The following are the most recent selected posts from my Facebook author page:
The posts are arranged chronologically with the most recent on the bottom:
September 26, 2020:
Is Consciousness the ground of being, the source and substance of everything?
How will we approach such a question? I would suggest that we begin by putting aside any beliefs we have about this and any “answers” that have come to us second-hand. And instead of approaching this as a metaphysical or philosophical question that we try to figure out “the answer” to by thinking and reasoning, I would suggest it might be much more interesting and liberating to approach it experientially, by tuning into and exploring, or investigating, our actual direct experience here and now.
When we do that, what do we notice?
We can notice that whatever-this-is, this present experiencing that is showing up, is an ever-changing movement that never resolves or solidifies as any kind of fixed or persisting “thing” that can be pinned down, grasped or separated out from everything else that it apparently is not. As they point out in Buddhism, impermanence is so thorough-going that no independent, persisting thing ever actually forms to BE impermanent.
And yet, at the same time, experience is always showing up right here, right now, in this immediacy or present-ness that is immovably always the case. We might describe Here-Now as the ever-present timeless (or eternal) infinity or vastness that never comes, never goes, and never stays the same. It might also be described as spacious awareness or boundless presence. It is the still point, the center of which is everywhere and the circumference nowhere. It is the unconditional love beholding and allowing everything to be just as it is.
We can also notice that present experiencing is infinitely varied or diversified. There is a multitude of different colors, shapes, sounds, sensations, textures, tastes, smells, emotional states, feelings, and qualities of experience. And at the same time, present experiencing is always showing up as a seamless whole, a singularity—one whole moving picture that never departs from right here, right now. And if we look closely at any particular thing within this moving picture that we might single out, we find that it has no beginning or end, no inside or outside, no actual boundaries—everything opens into infinity and is made up of everything it is not. This wholeness is holographic, fractal, like those jewels in Indra’s Net that are each only a reflection of all the others.
Noticing the wholeness of everything, the way it all goes together, the seamlessness, the interdependency, the non-separation, the non-duality of everything—the fact that polarities are inseparable and only exist relative to each other, that there is no actual boundary between inside and outside, or between self and not-self, or between subject and object—can be a very liberating realization. It shows us that everything belongs, that it all goes together. The name we put on this undivided and indivisible wholeness—whether we call it Consciousness, Unicity, the Tao, Buddha Nature, God, the Self, the One-without-a-second, Primordial Awareness, the universe, or bloopity-bloop—seems much less important to me than the recognition of it experientially. And that recognition is not some amazing achievement or some exotic transcendental experience that we must search for and then maintain—it’s simply a noticing of how it is in our actual direct experience right here, right now.
And giving it a name—any name at all—carries with it the side effect of reification—making this wholeness into an (imaginary) object in our minds, a particular finite thing, SOMETHING that can be experienced, grasped or nailed down—this but not that. And, of course, any such version of wholeness is illusory. Because there is no way to stand outside of EVERYTHING and objectify it as SOMETHING. There is no way to understand totality. It is literally inconceivable. And yet, it is also inescapable. It cannot be attained because it cannot be lost. It is all there is. It is totally obvious, albeit ungraspable.
If we give complete and open attention to any apparent “thing” that appears, however solid and substantial it might initially seem to be, we find that it actually has no substance at all. The more closely we enter into any apparent thing as bare sensation or pure experiencing, the more it dissolves into nothing at all. And yet, this no-thing-ness is not a dead void, but rather, an alive emptiness that is suffused with energy, intelligence, creativity, possibility—infinite potential. It is absolute freedom. And yet it is no-thing at all. It is utterly without form or substance, completely unknowable as any kind of object. We ARE it, but we cannot see or find or possess it.
That inconceivability, that emptiness, that groundlessness and ungraspability is wonderfully freeing, and yet, at first glance, it often scares us. The desire to locate ourselves and know what’s happening, to get control, is deeply rooted in our biology as part of our survival instinct. In a practical sense, this is functional and necessary, but in terms of finding any kind of truth about the nature of life, all our attempts to get a grip or find a foothold are unsatisfying. Because any answer we find becomes doubtful, anything we grip slips away, and any foothold we land on turns out to be unreliable. We crave something that we can believe in and hold onto, like a security blanket, and a concept such as “Consciousness” offers itself as a possibility. Answers are very seductive to the mind, and our tendency to seek and grab onto them is generally quite strong and persistent.
But what exactly IS “consciousness”? Is it another word for sentience, for aliveness, for experiencing, for the undeniable certainty of being present? Is it the light that illuminates everything perceivable and conceivable, the light behind attention? Does it include the darkness before the light? Is it this awaring presence, the alive emptiness at the core of everything, the still point that contains it all? What IS it?
On the one hand, consciousness seems to be our most obvious, undeniable, immediate actuality—the very substance of experiencing itself, the common factor in every different experience. And yet, when we try to get hold of consciousness or pin it down, we can’t really seem to find it. We can notice that we never experience anything outside of, or other than, consciousness (or we could say, other than present experiencing). If there IS anything else, we can never know it. We can only imagine it (as an experience in consciousness). That may be a tautology, but it’s one we cannot get past, except speculatively. All we have is experiencing. Of course, concluding that there cannot be anything “out there” (or “in here”) is arguably a step too far.
After all, what about all the things that are apparently going on below the level of conscious awareness—the infinite complexity of our nervous system, our brain, our heart and lungs and liver and intestines—the whole functioning of the universe at infinitely varied and fractal levels of complexity from the subatomic to the intergalactic? What about the evolution that has supposedly occurred over time from insentient matter and energy, to primitive forms of organic life, and finally to increasingly complex nervous systems and brains and degrees of consciousness?
Of course, we know about ALL of this only through consciousness, as something appearing in consciousness, and made of consciousness in that sense, and yet we presume that it all exists outside of consciousness, or that it existed before there was consciousness. And so, from this perspective, based in thought and rationality, it seems that there must be a bigger happening, a bigger totality in which consciousness as we usually mean it is but one possibility—something that comes and goes.
And this isn’t just something we can think and reason about, but in our own actual experience, every night we leave the movie of waking life, or maybe more accurately, the movie disappears along with the one who seems to be watching it, the one who cares about it. In deep dreamless sleep there is no experience at all, and no experiencer in any perceivable sense. Of course, awareness is still there—after all, we wake up if we hear an alarm or smell smoke. But will awareness still be there in that way, as a non-experience or a potential, after death? Is primordial awareness the ground of being?
How can we know and does it even matter?
Instead of getting lost in speculation or belief, if we return to the simplicity of present experiencing here and now, this question vanishes. It takes thought and imagination to conjure it up, to imagine some future time “after death,” and to wonder if “I” will still be there as this conscious experiencing, this awaring presence that knows that I AM and that THIS IS, this conscious presence that disappears every night in deep sleep or under anesthesia. And we can notice that in that absence, in deep sleep or under anesthesia, there is no I AM there to miss the I AM—it’s not like being buried alive. So from there, the question of what happens to me after death is totally meaningless.
Trying to know what ultimate reality IS, is rooted first in the idea that we can step outside of it and see it as an object, and beyond that, it is rooted in the strange idea that it is something other than simply what it is. When we ask what something “is,” we’re trying to put it in a category of some kind. And it’s a fool’s errand to do that with ultimate reality, because totality cannot possibly be put into a category. And yet, here it always is, just as it is. We simply have to let go of trying to define it and settle into simply BEING it. And even if we seemingly can’t let go and settle in, even that activity and apparent disturbance is itself nothing but ultimate reality doing what it does. No wave ever moves independently of the ocean.
We’re not really separate from this aliveness, this boundless wholeness that is without beginning or end. We’re not actually EVER some independent “thing” that needs to “get a grip” by figuring it all out, so that we don’t fall into some bottomless void. That’s ALL imagination. That’s the wave imagining it is separate from the ocean and worrying about what will happen to it when it subsides back into the ocean.
