Ineed to find a way to deal with my anger at racism before it overwhelms me. I behave in a civilized manner. I don’t scream at or beat or kill anyone, but anger festers within me, keeping me from being aware of my own potential.
Buddhism provides concrete methods to deal with anger, but it’s difficult to practice the precepts while under constant attack. I think of the Zen Buddhist story about the traveling monks who were suddenly con- fronted by assailants. One monk chose to sit and meditate while the others ran off. His screams as he was murdered were heard a great distance away. This is my dilemma, too. In moments of crisis, how is Buddhism practiced?
I Am An African American female, raised in a two-parent home by college-educated parents. I was always taught that education was primary and that my potential was unlimited if I achieved academic success. I went to the best schools, graduating from Mills College and Georgetown University Law Center. I worked as a congressional aide in Washington, D.C., and as an attorney at a San Francisco law firm. I am presently a student at the Pacific School of Religion, one of the top-rated theological schools in the nation.
I would say that at each successive level of my advancement, the racism I experienced became more intense. It started in high school when I left my all-black junior high school and went into a mainly white environment. It got worse at Mills College. Subsequently, I was shocked to find racism among the progressive whites in my radical African American congressman’s office. Yet, all of my previous experience did not com- pare with the degradation I went through every single day at my law firm. I was the only African American out of approximately two hundred attorneys. Despite the fact that I made an extra effort to dress in a professional manner, always wearing quality suits, silk blouses, and gold jewelry, I was constantly mistaken for a secretary and treated rudely and with little respect. When I walked into a partner’s office I was often asked with a scowl, “What do you want?” When I identified myself and the legal rationale for entering the office, an apology soon followed.
I recognize that general statements don’t apply to every white person. However, I make such assertions consciously to enable the white reader to feel what black people always feel. We are judged as a whole by the actions of the worst of us, while the best of us are seen as exceptions. after i left the law firm, I took time to heal myself. I exercised and meditated, read enjoyable books, and spent time with my family and friends. In the fall of last year, I entered theology school in good spirits. I was friendly, positive, and eager to start anew in what I thought would be an environment of spiritually minded people living in harmony with themselves, others, and the universe. But even here, racist comments were common from people who consider themselves to be non racist. For example, a white woman in class talked about her relationship with a black man and called him all kinds of names. After class, she came to me and wanted to know if I had any problem with what she had said. I felt that she should have gone to the white people in the class and asked them if they had any problems. What I actually said to her was that she might look inside of herself to find the answer to her question. She got very upset and never spoke to me again. When white people believe themselves to be free of racism, it becomes impossible even to dialogue with them about racism because of their denial. Just to hint at the existence of racism brings anger down on the head of the one making the assertion.
As a result, during my second semester, I became increasingly withdrawn. I grew tired of explaining, educating, compromising, accommodating, being silent in the face of ignorance, smiling in public, and crying in private. There grew within me a feeling of hopelessness. Thus far, I have been around many different types of white people—those who think of themselves as progressive, conservative, corporate, and, now, spiritual. This broad exposure has caused me to finally acknowledge that racism is so prominent, even among those who mean to act otherwise, that I cannot imagine its demise. For me, this means that, despite my parents’ best hopes and dreams for their educated daughter, I will never achieve the equality expected by all residents of the United States. That potential will always be threatened by people who view me first and foremost as someone who is less than, a liability, a threat, and somebody to hate and despise. The beautiful gift of my African American heritage is not a means to success in this society.
Yet, I know within the depths of my consciousness that I am limitless in my ability to create all that I need and desire. I know that I could not survive, and my people could not have survived the horrors inflicted upon us, but for some invincible power within each and every one of us that enables us to persevere. But I have allowed myself to believe that all of my power emanates from without. That is the source of my anger: they won’t give me; they won’t let me; they deny me opportunities; they are in control; I control nothing.
Buddhis Teaches That Anger is one of the Three Fires, also called the Three Poisons (desire, anger or aversion, and delusion). As long as I feel anger, I cannot experience anatta, or no-self. It’s not possible for me to immediately eradicate my anger, but I can work to loosen its hold on me. It’s important for me to realize that I do not have anger, anger has me, if it is affecting my life in such a way that I cannot think clearly and my aspirations are diminished.
