acceptance/inclusiveness

Outside In, Inside Out

Separation to Inclusion

By Rehena

Reflection along El Camino de Santiago, Spain. Photo by Valerie Brown

Reflection along El Camino de Santiago, Spain. Photo by Valerie Brown

I was born in South Africa during apartheid, with African and Indian heritage in a lineage of slavery and indentured labour. I grew up in a segregated Indian area to a family who lived in a tin house with no electricity, from which we were forcibly removed to make way for white people’s housing. My childhood was full of colour and nature: green trees, blue seas, bright shining sun and people in all shades of brown. 

I grew up feeling both fear and attraction to white people—fear that they had the power to control where I lived, studied and socialized. They could take away my possessions and loved ones any time with no need for justification. At the same time, I wanted to be white. Then I would have access to the best jobs, could choose where to live and go where I pleased whenever I wanted. This would make my family and me very happy.  

I was angry with myself for not being as beautiful as my blue-eyed, pink-skinned, blonde-haired doll, and with the injustice of people and society that created and fostered racial oppression and thrived from it. I became an activist, fighting for equality and to “overthrow oppressive regime,” a cause I was willing to die for. I also did my utmost to become as white as possible, hoping my skin colour would be overlooked and I could gain access to things that would make me happy. If I could fit in, speak properly and not wear Indian clothes, maybe they would realise I was not a backward coolie (laborer) or kerrikop (curry head), that I was almost one of them. Then I would be so happy. 

I first came to the United Kingdom in 1998, after democratic elections in South Africa, as a result of my socio-political change work. There, I saw white cleaners and white people digging streets. “Yes,” I thought to myself. “Here are the British values; equality, justice and meritocracy.” I would no longer have to be ten times better to be accepted as equal. I was now part of the “privileged” group with access to conditions and possessions that would make me happy. I could live where I wanted, eat in any restaurant and buy anything. My cleaner could be white. 

It did not take long to see exclusion was still present in the UK. The class system created privileges for the few at the expense of many. Racism was veiled and difficult to pinpoint, and therefore even more corrosive. My exotic name and brown skin often led to my being paid less or overlooked for promotions. Perhaps, I thought, if I changed my name and became more western; if I learned a European language or kept updated on the latest fashions, labels and gadgets; if I worked and tried harder, perhaps I would fit in and be accepted. But the rules kept changing. 

Suddenly, the traditions I once had been told that were backward, like yoga and chanting, were being sold to me by white people. Indian food was fashionable and was being marketed to me by “white experts,” who started adopting Indian dress and names. I was angry, disillusioned and hurt. I was still no closer to being happy. The never-ending cycle of working harder and keeping up with the latest gadgets and trends was Sisyphean. The harder I worked to fit in, the more I suffered, and so did everyone around me. 

Then a friend introduced me to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings. I was drawn to his radiant peacefulness and compassion. Here was someone who, despite his experiences of war and conflict in Vietnam, was happy. I wanted this too.

Simply breathing set the foundations for my healing and helped me see my suffering. As I sat and walked, I started seeing how my feelings of exclusion and desire to belong permeated my actions, thoughts and perceptions. I started realising how much I was trying to fit in and earn my place in a group. Through practice, I saw how much I worked to not be rejected and to cover up my shame for being unworthy. 

Through mindful breathing and walking, I am learning to take care of anger that manifests in me at any hint of discrimination and exclusion. I am learning to see that my anger is how I try to protect myself from pain and suffering. Listening to my anger and feeling where it manifests in my body helps me take care of it. Sometimes my anger needs spaciousness, and I take her for a walk. Sometimes she needs love and compassion. As my ability to embrace and hold my anger with love and compassion grows, my compassion for those who make me suffer grows too. I see their anger is also fuelled by pain and suffering.

While working on a Sangha project earlier this year, I grew angry, because someone started taking over my tasks, making decisions without involving me, telling me what to do and not responding to my emails. My tree of exclusion bloomed red flowers; I got very angry. I took my anger for a walk and saw that my old suffering had emerged—the pain of not feeling heard, not being good enough and being excluded. Giving myself spaciousness to look deeply helped me realise my withdrawal from the project would be best. My feelings, still burning and painful, could easily be triggered and cause harm. A few weeks later, I was strong enough to offer the other person compassion and gratitude for all the times they had helped me in the past. As I did this, my anger dissipated. 

My practice has helped me look deeply into the pain of exclusion I carry. I see it is also the pain of my ancestors. In trying so hard to fit in, I was separated from my body, which I only realised after several months of chronic pain. My gruelling exercise regime was driven by anger rather than love for my body. Exercise was punishment for not being like my slim, blue-eyed, light-skinned doll. 

Now, after nine months of sitting with and offering gratitude to my pain, I see the beauty of the earth in it. A woman I met told me that when she was growing up, her grandmother told her, “You are loved so much. That is why you are the colour of the earth, and if you look closely, you will see the sun under your skin.” Now, I see the gold glinting in the folds of my skin in the sunshine; I see the emeralds and rubies too. When I look deeply, I see the strength and power of the earth there. 

Inclusion starts within me. It starts with making myself whole again. I don’t have to be white to be happy. I can be brown and be happy. I can look at my skin and see the earth and look at the earth and see my skin. The source of my happiness is myself. I don’t need to fit in when I can belong to myself.

Reconnecting with my ancestors through Touching the Earth practice is helping me reconnect with aspects of my history and the lineage I have rejected and suppressed. Inclusion is forging connections with my body, culture, traditions and ancestry. I connect with all my ancestors: Indian, African and white. I see ancestors who come from Gaya, those who drummed to hear the sound of rain on the earth, those who sold themselves to labour to seek a better life and those who wielded power to hurt—oppressed and oppressor. 

