Episode 20: Guided Meditation: Fighting Systemic Racism through Compassionate Action #BlackLivesMatter

Black Lives Matter - large white all-caps text on black background

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Today’s meditation is entirely directed toward fighting the systemic racism against Black people in America. The meditation starts with the recent and historical pain and injustice against Black people—the “anti-Blackness” that you witness in the senseless deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and Michael Brown, and countless others back to Emmett Till and the injustice of racial segregation, Black vote suppression, the broken promises of Civil War Reconstruction, all the way back 400 years to the brutal onset of slavery in America.

A lot of the meditation people do today is to help make themselves feel good, or at least lessen or stop their painful feelings of anxiety, fear, sadness, or craving. But a more advanced form of meditation, once you’ve stabilized your own mind, is to direct your mind toward helping others through compassion.

Compassion is different from empathy. Empathy alone isn’t psychologically effective in either helping us to overcome our own anguish at this situation, or, more importantly, driving us to intelligent action to become a cause ourselves for change, a cause for the end of systemic oppression of Black people in our country.

That’s where compassion comes in, because compassion is a combination of empathy with a strong wish to do something about a problem, to take personal responsibility and personal action for taking away others’ suffering.

Just like all our meditations, this one is an invitation. If you aren’t ready for this type of meditation, if you feel too overwhelmed with anger or despair, then this might not be the right mental exercise for you today. 

Breathing and mindfulness meditations that simply help calm your mind might be more helpful now, to bring you to a place where you might later be able to take action. That type of breathing meditation is something that we’ll start with together, as we usually do, and if you don’t feel ready to go on to the next part, or if you want to attempt it later, or if you simply want to abandon this guided meditation right now, that’s okay.

But this is a good moment to acknowledge that meditation can be self-centered and escapist. It can be used as a way to avoid problems and to avoid being a cause for positive change in the world. I’ve seen this myself in my own meditation: how the technique of mindfulness, just on its own, doesn’t change my thought patterns. It merely gives me distance from them, space from them. 

That might be helpful when those thoughts are ones of craving or jealousy or selfishness. But mindfulness also distances you from thoughts like, “I should really do something about racial injustice,” or “Police brutality has to stop.” Mindfulness can let urgent thoughts like this also pass by and fade into the clarity of your consciousness without acting on them.

Your breath isn’t neutral today

Today, even breath isn’t neutral. So, as we focus on our breath it’s impossible not to acknowledge George Floyd again and again saying, “I can’t breathe.” Our right to life is a fundamental human right. And we sustain that life through our breath. 

And so, as I breathe to help settle my own mind, I can infuse that breath with compassion for him and for all the Black men and women who have been deprived of their basic human right to life.

Right now, as I meditate, I am free from such oppression. And everyone should have that freedom. Until all people enjoy the same freedoms I do, as Kim Stanley Robinson says, Has our civilization even yet begun? Until Black Americans have the same rights to their life and economic equality and the pursuit of happiness that our country was supposedly based upon, we cannot claim to be civilized. And I myself must be a cause for these. If I don’t help in some way, I’m part of the problem.

So, let that thought of responsibility and a will to action infuse my stabilizing, breathing meditation, so that it’s not just a cause for calming my mind, but a force that drives me first to empathy and then to action.

For a minute, focus on the breath. And don’t let the thoughts and feelings of wanting to do something about today’s problems fade from your mind, but let them sharpen your focus and concentration on your breath, wishing everyone to be able to live freely without fear of their breath and life being unjustly taken from them.

(One minute meditation on the breath)

Analytic meditation on compassion: Black Lives Matter

It’s probably already clear by the tone of this meditation, but strong emotions are welcome, as long as they don’t overwhelm you, and you are determined to work with them in a constructive way. We feel and embrace and observe them as a force first for empathy and then compassion.

We start with empathy. Because to feel compassion, I need to first genuinely feel the pain of others, the suffering they experience from their perspective, not from mine. Yet, you’ve probably had much empathy over the last two weeks since George Floyd’s killing. And it alone doesn’t bring about change in the world. To make these thoughts productive, after empathy we need to move to action. 