Counter-intuitively, what is most liberating is having nothing at all to hold onto—simply the groundlessness of this moment, a moment that is fleeting and ephemeral and yet seamlessly whole and complete. It’s like we’re free-falling, but there’s no one falling and no ground to hit.
Instead of some deadly serious search for final enlightenment or salvation, or some effortful practice aimed at either self-improvement or self-dissolution, maybe it’s possible to simply ENJOY what is, just as it is. And maybe there’s a natural, playful curiosity and interest in exploring this living actuality, not as a practice, not as a form of seeking, not in a result-oriented way, not looking for some future attainment, not about me improving me—but simply as an enjoyable, playful, open exploration. We don’t know what this will reveal because every moment is fresh and new and has never been here before.
This exploration can take many different forms: science, meditation, spiritual practices of different kinds, psychotherapy of many different varieties, somatic work, lovemaking, relationships, travel, philosophy, the arts. But one way of exploring is simply to be open here and now to whatever is presenting itself, allowing it to be just as it is, to move as it wants to move, noticing that there is really no possibility of getting it wrong, that what we call “distraction” or “obscuration” or “confusion” is itself just another shape that experiencing is momentarily taking. Nothing is left out. Nothing needs to be other than how it is. Nothing is excluded. And whether we turn our attention to the ever-changing appearances (sensations, perceptions, thoughts, feelings) or to the awaring presence being and beholding it all, in either case, we come to the same vastness, the same alive emptiness, the same groundlessness, the same openness, the same dazzling darkness, wonderment and freedom from all concern.
Response to a comment:
Well, as I said, consciousness is the very substance of experiencing itself, the common factor in every different experience. And yet, when we try to get hold of consciousness or pin it down, we can’t really seem to find it. It can't be experienced as an object, as some-THING. There is an undeniable knowingness of being conscious, and I would say, of being consciousness. But we can easily get into word-play here, and all these words get used in such varied ways, as I tried to suggest. In the end, we're dividing up what is indivisible, and the divisions are imaginary, and the word-labels just nonsense sounds.
Response to another comment:
I'm not keen on the notion of "stabilization." To my ear, it calls forth the notion of progress and future attainment for somebody. What is apparently being stabilized in is actually never absent. I used to talk (and sometimes still do) about the falling away of the hypnotic trance (the me-story, the thought-sense of separation, etc) that SEEMS (intermittently) to obscure this indivisible wholeness. But more and more, I encourage us all to see EVERYTHING as an expression of this seamless totality, and to explore it as sensation, energy, texture or presence rather than as storyline and interpretation, and to discover the infinite emptiness right in the apparent obscurations. I'm also not a big believer in permanent, finish-line transformations (or "final stabilizations"), in which the thought-sense of separation or personal identity never again arises. It seems to be in the very nature of consciousness that it loves to become absorbed in stories and gets easily entangled in its own creations, and I regard both the entanglement and the waking up as impersonal happenings, both equally expressions or activities of the undivided whole that is without borders or seams.
Response to another comment from same person:
I deeply appreciate several different approaches to finding the peace and the freedom from unnecessary suffering that we all seek. One approach is that taken in Advaita, recognizing that we are the boundless awareness in which everything appears and disappears, and realizing that this unbound awareness (the True I, the Ultimate Subject) is ever-present regardless of what appears. And that approach might include consciously turning attention to that open spacious awareness and away from the thought-stories of me, seeing that the separate “me” is a kind of mirage, and falling open into that vastness (now and now and now), and gradually stabilizing more and more in the felt-sense of that, while being less and less entangled in the me-story, etc. Another more Tantric or Zen approach goes in what appears to be the opposite direction, including everything and going right into the appearances, finding that they are ever-changing, ungraspable, no-thing at all—that they ARE, in fact, nothing other than this awaring presence. (No separation / not-two). Some approaches negate ordinary life (not this, not that), while others fully embrace it. Some emphasize a path, while others uncompromisingly point out that what is sought is never absent and that any move to remember it, get it, stabilize in it, deepen in it, or anything else of that nature is a way of over-looking that it is fully present right here, that this is it. Having tasted deeply of many of these different approaches, I find beauty in all of them, and I find they can all be ways of discovering and realizing that peace and freedom from unnecessary suffering that we all seek. Different approaches seem to work for different folks, and perhaps for each of us at different moments. At least, that has been my own experience. And yes, of course, relatively speaking, there is an unfolding over time, and what we can call a process of stabilization (or less and less entanglement in the illusory sense of being separate and small). I don’t deny that. I just prefer different language because I have found it especially helpful and liberating to recognize that we can never actually be apart from this wholeness and that there is no one to stabilize as something else.
September 30, 2020 [following the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden]:
Last night for my evening entertainment, I forced myself to sit through two grueling hours of “The Empire Breaks Down,” in which a psychopathic bully runs over an anemic older man while an utterly ineffectual referee, probably worried he’ll lose his job at the world’s most unreliable media empire if he does anything more, occasionally makes tepid attempts to blow his broken whistle. It was the kind of violent movie that screws up your nervous system and gives you nightmares, but because you’re an addict, you keep watching anyway. I called a friend afterwards, someone more sensitive than myself, who had turned it off early on, unable to tolerate the violence. We laughed over the great joke of living through the End Times together. And then, to restore my sanity, I decided to log onto the Nothing Conference and watch Jim Newman, whose presentation was one of the many I had not yet seen. And that was most enjoyable and refreshing. I was reminded of the delightful purposelessness and freedom that is never not here in this astonishingly incomprehensible no-thing-ness as soon as the interpretations and storylines give way. And, as always with Jim—who is one of my secret favorites—I enjoyed how skillfully he dispels the notion that there is something or anything that needs to happen, not even the imaginary release of that contracted energy that he keeps briefly dangling as an imaginary carrot and then blowing out. In short, it was a fine autumnal evening, as smoke from the latest fire began to creep slowly back into the valley where I live.
Response to a comment (question about Jim compared to Rupert):
No person can see the whole elephant (or totality). Each of us has a unique perspective, no two are exactly alike. Words like “awareness” get used in different ways. There are many different, and sometimes contradictory pointers—sometimes each can serve as an antidote for the unintended toxic side effects of another. It has been my experience that we find what we need when we need it. Reality cannot be captured in ANY conceptual formulation, and when we try, we inevitably end up with paradox: path / no path; something to realize / nothing to realize; choicelessness / total responsibility; rest as awareness / there is no awareness; etc. You won’t satisfy your longing by figuring out the right answer. Please see my newest post, just up now. And remember, wherever you go, Here you always are, in this immediacy or present-ness, and waking up only ever happens NOW. In fact, you are already awake and present--simply notice that this is so.
October 3, 2020:
FIND YOUR OWN MIND: The Addiction to Authority and the Search for Certainty
They say in Buddhism, “If you meet the Buddha on the road (i.e., outside of yourself), kill him.” Or as my friend Robert Saltzman likes to say, “Find your own mind.” We so easily assume others must know more, or be wiser, more awake, more evolved, or more whatever than we are. We’re deeply conditioned to look “out there” (to experts, authorities, gurus, scriptures, etc.) for answers, and to trust those we imagine have something we don’t (or else rebel against them, which is simply the mirror image of the same phenomenon).
Of course, there is a place for humility, for recognizing what we don’t know, for allowing others to help us, and for learning from others. I’m not advocating a false egalitarianism or saying we should throw all experts, teachers and teachings out the window and reinvent the wheel. But at a certain point, in a way, that’s exactly what we must do—we must stand alone and be true to our own mind, our own vision, our own explorations and discoveries. Because ultimately, no one else can do this for us, and every one of us has a unique path and a unique vision. No one else knows what we need. And no one has the One True Answer, the One and Only Right Way.
