Thursday, March 14, 2019

Reflections on Identity

I am going through a training to become authorized to facilitate workshops with Leesa Renee Hall's Unpack Biases Now program. I am really excited to be able to use such powerful tools, developed by a whipsmart and compassionate highly sensitive Black leader, in writing. Not only do I not have to re-invent the wheel myself, and I can use her amazing tools, but I also get to support and emanate out her style and approach, which has greatly impacted me in the last year or so.

Over time, I am investigating identity more and more with my Contemplative Writing groups. This has been a blindspot in my teaching practice in writing - not going directly for or into identity, especially ways in which access via identity privilege some of us more than others. My students are majority white, cisgender female, middle class. While I have a high percentage of queer women in my classes, in terms of sexual orientation, I have found for myself and others that "being queer" can only carry us so far in terms of compassion and direct understanding with People of Color. More often than not, it can actually serve as a bargaining tool, an "oppression Olympics" player piece. As in: "Well, I may be white, but I am also a woman, and I am queer, so I know what it is like to be oppressed," said in a defensive tone, especially when called out for having expressed a racist view.

There is so much wisdom in exploring our identities, especially the dominant identities, with a contemplative lens and deep curiosity. So I wanted to share, along the lines of blog posts I used to do more frequently, some of the reflections which have come up. These are anonymous, only occasionally direct quotes (when the person's articulation was stunning) but other than knowing they come from my classes over the last few weeks, I have removed any identifying factors. As a lot of you know, I so prefer to tell stories from first person, or relate them to a specific person. I generally avoid, "you," or "one," or "we," in writing, because I don't want people to feel if they don't fit into the description there is something wrong with them. However, when I am protecting identity, I generalize a bit in order to protect identity. So please keep that in mind.

Here is a wisdom culling from reflections on identity in class a few weeks ago. The prompt was on what we see in the mirror - and what is not shown in the mirror.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Spiritual Shadows in Whiteness Work

Trigger warning for People of Color: This post deals with the anniversary of Tony Robinson's death, recent assaults by a white teacher of a young black girl in Madison schools, and white spiritual bypassing. Please read at your own discretion.

For white folks, this post is likely to make you as uncomfortable to read as it made me to write. So please, read with kindness. But read it. It's essential.

What seemed separate suddenly wasn't.The new hashtags #blacklivesmatter or #blm had, previously, felt important, but far away. Distant. Not that I did research to see when any Black people had been shot by police in Madison. Not if, but when. Police violence against Black bodies seemed conveniently elsewhere, even if Ferguson was in the Midwest depending on who you asked, even if it was the hometown of one of my longest running students, a white woman shaken to the core by how close it suddenly felt to her.

But checking twitter that night in March four years ago, I swear - though this may be 20/20 in hindsight - I could feel the walls falling, the distance closing. Seeing at first the bare descriptions - a young black man, an older white male cop - then the name: Tony, called Terrell - Robinson. Then there was a face, too, varying depending on who was putting it up - local Black community or police department. There were no pictures of him where he looked like a thug. No, that difference came in description, evocation of the incident - mentions of drugs, possibly being armed, uncontrollable.


Ilana is reading the 76 page police report - with a lot of redaction - about an 11 year old black girl whose braids were pulled out, who was dragged on the ground, and hit by teacher at Whitehorse Middle School a couple of weeks ago in Madison. Reading the report is bringing it closer, clear, even with all the details protected for privacy. That feels important, because the white male teacher won't be returning to Whitehorse, but this week our Black District Attorney announced he will not press charges against the teacher.

Monday, October 01, 2018

When Dharma (and/or Dharma Teachers) Seem/s to Say You Suck

I just got done teaching a weekend program in Chicago with Acharya Charlene Leung. The title was Healing Harm for Vibrant and Just Community: Exploring Social and Personal Power.

It was a revision from a previous program she has been working on for a few years, a version of which we did in Minneapolis awhile back. The version she had been developing focused more on unconscious bias, especially with race, and social conditioning. How to shake that social conditioning to build more vibrant Shambhala centers with true inclusivity and equity.

However, we were making the final course description when the Shambhala situation broke, and it became clear to both of us immediately that the program needed to be able to more directly include what was now a big part of our community. Thus, the new title - and new focus - was born.

The program was rich and deep, and we both learned a lot, as well as the participants, about all that goes into all three components: power, harm, and healing.

However, what stays with me most, and what I want to write about today, is an insight Charlene had towards the end of the weekend, as the two of us discussed our plan for Sunday's portion of the program. It relates to the hairy territory of intention versus impact, both in regards to teachers, and in regards to teachings.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Wide Open Heart Failures

Welcome to Miriam's Now-Monthly Missive on the Shambhala Situation,

I am writing to you again (Letter #1 is here and #2 is here) because regularity and requests have helped me assemble my thoughts and share them. As I find is often the case with practice,  structure helps create a container to show up in. Without structure, I would be overcome by doubt, or give in to the idea that I will just do it "eventually." Instead, I know folks are waiting to hear from me, and get a sense of what I am experiencing, what my questions are, and what resources I have to share.

I offer none of these letters as answers, instead, as a showing of my path of exploration, with hopefully some angles you haven't yet considered, and information you haven't yet tracked. There are a lot of things to track, and endless ways to think and feel about what is going on.

