Protest Sutra

Last night at New York Insight, we practiced Meditation 101, in the midst of a great protest.   We took our seats, spines straight, feet planted firmly on the ground, affirming our right to take up space in the world in the midst of chants and shouts and the sound of more and more news and police helicopters hovering low like huge mechanical hawks, tracking the protesters who marched up Fifth Avenue from Union Square.

Whup, whup, whup, the predatory sound grew louder than the big bell that called us to mindfulness.   I told my students that this was the time to learn that stillness does not mean silence. It means being still, sitting down in the midst of it all, allowing everything to happen just as it is happening, being willing to listen and see and sense without clinging or contracting and pushing away. I told them that meditation is an act of non-resistance. It is the act of being still, grounding ourselves in the body and the breath, coming down out of our heads and touching the earth again, being willing to bear witness to what arises, all the things that need to be heard and seen and felt, inside and outside.

“A riot is the language of the unheard,” said Martin Luther King, Jr.   Last night, we sat together in conditions that showed us how this happens inside our own bodies, hearts, and minds. Rioting can happen when we judge or exclude certain thoughts or feeling or impressions or when we feel excluded. As the shouts and the sirens and (most of all) the whupping of the overseer helicopters grew louder and louder, we kept sitting. I wondered if we could notice how what we are hearing conditions consciousness, giving rise to fear or anger or to compassion. I told them to notice that no feeling is final.

After I rang the big bell and we stopped sitting, I quoted some more lines from the poet Rilke: “I want to unfold. I don’t want to stay folded anywhere, because where I am folded, there I am a lie.” The Buddha’s word for mindfulness was “sati,” which means to remember or more weirdly and interestingly “memory of the present.”

After a very long time of practicing and now teaching mindfulness meditation, it dawns on me that this practice aims to remember us—re-connecting or re-membering us with the body, with sensations and feelings that have been forgotten, granting us the animal innocence we had as young children, when we were free to feel our way into this world. Rilke said that children look at the world from the depth of their own solitude. Meditating I remember that this depth of solitude comes from being in the body as children are, full of the fluid sensation of being alive, changing as everything changes, playing with what arises. Imagination doesn’t just mean pretending to be a jungle princess or spy (although I did plenty of that). J.K . Rowling famously said that imagination “is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

Last night at New York Insight, imagination meant being in the body in the midst of everything that was happening, feeling or empathizing with there was to see and hear inside and outside.  Last night, the practice was the gentle, repeated action of returning to the body, the sensation and feelings–and also non-resistance.  We practiced bearing witness to what was happening, holding presence. knowing that no feeling was final, that more would be revealed.

Comments

  1. I am often blessed by Tracy Cochran’s reflections, yet this one brings up some thoughts I’d like to share. What does it mean to be still and ground in the body when your body is a target of state sanctioned violence? When it is your body that bears impact and trauma of daily interaction with systemic racism embedded into the institutions of this society? What does it mean to ground in the breath that is denied so many brothers and sisters? The protesters in the streets right now are affirming the sacredness of Black Lives in a society that desecrates them time and time again. By taking to the streets, they are affirming our right to take up space in the world in the midst of daily violence. What is non-resistance when, as Zora Neale Hurston poignantly wrote, “if you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” At what point does silently bearing witness become complicity? How did these teachings get carried by practitioners off the mat that night, as they walked among the protesters, past them, likely toward the comfort of their NYC apartments and into the rest of their lives? What will it ask of them? Meditation is one of my core spiritual practices, and yet I find it hard to be in many meditation spaces as my experience has been that too often teachings like these serve to invite western practitioners to breathe and relax into privilege. In this case, the privilege of white and non-black people of color to choose not have to be affected by anti-black violence and its manifestations in law enforcement, in the media, in the ways resources are allocated…etc. I am deeply nourished by the Buddhist teachings, but I wish I saw more dharma teachers inviting students to apply the teachings off the mat and in society at large.

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    • Dear Alexis, thank you (again, since I answered you on fb) for this beautiful and heartfelt response. By stillness I did not mean acquiescence–just the opposite. Being still means not being moved–stopping running away. Being still means listening and seeing and knowing more–and there’s so much that needs to be heard and seen and known. The students in the room included people of color so being still and grounding in the body also meant honoring this body and its right to take up space in the world without fear. The volunteers rushed to close the windows but I asked that they be left open, sharing that the aim of the practice isn’t isolating or escaping but being here, learning to listen and see so that we can respond instead of mindlessly react because that has lead to so much harm….and actually, I’m not sure everyone went back to their apartments that night.

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  2. (Continued from before) This was a particularly beautiful section of her reflection, and I must have read it 15 times, trying to pin down the ineffable mixture of resonance and dissonance this brings up for me: “I told my students that this was the time to learn that stillness does not mean silence. It means being still, sitting down in the midst of it all, allowing everything to happen just as it is happening, being willing to listen and see and sense without clinging or contracting and pushing away. I told them that meditation is an act of non-resistance. It is the act of being still, grounding ourselves in the body and the breath, coming down out of our heads and touching the earth again, being willing to bear witness to what arises, all the things that need to be heard and seen and felt, inside and outside.” How do we hold this sacred truth and while also honoring our duty to confront injustice and build a world when we can all be at peace? The paradox embedded in this teaching asks so much of me its at times unbearable, yet learning how to live into that tension is the journey of a life worth living for me. Sorry for the long post, thanks for reading!

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    • Hi again, Alexis, Speaking just for myself, I need to be still and ground so that I can hear those who too often go unheard. I need to practice so I can see clearly what is usually speaking in me, to see who is speaking. When I see my defensiveness, my reactivity, my limitation and delusion, then more is possible for me. There is room for greater awareness–and I might be able to do something useful from there about injustice. Bowing, T

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