This has been one of the hardest things for me to fully grok, this finding and trusting my own mind. And sometimes, this standing alone and being the unvarnished bare actuality of this moment, just as it is, doesn’t happen. The search for some kind of final explanation, some certainty or security, some authoritative truth is profoundly addictive.
When I first landed at Springwater Center back in the late 80s, the retreat center founded by Toni Packer, she would talk a lot about our desire for authority. It was clearly a major human issue as far as she was concerned, as it had been for J. Krishnamurti. But at the time, I didn’t see craving for, or dependence on authority as my issues. I was raised by atheist-agnostics to be a free thinker, I went to a liberal arts college that encouraged thinking outside the box, I had been a counter-culture rebel in the 60s, an acid tripper, a wild bar dyke, someone who flew in the face of convention in every imaginable way, a political radical—obviously I wasn’t someone who craved authority. Right? It took me quite a long time to realize just how deeply I did (and at times still do) look outside myself for the “right” answers, put others up above me, and mistrust my own mind and my own insights. I’m still working on this one.
I’ve done this with both “political correctness” and “spiritual truth.” I stayed in the radical left for quite a while after I began to feel that many of the positions we were taking were totally wrong—but I silenced myself. I believed what they told me, that my doubts were symptomatic of my white petty-bourgeois privilege, that I just needed to quash that and submit to the party line. I kept trying. And then in the spiritual world, I have looked up to a number of teachers and authors over the years, from Toni Packer to Tony Parsons, trying to fit myself into their (often contradictory) perspectives or win their approval. And I still find myself at times doubting my own seeing and looking to someone else.
I see this happening in others as well, including people I meet with. I can sometimes tell, for example, that someone I’m talking to has adopted the supposedly “correct” (or “highest” or “truest”) form of nonduality that someone else is preaching—that this has become a belief or a dogma, that the one who preached it is being held up as an infallible authority, and that this is blocking the natural expression and creativity of the person I’m speaking with. It’s like a box they’re in.
I’m not saying here that we shouldn’t read books, attend retreats or satsangs, listen to talks or watch YouTube videos. Everything has its place. But we can begin to discern the difference between when something is truly nurturing us, and when it is a kind of desperate or addictive seeking for the right answer. We can feel whether we are viewing some teacher or some book as an infallible authority or simply as someone we respect and find interesting and worth hearing, but whom we feel perfectly able to question and disagree with. Of course, we can’t make ourselves drop the insecure, addictive part, even when we see it. And yet, the more clearly it is seen for what it is, the less grip it has and the more it falls away. For some, this may be a decisive and permanent happening, for others (like myself) it seems to be more of a gradual process. And we don’t get to choose how it unfolds for us.
Ultimately, life is doing us, we’re not doing it. Although paradoxically, we ARE life. We are indeed responsible, in the sense of responsive, for everything, because we ARE everything, and we can’t really nail down how realizations, thoughts, actions, choices and decisions happen. Are we doing them or are they happening to us? Or is there a false separation in both of those formulations, a false division? As always, it’s so important not to cling to conceptual maps or to imagine that our innate curiosity and the deep longing of the heart will be satisfied by anyone else’s answers or by any conceptual formulation.
In Zen Buddhism, there’s a lay ordination ceremony where you are given a Buddhist name that your teacher chooses for you, usually in some Asian language, and the English translation generally sounds very spiritual and exotic, something like “Way of Joy/ Boundless Equanimity” or “Lotus Flower/Empty Mind.” But one of my favorite Zen teachers, Barry Magid in NYC, apparently gives people their own actual, ordinary, everyday names at lay ordination. In other words, my Buddhist name would be Joan Tollifson—this very person, this vulnerable and transient, utterly unique, totally imperfect, unresolved, flawed and yet absolutely perfect, ever-changing expression of totality, THIS is who I am called to be—not Tranquility Mountain or Pure Emptiness or Lotus Flower, not Toni Packer or Tony Parsons or Nisargadatta or Darryl Bailey, but THIS particular, unique, one-of-a-kind human being, just as I actually am, moment to moment. That’s such a powerful lesson, to be yourself, to find your own mind, to be as you are, to not hide behind anyone else, parrot anyone else, or try to fit yourself into anyone else’s shoes—to be true to your own truth—in spirituality, in nonduality, in politics, in whatever realm.
And, of course, this doesn’t mean that “myself” is any substantial or persisting “thing” that can be grasped, nor is it pointing to egoic self-centeredness, or to the kind of rugged individualism that ignores society, nor to some uncompromising version of “my way or the highway,” nor does it negate wholeness and the recognition that one is inseparable from the totality and that absolutely everything is myself. It is perhaps the living koan of a lifetime to find out exactly what it DOES mean to be you (or me), and to be true to that, to BE that. No facile, second-hand, conceptual “answers” or conclusions will satisfy. It is an unresolvable, ever-unfolding, living koan that can only be answered by life itself, moment to moment, right now.
Response to a question:
I suggest not approaching all this as something effortful and demanding, but more as an open exploration rooted in curiosity, interest and even playfulness. And I suggest not having a result-oriented approach, and not expecting perfection—or anything else. I’m 72 years old. I began meditating half a century ago, and I’ve been writing books and giving talks and meeting with people about all this for almost a quarter of a century now, and I’m far from perfect, nor am I always clear and centered. The things you describe are very human and commonplace. Yes, some people have more of those tendencies, others less, due to the infinite causes and conditions that make each moment and each organism just as it is—in the same way different locations have different weather patterns. But by being curious and interested, these patterns do reveal themselves, and gradually (or in some cases suddenly), they lose their grip and their believability, and they shape behavior less and less. But they may never entirely disappear, nor do they need to. Whatever shows up, whether calm or stormy, cloudy or clear, it is ALL a movement of this one indivisible whole. It’s not personal. In seeing that, there is greater peace with being just as we are, including being at times cloudy or confused or insecure. It’s all included. Nothing (as far as I know) “always cuts it.”
Response to a comment:
Well, as we all know, it's easy to SAY all this about "all is one" and "no others" and "you can say whatever you want because there's no one else to impress," or to know it intellectually, but not always so easy to shed the conditioned patterns that tell us otherwise. And, of course, in one sense, we are all unique and different individuals, and we are social animals, and we do have a natural desire for belonging and to be loved and valued. If the tribe totally rejects us, after all, and abandons us on the tundra, we starve to death. So it's deep in our animal nature and our biology as well as our human nature.
Response to another comment:
What I wanted to express in this post was that these are deep-seated human tendencies. It's easy to criticize hierarchical and authoritarian structures and formats "out there," but the problem is deeper than that. When Toni Packer and others left the Rochester Zen Center to work in a more open way, they thought they could leave all that behind. No hierarchy, Toni as a friend and not a teacher, everyone free to question anything and everything, democratic structure, no pomp and ritual...but they soon discovered that we carry the seeds of these tendencies within us and they re-emerge, perhaps in more subtle ways. We weren't bowing to Toni or kissing her feet or calling her Roshi or Guru or anything, but still at times, in spite of ourselves, we nonetheless found ourselves putting her up on a pedestal (or tearing her down on the flip side)...etc. So what I hoped this piece would be, is an invitation to all of us to see these tendencies in ourselves when they show up.
October 9, 2020:
Reflections on Cancel Culture, Identity Politics, Woke Culture, and the Politics of Division and Dogmatism: The Increasingly Forbidden Capacity for Open Listening, Discernment of Nuance, and Recognition of Blind Spots in Our Collective Life
“To look is to see only a fraction of what one is looking at. Even in the most vigilant eye, there is a blind spot. What is missing?” – Teju Cole, from his book Blind Spot
I first encountered Teju Cole through an article he wrote about photography, perhaps in the New York Times. Intrigued by his perspective, I read his novel Open City, which I loved. Some years later, I got his book Blind Spot, which is a combination of his photos with text he has written. The title is drawn from the fact that in the human eye, there is a blind spot where the retina meets the optic nerve, creating a spot in our visual field, about the size of an orange held at arm’s length, where there is actually no visual information. And yet, none of us experiences this absence. It is mysteriously filled in, as if nothing were missing. In some way, I feel this relates to the reflections I am about to share.
