A POC Meditator’s Guide to Decolonizing the Mind
Part I. Knowing about Erasure
This time it happened at the silent retreat. Began with their forgiveness. Even the know-it-all didn’t know it all. Even the big people falter. Even the teachers.
It is so easy to believe. It is so easy to surrender my intelligence to them, my own knowing to theirs.
Smile and say, yeah, like, like, I don’t know. Smile, and drop the grammatically correct English that newly arrived immigrants speak. If I want to fit in, if I want to be American, I gotta drop the intelligence. Smile and pretend I don’t know. Numb the mind. No, you’re not that smart. Don’t try to answer that question and make the other kids think you know more than they do! They won’t like that. You won’t be liked.
Step One. Learn to say I don’t know.
But, that hurts. That was demeaning. Buddhism in the U.S. wasn’t invented by Joseph, Sharon, and Jack. What about the Asian folks from generations ago that came to build the trans-continental railroads and grow the crops? What about the Buddhist temples that they built and attended generations before Joseph, Sharon, and Jack? To be accepted as proper places of worship, those Buddhist temples had to be renamed as churches, but these early American Buddhists were the first to teach meditation, chanting, and other Buddhist practices.
I looked at the teacher’s face. How did she respond to this student’s comment that we have much to thank Joseph because he invented Buddhism in the U.S.? “Oh, I meant he brought Buddhism to the U.S.” The student quickly corrected herself. Meanwhile, the teacher’s face appeared pleasant, light, and calm; her head bopped gently up and down as if in approval. Student and teacher linked to each other in mutual appreciation of a whiteness that could easily name another’s as their own. Fuck the precept of do no harm and not taking what is not given. Uphold white power with fake news, and cover the room in whiteness.
Step Two. Learn to Stop Feeling the Ouch.
Breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, suck in the air. breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, out, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe. You can do it.
No. Can’t. I can’t.
Gotta go now.
Leave. Leave. Hurry!
Instead I stayed.
I didn’t smile but I didn’t speak either. I sat and I stayed. Heat inching up the back of my neck onto my naked face. Feelings of anger, hurt, disbelief and rejection singed my cheeks. Staying still but breathing rapidly, the body roared helplessly within.
Eventually the breathing slowed, heart no longer pounding. Skin, flesh, face cooled. I sat still like all the other sixty-some meditators in this dharma hall. None of them questioned the truth of what was said. 95% of them white. Please note: it’s no longer 95% of us white. With one swift comment, it had become us vs. them. The class divided and sliced apart: colonization re-established, and white supremacy reaffirmed.
Though I stayed, my heart is ejected. Betrayed by my beloved teacher. Erased by the class’s silent complicity that Buddhism was brought over by their white founding father Joseph, just like America was founded by Jefferson and Washington. This land is their land. There is no room for an Asian American woman who thought otherwise. I got quiet. Real quiet. Silence befitting of a true meditator and a good team player.
Silenced until my heart turned numb and mind insensitive. Remembering to tuck away what made me different. Safety first.
Step Three. Wear the Face of the Other
Darn. Not again. I’ve been asked to represent and speak about my birth culture. Why? Why do I have to stick out! Why can’t I blend in like everyone else? Can I tell them that I have lived here five times longer than my birth country? Do I have to explain that English has become my primary language because Chinese had fallen into dis-use and forgotten in this American life?
No matter. They need you to be their token diversity yogi, employee, and student. They need you to make the minority quota that reassures them that they are kind, generous folks who do not discriminate.
No matter. You will always wear the face of the Other.
This body restless, her breaths quick, six senses vigilant - see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and know. Accept the inevitable. Accept the relentless invisibility. Not me. Not mine. Not my story, but I still have to carry the weight no matter what day of the week, what time of the day. I wear the face of the Other, and I live the history of an Other.
It is tiring, and I am going to sleep. I will find a place to sleep until this is all over. Or, I will leave and begin again bright-eyed and open-hearted somewhere else. Or, I will pretend none of this happened. None of the other sixty-some students will recall that moment anyways because nothing had disrupted their knowing. No one will believe that it was an act of cultural appropriation or an assertion of white superiority. A few days later when I brought up this incident in a private one-on-one interview with the teacher, she thought it was a benign comment. She continued to explain in her light-hearted way: “Oh I know her. She meant no harm. She’s sweet, sincere, and a very kind long term yogi.” But it wasn’t true. She told a lie. “And, really she meant no harm. Don’t worry about it. Oh, but do speak up next time. I know you can do it.”
