For those who have followed this blog from the start, then you probably know that I am drawn to Mooji’s teachings. You might also know that a while back — two years ago — I felt the need to “forget about” Mooji, forget about every spiritual teacher, all the books, all the retreats, all the effort. I felt the need to stop trying to do anything particular in my “spiritual life” — to “call off the search”.
What I realized, afterwards, was the importance of this forgetting. This was the period when I began to transcend the part of my identity that felt like it had to do something to “attain realization”. It wasn’t that I needed to forget about “Mooji” — I had to forget about me. I had to move beyond the feeling that “I” was directing my spiritual path, in order to open up greater space for surrendering to Life. In letting go of this spiritual identity, I also came to see more clearly that there is no difference between “Mooji” and me — or me and anyone else.
After a while, I began to sense that when I felt compelled to pick up a book, or sit with a meditation group, or watch a satsang video — it was not because “I” was doing it. It was simply because the Self — Consciousness — was unfolding in this way. These are things I don’t have many words for, but those who have experienced it will understand.
At some point, I found myself thinking that it would be nice to visit Mooji’s sangha. I didn’t have any particular question — at least not one I could articulate. I just felt that I should explore the possibility of being in Mooji’s presence. I had some concerns, though. I’d never met anyone who visited Monte Sahaja. Although I’d done one day retreats (for example, with Thich Nhat Hanh at Blue Cliff Monastery), I had never stayed overnight at an ashram. What if these people were weird? What if Mooji, the man, was vastly different from the Mooji I’d met in my heart? Would this community be a safe place for me, as a bisexual woman? I noticed that Mooji almost never acknowledged queer people in the stories and anecdotes he shared during satsang — and I couldn’t remember hearing anyone get up and ask a question related to being bi, lesbian, gay or trans. Troubled, I wrote him to ask why this was the case. I wasn’t sure if I would receive a response, but to my pleasant surprise, Mooji answered my inquiry, explaining that the sangha welcomes people regardless of sexual orientation. Shortly after this exchange — perhaps a week or so later — I watched a live satsang broadcast and saw, for the first time in all the videos I’d seen, a woman get ask Mooji to address the particular suffering of queer people who deal with homophobia. I experienced this synchronicity as a reassuring wink from the universe.
When I found out that I’d received a grant to spend two months working on my book in France, I knew that this would be my opportunity. I hadn’t been to Europe in 4 years and this was as close to Portugal as I would get for the foreseeable future. I wrote Mooji and the sangha to find out if I could come during this time. It took a bit of persistence, as I did not hear back right away. But eventually I did receive a gracious response. I would be welcomed at Monte Sahaja for a few days during my stay in Europe.
Mooji’s ashram is located in a remote part of Portugal, several hours from Lisbon. I’d never been to Portugal before and I don’t speak Portugese. There are certain things visitors are instructed to bring along, among them: bug spray, sun screen, a hat and a flashlight for getting around at night. I knew that the weather would be very, very hot – in the high 90s during the day – so I packed a small bag with light, comfortable clothes. I was mindful of the ego’s tendency to create projections about people — especially, perhaps “spiritual” people that we admire or learn from. I did not know how I would personally feel at Monte Sahaja. I remained open to the possibility that I would not “enjoy” my time there. But mostly, I just felt excited and in disbelief that I would finally be meeting someone who helped guide me to a clearer understanding of my true nature from thousands of miles away.
What was most helpful for me was resting in the knowledge that I was not going to meet Mooji as a “person” — that is, I was not interested in a personal meeting. And so I came to Monte Sahaja with this inner knowing — that I was not going to meet someone on the physical plane. I was interested in a meeting of the heart. And I felt incredible gratitude to have this opportunity.
My trip from Paris to Lisbon was long and stressful. My flight was cancelled and rescheduled for 11 hours later. I’d have to spend the entire day at Orly airport. I was sleep deprived and felt as though I’d pass out from exhaustion. At one point, when I was already frustrated and weary, there was bomb scare right behind my queue — a small black valise had been abandoned right where I was waiting to receive my new ticket. Eventually, French soldiers with machine guns evacuated the terminal. I followed along, resigned to a difficult day. I was both terrified and amused, knowing that in so many ways, I was already in satsang. Eventually the crisis passed, the luggage removed and disaster apparently averted.
