On Decolonizing My Mind
This time it happened at the silent retreat. 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. Just like when I was a kid. 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 and learn to say I don’t know.
Knowing about Erasure
But, that hurts. Forty years ago it felt demeaning, and it is happening again at this class for experienced meditation students. Someone just commented in front of the whole class 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.
But Buddhism wasn’t invented nor brought over to the U.S. 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 long before Joseph, Sharon, and Jack? To be accepted as proper places of worship, the Buddhist temples had to be renamed as churches, but these pioneers were the first to seed Buddhism in the U.S.
I looked at the teacher’s face. How did she respond to this student’s comments? Her face appeared pleasant, light, and calm; her head bobbed gently up and down as if in approval. Student and teacher linked to each other in mutual appreciation of this false narrative that Buddhism was brought over by their white elders. How could it be so easy for white folks to take over another culture’s goods and call it their own? Didn’t we agree on the precept of not taking what is not given? I felt shut out, obliterated by this mindless act of white supremacy - an insensitive remark that is at once unintentional but utterly disrespectful. How could my beloved sangha be so clueless? As seconds ticked on without anyone challenging this remark, disbelief turned into doubt. Did I get it wrong? Am I making too big a deal? Shame and anger boiling over into rage. Aawwwwwwuuuuggghhh.
Breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, suck in the air. Breathe, breathe, breathe. Out. Breathe, breathe, breathe. In. Breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe. You can do it. Breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe.
No. Can’t. I can’t. Gotta go now.
Leave. Leave. Hurry! I’m burning.
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 my 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 is no longer 95% of us white. With one swift comment, the class is sliced apart. It had become us vs. them. Colonization re-established, and white supremacy reaffirmed.
Though I stayed, my heart is bruised. 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 a proper 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.
But it was a precarious safety. Though seemingly peaceful and quiet on the outside, there was no resolution nor rest for this heart within. Accept but defend against the inevitable, relentless invisibility. Not me. 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 in the history of an Other. They need me to be their token diversity yogi, employee, and student. They need me to make the minority quota and rewrite their history as one that is inclusive and non-racist. Yet, they continue to mark my Asian features as foreign. No matter how long I or my ancestors have lived in this country, I am still asked to speak about my culture.
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 supremacy. A few days later when I brought this incident to the teacher in a private one-on-one interview, she thought it was a benign comment. She explained 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 her comment wasn’t true. “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. It’s not how I see it.
What do I do then? Run. Gotta run. Run away to a safe place!
Have I been found? Do they know what I truly think? Here now at a different meditation center, they just denied my request for a POC (people of color) space to sit within this silent retreat. Should I not have mentioned anything? Have I betrayed the establishment? If they know that I do not see myself through their lens, what will happen? Will there still be a place for me?
I can’t be found out. I can’t be seen as a trouble maker. They must believe that I am one of their own. I 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? African American scholar W.E.B. DuBois called it “...a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others.”
When I spoke about feeling ill at ease and alienated from community, another highly-regarded white dharma teacher advised me: “It’s all conditioning. Just meditate and look deeply into those conditionings. Can you see it another way? Be free now. We see you as one of us, and we welcome you into our folds.”
While I appreciated her generous attempts to include me, I did not feel understood. I think she saw me white like her. She could not sit with my distress, and she could not fathom how certain conditions at the retreat could lead to my feelings of loneliness and isolation. Once again, the responsibility was mine - to sort through my conditioning and cut through my delusion of separateness.
It wasn’t until I began sitting with a POC sangha that I felt seen finally and fully for having a skin color, a minority experience, and a double consciousness. I was not alone and my stories not uncommon. A sense of relief poured over every cell of my body as I began to hear other voices of marginalization, invisibility, accommodation, injustice, rage, and loss. I cried. I smiled. I felt. I knew. I relaxed. I am safe, and I am home.
Erasure Resisted: Staying Alive to the Truth
“Walk rather than drive. That’s what I do. I don’t want to be dead for driving while black.” My friend Derrin, a Buddhist practitioner, realized he would be better off walking than driving. He wanted to blend in and not risk being targeted. A few years later when Derrin moved to a rural town in a predominantly white part of the state, 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 ran his fingers over the thinning white hair on his head. “Well, maybe old age will be on my side now.” He smiled, hoping that he will be seen as a harmless elder next time he is 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.
“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 really funny!” I look at my husband laughing at my mispronunciation in front of our children. The children don’t say a thing, not sure if they found it funny too. 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 laugh aloud and enunciate each word very slowly and loudly as if I were deaf and dumb: “Oh! You mean YOU ARE COLLLD. . .” Shamed and made to feel as if I should know how to pronounce such simple words, I’d smile along, hoping to suppress the reddening of my cheeks that would call out my vulnerability to the whole wide world.
