I suppose 6 weeks is plenty of time for a little self-assessment, especially as I’ve noticed some … wandering, I guess you could say.
Meditation has been good so far this year – consistent in the mornings, which is always best for me. The quality of the sit varies, naturally. Sometimes I can barely manage two minutes of actual focus. Sometimes it’s more. Sitting before work is crucial to my overall wellbeing and I’ve recognized and therefore been disciplined about that, but it seems wellbeing without wisdom and oversight is not quite enough.
I’ve been an Officer at my employer’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee for years, almost since it was initiated. It’s probably time to step off, and I will in 2023, but we’ve always had trouble recruiting officers (few people have enough breathing room in their jobs to take on the commitment, company support for the roles is limited), and it is my favorite part of my work. It is also the place in my life where I have the most direct impact on the education of White people. Our staff is composed of lots of well-meaning White folks, many of whom have limited experience with different cultures and an unintentionally parochial worldview. The trainings we’ve commissioned and led, on everything from White Cultural Supremacy to Islamophobia to Indigenous Approaches to Disability, really seem to have opened people up, and rarely freaked them out enough to get defensive.
Nonetheless, more substantive Committee proposals have made painfully slow progress. We have been asking Leadership for an Inclusion Statement for 3 years, and the only movement in that direction has been from the committee itself. We asked for a policy on responding to Tragic Events (a weak email about George Floyd’s murder came long after he was killed, and only after the DEI committee had already communicated with staff – and been admonished for doing so), and were eventually told that Leadership would only respond to events that directly impacted operations. We have no people of color in leadership, and only two BIPOC supervisors in a 200+ employee nonprofit. There have been some improvements – a greater percentage of BIPOC employees and Board members, some other accommodations for non-European cultures, religions, etc. but the Committee’s frustrations are manifold.
Another Officer reached out to me about our antagonistic relationship with Leadership, with a goal to mitigate that this year. I wholeheartedly agreed. And then I fell into the seductive arms of collective anger.
Leadership had us amend our Black History Month post not because anything in it was inaccurate or offensive or inappropriate – they couldn’t call out a single word or line – but because it made them feel, let me translate: icky. A week later, they “asked” us to host a “space” for staff to talk about the police killing yet another Black man in the Twin Cities, and when we explained that a group of White DEI Officers should not hold space for Black people who most need that space held, they announced that to the organization that we would do it anyway.
Do you feel it? That delicious distemper? That noble nastiness? That righteous rage? They’re clearly wrong, right? And they’re not wronging me. They’re wronging others. Better still, I have a cohort that agrees with me, who will bring their own passion and lift up my own. People with whom I can, if not demonize, at least criticize and somewhat vilify our primary antagonist.
Many of my teachers in last year’s Buddhist training talked about anger. How could they not, since they were promoting mindful social action in a program imagined while Trump was still in office. There was a lot more ambivalence around this fiery emotion than I had anticipated, however. More recognition of its power to motivate and even purge. And I have much more to learn about it, undoubtedly. My relationship with anger is largely one of dismissal.
Unlike many women, apparently, I have never had difficulty expressing anger. For whatever sexism I was raised with (less than many, more than some), anger was not discouraged in my household. I couldn’t get angry at my father – that was not allowed – but I could get angry at the world, at people we disapproved of, at the police, at politicians. I had no problem pulling off theatre performances as an enraged wife, director, prostitute, actor, medical student. (Apparently I have a very scary glare.)
I couldn’t turn it off, though. I was an angry, angry person. My cohort in acting school was, for whatever reason, chock full of angry, angry people. In our group of ~25 students there were a half dozen guys periodically flying off the handle, and me. I chain smoked and drove dangerously fast and drank a half dozen cups of coffee every morning and slept very little and in the rare times I noticed my body, it was like every blood cell was a whirling dervish of rage. All the pain I had been unable to express to the people who had hurt me perpetually simmered under the surface, spitting out steam at my fellow drivers and uncooperative retail employees, through sing/screaming to loud music, and onstage.
Once I got beyond that turmoil and saw it for the grating, exhausting force it was, I became vigilant about avoiding that state of being. Weirdly enough, it’s not that hard most of the time. I don’t worry about screaming at the radio when a politician puts their own reelection ahead of the lives of other human beings, or any of the other countless injustices that happen every day. Because I don’t hold onto it. I yell, I let go, I move on. (Meditation can take much of the credit.) I try to redirect any lingering energy towards something positive, or at least neutral. I remember that we are all flawed, fucked up little humans.
But that righteous group anger …. mmmm-mmmmm. It doesn’t feel bad. It feels delicious. When the DEI Officers got together to air our grievances about Leadership, it felt like getting together with a group of close girlfriends to talk about an overlooked artistic triumph. There was camaraderie and passion and pride and joy and frustration and fun. I didn’t feel like I was crawling with subdermal fire ants; I didn’t feel the need to scream to a Hole song. And there was something valuable and perhaps spiritually neutral in it: sharing frustrations, validating perceptions, and discussing & interpreting behavior aren’t inherently negative or destructive. But retrospectively, I saw that we had simplified the matter; that we had concentrated the complicated world of White supremacy down to a single point – the messenger for the organization; that our focus had subtly shifted from doing the right thing to winning. I did not have the courage to address an unearned insult thrown at the absent messenger, because I had been walking that unethical, cruel line in my own speech. Once the conversation was over, I had to take a good look at myself.
Right speech is hard. Our culture subtly and incessantly encourages talking shit. There is community to be found around naming a common enemy, around demonizing the other, around denying their humanity. I’ve been able to recognize it and avoid it on the large topics of the day – I don’t call all anti-vaccers idiots; I don’t call all Trump supporters Nazis; I do my best to look for a reasonable explanation for behavior from the right wing, and when I can’t find it, I look for the source of the behavior in the system, not in the “evil” of specific individuals. I try to practice my favorite cheesy aphorism: Don’t get furious, get curious. Why did I fall off the wagon at work? It’s not the first time. Groupthink has definitely seduced me before, and it’s so much easier to get sucked into it when COVID has left so many of us so lonely. But it is truly icky. It goes against what my Buddhish heart and mind believe, and it simply doesn’t help me be a force of love in the world.
So, 44 days into 2022, I guess the resolution that has forced itself upon me is to practice Right Speech, and hope it wriggles on down into my thoughts and bones. I will doubtless fail again and again, but they say the path, like the precepts, is not a do or die. Just as you haven’t failed if you get caught up in thoughts while sitting, you haven’t failed if your speech lacks empathy once in a while. It’s a practice, it’s about returning to the commitment again and again. Sometimes method acting is just too hard, sometimes you have to work from the outside in.