Thankfully, I had resources to pass the time comfortably enough. I ate a pain au chocolat from Paul for breakfast, French onion soup at an airport bistrot for lunch and something overpriced from La Durée for dinner. I skyped with my girlfriend. I watched Mooji videos on my iPad while sipping kir royal. I chuckled at the ridiculousness of practicing inquiry while drinking champagne. I meditated while observing planes taking off, one after the other. I looked down to see that my phone was ringing — an unknown number. I answered. It was a woman with a warm, kind voice — someone from the sangha calling to see how I was doing. I’d emailed to let them know that my travel plans had changed. They wanted to make sure that I was okay and that I had a place to sleep in Lisbon that evening, as it would be too late for me to get to Monte Sahaja. I was surprised by the kindness and generosity of this woman, reaching out to me — a stranger — to check on my well-being. Later, I would see that this gesture was in alignment with other acts of kindness I experienced at the sangha.
When the plane finally sped down the runway, leaping into the air, I breathed a sigh of relief — until the electricity and engines seemed to power off. A murmur passed up and down the aisles. I gasped and laughed, simultaneously – my life flashing before my eyes. A moment later, the power flickered back on and the journey continued.
I first came to France twelve years ago during my junior year abroad. I was the first person in my family to get a passport and I could barely contain my excitement. In the winter of 2003, two years before the riots that followed the untimely deaths of 15 year old Zyed Benna and 17 year old Bouna Traore, I landed in Paris bright-eyed and bushy tailed, armed with a very shaky grasp of French and a naive fascination with this beautiful country.
As an African-American, I was vaguely aware that France did not deal with issues of race the way we do in the United States. And when I happened to forget, French white people were keen to remind me. In one of the sociology classes I took at a university in the south of France, I hesitantly raised my hand to ask a question. The white French professor had been lecturing on youth and delinquency. I asked, in my broken French, if the dynamics he described had any relation to racial or ethnic belonging. “We don’t have that kind of problem here,” he said, adding: “This isn’t the United States.” Embarrassed and flustered, I nodded and continued taking notes. After class, one of the only other black students pulled me aside: “We do have those kinds of problems here. Hang out with me and I’ll tell you about it.”
My new friend was from Cameroon and had moved to France along with her sister and brother several years prior. Over the course of the semester, her family basically adopted me, inviting me to dinners, showing me the area and telling me about their lives. I learned that despite the fact that each of them had white French partners and white close friends, they nonetheless experienced racism. But, as I learned in that sociology class that day, many French people denied that racism was actually a problem in their supposedly colorblind society.
Last night, a cab dropped me off at apartment in Paris around 9 PM. I get in, warm up dinner, relax. Two hours later, I’m on the phone with my girlfriend when suddenly — in the middle of our conversation — I realize that I can’t find my wallet.
I spend 10 minutes methodically searching the apartment. Nothing. Another ten minutes unpacking my bags. There is no wallet anywhere to be found. With growing disappointment, I see that I must have left it in the cab. I know that I must cancel my cards. I begin to wonder how I can possibly get new cards while abroad. I take a breath, tell myself to relax. I get the phone and start to look up numbers for my bank. A flood of self-judgment: How could I have left my wallet in a cab? Why didn’t I look down at the seat as I usually do before getting out? Is mercury in retrograde? In my mind, I tried to retrace my steps. Had I taken the wallet out to pay, and then put it down to find my keys?
The driver said that if he couldn’t find me, he would have left a note with his information. But how amazing is it that he didn’t have to? What if I hadn’t listened to the inexplicable thought that said “go to the window”, hours after my taxi drove off? I listened.
He was there.
Years ago, when I began intentionally “listening” to the Universe, I had a lot of doubt: How could I trust something that I could not explain? As I prioritized spirituality, Life began to speak to me in ways that seemed increasingly magical. But I had to stop trying to explain it. I’d have a dream that something happened, and would wake to see it actually happen. Or, discover that it happened while I was sleeping. An intuition would compel me in a certain way. I began to listen, without knowing why, but only knowing that it felt “right”.
The idea that everything in life is unfolding as it “should” is not something I would impose on anyone else. It is a difficult notion, one that requires a nuanced understanding of different levels of analysis for taking stock of life in all of its complexities. Because the truth is that lots of awful things happen every moment of every day — across the conscious experience of every living being on the planet, unimaginable levels of suffering coexist with joy, love and feelings of peace. What one person experiences as a “blessing” is another person’s “curse”.
But it seems to me that if anything at all is as it should be, then everything is as as it should be — for everything that has ever been, everything that is now and everything that will be is inextricably interconnected. It may be a stretch for some to say that everything as it should be, given the realities of oppression and suffering. Indeed, it is obnoxious, unhelpful and even abusive to try to make someone else believe that an awful thing that happened was “meant to be”.