I’m venturing into some hot-button territory here, and not without considerable trepidation, but for whatever reason, the universe moves me to do this. It’s a long article, and it’s political, so please feel free not to read it if that sounds unappealing. But if you do wish to comment, I ask that you please read the whole post thoroughly and carefully before doing so. I may or may not respond to comments.
I came into the world without a right hand back when disability was much more stigmatized than it is today. I grew up in the 1950s in a world where gender roles were much less flexible than they are now, and where women had few of the opportunities they have today. Women didn’t even have the right to vote in the US when my mother was born. I never felt like a girl or a woman, and at one point in middle-age, I even considered a gender transition, but settled on simply calling myself non-binary. Being forced into girl’s clothing as a child was painful to me. My sexual orientation from early on was mostly lesbian, and I came out as gay in college, before Stonewall, back when it was still illegal in many states, still considered a sin by virtually every religion, still classified as a mental illness in psychiatry, and still a reason to be fired from most jobs. Gay people were the targets of hate crimes and police raids. Gay relationships were hidden, as my first relationship was hidden from almost everyone else in our lives.
I understand what it’s like to look at the pictures in grade school of all the US presidents and absorb the information by osmosis that people like you are not included, that apparently you need to be white and male in order to be president—or back then, to be many other things. Most doctors, lawyers, politicians, scientists, news anchors, reporters, movie directors, and so on were white men. Back then, as a person with one arm, or as a lesbian, your options were far more limited than they would be today. I know what it’s like when no one on TV looks like you, and how not being reflected in the cultural mirrors, or only in ways that are demeaning or offensive, impacts your life. I know what it’s like to feel invisible and somehow innately wrong, second-rate or bad.
I also know that much of this has changed dramatically in my lifetime, that the world no longer looks as it did back then. Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best have long since been replaced by a far more inclusive version of reality. Women and people of color are found in pretty much every profession, and we have out lesbians and gay men hosting their own cable and network TV shows. We’ve had a black president. Things have changed. The problems of racism, sexism and heterosexism are by no means completely resolved, but things have improved dramatically.
While my own experiences with being stigmatized and held back in various ways may help me to understand and empathize with the experiences of black people, I also realize that as a white person, I cannot know what it is like to be black, and I am not intending to in any way equate the things I have experienced with what black people experience today or have gone through historically. But from early on, I identified with the black struggle for equality. I was a strong supporter of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s—Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin were my teenage heroes.
And as I’ve experienced in my own life as a woman, as a member of the LGBTQI community, and as a person with a disability, we humans often find it helpful to get together with others who share our experiences, especially when we belong to groups that have been oppressed, belittled, stigmatized, excluded or put down in some way. Gathering with and sharing our experiences with others in that group helps us identify how exactly we have been stereotyped and oppressed as a group. This is empowering because it reveals that many things we took to be our personal problems were actually not personal at all, and because it also opens up possibilities in our minds for change. It enables us to push for that change as a group. Thus, there is a valid place for so-called identity politics, a place I have personally experienced. I don’t think things would have changed as much as they have for blacks and other people of color, for women, for LGBTQI people, or for people with disabilities without identity politics, mass protests, and deliberate attempts at inclusion and diversity such as affirmative action.
But this identity with a group is a double-edged sword, because it also encourages a false sense of separation and limited identity, and the perpetuation of stories and interpretations, especially stories of victimization and entitlement. It focuses us on past injustices and future demands, rather than on the presence here and now in which none of that exists. It emphasizes our differences and particularities, rather than what we all have in common, both as human beings and as the impersonal presence and wholeness of what is—and thus, identity of this kind inevitably stirs up disagreements and conflicts, which will always exist at that level. It also solidifies walls and divisions and categories that don’t really exist. No category, formulation, or interpretation is ever entirely accurate because reality itself can’t be divided, boxed up or pinned down that way. These categories have a relative reality that can be useful, but they’re not actually real. The dividing lines are way more fluid, porous, amorphous and ultimately non-existent than our thinking leads us to believe.
Why, after all, is a mixed-race person like Barack Obama considered black and not white? Of course, I get that he has been treated as a black man in society, and to ignore or deny that would be equally false, but if you think about it, it’s pretty strange to call him either black or white. He’s both! And so are many other people, and more of us all the time. I can remember struggles in the women’s movement years ago over who was a “real” lesbian, which struck me as absurd at the time, but these were serious debates. If you hadn’t yet slept with a woman, could you be a lesbian? How about if you also slept with men? How many men did it take to make you bisexual or not a real lesbian? Or if you were a transwoman, could you be a lesbian? I was always in favor of being inclusive, but many others were not.
Is a transman a real man, or a transwoman a real woman? What is a real man? Or a real woman? Or a real black person? How much black ancestry does it take to be black? What defines a person as black? Or gay? Or disabled? It’s all rather murky, isn’t it? Even gender turns out to be much less solidly binary than was long assumed—people can be intersex in a variety of ways and never even know it, and they can certainly be gender fluid, nonbinary or trans in how they feel and experience themselves. While it would be absurd to pretend that these categories have no reality at all, it seems equally absurd to treat them as solidly as we do and to regard them as identities that define us as human beings. And why is it not okay for someone like Rachel Dozer to be transracial, while it is okay for people to be transgender? It seems contradictory for one of these to be absolutely right and the other absolutely wrong. And why is it taboo to even question either position?
The fact that the questions I’m raising here are as loaded as they are indicates the degree to which we identify with these categories and feel a need to defend them. We even get into disputes over which group is the most victimized, the most oppressed, the most deeply wounded. Thinking of ourselves as one of The Most Victimized or Most Oppressed People becomes another identity to defend.
Ultimately, at least as I see it, we’re working toward a world where these variations in human beings will be noticed and appreciated in the same way we notice hair color or the particular features of each unique face, but where these things will play no greater part than that in determining how much you get paid, or how the police or the criminal justice system treats you, or whether your intimate relationships are recognized and honored, or whether you are treated with respect as a fully human person. And I wonder lately if our approach to solving these problems isn’t perhaps solidifying these false separations and identities when our aim is actually to get beyond them?
Of course, in the nondual or spiritual world, the emphasis is often on leaving behind all limited identities completely—waking up from the sense of being a separate person encapsulated inside a body and instead discovering our true identity as no-thing and everything, as the whole, as Consciousness itself, the Ultimate Subject, the One-without-a-second—the transpersonal identity we share with all beings. From that perspective, we’re often told that the best thing we can do to help the world is simply to fall open (now and now and now) into the boundlessness of Here-Now, the aware presence in which there is no me and you, no racism, no sexism, no history, no future. We should no longer think or talk about the kinds of things I’m writing about in this post. Mooji once said, “Live as though you have no rights and no entitlements, and you’ll appreciate all that comes.” And Nisargadatta: “You are free once you understand that your bondage is of your own making and you cease forging the chains that bind you.” And Byron Katie: “I am a lover of what is, because it hurts when I argue with reality.” She goes on to say, “The world is the mirror image of your mind.” In other words, the problem is all in your mind, not in the society.
But is that the whole truth? While there is certainly real and important (and liberating) truth in what Mooji, Maharaj and Katie are saying there, I’m not sure that the answer to various forms of injustice is to completely wipe out any sense of having rights or being wronged, or any sense of being a human being or even a particular kind of human being, or any seeing of injustice or any desire and action to correct it. Boundaries and categories have their place functionally, and I’m all for working toward a more just society. But as spiritual awakening helps us to realize, it’s very easy to make ourselves much smaller and more limited than we really are, and then to fall into feeling threatened, wounded, hurt and outraged—and in our outrage, we don’t always act in our own best interest. We often shoot ourselves in the foot. And we often become strangely attached to our own victimhood.
