Thoughts from Annie
Clearing the Weeds of Racism, Sexism, Homophobia, Transphobia, Ableism, and Economic Injustice
If you follow my writing, you may have noticed that I haven’t been blogging as much lately. I’ve invited guest bloggers, pulled from my archives, and written lighter pieces, like the one about the yoga studio’s 15-year anniversary. It’s not a matter of having less time, in fact, these days I have more time to write.
What’s been going on for me is a struggle to find my voice in what feels like a new world, including new awarenesses. Over the last few years, I’ve done a lot of study and reflection on the issues facing our country and our world — issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and economic injustice — to name a few of the more distressing problems. The more I learn, the more it feels unskillful to write about how to be individually happy and free using mindfulness practice without addressing the larger issues facing us as a community and a world. I also realize that my internal biases don’t just keep me stuck and unenlightened, they also contribute to keeping other people trapped in cycles of violence and pain, so my inner work feels more urgent.
Mindfulness is more than relaxing
Contrary to much of what we read in the media, mindfulness meditation is not simply about learning to relax, though it often has that effect, and that’s great. Its deeper purpose is to bring more awareness to the darkness, aka be more en-lightened. When I turn the light on inside myself, I see all the ways I have been conditioned to believe and behave, and I have the chance to consider whether these habits reduce suffering or add to it. Are my conditioned beliefs wise? Are they compassionate toward others and myself? For many of the cultural conditionings I carry– having been raised as a white, middle class heterosexual cisgender woman — the unfortunate answer to some of these questions is no.
Prior to these last few years, I experienced my mindfulness practice in a bubble of privilege, meaning I mostly didn’t learn or teach about social conditioning, only individual conditioning. My Buddhist teacher is the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. He actively used Buddhist practice to take on social ills like war and poverty in his native Vietnam. Thich Nhat Hanh uses the analogy of seeds, or bija, when describing the ways our conditioning leads to ways of being in the world that may cause suffering.
Harmful seeds are there and hard to notice
We all have myriad of seeds in our store consciousness — some from our ancestors and parents, and some from our own experiences. All of our seeds are both individual and collective. These seeds then mature into thoughts, words, life, society and country, and the mature plants reflect the type of seed that was sown. So, unwholesome seeds, like racism, eventually lead to harmful words, actions, and societies, while wholesome seeds, like love, wisdom, and compassion, lead to kind words, actions, and societies.
If we live in this country, we have had the seeds of racism, sexism, and all the other -isms, implanted into our store consciousness. It’s tempting to imagine that I have plucked those “bad seeds” from my consciousness, but I am afraid it’s not that easy. Unless I stay aware of my thoughts and tend to my garden, I don’t always know what seeds are in me, or what plants have grown up and taken over my consciousness. Have you ever watched your untended garden get overwhelmed with weeds, the seeds of which you didn’t know were even there? That’s what happens to us when we aren’t attending to our gardens, except the weeds are what we say and do without thinking, and sometimes without evening knowing it.
Clearing the Weeds
The first step for me was to understand and accept that these unwholesome seeds are there. I’m not likely to rid myself of those seeds in this lifetime, but what I can do is become more conscious when they arise. This has required a lot of education and some generous people willing to shine the light on my dark places. Sometimes people mistake shining the light (an actual practice at Plum Village — more info here) for attacking. You may have heard this action referred to as calling out or calling in. It’s actually a compassionate practice that requires courage from both the one shining the light, and the one being shined on.
When a seed arises, I invite the seed of mindfulness to arise and embrace it, own and understand it, so I am no longer obligated to act out of it. When a racist thought arises, for example, I try to bring mindfulness to recognize it is there. I know that I was conditioned to think this way, so I use inclusive compassion (compassion that includes myself, a term from Dr. Mario Martinez) to feel into the pain that this thought has caused so many people for so long. I can see that these seeds were designed to keep me “safely” in a situation of privilege, but in reality, they have led to actions that caused pain for so many marginalized people. I know that maintaining a culture of oppressor/oppressed causes suffering for everyone — first and foremost for the oppressed. It isn’t what I want, it isn’t humane, and it isn’t sustainable.