I am learning to accept them all. Learning to wear Indian clothes again and drumming to the Earth’s heartbeat strengthens my connection with ancestors. I no longer feel weighed down by the burden of my ancestors; I feel I am like a leaf held up by strong, broad trunks and deep, deep roots. I accept that the qualities of strength and fortitude, alongside unskilful habits, have been transmitted to me. Acknowledging my ancestors and recognizing their qualities in me helps me be more compassionate and kind. I have seeds of discrimination and racism transmitted to me; how can I be angry with others who have the same seeds?

Going to a people of colour space supports my healing. And healing the historical dimension helps me touch aspects of the ultimate dimension. I see that peace, social justice and equality begin within me. Fighting injustice from anger creates more division, not peace. Inclusion is about accepting even those whose views diverge from mine. 

Every day I try to communicate more peacefully with those I disagree with. I see being kind to myself is helping me be kind to others. Seeing my own suffering helps me see the suffering in others. 

Having happiness and peace does not require me to work hard to fit in, to change myself or to become someone else. Dr. Cornell West said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” I think inclusion is how we show love. My skin colour is a daily reminder that, like the earth, I can be peaceful and embrace all views and myself. 

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Rehena, True Deep Source, was born and lived in South Africa. Since 1998, she has lived in the UK, practising Thay’s teachings. She joined the Order of Interbeing in 2016, and practices with the Heart of London Sangha and Colours of Compassion Sangha.

The Paramitas

as the Path to True Love

By Joanne Friday

mb66-TheParamitas1I was recently invited by the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation to share my experience of our practice here in the Mindfulness Bell. I feel that the Dharma is the greatest gift I have ever been given, so it is always a joy to share it.

During Winter Retreat, I have been practicing the paramitas with a group of Order of Interbeing members and aspirants. The paramitas are the qualities that we need to cultivate in order to go from the shore of suffering to the shore of freedom. In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thay tells us that the Buddha said, “Don’t just hope for the other shore to come to you. If you want to cross over to the other shore, the shore of safety, well-being, non-fear, and non-anger, you have to swim or row across. You have to make an effort.” So I decided to to follow directions and make the effort.

Once again, I find myself in awe and deeply moved by the transformative power of the way in which Thich Nhat Hanh has transmitted the Dharma to us. I have always known the paramitas as a path to freedom, and now I have also experienced them as a beautiful path to unconditional, true love.

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In the paramita on diligence, we are invited to be mindful of our minds, to nurture all of the wholesome seeds that arise in our consciousness and replace the unwholesome ones. If there is a person with whom we have difficulties, our habits often lead us to become angry, judge, or criticize and blame that person. When we berate, belittle, and blame the other person, we nourish their most unwholesome seeds, the ones that upset us in the first place. Instead, we are invited to look deeply in order to understand that person’s suffering, and to see how we can water all of the wholesome seeds in them so they will suffer less and their highest and best selves will manifest. This practice of taking responsibility for co-creating my relationships, and taking good care of those with whom I am inter-being, has been revolutionary for me. When I practice this with people toward whom I once hardened my heart, it breaks my heart wide open and I am in love.

The paramita on patience or inclusiveness is a deep teaching on love. Thay tells us that when we practice inclusiveness, we accept a difficult person exactly as he is, without any expectation that he will ever change. This can create enough spaciousness for him to change if he chooses. We can use this practice with ourselves, as we are frequently our most difficult person. When we can accept ourselves, without stories about who we should be or regrets about what we have not done, we are suddenly free to simply experience life in the moment and respond to life as it is and as we are. This makes it easier for us to do the same for others. The energy of acceptance is deeply felt. If in the past I held on to a judgment or opinion about another person, it was felt and she was defensive.

When I can truly accept someone, wholeheartedly, just as she is, it is also felt. There is no need for defensiveness to arise, and real intimacy is possible. What a wonderful gift!

The first of the paramitas is generosity. Thay invites us to look deeply at all we have to offer. I have been moved to consider all that he has offered. He has suffered tremendously and practiced to transform that suffering and become the embodiment of true love. He is living proof that the practice works. He has devoted more than seventy years of his life to understanding the ways we can cut through the illusions and misperceptions that keep us trapped. He has looked deeply into the Buddha’s teachings and has distilled them into precious gems that are totally accessible and usable, and offered them to anyone who wants to be free. All of these ways to untie our knots, to take down the barriers we have built in our hearts, are gifts to us from Thay.

I always say that I feel there should be a seventh paramita of gratitude. Gratitude immediately takes me from the shore of suffering to the shore of freedom. I feel deep gratitude to have received such wonderful gifts that have allowed me to experience true love in this lifetime. It has also been a joy to see the transformation and healing that has taken place in so many others who have followed Thay’s teachings. The Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation came into being because some of Thay’s students felt that same gratitude. They wanted to use their gifts to create conditions to ensure that Thay’s teachings could continue and help countless future generations. I hope that our gratitude will motivate all of us to become a part of this effort in every way we can. There is no better way to thank someone who has given us the keys to happiness and freedom than to pass them on.

Joanne Friday, Chan Lac Thi (True Joy of Giving), is a Dharma teacher in the Order of Interbeing. In 2003, she received authority to teach from Thich Nhat Hanh, her teacher for twenty years. Joanne leads meditation retreats for Sanghas and groups throughout the US. She lives in Rhode Island, where she is the guiding teacher for the six Sanghas that comprise the Rhode Island Community of Mindfulness.

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