Sacred Activism: Mindfulness and Racial Justice
Sacred Activism: Mindfulness and Racial Justice
By Marisela B. Gomez, MD, PhD / huffingtonpost.com

In early September, a huge delegation of the Buddhist teacher and author Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh's monks and nuns will arrive in New York City to lead retreats, book launches, and outdoor meditations and I will be driving from Baltimore to join them. In more than 20 years of working in Baltimore as a doctor, researcher, author, community organizer, and activist, I've come to understand that the space for deep-rooted change opens up only when we can embrace the spiritual and the political, come to see our "enemies" as our brothers and sisters acting unskillfully, and view our fragmented communities in their whole, true, and often painful interrelatedness.

I didn't always think this way. I spent many years as one of the angriest of activists, fueled by the mounting injustices perpetrated against members of poor black and brown communities -- including myself. I have been thrown face down on the ground by police officers and searched simply for being a black woman driving a car. As a rare Afro-Latina face studying public health at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University, I became more interested in the university's immediate neighbors -- an impoverished and segregated black community suffering from poor diet, lack of essential services, deteriorating housing, and police violence -- than in my classroom studies of anatomy, health policy, and epidemiology. When in 2001 the university set in motion a redevelopment plan that displaced more than 700 black families, hiring more security officers to protect itself against the community as it did so, my path of public health and social justice left the classroom and took root on the ground in East Baltimore. Along this path I developed my fair share of fear and anger, using it, as so many activists do, as a tool to organize, demonstrate, and call for change.

flags

On April 20, 2015, I was there as my community rose in anger and sadness when yet another young black man lost his life while in police custody. His spinal cord severed, Freddie Gray did not stand a chance in the face of the structural racism facing black communities across the country. As our pain surfaced in marches, blogs, and community meetings, the mainstream media appeared shocked to report that Baltimore was burning. But Baltimore has always been burning. Decades of neglect, racism, and displacement have contributed to 85 percent of children qualifying for free lunches; 14.5 percent of adults in majority black neighborhoods on parole or probation; and a 37 percent unemployment rate among young black men compared to 10 percent for white men of the same age group in 2013. It's a slow burn, but it's a burn nonetheless.

Sadly, today's United States is not that different from the one that Thich Nhat Hanh encountered when he arrived in the 1960s to call for an end to the "American War" in his home country of Vietnam. We were in the midst of a brutal civil rights struggle, with injustices perpetrated on black communities echoing those we have seen recently in Charleston, New York, Ferguson, Cincinnati and Baltimore. He met with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and developed a bond so deep that Dr. King went on to speak out against the war in Vietnam and to nominate Thich Nhat Hanh for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize in an open letter to the Nobel Committee, which, in that fractious and tumultuous year, declined to award the prize to anyone at all.

Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. King recognized that the path to lasting change lay in the hands of a "beloved community" of activists cultivating love, peaceful means, and understanding even in the midst of violence, oppression, and injustice. "In a world depending on force, coercive tyranny, and bloody violence, you are challenged to follow the way of love. You will then discover that unarmed love is the most powerful force in all the world," said Dr. King. "Peace in oneself, peace in the world," says Thich Nhat Hanh.

Thich Nhat Hanh and his community teach mindfulness in daily life -- a practice he developed as a secular expression of his radical brand of socially engaged Buddhism, which brought monks and nuns out of the monasteries during the Vietnam war -- alongside the tens of thousands of community organizers they trained -- to support devastated communities suffering from the relentless, brutal bombings. His first mindfulness practice book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and was written to offer practical support to his monastic and lay community in Vietnam, before becoming a bestseller with Western audiences. Thich Nhat Hanh's writings continue to speak eloquently to the activists and community organizers of today, teaching us that it is impossible to help others if we do not also help and heal ourselves, and that peace is the only way to justice. As Dr. King said, "While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist."

peace

The first time I truly understood this was in a meeting with a white developer planning to displace an entire black community in order to build condominiums for white "creatives." As the head of the organization fighting this gentrification project I had confronted him many times, often with anger. But that morning, when I looked at him, I saw a father and a husband earning a living to keep his family educated, healthy and safe -- not my enemy.  I saw his needs as the same as those of the families I was fighting for. I realized that he was playing his part in a bigger system that had unfairly accumulated wealth through decades of structural racism and classism and that these systems would only change when the individuals inside them changed -- and that included me.

When my fellow activists told me I was no longer angry enough, I agreed, and left my job to spend one year with Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village community in France to explore how this new insight could heal my accumulated pain and cultivate peaceful means in my justice work. This time allowed me deeper understanding of how individually, we can change systems of oppression. It is not that we do not confront those causing harm to ourselves and our communities. It is that the impetus for our confrontation must come from a place of understanding and compassion. In order to remember this sweet and sacred place we must come back to the present moment in front of us. So when I begin to feel anger, I do not speak. I breathe. This allows a space for me to see the reasons I am becoming angry and to question the perceptions I have. This spaciousness also helps me understand the perceptions that others may be acting from, giving me more understanding of the situation, and allows for a different engagement, one motivated from a place of freedom and peace, not anger. In a critical moment of engagement, this space allows clarity for decision-making rooted in a deeper principle of non-harm.

