How to not be an anti-racist asshole: Mindfulness and Racial Progress

December 21, 2021

There are a lot of well-meaning people who’s well-meaning actions just make things worse. I’ve  certainly been one of those people. Portland is filled with self-proclaimed anti-racists who believe that by smashing windows and setting trashcans on fire, they are somehow making black lives matter. Have they bothered even asking any of these black lives if this is a good strategy? The people of color that I’ve talked to see is it as purely white performance. Now working on policies that help people of color buy homes and operate local businesses, that helps. A lot.

My challenge to anti-racist activists, of which I am one, is to take a break from chasing down neo-Nazis and Proud Boys, and take a look in the mirror. Until we start on the long process to undo our own internalized white supremacy, we will be blind to the racial trauma we cause while we’re chanting “Black lives matter!” There is a simple sociological formula that goes like this:

Racist socialization

Internalized white supremacy

Implicit bias

Micro-aggression

= Trauma

In 2021, still, we all learn various versions of “white is normal and better” lessons. That seeps into our subconscious where it lives as implicit bias and then emerges as micro-aggresions (a clutched purse, an off-handed comment, a joke that shouldn’t have been told). And that small thing lands as another wounding message to people of color that they are still not full members in this society. And the endless barrage of those “micro-assaults” become cumulative trauma. And that’s why BIPOC folks were in the streets in 2020, because enough was enough.

As I’ve written in this blog, 2021 has provided a great opportunity to move inwards from the barricades as Delta, and now Omicron, send us back into our shelters. Mindfulness and meditation give us strategies to interrupt our hard-learned tendencies to act in racist ways, even while we lecture others against their racism. I had a great week training with the Center for Equity and Inclusion here and Portland and consumed Mindful of Race by Ruth King. Both had huge impacts on how I move through the world as a white person.

King, a Buddhist woman of color, offers useful strategies to manage those situations that can cause racial distress. It could be finding yourself in an uncomfortable conversation with a Trump-loving uncle who wants to make America white again, or, on the other side, those white fragility moments when a person of color is taking apart your liberalness as just a vacant act of wokeness. One of her mindfulness strategies, that goes by the acronym “RAIN,” has been helpful for me in not only navigating my racial interactions, but also being more present in my relationship with my wife. It works like this:

The “R” stands for recognize. A big part mindfulness is paying attention to our emotional states as things to be observed. When you have an uncomfortable feeling, where is it? Is it a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach or an angry tension in the middle of your forehead. Recognize it. “There’s that feeling. Hello again. I see you there.”

A is for allow. Buddhists teach us that everything is temporary, especially our emotions. Instead of letting them control us, let them float past, like a cloud. Accepting impermanence (“anitya” in Sanskrit) allows us to not, as U2 once perfectly sang, get stuck in a moment that we can’t get out of. So in those racially tense moments, we can see it and then remind ourselves that they will be in the rearview mirror shortly, so hold off on any emotionally driven impulses (including micro-aggressions).

I is for Investigate. Mindfulness teaches us to be curious about our thoughts. Where did this discomfort come from? Could it be projection, or due to a lack of true reflection? Could it be rooted in mis-learned lessons from our childhood? Maybe it’s those implicit biases we all hold.

And finally, the “N” is for nurture. What do you need right now to pass through this moment without adding to the racial harm? And what do others need to address their harm? It could be developing a strategy to address a problematic policy or person, or it could be a hug and a short walk around the block to calm down.

At the root of King’s teaching is kindness. Kindness to ourselves and to those traumatized by racism, and, yes, kindness to those who perpetrate racism in the world. They, like us and as us, are products of this racist society and capable of becoming forces for racial healing themselves. The Buddhist principles of racial mindfulness might be a tough sell to a black clad 20-year-old who thinks vandalizing a police station somehow helps black people, but that 20-year-old has the capacity for personal transformation and the ability to participate in stopping the harm so there can be true racial healing.

Mindful Meditation: Save me, Ringo!

July 15, 2021

Let’s be honest, the pandemic has brought us some good things. For example, there are people who will deliver vanilla lattes to your home and text you when they are on your doorstep. The 2020-2021 lockdown was also a great time to work on ourselves and our relationships. Besides the long conversations with my wife about what I might need to tweak in my own psychodynamic, I read a lot that put me on a path of internal work. Books like Get Out You Mind and Into Your Life, and You Might Be a Narcissist If…, and (currently) Why Do I Do That? Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives. As an educator, I want to de-stigmatize the effort to do self work. Let’s be honest, we all could use a little help to be better people

But what really changed the game was meditation.

