Embodied Paradox: Seeking Stillness in Action

I can’t say enough about the power of meditation to bring about healing and transformation. I practice and teach meditation and contemplative prayer because I have both experienced and witnessed incredible healing as a result of the growth in awareness and connection to spirit that is cultivated in practice. Daily practice will change your life. Practice in community can be exponentially more powerful, still.

Early this morning I read a reflection written by Tracy Cochran – a writer, meditation instructor, and editor of Parabola Magazine. In the reflection (link at the end), Cochran describes her experience teaching a meditation class at the Insight Mediation Center this past Wednesday night. Just as she was inviting a room of meditators into a practice of silence and stillness, thousands of New Yorkers took to the street below in support of the rebellion in Baltimore, filling the meditation hall with the cacophony of chants, sirens and police surveillance helicopters. As I read her reflection, a litany of thoughts and questions began to rise up in me regarding the uneasy tensions between contemplation and action, healing and struggle, spirituality and escapism – questions that too often go unaddressed and unasked in the mediation spaces I have encountered, but questions which are critical for our collective healing.

“Meditation is an act of non-resistance. It is the act of being still, grounding ourselves in the body and the breath, coming down out of our heads and touching the earth again, being willing to bear witness to what arises, all the things that need to be heard and seen and felt, inside and outside,” Cochran writes. This is a beautifully clear exposition of a basic tenet of meditation practice, and yet the light of the moment we’re in begs some questions. What does it mean to become still and ground in the body when your body is a target of state sanctioned violence? What do you find there when it is your body that bears the impact of daily interaction with the systemic racism embedded into the institutions of this society? What does it mean to center in the breath, breath that is stolen or denied so many of our brothers and sisters?

After commenting on her blog post, Cochran wrote to me this afternoon and shared that as the sound of the protest began to build, center volunteers rushed to close the windows in an effort to facilitate silence for the meditators, but that she insisted they remain open. That night, her students would practice finding stillness amidst chaos. Cochran writes, “We took our seats, spines straight, feet planted firmly on the ground, affirming our right to take up space in the world in the midst of chants and shouts and the sound of more and more news and police helicopters hovering low like huge mechanical hawks, tracking the protesters who marched up Fifth Avenue from Union Square.”

The protestors had taken to the streets to proclaim the sacredness of Black Lives in a society that insists on desecrating them time and time again. By taking to the streets, they too affirmed their right to take up space in the world, in the midst of daily violence. Spines straight, feet planted firmly on the ground, the protestors claimed their right to speak in the face of a police force adamant on silencing dissent that night.

My spirituality and my practices are built of inspiration and leanings from a number of different spiritual traditions. Throughout history our ancestors have experiences the divine in vastly different ways according to their cultures identities and geographic homes, and my unquenchable thirst for God has lead me to explore the depths of the riches that can be gleamed from the teachings they’ve passed down. Personal salvation has never been enough for me. I need to know how practices can serve our collective healing and what we can do to bring that transformation about. I am deeply fed by the Buddhist teachings, but I wish I saw more dharma teachers inviting students to apply the teachings off the mat and in society at large.

Meditation is one of my core practices, and yet I find it challenging to be in many meditation spaces in New York City. My experience has been that far too often teachings like these serve to invite white western practitioners to breathe and relax into privilege, rather than greater awareness. In this case, the privilege to choose not to have to be affected by anti-black violence and its multifaceted manifestations in law enforcement, in the media, in the ways resources are allocated…etc.

Cochran writes, “I told my students that this was the time to learn that stillness does not mean silence. It means being still, sitting down in the midst of it all, allowing everything to happen just as it is happening, being willing to listen and see and sense without clinging or contracting and pushing away. I told them that meditation is an act of non-resistance.”

How do we hold this sacred truth and while also honoring our duty to confront injustice and build a world when we can all be at peace? What is non-resistance/acceptance when faced with the reality that, as Zora Neale Hurston poignantly wrote, “if you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” The paradox embedded in this teaching asks so much of me it sometimes feels unbearable. And yet learning how to live into that tension is the journey of a life worth living for me. ~AEF

Tracy Cochran’s reflection “Protest Sutra” can be found on her blog: http://tracycochran.org/2015/04/30/protest-sutra/

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