But there is part of me that holds space for this paradoxical truth. There is something in me that feels that it must work to change things about myself and about the world, even as there is something more profound that knows that nothing needs me to change anything at all — rather, there are simply changes taking place, changes that are changing me, changes that must take place, changes that are meant to be.
The human concept of a blessing is often very selfish, very confused, dualistic and dependent on a Santa-Claus-like image of “God”. And while it’s fine to feel blessed and acknowledge blessings, I personally feel that accepting all of life as a blessing, as one interconnected and mysterious unfolding is my spiritual work. I’m grateful to the taxi driver, for sure. But I’m even more grateful to the Universe for continuing to wink at me in such a delightful way.
Inside of the classroom, my goal is to create a safe space for my students to learn about and explore the uncomfortable and challenging topics of inequality, race and racism. Outside of the classroom, my goal is mostly to maintain my sanity through practices of self-care and spirituality, nurture my creative expression, drink good wine and engage in compassionate action in my relationships and communities.
While my role as an educator and researcher involves teaching and writing on race and social theory, in my civilian life as a writer and regular gal, I have no obligation whatsoever to engage people on issues of race. To the contrary, I have the right to set my own rules of engagement, establish my boundaries and clarify what is and is not acceptable for me. This is especially so given that “talking about race” (and more specifically, anti-blackness and white supremacy) is not merely some sport or hobby for most people of color. It’s a painful topic that speaks to relations of power that all too often result in unarmed black men, women and children being killed by “officers of the peace”, the everyday reality of racial bias and discrimination and the fact that blacks only have access to a tiny fraction of the wealth possessed by our white neighbors, friends and co-workers. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
New Blacks aside, I feel like the average person of color with any degree of awareness already has a PhD in race just from surviving in a racist society. But wide swaths of the population 1) do not experience racial oppression 2) have not reflected on the topic seriously and/or 3) routinely devalue the perspectives and knowledge of people of color. Continue reading
This morning, I woke up in Paris to the terrible news that yet another unarmed black man, Walter Scott, had been shot to death by a white police officer in the United States. While the killing happened over the weekend, it took several days for the story to traverse the Atlantic and reach my consciousness here in France, where I am currently completing a book on French racism and the legacies of slavery.
As I watched the traumatic video of officer Michael Slager shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott — a father and Coast Guard veteran — two questions immediately came to mind:
What kind of a person shoots an unarmed human being in the back, then handcuffs them as they lay dying?
Even more to the point:
What kind of society allows black people to be routinely violated and killed by the state?
While I don’t have an answer to the first question, the second query is more straightforward. Anti-racist scholars have demonstrated that we are still living in a white supremacist society. As historian George Lipsitz (2006: xviii) writes in his brilliant book The Possessive Investment in Whiteness “the power, property and politics of race in our society continue to contain unacknowledged and unacceptable allegiances to white supremacy”. Continue reading
It’s sort of beneath my dignity to have to say that I love and have loved quite a few white people, but let’s just put it out there:
Yes, some of my very best friends are white folks.
I’ve spent a great deal of time in predominately white suburbs of predominately white nations, predominately white schools and predominately white organic grocery stores.
By virtue of my minority status and choices, my life involves a lot of working, talking and loving across different types of racial lines. I’m a East-coast raised, Southern-born, multi-generational, multi-racial black woman of U.S. slave ancestry. Unsubstantiated, but persistent, rumor has it that there’s Irish on both sides of my family tree. My family (biological and chosen) includes a diverse array of beautiful people: loved ones from a variety of diasporas, a Haitian godmother, Jews whose families immigrated from Europe.
I have a lot to learn and much room for growth, but I live a relatively cosmopolitan life. I like the fact that my hapa girlfriend grew up between California and Tokyo, spent years in Africa and speaks French with a Senegalese accent. I’ve visited a dozen countries and spent a significant portion of my twenties living in Paris. In my personal life, I have made it my business to consciously learn and explore what interracial, anti-racist love looks like. My spirituality is deeply influenced by Eastern traditions and philosophies, including Buddhism and Hinduism (Advaita-Vedanta). As an anti-racist educator and a panentheistic non-dualist, I know that who we are, on an existential level, has absolutely nothing to do with the social fiction of race.
And yet, I’m also intimately familiar with the social reality of our collective fictions. While I teach my students that our ideas about race are socially constructed, I also equip them to recognize and understand the very real consequences of past and present racism.
What I know for sure is that much of what people say about matters of race and love in public contributes to white supremacy.