Essays

Reframing Vulnerability as a Condition of Potential

This essay appears in the issue “Healing Social and Ecological Rifts Part 1″ (Volume 8, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue.  Scholars most often frame vulnerability as a condition with an implied likelihood of violence or other harm. They classify “the vulnerable” as people who lack resources, face hardships, are marginalized in society, and generally need help. Such vulnerable people are said to suffer disproportionately in disaster events. This framing fits comfortably within a system where the oppressed are encouraged to “build resilience.” In such a system, the negative outcomes that “the vulnerable” experience are predominantly discussed as deficiencies at the level of the individual, and responsibility is placed squarely on the victim. Erinn Gilson observes, “if to be vulnerable is to be weak and subject to harm, then to be invulnerable is the only way to be strong and competent. Invulnerability as a form of mastery is sought at the price of disavowing vulnerability.”1 Striving for invulnerability is hardly a surprising position, and it emerges out of Western modernity, patriarchy …

Kushil Gunasekera in front of his foundation on the anniversary of the 2004 Tsunami. Photo credit: Reuters.

“The more you give, the more will be yours to give”: The Karmic Philanthropy of Kushil Gunasekera

“I want to be one of the nicest human beings that this earth has seen,” Sri Lankan Buddhist philanthropist Kushil Gunasekera told me in an interview early in 2020. I’ve known Kushil for years, so I’m no longer surprised when he makes such bold pronouncements about his life goals. From the naming of his humanitarian organization as the Foundation of Goodness, to its organizational mission of promoting “unconditional compassion,” bold claims of moral excellence are fundamental to Kushil’s understanding of himself as a Buddhist humanitarian. At first glance, Kushil’s ambition to be one of the nicest human beings may seem overzealous or even audacious. Yet, such a gloss would overlook Kushil’s passionate and earnest desire to cultivate and perfect his spiritual vocation of generosity. Take for instance the time when, facing severe personal financial duress, Kushil used the last remaining credit on his credit card to pay the college fees for three children of a woman he hardly knew. Facing financial bankruptcy, he had mortgaged his home for a personal loan. He was not deriving …

Baldwin and Buddhism: Death Denial, White Supremacy, and the Promise of Racial Justice

“Terror cannot be remembered… Yet, what the memory repudiates controls the human being. What one does not remember dictates who one loves or fails to love.” —James Baldwin More attention should be paid to why white people remain so attached to narratives of racial supremacy. This was a sentiment shared by authors Rev. angel Kyodo williams and Resmaa Menakem in an online fireside chat held in the wake of Jacob Blake’s shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin.1 If the purpose of radical analysis is to grasp injustices at their roots, then what might lie at the aching roots of white supremacy? Menakem’s provocative answer, in his excellent book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, is that white supremacy is conditioned by generations of unprocessed trauma: “White bodies traumatized each other in Europe for centuries before they encountered Black and red bodies.”2 Left unprocessed, that trauma has helped fuel a will to racial supremacy that works emotionally to soothe people whose violent histories made them feel less-than. A question that …

There Was Love Included in It: Linking Art and Abolition

Interview with Malik Seneferu and William Rhodes On a rare sunny day in San Francisco, two long term friends, artists, and grassroots community leaders, Malik Seneferu and William Rhodes, met in the summer amidst the chaotic backdrop of 2020. While the year brought heightened turmoil to the world, California endured a reemergence of protests against police brutality, coupled with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and a particularly intense start to fire season causing terrible air quality and evacuations for many residents. These two old friends relished the opportunity to meet in-person, albeit outdoors and distanced, for a lively conversation on abolition and spirituality. Brother Malik and Brother William are lifelong artists, they serve as role models in their community, teaching and mentoring young artists, with a focus on Black youth in particular. Malik Seneferu is a prolific painter, muralist, illustrator, and sculptor whose work has traveled internationally, adorning book, magazine and newspaper covers as well as the walls of museums and galleries. William Rhodes is a sculptural artist with a fine arts flare; trained in traditional …

Spiritual Activism: On the Streets, at the Shrines

The Rally A little girl marches. Her face contorts. Her little legs struggle to keep up. Her fists raised in the air, she is angry. She wants justice. Her small voice unheard over the crowd. The chants: No justice; no peace. Documented. She becomes iconic. Be mindful of the children! Watch them Listen to them Seek their wisdom They are closest to the soul They are closest to the source They are closest to GOD At home, my parents had created a sanctuary, a place where I was free to be myself: reading, creating, laughing as loud as I wanted. Home was our tiny apartment in The Walt Whitman housing projects of Fort Greene Brooklyn—an oasis from the outside world. I was loved. The end. I was over-loved. My mother and father wanted more than just what the public school across the street could offer. My father, who had not long returned from a trip to Africa when I was around three, could not bear the thought of sending his child to a regular “White …

"Fed Up," protests at City Hall, San Francisco, CA, 2020. Photo by author.

