Race & Ethnicity, Spiritual Musings

Why The Negro Problem is a Lost Cause

I want to be very clear about a few things up front before I lay out these ideas, because what I’m going to share is a bit complicated and my argument is probably unlike most of what you have heard and read – possibly ever, and certainly in the wake of the countless reflections on “the race problem” that have emerged in our collective efforts to grapple with what happened to Trayvon Martin.

So here are my caveats:

  1. This is not, in any way, a minimization of racism and its very real consequences for millions of people who have lived and died in this country – or en route to its shores – since its inception.
  2. This is not a post-racial post.
  3. This is not a hopeless story.

* * *

In the days following the Zimmerman verdict, I found myself moving about the world in a heightened state of racial awareness.  Going about my business, I observed anxiety as I interacted with strangers I categorized as white — and/or Latino. “What are they thinking? Do they care about the trial? Are they racist?” Walking into a grocery store, I glanced at a pile of newspapers, with a smiling Zimmerman and the verdict in bold letters. And then I glanced at my white neighbors, pushing their carts and picking through cantaloupes.  “Are they happy? Are they disappointed? Are they indifferent? Are they allies?”

Beyond words, I observed the emotions caught in my chest — the fear, fatigue and frustration.  The relief I felt in the middle of aisle 6 when my eyes met those of the one other black person in the store — a woman with graying hair who took a moment to smile at me.  I smiled with gratitude in return, but I imagined that she knew it was not a smile of happiness.  It was the smile of survivors acknowledging with simple defiance that “We are still here.” It was a smile, tinged with pain and resistance, that black women and men have been wearing in the wake of tragedy for generations.

One morning last week, I sensed myself do a double-take when seeing a Latino brother who, to my mind, looked like Zimmerman.  In a flash, self judgment and shame: “This man has nothing to do with Zimmerman.”  And yet there it was – the ugly seed of prejudice.   I saw it in my heart — the heart of an antiracist, a woman who is highly committed to living beyond her own conditioning, with multi-racial, multi-ethnic family members, friends and loved ones of every hue.  If this seed can exist in my heart, then it can exist in any heart.  In fact, Buddhists teach that the seeds of consciousness and unconsciousness exist inside all of us.  We can either choose to water the unconscious seeds or we can choose to wake up to our true nature.  Looking at my Latino brother, I saw Zimmerman.  I saw Trayvon.  And most importantly, I saw myself.  In that moment, I knew that part of my spiritual practice in a time of racial crisis must be a renewed decision to water the seeds of compassion, to consciously acknowledge the seeds of prejudice and to be very clear about the core of the human problems that ail us.

* * *

I’ve always been a big fan of W.E.B. Du Bois.  I like to joke that he actually attended my dissertation defense.  (This is also a litmus test for determining whether someone actually knows who Du Bois is.)  In fact, my defense was to take place in the department’s main seminar room, where Du Bois’ portrait hangs on the wall – the only black face in a sea of whiteness.  At the last minute, I was told that we’d have to move to another room.  This was so distressing to me that a friend secretly arranged to temporarily steal remove the portrait and place it in the seminar room where I defended my thesis, directly across from my seat.

Du Bois’ sociological work has always been near to my heart because he spent so much time thoughtfully and creatively meditating on what he termed “The Negro Problem”.  In fact, he wrote (1898) not simply of the Negro problem, but of Negro problems as a multifaceted set of complex social conditions with historical roots and myriad consequences:

“A social problem is the failure of an organized social group to realize its group ideals, through the inability to adapt a certain desired line of action to given conditions of life. If, for instance, a government founded on universal manhood suffrage has a portion of its population so ignorant as to be unable to vote intelligently, such ignorance becomes a menacing social problem. The impossibility of economic and social development in a community where a large per cent of the population refuse to abide by the social rules of order, makes a problem of crime and lawlessness… Thus a social problem is ever a relation between conditions and action, and as conditions and actions vary and change from group to group from time to time and from place to place, so social problems change, develop and grow. Consequently, though we ordinarily speak of the Negro problem as though it were one unchanged question, students must recognize the obvious facts that this problem, like others, has had a long historical development, has changed with the growth and evolution of the nation; moreover, that it is not one problem, but rather a plexus of social problems, some new, some old, some simple, some complex; and these problems have their one bond of unity in the act that they group themselves about those Africans whom two centuries of slave trading brought into the land.”

