Satsang with Mooji, from this past Sunday 7/14:
I am always reminded of this beautiful poem by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, when I am pained by injustice.
Call Me by My True Names
Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to, my
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all
walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.
Thich Nhat Hanh
So, one of the very exciting things going on in my life these days is hot yoga. I’ve been to six (90 minute) sessions so far and I’ve already begun to experience profound spiritual insights – insights that I had already glimpsed before but that are now beginning to settle more deeply as embodied realizations. Now, I’m not a yogi by any means — I’ve dabbled in yoga but have been seriously out of practice. The prospects of doing yoga in room heated to 120 degrees seemed so absurd, intimidating and frankly impossible that I put off trying it for a very long time — until now. Anyway, I’ve decided to do a series of vlogs chronicling what it is like for me to climb this hot yoga mountain. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on combining the physical practice of yoga with spirituality.
Stillness has no requirements. It doesn’t even require stillness.
My research is about the subjective dimensions of racism and inequality. To wit, I’ve spent hundreds of hours interviewing blacks in the U.S. and France about their conceptualizations of ethnic and racial identity, their views on racial history (e.g. slavery and colonization) and their experiences with racism and discrimination. Some of this work has already been published in a variety of scholarly journals, including Ethnic and Racial Studies, the Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race and Poetics as well as chapters in several volumes. I’m currently writing a series of theoretical and empirical articles based on my interviews with French Caribbeans and African Americans as well as a book, which I plan on finishing this year.
On this blog, however, I have very rarely written about race. Partly this is so because I have endeavored to carve out space for the exploration of my spirituality and creativity, in a way that does not constantly foreground my professional life. And while my racial identity has continued to play an important role in how I understand my place in the world, I have also come to see very clearly that I am not defined by any of my identities, nor am I defined by any ideas (good, bad or otherwise) that I or anyone else has about those categories.
For a long time, I struggled with figuring out how to integrate my abiding concern with racial inequality, my interest in social justice and the continuing significance of my ethnoracial heritage with a spiritual path that was leading me further and further away from the confines of particularism. Over the past year, I reached out to many other people – including some other scholars of color – to discuss precisely this question. How do we integrate spiritual universalism with the realities of group-based conflict? How do I make sense of my experiences as a black woman when I am also coming to know and and understand that who I really am cannot be reduced to my skin tone, my ethnicity, my gender, my sexuality – or any aspect of my socialization? I knew that such preoccupations had drawn the interest of others before me, so I had no pretensions of re-inventing the wheel. Through my own meditations, readings and conversing with a variety of people – some black, some brown, some white – about these questions from Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Jewish perspectives, something approaching a coherent understanding has begun to reveal itself.
Of particular interest to me has been Thich Nhat Hanh’s lovely book “Together We Are One: Honoring our Diversity, Celebrating our Connection” – a collection of essays that are explicitly about what it means to be a Buddhist and a person of color.
I love that Thich Nhat Hanh – the well known Vietanamese Buddhist monk – has not avoided the issue of race of social justice in his work. Indeed, his major theological contribution is his concept of engaged Buddhism — a kind of practice that emphasizes our need to be involved in actively promoting social justice and compassion through the way we live our lives. It is a Buddhism that is conceived for living in the world – not just meditating in a cave (though, if you feel compelled to meditate in a cave, more power to you).
Anyway, I also love that he not only identifies as a person of color, but he has also organized retreats for other Buddhists of color to explore these issues. More recently I’ve also been intrigued by bell hooks. I’m currently reading her latest: “Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice”.
I was informed that hooks describes herself as a “Christian Buddhist”, which (if true) very much resonates with my nondenominational nonduality. Mooji has also been highly influential in reconstructing my understanding of ethnoracial identity and the spiritual path. While he does not often talk about race explicitly, he is Jamaican and his emphasis on accepting one’s ethnic appartenance while also transcending it makes total and complete sense to me.
Over time, the boundaries between my spiritual work and my academic work have slowly eroded. This integration has happened naturally, as I’ve progressively contemplated the various dimensions of my own egoic identifications in the light of my experience with nondual truths in Hinduism and Buddhism. As my scholarship and spirituality increasingly inform each other, I now find myself ready and able to discuss and write about these topics holistically.
What has become clear to me in this time is that the pain of ethnic and racial exclusion is real and must be confronted. But in order to confront it, we must be courageous and brave enough to delve deeply and consciously into the experience of traumatic exclusion, denigration and devaluation. It is only through this sustained attention to the subjective dimensions of our own experiences with feelings of inferiority and superiority that we can begin to untangle the egoic web of delusions and misunderstandings that allow us to remain ignorant to our own unchanging perfection.