In Solitude and Solidarity

Who Are You? If we are what we do then who are you? Are you who you say you are? Are you the same when you are sleeping? When the world is sleeping? When the lights are off? In the dark? Are you alive when you are dreaming? When awake? In the light? Who are you when no one watches? Who are you when no one knows? Are you the same? Are you living who you’re meant to be? Or are you living who they say you are? Self and other?  One and another? All or none? All  in  one? Whole Essential Soul Credentials Who Are  You? Pandemic Symptoms and Systems “… for there are times when disobedience heals a very ailing part of the self. It relieves the human spirit’s distress at being forced into narrow boundaries. For the nearly powerless, defying authority is often the only power available.” ―Malidoma Patrice Somé1 “Slow down. Inhale peace. Exhale worry,” I’ve had to remind myself. The more chaotic everything gets, the more peace I try to …

From “The Afro Tarot” deck by Jessi Jumanji

Queering the Archetypes of Tarot

We find ourselves walking down a path that our ancestors laid ____A spiral ________Up or down depending on which way you bend your neck ____________We’re in lockstep ________________Passing the same points of interest again and again ____________________The same but different ________________________Slavery ____________________We loop round ________________Sharecropping ____________We loop again ________The prison industrial complex ____Back again and again until we’re numb, I get dizzy and reach for a way out My hands find my well-worn deck of tarot cards and I pull at them hoping for answers I pull The Emperor  The oppressive chokehold, the knee on our necks, the invisible puppeteer that we fight against Oh how this world would love us if he were gone, or if he were like a redwood instead of a ram The Star The first glance of light after a lifetime of darkness Hope A way out of this dizzying madness 10 of Pentacles A question What will I leave behind and for whom? I walk the path that my Ancestors laid and suddenly I see it fork I see …

We Need More Fugitives

radical Black feminist thoughtfeelings (& propaganda) “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?… Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.” —Minnie Ransom And so begins Toni Cade Bambara’s 1980 novel, The Salt Eaters: Its protagonist Velma Henry, resistantly coming undone in the hands of Minnie Ransom, a trusted healer intimately acquainted with the voices of her ancestral guides. This novel is unsettling for many reasons. Structurally, the many voices and perspectives Bambara uses to tell the story disregard narrative conventions. Deeper still, Velma Henry, a black woman activist hospitalized and seeking healing after a sucide attempt,  stands as a haunting embodiment of the ways embattled resistance can literally tear apart the bodymind. I’ve written out parts of that opening line and posted it on my walls and doors in nearly every place I’ve lived over the past five years. Currently it sparkles in golden glitter ink on a white piece of paper next to my bed. …

Land-Based Ethics and Settler Solidarity in a Time of Corona and Revolution

Settler colonialism has been defined as a structure, not an event, meaning that settler societies like the U.S., Canada, and Australia endure over time through racist laws and ideologies that naturalize the dispossession of Indigenous populations.1 One of the most effective strategies that settler states rely on to eliminate Indigenous peoples and their power is the idea that their knowledges are primitive and superstitious, examples of failed epistemology.2 This view is rooted in an Enlightenment-born materialism that asserts that legitimate knowledge can only be produced through narrow empirical methods, relegating the negotiations of immaterial life to the social margins.3 As the colonial project progresses, legitimate knowledge production is simultaneously tethered to race and power (reserved to the white and landed), resulting in what we have come to know as modernity.4 Settler colonialism seeks to eliminate Indigenous populations in order to monopolize resources for the sake of capital. It operates through laws and racist ideologies, but also through conceptualizations of the natural world as white men’s for the human taking. Settler colonialism operates from its own …

From Sheltering in Place to Dancing on Shifting Ground

For days a robin has been flying into the glass doors of my studio, bouncing off and then standing nonplused on the deck, looking back at the glass with, what I take to be utter consternation. Then she goes at it again, hurling herself against the glass, bouncing off and then standing four feet away confused, I suppose gathering resolve for the next, duty-bound attempt. At first, I thought she might be a pregnant female looking for a good nesting site. Worried, I did a bit of robin-nesting research online and built a small bird-house along the lines of what I’d seen on birding sites. I mounted the little house on the exterior wall of the studio, where the robin could see it. I even collected some nesting materials—grasses, sticks, and mud. But the robin took no interest and continued bashing herself against every glass window and door. Alarmed, I sent off emails to various birding sites asking if anyone had seen something similar. In just a few hours I had received a half dozen …

