A writing teacher once said that to be a writer you must live an examined life. I took that to heart, to mean, “Question your mind, question society, and look at everything upside-down if you have to in order to see it clearly.” I was already obsessed with truth, so the pairing of truth-seeking and life-examining has provided lifetimes of fuel.
Dharma practice — practicing the teachings of the Buddha — is about examination. That means looking into our blind spots, bringing our ignorance into the light, examining our assumptions, and doing all of that with curiosity and compassion.
You don’t have to be flirting with or practicing Buddhism, or a writer, to lead an examined life
Last night I drove 45 minutes to attend a Buddhist meditation and lecture nestled in the golden hills of Marin County, California, at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. I was there for two hours during which dusk came, the sun set, then the moon shone. There’s a new building — no more squeaky folding chairs and loud HVAC. The new meditation center is modern and light: redwood floors, cathedral-high ceilings, giant paintings, dozens of stone status of the Buddha, and windows so enormous that you forget the building has walls.
The golden hills and spacious building were a fitting, if ironic, setting for discussing white privilege (racism and Dharma, too) -- i.e., Sorry, did you think you were here to escape reality!?
Two weeks ago when I attended the open Monday night meditation, the topic was the Self. “Our thoughts don’t belong to us. They are a phenomenon of conditions in the world and of the past,” said the teacher. He talked about what the self isn’t: The self is not the body, feelings, perceptions, inclinations — even consciousness isn’t the self.
But last night's topic: White privilege. The teacher was a different white man than the previous Monday, a British man. A wise man, a favorite. He was speaking to a room full of primarily white folks about white privilege. It wasn’t just any lecture, it was a Dharma talk. That’s what you get at Spirit Rock on Monday nights—group meditation and a Dharma talk.
The central question around which his lecture revolved: "What is a Dharma response to racism?"
He talked about why taking an active role in unlearning racism is key —choosing to participate, to question, and even to be willing to feel uncomfortable. We can't just continue to passively, sadly sigh at our screens about the state of the world. We need to look within. Doing Dharma practice is to act, to choose to think about, consider, examine, and see the roots of the problem, of the suffering.
Living an examined life, practicing Dharma, healing from trauma, or just growing up — it all involves “opening, awakening, looking, and placing a value on truth.” And sometimes, often, that's uncomfortable. Good: Discomfort leads to growth. When it's uncomfortable, we ask ourselves, What am I feeling? What is this about? Then we sit with it. That's the work.
His conclusion was: “If we don’t examine all this [racism], we perpetuate suffering in the world.”
We'd never say that we choose to perpetuate suffering, yet what do our actions say?
Don’t assume you know what white privilege means, research it. And don’t stop at Wikipedia.
You might wonder, “How do I become aware of something I don’t even notice?” Honestly, that’s a cop out, isn't it? Start reading and researching, and reflecting, and you’ll really start to see.
Research institutional racism, read about white privilege
Storytelling is what connects us. Seek out stories. Listen. Share stories.
I’ll tell you a story.
Back in college, my boyfriend and I were stopping by his mom’s law office to say hello and pick up some papers. We had to wait for her, so we hung out by her cubicle in the middle of the office. After first eyeing us from the photocopier, not one but two employees (male) came up to us in a span of five minutes to ask if we needed help. (I’m white. My boyfriend was black and hispanic). We didn’t need help. "I’m waiting for my mother. She’s a paralegal here,” he explained both times, validating a presence that shouldn't require validating because of someone else's conscious or unconscious racism. He said to me, “I get this all the time,” and I’ve never forgotten that moment. Experiencing racism by his side was eye-opening.
If you've never had to explain the reason for your presence to others — that's white privilege.