I noted in my previous post that the title I used above was a response from my friend, an African American woman, to my efforts last year to encourage dialogue on race in America.
She sent me her reactions to the events described in Wednesday’s post via email, and I feel her words are yet another important message for us white folks to hear. We hear them, but do we reallyhear them?
Can we feel them? Can we picture ourselves in the situations she describes? And how will–or will–any of this affect our actions going forward?
Can we transform the outrage we feel now to effect changes, staying the course, because it won’t be quick or easy?
Here’s my friend’s response:
I would say what’s happening now is no more an awful time in America than it has ever been.
It’s awful for a huge percentage of black people and people of colour ALL OF THE TIME because of poverty, institutional racism, disparities in healthcare, lack of basic clean drinking water, healthy affordable food in our own communities, disproportionately high incarceration rates…I could go on.
It’s only when something so heinous happens to us (as though that laundry list wasn’t already enough) and we take to the streets in protest, that people really talk about what must change in America.
I worked with Christian Cooper for 5 1/2 years. [Note: She describes what happened to Cooper below.]
He’s a Harvard graduate and worked in the Editorial Department of a medical education company. Chris is one of the sweetest human beings on the planet. The trauma (and yes–it’s a trauma) that he sustained grieves me more than I can express.
This one hit home and saddens me as much as it terrifies me. It saddens me because that woman injured my friend and altered his life. Will he ever be able to quietly go about bird watching–something he loves?
It also terrifies me because it makes me realize just how lucky I am every day that my family members and I have managed to survive in racist America.
I’m lucky that my son–who was pulled over twice in one night for speeding on his way back to college–wasn’t shot by those police officers.
I will not excuse him driving well beyond the speed limit both times. He was wrong; however, as a young black man, being pulled over for something as minor as speeding can get you killed. HAS gotten them killed.
I’m fortunate that I wasn’t dragged from my car and thrown onto the ground with a knee placed on the back of my neck, when I raced up the turnpike in my BMW M2 trying to make it to Hermès in Short Hills to drop off a watch for repair before the store closed.
I’m lucky that when my husband and I pulled into the service area behind a restaurant just outside of Barton Springs, Texas, and a cop raced in right behind us, that we weren’t shot and killed.
We were returning from my husband’s tennis tournament in January. It was after 10 pm and dark. We didn’t know the area well but were simply trying to coordinate where to grab a late dinner.
The cop thought we were about to conduct a drug deal. What saved us was our age (50+) so we “didn’t fit the typical profile,” he said before driving away.
It’s THIS. Every. Day. Of. Our. Lives. It’s exhausting. It’s exasperating. It’s maddening. We always have to look over our shoulders.
We always have to be prepared to justify our presence in spaces that white people still believe are theirs alone: luxury stores, exclusive neighbourhoods, first-class lounges in the airport, and apparently, Central Park.
We continue to be vilified. We are labeled as thugs when armed white men with assault rifles are called patriots for protesting being quarantined during a global pandemic.
Police (and without riot gear, I might add) simply stand while angry white people, armed to the teeth, scream in their faces on the steps of State Courthouses.
The white college student, accused of double murder, was taken into custody “without incident” this week.
What if that suspect had been black? Just being suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bank note was apparently enough to get a black man killed.
The image of that police THUG with his knee on George Floyd’s neck harkened back to segregation and slavery. It was an everyday occurrence to have white men violently putting us “in our place.” The glee they had knowing they had power over our very lives and deaths.
The white woman who threatened to call the police on my friend Christian had the same glee in her voice. “I’m going to call the police and tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.”
This was a potential Emmett Till scénario, and it’s 2020 and this was in New York City, not Mississippi.
What does that say?
I’ve stopped watching the news or even reading it online. I’m not on much social media either because it’s all, more of the same information about the hatefulness in this country and the spreading cancer of nationalism and racism that is infecting as many people as the coronavirus pandemic.
I simply don’t want to expose myself to that because I don’t want to be infected by the level of hatred–which is easy when you are angry.
Believe me, I AM angry. I just am too tired to keep fighting a problem that will never change.
I wanted to give my friend a real hug–not a virtual hug–and to tell her please don’t despair; things will get better. But how could I do that?