* * *
In the beginning, we were whole and we had no doubts about our wholeness. We did not pop out of the womb wondering if we were good enough, pretty or handsome enough, smart enough or worthy of being alive. We did not know anything about “good hair”, colorism or being inferior or superior to anyone else. We felt entitled to love and attention. All of spirituality is about returning to this original state of wholeness–our natural state of freedom.
Over time, through socialization, we began to learn about human difference and ideas about what those differences mean. We became exposed to rankings of inferiority and superiority. As children, we may not have known that these ideas about difference and ideologies of human worth were arbitrary social constructions that vary across cultures and historical eras. We absorbed stereotypes and even developed metastereotypes – expectations about how we imagine others view “people like us”.
If we were lucky, we had parents or members of our community to teach us that all human beings are equal. And yet in everyday life, we are still confronted with a barrage of images telling us that not only are some human beings better than others, all human beings are flawed. Our media industrial complex produces inferiority complexes, constantly informing us that we are not enough. We must look a certain way, have a certain lifestyle, say the right things, gain particular markers of success and conform to the societal mold in order to be accepted. We are fundamentally unworthy – but we can feel a little better, be a little more popular, be a little more happy, if we just buy one more widget or read the latest issue of Oprah magazine.
And so it is that we unconsciously absorb the idea that we must do something to become someone else — someone better. Even if we reject the notion that there is something wrong with being black or brown or Chicana or a woman or gay or trans or working-class or disabled or short or fat, quite often we are only able to generate a kind of self-esteem crutch – a wish – a hope – that we are not inferior. We may think that we have overcome our programming, only to boil with anger when someone says something mean about people like us. We may believe that we have left negative ideas about our self worth behind, because we celebrate our identities. But all it takes is exposure to a sexist or racist comment to remind us that some people think very poorly of us. And when that happens, the anger we feel might eclipse a pain we may have never acknowledged–the pain of fearing that the bigot, the chauvinist or the homophobe might be right. Maybe there is something wrong with me. Maybe I am inferior. And even if we reject the idea that we are less than, we may nonetheless feel wounded by another human being’s searing rejection.
What I have learned is that racism, homophobia, sexism and all other ‘isms’ only sting when we buy into the fiction that our worth is determined by what other people think of us.
When we feel pain from being stereotyped or negatively viewed, it’s because we needlessly give our power away. And at any moment, we can choose to stop doing that.
People call racism “ignorance”, but all that matters about any ideology of human ranking is that it isn’t true. It’s a lie and it only works – it only hurts – if you choose to believe it. If someone called you a polar bear, or a giraffe, would you feel hurt? You might find it perplexing, frustrating or amusing. But painful? Probably not – because you know it isn’t true.
We hurt when people think badly of us only in moments when we forget our intrinsic and inalienable worth. But the awesome thing is that even when we forget how worthy we are, we are still infinitely worthy.
Even our own doubt and feelings of inferiority cannot change the fact that we are always and inherently whole. When you remember who you really are, you transcend the sting of racism and other ‘isms’ because you recognize it for the bullshit it really is. It’s just a simple misunderstanding. You think I’m a polar bear. I am not a polar bear.
We sometimes give lip service to rejecting the ideology of racism – yet we are still hurt by it. We’re offended when someone makes a disparaging remark about our group. We are upset when we see unflattering images of people who look like us. We feel angry when someone says that we are less than, unworthy–inferior.
But as soon as you realize that you’re fundamentally whole, then you also understand that any “ism” that defines people as “less than” cannot be true.
Many people who belong to groups that have been historically oppressed have no idea that they think they’re inferior. That’s how racism works–not only do you not realize that your inferiority is untrue, you also fail to recognize the extent to which you’ve internalized this silly belief about your supposed inferiority.
Even people who understand that their “conditioning has been conditioned” nonetheless often find it difficult to step outside of their programming.
There is a difference between hoping to be whole – trying to prove that you’re whole – and knowing that you’re whole. Returning to your natural state of wholeness is not an intellectual exercise. It’s not a matter of bolstering your self esteem. It’s not an idea that you can simply latch onto like a magical mantra: “I am whole. I am great. I am wonderful.” No, it is something you must directly experience in the marrow of your bones. In this way, encountering your wholeness is a lot like encountering God. When you have experienced the Self beyond the egoic-self, the Consciousness that abides in and through you, this knowing becomes a certitude. It’s no longer a matter of faith. It’s your existential reality. With wholeness, as with God, we can’t simply talk about it. We must be about it. And the good news is that we are already It. Becoming grounded in our Beingness – in what we already are – is the path to transcending the fiction of our inferiority. This is why meditation is so useful: it allows us to create moments of stillness in our lives so that we can directly experience our wholeness. Meditation and conscious breathing allow us to know who we are beyond the mind, beyond thoughts, beyond conditioning.