As a social scientist, Du Bois concerned himself with the social dimensions of the problematic features of black life in the United States. In The Philadelphia Negro – the first significant urban sociological study in the history of American sociology – Du Bois argued and empirically demonstrated that whites’ anti-black discrimination resulted in reduced opportunities for blacks, limiting where they could live, the jobs they could occupy, their social environments and the even the functioning of their families.  While his work was largely ignored by mainstream sociologists during his life, over a century later, his insights into the dynamics of race, discrimination and opportunity are highly influential and have been so for several decades.  And Du Bois’ related meditations on the subjective dimensions of oppression, as seen for example in The Souls of Black Folks, continue to shape our understandings of race in America.

* * *

At some point in my 20s, a startling and depressing thought occurred to me: The Negro Problem is a lost cause. In long discussions with friends, activists, teachers and family members, we would always come to a point where we’d throw our hands up in resignation to the seemingly eternal nature of the bullshit.  I began to suspect that the mutlifacted and institutionalized problems that Du Bois and so many others have explained could be improved — but only to a point. Like many students of race, I found myself struggling to imagine that racism could ever be eradicated.  And more than this, it also seemed that the black/white wealth gap — which is only one dimension of racial oppression — would in all likelihood never be erased.  Over the years, it became increasingly clear to me that while our society certainly can and has become more tolerant, there are certain features of our history that have produced path-dependent effects — effects that will probably linger, in some way, shape or form, for a very long time to come.

This feeling – which first emerged in the classroom – was reinforced when I went into the field and began interviewing nearly 200 people of African descent in the United States and France.  As I probed their views on race and racism, I heard that many of them believed that the problem of race cuts to the core of something fundamental about the human experience.  In the voices of many black people I met, on both sides of the Atlantic, was an acknowledgment that the struggle against racism feels interminable because its really a struggle against the human condition.  It is a struggle at the core of the human heart.  The question is: Can this problem be undone?  Or will we forever be undone by it?

* * *

If we try to solve our race issues by nibbling around the edges of oppression, by making superficial changes, by merely signing petitions, taking to the streets, by engaging in political movements, by becoming more entrenched in our racial identities — if this is all that we do, then yes, I am arguing that the Negro problem is indeed a lost cause.  We might as well go home now.  Game over.

But if we begin to acknowledge that the Negro problem is not really a Negro problem at all, then there may in fact be hope for us.  What we really have is an Ego problem — and yes, it is at the heart of the human condition.  But this is not a death sentence.  Another way is possible, but it will require that we transcend the ordinary ways in which we’ve been conditioned to think about ourselves and each other.  It will require us to see the N(eg)r(o) problem not simply as a social problem, the way Du Bois did, but rather as a special form of something more universal, something more pernicious, something more intimate than “structural discrimination” or “the system”.  Undoing the N(eg)r(o) problem is not even primarily about other people.  It must begin with each of us getting real about how we see ourselves and the consequences of these beliefs for how we interact with others.  So what does the ego have to do with the Negro? And what does any of this have to do with bringing about a more just society?

* * *

Years ago when I read Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now”, I noted with pleasure the fact that he acknowledged — albeit briefly — race in his work.  In describing the endlessly varied dimensions of egoic identification, he writes:

“Since the ego is a derived sense of self, it needs to identify with external things. It needs to be both defended and fed constantly. The most common ego identifications have to do with possessions, the work you do, social status and recognition, knowledge and education, physical appearance  special abilities, relationships  personal and family history, belief systems, and often also political, nationalistic, racial, religious and other collective identifications. None of these is you.”

What does it mean to say that you are not your egoic identity?  Does it mean that your identities do no matter? That the way others identify you has no consequence? Absolutely not.  To say that we are not the ego is to bring attention to the fact that we go through life believing that we are the ideas we have of ourselves — so much so that most of us don’t even realize that we are acting upon this core belief.. what Mooji calls our belief in the “I-entity”.  We take our self-concept for granted, as though it actually, concretely, represents who we are.

