I had a visceral response to a thought this week as I sat peacefully watching the birds over my morning coffee. The stillness of my contemplative coffeetime created the perfect stage for mindfulness to witness my unfolding experience. But the silent soliloquy hit me like an unexpected punch in the stomach.
As I try to clarify my thinking around this – I’m not sure it was a ‘thought’ – more like a reaction. It’s so hard to articulate the comings and goings of the mind. Not so long ago I was completely lost as to the variety of ‘mind objects’ arising – it was just a big muddle of everything which I labelled ‘thinking’. This was a great strategy when I started out on my journey into mindfulness. It helped to show me that whatever was going on ‘in there’ wasn’t necessarily ‘me’ – I labelled things, once I began to label, ‘thinking’ ‘memory’ ‘judgement’ ‘hunger’ ‘itch’ ‘daydream’ etc. it began to get so interesting. We are trained to just notice without judgement. I used to feel frustrated when it took a while to notice my daydream had taken me off for a while, or my hunger had taken me on a little trip to the dining hall… but one day there was a wonderful turnaround for me when Choden reframed this ‘noticing’ not as an opportunity to reprimand myself for losing it – but as a celebration of mindfulness; each time I noticed, I could celebrate that my mindfulness capacity was strengthening, and my noticing was the moment of synchronicity – mind and body in harmony, coming back to gentle presence, coming back to mindfulness. So the experience I want to explain involved a new level for me that is emerging. The level of feelings, which on my contemplation appear to have a different quality to thoughts. But is still something that can be noticed as arising as a ‘thing’. (very technical! haha).
As I sat with the scent of the coffee and the fluttering of the birds there were words going into my ears from The Gardener (My partner). An older person that we know had recently commented to him, “There’s too many women on the telly!”
He didn’t actually say that? He did? I mean, this was a digression from the usual racism – this contempt now spreading out to ‘all women’ was a new shocker – I mean it sounded funny at first but it’s really not – had he run out of things to moan about? People from other ethnicities to decry? The elderly person we know is prone to racist thinking; this their default setting. We have become used to the degorogatory things they say about people:- he has many ways to categorise and make people ‘other’ who are different from himself and perhaps don’t come from his village. We tend to pretend we didn’t hear, move the conversation on, never agree with him of course; I’m not sure if it’s a cop out to say that people in their 80s coould be ‘too old’ to change their views; but we do challenge indirectly sometimes by countering with subtle and positive retorts and stories, but full-on direct challenge seems somehow unkind. (This sounds crazy and paradoxical).
So that morning, it wasn’t just the words that took me by surprise – I actually felt the reaction to the words powerfully and instantly in my body.
Being someone who has been cut off from my bodily and emotional feelings without even knowing it (until the wisdom from mindfulness training showed me – with the help of the bodyscan) – with the peaceful mind state and calm surroundings I was able to be present. The fact that I noticed my response to these words in my body was a celebration of mindfulness practice, (notwithstanding the gut wrenching blow for humanity and sanity that people actually think this way and think it’s ok to say things like this).
There were no words to say. I felt a straining inside my chest. Then I sank into a pit of global despair which immediately opened itself up inside me to receive this new wordless feeling straining inside me – it went to join all the other unspeakable horrors of the world that I hold inside me and don’t know what to do with. I felt a truly sick feeling and tension all over my body and what felt like a rod of iron right up the middle which I needed to hold me firm from collapasing into the hole of despair and at the same time there was a sense of a hard shell to protect myself from the harm. As I sat there speechless, I allowed this feeling to run its course. I was protected but I also accepted this as part of the whole world experience, and nothing to do with the person as such.
I saw that this was a manifestation of this person’s conditioning, which was not their fault. I felt a huge knot of explosive unexpressed anger at the mentality but felt no animosity or anger towards this old misguided person (which I definitely would have felt as a younger woman) only compassion for them, tinged with sadness. Countering anger with more anger, or hate with more hate is to identify with it – it’s a nonsense and it’s exhausting. I had to let it go.
When you don’t see people much and you are calling in to see how they are, it just doesn’t seem right to spend the time picking at their conditioned and rigid ‘wrong’ views. To them, their views are ‘right’! So firstly I noticed that perhaps I had become a bit numb to his normal predjudiced behaviour.
My noticed physical reaction to words has re-awoken a curiosity – what would the Buddha do? What would the Buddha say? I want to know this wisdom! In Buddhism I know small talk is not encouraged, unless, as Ringu Tulku advised, it is what the other person needs in that moment – then it can be seen as an expression of compassion. But not hurtful, harmful speech. So allowing the racist/hateful speech to go by unchallenged? I’m not sure how to do that without a very awkward situation and relationship breakdown. If you have experience I’d love to hear.
I am also aware that I appear to be collecting up things I can’t handle and putting them in this desperate bottomless black hole. But as I write I am feeling something else. The dark space opened up for me. I saw into it. But it has no bottom no sides it was just spaciousness, an emptiness – the despair was just welcomed in with everything else – Aversion? Predjudice? Ignorance? Pride? Come on in. It’s all part of the same thing and there is no escape from any of it so I may as well accept it. The dark space is limitless, there’s no stuck feeling there. Maybe that knot of unexpressed anger can also just go in there for now, there’s more than enough room for even the biggest explosion. Even writing that has helped enormously – it even seems funny. I have expressed its existance in tiny digital words but nevertheless the anger and despair have been heard and I have acknowledged and allowed them to play out their story and pass through my body. Maybe that is enough?
By ‘accepting’ (in a mindful way) this old person’s identification with racism and bigotry and mysogeny wholeheartedly – and seeing it as something separate from him, (and this in no way condones the hate speech) I am able to see and feel beyond the identification with those labels and superficial beliefs, understanding that a miriad of causes and conditions have led to this man’s worldview, his conditioning, so I can see through all that to a person who just like me – acts out of fear, just like me – needs to be loved, just like me – needs to be forgiven, and just like me – cannot see what he cannot see.
This week, when someone says something that grates your ears (or your soul!)– can you feel it? Can you feel a little deeper than the words and see behind the conditioning? What might there be lurking behind those words? And your reaction to it? Fear? Pain? Anxiety? Can you separate the words from the person? Can you find a way to wish them well, and let go of the judgements? And bring kindness to yourself and the other?
I’d love to hear how you deal with this kind of difficulty, what happened for you?
May we all live with ease. May we all find a way to express the compassion that is at the centre of our being – to ourselves and to those we encounter this week. Especially to those we find difficult.
May we teach our young ones a way to their compassionate heart.
Warmest wishes to you all.