Excerpted from THE INNER WORK OF RACIAL JUSTICE, by Rhonda V. Magee, published by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Rhonda V. Magee.
Raising Awareness of Our Internalized Woundedness
When I talk about race with other people of color, we usually focus on the ways in which we have been harmed as a result of racism. Often, the primary response is one of appreciation for the space to share more safely in this way, which supports our self- care and healing together. This com-passionate holding of our experiences may be foundational to being able to loosen our attachment to our own stories and wounds, and to being able to help others.
As we have seen, the work of bringing mindfulness together with racial justice is about twin, intertwining paths of inner and outer work, opening us up to the concerns we have about all suffering, and about race as it intersects with all other forms of oppression. The notion of inner and outer work is in some sense illusory: the two really are one, or, if you will, two sides of the same coin. The particular steps and practices that support our own personal healing, s elf-c are, and liberation also subtly change the environments that cause so much wounding in the first place.
After many years of reflecting on race and racism and practicing love in action, I have noticed that much of what I have been taught about how to overcome racism has been about being the exemplary black person. It has been about, to paraphrase a beloved former First Lady, going high when other people go low. The trouble with this approach is, while it may win friends, it does not provide a pathway to ending racism. While I believe in being the best version of myself that I can be, I am also now clear on the fact that being respectable, resilient, and intelligent and dressing like a professional does not protect people who look like me from racism and the unnecessary suffering that it causes.
What protects us from racism, what keeps us in touch with our innate dignity and worth, is actually not minimizing who we are to be more acceptable to others. It is not trying somehow to blend in with others in hopes that difference somehow can’t be detected. We live in a society in which racism is deeply ingrained, and differences will be discerned. As long as racism is a thing, race certainly will be, too.
Fundamentally, what protects us from racism, then, is working to end racism. We deserve the dignity that comes from living in awareness that we are already good enough. We deserve to know freedom and to know the support of people who are willing to work toward that with us across our lifetimes. Mindful communication helps us to listen to one another, to develop into loving, aware, committed communities. When practiced in groups of similarly experienced people, it gives us the renewing experience of being safer, more free, and often, more loved, together.
The Opposite of Fragile
Moving between racial awareness and awareness of our common humanity does not come easily. We have been trained to think in binary, “either this or that” terms. The notion that some aspect of our experience may be “both this and that” is something that we often find difficult to live with.
And yet, mindfulness practice, at its root, is about relating with reality in ways that support being in paradox, with the cognitive understanding and the lived experience of “both this and that.” I call this the “flow of awareness,” and interpersonal neurobiologist, mindfulness advocate, and psychotherapist Dan Siegel refers to this flow of energy and information as mind itself. When it comes to moving between racial aware-ness and other lenses on our experience, this is the flow of ColorInsight.
In this chapter, we’ll look even more deeply into our reactivity around race, including reactivity to moving between racial awareness and other aspects of awareness. We’ll look at what cognitive science, neurobiology, and social psychology tell us about this. And I’ll unpack more of the ways that you can work with reactivity to make you stronger. Here’s a practice to get us more deeply settled in the fluid strength of the true nature of awareness, and to explore the paradox of being grounded in our experience of the ever-changing nature of reality.
Grounding in the Flow of the Elements
The following practice is meant to provide deep support to anyone, at any time, and anywhere, but it has special utility to help us deal with complexity as we stay in the fire of racial discourse. For some, it might serve as a daily practice. For others, it may be reserved for moments when they need an extra dose of strengthening as they sense the pull of reactivity. The practice uses reflections on the five elements—earth, fire, wind, water, and space—as a basis for sensing into our interconnectedness with all things and the ways in which we are strengthened by the elements in every moment of each day. This practice combines mindful awareness with self- compassion as you work through the challenges of attachment, aversion, and ignorance, allowing them to be seen, appreciated, and then to dissolve. Like the self- compassion practice that you explored earlier, it invites you to engage in visualization.
As you follow the instructions below, take time to allow each step to settle deep within you. If you have trouble with any, continue through to the next instruction, practicing openness and staying with it to the end. Or just revert to your foundational awareness practice, whether Awareness of Breathing, Body Scan, or a movement practice.
Begin by taking your seat. Take a deep breath or two and simply drop into the sensations of breathing and sitting.
Earth: Sense into the ground beneath you, the earth. Consider how it’s been there for you all of your life, and in some sense, you have been there for the earth as well. The soil, trees, grass, and so forth. Notice the connection between your body and this earth in the present moment.
Consider how the earth feels solid until it doesn’t, when there are earthquakes and floods. Recall the molten core that always rages be-neath us, and the constant changes of weather. Notice that even as the earth provides support, it is ever- changing.
Now notice how our bodies are composed of the elements that make up the earth, in all of its colors and textures. Skin, bone, and muscle. Sense into the changes that constantly occur in the body as hair, fingernail clippings, and flakes of skin return to the earth. Whatever our outward appearance, whatever our colorful differences, we have in common the fact of being alive. And we have in common the experience of being different each day, of imperceptibly relaxing into the earth at every moment, without effort. We are sustained by the oxygen released in the environment. Breathe in and out the sense of your interconnection with this earth.
Now call to mind your own lineage—the particular people whose cultures intertwine with yours. Think of how those particular people and their practices were shaped in relationship with the earth. Sense into how you carry that lineage with you as you walk this earth. Reflect on the fact that the stories of our heritage are necessarily incomplete—only an infinitesimally small part of a vast, epic, largely unknowable story full of mystery and triumph.
