Episode 2: How to deal with the pain of racism - and become a better advocate.
NOTE: Transcripts may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Vinita Srivastava (VS): From The Conversation, this is Don’t Call Me Resilient. I’m Vinita Srivastava.
Rev. angel Kyodo williams (AKW): You have to be peace with yourself, not just make peace, right? You have to be peace with yourself in order to tolerate the suffering of the world.
VS: Today I’m talking with the Reverend angel Kyodo williams. Reverend angel is a visionary author, Zen priest and activist. As an anti-racist priest who advocates for social justice, Reverend angel has been shaking up the Buddhist community in the U.S. for decades. Recently, her work has been impacting an even bigger community. Against the backdrop of COVID-19 and global anti-racist uprisings, Reverend angel has been leading online group meditations. She uses the practise of mindful meditation to help her followers heal from the pain of racism. It’s a practise, she says, that makes for stronger, better activists. And finding inner strength is important to Reverend angel because she believes the key to transforming society is transforming our inner selves. I first met angel about 20 years ago when I was starting out as a journalist in New York. I got in touch with her again all these years later to learn how addressing the pain of racism can make us stronger actors in the world and how it can help us survive COVID-19 and resist the ongoing onslaught of systemic racism. angel generously shared all that and so much more.
Read more: How to be a mindful anti-racist
VS: Hi angel. I am so happy to have this opportunity to speak with you again.
AKW: Me too. Yeah, this is great.
VS: I think we last spoke a couple of years ago, but we’ve last seen each other even longer than that.
AKW: So much longer.
VS: We first met 25 years ago when you were the owner of the first Black owned internet café in Brooklyn, in downtown Brooklyn, Fort Greene. And actually, I first met you because I went for a job interview.
AKW: Oh, I don’t even remember that. That’s so good. Did I hire you?
AKW: OK, that’s good. I was smart then too.
VS: And I actually went to your graduation. Do you remember that?
AKW: Yes, that I remember.
VS: I literally watched you go from entrepreneur to Zen Buddhist priest.
VS: And today, you are a writer and activist and you run an organisation called Transformative Change.
VS: Which uses meditation to forward the anti-racist movement. And these days, that movement is strong. We’ve been witnessing and experiencing this seismic global anti-racist movement. And angel, I have to tell you that ever since those first anti-racist marches, in this iteration of them, for George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, for so many others, I’ve been thinking about you. It just feels like we’re witnessing this collective awakening, but also, this collective anger and this collective pain. And I’ve been feeling it myself and I’ve been hearing it from so many people that we’re tired, we are in pain and I know you are doing a lot of work to address that pain. And I want us to talk about that. I want us to get there. But I want to start with the pain itself. Some of our listeners will have felt it and others not and I’m wondering if you can describe your own personal experiences with that pain and maybe we can talk about what that means, what is the pain of racism?
AKW: I have really been doing a lot of listening and feeling into what this moment is and have lots of points of contact. Depending on one’s social location it is a very different experience. I mean, we can look and say: oh, we’re having this collective experience. We can see these uprisings. We can see this outpouring of historic rage and pain. And so I think much of the conversation about the pain and how we are relating to the pain or not relating to the pain has very much to do with our sense of the past. And the more we have a sense of the past and the history of this country and our understanding and relationship to the truth, to the facts of what has transpired for this country to become what it is and to be shaped as it is today. The closer that we are to an awareness of that in our own — I want to say intellectual understanding, felt experience, ancestral knowing and specifically the felt experience of being on stolen land and being stolen bodies.
VS: You’ve often said racism is in our bodies. I’m just wondering what you mean by that.
AKW: Yeah, race lives in the body. And so by that I mean that it actually affects our physiological responses to our environment, to other people. It affects our neural pathways. It is made up, we know that it’s made up. But as inorganic and unnatural as this construct is, it is devastating to our essential human nature. We’re responding to what’s going on inside of us rather than the other way around. So the example I often give is a white woman in elevator, Black man comes in and she actually registers fear and contraction. She registers that and the contraction follows the registering of threat. So there’s actually like in the brain registering of threat. Body follows with contraction, thought follows that person is X, Y, and Z. We think it’s the other way around. But we are animals far, far, far before we are humans. We are feeling creatures far before we are thinking creatures.
VS: So we’ve identified this as a feeling that’s in the body and that we are reacting through that and it impacts everything we do. What is the work that you are doing to address this pain and this feeling?