In recent years, I’ve found myself on many occasions feeling at odds with some of the positions and tactics that the left and various progressive groups have taken. I’ve sometimes felt that the left is going off the rails as much as the right, and that we are often shooting ourselves in the foot. This is not a comfortable place for me to be as a progressive person, but I feel moved to speak about it because I know there are plenty of others in the progressive community who feel as I do, and some of them can’t afford to speak out for fear of losing their jobs in the present atmosphere of political correctness also known as the cancel culture.
That kind of narrow and oppressive political correctness is enforced at many universities now to a disturbing extreme, and it permeates many other cultural institutions from art galleries to the mainstream media. It is taboo, for example, to question Black Lives Matter. No one that I’ve heard in the mainstream media has called out BLM for having mass protests during a pandemic, but the same media does (rightly) call out Trump for doing mass gatherings, and “selfish” college kids for partying, but not BLM. I heard that some college had to cancel their performance of The Vagina Monologues because not all women have vaginas, and to put on the play would be an insult to transwomen. The MeToo Movement, which I think is courageous and much needed, does at times seem to me to lack any compassion for the perpetrators, especially when they acted decades ago in accord with sexist but socially accepted norms at the time. A friend was told that having a statue of Buddha in her garden was “cultural appropriation.” Last week, a handful of art museums decided to postpone a retrospective of the painter Philip Guston over concerns that Ku Klux Klan imagery in his work, intended to criticize racism, anti-Semitism and bigotry, would upset viewers or that the works would be “misinterpreted.” Concern was expressed that Guston had “appropriated images of Black trauma,” and that “an exhibition with such strong commentary on race cannot be done by all white curators.”
Many university teachers are now required to issue “trigger warnings” if they assign readings that might trigger an unpleasant reaction in a student, and students are often sheltered from reading or hearing anything that might make them “feel” bad. And there is the now popular (or “politically correct”) idea amongst a certain vocal faction of the LGBTQI community that only lesbian actors should play lesbians, only trans actors should play transgender people, and similarly, from disability activists, that only people with disabilities should play characters with disabilities. And why? Because, as I actually heard someone with a disability say, “disability is an identity.” Really!? I can say that I’m a white nonbinary lesbian with a disability, and those labels have a relative reality that can be useful in communicating certain things about me, but they don’t define or sum up who I am. I don’t consider them my identity. And isn’t the art of acting in theater and movies all about inhabiting and portraying people who are not like you? But with this “politically correct” way of thinking, maybe only real blondes should play blonde characters, and only real murderers should play murderers?
In contrast, I’ve loved how the Oregon Shakespeare Festival here in Ashland, like many other contemporary theater companies, mixes it up with race and gender. I saw a production of Hamlet several years ago in which a black woman played Hamlet’s mother, a deaf actor played his father (the deaf actor signed his lines and another actor spoke them), and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were portrayed as a mixed race lesbian couple. OSF did the musical Oklahoma a few years ago with mixed race lesbian and gay couples instead of straight white ones and with a transgender Aunt Ella. To me, that’s the way to go! Let’s get beyond all these categories rather than perpetually reinforcing them. Of course, it is important for minority actors to be given roles, which for many years they were not, and when a play is specifically about the black experience, then it makes sense to use black actors. So clearly there are nuances and subtleties here, but my sense is that solidifying these differences into hard and fast, impenetrable categories and turning them into identities is not the way to get to a genuinely inclusive and egalitarian society. Some degree of that might have been a necessary step, and in some instances might still be, but it’s one I feel we need to get beyond. But in this cancel culture atmosphere, it becomes taboo to even discuss or question such things.
My mother worked for many decades against racism and police brutality in Chicago—so that is an issue I’ve long been aware of. In my years in the left, we were often calling out racist policing and police brutality. And in the gay community back in the day, the police would routinely raid our bars, which were the only places we had back then to meet one another and to socialize. So, I know that the police can do awful things. And of course I’m against racist policing and excessive force, and I’m all for continuing efforts to better train police, to diversify police forces, and to increase accountability.
But I also recognize that the police have a very difficult job, and that trying to restrain someone who is big, high on drugs and alcohol, pumped up on adrenaline, and maybe spitting at you, biting you, kicking you, and punching you is not easy. In many cases, we see only the final moments captured on a cell phone by a bystander, but we don’t see everything that transpired before that moment. The situation is often far more nuanced than the video that goes viral on social media suggests, and the assumptions we have made about the officer’s motives and intentions may be entirely false.
Black Lives Matter (BLM) has done and stood for some things I like and agree with, and they’ve also done and stood for some things I question, things that trouble me. Their founding premise seems to be that there is a systemic war on black people, and that the police disproportionately kill black men. Many reputable scholars and thinkers, including many who are black and/or progressive, have questioned the validity of these assertions. They’ve also questioned, as I do, whether this kind of approach, focusing on black lives and not all lives, and on racism more than economic injustice is the best way forward. No one is denying that racism still exists, but not in all the ways that BLM assumes.
BLM was founded in 2013 in response to the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black teenager, and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain who shot Martin one rainy night during a physical fight. Both young men, presumably hyped up on testosterone and adrenalin, believed the other was up to no good. When the two of them met up in the dark, they got into a physical fight that ended, after rolling around on the ground, with Martin on top of Zimmerman, and then Zimmerman shooting and killing Martin. Zimmerman claimed he feared for his life, and that he had acted in self-defense, which (if true) makes what he did legal in the state where it happened.
At the time, I found it disturbing to watch how many people on the left and in the black community jumped instantly to conclusions about what happened that night long before all the facts were known. Many black and left activists immediately assumed this was a racist killing, and that George Zimmerman should be found guilty of murder. The media again and again used a photo of Trayvon Martin as an innocent-looking twelve-year-old boy instead of one showing him as the seventeen-year-old young man that he actually was at the time Zimmerman encountered him. NBC edited Zimmerman’s 911 call to make him sound racist. What he actually said to 911 was, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.” The 911 operator then asks Zimmerman what race the guy is and what he’s wearing, and only then does Zimmerman provide those details, and he isn’t even entirely sure Martin is black. But very few people heard the correction, only the altered version that went viral in which Zimmerman appears to say, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good…he’s black…he’s wearing a hoodie.” People even started wearing hoodies to demonstrate their support for black people!
It seemed to me that the main culprit was not racism, but rather, our gun culture here in America—the fact that so many citizens are armed with guns. Had Zimmerman not had a gun, this incident would almost certainly not have ended in death. And after watching the trial, I felt the verdict of not guilty was entirely correct—not because I didn’t find the incident tragic, not because I know for sure that Zimmerman shot Martin in self-defense as he claimed, and not because I was convinced that racism was not a contributing factor, maybe even a decisive one—but because there was certainly more than ample reasonable doubt. In our system, thankfully, the accused is considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But many people on the left and in the media seemed utterly unaware of this basic tenet. The verdict was seen as a terrible injustice and a clear manifestation of racism. And I doubt that any program host on MSNBC could have questioned that on air without losing their job.
This pattern of rushing to judgment has recurred over and over in BLM cases.
I watched in dismay in recent months as masses of people took to the streets during a pandemic to protest the tragic police killing of George Floyd, a man who (according to the narrative) had been deliberately killed because he was black. The video of him face down with a policeman’s knee on his neck is certainly disturbing. But did Derek Chauvin intend to kill Floyd? Did he realize that he was killing him? Were the officers actually feeling callous indifference or boredom, as it appeared to many, or was that simply the familiar mask of male bravado or police cool hiding much more vulnerable emotions? Do we know for sure?