Tolle is simply stating that logically, this cannot be true.  To say that you are not your ego – that you are not your identity – is to gently point out the incontrovertible truth that you cannot be any idea that you have of yourself.  “You” – your presence, your consciousness – must precede everything else.  This isn’t even about spirituality at all – it’s simple logic.  Think about it for a moment. Can you be an idea? Or do you have ideas? And if you have ideas, Who is it that has it?  Does that Who have a gender, a nationality, status, sexuality, height or weight?  Does that Who have an age?  Does that Who have a race?

* * *

Sociologists are very good at describing our social problems and — sometimes — proposing some measures of improvement.  But we cannot solve them with empirical studies and well-couched policy implications alone.

In fact, we cannot solve the race problem inside the race problem.  Does this mean that we should simply transcend race?  Of course not.  Why?  Because it is not possible to transcend something without first acknowledging it!  Biases based on appearances are hardwired into our social conditioning through our interactions with others and our absorption of language.  Bias is not something we can simply choose to let go of or disregard without first becoming acutely aware of how it has shaped — and continues to shape — the way we live our lives.

bell hooks teaches us that one of the key mechanisms of racial oppression is convincing human beings to see themselves primarily as racial subjects.  I concur and argue that we must see racialized thinking for what it is — a particular form of a more general phenomena — the socially reinforced habit of thinking that we are defined by the thoughts we have about ourselves and others.  Effective antiracist activism will require acknowledging race and racism from a place beyond race and racism.

When we think that we are our racial identities and our racial thoughts, we perpetuate systems of inequality – not only out there in the world but also and primarily inside of our own experience.  As long as I think I am merely my ideas, then those ideas are dependent on validation, either from other thoughts of my own, or thoughts from others.  As long as I think I am merely my ideas, I cannot be totally awake and alive to my full humanity.

This isn’t woo-woo-woo spirituality . . . it’s simply a fact. The tendency to reduce ourselves and others to thoughts of any kind blinds us to our inherent worth and the worth of others.  And it is impossible for us to make truly positive change in this world, change that will last, if we are not aware of our inalienable worth, beyond thoughts, beyond social conditioning, beyond what we have learned to believe.  Prejudice of all kind stems from a human being mistaking themselves for an idea (egoic identity) and seeing others they interact with through the lens of that delusion.  Thus, instead of interacting with other human beings, in their full presence, the unconsciously prejudiced person interacts with them as stereotypes — as mere ideas… ideas that can be ranked, negated, diminished and disregarded.

So what can we do?

The Negro problem, as traditionally defined, may be a lost cause, but the Ego problem is not.  I don’t have the secret of how we will once and for all solve these pernicious problems, but I know for sure that we cannot do it without sustained awareness, honesty and transparency about our egoic impulses and the ways in which we have all been influenced by the biases we’ve absorbed through socialization.  Being biased is part of what it means to be human. Living beyond those biases, in the light of awareness and compassion, is what it means to be Divine.

Part of unpacking the ego is becoming more (not less) aware of our own racial lenses.  We must see ourselves beyond ego, yes, but we must also pay attention to the way our conditioned mind reacts when we encounter others – and take responsibility for living beyond the bullshit. What expectations and prejudices do we have when we interact with people we perceive as different? What thoughts — good, bad, or otherwise — arise when we see folks we categorize into “groups”?  What feelings do we experience when we encounter “one of them”?  Can we witness these thoughts and feelings without judgment?  In so doing, can we become more alive to that part of ourselves that witnesses our social conditioning but has Itself never been conditioned?  Can we become more alive to the Presence that is at the core of ourselves and every other living being?

When we are faced with racism, it is very tempting to be unconsciously dragged down into racializing others in return.  But this is a terrible mistake.  If we are going to help others wake up to their own racism, we must first wake up to our own racial concepts and in so doing, see beyond them.  From that place – in the racial world but not of it – we can rise in consciousness, inflecting our activism for social justice with wisdom and compassion, empowered with an unshakable confidence in Who we really are.  For, as bell hooks writes:

“To move beyond race is not only the goal of critical thinking, it is the only path to emotional longevity, the only true path to liberation.”

What I’m trying to say here is that we don’t, in fact, have to move beyond race, because what we really are has always been beyond it.  What we have to do is consciously realize what is already the case, by waking up to the part of ourselves that has never been defined by ideas, racial or otherwise — the part of ourselves that is Consciousness Itself.