AKW: I grew up with this sense of, oh, there are secrets to be kept.
VS: And also pain — the secrets of pain.
AKW: The secrets of pain, yeah. And, you know, I’m pretty sure my dad’s never going to hear this so I’m just going to say this. My dad had a girlfriend with my now stepmother, and I kept the secret of his having a girlfriend, girlfriends, a series of girlfriends. So he was a womaniser, but I was his daughter. So he kept me with him when he went places. So there I was keeping the secret of his girlfriends, even though we lived in the house with his, you know, his baby mama, which was kind of supposed to be our family. I got the lesson, first of all, people are not to be trusted and that to belong was to descend into this fantasy of what was actually happening, and I refused. And I think that what Socrates called a philosopher I would today call an activist. I would say that activists at the heart of them are after a more complete truth. I don’t mean activist for the sake of a particular cause. I mean activists at the heart of — and Vinita I think so much of you as that kind of person. That is not just like this cause thing, right? It’s like the activist. It’s like after the truth and a wholeness. We’re active on behalf of a wholeness in the world. And for me, and maybe this goes to the question too, my intentionality and focus on race is about trying to get to that liberation on behalf of us all. And being so clear that racialisation is in the way of our completeness, no matter where we are socially located on the spectrum of feeling the material impact. Those of us that don’t feel the most material impact, I believe do experience, unbeknownst to them, the most profound impact on their humanity.
VS: I think there’s so much that you’re saying here, these are very big ideas, this idea of liberation as a collective liberation, a collective anti-racist movement. But then the idea of personal liberation, the personal search of truth as well. And it sounds like you have found ways — I mean, you’re talking about this history with your dad’s side and your mom’s side and the history of the secrets of pain and how you started to approach to be able to sit with that pain, like literally sit with that pain. I remember early days sitting with you when you used to run meditation in person, those small meditations. I know that you now do this online with the groups of people, but this idea of sitting compassionately with yourself and with others.
AKW: Yeah, you have to be peace with yourself, not just make peace, right? You have to be peace with yourself in order to tolerate the suffering of the world. And I think if you can’t tolerate your own suffering, you can’t tolerate and have a deep and abiding relationship of self-compassion with your own suffering, then you become, as a result of that, under equipped to be able to really face the suffering of the world.
VS: Have you seen this help other folks, too? I can hear that you’ve been able to accept and sit with your pain. Have you seen this work for other folks?
AKW: Oh yeah, in extraordinary ways. Extraordinary ways. In sort of really basic ways. So we have this kind of almost daily sit that we do and we call it ‘no big deal.’ And it’s called the ‘no big deal sit,’ because that’s how I wanted people to come to it. This is not like your Buddhist or fancy shmansy whatever. Come as you are is actually the motto. Come as you are and then leave as you must because it was a pandemic reality. And sometimes your kid was going to be in the background and we didn’t want people to feel like the white cultured expression of a lot of sitting spaces came with all this hyper properness that everybody had to kind of be a certain way in order to get in the gate. And so there was this performance before you got there to try to find yourself. And it was like, wow, you have to perform to come in and find out who you really are. That doesn’t make any sense. Come as you are also meant come as you are in your racialized body. So, come wealthy, come poor, come white, come Black, come mixed race, come confused, come with mental health challenges, so on and so forth. It really started in the pandemic. I was just a one time thing that really has become a thing. And people have said, like literally, I believe this saved my life, if not at least my mental health. It’s not just that we’re sitting, it’s that we’re sitting with a practice that I’ve developed to help people sit with their pain. To meet it, to sit with the truth of their pain and where they are, but also be able to simultaneously hold the pervasive nowness. The pervasive nowness that says while even with this pain, even with this legacy, even with this history, even with this seemingly insurmountable and overwhelming reality of so many systems and things either coming apart or really holding on tightly not trying to come apart, and this great clash of the titans of our history that’s playing out in this enormous drama on the backdrop of climate change and our impact on the Earth and our ability to inhabit it, that I can be OK. And not only that, that I must be OK. If I actually want to be able to affect what is happening around me. I must find that Okay-ness if I actually want to be a useful instrument of change, of profound and lasting change.
VS: On the face, what you’re talking about, it sounds like it’s a form of healing. But I’m wondering if you also see it as a form of resistance.
AKW: It is. Yeah, it’s healing. It’s this – you’re so good to see that. It’s healing. It’s through safety and belonging and acceptance and redemption. And it is resistance through recognition and awareness that you have been imposed upon by the design of a system and a structure that actually would rob you of your humanity for the sake of material gain.
