About a year ago, in the spring of 2019, my dear friend Laurie Goldstein invited me to join a group of people going to Montgomery, Alabama, to visit the sites dedicated to the history of racial discrimination. Laurie has long been a strong advocate for racial justice and I was grateful to have the opportunity to go to these places with her.
Alabama, in the heart of the South, was a center for slave trade and the newly opened Legacy Museum that we visited traces the history of the blacks in America through powerful words, images, and real photographs. For days after my return the stories and images haunted me. One particularly poignant and painful memory is a photograph of a mother tearfully embracing her 14-year old son sentenced to life imprisonment as she bid him goodbye. As a mother myself, imagining myself in her shoes moved me to the core.
It is not for nothing that they say a picture is worth a thousand words. Even the recent agitations began as a result of images in the videos that are bringing home the reality of what has long been the truth.
Have times changed because of our ability to create and share images or are the images coming up and being shared because the time for change has arrived? A spiritual perspective would vote for the latter, holding that the entire sequence of events, right from the climate created by the Coronavirus to the recent events and its quick, almost immediate worldwide support is no accident.
All around the world and since the dawn of history, the tendency to seek power through oppressing another has existed in one form or another. At this time, this energy of discrimination and separateness which had been smoldering beneath the surface, has attained critical mass, and is coming to consciousness. Like a volcano that erupts at the earth’s most open fissure, it has burst forth in the widest split that is between black and white, not only in color but in our thinking itself which has become so polarized and filled with distrust and fear.
This is a wakeup call for humanity to step up to a whole new level of consciousness, one that understands fear, traces its origins, and works with it so as to go beyond it. Fear is intrinsic to the human experience and is tied to the unpredictability of life and death. Unless we understand our fears and recognize their workings in our inner lives, we are going to constantly strike out at another, much like a person trying to change his or her reflection instead of changing one’s own self.
Science tells us that we are wired for survival. Whenever our system identifies any hint of dissonance, however remote, it decides we are under a “threat” and generates chemicals that are three times stronger than regular emotions. As a result of the chemical reactions, one goes into a self-protective fight-or-flight mode and the heart leaves the room. It is all downhill from there and if not checked, we devolve into our animal instincts.
Knowing our system in this way is key to understanding human behavior and practicing compassion for ourselves and others. Pema Chodron says it best in her book Comfortable with Uncertainty:
"Compassion begins when we can see where someone is because we've been there. It does not happen because we're better than they are but because human beings share the same stuff. The more we know our own, the more we're going to understand others."
That being said, the time has come for us to embrace another reality as well. We are more than just self-protective machines fueled by spontaneously generated chemicals. Man is the most conscious creature on the planet, hence the term “man-ual intervention.” In their findings on neuroplasticity, scientists have confirmed our ability to change and transform our inner world.
We have co-created this system for protection and now we will need to rewire it for connection as well. If every one of us is not safe, none of us are. When our fear, born out of human mortality, is combined with our spirit’s ability to love and forgive unconditionally, we will take our humanity to a whole new level. The teachings of Mindfulness show us the way to accomplish this, by combining attention with intentional practices.
Over the years of my own inner work, I have come up with a practice of checking in frequently to ask a few simple questions to track down the subtle shades of fear in myself: is my heart opening up or shutting down? Am I connecting to another as an equal or not?
As I do this regularly, I have come to realize how easy it is to shut down, compare, calculate and defend and how challenging it is to remain open and simply BE. Since that visit to Montgomery I have often said that field trips to such places and real conversations with people who have suffered need to be part of every person’s education. Someone once referred to the ego as Edging God Out (EGO) and we unconsciously do that every time we view a person or a situation with resistance and fear.
Mindful breathing, mindful listening, speaking, and communicating, in ways that return us to equanimity and openness, are choices to “Invite God In.” This inner work of being present, recognizing where we are shutting down, surrendering our loyalty to our old perceptions, and intentionally cultivating compassion which is what Mindfulness is all about, is now no longer an optional activity nor a “spiritual practice” alone. It is the way, the only way, to move forward, evolving from an unconscious survival centered race to a conscious heart centered one.
Now, more than ever, we each need to be the change we wish to see in our lives- both inner and outer.