How Can We Breathe Together?
‘If some of us cannot breathe, then none of us can’. Thay Phap Hai
I had a couple of ideas for posts in the last couple of weeks. They were good ideas. Tea meditation. Walking meditation. I’m sure I’ll still write them. I was going to write them...
Then the world took its course.
It’s hard to know what to say in light of what’s happening in the world in the last couple of weeks. Something about the sickening nature of the video of George Floyd being killed in the street that makes us want to look away. Which many of us, in the past, have done. I say that with no offence or malice. But we have. And even in the days after his death, and his funeral, black people have died in police custody or in incidents with police.
The face of violence, of disruption, of racism and pain that has blown up since George Floyd’s death is sadly not news to people of colour, who have been fighting all along, who have been shouting about this for years, even though - because - their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. None of this suffering is new to them. But now that suffering has exploded.
For others, the last few days have revealed that despite our comfortable well wishing, things have not changed as much as we would have hoped or liked.
I admit that this has come home to me in new ways since the weekend, when I saw areas of the USA I know well descending into riots. Parts of New York, Chicago, and streets I know well in Austin were in chaos. One part of LA only a few blocks from where I used to stay looked like a war zone.
It seems that many people have turned a corner, no longer able to rest in the sort of denial which allows us to be ‘aware’ of the difficulties in the culture, but not aware enough to be active in its transformation. That’s not an accusation or blame. More of an observation.
How can we deal with the outpouring of pain?
And then here I was, meant to write a post about mindfulness and meditation.
Not that your regular practice or your interest in mindfulness isn’t important. On the contrary.
But it feels like we’re in a place where we need a bigger discussion as well. A discussion on how to be mindful of the wider world beyond our limited experience and understanding, and how to bring compassion and compassionate action to the table in practical, deliberate ways, ways that consider how we can protest and act with, not on behalf of, black people and their rights.
What can we do? How can we begin?
We can start by being aware, as much as we can, of what we have not seen.
Whether our blindness is simply the result of a lucky, privileged life isn’t the question right now, although that can certainly be part of the discussion. But right now, it’s urgently important that we wake up and see what is around us that we haven’t been seeing, or, perhaps, not wanting to see.
A friend of mine in the USA recently described to me that he was feeling drained at the unrest in the country and also from the energy he was giving to his well-meaning white friends who were calling to check in to see how he was doing. He was doing okay - none of the news of police violence was new to him. But it was new to his white friends who were, it seemed, freaking out as they became aware of just what had been happening under their noses.
To be aware, to live more fully in the world, means to be aware of what is happening in front of us, around us, as much as we can, as much as we can bear.
This is another awareness that we can accept. And if there’s anything we can take from this horrible situation, it’s that perhaps it’s now harder to look away.
How can we be aware of what we don’t see, don’t experience in our lives?
Firstly, we can be aware that there are things outside our experience and that we don’t know. This was one of the first and most important lessons I was given as I started to meditate.
The importance of don’t know mind can’t be underestimated in learning more and more about the world around us. It’s very simple to do: whenever you have an opinion, a thought, an idea that you ‘know’, are ‘sure about’, or is ‘definitely true’, ask yourself one question: are you sure?
This might help us to stop and listen to a different story to the one that rolls through our minds. And that makes us ready for the process of deep listening, a practice of mindfulness we can use moment-to-moment to help ourselves and others.
The Zen Peacemakers use a very simple formula for the process of deep listening:
When you listen to people from different cultures and life experiences talk about their situations, especially people who are expressing the pain and difficulty we’re seeing surge into mainstream view right now, you are, at some point, going to feel uncomfortable.
You might find yourself having thoughts and feelings that suggest to you that you know, or at least know better, and you might be tempted to say so.
You might, I dare say, even get to the point of feeling triggered, which I’m defining here as feeling a wellspring of conditioned stress, anger, privilege (whether you recognise it or not) bubble to the surface and making you say or do something that looks like anything between ‘things aren’t that bad’, whitesplaining and Amy Cooper.
So what to do with that? The answer, which might surprise you, is to just notice it. Don’t DO anything about it, but sit with it and listen to it.
And this is the place where mindfulness and presence are MOST important. Because the best thing you can do is sit with that feeling of being upset but, and this is the most important thing, DON’T say or do anything about it.
You can be aware of what you’d say, sure. You can let the whole monologue run through your head if that’s what it takes.
But also sit with the understanding that perhaps you don’t know exactly what is true. And that perhaps, if you’re getting this kind of reaction spilling over, that this person or article or podcast or Insta post MIGHT have hit home in some way.
This means you’re listening at a deeper, more mindful level.
Deep listening is as much about the quality of our silence as the quantity of our silence. If we can listen from a deep, receptive place within ourselves.
Deep listening comes from, and begins with, being very, very present to your current experience.
In the current situation, that presence is important because it can make you aware of your conditioned tendencies to react to what others are saying, especially if it’s uncomfortable.
Deep listening also requires you, to some extent, to let go of the belief that you and the person you’re listening to are separate.
Deep listening requires that you let go of the idea, the concept, that the person talking to you is Other. That Their Ideas and Your Ideas are completely separate. That, at the end of the day, you are different.
This is made easier if you take a few moments for regular mindfulness practice.
You might start by noticing how you feel physically, mentally, and emotionally, right now.
