I recently attended a community event called, Conversation Across The Racial Divide in Thunder Bay, hosted by the remarkably brilliant Aftab Erfan. Through a dynamic and skillfully facilitated process called Deep Democracy, gathered participants were invited to speak bravely, vulnerably and authentically about their experiences and perspectives of racism in Thunder Bay, a small Northern Ontario town notoriously struggling with a deep racial divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
The Deep Democracy method was powerful in many unique ways. One of the facilitation tools included inviting participants to visually and physically support or withdraw support from the various statements made by others at the gathering, by moving closer to or away from each speaker who took a turn sharing their perspective.
Through this conversation, a polarity began to emerge. Those in the community who felt that healing requires a sense of unity or common ground from which to move. And there were those in the community who felt that acknowledging difference was essential and primary, to allow space for healing, and recognition of the causes of the injury. Our conversation explored many of the complexities of colonization, its intentions, effects, beneficiaries, and ongoing incarnations.
I was fascinated by my own inner response to the conversation. Deeply moved by the real lived-experiences of those affected by racism, and those actively attempting to decolonize their lives and selves, I was compelled to move close…. To in some way say, I believe you. I see that this is true and we need to change it. I feel it too. And at the same time I felt a longing triggered deep in my heart as people spoke of their desire to unify and work from a place of recognition of a shared humanity. I felt their pain and anguish of separation too.
I felt and continue to feel deeply and fully committed to both perspectives…. If being 200% committed is possible.
Since this gathering I have continued to explore this divide further, noticing its effect in conversations about oppression, both personal and theory based, in addition to probing deeper into my own inner conflict between them.
And so, if you are willing to indulge sometimes-winding philosophy to get to my point, I would like to share some of my reflections with you thus far.
It is my sense that although the unity position in the unity vs. difference conversation is often expressed and perceived as underdeveloped and sometimes even pre/immature, there is a deeper truth within it, which is why it won’t go away. Truth has a tendency to linger…. Its our interpretation of its meaning that tends to change.
What if…. Unity does not mean same, but is related to the innate interconnectedness of all life on this planet (and well beyond)?
Let’s explore patterns we notice on a microcosmic level…. The way that cells together make up organisms…. scaled out, create ecosystems…. scaled out create living entities we call planets. We as a species are not separate from that. We are a part of one living body, and to zoom out even futher, from a spiritual perspective, a part of a greater organizing intelligence that we still don’t fully comprehend. On a temporal level, we are (or have gotten) involved in the coordination efforts of all of this within the finite geographical space of earth…. and we have been making a mess of it.
If we look at diverse and healthy natural ecosystems, they seem to rely on a deeper intelligence which allows them to be adaptable, resilient and yet simultaneously in a natural state of evolutionary flux. When healthy, this creates harmony and/or mutual symbiosis…. Everyone thrives and evolves with the support of the whole, not at the expense of.
When we notice that a part of an ecosystem is showing signs of decline or non-thriving, we investigate (eventually… and to be honest, usually because we have to). We explore the wound, we explore the immediate area, the gross causes, the finer causes, and the wider impact. This is holistic thinking. And this is precisely what critical theory does. It makes visible small connective tissues, the large and the nearly imperceptible. This requires incredible skill, persistence, direct experience and brilliance to connect dots invisible to, and therefore sometimes even denied by, most (ie., the earth is round vs. flat). With increasingly acute understandings of the realities of the wound(s), its causes and its function, we are able to verify the who, what, where, when and why. But this is where I often sense conversations around social justice fall short.
This is not the end of the exploration. And this is where it becomes spiritual for me, and innumerable others, bridging a simultaneously physical AND spiritual existence.
I am reminded of zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, No death, no fear. In which he offers that manifestation itself is the result of the conditions being met, necessary to support life. He uses fire as an example to demonstrate this point… explaining, fire is not born, and does not die. Rather when conditions are present to support its expression (i.e., spark, fuel, oxygen) fire manifests or expresses.
Through a wider systemic/spiritual lens, the question then becomes… what are the subtle conditions within the human heart & mind that create the conditions necessary for disharmony, and conversely harmony, to express. Of course I am not alone in this thinking. Many significant spiritual and social justice leaders have expressed these very sentiments, from more recent examples such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dali Lama, to more ancient and varied spiritual lineages, which describe a remarkably similar insight within their uniquely expressed stories and teachings.
To stay on the temporal level, without inclusion of the more subtle genesis of oppression makes more difficult, laborious , time-consuming, and I dare say, circular, the process of substantive realization and eventual transformation.