VS: As we have been creating this podcast we’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of resilience. That no matter what comes our way through the decades, that we’re supposed to be resilient no matter what.
AKW: Yeah, we have to be. We carry so much pain, right? That that pain becomes how we live and inhabit a body of pain. And the paradox is that George Floyd’s death, Breonna Taylor’s death — George Floyd’s murder, Breonna Taylor’s murder. Bringing it into such focused awareness actually gave us access to the experience of the pain that we’re always inhabiting and coping with. And so the rage emerges as a result of actually getting to a place where we’re allowing ourselves to feel our pain. So it’s this paradox when it seems like we’re dealing with it now. Why, why is everybody so mad? Because we’re now actually feeling that which we have been steeling ourselves against just to get through and just to get by. And so it’s a really complex moment. There’s a lot of white people that are putting themselves on the line and trying to show up for what this is and what’s happening in this anti-racist uprising while they’re also having to navigate Black and brown people being fiercely enraged with them, and for good reason. And it’s complex because the watershed of feeling that pain and how long we’ve been waiting for people to show up together. The pandemic created the conditions that allowed so many people to actually feel the intolerance of this pain.
VS: You’re talking about white privilege and the pain of white privilege and the pain of, I think, letting go of that privilege. That’s another kind of pain, it seems —
AKW: Yeah. I think there’s the pain of coming into awareness of what the cost of the privilege has been. We hold on to pain. We think we’re in pain, but we hold on to pain as a way of telling ourselves that that pain is real. So we take pain and extend it out beyond the acuteness of the moment. And that’s what Buddhists would call suffering. So we make pain, suffering. You know, we’re not just in a constant state of pain, but we tell ourselves the story that we are and then we’re down. So depression, for instance, is a looping on the past, we’re not being present.
VS: So you’re saying we as humans, we allow ourselves to loop through this pain and suffering.
AKW: We keep a low level loop running. It’s like that song that runs in the back of your mind and you don’t even know it’s there. So we’re moving through the world in reaction to the looping story, even though around us there’s sunshine and light and positivity and beauty and soft things and loveliness. My existence, my pain is proven by threading it throughout my life all the time, and it’s not true. It just it isn’t true. I don’t feel less for George Floyd because I don’t run the loop in the back of my head and then furrow and contract my body and feel hopeless. In fact, I feel more hopeful as a result of allowing myself to fully feel the pain of George Floyd and all of what his murder represents. And what it means about my life and what it means about the lack of sense of safety and security in my body, in the bodies of people that I love, particularly Black men. I’m not abandoning their pain and all of the truth of that because I allowed myself to also be in the presence of joy and beauty and possibility.
VS: I’m just going to ask it, looking around you when you see what’s happening in the world now, do you have hope for the future?
AKW: I do. I think that we are really at an enormous inflection point as to whether the arc that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about is longer or whether it turns and begins to thread through itself and find its way to a more just society. I believe that this experience of race and the comeuppance, the confrontation with white supremacy situated in the quiet and the felt experience that has been made possible by the pandemic means that we have a sufficient and growing number of people that will not tolerate it going back to wherever it is that people want to go back to. It doesn’t mean it will change overnight. But I do believe that there are a sufficient number of people that are now aware of what I like to call the untenable contract that they have been induced into in bad faith. They want out of that contract, and that is not going to change.
VS: How do you see things changing for you personally, like your own role moving forward?
AKW: I think the place that I would like to inhabit is to, at some greater scale, support people in tempering their bodies so that they are able to feel into the untenability of that contract. To also recognise that regardless of the structures and systems that you have a right to a fundamental okay-ness that allows you to be here and present and the kind of thriving of your humanity, regardless of the conditions. Of course it does, of course it does. And the extraordinary and profound truth of spiritual grounding and I’m not talking about somebody’s particular faith. And I don’t care if people are Buddhists and I don’t I’m kind of almost I’m not a Buddhist myself in many ways. I’m just sort of post – but there’s more of a spiritual grounding, a spirited grounding is that the profound understanding of that is that we can be OK even as we strive to have a roof over our head and care for our children. And we need that.
VS: I keep thinking about this all the time. We’re always thinking, you say bringing the whole truth, but it also means bringing your whole body and all of your actions in service of that idea. And it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s not an easy thing to to sit with, to understand once you start bringing that into your life.
