toward it.

Buddhism actually agrees that we all aim for happiness. However, and in a certain way Aristotle would agree: Buddhism thinks that we misunderstand happiness and its pursuit. True happiness is not to be found in the neverending chase of desire. As Zen Master Dainin Katagiri said, “Desires are endless.” How could we ever think that we could pin them all down just right to get an ongoing sensation of tickled nerves? It sounds silly, but that’s precisely what we do when we seek “happiness” as it is standardly understood. No, happiness is not that, Buddhism reveals; rather, it is finding joy in this moment, whatever arises. This doesn’t mean that we obliterate desire, as some people imagine when they envision a Buddhist monk. Hardly. Meditation and mindfulness are not about blotting out every thought and desire. That’s precisely why Katagiri Zenji said that desires are endless: it would be ridiculous to even posit blotting out the flow of thoughts as a path. Instead, we are supposed to see them arise one by one without investing in them and getting entangled with attachment. From a related perspective:

Desire that has no desire
is the Way.
Tao is the balance of wanting
and our not-wanting mind.
-Loy Ching-Yuen, The Book of the Heart: Embracing Tao

Such a path takes a lifetime of training the mind, or rather, it’s an ongoing engagement of a present mind in every moment. Every moment is a journey, walking the way with mindfulness. With cultivation, the happiness of being simply what one is comes forth instead of the ongoing chase after what one wants to be (or have), the anxious flight from what one does not want to face, and the hazy-eyed ignorance of the ways of the universe. As Dōgen Zenji would remind us–every moment is a miracle; miracles are not the grand, crazy moments when huge desires are fulfilled, fears avoided, or laws of nature superceded. On the contrary, every moment is a miracle–even the mundane annoyances like washing the dishes.

A key first step to finding the miracle that is in every moment is cultivating gratitude. Usui-sensei’s 3rd precept tells us to be grateful, and perhaps, its position as the 3rd of 5 precepts, the middle precept, is no accident, as it is the heart of practice. In fact, the precepts are meant to be recited while holding the hands together in the pose of “Gassho” (have a look at my original post on the Reiki precepts for a refresher on this). This gesture is an expression of gratitude. So, as we recite all the precepts, they are framed by this gesture, and this precept of gratitude stands in the middle of each recitation–its beating heart.

The Reiki center app translates this precept as “Honor all those who came before”. True gratitude does not lie in the hazy avoidance of averting your gaze from that which you don’t want to see/admit. That’s merely bad faith. Instead, gratitude sees this moment in all its particulars, all of the conditions at play in it–arising and disappearing, just as they are. “Whatever arises”. True gratitude honors all of these current conditions as well as all of the conditions that came before–the causes and precursors to now, necessarily entangled with this moment. True gratitude is grateful for this unfolding karmic situation, no matter whether “I” like “it” or not.

Again, the moment of washing dishes deserves our gratitude just as much as the moment of a bite of ice cream that made those dishes dirty. Seeing the entire karmic unfolding of each moment and smiling at it, whatever arises, that’s our true path to happiness. If we can even begin to do this for just a few minutes a day as Usui prescribed (30 minutes in the morning and the evening: “Do gassho [the hand position of gratitude and blessing in Buddhism–hands held in front of neck/face with palms together] every morning and evening, keep in your mind and recite” (Steine, The Japanese Art of Reiki”)), we’ll find that there is truth to what he said about the precept recitation practice: it’s a key to health and happiness. This practice can truly grant “happiness through many blessings”. The heart of this happiness beats with the pulse of gratitude.


Buddhist lore states that the Buddha taught the precious opportunity of having a human life. His parable: imagine a planet that is covered by one giant ocean. On the ocean, a wooden yoke floats in the water, tossing violently to and fro with the ebb and flow of the ocean’s waves. A blind turtle swims in the ocean and rises to the surface once every 100 years. Being born as a human being is even more unlikely than the blind turtle rising to the surface and sticking his head through the hole of the yoke by “blind” luck. The conditions of your life are greatly precious, and each moment is an opportunity to take up a path of enlightenment and compassion for all. If you see this preciousness instead of your myriad stories of “me” which are intertwined with a neverending web of desires, gratitude can open to the way things are, and action can be taken to walk this path with open eyes, knowing that the opportunity of this life–the chance to cultivate wisdom and compassion–is not permanent and could end at any time.

May this inspire you to gratitude for your precious life, and through the regular practice of reciting these precepts, may you find gratitude for the way things are as well as the true happiness that goes beyond the eternal game of fulfilling selfish desires.

Gassho!

Previous Reiki: The Five Precepts Post – 2nd Precept: Faith
Next Reiki: The Five Precepts Post – 4th Precept: Actualization

Atlas’ Aching Shoulders

Beneath the stress
And fatigue
Lies guilt
And disappointment
“I could do more”
“I haven’t done well enough”
Good intentions
Driving to exhaustion
Why?–A martyr’s
Self-importance

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Giving your best
In the impossible
Ordeals of life
Leaves no room
For guilt or shame
Give and try
Openly, patiently,
Lovingly, and bravely
Do not let success
Or failure
Polish or tarnish
Your ego
True giving
And dedication
Is not about
Ego-fulfillment
The task–Not the burden
On your shoulders
That’s the weight
Of your expectations
And story of “me”

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