Grief in the Time of COVID: Sharing in Compassion and Resilience

When my father went into the hospital on May 6th, there were 76,000 deaths in the US from COVID-19. By the time he passed away eleven days later, there were 90,000. It’s strange when something as deeply and personally felt as the death of a loved one becomes part of a national statistic. Yet it also points to the collective nature of grief related to the pandemic and the systemic injustices that it has revealed and intensified. We are in a time of collective grief. Some of us have lost loved ones to COVID-19. Others have lost jobs or been furloughed due to the lockdown of cities and towns across the country. On top of all that, since the killing of George Floyd on May 25, the streets have been filled with renewed anguish and calls for racial justice and the end of police brutality. The enormity of the crisis affects us all, directly or indirectly. How can we handle the emotional intensity and grief while supporting each other in the process and working for …

Survival Will Always Be Insufficient, but It’s a Good Place to Start

Rereading Emily St. John Mandel’s speculative fiction novel Station Eleven at the start of the pandemic was strangely reassuring. The book toggles between the onset of a future global flu pandemic and the lives of people living twenty years later. I often find post-apocalyptic fiction helpful for affirming the possibility of going on past disaster. Station Eleven is explicitly organized around the proposition that “survival is insufficient.” This phrase—tattooed on a character’s arm and written on the side of the traveling theatre and musical troupe’s vehicle in the twenty-years-from-pandemic plotline—comes from a Star Trek episode. In the book, the phrase, “survival is insufficient,” asserts that people deserve art, and music, and other seemingly useless things that are apparently secondary to basic biological survival. To reprise the 1912 labor slogan, we need not only bread but also roses: Beauty is integral to surviving and thriving. What does it mean for us to fight for roses—for more than survival—when so many people are not even surviving? Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racism as “the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production …

Interdependent During a Pandemic

Last summer, my partner and I worked on a research project about wildlife trafficking in southern Africa. While trafficking in elephant ivory and rhino horn tends to dominate the headlines, we also examined smaller species such as the pangolin—which is both the most trafficked mammal on earth and one possible source of the novel coronavirus. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, one lesson from our research stands out as particularly crucial: Wildlife trafficking is not a problem of protecting a single species in a single place. Rather, it is a global problem, composed of unaddressed poverty in rural communities, middlemen profiting from illegal trade, and indulgent demand for exotic food and art. It is a problem from roots to leaves, which unfurl thousands of miles away. The same is true of the virus now ravaging human society. It knows no boundary. It reaches my aging parents in a small mountain town, my anxious students scattered across the United States, and my friends in rural Botswana with limited access to healthcare. In a recent letter …

Photograph by Trudi Lynn Smith

Toilet Paper as Terror Management

The toilet paper aisle at my local grocery store was the first to go barren. Similar scenes of scatalogical scarcity are now the norm across North America as consumers prepare for months of physical distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19. You can find footage online of shoppers fighting over the last roll, and The New York Times recently reported on a toilet paper shipment requiring police escort. It is peculiar that in the early days of this crisis, a pooping accessory took priority over food. Survival instincts appear low in late capitalism. Fortunately, there is a body of social psychology that helps explain the collective impulse to put our heads in our asses in this moment of genuine crisis, and it’s called “Terror Management Theory (or TMT). TMT is rooted in the work of Ernest Becker, who won a Pulitzer for his 1973 book The Denial of Death. According to Becker, the intense existential fear caused by the reality of death compels us to psychologically buffer ourselves with fantasies of supremacy that compensate for …

Illustration by K.T. Tierney

Facing Pandemic, Finding Ground

I’m writing this in the still-early days of the pandemic. Canadian federal, provincial, and municipal governments are requiring self-distancing and closing non-essential services. Increases in coronavirus deaths are in store, though the curve may have been flattened. Much of the predicted economic carnage lies ahead. It feels like the calm before the storm. How do we work with our minds in this situation? What meaning can we make of what’s happening? Ayahuasca My core spiritual practice these days is ayahuasca ceremony. Ayahuasca is a psychoactive plant mixture and traditional medicine long used in Indigenous ceremonies in the Amazon basin. Within a well-crafted ritual container and led by someone deeply trained in ayahuasca chants and healing, twelve or so of us drink ayahuasca and experience a night of insight and sometimes visions.1 I’ve drunk sixteen times and almost every time experienced a connection with the sacred; from the point of view of the profound interconnectedness of all phenomena, I’ve worked with my patterns, my root traumas, and how I show up in the world. The experience …

Finding Ground, Making Sense, and Getting Simple

Relax, everything is out of control. —Ajahn Brahm Finding Ground March 13, 2020 In a world of tension and breakdown it is necessary for there to be those who seek to integrate their inner lives not by avoiding anguish and running away from problems, but by facing them in their naked reality and in their ordinariness. —Thomas Merton I thought I was handling it all quite well. With the increasing cases of coronavirus, the disappointment of recent election results, the cancellations of the many social gatherings I’ve come to rely on, I was being practical. I hadn’t been glued to the news, I was washing my hands and making time to check in with friends. My pandemic supplies were more-or-less stocked. There in the grocery store, though, another reality became clear. While my head was managing, my body was freaking out. I know this saran wrap feeling in my chest well. It’s fear. It’s anxiety. It’s uncertainty. Doom is a breath away. Though my mind had it “under control,” my body reminded me of the …