A person I know who worked years ago in corrections tells me how hard it is to restrain someone who is big and agitated, and how the person being restrained sometimes claims that they can’t breathe, and then when you let up, they bite or spit at you. Saying they couldn’t breathe was a ploy, in other words. And nowadays, a bite or a spit can be fatal. So after a while, if getting tricked like that happens to you repeatedly, maybe you begin to discount those pleas of, “I can’t breathe.” You begin to assume the person is faking. I’m not saying that makes it okay, and quite possibly these kinds of potentially fatal restraining practices should be banned entirely, but this was apparently accepted protocol in Minneapolis at the time.
And was this done to Floyd because he was black? And does this sort of thing actually happen disproportionately to black men? If you’re sure you know the answers, I recommend listening to some heterodox black intellectuals like Coleman Hughes and John McWhorter who tell a different story, a story based on actual statistics. (And no, they are not denying that racism exists).
George Floyd was 6 feet 4 inches tall, weighed 223 pounds and was high on fentanyl and methamphetamine at the time of his death. He had a prison record for armed robbery and had been arrested numerous times, mostly for theft and drugs. But he was quickly eulogized as “the gentle giant.” I don’t doubt that he had a gentle and loving side, but the not-so-gentle side was quickly erased. He was an innocent victim and the cops involved were all cold-blooded, racist killers—period, end of story. Question that narrative, and you’re a racist. And maybe you lose your job. And if the grand jury or the trial jury doesn’t end up agreeing with that narrative, prepare to have many small businesses, some of them black-owned, destroyed by angry mobs.
Many of the demonstrations over Floyd’s death have led to rioting and looting—even though that was clearly not the intention of the organizers or most of the protestors—but the protests continued to happen, creating the context for these fringe elements to continue rioting and looting. I watched in horror as some of these demonstrations dragged on for weeks, and as some demonstrators did justify and defend the looting and burning, and as the left and BLM began calling for defunding and abolishing the police, and sending unarmed social workers out to respond to domestic violence calls. Really!?
Speaking as someone who has called 911 twice in my life because someone was breaking into my house in the middle of the night, I’m really grateful that the police were there both times. And I know many black folks don’t want the police abolished or defunded any more than I do. Many of the police are black themselves! Is all of this actually helping to bring about racial justice or to improve policing, or is it more about mass venting and finding an easy target to blame? In my opinion, it’s helping Trump and the far right more than anyone else.
If you’re a police officer with a good heart and good intentions who puts your life on the line every day to do a dangerous and scary job in a country where so many people are armed with guns and where so many are also traumatized, mentally ill, or high on drugs or alcohol, it must be incredibly demoralizing and painful to have masses of people out in the streets calling for you to be fired, defunded or abolished.
In woke culture, white people are told that we are “privileged” and somehow responsible for things our ancestors, or other white people did—things we actually abhor—but for which we are somehow guilty and must take responsibility. We are told we must listen to black people—listen, but not question what they say—and the presumption seems to be that black people are a monolithic group who all think alike. If you listen to the “wrong” black people, you are a racist. And if you’re black and you question BLM, you are a self-hating traitor.
This is all very reminiscent for me of my days in the radical left, when—as a white person—I was told that I must take leadership from black and Puerto Rican people, that I was automatically a privileged oppressor, and that people of color were much more deeply oppressed than women or gay people or anyone else. Any concern over the environment or animal rights was put down as the petty concerns of wealthy privileged white people who valued trees and cows more than black people. All of this felt deeply wrong to me back then, but I assumed I must be wrong, and I suppressed my own thinking and went along with all of it for quite a while, successfully cowed into it. And now I see it happening again in the culture at large.
It’s one thing to recognize and acknowledge the ways in which we have been privileged, and to recognize our internalized racism and our unintended and perhaps unconscious racist biases—that’s all important to see and important not to deny, but shaming and guilt-tripping people is a tactic I think we’d do much better without. And we’d do better not to over-simplify complex and nuanced situations. Many of us, myself included, in the post-modern developed world are a mix of disadvantaged and privileged groups. Take, for example, a black lesbian who grew up in an upscale neighborhood on the east coast with a lawyer and a doctor for parents, and who then got a top notch graduate education at several prestigious universities—is she privileged or disadvantaged, oppressed or an oppressor? Obviously, we can’t put her in any single category, nor can we somehow parse out her blackness from her lesbianism or her wealth from her being female. It’s all woven together. She’s a whole person.
Then there are the demands for reparations for black people. I totally get that slavery and Jim Crow have left a serious imprint on the black community that puts them collectively at a disadvantage, and maybe I don’t fully understand how reparations would work. I’m open to learning more. But I find myself uncomfortable with the idea of compensating people for things that happened to previous generations, or conversely, blaming and taxing people for things their ancestors did. I can’t help wondering about whose taxes will pay for these reparations, and whether similar reparations will also be given to Native Americans, whose land was stolen, and to women for their centuries of unpaid labor in the home and their underpaid labor in the job market. And how will it be determined who is actually a descendant of slaves, and by what percentage? And do wealthy and well-educated descendants of slaves, such as Michelle Obama and her daughters, need reparations, and if so, will these be paid for in part by taxes collected from struggling white men or white working mothers with only a high school education and a job that barely provides a living wage? Where will the justice be in that? Again, maybe I don’t fully understand how it could work, but it seems very problematic to me. And I sense that it’s a demand that instantly triggers an understandable negative reaction and backlash in white people, or in other minorities, who have also suffered great losses and injustices, and whose lives have also been hard. Once again, I think it fuels support for Trump and right-wing movements.
If we haven’t had the experience of being black, or being a woman, or being gay, or being transgender, or for that matter, being a straight white man, then we don’t know what that’s like. And, of course, it’s different for every unique individual in any of those categories. I get that people are trying to uproot centuries of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and so on. And sometimes, when we try to correct a deep-seated problem that has been going on for a long time, in our zeal to fix it, we sometimes (understandably, and probably inevitably) over-react and over-correct. By over-correct, I don’t mean that the problem has been solved, but simply that sometimes the corrections are a kind of over-kill that backfires and has the opposite effect. Because that over-correction (understandably, from a different perspective) provokes a reaction back in the other direction. And, of course, no two of us will agree on exactly what is a positive and much-needed correction and what is an oppressive over-correction that now hurts someone else. And thus we have battles over such things as the cancel culture, the woke culture, political correctness, affirmative action, identity politics, and so on. Ultimately, of course, what hurts any of us hurts all of us, because we are not really separate.
I think the excesses and identity-driven approaches on the left have fueled a lot of support for our current president and a lot of backlash against the genuine and very necessary efforts to make positive social changes that work to dismantle racism, sexism and heterosexism and move us toward a more inclusive and egalitarian society.
Both sides, left and right, it seems to me, are often caught up in over-zealous dogmatism, confirmation bias, and a blinkered inability to hear nuanced or opposing views—and I include myself in this on many occasions.
Of course, politics is by nature messy and imperfect, and it will always entail disagreement and conflict. We try to improve our social structures, but no economic, political or legal system is ever perfect—and they are all carried out by conditioned and imperfect human beings like you and me with flaws and prejudices and confirmation biases. There will always be imbalances and imperfections, and no two of us will ever agree completely. But that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and simply accept the injustices. Just as I am moved to write this article, we are all moved to act in various ways (and not acting or being silent is itself an action), and all any of us can do is what we are moved by life to do in each moment. We have no choice really. Our urges and actions are a movement of the whole, and this applies equally to Derek Chauvin, George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, Donald Trump and BLM. It applies to Joan Tollifson writing these words, and you responding to them in whatever ways you are. It applies to both our so-called mistakes and our efforts to correct those mistakes.
As individuals and as a society, we will probably always tend to lean one way and then another. We fix one problem, and the fix creates a new problem. We cure the disease, and then we need an antidote for the unintended toxic side-effect of the cure. And then pretty soon, we need an antidote for the antidote. And there is no finish-line—this is an on-going dance, losing our balance and regaining it only to lose it again. It seems to be the way life moves. It’s even how we walk: losing our balance and regaining it, step by step. It’s the dance of life, the waving of the ocean, sometimes calm and placid, sometimes stormy and rough.