My spiritual practice is more than just learning to calm my body and mind — I aim to be a kinder, less harmful person. I don’t want to act in racist, sexist, or homophobic ways. So, when the seeds of these poisonous weeds arise, there is only one option. I must tend my own garden. If I don’t want to act on them, I need to stop speaking and acting right away. I go back to my breathing and I transform my thoughts. These thoughts are not true. So what is true? I may already know the truth, but if I don’t, I need to discover it. I need to read, study, and spend time with people who aren’t like me, so I know that the conditioning I have learned is not true, and so I can stop allowing the seeds wrong perception to grow. I need to replace those seeds with seeds of clearer perception.
Dear friends, the energy that pushes us to do what we do not want to do and say what we do not want to say is the negative habit energy in us. In Sanskrit, the word is vasana. It is very important that we recognize habit energy in us. This energy has been transmitted to us by many generations of ancestors, and we continue to cultivate it. It is very powerful. We are intelligent enough to know that if we do this or say that, we will damage our relationship. Yet when the time comes, we say it or we do it anyway. Why? Because our habit energy is stronger than we are. It is pushing us all the time. The practice aims at liberating ourselves from that kind of habit energy. — Thich Nhat Hanh, Dharma Talk, Transforming Negative Habit Energies
Steps to Heal
So, for those who are interested, the basic steps I use to work with racism, sexism, and my many other biases, go like this:
(1) Know and accept that you have these seeds in you.
(2) Get educated by people for whom you have seeds of negative perceptions (see resource list below).
(3) Let people shine the light on your dark places, or get called out so you are familiar with your personal seed store.
(4) Notice when one of these seeds has arisen and you are having a racist or sexist (or other untrue) thought and be mindful of it.
(5) Stop speaking or acting when that seed arises. Breathe and come back to your body.
(6) Replace that thought with a more truthful one. The only way to know the truth about other people is to make authentic connections with people who aren’t like you. Do that. If you aren’t sure how to do that, consider the people already in your life who have a different life history or different way of showing up in the world, and engage in an open and vulnerable way with them. But (and this is a big one), don’t dump your messy seeds in their lap. Read and study the resources below for support in engaging in ways that don’t cause more harm.
(7) Repeat forever.
There are lots and lots of people doing the work of shining the light on our wrong perceptions. Some of my current favorites are below but this is a very short and very incomplete list of the people I have connected with recently. You will find others. Feel free to share them in the comments below.
Buddhist/Mindfulness lens: Buddhist Peace Fellowship and Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams
Shining the light on white women’s racism: Catrice M. Jackson (books and workshops)
Feminism: Everydayfeminism.com (Sandra Kim)
Gender/Transliberation through a Buddhist lens at Transbuddhists.org
Ability: Eli Claire, and especially the book Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure.
I hope you will begin getting to know your own seeds and the ways they condition you to operate in the world, the ways that may not be to the benefit of all beings. Reach out to me (or other people doing this work) and let me know how it’s going. We all need support as we dig up our harm-producing seeds and replant with the sorts of seeds that will blossom into more beautiful, just and loving ways of living.
I don’t know if you remember me, but I used to come to your studio and to The Sangha near Whole Foods when I visited my mom in DC. At the time I was living in Japan and still do.
I really like your article. Just recently I completed a 200 hour TT and am starting to teach yoga with an emphasis on Mindfulness. I am teaching in Japan now mainly to Japanese. What you write about also makes me look again at how I am living my life and what seeds I have within me. And then it makes me think about how to share that with others. This is just the beginning of the teaching process for me, so thank you for sharing your practice. What you say is so important.
Hi Leigh. YES, it’s great to hear from you again. How wonderful that you are doing a YTT and weaving in mindfulness. I am happy to know you are out there. I think it’s the beginning of the process for everyone, we are always learning more. I really appreciate your comment, especially on this piece, as it’s one that makes me feel a little more vulnerable. xo annie.
Annie- This is such a well-written and sophisticated take on an important and complex subject! Hope you can share it far and wide…
Thanks, Liz! Please feel free to forward on and share far and wide! Not sure how best to do that… if you have suggestions, please email me email@example.com. xo annie.