On Lineage and Whiteness

This essay also appears in the issue “The Necessity of Including Embodiment and Lineage in Racial Justice Work” (Volume 6, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue.  I spent a lot of time during my youth pondering my family story and where I came from. While kicking rocks around my suburban street, I would wonder, “Why do we call ourselves Greek but don’t speak the language or cook the food? Why doesn’t my family feel like other Greek families I know?” My family name comes from someone who signed the Declaration of Independence; my mother’s family holds the Greek ancestry. I’ve always felt that I’ve straddled different worlds. When I say I’m Greek, it feels as if I’m holding onto some name from a previous life. My maternal grandfather (Papou) was a man of noble actions. He taught me that giving someone my word was worth more than gold, and that I should treat everyone I met with honor and respect. When it came to instructing his grandchildren on Greek heritage …

Examining Whiteness with Meditation

This essay also appears in the issue “The Necessity of Including Embodiment and Lineage in Racial Justice Work” (Volume 6, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue.  The author of this essay is a person of European descent living with the legacy of settler colonialism in the United States. The essay is addressed to people who are white; however, all people are invited to read it. Our search for understanding in matters of race automatically inclines us toward blackness, although that is not where these answers lie. It has become a common observation that blackness, and race more generally, is a social construct. But examining whiteness as a social construct offers more answers. The essential problem is the inadequacy of white identity. We don’t know the history of whiteness, and therefore are ignorant of the many ways it has changed over the years. If you investigate that history, you’ll see that white identity has been no more stable than black identity. While we recognize the evolution of “negro” to “colored” to …

‘May I Also Be the Source of Life’: Embodied Resistance, Existence, and Liberation in Bodymind as It Is

This essay also appears in the issue “The Necessity of Including Embodiment and Lineage in Racial Justice Work” (Volume 6, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue.  And until they pass away from pain May I also be the source of life For all the realms of varied beings That reach unto the ends of space. – Shantideva1 In Mahāyāna Buddhism, I have been taught that body and mind are not two separate entities. They are one: bodymind. There are seeming limitations of the specific and located human bodymind I call “myself,” this named entity that comes into being at a certain point; lives a certain span of years, days, and minutes; then goes through the death process of dissolution of form and cessation of bodymind activities. To be embodied in the ordinary, day-to-day sense means that I am subject to sickness, to aging, and to death, which are all forms of anicca/anitya, impermanence. True enough. How is it, then, in accordance with the Bodhisattva vows I took in 1983, that …

Body Knowing as a Vehicle for Change

This essay also appears in the issue “The Necessity of Including Embodiment and Lineage in Racial Justice Work” (Volume 6, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue.  It is my great pleasure to reflect on this insightful essay by Kelsey Blackwell, “What Does the Wisdom of the Body Have to Do with Racial Justice?” Although my work does not specifically focus on racial justice, I am actively engaged in work in the realm of embodiment, awareness, and social system change. I practice a social art form called Social Presencing Theater, a name given by the co-founder of the Presencing Institute, Otto Scharmer, who is cited in Ms. Blackwell’s essay. The roots of my work are in meditation and dharma art. Like Ms. Blackwell, I too have encountered resistance when inviting people into body-knowing practices in professional or organizational settings. However, over the past decade Social Presencing Theater (SPT) practices have become part of the culture of practitioners who are applying a Theory U framework to social system change. Theory U is …

The Movement Within the Movement

This essay also appears in the issue “The Necessity of Including Embodiment and Lineage in Racial Justice Work” (Volume 6, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue.  How can we become conscious of the hidden story our bodies are telling with their every motion? While our words can speak falsehoods, the language of our body will not allow us to deny the truth. Movement has the capacity to unearth repressed memories and ancestral traumas that shape the way that our DNA is read and transcribed. Our stories are literally encoded in the way we move through the world—move through life. Movement and its symbology are the language of the subconscious. I became conscious about the repressed trauma that my body was carrying through the narrative I was expressing in my freestyle dance movement. This question of how we become conscious of our body’s hidden story is the core inquiry of my dance company, Embodiment Project. In my study of movement, spoken word, and the human condition, I’ve learned that dance can …

Going to the Root: How White Caucuses Contribute to Racial Justice

Caucusing is a form of upāya—skillful means. To caucus is skillful because it reduces harm. For Buddhists, practicing harm reduction is a relative bodhicitta practice. In my experience of 24 years of facilitating racial justice work, I have found that it is not helpful to put together in the same room folks who have had racism aimed at them all their lives and folks who haven’t had to think about it very much, if at all. The latter group, white people, need a place to start thinking and feeling about it, a space for using prajña (insight) to discover how white conditioning, through no choice of their own, has been embedded in their ego. There is no white person in North America who does not have white conditioning.1 —Robert Horton, Co-FounderThe UNtraining: Healing Personal & Social Oppressions The current political landscape of the United States has made it impossible for us to avoid our racial karma. In recent years, the news has been littered with it: police violence and murder of Black and brown people …