I am to believe that what I felt to be harmful was not. I am to believe that who I felt to be accountable was not. No way could it have been white supremacy in action. Silly me. The table turned, and now it was my fault for disrupting the status quo and up to me to correct the wrong. The teacher looked to me for fixing it: speak up next time. You can do it. But no, it’s not my responsibility to fix it. It’s not how I see it.
Step Four. Consciousness Divided
The next thing is… RUN. Gotta run. Run away to a safe place! Have I been found? Do they know what I truly think? They just denied my request for a POC space to sit within this retreat. Should I not have mentioned anything? Have I betrayed the establishment?
If they know that I do not see myself white like them, what will happen? Will there still be a place for me?
I can’t be found out. They must believe that I am one of their own. I want to be liked and accepted. I can’t be seen as a trouble maker. I desperately want to belong, but at what costs? To assimilate, I must internalize the master’s tools, and I must be re-educated to protect their ethos. To survive, I must blend in, and that means erasing my different ways of thinking if they don’t serve the master, or at the very least, I should keep them to myself.
But this pain of separation is harsh and forever present … how will I hold this truth that is different from the majority’s? Will it be easier to forget? Who else holds this double truth?
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity…”* (W.E. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk)
When I spoke about these painful feelings of separation, of feeling judged by others and myself for the color of my skin, and of feeling like I plainly did not belong, another highly-regarded white dharma teacher advised me: “It’s all conditioning. Just meditate and look deeply into those conditioning. Be free now. We see you, and we welcome you into our folds.”
Part II. Resistance
Step One. Staying Alive
“Walk rather than drive. That’s what I do. I don’t want to be dead for driving while black.” My friend Derrin realized that he would be better off walking than driving. He wanted to blend in and not risk being targeted. A few years later Derrin moved to a rural town in a predominantly white part of the state, and he is worried. “I’m going to have to drive, and I’m going to be stopped by a police officer in the middle of nowhere. What do I do? How can I protect myself?” Derrin moved his fingers over the thin grey hair on his head and chin, smiled and said, “well, maybe old age will be on my side now” - hoping that he will be seen as a harmless elder next when stopped for driving while black.
Although I’ve never been arrested because of my race, I am easily mistaken for another Asian woman - be it at my children’s school when I was asked about another Asian child as if I were their mother, or recently at a funeral where someone complimented me on my speech when it was not I who spoke about the deceased. I have also been ridiculed for my accent.
Step Two. Pausing to Feel and Know
“Ear! How many ears? Ha-ha! How many ears has it been?” Oh no, I’m so sorry. My accent is terrible. I can’t pronounce year. I can’t get the “y”. “That’s okay. It’s funny. I like it. I don’t mind. It’s funny!” I look at my husband laughing at my mispronounciation in front of our children. The children don’t say a thing, not sure if they found it funny too. I see that I could join in the laughter, but this time, I did not react. There have been other times when people puzzled and sneered at my accent. “What? What do you mean you’re code?” And, when they understood what I meant, they would blast aloud and enunciate each word very slowly and loudly as if I were deaf and dumb: “Oh! You mean YOU ARE C O L L L D...”
Shamed and made to feel as if I should know how to pronounce such simple words, I’d smile feebly (along but shrink inside), hoping to stymie the reddening of my cheeks that would call out my vulnerability to the whole wide world.
This time, though I felt the shame, I did not join the laughter. I paused and stayed silent until the jokesphere was over. I listened internally to my own feelings of hurt, anger, rejection, and resistance. I hated not getting a joke, and worse, I hated being the butt of a joke. I felt my whole body deflating from exhaustion. Feeble and powerless. This is an old code reminding me once again that I did not belong: English was not my mother tongue. I was not born here. I could never understand. And there was nothing I could do to stop the ridicule.
Pausing in silence, however, I started a rebellion against erasure. I stayed present to an inner truth. I did not find “ear” funny, and I did not need to pretend that it was funny. I did not need to collude in faulting this Asian immigrant for her failure at fitting in. It suddenly dawned on me that I was not the problem. Not me, not mine.
