Using Meditation to Explore Privilege and Anti-Racism
By Steven Cohen
Like many Americans, I have spent a great deal of time recently engaging with work colleagues, family, and friends in conversations regarding race and racial inequality. Doing a lot of listening. Doing a lot of reading about systemic racial injustice and potential remedies. I know that I have a lot more to learn. I have started to acknowledge my white privilege and the advantages that has afforded me. I have meditated.
As meditators, we learn to observe with full attention in the present moment and without judgment. By doing so, we can access our inner wisdom and see situations more clearly, listen more acutely,, and learn to respond instead of react. That doesn’t mean that as meditators we know everything or will act perfectly all of the time. Meditation is simply a practice that facilitates our ability to live more mindfully and authentically, utilizing the information within our awareness.
The recent killings of unarmed Black Americans Aumaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police were the latest in a long history of unnecessary deaths. Being captured on video has increased the exposure and impact to the public of these tragedies, although we know they are the latest in what seems a perpetual series of killings of Black Americans at the hands of police. Deep flaws in our criminal justice system beyond police brutality continue to be brought to light. Stories of innocent Black men and women incarcerated for years who are finally released upon discovery of previously coerced testimony or confessions combined with ineffective counsel at trial. White America is now realizing the impact of jailing massive numbers of people for nonviolent crimes, a disproportionate percentage of whom are Black or Hispanic people, which perpetuates white dominance in America. The fact that young black men are taught to be subservient to white policemen and are often presumed guilty is heartbreaking. As a young law student, I was taught that the court system is just, and justice is blind, but I can’t come to that conclusion anymore. I am not a criminal justice or racial injustice expert, but I know that the status quo is not acceptable.
George Floyd’s now famous last words of “I can’t breathe” shook me to my core. Breath is our life force. During meditation, we often use our breath as a focal point. Breathe in, pause, breathe out, pause. Deprivation of breath is deprivation of life. Focusing on our breath during meditation is a reminder of the value of each present moment, a chance to pause, and a way to rebalance ourselves before proceeding with greater equanimity.
As a way of setting an intention to keep George Floyd in our awareness, consider a practice of focusing on your breath for 8 minutes 46 seconds, the amount of time George had a knee to his neck before he stopped moving, as a step in increasing awareness, and as a reminder of racial injustice that has not yet been eliminated. You may find, as I have, that 8 minutes and 46 seconds can be a long period of time.
During meditation, I have witnessed my mind wondering how is it possible that my eyes were so shut? I have observed shame. I have observed guilt and despair. I have observed hope for change. I have heard the wisdom within shouting at me that mindfulness and meditation practiced by more people is part of the solution.
Ruth King, in her seminal book on racism and mindfulness, Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out, analogizes that racism is a heart disease. “Many of us can live for a while with a heart disease without knowing it, and others of us know we have a heart disease but are afraid or even in denial about it. But racism is a heart disease, and it’s curable!” She goes on to advocate that the best way to transform our relationship with racial suffering is mindfulness meditation and provides valuable recommended mindfulness inquiries for practice.
I was participating in a community program on understanding racism recently, and the speaker referred to a graphic titled Becoming Anti-Racist developed by Andrew M. Ibrahim MD, adopting ideas from work from Ibram X. Kendi, Founding Director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. The graphic illustrated three phases to becoming anti-racist: fear, learning, and growth. In the fear zone, we deny racism is a problem and avoid hard questions. In the learning zone, we seek out questions that make us uncomfortable and then understand our own role in ignoring racism. In the growth zone, we sit with our own discomfort and then we are ready with the inner strength to speak out when we see racism in action.
Our implicit or explicit role in perpetuating racism, and what we have come to be aware are racist policies, is uncomfortable. Sitting with our discomfort as a key to growth really struck a chord with me. During meditation, we step back from our day-to-day thoughts, emotions, and biases and observe them. As the observer or witness we may be able to see our own biases from a different perspective. By bringing our awareness of uncomfortable thoughts and emotions to the surface, we can move beyond fear by acknowledging our biases. When we fail to do so, the thoughts and emotions fester while stored in our subconscious. We can release the power of the emotional charge these repressed emotions have over us by sitting with our discomfort. We can then develop the resolve to listen, learn, and take action against systemic racism.
As Ibram X. Kendi notes in his best selling book How to Be an Antiracist, we often perceive racism to be about people and people’s attitudes toward race, but systemic racism is about racist policy and we are particularly poor at seeing the policies behind the people. He further notes that one either endorses racial hierarchy and allows policies with a disparate racial impact to persevere, as racist, or confronts racial inequities, as anti-racist. Kendi thus concludes: “There is no in safe space of ‘not racist.’ The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.” Too many white Americans have been living our lives as not racist and believing we are colorblind or color neutral not realizing which policies are really racist and that these racist policies by design benefit those at the top of racial and gender hierarchy (white men).
Real change in racist policy resulting in systemic racial inequality will require more people to be aware of the extent to which racism permeates through our society. Change will require more people to consider all people as part of the whole, with a willingness to change to advance equal rights rather than continue the status quo, even if that change puts them at a disadvantage compared to their current privilege. More people acting mindfully and authentically, utilizing the information within this greater awareness, can create change. These are the traits we learn during meditation practice.
Lisa Greenberg Gonzalez at Meditation4Leadership has been guiding an intention meditation during these COVID times acknowledging that we can’t move backwards, we can only live in the present moment and move forward. During the guided meditation, she asks the participants to contemplate three questions:
What do you want to return to?
What do you want to return as?
What is stopping you?
I want to return to an American society that is finally aware of its historic and current biases - an American society where the will of the people demands necessary systemic changes. I want to return as anti-racist. There should be nothing stopping me.
Steven M. Cohen is the author of Leading from Within: A Guide To Maximizing Your Effectiveness Through Meditation, the co-founder and Chair of the Board of Meditation4Leadership, which brings the benefits of mindfulness and meditation practices to the workplace, and a partner in an AmLaw 50 law firm.
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