As a Beatle maniac, I was always enamored with how the practice of transcendental meditation changed the trajectory of the Fab Four’s career. John, Paul, George, and Ringo were in Bangor, Wales in August, 1967 attending a seminar in TM held by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when their manager, Brian Epstein, suddenly died. Seeing how they handled his death with calmness was a bit shocking to Western sensibilities about grief. Those seminars and their extended trip to India the following spring to study under the Maharishi set them on lifelong paths of meditation (and vegetarianism). Ringo Starr just turned 81 and still meditates every single day. So does Paul McCartney.

My first personal experience with meditation was when I was about 12 and taking karate classes. As a child I suffered from intense insomnia, my mind racing with fantasies about dinosaurs and Spiderman. The meditation practice at the end of each karate class promised “astral projection,” but really taught me how to calm my mind and I’ve used it as a tool to get to sleep ever since. (I often focus on images under the sea, so when I started scuba diving in 2016, it was like I manifested my dream world through deep thought.)

This latest chapter was born from intense frustration. I could read all the “self-help” books in the world but my impulses were still getting the better of me. My need to be confrontational likely stems from my early family dynamic. I like to fight. Me vs. You. I could be a road rager, given the right traffic jam. Often in my marriage, while I “know” Andi and I are on the same team, sometimes I act like we are opposing forces. This is especially true in emotional moments. Even if it’s something stupid, like me wondering, “Why do I always have to be the one to wash the dishes?” My emotional self takes over my intellectual self and I say something stupid. There have been a thousand apologies after I get my head back on straight. I do plenty of trainings on implicit bias, but the greater challenge is teaching people to not let those “unthought thoughts” turn into bad behavior.

So, if some of this is hardwired into the subconscious, how can you ever get in front of it?

Starting a daily meditation practice has provided the answer. Just ten minutes each morning. I sit in the backyard, under an apple tree, and pop open a guided meditation video on YouTube. (The ones by Calm are amazing.) The focus is first on the breath, and seeing any incoming thoughts as clouds floating by, there and gone. The cackling crows and planes landing at PDX are just part of the ambient symphony of my environment. The rest of the time is focusing on not being my thoughts. Thoughts and emotions are not real. They don’t have to control me.

Today’s meditation focused on alleviating worry. Occasionally, I’ll get in a sour mood because of something stupid I did in the past, or something I imagine going on in the present or future, and it’s down a little black hole. The meditation focused on how there are three parts of this process. First is the image of the situation, like remembering some micro aggression I committed in the past or some upcoming event I’m not looking forward to. The second part is the emotion that thought brings up and the third is how that emotion impacts the body. The physical response could be the muscles tensing up or (worse) being more impulsive. Mindfulness says if you can witness this process, you can interrupt it before it gets to Step 3.

It was perfect timing to focus on this as just a few days earlier I totally did this spiral. It was Andi’s turn to prepare dinner but she stopped after work to have drinks and do some career planning with a mentor. Based on something that happened to me nearly 25 years ago, my head went somewhere stupid, I got frustrated and angry, and my fingers sent some pretty snarky texts. My subconscious kicked my ass. Again. If I had been more mindful, I would have identified what that emotion was about and it wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near the Send button. Meditation helped me to see that flow-chart so I don’t repeat the mistake.

The great thing about meditation is that you are literally retraining my brain to be more thoughtful. Andi has commented on the dramatic difference in my demeanor. I no longer start stupid fights (that I later have to apologize for) and center her needs as a part of my normal behavior pattern. I see challenging thoughts like leaves floating down a stream and then I hear Bono sing, “Let it go!” It feels like a rebirth. It feels like embracing thankfulness instead of anger.

Meditation has come into the daily practice of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and LeBron James, who meditates on the bench in the middle of games. Our active culture has a hard time “doing nothing” for 10 minutes. Before the pandemic, my yoga class would end with 5 minutes of meditation, cutely referred to as corpse pose (Shavasana). There are always a handful of people who bail to spend that 5 minutes on the Stairmaster. They’re really missing out. Filmmaker David Lynch has a foundation that brings meditation into schools and seen mediating students become less violent and more productive. Meditation is being used to treat trauma and improve the quality of inmate lives in prisons.

I had hit a wall in my self work, battling with my subconscious programming. Then I thought, well, if Ringo Starr can mediate 10 minutes a day and be so “peace and love” all the time (and be married to “Bond Girl” Barbara Bach for 40 years), maybe I should give it a try. Starting each day with 10 minutes, quieting my mind and reminding myself that I am not my emotions has transformed the quality of my life in a palpable way. I can only encourage you to start your own practice under your own apple tree. And thank you, Ringo.