I went on Zen meditation retreat for four days of silence the second weekend of January. Silence, in this context, is protected by not speaking, but also by avoiding communication through gesture or eye contact. The Zen form is firm but not punishing. We join our voices in chanting and support each other physically by sharing food, chores, and meditation. Breaking silence does happen, sometimes necessarily and sometimes accidentally. There are no punishments. There is just a return to the form.
During this seshin, I noticed that each time I was tempted to break silence it came from a idea that I could help someone else. Maybe another guest didn’t know where a pan went in the kitchen during clean up, or I noticed someone was breaking another aspect of the form unintentionally. Maybe they had mud on their shoes and were making marks on the floor. Maybe the coffee ran out and they didn’t know how to get more. In the shelter of a vow of silence, I allowed these impulses to pile up. I had the time to notice myself wanting to become involved in someone else’s practice, wanting to alter it. I could relax with the instruction that I be responsible only for my own actions. Underneath impulses not indulged, emotions and body sensations revealed themselves in patterns: tissue rhythms of energetic involvement that I projected on other people in the present but, with time to unfurl, revealed themselves as recitations or reverberations from deep in my identity. Why did I want to get involved with other people when I had come explicitly to care for myself? What is this urge to help that arises stubbornly within me? What is the pattern revealing?
At the end of the retreat, we shared in a circle about our experiences. I wanted to speak about whiteness because the retreat attendees were overwhelmingly white, the ordained and residents were all white but for one young woman of Japanese descent, and I recognize whiteness operating in the – in this case, I believe, condoned and respectful – borrowing and adaptation of another, dominated, culture’s spiritual and ritualistic heritage.
I wanted to speak about whiteness because it is my spiritual obligation. And I wanted to because it is so tempting not to.
As each person shared, though, I came to be aware of a pattern of not being able to focus fully on what they were saying because of how I was internally adapting what I was going to say about whiteness. In a sense, I was learning about the people in the circle with me for the first time, and as I did so, I was, almost unconsciously, adjusting my pitch to the audience. I was looking to “help” them.
Sanzen is the name for one on one conference during retreat with the head teacher, in which the vow of silence is lifted. On the third day, I was called for Sanzen with Chozen Bays, one of the heads of the monastery, a white woman, a mother, and pediatrician who, before retirement, worked primarily with children with developmental trauma due to abuse and neglect. Although I had shared practice with Chozen before, we had never spoken. In her company in the little Sanzen hut, I was immediately washed in compassion and patience. I told this Dharma-grandmother about how actively my mind was revisiting and elaborating on the brokenness of the world; the pain produced by racist systems and institutions: our educational and justice systems especially, and how they shape the experiences and self-stories of our youth… and how I might interrupt or alter conditions at the school where I work, in my childrens’ schools, in the district. As I spoke, I felt how this doomsday-ing and strategizing was progressively hardening my identity and my habitual reactivity. Sitting on my cushion, I was not participating in change. I was reinforcing my image of the world as a place that needed Me, needed My Help. I was staying safe. I couldn’t rest into myself in tenderness, or even spend time with my grief or fear or confusion because my mental activity was to separate myself from the suffering I was trying to “solve.”
I think the urge to try to help is a natural human one. And, in me, I can feel how it has been fed by karma, gender conditioning, small town life, my mom – all imbued with, all supporting, white dominance. I believe we as humans can help each other as equals. But. I learned and adapted to perceive needs in others while ignoring those needs in myself so that I could be necessary to others – and also so I could be superior to them.
There are many threads at work here that I can’t fully lay out, even for myself. The risk of spiritual bypassing rubs shoulders with the urge to white saviorism. They reach toward each other from the poles and threaten to bury the shimmering possibility of authentic, heart-centered involvement.
This covering happens so easily. I can give so many examples. Specific stories from my childhood and youth: times where the only way to make a bridge to a community that was marginalized seemed to be to ‘help.’ This was also true in spaces where I was managing my own feelings of inferiority: in a community based around serving wealth, my people were always ‘the help.’ And if I wasn’t – I was ashamed not to be. These days, I recognize this pattern in myself as strongly aligned with what it is to be a certain kind of white woman, a first daughter, a child of the rising middle class. Does this mean I am not inherently helpful? Everyone is inherently helpful.