The action of compassion is wanting to do something about someone’s problems: at first mentally, imagining taking away their problem, and taking it away from everyone else suffering from the same problem. And then, using our intellect, our critical insight, and our creativity to think What I can add? What can I do? Given my skills, my temperament, my race, my position in life?

“May all sentient beings be free from suffering.” Is something many meditators contemplate every day. But the Dalai Lama teaches that this vague thought is not enough. We must each make this thought detailed, specific, relate to specific individual people that we know, or know of. And today, for us, that person is George Floyd and the millions of other Black people suffering from systemic racism, anti-Blackness, police harassment and brutality.

The purpose here isn’t to stoke our anger, but to channel empathy into compassion. And, again, if you find that idea difficult right now, it’s okay to stop this meditation and move on to some other form or meditation or thought or action that you feel is more appropriate.

This method is one of the most powerful methods taught in Tibetan Buddhism, and usually taught after the earlier stages of meditation we went through before. I’ve found it effective, and over centuries countless others have too, but it’s not for everyone or every moment.

Contemplating the suffering of Black oppression

We can start with what happened to George Floyd. Whatever you think of his alleged crime, it didn’t deserve being assaulted by the police, handcuffed, thrown to the ground, and choked to death as he begged for his life, “I can’t breathe.” Would this have happened to a white man in the exact same situation?

Though this podcast has people of many races and gender as listeners, and its principles stem from Indian and Tibetan Buddhist cultures, much of our audience is white, and I am white. If you are a white listener like me, however imperfect, we can use our empathy to try and imagine the horrific experience of being treated like this, dying like this. I can use whatever I’ve read or watched or heard from my friends or learned in school to help me build this empathy.

If you’re a Black person listening to this, you might reasonably feel that you that you don’t need a white person guiding you through a meditation on empathy for Black people or compelling you to social action. And you can turn this meditation off now and do something better with your time.

But if this meditation is useful to you, as someone who still needs to develop their compassion further and turn it into action, imagine yourself in the position of George Floyd a couple weeks ago, a time when the disproportionate effects of economic and health disparities are hitting Black people far worse than anyone else, with Covid-19 infecting Black people far more than others; with the benefits of the economic stimulus going disproportionately to big companies and white people. 

And then you are assaulted, handcuffed, thrown to the ground, choked. You are probably not surprised, given your life experience as a Black man, but the despair and pain and sadness and hopelessness exceed anything you’ve experienced, bringing a primal hopelessness that drives you to fruitlessly call for your mother again and again. 

Thinking about this may seem unbearable. But try. George had to live through it. Had to die through it. Think what it felt like to be choked to death knowing that this angry white police officer was callously killing you; while other police officers watched and helped; while people filmed in horror, and the police didn’t care that their racist murder was being recorded and shared around the world.

A lot of people that lead these meditations pull punches, asking you to only consider some gentle injustice or some minor pain. But that’s not what this meditation was invented for. It was invented to transform your mind into a compassionate warrior, what’s called a bodhisattva, someone willing to give up his or her life for the sake of fighting injustice and hatred.

So, if you can, lean in to feeling what George Floyd felt. He had to feel it until he died. Black people have the fear of being assaulted by the police every time they go for a walk or take drive. I can at least try and feel this for a moment, for its value in driving me to compassionate action to end suffering like his for all Black Americans.

And now imagine how George Floyd’s family and friends felt when they saw this video. How they’ve been feeling these last weeks. How they’re feeing right now.

And think of the millions of other Black men who have suffered this way: stopped by the police for a minor crime, the same petty crimes white kids like me safely committed as rowdy teenagers. 

Or, think of the Black men who are stopped for no reason other than their race; stopped not for looking like a criminal, but for looking wealthy, for dressing well, for driving a fancy car. A Black man’s affluence alone can enrage a racist cop, or cause his bias to assume that only a Black criminal could afford them.

Think of the thousands of Black men and women who suffered grave injuries or were murdered by police in escalations that didn’t need to happen. Escalations caused by the officers’ bias and violent training and a society itself that instills such biases from birth.

These actions have causes, and these are only the recent ones. America has 400 years’ history of enslaving and oppressing Black people. Consider the immeasurable pain and suffering of slaves over this period of time. And the lasting weight of that memory on living Black Americans. You’ve certainly read books and watched movies about this time period and maybe had friends tell stories of their enslaved ancestors. So bring some of those thoughts to mind right now.