Spiritual Musings

I am done with Mooji

..and Nisargadatta Maharaj and Eckhart Tolle and Thich Nhat Hanh and the Bhagavad Gita.

For the time being anyway.

After a year and a half of fairly intense seeking and transformation, I’m going on a spiritual diet.  The realization of my oneness with the Absolute has been beautifully assisted by these teachings & teachers.. but enough is enough. At this point I am reading and hearing the same things over and over again. Now I simply want to live it. No guided meditations or videos or texts.  No more crutches.  Just this moment and the direct experience of the Divine.

Like my veganish, rawish, gluten-freeish eating experiment, I’m doing this without a set timetable or goal. 

It’s become clear that all this spiritualizing is holding something up. What, I am not entirely sure. But I know I need to go these next few steps alone.  As Presence. 

Life Musings, Spiritual Musings

Observing the ego

Here’s Mooji explaining in a very subtle and lovely way what happens when we observe the ego:

I really love, in particular, how he points out that any observation of the ego that is interested (not indifferent) is still the ego.

Eckhart Tolle on the difference between the “real” I and the fake (egoic) “I”:

Life Musings, News

Aurora and the War Within

I didn’t hear about the movie theater attack in Aurora until two days after it happened. I had been traveling – and, thankfully – am almost totally unplugged from the Media Industrial Complex.  I quit social media (Facebook) last December after having spent nearly 8 years living through the minutiae of everyday life as well as the mania spurred on by various “tragedies” with 600 of my best friends.

Of course my heart goes out to the families and loved ones of those who were hurt and killed in Aurora.   My heart also goes out to the approximately 80 people killed each day in the United States from gun related violence.  Beyond our borders, there are hundreds, if not thousands of others, who die from gun-inflicted wounds every single day in civilian and war-related killing.  To their numbers, we must add everyone else who experiences suffering from other types of violence every minute of every day.

I mention these countless other cases of suffering and violence not for the purpose of minimizing what happened in Aurora, but rather for the purpose of drawing attention to the arbitrariness of the hysteria that surrounds certain events.  When we take a step back, a familiar pattern emerges: (1) a certain case of violence somehow garners attention and 24/7 news coverage in the media (2) lots of everyday people, talking heads, politicians, intellectuals, religious leaders, etc. pontificate with great moral outrage about the ills of our society (3) touching memorials take place as people commemorate the victims (4) feelings of fear, dread, sadness, nihilism, anxiety and anger overcome the populace.

To the extent that such mass attention might raise consciousness about the costs of our current gun policies and the representations of violence and dehumanization that characterize so much of our popular culture, there is much good that can come from greater awareness of these issues.  And yet, there are many disturbing things about the obsessive attention and collective angst wrought by events like Aurora:

(1) The attention is always short lived.  It will reach its peak and then slowly dissipate.  At some point in the near future, no news outlet will report anything related to Aurora on any given day.  And, on the unknown future date, most people will not think about any of the victims.  In other words, life will return to “normal”.

(2) Many people who express moral outrage rarely use these occasions as an opportunity to put their principles into action in their own lives.  Instead, they have very detailed opinions about how other people should change without realizing that positive change concretely depends on how we all live our lives on an on-going basis.  That means that if I want a society that values the dignity of all living beings, then I need to take stock of the choices I make in my life in addition to calling my congresswo(man).

(3) The mass hysteria produced by media-driven coverage of tragic events is inherently arbitrary.  That is to say: the event(s) that come to occupy the collective conscious are always a mere subset of a much larger sample of horrific happenings.

So, what to make of Aurora?  Or the Trayvon Martin case?  Or the Giffords shooting?  Or any other tragedy that captures the public’s imagination?  I have a few ideas.

(1) No loss of life is more important than any other other simply because CNN says so.  There is nothing wrong with focusing on a tragic event if it spurs personal and collective action for the greater good.  But such attention must extend to the countless cases of suffering that never make it to the airwaves or the twittersphere.  In other words, we need to care about suffering broadly – not just in specific cases that seem to horrify or concern us.

(2) External violence derives from and pales in comparison to the “war within”.