Buddhism teaches that life is marked by impermanence. We go from state to state throughout the day and throughout our lives. I wake up in the morning refreshed from a good night’s sleep. On the way to class I become annoyed because I smile and say “good morning!” to someone who looks directly at me and walks past without speaking. At the library, I am happy to find the book that is perfect for my research. In the afternoon, I simmer with anger because I walk into a store and am stopped for setting off the alarm while the two white people simultaneously going out of the store are ignored. This is the Wheel upon which we go around and around every minute, every hour, every day, year after year.
The cause of our suffering is desire. We strive for what we think will make us happy or rich or free. Many African Americans believe that achieving a certain economic status will make us immune to racism. We work hard to assimilate into the dominant culture. Wanting to feel equal, we buy beautiful clothes, cars, and houses. We travel and interact with various people and cultures, always seeking to go beyond the limitations imposed by a society that refuses to acknowledge our worth and ignores our achievements. When, after all of this, we still do not receive the respect we deserve, we become angry, and this anger is only another aspect of desire. But for the thirst to be equal, to be free, to be respected, there would be no anger.
Yet How Can I Not desire decent housing, quality education, and the right to make a living based upon my skill and potential? How can I not be angry at a system of justice that puts my brothers in prison for life for selling a packet of crack, but ignores white corporate thieves, or releases incarcerated white child molesters again and again until they finally commit one murder too many? Every single day I am treated as though I have no intelligence, no feelings, as though my checks are automatically suspect, as though I am a thief, as though I am a nonentity, as though my opinions have no worth, as though I am not competent—I could fill this page, but I will stop. And I am an educated, trained attorney with over a decade’s experience in the political arena of Washington, D.C. What must an uneducated or underemployed young black man experience? What must he feel?
Is it enough to tell us to meditate, to focus on our breath? It’s one thing to meditate in a peaceful retreat or monastery somewhere, preaching love and compassion. It’s quite another matter to talk the Buddhist talk while getting beaten over the head. Where can black people go to get away from the madness that engulfs us?
On an intellectual level, I tell myself that white people are suffering. If people are truly at peace, they do not have the inclination to cause pain to others. I know that some people are responding to their own insecurities when they put me down; they must assert a false superiority over me. At times, I can have the compassion that is the ideal of Buddhist practice, but never-ending rain will wear down even a stone.
I Am Tired Of Being Angry. I am tired of hatred and bitterness. I am tired of living in pain. White people are on the Wheel, too. We are all propelling it. It doesn’t matter why we are on it. We are on it, going around and around to nowhere.
Buddhism teaches that one should neither give in to anger nor deny it. Buddhist practice is to be aware of the anger itself. This is a very difficult concept. Most African Americans feel at ease when they are not in a racist environment, but even if racism did not exist, anger would still exist. And learning to work with our anger is constructive.
Viewing racism from this perspective allows African Americans to experience our struggles as mental and spiritual conditioning similar to the constructive pain that an Olympic athlete goes through to develop the kind of muscular, strong, efficient body capable of bringing home the gold. It is with the strength developed by practicing in adverse conditions and with scarce resources that black athletes are able to excel in sports.
In Peace Is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh writes,
When we are angry, we are not usually inclined to return to ourselves. We want to think about the person who is making us angry, to think about his hateful aspects—his rudeness, dishonesty, cruelty, maliciousness, and so on. The more we think about him, listen to him, or look at him, the more our anger flares. His dishonesty and hatefulness may be real, imaginary, or exaggerated, but, in fact, the root of the problem is the anger itself and we have to come back and look first of all inside ourselves. It is best if we do not listen to or look at the person whom we consider to be the cause of our anger. Like a fireman, we have to pour water on the blaze first and not waste time looking for the one who set the house on fire.
We Must Transform The Energy of anger into an energy of empowerment and love. Insight meditation is practiced to develop the ability to see without reacting to the whole process of our life experience. When one is able to see with balanced, clear observation, one develops insight and wisdom and is able to see things as they really are. Maybe we see that the people persecuting us have serious emotional problems or that their status in life is not as secure as we first thought. From a victim’s viewpoint, sometimes we get so used to living in a cage that when the cage is removed we are still bound by the bars of our minds. Insight meditation helps us to see this.