Months ago, I had an encounter with a police officer when I didn’t realize I was passing a stopped truck by crossing into a “no passing zone.” I apologized profusely and handed over my license. The officer took it, went to his car, and returned.
He said, “This license is expired. Do you have a new one?” I searched frantically through my bag and said, “I know I have it; I must have left it at home.”
He smiled pleasantly, told me to make sure I use my new license, and to drive carefully. I smiled sweetly, thanked him, and drove off.
He might have just been a nice police officer; there are surely plenty of them. But I can’t help wondering how he would have reacted if he’d stopped my friend…
Well, sure: the holiday season is, ironically, a time of stress. But we know there are high levels of anxiety that have preceded this supposedly joyous time and will surely follow us into the New Year/decade.
I don’t have to itemize the list: it’s as close as your newspaper or electronic device. All sorts of problems and calamities—natural and manmade—have been occurring just about everywhere.
We can’t change the world, but we do have some control over how we view the world and our place in it. And if enough of us exercise that control, we can make a difference.
How Can We Do That?
By learning from the fortunate fusion of Buddhist practice—validated and adapted by Western scientists. Science writer Daniel Goleman, who was interviewed in an article titled “Can Compassion Change the World?,” collaborated with the Dalai Lama on a book called A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World.
Long a collaborator with scientists, the Dalai Lama set forth his views on how to improve the world with the help of science. When the interviewer asked Goleman why compassion is so important, he said the Dalai Lama wasn’t speaking from “a Buddhist perspective; he’s actually speaking from a scientific perspective. He’s using scientific evidence…which shows that people have the ability to cultivate compassion.”[emphases mine throughout]
“This research is very encouraging, because scientists are not only using brain imagery to identify the specific brain circuitry that controls compassion, but also showing that the circuitry becomes strengthened, and people become more altruistic and willing to help out other people, if they learn to cultivate compassion—for example, by doing traditional meditation practices of lovingkindness. This is so encouraging, because it’s a fundamental imperative that we need compassion as our moral rudder.”
Goleman speaks of “muscular compassion,” and he explained that the term is necessary to demonstrate that
“compassion is not just some Sunday school niceness; it’s important for taking social issues—things like corruption and collusion in business and government, and throughout the public sphere…for looking at economics, to see if there is a way to make it more caring and not just about greed, or to create economic policies that decrease the gap between the rich and the poor. These are moral issues that require compassion.”
The Buddhist term for practicing compassion is Metta—and mindfulness meditators call it lovingkindness meditation. Sometimes lovingkindness appears as one word; sometimes two; sometimes it’s hyphenated. In the scientific literature, it’s abbreviated as LKM. My personal preference is lovingkindness, so for consistency, that’s what I’m using throughout this post.
A Quick Look at Mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation per se, scientific studies have found, regulates attention to create a calm mind, and varied areas of the brain have been identified as showing changes (including increases in gray matter) among those who are regular practitioners—experts—as compared to novices.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who coined the term mindfulness and developed an eight-week course on Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction that is widely used, defines it as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Practitioners, of whom I’m one, use a focus on the breath to calm the mind. Sometimes people get discouraged meditating and give up too soon because their minds wander, but expert meditators will tell you that every time the mind wanders, you’re becoming aware that it’s happening, and that’s a good thing. You simply return to breathing in and out.
There are many techniques to help you stay on track. That’s a quick look at a complex process that has been scientifically validated to reap benefits as you explore your internal self–mind and body–and your place in the world.
And Now, Lovingkindness…
Lovingkindness is an associated practice to mindfulness. Specific studies have also shown that practicing lovingkindness reduces stress, helps those in the helping professions prevent burnout, aids veterans with PTSD, and possibly even extends life.
One study found that the telomeres—the ends of the chromosomes that prevent deterioration and whose length is associated with longevity—were longer in women who routinely practiced lovingkindness than in those who didn’t.
The Goleman article led me to the work of Tania Singer, formerly the director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science in Germany. (There’s an irony here that I’ll detail shortly.) Her professional life has been devoted to studying empathy and compassion.
I learned from her that the empathy I’ve always valued isn’t always such a good thing. Empathy, the ability to feel another’s pain, is clearly important for interacting with other humans.