Yes, reasonable people agree that our gun policies obviously need to be reformed and we should all do what we can to make decisions (political and otherwise) that reflect our esteem for human life and dignity.  That said, there is no amount of other-directed protest, pontificating or policing can solve the core issue at the heart of violence.  External suffering has internal sources.  We harm each other physically because of internal limitations on our capacity for love, compassion and peaceful co-existence.  I have sometimes remarked that people who decry violence need to ask themselves how realistic it is to expect people to treat others with respect and compassion when most people do not even love themselves!  If you pay attention to your inner world (your thoughts, feelings and perceptions) on a daily basis, you will quickly learn how difficult it can be to maintain an attitude of love and compassion not only toward other people, but also toward yourself.  Difficult circumstances and situations frequently arouse feelings of anger and fear for all of us on a daily basis.  Learning how to achieve inner peace and happiness is the only way we can individually become agents of compassion, cooperation and love in our interactions with others.  The war within needs our urgent attention, even as we take steps to address the war in our streets.

(3) Social media and mass media interfere with our ability to maintain equanimity and inner peace.  Being informed about local, national and global events is important.  I am not advocating burying our heads in the sand.  But being continuously plugged into the Media Industrial Complex with its assortment of arbitrary news coverage, commercialized interests and biased representations is a recipe for moral decline, passivity and cultural manipulation.  I was so grateful that I did not get wrapped up in the hype about Aurora on Facebook (since I no longer have an account) or through cable news (since I rarely watch it).  Yes, I found out a few days after the fact and did follow the story with some interest, but because I came to the story rather than having it come to me, I was able to examine it from a place of calm reflection rather than media-manipulated fear and loathing.

(4) The most important thing any of us can do in response to such tragedies is to ask: How am I living?  Before I prioritized my spiritual life, I found myself attracted to execrable popular culture like reality TV, violent action films and generally mindless material.  Since the dawn of my spiritual “awakening” (for lack of a better word), I naturally found myself mostly reading about theology and philosophy and watching related media (i.e. Eckhart Tolle’s talks or Mooji’s videos) in my free time.  I didn’t consciously try to avoid violent material, but I simply lost interest in it.  There are some exceptions — I still love the “Matrix” films and have a slight addiction to Breaking Bad, but I try to watch these things consciously, in a way that strengthens – rather than weakens – my concern for the dignity of all living beings.  Perhaps more on that in another post.  All of this to say, change is possible and it begins with you.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t watch movies like the “Dark Knight Rises”  – I don’t think external responses of that nature are the “answer”.  To go on a “violent movie” boycott or to only militate for greater gun control (though we do need it) would be naive and shortsighted.  Tragic events like Aurora remind me to pay attention to what’s going on in my world – in my thoughts and emotions.  It heightens awareness of emotional and mental violence.  The moment I feel myself thinking negatively about someone, I am reminded that such enmity – no matter how minor – is the seed from which all mistreatment and violence grows.  How can I expect others to be more compassionate if I myself do not prioritize compassion and kindness?  When I feel “pissed off or upset about anything, I use awareness of those emotions to bring me back into conscious recognition of my Self as the Presence of God rather than my “self” as the ego with its tote bag of delusions, petty interests and conditioning.  This is why meditation and other practices that focus our attention on the present moment – on stillness – are so important.   It is only from a place a inner peace and tranquility that we can come to regard each other with the respect, love and dignity that make external violence inconceivable.

What do you think?  Is it possible to consume violent culture while also affirming the dignity of human life?  Is there any real good that will come from the intense attention to the Aurora shooting?  What can each of us do, individually and collectively, to respond to this event?

Race & Ethnicity, Spiritual Musings

On Stillness & Stereotypes

One of the advantages of living in awareness of the present moment is that you begin to consciously experience what it means to live beyond stereotypes

I recall hearing Eckhart Tolle talk about this aspect of stillness in one of his videos on EckhartTolleTV.com  The basic idea, as he explained it, is that being aware of other people as living beings requires attuning to their energy in the present moment.  It is in this way that we can connect with each other more fully rather than relying on expectations, prejudices and stereotypes derived from our conditioning and socialization.

In my research, I spend a lot of time thinking about the consequences of ethnic and racial stereotypes on inter-group relations.  Much of my work concerns the way minorities interpret and respond to everyday racism and discrimination.  In my own life, I have also been surprised and disturbed by how difficult it can be to not be influenced by the lingering (negative and positive) preconceived ideas we have about each other.  Usually these expectations are formed on the basis of appearance.  I know all of this intellectually – and yet – even as a scholar concerned with race and antiracism, even as a person of color, even as someone who asserts solidarity with the LGBT community, even as a woman, even as a “spiritual enthusiast” with a universalist/nondual perspective — even I have had to confront the persistent and pernicious effects of stereotypes on my perception of others.

