Archives for June 2020

Self-Compassion and Waking Up to Racial Injustice

I believe that self-compassion will be key in the fight against racial injustice. We already know that compassion plays a key role, making the fight against racism more effective and sustainable. Great social justice leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi taught us the need to have compassion for oppressors, to recognize their humanity as well as that of the oppressed. Otherwise we just continue the cycle of dehumanization. But self-compassion is especially needed when acknowledging our own role in the oppression of others. I know that I, as a white cis-gendered heterosexual woman, have needed tremendous self-compassion to look at my own role in a racist system.

Like many, I consider myself a moral person who abhors racism and feel the resistance that arises when I am asked to examine my own privilege. “But I’m not a racist!” my ego cries. Being kind and understanding toward myself has helped me to see that, like most of us, I don’t oppress consciously. I have unconsciously internalized racist stereotypes that impact my interactions with others simply by virtue of growing up in a racist society.

I didn’t create the unjust system of white supremacy we live in. Rather, it is the legacy of slavery and segregation that existed long before I was born.

Self-compassion has allowed me to feel safe enough to recognize all the benefits I have by being white. I assume I will be protected by the police. I have never received suspicious looks when hanging out in a store or coffee shop. In the process of writing this blog I realized a benefit of being white that I never even considered before. I grew up without a lot of money. My mother was a secretary who raised two kids on her own without any financial help from my absent father. This experience was similar to those of many Black children. When I was 11, however, my mother moved us to an inexpensive apartment on the far edges of a wealthy neighborhood with an amazing school district so that my brother and I could get a good education. I got straight A’s, allowing me to go to UCLA on scholarship and eventually get my PhD at UC Berkeley. I was fully accepted in middle and high school and had many friends. If I had been Black — one of the lone Black faces in a sea of white ones — would my mother have felt comfortable isolating her children in that way? Would I have had the same friendship network? Would teachers have supported me the same way? It’s hard to know for certain, but I never even had to spend a moment thinking about the color of my skin, a luxury a Black child would not have had. 

As Paul Gilbert likes to say, “It’s not our fault, but it is our responsibility.” By participating in and benefitting from an unjust system, we perpetuate racism. We need to have self-compassion to see our role in racism clearly, holding this uncomfortable truth with love and acceptance, so we can wake up and commit to do things differently.

As we navigate these troubled times, whatever our position in the system of injustice — oppressor or oppressed, sometimes both — we can take a self-compassion break in moments of racial pain. First, we need to become mindfully aware of our feelings — grief, shame, anger, hopelessness — and validate the pain. Next, we need to recognize our common humanity, understanding that we all suffer due to racism. Some suffer much more than others, but it harms all of us because we are interconnected. If you are white, you may want to remind yourself that your pain is shared by many others waking up to their unconscious complicity in racism. If you are Black, Indigenous or a person of color, you may want to remind yourself of others like you who also suffer due to racism. Finally, we can put a fist on our heart with the other hand gently resting upon it, symbolizing strength with love, and be encouraging and supportive to ourselves as we commit to taking decisive action. This will help us undertake the courageous work of personal, interpersonal and systemic change with the grit and determination needed. 

Building a Brave Space in MSC

I was touched today upon reading this beautiful poem by Micky ScottBey Jones, and it inspired me to reflect on how we might be sure our MSC teaching spaces are places of support, encouragement, love and safety in these deeply troubling, unsettling and challenging times.

An Invitation to Brave Space

Together we will create brave space
Because there is no such thing as a “safe space”
We exist in the real world
We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.
In this space
We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,
We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,
We call each other to more truth and love
We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.
We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.
We will not be perfect.
This space will not be perfect.
It will not always be what we wish it to be
But
It will be our brave space together,
and
We will work on it side by side.

I have watched with pain in my heart as the terrible events of the past few weeks have amplified the echoes of far too many similar events of weeks, years and centuries past. Too many terrible acts to name but all collectively to be remembered and to be the catalyst that finally initiates a sea change toward a world where Black lives (and those of all racialized people) matter, none less than another. 

And the question becomes: how do we each find our way forward as MSC teachers in light of this? What can and should be done in our teaching? How does self-compassion help us (as well as our participants) to be strong, resilient, resolved and brave?