Seeing all this gives us more compassion for the whole messy dance, including the inevitable slips and excesses. And when we recognize the bigger picture in which all the polarities function together as one whole happening, it allows us to hold ALL of this in a lighter way. We still do as we are moved to do—we have no choice really. But in the midst of that, maybe we consciously open and re-turn, again and again (now and now), to the common ground of presence, in which there is no inside and outside, no self and other—the suchness of this moment, here and now, just as it is: the sound of the airplane, the whirring of the fan, the breathing, the sensations in the body, the listening presence being and beholding it all—just this. And maybe we grow more able to listen to differing points of view and to notice when we are having knee-jerk reactions, to question our blind spots and our assumptions.
These are loaded issues, but it’s a sad day if there is only one “politically correct” position, and if you stray from that or even question it, you get cancelled or labeled a racist or a sexist. That’s a great way to kill curiosity, creativity, and genuine exploration, and to ensure that we all get stuck in a dead rut. That’s how the beautiful intentions for an egalitarian and compassionate society that began the Russian revolution ended up turning into Stalinism. And it’s not something that just happens “over there” somewhere else to other people. The potential for this is in all of us.
None of this means that we have to “openly consider” the conspiracy theories of Q-Anon, or Trump’s endless lies and exaggerations, or the views of Nazis and white supremacists, or people defending female genital mutilation or the stoning of gay people. There is a time and place to stand up and say no to certain things. It’s a falsity that every view is equally true, and certain versions of cultural relativism are dangerous and false, in my opinion. But even in these cases, it might not hurt to listen to what is underneath these views and attitudes, to hear the fear and the pain, to understand the concerns that drive them, and to be awake to our own reactivity and our common humanity. And when dealing with people who disagree with us, it is very helpful to stay open, when we can, to be awake to our own defensiveness and reactivity, and to hear their experiences, even if we disagree strongly with their conclusions and beliefs. I know that I sometimes snap shut too quickly and defend views I’m not really certain about. And I know that no side has all the truth, and that no person is all right or all wrong. We need a balance of progressive and conservative perspectives in a healthy democracy. But these days, we have something quite different. We’re not far from civil war in this country if you ask me.
It’s pretty easy for those of us on the left to see the extreme toxicity, ignorance and danger of the far right, but we often overlook the excesses on the left, excesses that may well be contributing to the rise of the extreme right, and to the rise of Trump and the upsurge of white supremacy.
It seems obvious to me that it’s good for all of us to listen to people and views that we don’t entirely agree with. I say this, but I often fail to do this. We are increasingly living in a society where Google tailors our search results to our pre-existing opinions, and where we can listen to news programs tailored to our point of view. This isn’t a healthy situation, and it’s up to each of us to break out of it in whatever ways we can.
The first step in correcting any problem or any imbalance is being aware of it—seeing it clearly. So I offer this article as a small contribution to that endeavor. I’m not saying my seeing is always clear or always right. I’m sure it isn’t. And it changes. And like all of us, I have blind spots. But it’s what I have to offer at this moment, flawed as it may be, and I hope perhaps it contributes something to all of us considering these questions openly and not getting stuck in dogmatic and divisive standpoints. And I hope it supports the many people who share these views but are unable to say so for fear of losing their jobs.
If you’d like to hear some articulate black voices that diverge from the prevailing BLM approach, search on YouTube for Coleman Hughes, John McWhorter, Glenn Loury and Ayishat Akanbi. (By doing that, you’ll find others as well). For thoughtful reflections on cancel culture, search YouTube for “Steven Pinker cancel culture.” And check out Ken Wilber’s book Trump and the Post-Truth World. I also recommend Sam Harris’s Making Sense Podcast. You may not agree with everything any of these people say or ever have said, and I don’t either, but they are all intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed and articulate people who are raising important questions that I feel are worth serious consideration.
I want to add that I started this piece with a quote from Teju Cole, who happens to be black, because I loved the quote—but I don’t know how he would feel about what I’ve written. He might well disagree with many or all of the things I have said here, so don’t take the presence of his words at the beginning as an endorsement of my views.
Finally, I want to say thank you to all of you, dear readers, for listening to me. It was a long article, and you’ve made it to the end. Thank you. I may or may not respond to comments, but feel free to leave them.
Response to a comment:
Yes, I agree that racism has been an economic lever in many ways—slave labor helped build the wealth of this country, and now we have prison labor, etc. Definitely, there is a connection. And I’m aware of the thinking behind the BLM slogan…I get that. But I don’t agree that “black lives still don’t matter" in any kind of generalized way. I think they actually matter a great deal, which is why BLM enjoys such widespread support. I find the slogan inherently divisive and prone to calling forth resistance, which is why I’m more inclined toward an approach like that of MLK stressing our common humanity and judging people by their character and not by the color of their skin.
Actually, the police kill more white people, but we never hear about that—the media ignores it and only focuses on black people being killed. Some say that more whites are killed only because whites outnumber blacks in the population, but these folks I name at the end of my article (and many others) say it still holds true even if you take that variable into account (I can’t recall why, but maybe it was because blacks commit disproportionately more crimes). Black men are, however, more likely to be roughed up by the police, and I think more likely to be arrested, if I remember correctly, but whites are more likely to be killed. And police killings are decreasing, not increasing.
But if we watch the media, we get the impression that the police are out there wantonly killing black men all the time. This isn’t really true—it’s a false narrative. And way more black people are killed by other blacks—gangs mainly—than by police. But no one wants to talk about that. Most (not all, but most) of the black men the police do kill are criminals, like Floyd, who were resisting arrest. And we turn them into heroes, as if they were MLK, televising their funerals and eulogizing them, presidential candidates commiserating with their families or showing up at their hospital bedsides if they survived being shot.
I don’t see the police as just about protecting property as you do. They protect lives as well. They got there very quickly when I called 911, not to protect property, but to protect me. And many of those small businesses that were burned in the riots belonged to struggling black women and men—this was their livelihood. It wasn’t “just” property. Floyd was defrauding a small business, I think, the day of his death, not a giant corporation, and in his past (among other crimes) he stole from a pregnant woman, I believe she was black, holding a gun at her belly. He was on drugs the day he was killed, resisting arrest. That doesn’t justify his death, but he’s no hero either. And I think it’s oddly out of balance to have compassion for the criminal and not for those tasked with protecting us, often at great risk to their own lives. And one of the main points I was trying to make is that we assume a lot of things we don’t really know (e.g. that Chauvin intended to kill Floyd, and that he was motivated by racism to do this, etc.). That MAY be true, but how do we know that?
Why does intention matter? Because it informs our hatred and blame, but also, if my understanding of the law is correct, to charge someone with murder, as many instantly think Chauvin should be, the prosecution must be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person intended to kill the victim. My guess is that probably the most they could hope to convict Chauvin on is something like involuntary manslaughter, which I think means the accused acted recklessly but not necessarily with the intent to kill. But BLM and left activists often seem unaware of the limits of the law, and unaware of all the evidence and the complete facts of the case that a Grand Jury (or a trial jury) ends up hearing and considering—things that haven’t gotten media coverage. (That isn’t to deny that the legal system often bends over backwards in many ways to protect the police, as do the police unions, etc.).
I totally agree that Floyd shouldn’t have been killed and that what happened was not good police work. For the record, from what I read, the other officers, or two of them anyway, apparently did make small efforts to intervene—but they were rookies. It was their first week on the job and Chauvin was their boss. But one did nonetheless suggest they should roll him over now, and the other said something, I forget what, but they did mildly attempt to change what was happening.
