Sunday, October 18, 2009

Forgiveness? Maybe not

The Buddha taught that all suffering arises from the aversion to pain and the pursuit of pleasure, and that because we have been born into this sentient, sensitive body, we are doomed to suffer. The way forward and freedom from suffering is to learn equanimity, or the Middle Way.

I’ve always been extremely interested in Buddhism. There is something beautiful and truthful in its austere discipline, free from the worry about sin and God and all manner of dogma that has always bugged me about Christianity. And because I am always interested in learning about spiritual pursuits I have been investigating Buddhism, off and on, for about five years now, actually before I got serious about a yoga practice.

A side note – I have rejected Christianity pretty utterly. I was raised an Anglican but what is any form of colonizer’s religion to indigenous people but a capitulation, a recognition that if we didn’t convert it was completely over? That’s why I’ve always admired the people who stayed in the Longhouse. That was resistance to the max. My parents dragged us to church every Sunday from the time I can remember until I was about 13 and started to raise objections about it. But when I think about it, my parents were probably bored with the whole deal by that point anyway – it was 1975 and I think the zeitgeist got to them. However, I knew I couldn’t seriously follow any religion that couldn’t reconcile all that shit about Adam and Eve with the evidence of the fossil record and Darwinism – when I was 6 years old. I got married at Mohawk Chapel though but that was mostly to please my dad, not because I was actually believing in it.

I went to a meditation workshop yesterday taught by Noah Levine, who is my total idea of a hot teacher. He’s one of those American Buddhists, a nominally Jewish dude who overcame youthful addictions and criminality to become a tattooed, thoroughly cool follower of the Buddha. I could listen to him in a guided meditation for days.

However, it was during the metta meditation – the practice of sending loving kindness – that I ran into an unforeseen difficulty. In this meditation, you breathe in and then breathe out, May you be happy, may you be at ease, may you be free from suffering. His instruction was to practice this first on yourself because the first person worthy of this is you, because you cannot love others until you love yourself. He spoke of forgiveness and compassion for yourself, and I found myself inexplicably weeping during this. The entire thing made me feel so uncomfortable that it made me weep, that somehow I wasn’t worthy of the kind of compassion that I am completely willing to bestow on other people, on complete strangers. I became a lot happier when we were then to direct this meditation outwards.

In the discussion afterward, I observed to the class that I had found it so much easier to bestow loving kindness to other people than it was to myself. He said that this is common in the West, were the Judeo-Christian tradition of sin, in which you are born out of sin into a sinful world seeps into all of us, part and parcel of the memes we breathe. But in a flash of insight, the kind that happens so rarely that it is like a lightning bolt, I realized that for me, this was an ugly bit of my internalized colonization that I had to rip out by the roots. I am not worthy of self-love, or forgiveness, or loving kindness, because at the essence of myself, I am an onkwehonwe woman trying to pretend to survive in a city in occupied territory.

Surviving in this colonized culture means you have to accept certain ideas as true, even unconsciously. The idea that somehow your birth culture is an inferior one, one that failed in the march to modernity is one of those toxic ideas floating out there that we onkwehonwe unfortunately are forced to breathe in as part of our capitulation to survive in a country that robbed us of our sovereignity, our political power, and our land.

Even though I know intellectually that no culture should be considered inferior, that all of humanity thrives in diversity and difference, it’s one of those pervasive ideas that ooze through the West like poison. And I have drunk this koolaid and now it is a part of me as well.

After the class I went and talked to Noah about it, and he told me that for several of his students who come from cultures like mine that survive under a cloak of racism have the same problem, and that it’s almost like they have to do extra time on the cushion to root it out, and that it becomes a part of the practice. He told the story of his father, noted Buddhist scholar Stephen Levine was told by his teacher that part of moving through all of these internalizations is to forgive the people that have oppressed and abused you and yours. He said his father was like, “Forgive Hitler? I can’t forgive Hitler.” But that by looking at Hitler and the Nazis as abused children who were acting out their own internal pain and rage he was able to get through it.

But how the hell do you forgive an entire system, a way of belief that oppressed your people and continues to oppress them? I’m not sure I have the fortitude to push through this, to become a bigger person – an enlightened being that lives in compassion and forgiveness. I’m not sure I can do it.

I think, however, I will continue to investigate my own mind and use the practices of Buddhism as a way to get to know myself better. Maybe this will be my life’s work.