But it can have a stressful side—empathic distress—that leads to potential burnout and a lessened desire/ability to help. The high rates of physician burnout and suicides are examples.
Compassion, on the other hand, doesn’t involve sharing another’s suffering, Singer has observed.
“Rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s wellbeing. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”
In fact, Singer and her group have found that the apparently similar traits of empathy and compassion involve different, and not overlapping, structures in the brain.
What’s more, because of the brain’s neuroplasticity (ability to change based on training), compassion training can lead to positive results.
“Compassion may, therefore, represent a very potent strategy for preventing burnout. In light of high prevalence rates of burnout and stress-related diseases in Western societies, we anticipate that the present findings will inform other intervention studies on the plasticity of adaptive social emotions….[and] hopefully help to design new training programs aimed at increasing resilience and coping strategies in many domains, including health care, educational settings, and high stress environments in general.”
I watched two videos of Singer, a prominent neuroscientist. describing her work, which includes programs with economists to try to draw up models that more closely adhere to the compassion that Goleman described. She was a compelling and delightful speaker.
However, In 2018, this woman whose life’s work has focused on empathy and compassion resigned as director of the Max Planck Institute after eight colleagues accused her of bullying them and some said she’d reduced them to tears.
Alas! She practiceth not what she preacheth! Hard to fathom, but her poor behavior doesn’t detract from the validity of her research findings.
And it certainly doesn’t seem indicative of what I’ve heard and read about leaders in the field of lovingkindness.
I consider Sharon Salzburg, one of the most respected and beloved teachers and authors on the topic, a personal guru on the journey into lovingkindness that I’ve been taking for a couple of years now.
I believe she’s a reliable guide into how the practice can help us all, physically and mentally, improve our relationships—and even help us enrich the lives of strangers.
Want to Try It?
Though Singer’s neuroscientific experiments took practitioners nine months, it doesn’t take that long to get the hang of it. For those who’d like to try it, here’s what you do.
Because so many of us are our most severe critics, traditionally, we begin by offering these unconditional good wishes to ourselves: “May I be happy, healthy, live with ease.”
We then draw an ever widening circle, extending these sentiments to those we love, to friends and acquaintances, to problematic people whom we wish we could more readily accept, to strangers, and finally, to the entire world.
And the practice of lovingkindness is portable: traditionally, you sit on a cushion, but you can just as easily be walking on a crowded street.
Jack Kornfield, another leading educator, has written that some people find it difficult to begin with themselves:
“We may feel that we are unworthy, or that it’s egotistical, or that we shouldn’t be happy when other people are suffering.”
If that’s how you feel, Kornfield says,
“Rather than start lovingkindness practice with ourselves, I find it more helpful to start with those we most naturally love and care about.” [Start where it’s easiest, he suggests.] “We open our heart in the most natural way, then direct our lovingkindness little by little to the areas where it’s more difficult.”
If you choose that sequence, you might then circle back to yourself after that. Or move on to people whom you find difficult. Eventually, you open your heart to strangers and to all living beings.
How can this approach affect our everyday behavior? Salzburg has a short series of videos depicting various scenarios. In “Street Lovingkindness,” she hones in on Grand Central Station in New York City, a hectic place, during Rush Hour.
But, says Salzburg, “Don’t rush. Take in the world. Look at the people,” and silently send your good wishes to strangers, possibly adding “May you be joyful, peaceful, contented.”
She has also noted: If you’re stuck in traffic because an emergency vehicle is snaking through, you might say to yourself “I hope whoever needs that vehicle is OK.”
Standing in line, she acknowledges, can be frustrating. You want to move faster, to get somewhere. Instead of fuming,
“take a breath, savor the moment. Feel your feet on the ground. Notice those in front and behind you. Fully acknowledge each person [mentally]: ‘May you be joyful, peaceful, contented.’ Just as we seek happiness for ourselves, may all beings be at peace.”
Suppose you’re sitting in your car, in a traffic jam.
“It’s stop-and-go, you’re making no progress. You’re frustrated, annoyed, stressed out, tired of being stuck. Pause, take a breath, feel your body being seated, your hands on the wheel. Look at the others, all moving together. ‘May we be safe, healthy, happy, be at ease.’”