The injustice is overwhelming. And I can understand despair or unbounded anger as responses to such unending pain; pain that continues to today, to yesterday, to last night’s protests and excessive force by police against peaceful protestors.

The mother of George Floyd’s six-year-old daughter couldn’t bear to tell her how her father died. She just told her daughter that her father “Couldn’t breathe.” But George’s daughter does know what his death sparked in the world. “Dad changed the world,” she said in an interview a few days ago.

If we really want this to be true—for George Floyd to change the world—he needs to change us. And we move to the next phase of the meditation, of wanting to stop this suffering, to take it away, to make sure it never happens again.

First, we do this in an aspirational way. If I could, I would immediately take away the injustice of racist policing, police brutality, murder of Black men for trivial crimes or for no crime at all. Try and think this in a heartfelt way. If there were any way at all, I would do this. I would take away this horrific form of suffering for Black Americans.

( contemplate for a moment)

And then, imagine that, if it were possible, that by my taking on this same suffering, if there were a way that, through my own suffering in the same was as George Floyd and countless other Black Americans, that if it were possible for me to take on all of that suffering, just by myself, if that could somehow be a cause, then, for none of them to suffer. Imagine that, if this were possible, that I could find the courage to do it. To exchange myself with them all. So that only one person had to bear such suffering, me. Imagine that I could be courageous enough to do this, for the sake of so many millions’ others’ happiness.

This is a difficult thought. And, of course, there’s no magic trick that makes this actually work. But the power that this thought has on building your compassion is immeasurable. Try it, if you can. And if you don’t feel that this is possible right now, examine your feelings, and make an aspiration that someday I might be brave enough. Millions of Black men embody this bravery every day when they go out for a walk or out for a drive in America. Can I at least do it in my imagination?

(Contemplate for a moment)

Then, if you feel that you enjoy some privilege and wealth and safety that Black Americans don’t, imagine offering all of that privilege and wealth and safety to the Black people of America. Imagine offering them a safe home, the privilege of the bias that makes it easier for me to get a job, a loan, to take for granted feeling safe walking down the street; to take for granted that calling the police will bring safety and protection rather than a chance of dying at their hands.

Imagine offering the comfort of growing up with a sense of enjoying your basic human rights.

(Contemplate for a moment)

And then, finally, through empathy, after the exercise of taking on others’ pain, and imagining giving your good fortune away, we arrive at the true purpose of the meditation: to drive us to action.

I myself must be a cause for this change. It can’t be accomplished magically, through some ritual or meditation. The purpose of meditation is to give me a stable mind, motivated by compassion; to find something to do in the world to be an active cause of ending the suffering of Black Americans.

What can I do?

Each of our positions is unique, and we can consider all the things we could possibly do, given our situation. If we still have a job, some money in the bank, or more substantial wealth, we can give money. There are tons of resources online, but on the web page for this episode, we’ve listed a few social justice organizations to support, including direct support for George Floyd’s family. And there are many more.

What can I do?

Protesting and demonstrating are meaningful ways to participate. And it seems that the swift action by law enforcement against George Floyd’s killers was driven by the unprecedented power of our protests.

What can I do?

Taking action in your day-to-day life can be one of the most powerful ways to take action, because it’s consistent and long-lasting. Probing my own mind for unconscious bias—looking clear-eyed at how I myself am a small part of the problem of systemic racism—can be uncomfortable, but it’s a necessary step to meaningful action.

What can I do?

Pressing our workplace to better recruit and hire Black people, proactively support their causes, and recognize the institutionalized bias in hiring and Human Resources practices, and to have zero tolerance for racist speech and action. We spend most of our waking hours at work. And it’s another place of continued inequality. So, creating a just workplace is one of the most powerful actions that could impact Black Americans’ daily lives.

What can I do?

One of the most profound actions taking place now is something I can do in my town or city: transforming the police. The police work for us. We pay their salaries with our local taxes. Can police departments where systemic racism is entrenched be reformed? Or are the ways they’ve trained too focused on violence, dominance, and escalation? 