Step Three. Insight That Frees
The story is that others have found my difference unsettling. Whether that made them feel superior and want to put me down, or it made them feel annoyed and frustrated, break out into hysterical laughter, or even sweet compassion, that is their story, and I’ve felt it all from them who found me different. I’ve felt a dismissive roll of the eyes, the supercilious turning away of the shoulders, and I’ve also felt the giddy laughter as well as kind words of compassion, “Hey mom, say old”. Old... “That’s right! Now, add the c, the k sound. C-old.” Cold… “You got it! Yay!”
This insight that it is not my story and not my problem allowed me some distance from others’ perceptions and projections. I could experience their reactions without feeling as if I were responsible and that I needed to do something to fix it. I did not need to compensate for my “deficiency” by attending Harvard, Stanford, and M.I.T., or by over-achieving in myriad other ways in order to have a place at the table. I could simply show up just as I am. That is enough. Of course, if there were any possibility of physical harm, I would remove myself.
Step Four. Metta That Frees
For my friend Derrin, he minimized the risk of physical harm by removing driving from his life, and to combat his rage over the injustices of racial profiling, he practiced metta, the Buddhist meditation of lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. He lived the daily assaults of negative perceptions, and he was well aware of the growing rightful rage that was eating him up internally. Metta gave him an unconditional regard for his loveliness and wellbeing even if society saw him as a threat. Metta defused the rage and graced his heart so that he did not have to be alienated and bitter. Both of us knew that our happiness could not wait until social justice is achieved. We had practiced long enough to know that our dignity and inner freedom could not be dependent on external conditions.
“Of course we can always imagine more perfect conditions, how it should be ideally, how everyone should behave. But it is not our task to create an ideal.
It’s our task to see how it is, and to learn from the world as it is.
For the awakening of the heart, conditions are always good enough.” Ajahn Sumedho
Part III. Freedom and Sovereignty
This time it stopped at the silent retreat. Erasure resisted. I woke up to the Buddha leaving my heart, and I said no. Stay. Don’t flee. Stay awake to the knowing. You know that comment was exclusive and harmful. You can’t assume that the teachers know and will take care of it.
Don’t keep giving up your wisdom.
This time it stopped at the joke that I didn’t get. Instead of smiling along as if I knew what was going on, I stopped pretending. I asked for an explanation. I am entitled.
This time it stopped when they did not respond to my question. I stopped pretending that it didn’t matter or that I did not notice their disregard. I repeated the question louder because I cared.
This time it stopped when the white male teacher put his arms around me. “May I give you a hug?” he asked. Instead of waiting for an answer, he would already be wrapping his arms around my shoulders. I could feel his self-serving need for me to see myself dependent on his support, to see him as a white savior, an ally for the POC folks. I said no. I did not need to please him. I stepped away, and I said I don’t need a hug. But, do you need a hug?
This time it stopped when I was asked to teach at a new program. I did not need to add another commitment to a full schedule just so I could feel important.
This time it stopped when I almost ignored a request for supporting a LGBTQIA+ group. As a cisgender woman of Asian descent, I thought: What do I have in common with this group? Why would I care about a group that I did not identify strongly with? Maybe someone else could make the donation. Ouch! Noticing my perception of difference, division, and apathy, I gasped. It doesn’t have to be this way. These attitudes of Othering tighten my heart, and I don’t need to respond this way. I don’t want to turn away. I already know from years of personal experience how it feels to be excluded, marginalized, and objectified. This time the erasure stopped, and the heart opened to the pains of these habits of mind that like to dismiss and exclude. In opening to feeling and knowing, tightening is naturally released, and the heart softened. Separation no more. No more us vs. them. I am absolutely delighted to connect.
This time it stopped when I was in deep meditation. I could feel my mind sinking into the comfort zone of no thoughts and no feelings. Nowhere to go. Nothing to do. No worries anywhere. Instead of drifting off in this blank, sleepy state, I awoke to the awareness of sloth and torpor. Erasure resisted. I dropped the laziness and raised these questions: What is being known? Does this lead to liberation?
This time it stopped when I was no longer embarrassed by my pronounciation. No need to apologize. Not me. Not my story.
This time it stopped when I did not accept the invitation for yoga teacher training. I did not need another credential to shore up my worth.
This time it stopped when I did not explain why I needed to take space.
I am here, and I belong.