So please, listen to yourself first. May my sharing help you share - both with yourself and with others.

This edition consists of three parts. 

The first part is excerpts from readings I've done this summer from books and information sources I had read before, but now with a new context. The three books are Eyes Wide Open by Mariana Caplan, The Great Failure by Natalie Goldberg, and A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield.

I discovered Caplan's book through another Miksang teacher around ten years ago and was blown away by how she described relationship to practice. Her insights now about relating to teachers have taken on a whole new level with what has happened this summer in Shambhala.

Goldberg's book is her memoir about coming to terms with the imperfections of both her birth father and her dharma master, Katagiri Roshi, around sexual inappropriateness/misconduct. I read this also when it came out, and had a feeling of relief that Sakyong Mipham wouldn't do anything of the things described in the book that Katagiri Roshi did. More on that when we get to it....

Kornfield's title is one I have read portions of for Karuna Training, but someone on Facebook pointed it out it has an entire chapter on troubled relationships with teachers.

The second part is more personal reflections on leadership, holding space, and more.

The third part is similar to what I have shared at the end of each of these missives - further resources for reading, digesting, contemplating.

Please enjoy. Take breaks. Think and feel for yourself. I thank you for reading and for asking me to write about this. I take that assignment deeply inside and share back out what I find. Please feel free to share in comments - respectfully, thoughtfully, and with some space around what you have to say.


Sunday, August 26, 2018

Here Comes the Flood

It's been a very intense week in Dane County, Wisconsin.

On Sunday, I returned from co-teaching a week-long Karuna Training retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico:
View of the road and Pedernal in the distance. Note the dryness, despite flash floods the first night we were there.

And on Monday night, we had severe and rapid enough thunderstorms to cause serious mass flooding not two blocks from my house in Madison. This is after one night of rain and a few days of having to release Lake Mendota to preserve the dam into the river that flows south to further, now overflowing, lakes:

What's in the middle of the photo is a bench and what's in front of it is normally sidewalk. Yahara River in Tenney Park.
Here are more photos to help you get a sense of what it is like around here right now.

If maps are more your style, check here. We live at N. Baldwin and E. Washington.

As you can see by the maps, we live on an Isthmus, which is a strip of land between two lakes. While Lake Mendota and Lake Monona are not "Great Lakes" (EG Superior or Michigan, which do border Wisconsin), they are pretty substantial. Not ponds. And over the last few days, I have learned a lot more than I used to know about these lakes and the land on which I live. Namely, that the lakes are kept extra high for recreational purposes; that the Isthmus was once and really should still be a marsh in most places (including where my house stands); and that our storm drain system is poorly managed.

We are facing what could be called a natural disaster, but actually, it's a man-made or man-contributed-to disaster. Of course, many have warned of this for years, but most of us weren't listening. And those who were listening (those in charge) were ignoring, for all the reasons we ignore things - money, denial, opposing interests.

A projected map that's been shown on and off for years, which is re-surfacing now. When it has been shared, it has mostly ignored by those in power repeatedly.

Of course, this land used to be cared for by native people who were driven out centuries ago in order to make a state capitol in this precarious but beautiful city. I am feeling all the layers of our mis-management, climate change, and colonialism coming home to roost this week, as we sandbag my house and those of loved ones and strangers nearby.

Ilana is currently wet-vacing the "normal" amount of water we have in the basement (when you live on an isthmus, you do get wet basements; at least that we are aware of) so we can re-seal the sewer drain (lest it pop up and fill our basement with shit, which it will do if too many houses flood) and hunker down for storms beginning this afternoon.

Ironically, because of where we live, we are both part of the current problem and also subject to the results of the solutions. They've been draining Lake Mendota, which is top in our four lake water system, and so the Lake closest to our house (by a hair, we are nearly equidistant between Mendota and Monona) is "safe" as you can see in this animation, where it remains below 100 year flood levels.

However, we are also very close to the Yahara River (two blocks) and the even bigger issue is that we are at a low spot on the Isthmus (around 851 feet above sea level) which means our storm drains are full right now and ready to burst at the slightest increase. We are less likely to flood because of either the lakes or rivers, but because our storm drains can't drain into either of those bodies of water. In fact, the last few days, water has been coming *out* of the drains and filling our streets. This is all really well explained historically in this incredible document (long read but worth it if you want to see how we got to this point in Madison).

So we are as ready as we can be, and now we wait. Will it rain? Too hard and too fast? Will they have to release Lake Mendota again, flooding the system and pushing water up out of our storm drains? Or will the storms pass to the North and West, which won't effect us immediately but a few days down the road? Or will it all dry up, like rains do in New Mexico?

Let all this preparation be in vain. Only some already have experienced the consequences, so what we are waiting for has already passed in Madison and surrounding areas recently. I am scared that so few of my neighbors - including those in much more direct possible impact from flooding - are doing nothing. The National Guard is standing by, filling more bags and forcing them on to streets that are already flooding.

All we can hope for for now is that none of it will be needed, that there won't be worse damage. And all we can hope for soon after it is over, if not during this time, is for the uppity ups to pay the fuck attention and work harder on our water system.