Each of us carries the weight of this suffering to different degrees, and because it is our constant companion, it comes with us into the MSC classroom. And there we encounter other humans who are carrying their own burdens, and together we endeavor to do something meaningful over eight weeks together, “working on it side by side” while literally engulfed in the flames of deep societal suffering. 

As our weary and outraged participants look to us as teachers to guide them and to find a way to soothe the pain in their hearts, we may be feeling the weight of the world upon our shoulders. What can we do in this encounter to create a brave space that can “turn down the volume of the outside world” and “amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere”?

Moments like this, to me, mimic the private moments of despair and pain that each of us faces nearly every day when something outside of us triggers pain inside of us. The emotional trickery of those moments is that we believe we are best served by looking out at the cause rather than inward at the pain. And that, dear colleagues, is where WE must start as well. We might begin by inquiring within about how we are meeting our own suffering and biases (implicit or explicit) over racial inequality, injustice and privilege (see resource list below). But perhaps equally relevant when it comes to bringing people together and perhaps opening the door to sharing and dialogue, what struggle arises in us when we contemplate breaking the culture of “White silence” (if we are White) and speaking about race, racism and systemic oppression? 

Speaking for myself, I can feel my heartbeat quicken when I contemplate opening to issues like this, especially in my role as a teacher. I am not accustomed to speaking about such things, but something in my DNA really deeply wants to, even in the context of MSC. But as someone out of his element, I have a feeling like I am walking into an emotional minefield when I contemplate joining the conversation. Even now as I write these words, I feel a rising tide of hesitancy, doubt and fear in my gut and I ask myself “Who the hell am I to talk about this?” 

My head wants to say: “MSC isn’t about any of these things, it’s about meeting ourselves in the midst of suffering, regardless of the cause. Just stay out of the story, avoid the topic and get to the practice.”

But another part of me says “Saying nothing is saying something,” and I believe that not acknowledging the presence of so much pain and angst and fear and anger and outrage in our participants makes us complicit in the longstanding denial of the reality of these despicable aspects of our society. 

So maybe I might comfort and soothe my aching heart and feel my unmet needs for justice, equality and fairness in the world that lead me to anger and outrage, consider beginning to look within for ways of meeting those needs through my attitude, words and deeds, and then “work on it side by side” with my participants.

Once I have touched and held my own suffering, I believe I can tenderly but bravely support others in doing the same. With the deepest of respect for the profound suffering that is held in the hearts of so many (a skill we as MSC teachers already know well), we can walk slowly, invite courageous and heartfelt sharing that can easily pivot to pregnant healing silence, and above all else, be humble. 

Can we refrain from telling and instead choose to ask with love in our hearts? Can we let the gentle spotlight of kind attention rest on those in our groups instead of on ourselves and we instead embody compassion, patience, kindness and loving strength? 

Can we create this kind of brave space that does not polarize but instead reminds us of our common humanity, that each of us belongs to the human family but each has our own particular experience of that belonging?

In the end, I believe the question becomes whether we can hold it all within the context of developing the resource of self-compassion in MSC? Can we not lose sight of our own practice, when we meet our particular suffering over the state of affairs in our world? Can we bravely consider the possibility that we have blind spots, biases and beliefs that are not immediately apparent to us and begin to know what we don’t know? (see resources below for some first steps) And can we find our way into our own bodies and hearts when we encounter our suffering participants? And can we together create a brave space from which action can be formulated, even if that action is no more immediate than to comfort and encourage ourselves in moments of fear and discouragement, giving ourselves the inner strength and resolve to continue looking for more that we can do when the time is right? And never ceasing in our efforts on behalf of assuring that every life matters, none more than another.

“This space will not be perfect”, but it can still be a place of bravery, healing and change, starting with one heart at a time in a moment when our collective heart is broken. There is no better time than now to be a teacher of self-compassion in a world that so obviously needs it. May you find your own way to the action that is right for you and let us all “work on it side by side.”

With much gratitude to my MSC colleagues, Sydney Spears, Aimee Eckhardt and Chris Germer who contributed to my thinking and made edits to early drafts.

Just a Few Resources to Get Us Started