If I have found it difficult to “live beyond” stereotypes, then how much more difficult must it be for people who share no particular affinity for universalism, who are not directly concerned with discrimination or who have not had the good fortune of having friends and loved ones in diverse communities and cultures?

One of the most profound changes I’ve experienced as I’ve prioritized my spiritual life has been truly connecting with other people – not on the basis of my assumptions about them or my past experiences – but rather on the basis of the energy that arises in the immediacy of our interaction.  As I began to put some of Tolle’s teachings into action, I noticed a remarkable flowering of my social life.  I now find it so easy and natural to engage with others when I’m anchored in stillness.  Instead of seeing folks through the lens of my expectations, they appear to me as they really are: awe-inspiring, beautiful manifestations of the Divine.

Now, when I encounter anyone – I find myself more automatically and easily feeling their aliveness.  When and if stereotypes emerge in my mind, I notice them and use that awareness to draw me back into Presence.  In the immediacy of the present moment, stereotypes and expectations simply burn away . . . how could they persist in the light of the “now”?  As I more naturally connect with and sense others, I increasingly have breathtakingly beautiful experiences, exchanges and encounters with such a wide variety of human beings . . . all of which has made my life even more rich, inspiring and exciting than it already was.

Stereotypes deaden our relationships.  They prevent us from seeing and connecting with what is real and essential about all of us.   For me, it is not enough to simply acknowledge, intellectually, that prejudice and discrimination are “bad”.   You can’t overcome the influence of conditioning and socialization through “good will” alone.  What is really required is a conscious realization of who we really are – beyond identity, beyond the ego, and certainly beyond stereotypes.  In the context of this understanding and inner knowing, connecting with others becomes natural and easy..not the result of effort.  It’s the same process by which virtuous and “right” action naturally flows from “right” perception.  When  you know who you really are and you know who God really is, you don’t try to act like a good person, but goodness can simply flow through you like light shining through a transparent vessel.  This is, of course, so much easier when we get our egos and past conditioning out of the way . . . in fact, getting over ourselves and living more fully in the present moment are both prerequisites for deeply experiencing love, peace and joy in our relationships with others.  It’s in this way that we come to truly see that there are never really any “others” out there. There is only the Self, the oneness of God . . . and we are all made of, by and in It.

Spiritual Musings, Video

A Love Story

Every day . . . every single day . . . something happens in my life that shines light on some area in need of greater “realization of Self”.  One of the “gifts” of awareness of one’s inner world is greater sensitivity to any and all unpleasant sensations.  It is always sometimes very uncomfortable to deeply engage these moments of tension, pain or stress, but looking unpleasantness in the eye is really the gift that keeps on giving.  Because life is so full of suffering, we are never at a loss for opportunities to learn, stretch and grow in the throes of unpleasant feelings and situations.  Somehow, if we’re lucky, we come to experience grace in the midst of suffering as we allow Life to show us how to more fully and deeply rise in consciousness of who we really are.

One of the frustrating and frankly embarrassing side effects of this “path” as I’m experiencing it is the inconsistency of the realization.  While I have been living with a much higher “baseline” of peace, tranquility, joy, love and compassion, there are not-infrequent-occasions on which I still react/think/feel out of ego and the small “self”.  On a certain level, I understand that being too invested in maintaining an ongoing experience of inner peace is just another game the ego plays . . . and yet . . . I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the embarrassment I sometimes feel about the limitations of my own ability to remain consciously aware of Presence.  Yes, another ego game, and yet a peculiar one.

It can be a little disconcerting to have your friends and family use your own “wisdom” against you, so to speak,in an effort to show the error of your ways.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve had someone tell me something along the lines of “Weren’t you just talking about unconditional love?  What did you say about the ego?  Didn’t you have a realization about inner peace a few minutes ago?  Remember when you said . . . “

How sad is it to feel the impulse of selfless compassion in one moment, only to cede to the lure of egoic self interest in the next?  How often have my friends and loved ones marveled with a mix of lurid fascination and pity as I regale them with tales of my enthusiastic spiritual practice only to later reveal the latest emotional melodrama from my love life or the hair-pulling-stress of my work?