Then take three to five deep, slow breaths into the belly. Let the breath fill and expand the body and then relax your whole body slowly through your whole out breath. As you breathe, notice how you change. How do you feel at the end?
As you relax, some of the tensions, stresses and emotions will settle gently and make you more open and receptive. This relaxation will also lessen your tendency to feel like you have to defend or be defensive when you hear an idea that might seem challenging to the way you have seen the world.
Listen to what the other person says and how they express it as an expression of themselves, their pain, their lived experience as though it is not about you. Listen to them as they speak about their situation.
This form of listening requires you to be with those who are speaking and give them space.
Look at and listen to the reports of black people and people of colour as they talk about what’s happened and what’s happening to them.
As you listen, pay attention to your breathing, not just as mindfulness, but as an anchor for yourself as you hear or see or read what’s being presented to you.
Watch that monologue and stream of feelings, that urge to speak, to interrupt, to explain, to justify, to - whatever - and then watch it go past.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned teacher who has used his deep practice of mindfulness to work with and negotiate with people in inner and outer conflict, has this to say about deep listening in tough times:
The secret of creating peace is that when you listen to another person you have only one purpose: to offer him an opportunity to empty his heart. If you are able to keep that awareness and compassion alive in you, then you can sit for one hour and listen even if the other person’s speech contains a lot of wrong perceptions, condemnations and bitterness. You can continue to listen because you are already protected by the nectar of compassion in your own heart. If you do not practice mindful breathing in order to keep that compassion alive, however, you can lose your own peace. Irritation and anger will come up, and the other person will notice and will not be able to continue. Keeping your awareness keeps you safe.
This is bearing witness. It’s very simple, and sometimes goes against a lot of our conditioning that we have to do something.
In fact, the most important part of bearing witness is being present to both ourselves and whoever is in front of us.
That said, there is a strong call to action within a mindfulness practice.
It might be inner action, like understanding our beliefs and conditioning that has made us experience and believe certain things about ourselves and those we believe are very different from us.
It might be an action that’s taken within your means and your life experiences and circumstances. It might be donating to a cause. It might be writing an email. It might be protesting. It might also be a greater action that asks more of you and demands more of you in your life.
Let your listening guide your action. Do what will actually help the people who are speaking, rather than doing what you think those people need.
Taking action based on what you *think* is another form of you acting out of your conditioned view of what and who those people are, which probably hasn’t been informed by listening to them and being with them. It’s okay to see those ideas and thoughts coming up. You can acknowledge them and also see that you are more than that. There is new space, room to grow.
Buddhism often looks a lot like people sitting on cushions in our contemporary society, and if you’re in a Western Buddhist tradition, those people are probably white and relatively middle class. But the story of the Buddha was the story of a prince who walked out of his palace when he saw the suffering in the world and realised that he had to find a solution. He had, first, to understand.
In that story, a big part of the Bodhisattva realisation was that we all experience the same star, we all breathe the same air, we all feel the same suffering, only we believe we are separate and separated from one another.
And we really, really aren’t.
If you’re looking for the TL:DR version, well, I find it a bit difficult to do those, but if you need, here goes:
Be with those who are speaking. Give them the space.
Listen to the resistances in your mind and emotions and let them be there, and let yourself discover if there is something else that’s true beyond your conditioned ideas and automatic responses.
Take action with those who are speaking. Not for them, or on their behalf. With them. And keep listening to them.
Thich Nhat Hanh also said:
America can be a great nation if she knows how to act with compassion instead of punishment. We can offer peace. We can offer the relief of transformation and healing.
We can say the same about Australia. We can say the same about any coloniser country. We can say the same about ourselves as people who grow up in the culture, because, ultimately, the culture us is and we make the culture.
The poet Andrea Gibson writes:
May the drought howl us awake.
May we rush into the streets
to do the work of opening
each other’s eyes.
Maybe, maybe, we can use the fact that we’re now having our eyes pulled wide open to be an act of awakening and compassion action.
LINKS AND RESOURCES
Below are a few resources I’ve found helpful in the last couple of weeks.
Here’s a short meditation by Jack Kornfield you can use to ground yourself, using a simple guided imagery
Jack Kornfield on transforming difficult emotions
Thich Nhat Hahn on mindful listening and how it can transform our experience, our understanding, of pain, of violence within ourselves and others
And from Mindful.org
Here’s another good primer on deep listening from the University of Minnesota’s Center ofr Spirituality and Healing
Here’s a meditation from me on five minutes of lovingkindness from my teacher page on Insight Timer. Take time for this at the beginning and end of the day, and at any time when you feel that you need to remind yourself that we can generate and experience love and compassion.
Thich Nhat Hahn on Deep Listening:
A great list from Courtney Ariel of ways to listen and take action. Her article refers specifically to the American situation but the principles apply to Australia too:
Zen teacher and activist angel kyodo williams on how we can examine our privilege:
On The Zen Peacemakers Three Tenets of Not Knowing, Bearing Witness and Taking Action
And from Peacemakers’ founder, Bernie Glassman, on how putting ourselves into difficult and confusing situations can lead us to clarify a lot about ourselves and our place in the world:
A working document for anti-racist resources and ways to learn and engage in dialogue:
And another useful article:
If you've found this article helpful, please feel free to share it. Please also get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like to discuss this or any other way mindfulness and meditation practice might help you.
(Image via James Eades on Unsplash)