Many of the images we’re shown these days are of fractures between peoples. The unexpected but unambiguous results of the US election is confronting many of us with the challenge of seeing our own silos, our own lack of interest to hear the pain points and the dreams of others who are different from ourselves. It is a time for bridge-building and deep listening. Actions taken next must come from a higher integration of so many issues, implications, and facts that collide with each other like the dust in the tail of a meteor. Everything is moving so fast and yet I feel oddly unable to move one way or the other, not yet.
When I went into school in North Philly on Wednesday, the day after the election, to teach this week’s Inner Strength class on the nature of mind, thought, and consciousness, I knew it was going to have to be a very different lesson. Mindfulness means being with what is. And that, most especially this week, involves being ok with the unknown, the painful, the emotional, the confusing.
As I stood outside the High School in the misty rain, I vividly remembered a day in Spring, 1968, when my second grade teacher did something that had never happened. She turned on the little black and white television in class, with misty eyes. I didn’t understand but in my 6 year old pigtails, I knew it was something important. Martin Luther King had been shot. Our teacher made us bear witness and held space for us all to be with a reality beyond what our little minds could comprehend. The way she handled that moment marked my consciousness and was there for me in many challenging moments to come. I wanted to be with my students and help them be with this shifting landscape.
And so I joined the bustle of changing classes in the long halls. The teacher told me some of the Freshmen girls had “lost it” this morning. “What do you mean?” I asked. “They were frightened and crying and couldn’t calm down. They had to sit in the office for a few hours. They were afraid of what might happen to them and their families and they couldn’t hold it together.” Approximately 97% of the students in this school come from low income homes, 85% are African American, 5% Latino, 4% Asian, and 1% White. The school is an excellent academic school. The racist, sexist, and xenophobic language tossed around in the campaign was to these kids a personal affront. And, unfortunately in all too real ways, also a personal threat.
The bell rang and my students started to arrive. I welcomed each one as they came in, watching their faces, connecting. They seemed more than a little dazed. One asked if we were going to watch Obama’s speech, which was to be broadcast shortly. I let everyone know that we are going to use this time to be together and talk. Use our meditation practice to help us manage all kinds of challenging feelings, to make space, to let things be so we can allow everything that seems overwhelming as it is, without becoming overwhelmed ourselves.
We meditated. The room became still. Their faces softened. If I could have held them all in one huge hug, I would have. But I just sat still, holding space for them. I drew them into the present through watching their breath through paying attention to physical immediacy as they felt into the contact of their feet with the floor. The simple recognition of touch, gravity, presence creates some grounding especially when so many parts of ourselves don’t quite know what corners of the universe we’ve been blown to and the future seems uncertain.
When we began to talk, I presented lots of questions, not answers. I wanted to hear what they were feeling. Several of these seniors had tears in their eyes. “I just feel so sad and mad. I’m a woman, how can people vote for someone who denigrates women that way?” “I’m afraid of the racism and sexism.” “I’m afraid my friend will be deported.” “I’m afraid I won’t get the financial aid to go to college.” We put all the different feelings up on the board to name them and depersonalize them. Holding them in our collective awareness without melodrama, without drawing conclusions, without exacerbating fear and mistrust, and without denying the real triggers that sparked their fears.
I opened space and drew metaphors between the open space we feel in meditation and the essential non-separation of all humanity. There have been increased incidences of bullying in schools since the recent campaign reached its fever-pitched frenzy in the last months. Reports from counselors indicate that girls feel worse about themselves and their bodies. In the schools in my city, blacks, LGBTQs, and Hispanics have been taunted verbally, with scrawled messages, and even threats of physical harm.
We talked about standing strong against divisiveness, about the universality of human suffering and delusion. From that standpoint we can respond and diffuse these incidents without vilifying other human beings. This is a tall order. To model that for our children, we must draw from our own experience of deep practice, of the essential non-separation of everything.
We cut our discussion short as President Obama appeared to address the nation. He was strong, magnanimous, respectful. He spoke to these kids very personally. Still, several young men rolled their eyes. “How can he say those things? Isn’t he going back on everything he believes?” We opened up the international significance of this moment, the delicacy of a smooth transition of power for the foundations of our own democracy and for the world’s faith in peaceful governance.
We opened up what it would take for us to create bridges and unification, learning more about the lives of millions of people who had not been heard or helped by the direction America has been going. What would it mean to respect their human aspirations, without condoning prejudice, threat, meanness? To listen beyond the rhetoric and find where we might connect and redirect to a path as yet unknown. We talked about leaving room within this upheaval for unexpected ways forward, for new growth in ourselves, new courage and a different response. In times of great transition, there is potential for unanticipated ways forward.
In this midst of all this on girl accusingly blurted out, “Who did you vote for?” It was so raw and unfiltered, in the way adolescents can be. “That’s disrespectful!” gasped a chorus of students. “You can’t ask people things like that!” I reassured them that if I didn’t want to answer, I wouldn’t. I did answer her, then moved on. In this case, my political and social sympathies dovetailed with hers. It might not have been so smooth if they had not but I am sure that the space would have held and it would have been an opportunity to model the kind of dialogue I was just speaking to them about. To create relationship and relatedness beyond rhetoric.
On this class day following the US Presidential election, I did my best to love the kids. To bring them space without making everything or everyone all right or all wrong. To teach them how to hold and respect their own feelings without forcing any conclusions or actions. To be. Be with themselves, with each other, and to be with an adult able to hold complexity without needing to react.
I hope that their experience will be one of heart able to hold complexity. Through this they will become stronger, wiser, and nobler young adults.
May we all work for the unexpected best outcome for our vast and delicate planet. May we hold a long term vision with depth, complexity, and grace.