And yet . . . how can it be otherwise?  How many of us are fully realized?  Who experiences total tranquility and perfect equanimity?  I know of no one who has become immune to the dance of the ego and its tote bag of suffering.  If there is any immunity, perhaps it is as Mooji and Eckhart Tolle teach of it: simply cultivating awareness of the dance, without attachment to or interest in its footsteps . . . like watching clouds build and dissipate on the canvas of the skies.

All of this to say: today I fucked up, knew I fucked up while I was fucking up, felt the ego’s call to identify with the fucked-up-ness, felt like crap for being so imperfect, then glimpsed the extraordinary, unchanging and unchangeable perfection within which all else arises — including ordinary, flawed ‘me’ .

I was led to the following teaching, entitled “A Love Story”, as I ruminated on these unpleasant feelings.

In this video, Mooji carries on an exchange with a man in satsang who feels that he has trouble “connecting with” God.  He laments that: “I sometimes have the feeling that I am not in the right place or I don’t do the right decision.”

Some of my favorite bits from Mooji’s response:

“I don’t feel that God wants you to make right decisions . . . but more just [wants you] to be yourself.  And at least, to see, there’s a saying, no?  To err is to be human, or something like, the very nature of human ways is to make error.  But also to be somewhat humble in our self, to see that we’re not so great.  There is something in that.  And something relaxes and opens up and makes possible an opportunity to see beneath the surface of our conditioning. And what you will discover will not frighten you. it will always make you realize that you’re much more a love story than you think.”

“God is not playing with you.  God is playing as you.”

“Whatever caused you to be here is also taking care of you.”

“I don’t see anything in you less than what I’ve found in my own Self.  And it’s not an achievement . . . it cannot be achieved.  It can only reveal Itself, which is what it’s doing.  And if we don’t cling to our attachments and dreams and fears and all these projections, you’ll come much more quickly into that seeing, because nothing is being withheld from you, you see?  So whatever it is your heart longs to connect with or to make known or to be refreshed in, my feeling is, let’s find out what can possibly be in the way of that.”

“Even if you say you lost contact with the I Am, that cannot be true!  The very I is the I Am in whose presence the sense of losing contact is felt and maybe momentarily believed in. You are the I Am, the very fact of your existence, the very fact of your perceiving is evidence that everything is issuing out of that I Am. It is the very seed of perceiving – that pulsation, that vibration of I Am . .  . Maybe what you are saying is momentarily there is some distraction to some other things. But you’re going to come to see that even the feeling of distraction can only occur in consciousness and that consciousness is the I Am and you are that consciousness.”

Spiritual Musings

When You Know Better . . .

There’s an old quote that Oprah likes to use: “When you know better, you do better.”

No matter what you think about the full spectrum of Oprah’s work, she has directed millions of people toward wisdom and that’s quite a beautiful thing.  Her free, intensive web series with Eckhart Tolle on “A New Earth” changed my life — though not immediately.

In any case, the “Know better/do better” quote is something I sort of shrugged off in agreement when I would think about it over the years.  Intellectually, it made sense.  But the core principle is something that I’ve come to understand in a much more profound way than I did before.

I used the quote recently with a friend when describing how I interpreted the behavior of someone who had, according to traditional moral standards, “done me wrong”.  (We won’t get into the interesting question of what I mean by ‘me’ right now, but you nondual affcionados know what I’m getting at.)

The conversation went something like this:

“I told [redacted] how I felt about their behavior.  I think in the light of day, reasonable people will acknowledge past wrong doing and apologize.  But I am not waiting for an apology.  I really do believe that when you know better, you do better.”

“Oh I don’t know about that.  I don’t agree.”

“Well, yes, there are many people who are ‘aware’ that they are doing something they shouldn’t be doing.”

“And that’s sociopathic.”

“Yes, but the capacity to do what is right is also a kind of knowledge.”

After our conversation, I simmered on the quote and used it a few other times with other interlocuters.  The truth penetrated for me more deeply.  Yes, right action is a kind of knowledge. But what is more fundamental than “doing” is “seeing”.  When you see things as they really are — when you see the truth clearly and correctly — you will know the truth and “right” action will spontaneously and naturally flow from “right” perception.

