“A tremendous love arises simply for the miracle that is life,
realizing that all and everything is the One.”
I was about four years old. My mom was driving. It was just us in the car. We were on our way to pick up my brother and sister at Sepulveda Elementary School from our home in Inglewood, just south of Los Angeles. It was a casual comment as I recall, like, “Look at the blue sky” or “Look at those pretty flowers.” It was the kind of comment a mother might make to her four-year-old in what is now known as “a teachable moment.” Except my mom blew it. I did not learn anything that day.
The kids were in a park of green grass and large, leafy trees. She said, “Look at those colored people.” And, of course, I looked. I looked out the window. I was excited. I had never seen colored people before. “Where mommy?” I asked. “Right there,” she said, casually pointing out her side window toward the park. I still didn’t see them. I strained to see. I was looking for colored people but all I saw were kids with dark skin. I was looking for blue and green and yellow and purple people. Red and orange. Rainbow people. People the color of my crayons and Play-Doh. Bright colors! I was confused. Mom just drove.
We were out at recess. I was in the third grade now at Marshall Road Elementary School in Vienna, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. Mrs. Cataldo had us in a circle. “Everyone hold hands,” she said. One child refused. Ricky was his name. The circle could not be joined. Ricky was holding Susan’s hand but refused to hold Alan’s hand. Alan kept trying and Ricky kept resisting until he finally broke away and ran while Alan – his lonely hand outstretched – chased after him. To Ricky, Alan was a disease he couldn’t touch and to Alan, Ricky’s rejection stung him the way hate always stings; a deep burn that sears the soul. The look on Alan’s face: wild-eyed fear, confusion, embarrassment, a fake smile that signaled desperation and shame. Was it the first time he faced vile disgust and hatred because his color was wrong? I wonder. Surely, it wasn’t the last.
Three years later now. I’m twelve. Watching the 12-inch black and white, rabbit-eared TV in the living room. I’m alone for some reason. It’s April 4, 1968 and someone shot Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t know anything about the man. Not a thing. In my mind I associate him with trouble. I’m trying to decide how I feel about his death. I don’t know why but I finally decide maybe it was a good thing. I was an ignorant kid; a new computer before the software is installed. I had so much to learn.
I was a teenager. Living in Dayton, Ohio now in the early 70s. Hitchhiking as I always did in those days. Easy way to get around. Any ride’s a good ride I would say. A clean tan sedan pulled over and waited, its tail pipe puffing out a steady stream of white smoke while I ran hard and fast to catch up. As I got nearer to the car, my heart suddenly froze as I caught sight of the driver. Even from thirty yards, I could see that he was black. I don’t know why that mattered. I was baffled and confused as if I was meeting a part of me I didn’t know was there. Once inside the car, I met the man, not the idea in my mind. He was a Major in the Air Force like my dad. He had a family. He had warm, caring eyes. He treated me with respect and I gushed out my gratitude, completely ashamed of my initial fear and dread. To this day, I still wince at this memory.
Mid-70s now. I have long hair. Bare feet. Prayer beads around my neck. I’m 19. Maybe 20. Shocked my parents by living in an ashram on the West Side of Dayton instead of going to Ohio University. It’s the slums; the poorest of the poor lived there. Live there still. Google “west side of Dayton” and the first thing that pops up are warnings. Dangerous. Don’t go there, they say.
I lived there for two years in the Ghetto’s Palace Yoga Institute, an ancient hulking relic of a building that was once the Palace Theatre. It was built in 1927 and was described as “the equivalent of the Apollo Theatre in New York City’s Harlem, with Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Dinah Washington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Billy Eckstine among the many stars that performed there.”
By the time I lived there, it should have been condemned. In my unheated apartment, mushrooms grew happily from the bathroom floor. We caught the rain with buckets that came through the ceiling. We had no hot water and one meal a day. There were about 3O of us in “the family”; mostly white middle class refugees from the suburbs; all in our teens or early 20s.
Wali Ahmed Sababu was our teacher (Master Sababu). We called him Sab. He was a large black man with deep, dark eyes that were infinitely kind and somewhat mischievous. He wore a turban and dressed like someone from the Arabian Nights. His teachings were profound and accessible and hundreds of people came each night to hear him teach.