Cutting Through Spiritual Puritanism

In the West it is difficult for the Dharma to take root. The soil is not fertile. The good and evil, fire and brimstone logic of puritanism has dried the ground and permeated our cultural and political institutions.1 Western Buddhists often lament this situation, claiming to hold a superior, subtler view that sees the emptiness of phenomena and transcends the misguided dualisms of puritanism and its modern offspring.2 Yet when crisis strikes—when the proverbial Buddhist rug is torn from its restful place beneath our feet—more than a few Western Buddhists forget their cherished dharmic view. Although some of the fire-and-brimstone eccentricities of puritanism have long since faded from mainstream discourse, the fundamental logic of good and evil—with no middle ground—remains a powerful cultural force in politics, media, and literature. Buddhist practitioners in the West, who have been steeped since birth in a society of rigid categories of good and evil and Aristotle’s law of the excluded middle,3 cannot escape their puritan conditioning, which rears its head in thoughts, feelings, and pronouncements in reaction to crisis. …

Social and Ecological Ethics

This comment also appears in the issue “Dharma, Degrowth, and Climate Change” (Volume 5, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue.  At the root of the climate crisis is the disjuncture between the exponential development of the capitalist economy and the lack of an equivalent development in ethics and morality. Human and environmental sustainability requires social action based on a transformation of consciousness, from a dualistic to an ecological worldview that recognizes humanity as part of nature and the inherent equality of all human beings. To avoid further environmental and social collapse and conflict, it is important to recognize the history and realities of social hierarchy, domination, and oppression. Instead of speaking of a collective “we” in the context of climate action, it is necessary to explore the differential responsibilities and burdens borne by different communities for the climate and related crises. The North–South conflict over climate mitigation speaks to this reality. It is the privileged groups, especially those at the top of the global social hierarchy, that need to shift …

A Buddhist Depiction of Ecological Dystopia

This comment also appears in the issue “Dharma, Degrowth, and Climate Change” (Volume 5, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue.  In “The Tale of Stormtamer,” the age-old jātaka tale of ancient India meets “cli-fi,” an emergent subset of science fiction dealing with climate change and its potentially cataclysmic effects.  Invoking the cadence of spoken word, Austin Pick transports us to a future urban dystopia, Chicago’s iconic Wrigley Field transformed into a shanty-town of climate refugees. Like the half-drowned city of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, Chicago is portrayed with tenement buildings peering out of the rising tides of Lake Michigan with a series of canals where roads once were. Presiding over this wasteland is the buddha ‘Treya, who transforms the shanty town into a place of refuge, a regenerated urban garden and buddha-field for turning the wheel of dharma once again. A writer, outdoorsman, and contemplative practitioner, Austin Pick joins contemporary authors in adapting Buddhist genres to ecological concerns. As with Gary Snyder’s witty “Smokey the Bear Sutra,” Pick …

Images associated with four subjectivities

Losing Our Confidence: Four Subjectivities of the Present

In May 2015 a group of young people from Europe, Mexico, and the United States came together in Mexico City and Pátzcuaro, Michoacán for the Ziji Collective Leadership Retreat. The Ziji Collective “is a global network of inspired young people, dedicated to the…radical view that human beings and society are fundamentally good,” and the work of creating “a society that is uplifted, caring, gentle, and wakeful.” In this pursuit, local Ziji groups “work through the practice of meditation; through the exchange of ideas, knowledge, and wisdom; and through collective action.” Although we came from different places, we connected through our shared experience as young people facing an uncertain future of climate change, debt, limited options for rewarding stable work, disappearing free time, technology and media disconnecting us from each other and our bodies, surrounded by overt and subtle forms of violence. We explored ways to support each other across borders by initiating collaboration and establishing communities of practice. Over enchiladas in Pátzcuaro’s busy square and during contemplative walks in the gardens of the Casa Werma retreat …

The Tale of Stormtamer

This essay also appears in the issue “Dharma, Degrowth, and Climate Change” (Volume 5, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue.  There is nothing whatever to remove from this, Nor the slightest thing thereon to add. Truly beholding the true nature – When truly seen – complete liberation. —Uttaratantra (vs. 154), attributed to Maitreya1 This is how I heard it. One time in Ivy Field, near the place where the lake waters meet the streets of Wind City, where drowned buildings can be seen to the east and the south, tall and ruined, tenements where white laundry flaps like surrender flags and merchants sell their wares from skiffs through open windows, everywhere calling “Hey Cheecago!” and thus invoking the city’s proud old name to stir their business, ’Treya talked up the masses gathered there, speaking the truth to everyone. In the Long Before, when Ivy Field was a place where ritual games were played with great pageantry, the people harnessed rain to make the grass there ever-green, and changed the night …