So here is where I out myself in this thread: even here, as I read others’ questions about weaponizing whiteness, I felt activated. I must help! Which meant I was feeling tempted to urgently try to alleviate the discomfort of my fellow white women with my individual prowess with the written word. From this place, as a helper, I get to distance myself, to feel safe and superior, while also being a good white woman doing her race work.
In this activation, though, I can no longer feel safe or superior. I feel aware of a trigger. Puzzled. I seek to pause.
So, for a while, days, I just hung out with that. I admit, it does slow things down. I hung out with feelings of being threatened, of being the only one, of not doing enough. No one else needs to hang out with these feelings for me. They are mine to hold.
And then, from a place of sharing where I am in my process, I wrote this:
On the deepest level, we all seek safety. It is our biological imperative. As infants and small children, we seek safety through belonging in our families and communities. As we grow, we must balance self-definition, agency, and safety. Usually, this involves adapting our primal safety strategies into integrated, externalized habits – pieces of identity. This happens on all kinds of levels. Centering race, I want to say that we have all sought ways to stay safe in the secretive, savage culture that supports and perpetuates white dominance. It is savage because of all the lives it is willing to sacrifice; it is secretive because it thrives through lies, projection, and obfuscation. As white people, we actually have a shot at being physically safe in this system. But as humans, we can feel the humming danger of a culture that systematically excludes, abuses, suppresses, and mocks the other cultures it comes into contact with. As animals, we unconsciously know that our fundamental biological vulnerabilities – sex, love, death – are sources of shame in the dominant paradigm of whiteness. To stay safe – both in an external sense, by fitting in, and in an internal sense, by protecting ourselves from painful awareness – we shape our identities to ignore the savagery by keeping the secrets, even from ourselves.
If modern, Northern, liberal whiteness is largely about dominating without acknowledging our dominance, then maintaining the sacrament of secrecy is essential. As white people, our safety strategies get triggered when there is a risk of the secret being exposed – in any way, by anyone. This is how I feel weaponizing happen: when a threat to white culture activates body systems that make me feel personally threatened. Unconsciously, I respond to the threat by employing safety strategies that I developed to tolerate and manage my own dominance by the same culture of whiteness that I am co-opted to uphold. It doesn’t matter to my unconscious if I am seeking to interrupt the system, as when Rebecca sought to protect her Black sons from racist interventions at school, or when Angeline felt the impulse to somehow alter the conversation around a girl’s hair in the school office. As a white person, when I act from a place of feeling threatened, whether I know it or not, I act in collusion with a culture of white dominance.
This is why it makes so much sense to me when Rebecca talks about doing everything we can to avoid running this neurological pattern again and again once we begin to realize all it is tied to.
In Sanzen, Chozen told me she was glad that I wished to help. She said she hoped I never lose that wish. And, she said, “we have to allow ourselves to see why. So that we aren’t motivated unconsciously. So that we’re not out of control. We have to bring the feelings up to consciousness. That doesn’t mean we stop helping. It means we don’t help others to try to save ourselves.”
For me, this is the spiritual work that I get to access because of allowing the dark secrets of whiteness into my conscious mind. I get to be more compassionate to my small self, by seeing how she learned to help from a place of fragility instead of from a place of strength. And I get to untie my experience of other people – and other cultures – from my need for my identity to be secure.
I did share about race in the closing circle on retreat. I said that I am becoming more present to the ways that I hide in helping behaviors, and how I am encouraged to do so by the white people around me. I said that I am beginning to feel how helping people from a place of superiority or distance is harmful and erasive. In the Zen tradition, we chant the Bodhisattva vow, which begins: “Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.” I learned from one of my teachers to add “From Myself” to the end of this vow. For me, unlearning white dominance through self-compassion and accountability is an essential aspect of upholding this promise.