AKW: It’s rigorous. It requires rigorous — if you’re defying the the constructed reality around you. But when you get the hang of it and you kind of get in the seat of that, the veil comes off and it actually becomes quite simple, and that is where the ease arises. And now it’s just the logistics, so to speak, of life.
VS: I think that’s what I’m talking about, the logistics of life. It’s like, okay I have kids, where am I going to send them to school? And all of these things that we’re talking about, the contract, the comforts, the things that we trade.
VS: So that’s what I was you know — it’s that logical practical. And I’m thinking about the logical practical for a moment. And I’m thinking that so many of us right now are inspired by what we’ve seen in these global anti-racist movements. And we want to have meaningful conversations about race. But some of us don’t know what steps to take maybe. I’m wondering if you can offer some simple steps for someone who says: I’m really inspired and I want to move forward.
AKW: One of the exercises I walk people through is to go and find in your own experience and history, I call it the earliest and most potent moment that you recognised that race matters. That race is a thing, not that there’s a difference, that people have different coloured bodies and all of that kind of thing, but that race actually matters go back and find that and sit with that moment that I call the moment you were racialized. And sit with that and I invite people to journal about it. Journal about it as if it were present tense. So write the story down as if it were happening right now. So use the present tense and use I statements like: I walked in this room, a young white man turned and looked at me. Journal about it and find that story that is looping probably mostly unbeknownst to you, that is looping.
VS: I’m sure you have those little things yourself.
AKW: I don’t think I loop stories.
VS: You don’t loop them anymore?
AKW: I mean, I can tell stories, you know, that’s what we are, but I’m not looping the stories. Part of what meditation practice is when you’re really doing your practises you can catch the loop.
VS: And that story that you’re talking about, journaling that story, that’s not just for racialized folks. I mean, that’s not just for racialized folks of colour. We are all racialized.
AKW: Oh, yeah, of course. In fact, I would say that it’s white-bodied people that have the least access to their story of racialization because their whiteness is a given and they’ve been induced into the idea that their whiteness is a given, that they’re not a race. They’re absolutely a race and have absolutely been racialized. And that’s why it’s so profound. We have all inherited our ways of knowing and responding and reacting to race and the stories about race and all of these things from the very system that we’re trying to get ourselves out of and dismantle. And so if we don’t have a way, a perspective, that allows us to turn around and look at it and be in it but not of it, right? To be in it, but not of it, to get ourselves just enough perspective so that we’re not of it, that we know we’re something greater. We have to be able to think, feel, know outside of this system. And meditation, and I want to say embodied awareness practises, give us access to a way of knowing ourselves that is transcendent, that is outside and beyond the system, not so we can hover out and go to some kind of magic heaven away from the world, so that we can function inside of it and it’s not just devastating to us at every moment.
VS: Yeah. Reverend angel, it’s good to be with you today.
AKW: It’s so funny, I just heard your voice like this. This way you would say my name without the reverend, you’d just say angel. And I just totally heard it in that moment. That’s great.
VS: Reverend angel?
AKW: You know, you’d say angel and you would pause just like that. So good.
VS: Yeah, it is really good.
AKW: Thank you.
VS: Thank you so much.
VS: That’s it for this episode of Don’t Call Me Resilient. If you’re like me and you feel inspired and curious after that conversation with Reverend angel, let us know what you’re thinking. Just tag me @WriteVinita. Also tag @ConversationCA and use the hashtag #DontCallMeResilient. If you’d like to read more about mindful meditation and its other uses, go to theconversation.com. That’s also where you’ll find our show notes with links to stories and research connected to our conversation today.
VS: Don’t Call me Resilient is a production of The Conversation Canada. This podcast was produced with a grant for journalism innovation from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The series is produced and hosted by me Vinita Srivastava. Our producers are Nahid Buie, Nehal El-Hadi and Vicky Mochama with additional editorial help from our intern Ibrahim Daair. Reza Dahya is our technical producer and sound guru. Anowa Quarcoo is in charge of marketing and production design. Lisa Varano is our audience development editor and Scott White is the CEO of The Conversation Canada. Special thanks also to Jennifer Moroz for her indispensable help on this project. And if you’re wondering who wrote and performed the music we use on the pod, that’s the amazing Zaki Ibrahim. The track is called Something in the Water. Thanks for listening, everyone, and hope you join us again.
Until next time, I am Vinita. And please, don’t call me resilient.