Expanding Awareness: How Patterns of Interaction Support White Supremacy

Lately, I’ve been feeling a deep sensitivity as I move about my world—a vulnerability, a brewing sadness, that comes, I believe, from the rawness of beginning to peel back the layers and peer into the depths of my own internalized oppression. I see how often I let myself become small, allow someone else a final thought to keep the peace, and ignore the use of words like “ghetto” (when a place is not) and “afro” (when a hairstyle is not) to protect a white friend from feeling uncomfortable if corrected. Often these subtle aggressions happen closest to home, when engaging with my friends and other seemingly aware white individuals. To be clear, these people are not racists. They’re activists supporting marginalized populations, creatives dedicated to raising social consciousness, and general do-gooders making not enough money to do meaningful things. No doubt upon reading this, they will stand by my side and say, “write on!” (pun intended). Yet the fact that even individuals conscious of the oppression of marginalized populations inadvertently reinforce their own privilege indicates …

#makingrefuge at Mind & Life’s 2016 International Symposium: Opportunities for Decolonizing Contemplative Studies

In November, more than a thousand scholars, practitioners, and activists met in San Diego to discuss the future of their work at the 2016 International Symposium for Contemplative Studies (ISCS). In the opening address, the new president of Mind and Life, Susan Bauer-Wu, outlined her vision for the community, explaining that her goal is to build bridges and break down silos—disciplinary, methodological, institutional, and geographic. Compared to prior meetings, ISCS 2016 was indeed more diverse, gathering members of the community from 33 different fields, a fourth of whom came from outside the U.S. and a half of whom were newcomers. This diversity was bolstered by the fact that Mind and Life had recently created an advisory committee and taken concrete steps to support diversity through newly created research grants and funding opportunities. Over the last few years, I have been a critic of mainstream mindfulness, so I was grateful to witness a conscious shift at ISCS 2016 toward situating mindfulness in social, political, and ethical contexts. The symposium was unusually self-reflexive and self-critical, exhorting its …

The Four Immeasurables: Heart Practices for Challenging Times

Many in the United States and around the world experienced the US Presidential election as a kind of political earthquake, the initial shock at its center disruptive to our sense of safety and mutual trust, and as it radiates outward, altering the larger political landscape. While the particulars are unknown, many of us find ourselves deeply concerned—even experiencing anxiety—about the implications of a Trump presidency for ourselves and for the people and causes to which we are devoted. We search for a way to hold this moment, one that validates our real concerns without getting overwhelmed by them. Quite rightly, in this moment of suffering, many of us turn towards the teachings of the Dharma for solace, insight and some indication of a way forward. In my own practice, I began to reflect on the Dharma principle of equanimity, particularly in the context of the Brahma Viharas or “four immeasurables,” not only to provide guidance but also to energize and inspire my response to moments such as these.1 Heart Alchemy The Brahma Viharas were offered …

Open Up, Lean In, Stay With: Contemplative Practices in Uncertain Times

In the Tibetan calendar, 2016 was the year of the Fire Monkey: raw, turbulent, tempestuous—a year of personal strife unfolding in tandem with social unrest and political upheaval. Permeating my own experience of 2016 was a visceral sense of being wrenched in two directions: to dive in fully to the fire of this unrest, and simultaneously to withdraw from it, to shut down, to block out the pain. I suspect I am not alone in such ambivalence: In the face of overwhelming suffering—from the personal to the societal, from shouting at the family dinner table to the bombings in Aleppo—our human impulse is to fight or flee. And when each of these options seems hopeless, we may freeze, paralyzed. How do we confront our situation? How do we move through fear and paralysis and remain awake to the pain (as well as the beauty) of our reality? In Buddhist teachings and practice, I read three relevant refrains: open up, lean in, and stay with. First, the teachings advise that with a heart of courage, we …

Interrogating the Nature of Identity in an Age of Rising Nationalism

With nationalist and populist waves washing over the globe, many of us within the contemplative world may be feeling upset and disappointed. We might be asking ourselves how nativist and xenophobic sentiments can have such popular support, particularly given the dangerous historical precedents of these trends. While these reactions can be justified, simply dismissing the changes we are witnessing as misguided and ignorant would miss the point. In particular, many citizens in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the world are acting out of a sense of anxiety about their identities in a rapidly changing world riven by global capitalism’s savage inequities. What might wisdom traditions tell us about issues of identity? According to Buddhist philosophy, for instance, we are part of a world of dependent origination where all phenomena are inter-related and ephemeral; ultimately identity is about the realization of anatta (anātman), or “no-self.” In other words, the common egoic sense of identity to which we cling is a fiction. Similarly, yogic philosophy shares with Buddhism the concept of māyā (illusion), such …