And we had businesses: a couple plant stores, a Laundromat, an incense factory. And a Bingo operation in nearby Middletown that drew about 300 people. I was one of the Bingo callers. So many people smoked that it was hard to see the back of the hall through the haze.
One night, after getting back to the Palace from Bingo at about midnight, Harry, a normally gentle black man about my age who put hot sauce on anything he ate, said he wanted to speak with me. Harry was big. Not tall but wide and strong. His feet were the widest I ever saw. And I quickly realized he was angry. Livid. At me. I don’t recall his exact words. I guess I was too terrified to remember but I understood their meaning.
He let me know I disrespected him. I had no idea. Apparently, I had ordered him around that evening like a servant. I was not conscious of this. Somehow that made it worse for me. That I was mean and oblivious to the fact. Harry was my peer but I made him feel small and stupid. He let me know in a blistering barrage of words that cut me to my core. I saw myself in his eyes – arrogant, condescending, and demeaning – and it crushed me.
I immediately fled the Palace in my yellow VW bug and drove 12 miles to the east. It took me about 20 minutes to reach Crabtree Drive in Beavercreek where I parked in front of my parents’ house. I thought about going in. The house was dark. They were asleep. I sat in my car and wailed. I cried for at least an hour. I got back to the Palace about 1:30 and found Harry the next day and apologized again. We shook hands.
Less than ten years later I am in Redding now. It is 1985. I have my doctorate and I am playing basketball at Parsons Middle School on a Saturday with my fellow interns from Shasta County Mental Health and a tall good-looking guy I just met named Tom O’Mara who drove a white VW bug and once played college ball at Notre Dame in the 70s.
Tom would become a friend and one of my heroes. In 1994 he helped spearhead a project that eventually led to the posting of 75 signs around Shasta County that said, “No Room for Racism” or “No Room for Racism, Hate, or Violence.”
In an email with Tom recently he said he thought there is something about human beings that seems to need someone to hate, “The Other, the outcast, someone or some group who for whatever reason could be found could be identified/put down as being different.” Is that true?
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Dr. Steven Hayes explains that prejudice towards others come from our rigid attachment to our conceptualized self. As children, we learn who we are by comparison with who we aren’t. And we absorb the cultural norms about who is superior and who is inferior. We learn to categorize ourselves and others.
Identifying ourselves and others according to skin color is absurd. But we’ve been doing it for centuries. Our color becomes an important aspect of our personal narrative and according to Hayes, “We are drawn into protecting our conceptualized self as if it were our physical self.”
We do have other options. Hayes writes, “A social, expansive and interconnected sense of consciousness naturally orients acceptance and defusion in the direction of compassion rather than prejudice and bias.” In other words, we can step back from and unlock ourselves from our rigid thoughts about self and other and instead expand our awareness to include other perspectives of reality.
Hayes writes, “Perspective-taking inherently enables us to be conscious of our own pain but it also enables us to be conscious of other people’s pain.”
According to Hayes, “I begin to experience myself as a conscious human being at the precise point at which I begin to experience you as a conscious human being. I see from a perspective only because I also see that you see from a perspective. Consciousness is shared! Moreover, you cannot be fully conscious here and now without sensing your interconnection with others in other places and other times. Consciousness expands across times, places and persons. In the deepest sense, consciousness itself contains the psychological quality that we are conscious – timelessly and everywhere.”
In Emptiness Dancing, Adyashanti explains that when we wake up from our conceptualized ego and identify instead with a more expansive sense of self that includes others, we discover three qualities: wisdom, innocence and love. By wisdom, Adyashanti means the truth of what I am, what you are and what the world is, without the divisions of the thought-based mind.
From there we also find a “tremendous innocence” that in turn “produces the feeling of an ever-present newness in life.” From a perspective of profound humility, we can appreciate each precious moment as suddenly and wonderfully new.
And finally, love. Adyashanti writes, “That anything exists at all is seen as an absolute and utter miracle, and from that seeing there is the birth of so much love simply for what is.”
Our time here is brief and all around us we see so much suffering. And it is tempting to fall into an unconscious state where we react to all the fear and anger around us with more fear and anger. We have another choice, of course. We can refuse to hate; refuse to stigmatize, categorize and objectify others. It starts with seeing oneself clearly and then seeing that self in others and the other in oneself. And know it all as love.