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Remember to Remember: Identity, Privilege and Waking Up

Remember to Remember - Michelle Johnson

I am participating in a weekend workshop in Portland, called Skill in Action - a workshop tasked with dismantling oppression in our meditation communities and teachings.

Remember to remember, Michelle says. And something in her tone, cracks open a well in my heart. She is not just speaking to me. She is speaking to the collective. The truth in each one of us and the integrity we have to live this truth. This work isn’t easy, but we must do it.

Remember to remember. Is an origin story. It asks, who are you? Who are you really? Because you are not what society/culture tell you, you are. You are more then your dominant identities, more then your marginal identities, more then any story that any one person told you about yourself, including yourself. In zen we say, not just this, not just this, not just this, and we keep going, we take that NOT all the way down to the bottom. This is the practice of Inquiry in Zen.

Yet these stories are realities we must navigate. As a white woman, there are so many ways I walk around white and unaware. White and seemingly comfortable in many of the spaces that I am expected to function (from the bank, to the grocery store, speeding down the highway past cop cars, in the medical system, restaurants, places of entertainment, yoga classes, and my spiritual community). I see people who look like me holding positions of power in all of these spaces.

In spiritual community, which is my place of work as a priest, I see the leaders as looking out for me, understanding me and wanting to help me find my own power. I am given opportunities to step into leadership, and I feel supported, like I could be a teacher someday. This privilege and comfort is whiteness. And it is pervasive. It follows me everywhere, and I don’t have to notice it. Actually systems are set up in such a way that I am not supposed to notice it.

If systems are set up so that those with dominate identities are not supposed to notice all the power and privilege they are afforded —how do those with dominate identities naturally react to those with marginalized identities? This question is worth deep personal introspection. And also it is worth looking to culture media representation to get a clue. Fear, indifference, blame? The system is set up this way. That we don’t see each other, that we are afraid of each other, that we blame each other.

At the Zen Community of Oregon we are in the fourth year of a process of education for white people called Awakening to Whiteness. This is a six month education process, where people come together every month and are given the space and presence to reflect on how the re-education materials (readings, articles and videos on the history of race in America, the making and reinforcing of systems of oppression, recognizing whiteness and white privilege and how it harms and separates) help shift their identity.

For anyone who is practicing Dharma and finds themselves in a dominant identity it is part of our moral and ethical work to look honestly at how our participation/ignorance of systems of oppression causes collective harm. Lama Rod in his most recent talk in Portland at KCC, said to paraphrase, understanding whiteness is important, and, do more.

He also said, that we need to recognize that samsara is samsara, we can not fix samsara. The way things are, is the way things are.
As social justice language converges with the language and forms of the traditions, we have the opportunity or should I say the imperative to look at our lives as part of a system, part of a process. A process of evolution, that enables us to inquire into the ways we separate, tense and protect around self identity - and marginalize an apparent “other.”

How does the heart feel when we separate? What is the texture of the suffering being enacted? How does it ripple out and effect those around us? And beyond, in space and time?

As practitioners, may we be willing to look at the tight places in the heart, the biases in our minds, and the ways we continue to benefit/participate in systems of oppression. This isn’t work that will end in a couple of classes or conversations. It’s hard work. Life long work. And we must do it.

This is the recognition of non-separation, of inter-being. It is the living of the Bodhisattva Vow.

To listen to Lama Rod’s most recent talk Radical Dharma