Aspiring Allies Finding Our Way

In our Buddhist and mindfulness communities there are many times that call for us to be allies to one another. My own aspiring ally journey has brought a lot of growth along with many setbacks–heart-felt intentions along with plenty of uncomfortable mistakes–and it continues to bring deeper, more real, loving, joyful relationships with folks in my life. On this journey I’ve been looking for freedom; freedom and justice for myself and for all beings. All of this is spiritual practice.

I need to get honest here: I’m having a rough time with all this at the moment. It feels like some of us are just now waking up to the harm and violence from white supremacy (and many other forms of systemic, violent oppression), that others of us have known and lived with for generations. And it feels like some of us are still sleeping. I get frustrated, angry, and judgmental with just about everyone (well, mostly with myself).

I’m writing this as a Buddhist practitioner and as an aspiring ally.

“Ally” here refers to times where I’m coming from places of systemic privilege, and working toward greater racial, gender, disability (and other areas of) justice. And I use “aspiring,” aware that I’m doing the best I can (but always far from perfect), hopefully continually learning and growing; and acknowledging that whether or not I’m being an ally is actually for others to decide.

I am a white, cisgender, mostly able-bodied, U.S.-born, elder gay man.

All these identities (and more) are held at the same time — some of them more marginalized, while many of these come with unearned power and privilege that our culture’s systems give me. Every one of us all holds our own unique mix of identities, pain and privilege, joys and sorrows. With my unique mix of interconnected identities, I experience and am treated by the world, differently from folks with mixes different from mine.

Lama Rod Owens says, “We’re born into systems, and these systems are informing us; they’re shaping our development.… I tuned into those messages from the world, because I’ve been looking for freedom my whole life.”

In terms of potential sources of refuge, I’ve frankly gotten a bit overwhelmed with all the current online invitations and virtual offerings — it seems like every mindfulness teacher and social justice leader are offering their classes, workshops, blogs, podcasts, Zoom retreats, online dharma talks….  So much guidance, so much wisdom and compassion calling to me from my laptop. I’m mostly overwhelmed, so it’s pretty tempting to stay stuck and immobilized.

After decades of practice myself, I “should” be better at all this. (I also “should” be writing a book, leading activist efforts, putting out podcasts.) So, I’m writing at this moment in part to get real, and to tend to some of the poisons that currently keep me from the freedom (and the lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity) that our practice tells us is always right here.

I experience many thoughts, stories, and messages that come at me from lifetimes of conditioning, that hinder my aspiring ally journey, and that bring on more suffering for myself and others. Maybe some of you will recognize these messages as well: “It’s not my fault!” “But what about the hurt and suffering that I’VE been through?” “I’m a GOOD white person.” “Not ALL men–I’m one of the good ones.” “I’m not racist.” “I don’t see race or color; we’re all just people, right?” “Where’s my thank you?” “I’m exhausted; I need a break.” “But isn’t Buddhism about lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and ease? This doesn’t feel like that!” I not only hear these messages in my head, but I’ve sometimes said them out loud myself, and sometimes I’ve heard them from other well-intentioned folks.

So, what are the potential antidotes?

While there are more specific and occasionally skillful responses to each of these messages; there are two simple ways to practice with many kinds of intrusive and/or recurring thoughts:

  • We can acknowledge and accept they are there; we can let ourselves feel them in our bodies; and we can bring compassion and lovingkindness to this being who has these thoughts and feelings.
  • We can challenge the messages lovingly, with a response I’ve heard a number of teachers offer: “Real but not true.” While the message feels very real to us; after pausing for a bit of further investigation, is it actually true?

Too often, rather than consciously working with these messages, or “metabolizing” them (another teaching from Lama Rod) whether within, through mindful attention, or speaking out them in supportive spaces to challenge and heal; I deny or stay silent. I’ll avoid speaking up for fear of making a mistake, offending someone, and being called out for it. I wonder if this may be familiar to you.

A powerful address, “6 Rules for Allies,” given by Dr. Omi Osun Joni Jones, at the University of Texas, Austin speaks to the need for allies to speak up: “Speaking up does mean being willing to relinquish some piece of privilege in order to create justice. Allies step up. They do the work that has left others weary and depleted.” One more of her rules: “Welcome Opportunities to Examine Your Racism, Sexism, Homophobia: When called out about your racism, sexism or homophobia, don’t cower in embarrassment. Don’t cry. And don’t silently think “she’s crazy” and silently vow never to interact with her again. We are ALL plagued by sexism, racism and homophobia. Be grateful that someone took the time to expose yours… Exposure is a step toward freedom.”

May all beings be safe and protected from inner and outer harm.

May all beings experience justice and freedom.

May all beings be free.

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