I do not have to condemn or approve of my anger and pain. Neither do I have to deny these feelings.
For a long while I felt that I was not getting anything from meditation. Nothing was changing in my life. My mind was constantly wandering; I could rarely focus it on one object. One day while walking around Lake Merritt in Oakland, I noticed that I kept clenching my hand. Repeatedly, a fist would form unconsciously. I believe that I became aware of this movement because, through meditation, I had continuously focused on being aware of my body and, finally, the training took effect in this one small instance.
It took many months just to form this one awareness. This is why mindfulness is to be cultivated. There is no quick result. The harvest does not occur immediately after the seeds are planted. I now watch for the emergence of that tension and patiently track its origin. An alternative to vipassana [insight into the true nature of things] is to continue to be angry, anxious, and tense. I want to move away from these states of mind; thus, I am willing to pursue the path of insight meditation.
Mindfulness involves looking at life the way a scientist observes a specimen. When being mindful of the breath, one need not say; “I am breathing hard. I must relax.” One merely observes the breath without making any judgment, just taking an interest in how it works. Learning to observe the breath in this way will enable a person, one day, to be similarly mindful about the people, circumstances, and conditions which seem to cause anger.
In Examining Anger One must try to see clearly how it arises and what causes it. Watch to see how and when it disappears. Try not to have any subjective reaction. This is a discipline, just like lifting weights. At first, one can only lift two pounds. Later, one may be able to lift fifty. I practice this new discipline in minor, day-to-day situations. I don’t yet have the ability to observe my anger when the racism is acutely painful, but this is all right; the seeds are planted.
In a process I call “tracing back,” I notice my anger in a particular situation and keep asking myself “Why did that upset you?” I answer myself, “Because she thinks I took the book.” “Did you take the book?” “No.” “Then why are you upset? Do you think she thinks you took it because you’re black?” “Probably.” “Are you sure that’s the reason?” “No.” “Even if it is, is that your problem or hers? How does her thought affect your life at this moment?” My self-conversation usually results in my feeling that the issue is not worth my time, and my anger subsides. For instance, I ponder whether it is more productive to take a few minutes to respond calmly to a false accusation than it is to enter into a major argument about how wrong the person is and then to be upset the rest of the day. By not reacting, sometimes I discover that the situation causing the anger is not about me at all. This is not to discount the people and the situations that indeed cause pain and oppression, but if I continue to match their angry energy, I remain bound to the Wheel of Change. I seek to grow beyond these conditions.
My Anger Many Times has its roots in the past. If I had no memory of the history of my people or of white people, or of the oppression in the world, I probably would not have half the perceptions that make me angry. This leads to another very important aspect of mindfulness: being in the present. Venerable Ajahn Sumedho writes:
Yesterday is a memory
Tomorrow is the unknown.
Now is the knowing.
If I did not seek to be free, I would not be angry at those who put obstacles in my way. I would say, “This moment, I am free to walk and to see. I have a mind to think. Today, I have a roof over my head and enough food to eat.”
I believe that, because of racism, I did not develop into the lawyer that I expected to become; but ten years from now I may say that, because of racism, I became the writer that I never thought I would be. Who knows? If it is the latter, then I have wasted a lot of time being angry. Insight meditation enables me to see the bigger picture. Right now, this minute, I am doing what I want to do.
Buddhism allows me to be where I am right this moment. I do not have to condemn or approve of my anger and pain. Neither do I have to deny these feelings. I can simply be with them, observing their rising and falling, their impact on me and others.
I can observe my anger at a safe distance from my “assailants.” I may interact more closely with them when my strength develops to the point where I can be among them without pain. Right now, I see the worth of Buddhist practice, of being aware of my body, my breath, and my pain. This is where I start.
Robin Hart is a corporate attorney practicing in California.
From Not Turning Away: The Practice of Engaged Buddhism, edited by Susan Moon. Copyright © 2004 by Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Reprinted by permission of Shambhala Publications, Inc.