So let us begin.
As Black and Brown people, we are in the fight of our lives. We are being called forward in the fierce and fiery light of deeper, sustained reflection and action. This is a time of leave taking, a time of leaving behind systems and structures that foster discrimination, hatred, and injustice. This is a time of leave taking from a legacy of violence—especially unlawful police violence perpetrated against Black people, Asian people, Indigenous people, Latinx people, un-housed people, the unemployed and underemployed, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQA+ people, and others who are marginalized. This is a time of leave taking from the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on those same under-resourced and devastatingly vulnerable communities.
Our hearts are broken open by grief, fear, and anger. How do we fight injustice and not hate those who perpetuate it? How do we fight injustice and support ourselves? How do we deepen our resolve for a more just and equitable world within that unjust and inequitable world? How do we face the fear of failure within ourselves and in society?
Recently, I attended an online gathering of more than 600 Black and Brown people hosted by Liberate, an app designed to support mindfulness and mediation for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). The session was led by Ruth King, an important figure in the mindfulness community, especially among BIPOC. She guided us through a powerful meditation in which we called on the power of our ancestors and descendants to guide, protect, and support us, and to engage our inner resources to cultivate resilience and a strong, calm heart.
The hour-long Zoom video conference was deeply healing, and during the session, an important question emerged from the chat: How do you fight injustice without hating?
Initially, I was intellectually intrigued by the question, which then settled in my own heart.
How Do You Fight Injustice Without Hating?
The Buddhist concept of alaya vijnana offers a simple and yet satisfying metaphor to speak about the subconscious mind, or storehouse consciousness. Alaya vijnana idea likens the mind to a storehouse of many kinds of seeds. In the Plum Village tradition of mindfulness meditation, founded by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, hate is likened to seeds that lie dormant in the storehouse consciousness of the mind, along with other kinds of seed-like emotions, including despair, shame, indifference, open-heartedness, warmth, delight, and many more. These seed-like emotions become “activated” by thoughts, words, and actions of life’s daily events. They can be “activated” by the environment in which we live, by the daily conditions of our life, by our sense of safety from harm, by our ancestral legacy with its soft imprint on our perceptions, assumptions, assessments, and beliefs. They can be “activated” by the larger more ubiquitous cultural and social conditioning that feeds into the subconscious like an underground aquifer. For example, someone cuts you off in traffic; the seed of anger gets activated. You have an uplifting conversation with a friend; the seed of gratitude is touched. You are raised to fear police, the seed of fear is strengthened—and so forth. We live our daily life this way largely unaware of this storehouse of seeds.
So let us begin.
Taking Good Care of Strong Emotions
In mindfulness practice, we learn to notice and become aware when these seed-like emotions are touched within us, to notice what the emotion feels like in the body, and to bring awareness to the feelings and bodily sensations, taking good care of these emotions—and thereby ourselves—by calming the body and mind.
Taking care of the emotion of hate is an ongoing, daily, and moment-to-moment practice, especially now at this time when Black and Brown people are most visibly under attack from unlawful police violence and explicit and implicit bias. The disparate treatment of Black people has also come to light during the COVID-19 health crisis. As a Black woman, my daily practice is to notice the sensation of hate, which often feels like a flush of fire in my face that spreads across my chest to a dull pain in my heart. I recognize that this sensation ripples outward in my body, in my words, and in my action. With this recognition and insight, I begin to not only gain agency over my feelings, my words, and actions but also recognize how I can support myself. This practice isn’t done in a vacuum—I rely on my spiritual community of Plum Village for support and guidance.
How do we face fear of failure? A way forward is to recognize that fear of failure has several branching roots. There is the residue of the past that may inhibit action in the present. There is a lack of certainty about the unknown in the present, of where, what, and how to begin. And there is fear of the future, that our efforts will produce an insignificant or mediocre response or results.