The Thousand Eyes of Knowing and Action

While it may pacify our confusion to look at wisdom traditions as prescriptive “medicine” for our suffering times, we must also take care to begin to understand, personally, our inner relationship to power, authority, and knowledge. No system of knowing, however privileged, is unchallengeable, extrinsically justifiable, and intrinsically meaningful to everyone. In fact, a hard pill to swallow is how one person’s meaning can be utterly meaningless to another. Nevertheless, wisdom traditions give us an alternative to reductive answers. Through practices like meditation, we step onto a lifelong path of cultivating what might be called an inner reconnaissance, a dynamic exchange of outward noticing and inward “re-knowing.” This is a process in which we are invited to connect to a kind of displaced and flexible site of human wisdom and agency that does not simply replicate the dynamics of control and privilege, self-doubt and impotency. This human agency arises, I suspect, in a portal that opens up when solidification between self and world is softened. To meet the world in this way is also to …

Upstream and Downstream: The Sacred Importance of Joining Contemplative Practice and Political Engagement

There is a social change parable that powerfully illustrates the vital connection between contemplative practice and social change: There was once a village located next to a river. One day, during a break from her chores, a villager spotted a baby coursing down the river, struggling to stay afloat. As she waded into the water to save the child, the villager noticed that two other babies had already streamed by. She cried out to her fellow villagers who joined her in the rescue effort. But babies continued to appear. The village quickly organized itself to save the struggling children. After hours of endless work two villagers broke away from the group and began running away. The other townspeople called out to them: “Why are you leaving? We need you here to save these babies!” The two villagers bellowed back: “We’re heading upstream to find out who is throwing them in the river!” This story demonstrates the importance of simultaneously attending to the many injustices that shape our world (fishing babies out of the water), while …

Editorial: Destroying the Politics of Trump and Seeking a Deeper Political Consciousness

The Arrow seeks to explore politics in a broad sense of the word—societal issues, challenges, and questions that are political by nature. We have avoided the trappings of US electoral politics because our audience stretches beyond the US and because the teachings of Buddhism and other contemplative wisdom traditions transcend the narrow spectrum of political showmanship and stale ideologies that characterize this country’s electoral politics. However, in the context of the 2016 US presidential election, we feel that silence would be a form of complicity with harmful social and political systems. The sad fact of this election cycle is that anyone who wants a more compassionate, egalitarian society will find a mixed champion in Hillary Clinton, and an absolute enemy of those values in Donald Trump. That Trump embodies egomania, delusion, greed, and violence in their purest forms is obvious. And yet there is a risk in uncritically validating the Clintonian worldview just because the alternative is unquestionably worse. In liberal circles, including contemplative communities, we’ve noticed a certain tribalism—qualitatively different than Trump’s racist xenophobia—that …

Image of people singing around a campfire

Rising to the Challenge: Race and Inclusivity in the Sangha

Last summer I traveled from my home in Berkeley, California to Pátzcuaro, Mexico for a weeklong “young” sangha meditation retreat. I say “young” because in our group of roughly 20, though we varied in age from early 20s to 40s, chronological years didn’t matter. We were artists, activists, educators, and scholars united by a curiosity to explore how creativity and contemplative practice might inform the larger social and environmental ills of our time. As a 33-year-old dancing, writing, Buddhist, I felt right at home. In addition to the Mexican participants, the young-at-heart arrived from across the United States and Europe. By day, we meditated, studied the Dharma, and engaged in experiential activities. By night, we enjoyed campfires, conversation, and maybe a few sips of tequila. As the days turned into what felt like years, we became close. Romances blossomed, disintegrated, and blossomed again. Our nighttime campfires morphed into uninhibited sharing free-for-alls with impromptu poetry, mystic storytelling, and group sing-alongs. We were connected to each other and the lush, blooming forest that held us—one beautiful, breathing …

Is a Fear of Death at the Heart of Capitalism?

Donald Trump is a personification of capitalist values: He’s elitist, possessive, exploitative, and always hungry for more. Having multiple buildings emblazoned with his name is not enough. The presidential pantheon is the next prize he wants to devour, perhaps with dreams of becoming immortalized on U.S. currency, the yardstick for contemporary worth. What compels Trump’s oversized appetite, a hunger that mirrors capitalism’s drive for endless and rapacious growth? Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist and social theorist Ernest Becker conceived of capitalism as a contemporary search for the Holy Grail: immortality itself. According to Becker, it is easy for the human animal to feel small and servile in the face of death. We seek power over each other and the more-than-human world to compensate for felt smallness. As Becker wrote in his final book, Escape from Evil, “power means power to increase oneself, to change one’s natural situation from one of smallness, helplessness, finitude, to one of bigness, control, durability, importance.”1 Money offers this vitalizing power. For Becker, “money is the human mode par excellence of coolly denying animal …