See if you can sense how the various peoples of the earth—in all our diversity—are part of the ground on which we all walk. Reflect on how our ancestors, over hundreds of millennia, have survived trauma and tragedies much greater, perhaps, than those we face. Through their various ways of surviving over time, we are here. And yet, we do not know the great, vast majority of their names. Still, practice opening up to the thread of life that remains, this breath. Know the accumulated wisdom of all humanity and the desire for w ell-being that lives on in you. As you breathe and sense the body on this earth, know that it is this strength, this capacity to survive and thrive in a changing world, that is within you now and always.
Water: Breathing in and out, notice the element of water in each of us. We take in water from the environment around us, borrowing it for a short while. Water is transformed by the body, and by water the body is transformed. Our bodies eliminate forms of water back to the earth.
Sense into the movements within you that invite you to engage with the streams of the ocean of life. Sense into the flow of all five elements and allow them to keep you fluid and open to motion. Feel the water element in you as it moistens the heart, soothes muscles, and quenches thirst, ever changing according to the needs of this life.
Fire: The energy of life is represented by the element of fire. The sun around which the earth revolves. The heat that provides warmth, the energy that supports the processing of the food to waste that is necessary to life. Even as we sit in stillness, the fire element within us goes on softly, giving us health and longevity. We give off and receive the warmth of the fire element in our interactions with others. Call to mind one person who inspires you. Sense into the energy of that inspiration, the warmth of it, the intensity. This is one measure of the fire element that interconnects all of us.
Now call to mind a community or perhaps a particular person whose suffering you have witnessed. Sense into the feeling that comes with it— the pain, the anger, the desire for well- being. Feel the full measure of your wish to alleviate that pain. As you breathe in and out and sense the strength of your own motivation, your fiery will to help alleviate the pain of others, notice how the breath supports you. Allow the energy of awareness of suffering to support your resolve to take compassionate action. And witness the transformation by which even this desire may flow into nonattachment to action.
Bringing awareness to the depth of the in- breath, drawn up through the muscle group that forms the core of your body, allow a sense of strength to intermingle with the breath. See how, together, earthen body, ever-changing water, and the fire of will, meet the breath. See how, together, they strengthen, calm, and sustain in each ever- changing moment.
Wind/ Air: Breathing in and out, sense the nature of the wind element within you. Sense into the breath as it cycles in and out. The wind or air element represents spirit, or chi, the very energy of life. Sense into what connects you with all of life, its suffering and its joy.
If you’re willing, allow yourself to become aware of the spaciousness that exists in all things. The stories we tell ourselves about our own or others’ suffering are not the whole reality. Allow yourself to open to what is not known, and the possibility that the whole story will never be known. Trust that there is some good nevertheless.
Space: Now sense into the element of space. Everything arises out of space and will return to it. And space, too, exists both within and without us.
As you breathe in, sense the spaciousness that exists within you. And as you breathe out, sense the spaciousness, the environment into which we breathe as we become present and connected with our surroundings.
As you reflect on the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that arise from your engagement with bias and racism in the world, recall this meditation. When you are feeling grounded, or even stuck in difficulty, consider that this is the earth element of your experience. Re-call that the earth, too, changes—it’s nowhere near as hard as the rocky parts make it seem, and beneath the surface is liquid, molten fire. However hard your experience in any given moment, it, too, shall pass.
Take a deep breath and feel the air/ wind element rushing through and opening up more space to allow the truth to be present, to allow transformation to happen, to allow what wants to be released to be let go. When you feel anger or the desire to take some very immediate action, consider this to be the fire element arising in you. Meet it with a respectful appreciation of its energy and the will to transform it in the direction of your highest and best vision, through your choice to respond rather than react.
If you are feeling sad, weepy, swept away, or unstable, explore whether this might be the water element in your body. Recall its quiet, deep strength, like an aquifer holding an underground lake deep within the rocks, ready to be tapped when you need it. Recall the vast capacity of the ocean to hold all that arises.
If you find this meditation difficult, pull back from it and return to the earlier practices of sitting or mindful movement. Continue practicing the cultivation of compassion for self and others. And when you are ready, return to this Grounding in the Flow of the Elements Meditation, sitting with the instructions as best you can for as long as you can, with kindness toward yourself and your experience. This meditation offers support as you move into the more difficult trials of this journey, but it does so much more—providing deep insight into the impermanence of all things, including ourselves. It provides a felt sense, a lived sense of our interconnectedness with a vast, ever-changing universe to which the desire to love one another and to minimize harm is the only sane response.
Return to this meditation, then, as you feel called to deepen your insight into the nature of what causes suffering for yourself and for others, and what alleviates suffering and provides a pathway to peace. You will find it helpful as you move into the deeper levels of engagement— meeting other people in their reactivity and meeting yourself in your own, with enough kindness and compassion to en-able dropping down into the deep beneath all of it, a dwelling in which, as Wallace Stevens wrote, “being there together is enough.”
Rhonda V. Magee
Professor of Law, Mindfulness Teacher, and Leading Antiracist/Social Justice and Equity Educator/Advocate
A leading thought and practice innovator in the area of mindfulness-based antiracism and social justice, Rhonda V. Magee, M.A., J.D., is Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco. Magee has spent more than twenty years exploring the intersections of anti-racist education, social justice, and contemplative practices. A Fellow of the Mind and Life Institute, she is a global/international Keynote speaker, mindfulness teacher, practice innovator, storyteller, and thought leader on integrating Mindfulness into Higher Education, Law and Social Justice. A student of a range of Buddhist traditions and a Fellow of the Mind and Life Institute, she has served as an advisor to a range of leading mindfulness-based professional development organizations, including the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness, the Brown Center for Mindfulness, the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, and the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Rhonda’s award-winning book, The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness (Penguin RandomHouse TarcherPerigee: 2019; paperback edition 2021), was named one of the top ten books released for the year by the Greater Good Science Center, and received similar recognition by Psychology Today and the editors of Mindful.org: