Race, Reclamation, and the Resilience Revolution

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by police in Minneapolis, dharma teacher Larry Ward says we have to “create communities of resilience,” and offers his mantras for this time.

Larry Ward
1 June 2020
Photo by Fibonacci Blue.

I know this is a very difficult moment. The fires of grief are burning all around us and within us. It is a continuation of the retribution of America’s racial karma. This 500-year legacy of tragedy has not escaped me.

I started a poem — it is not finished yet, but I suspect it will show up in America’s Racial Karma, the book I’ve been writing on the subject. So I’ll give you where I am so far:

Innocent suffering still flowing.
Perpetrators showered with fame and silent applause.
Slave catchers still live.
It is why we run.
To say, “I didn’t do it” in the whispers of your mind is an indication of your culpability.
To say that someone, it was not me, when in fact it was you
animating every move with your quiet permission.
Co-mission is the same as omission.
There is no hiding place down here.

I’ve been telling some close friends that it was much easier for me to write my dissertation than it is to write this book on America’s racial karma because of my own journey. The writing puts me in touch with the vast, vast ocean of trauma, both within me and around me and throughout history. I found a great phrase from Oscar Wilde that I adapted: we live in the land of sorrow. Wilde’s great phrase is where there is sorrow, there is holy ground. We must understand our sorrow as divine energy and not simply as political error. We must understand our suffering profoundly. The gate of ancestral grief is being flooded in all of us.

Yesterday, I spent a day in silence for George Floyd.

Every day since I’ve been working on this book in a focused way — for the last six to seven months or year — I scan the world looking for news. I keep looking for news in which one day I will not discover that a person of color or a person of gender expansiveness is not being destroyed. I have not yet had that day.

And so my practice is to help me deal with the disappointment, the frustration, the fatigue, the anxiety, the overwhelm, the panic, and the hypervigilance. Notice in yourself how all the events of the most recent months of people being murdered has affected you and your nervous system. Not just your thoughts, but how your body has been responding. Have you noticed your own hyper vigilance? Have you noticed your own fatigue? Have you noticed your own sense of overwhelm, or panic, or even hopelessness? All these issues, all these feelings, all these sensations rise in us, but shame also rises in us. It’s the shame of not being valued as a human being. And it’s the shame of the experience of not being worthy of love. This is our work, this is my work, with my experience of the pain of the last 500 years.

Yesterday, I spent a day in silence for George Floyd. I found it healing. One of the ways I practice with my own trauma is to let it be, not try to fix it. Trauma must be respected because it is part of our precious humanness. We can experience wanting to fight or flee or just numbness. We may experience the paralysis of not knowing what to do. This is our biological system in action. It is normal and there is nothing wrong. In fact, you might say something is right if we are experiencing this fear, this anger, this numbness, this heartbreak.

I use poetry to practice resourcing myself. I dabble in writing poetry and I also enjoy the poetry of others.

I spend as much time as I can outside of the four walls of my house. I spend time with the birds, chatting with them every morning and and every evening. At sunrise I’m outside feeling the warmth of the sun and at sunset I’m outside with the moonlight. It is very important not to undersell ourselves simply as human defined. We must understand ourselves as nature defined. When we understand ourselves that way, we can touch our generativity, we can touch our resilience that is in fact beyond time and space.

Singing, music, dance, movement, all of these are ancient practices from our ancestors that many of us have forgotten. The birds remind me of that. And when we think of ancestors, please remember our greatest ancestor Mother Earth. She is is filled with energies that can help us heal. She is filled with equanimity that holds us together on this planet.

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a poem after a bombing that happened in Vietnam. A bombing, of course, by Americans. He wrote:

I hold my face in my two hands.
No, I am not crying.
I hold my face in my two hands
to keep the loneliness warm—
two hands protecting,
two hands nourishing,
two hands preventing
my soul from leaving me
in anger.

And it is very important here to understand the point of anger in Buddhism. Anger is a normal, perfect human experience that you may and I may be having in daily life, but especially at this moment. The point of this is not to lose ourselves. Not to lose our sense of oneness with ourselves, not to lose our sense of loving ourselves, not to lose ourselves in fragmentation. And it could be anger, it could be fear, it could be numbness, but the point of practice is not to lose ourselves. We don’t push away suffering. Feel every ounce of suffering through your whole body, but we don’t drown in it either. And that’s the great practice of my life.

To me, the task before us is first of all self care. And figuring it out for yourself. Who would have thought we’d have a pandemic, worldwide in the midst of this? This is the power for me of the pandemic. It has laid things bare for anybody who loved being unclear. For anybody who is addicted to disassociating from other people’s suffering and from other people’s pain.

The challenge for me — I don’t know what to do about this, I’m just telling you where I’m at now — I think we have to create communities of resilience. Yes, I think we have to create communities of resilience. What I mean by that is no one in this country (USA) from the very beginning believed we could live together. That’s our legacy. And when we see and feel what we see and feel and experience, how could it be otherwise? We started that way. This is karma. And karma can be healed and karma can be transformed, but only if we choose to do so.

Take your seat at the table of healing and transformation.

This community of resilience is one of kindness, openness, generosity, sanity, and loving. And there are so many people in this land who do not believe this is possible. So for me, I haven’t figured it out. I know it has to be concrete, it has to be embodied so that when people encounter it, they go, “Oh my goodness. I didn’t know experientially that this was possible.”

I am practicing right now with a couple of mantras.

The first one is, “Stand up in the house of belonging.”

Don’t act like this is not your land. Don’t act like you can’t take charge because it’s obvious to me that this principalities and powers who are supposed to be in charge of this land at this moment are absolutely incapable. So stand up! Act like you are a real human being. Don’t let somebody define your life for you or your power for you.

The second is, “Take your seat at the table of healing and transformation.”

I’m thinking of the words of my Grandma. She said, “Don’t let some fool take your seat.”

Take your seat. Stand up. Be present and care for yourself, love yourself. Because as you love yourself and care for yourself, that love will leak out. It will spill out all around you with a fragrance of holiness.

And the third is, “Ride the winds of change, unafraid.”

Act like the mighty ones of old, who knew no fear. Embrace their wild resilience and their vision of what is really possible for us together.

This article was originally published on The Lotus Institute website. Visit their calendar for a schedule of upcoming events, including “Interbeing, Movement, and Musings on The Parable of the Sower,” on June 3 and “Music Is Your Birthright,” on June 17, led by black dharma practitioners.

photo of Larry Ward

Larry Ward

Larry Ward is a senior teacher in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village tradition. He holds a PhD in religious studies (with an emphasis on Buddhism and the neuroscience of meditation), is director of the Lotus Institute, and serves as an advisor to the Executive Mind Leadership Institute at the Drucker School of Management. He is the author of America’s Racial Karma and coauthor, with his wife, Peggy, of Love’s Garden: A Guide to Mindful Relationships.