Wholeness means understanding that you are not defined by what anyone thinks about you. And the incredible thing is that you’re not even defined by your own thoughts about yourself. When we are pained by another’s denigration, it is only because we slip into believing that our value depends on their approval. It doesn’t. We’re programmed to think we need social acceptance. That’s what thousands of years of evolution has produced. But biology is not destiny.
The pain of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and ableism must first be acknowledged before it can be transcended. There are no shortcuts. As long as we operate with faux-self esteem and false group pride, the wounds fester. The pain transmutes into stress, anxiety, fear and anger.
When we live mindfully, we pay attention to our thoughts and emotions. We notice the moment when we begin believing that we are inferior. We don’t feel bad about feeling inferior. We simply notice it. We observe. And in the witnessing itself, we realize the lie of inferiority cannot be true. We find freedom in the truth of our inherent worth.
Every human being, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or body type must confront their own self loathing. It is the universal human condition. You are taught to believe that there is something wrong with you. Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to realize that this is a lie.
But basking in your beautiful wholeness requires deeply experiencing and accepting the part of you that feels inadequate, flawed and ugly. Most people are too afraid to closely examine the painful self loathing that lurks beneath the surface of their egoic personas. But the dirty little secret is that seeing your wounded self clearly is the gateway to healing.
Embrace, accept and acknowledge your wounded self with compassion. We embrace our wounds with non-judgment and love because we understand they stem from a misunderstanding–a kind of spiritual amnesia. There’s nothing wrong with feeling inferior. Of course you feel inferior at times. You have an ego. Welcome to planet Earth.
The point is to realize that this wounded ego–this lie of inferiority–does not define you. Could never define you. You are the Witness. You are Presence. You are beyond any idea, thought or construct. And the tragicomic, hilarious truth is that you have always been this whole, perfect Being. The beautiful thing is that the truth of who You really are doesn’t depend on your state of mind, your thoughts or your level of awareness.
Superiority is as much a fiction as inferiority. Both complexes produce a hell of our own making. Whenever I see someone who thinks they are better than others, I know that in this particular moment, they don’t really love themselves. And they do not love themselves because they do not know themselves. To know the Self is to love the Self and to love the Self is to love all-there-is. When you move in love, you cannot feel inferior or superior to anyone else.
Love is the great equalizer.
The highest teachings in Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity boil down to this simple truth: I am that I am and It is what It is. There’s really nothing else you need to know.
So last weekend I said I would try to get through the next few steps of my life without my spiritual practice.
This was kind of an odd thing to do, given that for the last year and a half, my spiritual practice has consistently provided me with a sense of peace, contentment and joy even through the drama of my everyday life. But suddenly, I wanted to see how life would look without being mindful. I’d begun to worry that my spirituality had become an existential crutch.
Perhaps at this point it would help to briefly explain what my spiritual “practice” looks like. Generally, I’m not big on practices. I don’t like rigid routines and rules. My approach to practice is in fact less about what I “do” and more about my on-going state of conscious awareness. Rather than meditating at particular times, I’ve aimed to live in meditation and cultivate stillness. I use techniques such as self-inquiry (Advaita Vedanta), conscious breathing and the intense experience of sense perception (e.g. focusing on the sensation of touch, the pre-conceptual experience of vision, the inner silence brought on by acute listening) to “remind” my “mind” of its own non-existence and align my attention with the All-There-Is. In addition to these practices, I would read spiritual texts and watch related videos on a semi constant basis.
Anyway, over the past week, I stopped watching videos and for the most part stopped reading spiritual texts. I dropped the intentional practice of self-inquiry. I dropped most of my techniques of mindfulness. And I generally went back to what I call conventional living. While I was aware of my emotions and my inner state, I did not take the second step of being aware of my awareness. It is this second step which allows for de-identification from the mind.
During this week-long experiment, I consciously allowed myself to identify with the mind – for the first time in over a year.
