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How wise awareness can help us meet the rough edges of racial distress

Racism remains one of the most rooted and painful impasses of our time. The traumatic scars and history of racism impacts all of us, without exception. It most profoundly impacts our capacity to genuinely love, and it blinds us to our humanity.

Racism is fed through unawareness, oppressive systems, and the misuse of power, and deepening our understanding of how we have been conditioned to think and react is at the root of racial harm and racial healing.

Those of us who dare to turn inward to this examination will often feel the soreness, tenderness, and vulnerability from the habitual ways we have met the rough edges of racial distress, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Although these feelings may be difficult to metabolize, it is possible to do so. Our thoughts and feelings are not permanent states; rather, they are crucial experiences to attend to, and it begins with understanding our minds. This is the role of mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness has its roots in the 2,600-year-old tradition of Buddhism. The practice of mindfulness meditation supports us in experiencing more mental ease and harmony. It does not help us get rid of racial ignorance or ill will, nor will it erase anger or despair. Rather, it offers a way for us to slow down and investigate our experiences with care and wise attention. It supports us in bearing witness to our racial distress and conditioning without distortion, elaboration, or judgment. We can notice, for example, how racial perceptions live, what thoughts we are giving birth to, and how we feel thinking about them. We can acknowledge where we get stuck and discover what supports letting go.

Simply stated, mindfulness is the practice of present-moment awareness, with an understanding that what we are aware of has a nature, or what is known as the three characteristics of existence:

  • The nature of impermanence: Change is constant, and all phenomena arise and pass away.
  • The nature of selflessness: There is no enduring or reliable self; we are a series of ever-changing elemental processes, all arising and passing away.
  • The nature of unreliability and dissatisfaction: “Shit happens,” and we are not in control of having things our way.

These natural laws, core to the nature of our existence, can offer insight into how we relate to racial distress””specifically, what supports more distress and what supports release from distress. Despite the painful truth that racial injury, ignorance, and injustice have spread virally throughout the world, the three characteristics of existence stand.

I have a simple mantra for remembering these three characteristics: “Life is not personal, permanent, or perfect.” These natural laws are true to all existence. They are like gravity. Gravity has a nature””it’s not personal. Once you understand gravity, you do not drop a glass and expect space to catch it. Seasons also have a nature””they are not perfect or permanent. Once you understand the seasons, you know how to dress and go out into the world. As the story goes, everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid. Fish have a nature. Fish exist in water. Fish do not climb trees.

Relatedly, race is not who we are. Race is a social construct that points out the nature of diversity. In and of itself, race is not personal, nor is it a problem. The problem is how we perceive race, socially project onto race, and relate to race as if it were personal (all about our individual or racial group experience), permanent (the idea that views about race never change), or perfect (the idea that whatever is happening should be to my liking or meet my standard of what’s right). We are all perfect in our imperfection, which is always changing. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, ShunryÅ« Suzuki put it this way, “What we call “˜I’ is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale.” When we don’t recognize or comprehend the true nature of all existence, racial distress proliferates.

Over the years, reminding myself that life is not personal, permanent, or perfect has kept me from falling into sinkholes of despair and destroying rooms with rage. It invites me to pause and turn inward. It gives me a chance to ask myself, “What’s happening? Where are you gripped right now? Are you taking this situation personally””to be a personal experience instead of a human experience? How many people before you have felt this way? Where else in the world are people feeling similarly gripped? Do you believe that how it is now is how it will always be? Are you distressed because you are insisting that this situation be other than it is, right here and now? How can you care for the pain you’re in at this moment?”

It is impossible to be unbiased when we are unaware of how we have been conditioned in racial likes and dislikes, fears, aversions, and judgments. In other words, racial distress is a real experience, and how we relate to racial distress is habit. Instead of being fearful of other races or convinced we know everything we need to know about race, an exploration of racial conditioning or habits of mind can be a gateway to deepening our understanding of humanity.

Sometimes people like me, who have been generationally and deeply traumatized by racial ignorance and distress, will find it challenging initially to sit still for such an inquiry. We may think this approach is too passive, too compliant; or that we are giving up, masking, or glossing over injustice. But that’s not it. To embrace our true nature is not to deny that racial injustice is endemic in society or that certain racial groups are not, in fact, targets of harm. It’s about having a practice that supports us in tenderly embracing the truth of what is happening in the moment with an understanding of its nature. This is what is meant by being mindful of race.

We are shaped by our conditioning, but we are also shaped by wise understanding and the quality of our awareness. When we are unaware of the nature and impact of our actions, we cause much unintentional harm. Entrenched beliefs and closed minds are what wars are made of. Our challenge is to become more aware. Mindfulness meditation is a practical way to transform our understanding and actions. It’s not just a technique or mental exercise; it is a radical practice of self-compassion and respect that supports us in softening the rough edges of racial distress so we can untangle our habits of harm and respond to racial distress more wisely. I would go so far as to say that we need these practices to support us in staying present to the horrors of racial suffering and to experiencing freedom from it. Yes, I said freedom! Knowing from the inside out momentary freedom is a potent stabilizer when facing racial distress. Another way to say this is that we can know increasing moments of freedom within racism and despite it.

This law of all existence is difficult to grasp in the heat of racial distress. However, with mindfulness practice, we begin to recognize, through our direct experiences, that we can know a deeper freedom””a freedom that is not dependent on outside circumstances being different.

Addressing racism requires a multitude of individual and relational interventions. Sometimes we need to speak out and organize with others to heal and to resist systems of oppression. There are also times when we may need a good counselor or therapist to examine our stories, unpack our traumas, and recognize the internalized source of our wounding. Mindfulness meditation allows for yet another opportunity: wise awareness.

Without wise awareness, habitual patterns rule our lives. Our mind wraps itself around our views, our perspective narrows, and we tend to feel “dead right”””or just plain dead. With mindfulness practice, we learn how to get still and receive the present moment without preferences. We become interested in what’s happening right now and the impact it is having on us. In this potent pause, we can ask, “Is how I am thinking and feeling contributing to suffering or to freedom?”

No amount of racial warfare or social resistance is more healing and sustaining than the freedom each of us is capable of experiencing internally, despite our circumstances, through mindfulness meditation. This practice brightens the mind, allowing us to see more clearly our own reflection and that of the world. With such clarity, we can do what must be done with care and understanding.

About the Contributor

Ruth King, MA, is the founder of Mindful of Race Institute, LLC, supporting individuals and organizations in applying mindfulness-based principles with an exploration of our racial conditioning, its impact, and our potential. King teaches meditation retreats worldwide and is the author of several publications including Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out. She is also featured in Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us about Race, Resilience, Transformation, and Freedom.

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Photograph by Bill Miles