In the Plum Village tradition, we practice awareness of emotions, like fear, not to suppress or deny them. Instead, we learn, over time and with practice within the sangha, to “invite our fear in for a cup of tea,” to embrace and to support ourselves through mindful awareness. Mindful living is an art form in the Plum Village tradition. We practice in daily life to breathe mindfully, to walk mindfully, to speak and listen mindfully, connecting with a trusted, spiritual friend or with the sangha, a community of people dedicated to mindful living and to the alleviation of suffering. This generates an inner concentration that can lead to insight, to know what to do and how to act, to understand how to respond to injustice without hating.
Building a Peaceful, Nonviolent Community
What skillful action is required at a time of hate, fear, and violence?
Congressman John Lewis has said, “Get in trouble: good trouble, necessary trouble.” These are times that call on us to get into “good trouble,” which eradicates unlawful police violence and oppression, which dismantles social conditions of health disparities among the most marginalized people, which challenges deeply discriminatory educational systems. This good trouble is a path toward peaceful, nonviolent social change. This good trouble includes taking to the streets in peaceful, nonviolent protests, exercising our right to vote, bringing communities of color together toward healing, bringing White people together to engage issues of race and social inequity, to bring both communities of color and White people together to take skillful action informed by individual reflection and in community for understanding, compassion, and racial and social equity. This good trouble includes running for public office, beginning on the local level, finding support in the form of an accountable partner, an ally, or group of people who can help us strengthen our understanding and insight, opening the door of liberation.
Others before us have instructed us in how to take compassionate action in the face of violence, anger, and fear. Through the Civil Rights era and in other social movements, countless people have risked and even sacrificed their lives meeting police violence with nonviolence. We are instructed to meet racist structures and systems with diligence and with inner resilience born out of compassionate action. We are instructed to meet hatred with an open heart and to cultivate heartfulness because love, compassion, kindness, and peace are bigger than a heart constricted by hate, discrimination, and violence.
This is the skillful action toward radical change, now. This is an act of power rooted in love.
So let us begin.
Practice: Touching the Earth
Touching the Earth is a beautiful expression of prayer and practice to heal from within—to heal from violence, fear, and hatred, to heal our relationship with the Earth, to express gratitude and forgiveness, and to embrace our ancestors, parents, teachers, and ourselves. When I practice Touching the Earth, I begin to understand the intergenerational legacy of violence and fear within myself, which I inherited from my ancestors, and from generations of enslaved people. Over time and with practice in community, I recognize that I can transform fear and violence within myself into greater understanding and compassion. I realize that my ancestors’ fear need not be my fear.
I begin by bowing deeply to prostrate on the floor or ground and recognizing that I am connected to many ancestors: my parents, teachers, friends, and historical figures who have offered strength, hope, and love to me and many others. As I touch the Earth, I remember that I am deeply connected to the Earth in my body and my breath, and that the Earth is within me. I am not separate from the Earth. I am not isolated or alienated. I am cherished by the Earth. The Earth protects, loves, cares, and provides for me. I can take refuge in the solidity and stability of the ground beneath me and offer my love and tenderness to the Earth.
To practice Touching the Earth, stand if you are able and join your palms, bringing the body and mind together in unity and wholeness. Gently lower yourself to the ground so that your body is fully extended or you may sit back toward your heels with your knees resting on the floor or a blanket and with your forehead resting on the floor or blanket. Turn the palms to face up, which is a symbol of openness to the Three Jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the teacher; the dharma, the teachings; and the sangha, the community. In this position, breathe in the calm strength of the Earth and breath out suffering, fear, anger, or violence. When you have concluded this practice, slowly come to a standing posture and join your palms together. Take a few deep breaths and bow deeply to the Three Jewels.
Valerie Brown transformed her high-pressure, high-stakes twenty-year career as a lawyer-lobbyist, representing educational institutions and nonprofits, to human-scale work with diverse leaders and teams to foster trustworthy, compassionate, and authentic connections. She is an accredited leadership coach at the Professional Certified Coach level (PCC), international retreat leader, writer, and Chief Mindfulness Officer and Professional Pilgrim of Lead Smart Coaching, LLC, specializing in the application and integration of mindfulness and leadership, and she is a Co-Director of Georgetown’s Institute for Transformational Leadership in Washington, D.C.