During a recent interaction with a police officer after the uprisings in Baltimore I found myself considering how tired he must be feeling. I felt no animosity, just a desire to understand how we had gotten to this stage of brutality, on both sides. I asked whether we could have a conversation off the record, with no names or badge numbers, about the truth of policing. He responded: "Oh, you want the truth truth." I nodded yes. In that moment, we bridged a divide and shared a common understanding.

rally

As I walked in resignation to a demonstration just days after Freddie Grey's funeral, I noticed a flower peeping up from the sidewalk and I smiled. It was a beautiful yellow flower, oblivious to the emotion and turmoil around it, reminding me that I was part of something larger, an astonishing planet which I have the privilege to share with plants, animals, minerals and my beautiful, flawed fellow human beings. I thanked it for being there and continued on my way, nourished by its simple beauty and calm resilience. Eight years ago I might have stepped on it unknowingly. I certainly would not have seen it. This ability to see beauty and hope in the midst of the suffering of social injustices is the capacity for peace I want to nourish in myself and others. I see this kind of sacred activism reflected in the faces of activists in photographs of the 1960s civil rights struggle; this sacred activism was also there in the face of Thich Nhat Hanh during the most despairing and violent days of the Vietnam War.

Sacred activism is available to all of us today and is as simple as taking a first breath in mindfulness, listening deeply to those around us, or fully seeing whatever is present before us. Mindfulness helps us heal from our personal fragmentation so that we can approach our community fragmentation with an open and courageous heart, effecting social change from a place of love and understanding of ourselves, of the communities we serve, and of those we are used to calling enemies.

 Community activist and author of Race, Class, Power and Organizing in East Baltimore. Blogs at www.mariselabgomez.com
3.5 ·
1
What's Next
Trending Today
All the News Is Fake!
3 min · 6,298 views today · Jonathan Pie finds nothing new in the idea of fake news.
Why People Cling to Old Beliefs
1 min · 6,100 views today · Cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist at McGill University, Daniel Levitin, explains why people can be so stubborn when it comes to false beliefs. This behavior is...
How Mindfulness Empowers Us
2 min · 4,735 views today · Many traditions speak of the opposing forces within us, vying for our attention. Native American stories speak of two wolves, the angry wolf and the loving wolf, who both live...
Sky Roosevelt-Morris: The Secret of Indigenous Resiliency
2 min · 4,095 views today · Activist Sky Roosevelt-Morris is of the Shawnee and White Mountain Apache Nations. She is a member of the Leadership Council of the American Indian Movement of Colorado. In...
How Romanticism Ruined Love
5 min · 3,923 views today · The set of ideas we can call Romanticism is responsible for making our relationships extremely difficult. We shouldn’t give up on love; we should just recognize that it’s more...
Veterans at Standing Rock Ask Forgiveness for War Crimes Against Tribal Nations
Jen Hayden · 3,692 views today · Jon Eagle Sr., Tribal Historic Preservation Officer at Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has reported something wholly unexpected happened at the Standing Rock Reservation today. The...
Dakota Access Pipeline Permit Denied
Nika Knight · 3,555 views today · 'For the first time in Native American history, they heard our voices.'
This is an Anthem for Our Times
6 min · 3,245 views today · I think the world deserves to see the truth about #NoDAPL I tried my best to portray what I felt at camp, I felt LOVE. Love for all people, all living things, Mother Earth...
Australian Government Promotes Crap with Adani Carmichael Coal Mine
2 min · 3,225 views today · The Australian Government just released this advert about the proposed Carmichael Coal Mine and it's surprisingly honest and informative. 6 WAYS YOU CAN HELP STOP CCRAP: 1...
13 Crises That We All Must Face
George Monbiot · 2,399 views today · We face (at least) 13 major crises, some of which are immediate. It’s time for some hard thinking about how we confront them.
The Venus Project by Jacque Fresco
4 min · 2,208 views today · For more information visit the official web site: thevenusproject.com Facebook: facebook.com/TheVenusProjectGlobal Music: Salomon Ligthelm - Close Horizonz Hanz Zimmer ...
After Historic Protests, Army Corps of Engineers Blocks Current Route of the Dakota Access Pipeline
3 min · 2,205 views today · The $4 billion dollar project could still be approved by President-elect Donald Trump who is heavily invested in the pipeline. Help support The Real News by making a donation...
The Numbers That Tell the Story of the Standing Rock Sioux's Victory
Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn · 2,185 views today · The Army Corps announced Sunday that the Dakota Access pipeline will be rerouted. Here are the numbers that show what lies ahead.
Bikini Was Just the Beginning, Bombs Still Threaten the Islanders
John Pilger · 2,104 views today · I was recently in the Marshall Islands, which lie in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, north of Australia and south of Hawaii. Whenever I tell people where I have been, they...
Solar is Already Producing More Energy Than Oil, Says Major Scientific Review
Nafeez Ahmed · 2,038 views today · And is twice as powerful than previously thought
10 Practical Tools for Building a Resilient Local Economy
Environmental Change Makers · 1,721 views today · The economy is changing. Dramatically. Coping with these changes means changing the way we do things. The path of the future involves root level, radical changes. Things we...
The Trouble With Equality: Feminism and the Forgotten Places of Power
Adebayo Akomolafe · 1,531 views today · "...Patriarchy is not the rule of men over women, it's the rule of the binary - the insistence that there really are sides, and that each is a pre-existing category unto...
Post-Brexit Visions of The Possible: It's Time to Imagine a New European Community
Martin Winiecki · 1,270 views today · We live in the beginning phase of a global revolution which will turn societal conditions upside down. We cannot stop this transformation, but we can influence where it will...
The Power Principle: Corporate Empire and the Rise of the National Security State (2012)
95 min · 1,266 views today · "A gripping, deeply informative account of the plunder, hypocrisy, and mass violence of plutocracy and empire; insightful, historically grounded and highly relevant to the...
Mary Lyons Describes 'The We'
29 min · 1,255 views today · Beautiful. Listen to this. 
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Sacred Activism: Mindfulness and Racial Justice