This time I don’t even know how it happened, but 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 exclusion. 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 is not my mother tongue. I was not born here. I could never understand. And there was nothing I could do to stop the mockery.
Yet, because I could pause, I did. Perhaps I had practiced meditation long enough to trust silence and take refuge in it. And in this moment of mindful silence, a rebellion against erasure was born. Instead of shoving away these difficult feelings, I stayed present and became aware of another 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.
The story is that others have found my differences 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. I’ve felt the dismissive rolling of the eyes and the shoulders’ turning away, and I’ve also felt the giddy laughter as well as kind words of compassion, “Hey mom, look at my mouth. Say old with me. Old… That’s right! Now, add the c, the k sound. C-old.” Cold... “You got it! Yay!”
But this story of responding to differences is not just theirs to tell. As an immigrant girl, I did not like how my speech, action, and thoughts differed from the majority’s. I could sense people’s discomfort over these differences, and their aversion made me feel awkward and embarrassed. Differences made me an outsider, and I wanted in. If I could be rid of my accent, then I’d belong. If I could meet the cultural expectations of a minority Asian female, then I’d be accepted. Be it that I blend in by laughing at the jokes, or be it that I stand up for all Taiwanese people or the POC at a diversity panel, that was my role. That was my ticket in.
No. But no more. I did not need to play this game anymore. I did not care to be co-opted into this drama of the colonizer and the colonized. Where did this shame over differences come from? Why was it necessary for me to speak perfect English? Why did it become all my responsibility to adapt and accommodate? In this meeting of differences, who has the power to dictate the terms of our conduct? What stories do we make up about what happens? And how do those stories inform who we are and what we do?
The 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 solely responsible and that I needed to do something to fix their discomfort. I did not need to compensate for my “deficiency” by attending Harvard, Stanford, and M.I.T., or by overachieving 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.
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, however, fed 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 the fullness of his humanity was not erased. 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.
As a white American Buddhist monk Ajahn Sumedho said: “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."
Freedom from Erasure: 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 didn’t 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 and said: “May I give you a hug?” I felt the twisted pressure to accept his well-intended gesture, he who had such eagerness to support the POC folks. But the hug positioned him as the powerful and me the powerless. I stepped away: “No thanks. I’m all right.” I did not need to appease him. Not my story to play the weak female minority and take care of his ego.
This time it stopped when I was asked to teach at a new program. I did not need to add another commitment 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. Noticing my perception of difference and apathy, I gasped. Ouch! 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. Breathing with the dukkha of erasure, knowing its insubstantiality, my body heart softened. Separated no more, I am delighted to connect.
This time it stopped when I was no longer embarrassed by my pronunciation. No need to apologize. Not me. Not my story.
This time it stopped when I did not explain why I needed to take space.
I am here, and I belong.
In this essay titled “ On Decolonizing Myself”, I begin with everyday experiences of erasure and marginalization as an immigrant woman of color at Buddhist retreats, meditation centers, and personal life. I conclude with ways in which I found liberation. The essay shows the process of decolonization in three parts - knowing about erasure, resistance, and freedom. It provides intimate glimpses of direct experiences internally and externally into the dynamics of colonization and decolonization of the mind. It shows how the practices of mindfulness, insight, and metta can directly counter the harm of erasure in our consciousness in this post-colonial time. I hope that readers of all racial backgrounds will see themselves reflected in these real stories and learn from them. I hope they will be inspired to wake up to the Dharma of Inclusion in their consciousness and actions. This essay will be part of a teaching memoir that I am writing currently. I welcome your feedback and comments.
Author’s Note Take Two:
The term colonization is generally used to describe a foreign government that settles in a new land and imposes its own cultural norms on the local, native people by force. In this essay, colonization refers to the pervasive societal conditioning of the mind to accept and follow white dominant cultural norms in the U.S. Decolonization refers to the loosening of that conditioning and the awakening of the mind that challenges those norms. The essay portrays the process of decolonization in three parts: knowing about erasure, resistance, and freedom. It takes place within the mind heart of an immigrant woman of color as she navigates the complex dynamics of (de)colonization in predominantly white meditation spaces and everyday family life.
It is the author’s hope that non-white or non-dominant people will find their experiences reflected, validated, and understood in this essay. White or dominant culture people will have a better understanding of the impact of their implicitly biased actions. Both groups will learn about the internal process of colonization and the subsequent impact of disconnection within themselves and separation from others and the world at large. The author is aware that her perspective and everyone else’s come from years of social conditioning that institutionalize white superiority, that most of us think the culture’s thoughts. Nevertheless, we practice so that our mind can be decolonized and our heart awakened from the illusion of our separateness. We practice to open the borders of our identities. We practice so that freedom in our beloved community is possible in this very moment of imperfect conditions.