Image of activists and person meditating

The Practice of No Success

In the fall of 2013, I was at the end of an era in my life as a Colombia human rights activist, or so I thought. Having left my job as director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Colombia Program, I found myself walking the busy, chaotic streets of Bogotá, reflecting on all the years I had poured my energy into the human rights movement there, wondering how any activist sustains enough motivation to continue, and why, despite feeling like things weren’t getting that much better in Colombia (or the world for that matter), I was still deeply committed to peace and social justice. Was it because I felt hopeful? If it wasn’t hope that fueled me forward, what did? Now, from my desk in Oakland, California, still involved with the work in Colombia, I continue to grapple with these questions. In the carefree days of my youth, I had hope to spare. I had so much hope that I thought I could change the world! It was surely this faith that helped me hatch a …

Illustration of bullet train and mount fuji

Speeding Past a Receding World

This past June, during a three-day research trip across rural Yamanashi Prefecture, a friend and I visited a town called Hayakawa, nestled in the mountains 100 kilometers to the west of Tokyo. One of the least densely populated municipalities in Japan, Hayakawa is home to fewer than 1,000 people spread across 400 square kilometers (150 square miles) at the foot of the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps, the country’s tallest mountain range and one of its few true wildernesses completely devoid of roads and human habitation. Over the past two years, my inquiry into post-growth cultures and depopulation has carried me to more than a hundred locales across Japan. I added Hayakawa to my itinerary after reading about a settlement here called Mogura, which the map I picked up at the municipal office fondly nicknamed “Machu Picchu.” After an hour driving up a serene river valley, we turned off the main road and for twenty minutes slowly inched our car up a crumbling switchback shrouded in leaves and dappled with sunlight that trickled through …

Illustration of protestors confronting police dressed in riot gear

Why Buddhists Can Stop Worrying and Learn to Love “Us vs. Them Thinking”

An often-rehearsed refrain in Buddhist and contemplative communities is that we need to overcome “Us vs. Them thinking” (or what I’ll abbreviate as UVTT). This intention makes perfect sense. Dualistic thought informs many of the vexing otherings that shape our social worlds, otherings along the axes of race, class, gender, sexuality, species, ability (the sad string goes on and on). Inasmuch as UVTT contributes to systems of domination, then it should be transformed. But this is not the most common argument I hear from fellow Buddhists and contemplatives. Instead the most regular critique of UVTT is directed towards activists and toward social movements themselves. The argument runs like this: Activists are in danger of replicating dualistic and oppositional thought in the way they conceive of and confront their adversaries. I recently spoke with Dawn Haney from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), an organization on the leading edge of engaged Buddhism. She reported how during Occupy Wall Street, the BPF heard from a number of Buddhists worried about the language of the 99% vs. the 1%. …

Illustration of bathhouse

Out of the Shopping Mall and into the Bathhouse

At the beginning of August, I flew from Tokyo to Hong Kong to attend a friend’s wedding. It’s now possible to make the four-hour journey for as low as $100 each way, courtesy of the growing number of low-cost carriers that connect East Asia’s dozens of megacities. I sprung for the cheapest flight I could find, which happened to depart Tokyo at 6:20 AM. Perhaps because the bus I rode through the hushed early-morning streets was completely empty, when I walked into the new 24-hour international terminal building just after 4:00 AM, I was disoriented to discover a sprawling duty-free shopping mall with fully staffed sales counters and bustling with foreign customers making last-minute purchases of luxury bags, perfume, and heated toilet seats. If the tourism industry typically revolves around the commodification and consumption of places of difference—foreign locales with exotic cultural, culinary, linguistic, and physical characteristics—international travel is now driven increasingly by the opposite desire: to spend time in “non-places” with no cultural or social distinctions: the airports and shopping malls filled with familiar …

Beyond Economics in the Case Against Fracking

On a spring evening in Southern California, with too much school work and an uncooperative clock ticking away the day’s warmth, I glanced outside my window to find the sky imbued with the color of a sunset. Captured by its beauty and magic, I wondered whether I should take a break from writing my undergraduate thesis to watch. As the sky shifted from yellow-orange to reddish-pink, my thoughts turned to a cost-benefit analysis: “Is it worth it to go outside and watch? A break would interrupt my progress right now. On the other hand, refreshing myself might increase my productivity for the next half hour before dinner.” By then, of course, the sky had faded into deep purple, the sun slipping over the horizon. As an overworked college student, evaluating actions in terms of productivity was common. Even now, several years after Microeconomics initially offered a powerful language for describing human decision-making, marginal utility remains a convenient—if not a little contrived—way of understanding my everyday choices. Indeed, since its inception, the field of economics has …