So what were the results? Well, it was basically a disaster. I found myself immediately plunged into the depths of despair. Not because my life was objectively worse, but because I began to take my mind’s egoic tormenting seriously. Mindfulness allows me to fully experience my emotions and thoughts, but also to know that I am not defined by them. During my mindless experiment, I felt the sting of my mind’s critical and fearful thoughts. And it stung like a m..fucker. I felt small. Mindfulness had allowed me to live beyond the confines of my egoic “self” and to identify with the expansiveness of the Universe. But living as a ‘person’ again meant defining myself as an individual entity, with individual fears, hopes and dreams. I felt small and anxious – like I had to defend my own turf. It sucked.
Now, in the interests of science, I should probably tell you that I was PMS’ing this week. Therefore, we are unable to know whether the depths of despair I’ve just described were brought on by my conscious mindlessness or by my spiked hormone levels. I’m inclined to think it was a little of both . . .
* * *
I have the great fortune of having a wonderful therapist I’ve been seeing for almost a year and a half. Did I mention that he’s Asian? Yes, I, Dr. Black Woman, have an Asian male therapist. Anyway, he’s awesome. And what’s particularly awesome about him is that he works with other academics and is deeply familiar with the demands of “the profession”. The best thing about him, though, is that he’s very supportive of my spirituality. And his therapeutic approach, which is grounded in mindfulness, has been very compatible with nonduality. He doesn’t seem to know much about Buddha or Mooji, or if he does, he skillfully feigns ignorance, but when I talk about their teachings, he is able to reframe them in a way that highlights the compatibility of ‘spiritual’ and therapeutic approaches to well-being and awareness.
I used to feel more self conscious about having a therapist, until I found out that almost everyone I know in academia also has a therapist . . . or is on antidepressants . . . or both. Just the other day, another colleague told me that a good therapist helped them manage the stress of the tenure process.
[Interlude. We’re now in my weekly therapy session. ]
Me: So I decided to give up my spiritual practice for a week. I stopped trying to be mindful, stopped reading books, watching videos, everything.
Therapist: And how did that go?
Me: Terrible. I’ve just been incredibly sad, which is unusual. I’ve been really good at managing my emotional life over the last year in large part due to my meditation practice. Mindfulness has really be instrumental in helping me dis-identify with my emotional states.
Therapist: But mindfulness is also about acceptance. You don’t want to negate how you feel. There’s a logic to your feelings.
Me: I know, and you’re right. But my way of being mindful is to fully accept and experience whatever comes up, but also to take that second step of awareness that involves knowing that I am not my emotions. I am not my thoughts. And just that step alone brings me such great peace. Maybe there’s some negation going on that I haven’t explored. I’ll have to give it more thought. I usually don’t try to analyze my feelings as I’m experiencing them. I might talk about them with a friend at some point, or sometimes on my blog or here with you, but otherwise, I try not to delve too deeply into the logic. My peace of mind comes from knowing that I’m not defined by the logic — that there’s an observer. Does that make sense? Do you kind of get it?
Therapist: Yes. I get it. You know, one year is not that long to practice mindfulness. You want it to become second nature.
Me: You’re right. I hadn’t thought about it that way. One year isn’t very long.
Therapist: It takes time, right?
Me: Yes. I guess it does. But I also feel like it was becoming my second nature — it’s the way I’ve been living on a regular basis and it’s brought me great peace. I just started to feel like I was, perhaps, overly dependent on my spirituality.
Therapist: So what are you going to do?
Me: I’m going to go back to my spiritual practice. I suppose I just wanted to see what would happen if I took a break and went back to how I used to live. I gave it a try and I don’t like it. At all.
* * *
What was so surreal about all of this is that I knew that I could end my suffering instantaneously. I knew that I could simply choose to “see” the truth at any moment – that I could take that second step of dis-identifying with mind. But I chose not to. Instead, I deliberately sat in the hell of my mind’s illusions. I chose self-immolation – but I didn’t let the fire actually burn the “self”. I let the small “I” – the personality – survive and even thrive in the flames. I kept it hooked up to an oxygen tube. I refused to take it off of life support. And even more bizarrely, I felt bad about wanting to put it out of its misery. I found myself worried that wanting to wake the mind up from its illusions was a form of escapism – as if the hell of living life egoically as a ‘person’ was the higher, more auspicious road. It made no logical sense, but of course it was the mind’s way of encouraging resistance to awakening – of urging me to allow the dream to carry on, while knowing that I could choose to wake up from the nightmare at any moment.
Anyway, all this to say: I’m going back to conscious mindfulness, spiritual practice and yes, even back to my beloved Mooji. The fact of the matter is that I do want to escape samsara and illusion and the unreal. I’ll keep my crutches until they fall away on their own. And today, those crutches include Midol. Lots of Midol.
..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.