Policing has improved tremendously. Police forces are way more diverse, with more diverse leadership…there have been sensitivity trainings, citizen review boards, body cameras, community involvement, all kinds of improvements. Is it perfect? No. Obviously not. And it never will be perfect because the police are human beings. There will always be bad apples and failures. But if we “abolish the police and start over,” as you suggest, the new police force will be equally, and probably even more, imperfect. (Consider what happened under the good intentions of Stalin and Mao, and what happens in psychological experiments where university students are randomly divided into prisoners and guards, and you’ll see what I mean.) But for all its remaining flaws, and aside from the fact that it is becoming increasingly militarized, policing today is way better than it was when I was growing up. The police are dealing with a society where many citizens are armed with guns and where police are increasingly the targets of attacks. Anyone who puts themselves in the place of someone on the police force can certainly understand why they might be at times (regrettably) too quick to fire their own weapons. And if we recognize the degree of social unrest that already exists and that is predicted to increase with climate change, the increasing militarization may also be understandable, even if it is (in my opinion) undesirable and not the best way to go.
When I was in the radical left, it wasn’t the mainstream left that emphasized the working-class. I was in a radical organization of white people who worked under the leadership of revolutionary black and Puerto Rican groups. We saw race (or what we called oppressed and oppressor nations, inside the US as well as internationally) as the central thing to focus on, and we believed that white people, including the white working-class, were a privileged “oppressor nation” that generally colluded with the state. We saw the police as you do, as the enemy, and we supported revolutionary armed struggle inside the US and around the world. Our ideology around race and political correctness was very much, in many ways, in line with that which now dominates the left and major cultural institutions such as universities and the media in this country (i.e., BLM, cancel culture, woke culture). I was steeped in this ideology for many years. Eventually, I rejected it. But I remained strongly aligned with the left and, until very recently, was unwilling to listen in any kind of open way to intelligent conservative views. If I were reading something and it went against my beliefs, for the most part, I would just stop reading.
So I appreciate your openness and willingness to question. This willingness to listen to opposing views seems to be absent on both the left and the right, and is one of the things that most disturbs me about BLM and cancel culture. For me, this willingness to listen has been a long struggle and one that is very much still in process. But I am recently listening to some conservative intellectual voices and it is quite eye-opening. I don’t agree with them on everything, but I find that I do resonate with much of what they say, more than I would have imagined. It is quite unsettling (in a good way, albeit at times uncomfortable). For example, I recently listened to a very lively exchange between Glenn Loury, a black economics professor who I believe identifies as a progressive (albeit not in line with BLM), and Heather Mac Donald, a conservative intellectual, on policing, race, and ideological conformity that you can find here. I found myself in agreement with most of what they were saying, and I admire her unapologetic willingness to speak her mind. This is no timid white person who has been convinced that she must tiptoe around black folks endeavoring to be politically correct and not “racist.” And what her behavior signals to me is actually an absence of racism. She’s not seeing through that lens. I’ve since listened to more of her, and while I don’t always agree with her, I can see that she is not a racist, a sexist, or a heterosexist, even though she takes positions on those issues sometimes different from my own. And I’ve learned a lot from listening to her, even when I disagree. So, thank you for engaging with me on this.
Response to a questioner who asks, “If we have no choice really, as you say, then how does one consciously re-turn to the common ground of presence?”:
Ah, it’s that old question about free will.
As I have said many times, no conceptual formulation (free will or no free will, self or no self, something to do or nothing to do) can capture this living reality. It doesn’t fit into those boxes. Choice and choicelessness are different pedagogical pointers, useful in different ways.
I encourage people to explore this for themselves by watching as choices and decisions unfold to see if they can find a chooser or a thinker or an author behind the thoughts, desires, urges, and impulses that arise, or—in a case of indecision over something—if they can make the decisive moment arrive any sooner than it does. Now, who exactly is going to do this exploration and do they have a choice? That is the question you are posing. And again, no conceptual formulation can capture this living reality. In one sense, my inviting people to explore all this happens choicelessly, and their interest and ability or inability to do it also happens choicelessly. But if I “decide” that I can’t offer the invitation because there is no free will, that will be a misunderstanding. I’ll be leaving myself out of the totality.
There is no choice (or no independent agency apart from the totality to make such a choice), and yet, we function with the appearance of making choices. We “decide” to do all kinds of things for our well-being or improvement, from going to the dentist or to a psychotherapist, to studying a new language, taking lessons to improve our tennis game, getting bodywork or doing yoga, going into a recovery program for an addiction, etc. Meditation is one such activity we might take up. And there is a large and growing body of scientific evidence now as to the potential benefits to our physical and psychological health and well-being in doing this. Again, if I “decide” not to do it (or not to suggest it) because "there is no choice" or because “self-improvement is an illusion,” I will have missed something that is quite obvious.
In one sense, the urge to do anything happens choicelessly, and our interest in something like meditation, our ability to carry it out, the results of it, and so on all happen choicelessly. But at the same time, part of how we function is through the sense of making choices, so we might (seemingly) “choose” to meditate every morning, in the same way that we might (seemingly) “choose” to go to the dentist, see a therapist, or take a new experimental drug for our auto-immune disease. And presumably we do all these things because we have some interest in improving (or maintaining) certain aspects of our life.
Surely, as a psychotherapist, you helped people to see how some of the “choices” they were (apparently) making were causing them suffering, and you helped them to discover other possibilities that they could perhaps (apparently) “choose” in the future. Perhaps you also helped them to see that they might not always be able to make those healthy choices because sometimes the power of old habits overwhelms our intentions to do things differently. Hence, accepting how it is in any moment and not expecting perfection is a key to happiness.
If you have children, you must teach them to be members of society, and you will find yourself inevitably talking to them as if they have agency, telling them to look both ways before crossing a street, to not hit their sister over the head with a brick, to not throw their food at dinner, to do their homework, and so on. But if you deeply understand the choiceness nature of every moment, you will (perhaps) have more compassion when they sometimes fail, or with yourself when you sometimes lose your temper and yell at them.
As I’ve discovered from my own experiences with psychotherapy, somatic work such as Feldenkrais, and years of meditation and explorations of that kind, YES, we can choose to shift our attention (when we can—sometimes we can’t). In one sense, it is NEVER a choice. But it SEEMS to be a choice, that’s how we function. So, at some moment, there is a seeing that we are caught up in useless thinking, and there is a possibility then (seemingly, when there is) to “choose” to bring our attention either to present moment sensations or perhaps simply to the sense of presence. So, yes, this is possible. Not always, but sometimes. And the more it is accessed, the more possible it seems to become. And yes, in my experience, it results in greater joy and my being less of an asshole, at least in that moment.
Again, I go into this in all my books and in a number of articles on my website. In my most recent book (Death: The End of Self-Improvement), I recommend the section called “The Curious Paradox,” pps 58 thru 71. It deals with improvement, transformation and free will in some depth. On my website, I recommend the articles about free will and the one on addiction and compulsion. They also go into this in depth. In addition, you might read my book Nothing to Grasp. You might also read two books by Sam Harris: Waking Up and Free Will. I review these books and say more about who Sam is on the recommended books page of my website.
But most importantly, I would suggest giving attention to your own direct experience. When you notice you are caught up in a storm of reactive emotion-thought, is it possible to stop thinking and shift your attention to the sensations of breathing and the sounds you are hearing (traffic, bird cheeps, silence, whatever it is)? You may find that sometimes it is possible (if only for a moment), and sometimes it isn't (the compelling energy of emotion-thought is too strong at that moment). When it is possible, how does this change your experience and your behavior?
Understanding the choiceless nature of reality doesn't preclude our ability (also choiceless) to make suggestions or have intentions or anything else that seems to involve agency. That's how life functions! And there is an ability to act, a response-ability, right here (when there is). And, as close observation will clearly reveal, this responsibility never belongs to the imaginary self who we believe is authoring our thoughts and making our choices. And yet, we can't really say it's not myself either, and we can't really say if it's a choice or a choiceless happening. Neither the passive nor the active voice (in grammar) captures the living reality.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2020--
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