Ruminating on this reminded me of the kind of ‘knowledge’ it takes to put God and spirituality “first” in one’s life.  In the past, I thought – intellectually – that I “knew” the value of God in my life . . . I thought, with all the hubris and ignorance that such a misconception requires, that God was my homeboy.  I thought we were cool – despite all evidence to the contrary (e.g. systematically putting my spiritual life on the back burner after everything else).  I “believed in” God, prayed occasionally, sent up gratitude for my “blessings” when I felt like it . . . Of course, looking back, I realize now how superficial my so-called “knowledge” of God’s existence was.  I did, however, have other kinds of very concrete knowledge.  I knew very clearly what it meant to put my work, my education, my romantic relationships or my idle interests first, but putting God first was not something I could really grasp.

For me – like so many on “the path” – it took a fundamental crisis to bring me to my knees and help me begin to consider – ever so slowly – what it would really mean to put my spirituality before everything else.  In the midst of this crisis, I found myself praying a very simple but sincere prayer: “Please God, help me understand how to put you first. I want to want to, but I don’t know how.”  And ever since I prayed that prayer, the universe has spontaneously, beautifully and in the most direct and clear ways unveiled Itself.

What came to me very clearly was this:  if one understood the depths of peace, joy, equanimity that await us in the light of God’s love, of course we would want to put that first.  But knowing such things intellectually or conceptually is insufficient . . . it requires the kind of knowing that is beyond words, beyond concepts . . . the kind of knowing that penetrates your being, transforms your consciousness and burns away the delusions that clouded your ability to see the unchanging truth of God’s fundamental oneness with not only who You really are, but who everyone else really is too.

It is a bit like this:

Imagine your ship has capsized and you’re struggling in the water, fighting for your life.  There is a life raft right next to you, but you cannot see it.  It’s red – and you’re color blind – so it passes by you unperceived.

As you draw what you think may be your last breath, out of desperation you reach out toward the raft.

You reach out – not because you see the raft – but because something inside of you compels you to reach out as an act of faith.  You reach out – not because your eyes see something – but because your inner eyes begin to open, eyes you’ve never used before – eyes that can see things your ordinary perception cannot.  You reach out on faith – maybe just the faith of a mustard seed – just a tiny grain of hope that something can save you.

Now you grasp the raft – except you still do not know what it is.  You have only begun to open your inner eyes, but you can sense the presence of something powerful and stable that can and will save you.  And this is a beautiful moment, because in the grip of desperation and terrible fear of your own annihilation, you begin to glimpse the possibility of salvation and eternal life.  In that moment, when “you” were trying to escape “death”, you actually do die.  The concept of yourself as some individual entity floating in the sea of creation dissipates as the true concept of your Self as the All-There-Is emerges.

Yes, you would have found the raft much earlier if only you could have seen it.  If you had known better, you would have done better.  But what a beautiful thing it is to reach out in blindness, to act on the infinitesimal faith of a mustard seed, to throw your hands out in the darkness.  This moment of surrender in the midst of desperation, of seeing for the first time, is such a sacred, precious thing – something to treasure no matter how much suffering such a realization requires.

Spiritual Musings

Popping this Blog’s Cherry

This blog is a space for me to share realizations, questions and musings related to spirituality.  It is inevitable not impossible that you may also stumble over posts about academia, France, thrifty fashion, cooking, champagne, cigars, social theory, activism, Mad Men and the existential angst of Blackness.

My spiritual practice draws upon two main principles at the core of a variety of Western and Eastern traditions:

(1) We are all interconnected

(2) What is real in existence is the conscious experience of the present moment

Improving group relations through harmonious cooperation, compassion, empathy and reconciliation depends upon our ability to recognize our fundamental ties to all other living beings. This is what Buddhist monk, poet and activist Thict Nhat Hanh refers to as “inter-being”.

My spiritual work lies at the intersection of nondual theology and philosophy within Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. The common thread running throughout my academic, spiritual and social projects is an interest in promoting compassionate action and conscious awareness by bringing attention to the tools we can use to alleviate human suffering.

I’m principally influenced by the teachings of Eckhart Tolle, Mooji, Alan Watts, Ernest Holmes, Joel Goldsmith and Thich Nhat Hanh.