In a sense, yes, skipping ahead to unity is not a viable option. There is serious work to be done. And in anther sense, to remain in a state of slow and prolonged agony, when expanded awareness could potentially allow for healing with added ease, effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability, we would be remiss not to include it in the conversation.
What is happening to Indigenous people in Canada, as expressed through colonization is not an isolated issue. And it is not even simply a colonization issue, although it is a very clear expression of the larger malady. My sense sometimes is that treating colonization as the source of the disharmony is like trying to put a bandage on a gushing wound.
The human heart has struggled with fear, greed, pride, etc. way before colonization even arose. And yet at some point, a tipping point, colonization became a tidal wave of a global expression of disharmony, expressing most acutely as wide spread oppression. Which, when simmered down further is something nearing, I have more power, because I insist you have less/none. And/or, I am afraid that there is not enough, I am afraid that I am not enough, I am afraid that you are not enough, I am afraid.
Ironically, given the topic of this post, part of what is becoming visible through the critical examination of systemic oppression and difference, is that we ARE connected or unified through a shared ecosystem (physical and beyond, if you subscribe). Colonization as an expression is destructive to both the colonizer and colonized. To destroy our own planet, our home, comes at the cost of everyone. To have our minds and hearts infiltrated by the internalized structures of colonization is an affront to all of our true identities.
And yet, it affects us all differently. Which is where the perspective of acknowledging difference is also clearly 100% necessary and true.
What I am suggesting is that smaller systems exists within larger systems and are both 100% true. There are trees, and there are forests. Both true. Even if we didn’t know that forests existed, that doesn’t mean they don’t. It means we have yet to notice that trees exist within the context of forest. To talk about trees without putting them in the larger context, is limiting and finite and eventually, non-life giving.
This limitation similarly affects social justice theory, which sometimes eventually feels stagnant, frustrating, unfulfilling and unhealthy for all involved…. Even worse, self affirming. You can easily sense this if you listen between the lines of voices who are saying, “We are still suffering.” “What do you/they want from us?” “Enough talk, more action.” “Forget it. they will never be satisfied.” “I just want to understand and be helpful” “I’m not oppressive, what are you talking about?” “I can’t help that I was born into privilege, and it is impossible to not be complicit in some way.” “I am so burnt out from resisting.” “I feel so helpless.” “There is nothing I can do, so why try.” “Your behavior is still hurting me/us.” “Can’t you see you are hurting me/us.”“I shouldn’t have to explain this to you.”
Its like we are on an island of pain and there is no bridge. And within the current model of exploration, it is going to take us an impossibly long time to find it through the complexity. I have witnessed some of the most brilliant people struggle to make out even the silhouette of a bridge. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
And so I return to my original wondering, and deeper inner knowing…
Difference and Unity can and must co-exist in the present, supporting one another as we widen our lens of inquiry.
This widened lens invites us to apply and express the essential qualities, through our actions intended to create the conditions that support our preferred shared, and thriving future.
Difference AND Unity. Physical AND Spiritual.
Oppression, once seen can be incredibly black and white… obvious. But the undoing of it is not, and seeing it is not enough. Healing the underlying conditions of oppression is going to be increasingly nuanced, complex and subtle. Bridging the physical and spiritual allows us to;
* Understand the functional intricacies of the beliefs that create oppressive systems, structuresand cultures
* Begin cultivating conditions that support love, respect, and shared abundance
* Disrupt and dismantle oppressive systems without unintentionally recreating them in new forms (i.e., meeting fear with fear = more fear)
* Be inclusive in news ways, as we employ kindness, compassion and gentleness in our invitations to those who might otherwise shut down and step away from engagement (because lets be honest, everyone is kind of freaked out on this planet in their own way… and triggering that is not helpful to the cause)
* Be personally sustainable in our efforts, employing self-care and practices that help us release toxic fear, etc. that we accumulate and are exposed to, instead of perpetuating it unintentionally in our work.
* Subvert and dissolve oppressive systems by withdrawing the conditions that support them
* Cultivating an awareness that supports our ability to listen to and learn from one another more deeply
* De-centralizing where transformation takes place by empowering at the individual level, our ability to subvert the interior conditions of our unique oppressions.
* Begin to collaborate in increasingly just ways, in the creation of a preferred shared future
* Connect and be fueled by greater meaning, and offering paths toward finding greater meaning with others.
* Truly and authentically recognize and feel deeply the remorse necessary to make reconciliation possible.
What if…. ?