She is running in the darkness, a young Black woman, breathing hard, stumbling, but moving, moving in exhaustion and fear, but moving. It is dark, but she has a sense of where she is going. This is where I meet Harriet Tubman. This is how I came into practice. So often, the attention placed on Black bodies is focused on what we do with them or what is done to them. Too often, our hearts, our vision, and our spiritual practices are ignored as the action of our bodies are either praised or vilified.
Harriet Tubman has become the epitome of Black woman as action hero. As a student, she has been offered up to me as a model of Black and female empowerment. So often in the case of Black women, we are given accolades for what we do. No one asks the “before the action” questions about the state of our heart or our hurts. But for me, I meet her in fear and faith. She and I are joined in the movement through fear, moving with faith.
What do we do when, like Harriet, we are enveloped in the material outcome of a society that seems to be ruled and riddled with the three poisons of greed, ignorance, and hatred? Many people are facing the material expressions of these poisons in a new way. The sense of helplessness, fear as they watch the lives they have built be reshaped. Mindfulness is being present to the awful truths that were previously covered by association and consumption.
For me, the great spiritual genius of Harriet was her ability to see that the great seemingly unconquerable institution of slavery, the engine of American wealth and white identity, was based on delusion. The delusion that Black people were not human; the delusion that you could be a “good” and “kind” slave master/mistress, that you could be a good Christian enslaver, that you could be a “good” slave. No matter the master, no matter the whip, no matter the compliance, it was all an expression of fear and disconnection.
She looked in and found that quiet space of heart and spirit and found the greater truth: the deep truth that she was a human being. Before she took a step, before she made a plan, she took a breath and divined that she was not a slave, and they were not her masters.
I believe that her journey began with the breath and a moment of quiet. It is here that my own journey for freedom began, with the breath and the space to be found between the inhale and the exhale.
Many are now experiencing a journey through fear. We are bombarded with the invitation to move out of the breath, to move out of the body, to become like the commercially approved Harriet Tubman, and to do something NOW!
There is indeed a lot to be done. The three poisons are expressing themselves in old and new ways. The challenge is great and will be long-standing. White supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, etc. will continue to express themselves, perhaps the virulence of their expression will be more intense. The practice of being present to all that will arise will require Harriet’s ability to be with fear, terrorism, and uncertainty.
I believe that Harriet gives us a model for action, and the first step is to breathe in and out, in and out, in and out. To connect to our hearts and to see what is real and what is an expression of delusion. This is the work, the journey, the crucial action that sustains all other actions flowing from it.
May we all be free of inner and outer harm.
Ayesha Ali is a poet, writer and teacher. She teaches a monthly meditation class at IMCW.