Do we need a complete restart like they are now working on in Minneapolis? To disband the police department as it is and build from the ground up a new type of community protection service? Minneapolis City Council member Steve Fletcher says his city can do this: build a new type of community protection service that has “a community-oriented, non-violent public safety and outreach capacity.”

What can I do?

If I believe in a path toward a new way of protecting our communities, I can find local groups in my city that are working on this solution. There’s an organization called Campaign Zero, which is effectively working already to reform American police around principles of community support and nonviolence, with a goal of reducing the deaths caused by American police to zero, as it is in many other countries. There’s a link to their website on this episode’s page.

It may take some time and research to figure out how I personally can help the most. But I make the commitment to spend that time, to seek out friends who are informed and learn from them.

What can I do?

It’s okay, and maybe inevitable, that I’ll make mistakes in what I say or do. In trying to do something rather than nothing, it’s possible that I may end up in conflict even with others who share a wish to change our country, to move it toward equality and justice. But I can own up to my mistakes, be humble, educate myself. Feeling embarrassed for saying something that hurts rather than helps is far less painful than being choked to death by the police.

What can I do?

If I’m someone very experienced and educated in social justice, I can be kind and patient with people who are less aware and educated; teach them and provide resources and books and videos and stories and websites that help others understand the history of Black oppression in our country and effective ways to now oppose it. I can embody the nonviolent response, even in my own words, that we hope one day to see in our police and in our institutions.

What can I do?

Finally, simply, I can vote. If anyone felt that their vote doesn’t matter, the last four years in our country have put that fallacy to rest. Your vote could mean the difference between a just, fair, equitable, nonviolent future for Black Americans, or continued systemic oppression, economic injustice, and murder of Black Americans. 

There’s a reason Donald Trump got only 8% of the African American vote and it’s because his policies, and many of his followers, are racist. If you like, you can see cause and effect and that these peoples’ racism is complex and interdependent. And we will do that in a future meditation for those that are able. But today is a difficult day for that meditation.

Over my own adult life, I’ve seen multiple elections decided by a few hundred people’s votes, sometimes in small counties in Florida or Michigan or Nevada. Yours might be one of them. And your local votes count even more, affecting your direct community where you know and understand the issues and the people intimately. 

The fact that so few people vote isn’t a cause for despair. It means that your vote counts even more. Only about half of Americans voted in the last presidential election, so that means your vote has double the power it otherwise would. I can make sure I use it, do my research or follow voting guides from organizations I trust; vote in every election, register for permanent mail-in-ballots if my county supports them.

At the end of a mediation session, we normally dedicate. And we can dedicate the good that comes from our meditation today to making a more just country for Black Americans and making us an active participant in that change. 

On skepticspath.org, you can find a link to Barak Obama’s recommendations on how to take action, and links to organizations like Movement for Black Lives leading this movement. 

A message I read yesterday from President Obama was one of the most hopeful that I’ve heard, and I want to close out this meditation with some of his words: 

Today, when I see young people all across the country stepping up and speaking out in such meaningful ways—when I see their talent and sophistication and passion—it makes me feel optimistic. It makes me feel as if this country is going to get better. But real change starts with a focus on results, and everyone committed to doing their part.

We’re calling on everyone—from mayors to city council officials to everyday citizens—to recognize and root out the tragic, painful, maddening effects of systemic racism and to take concrete steps to address police use of force policies in their communities.

It will take all of us working together to ensure we can reimagine policing so it recognizes the humanity of every person—so it honors the dignity of every person.

“My daddy changed the world,” Gianna Floyd, George’s six-year-old daughter, said yesterday. 

Yes he did.

Yes we can.

—President Barak Obama

Causes to support and learn from

Campaign Zero – A data and community-driven movement founded by Black Lives Member organizers to end police violence in the United States
Movement 4 Black Lives 
Black Lives Matter
Equal Justice Initiative 
Justice for George Floyd – Change.Org
Justice for Breonna Taylor – Change.Org
Run With Maud – Justice for Ahmaud Arbery
NAACP 
Southern Poverty Law Center
Anguish and Action – Obama Foundation
New York Times 1619 Project
New York Times 1619 Podcast

Credits

Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio

SHARe

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