Salzburg speaks of compassion to self as being restorative, rather than allowing ourselves to be overcome by events. She explores our thought processes: “I’m a terrible person.”
How is my holding onto negative thoughts healing me?, she asks. Detaching and running doesn’t work.
We can’t automatically make our pain—physical or emotional—go away, but holding on to our fear and projecting into the future adds to our suffering.
(There’s an oft-repeated phrase among mindfulness folks: “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”)
Compassion, she says, is a unifying experience. It sparks the impulse to help someone else: we’re all vulnerable in some way.
“When a person says, ‘I’m overwhelmed,’ having a sense of community is a tremendous asset. Doing it all alone is hard. That’s the context for this practice.”
If you’d like to listen to a delightful interview with Salzburg, click on this link. Sarah Jones is a gifted actor who creates believable, very diverse characters with her voice and motions. She interviewed her friend Salzburg, asking questions as several different personae.
It’s great fun to listen to. In something many of us can relate to, one of the points she made was “Most days I can barely stand to read the news. But when I do lovingkindness, there’s a shift.”
Salzburg stresses that practicing lovingkindness doesn’t always mean saying “yes.” If you see a street person asking for money,
“whether or not you feel giving the cash would be useful is one thing, but whether you look at that person as a human being is another.”
It’s not new that we feel good about ourselves when we show kindness to others. But it’s something to relearn. In the supermarket where I shop, a tall, thin man is responsible for herding all the shopping carts.
I assume his job is simply to bring order to the carts that shoppers leave wherever they choose (usually not where the sign says “Return carts here”).
But he goes well beyond that job description. He is unfailingly gracious, smiling pleasantly and offering everyone a cart who approachesthe store, or relieving us of the need to return them to the intended area.
Last week, as I was walking to my car, I had a sudden impulse. I turned around and walked toward him. He thought I needed a cart and was about to give me one. “I’m done shopping,” I said. “But you’re so good at your work, and so gracious and helpful, that I wanted to give you this.”
I won’t miss the money, and I’ll long remember the look on his face as he thanked me profusely and blessed me. It was a small act in the scheme of things, but it made both of us feel pretty darn good.
Salzburg has heard it all, and she says there’s a common idea that lovingkindness is stupid, or gooey, or yucky. I like Daniel Goleman’s term: Muscular compassion. And that should lead to action, Goleman said:
“The Dalai Lama often talks to people with great aspirations, and, after he’s gotten them all roused up, he says, ‘Don’t just talk about it, do something.’ That’s part of the message in my book: Everyone has something they can do. Whatever means you have to make the world a better place, you need to do it. Even if we won’t see the fruits of this in our lifetime, start now.”
My Wish for Each of You–and for Us All
As the new decade dawns, I repeat, as I did at the end of 2018, the words I’ve learned from Jack Kornfield and other mindful meditators:
May you be filled with lovingkindness;
May you be safe and protected;
May you be well in body and mind;
Strong and healed;
May you be happy.
And may 2020 find us in a country and world of greater unity, peace, greenness, and kindness. We can make small gestures to move us in that direction.
Three women, strangers, seats 23D (aisle), 23E (center), 23F (window).
One soybean farmer, one blogger, one psychotherapist.
Flight delayed by weather at destination.
10,000 feet above ground, swiftly nearing landing.
23D and E heading for home.
23F preparing for romantic rendezvous with second husband.
Twenty years married, only one previous holiday sans kids—hers/his.
He’d joined his kids for one lap of their year sailing ‘round the world.
I have to pass through Portugal on my way home, he’d said.
Why don’t you meet me there? She was thrilled.
Meet in Lisbon, tour the countryside.
Time was 7:40 PM. Connecting flight gates to close at 8:15.
Why don’t we change seats now? suggested 23D.
The change was made. Traveler-in-motion now seated on the aisle. Precious minutes saved.
Maybe tell the flight staff to call ahead? offered 23E.
The call was made. Anxiety easing.
I can’t find my boarding pass, lamented the traveler-in-motion.
Here it is, her companion said, picking it up from the floor.
A spontaneous warm hug from the traveler-in-motion.
Shared moments, caring among strangers. Empathy in action.
A week before Thanksgiving, but appropriate for the season.