On how to get soul: chod and the practice of freeing ourselves from slavery…
I was recently in Wilmington, North Carolina in late October for my wedding. It’s a very beautiful small town that hugs the Cape Fear river, which, like most early cities and towns, was dependent upon a waterway as a means of transportation, both out to the Atlantic Ocean, and also further inland. We spent a week down in Wilmington trying to add a few days of relaxation to the planning and organization of the wedding. While there I was able to spend a morning practicing chöd on the beach during sunrise. For a brooklynite, the ability to spend time in meditation facing the rising sun on a beautiful quiet beach is something of a luxury.
While I was aware of the fact that there had been an active slave trade in Wilmington, I had not realized the extent of Wilmington’s strategic location in the trade of slaves. Fortunately, or unfortunately, due to the danger of trying to moor ships on most of the islands that make up North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the Port of Wilmington, situated inland on the Cape Fear river was much safer, thereby providing a major point of forced disembarkation of slaves. In fact, the black slave population of Wilmington out numbered the white non-slave population by 2 to 1 by the mid 1800’s. The skills and knowledge of black slaves was vital for the growth, success and expansion of the town; it is quite probable that Wilmington’s survival as a vibrant economy due to its being rooted upon a firm economic base built upon the blistered and broken backs of its former slaves.
In this respect Wilmington is no different from a variety of other cities, towns, countries, and empires whose success, basic stability, infrastructure, and rich cultural growth has been secured and “enriched” by its slaves. Indeed, like it or not, the history of humanity can certainly provide a variety of such cases of how the enslavement of other humans “benefitted” the culture of their oppressor. Sadly, in many ways this dynamic continues into the present day.
With this in mind, and as a means of returning to the sacred geography that I explored in a blog post last year, I decided to spend time doing chöd on the beach not far from the inlet of the Cape Fear river; all the while trying to remain aware of my inner slaves and all the ways that I enslave different aspects of myself. I wanted to touch upon all of the ways that I enslave myself, enslave aspects of my personality, how I project rigid ideas upon myself, and like a coy and brutal slave-master, how I benefit from such suffering. That Wilmington can act as the support for my practice of chöd, that its rich history of being a place where the dreams of humans were crushed and suffocated by a racist ruling class can offer a ground and support for practice is important. Perhaps Wilmington, as a reminder- or symbol- offers us the potential for great inner growth.
Slavery, especially inner-slavery is an important thing to contemplate. Even more, the way that many people disassociate from the history of slavery and all of the ways in which it still haunts us is something that I find disturbing.
There is so much terrible violence that we commit towards ourselves in a unconscious manner out of fear, or a sense of insecurity, or of flat-out self- hatred. There are so many ways in which we subjugate aspects of ourselves, be they qualities, propensities, or habitual reactions, with the same control of a slave master.
And so, with the warm rising rays of the morning sun as a witness; a glorious bindu drop amidst the crashing of waves of the atlantic ocean, and with the wind whistling though tall beach grasses, I invoked the mandala of Machik Labron and Prajnaparamita. With qualities of edgelessness, and without specific orientation within time or space, I wanted to stretch myself , so that the tragic history associated with the slave trade and all of its ghostly remnants could be included within my practice, that all of the terror and the brutal subjugation of others could be heard.
I tend to feel that with any particular spiritual practice it is important to blend what tradition dictates, the transmitted instructions of one’s teacher/tradition, with what is alive within ourselves. At the end of the day it is our story, the story that we carry with us, the story that we have made for ourselves that we bring to our practice. The way that we construct this story, it’s highs and lows, it’s holy sanctified ideals and its skulking demonic shadow beings are what we bring. Our desire to do, and be, good, as well as our fear of failure and being seen as failure.
In exploring slavery as a metaphor for the way in which we fail to notice our full selves I am reminded of course I took in college on African Philosophy taught by a brilliant Kenyan philosopher, Dismas Masolo. Some of what was touched upon within the curricula of this class included an examination of the early historical affirmation that Africans were in many ways sub-human.
For example, Immanuel Kant, one of the giants of western philosophy writes in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View: “Humanity exists in its greatest perfection in the white race. The yellow Indians have a smaller amount of talent. The Negroes are lower, and the lowest are a part of the American peoples.” Martin Cohen, the editor of The Philosopher, wrote in a review of D.A. Masolo’s African philosophy in Search of an Identity, “…Kant, for example, had argued that the ‘original human species was white, appearing as dark brown’ only as a result of oppressive climatic conditions, whilst Hegel wrote similarly that ‘the characteristic feature of the Negroes is that their consciousness has not yet reached an awareness of any substantial objectivity’. In Africa, life was not a manifestation of dialectical reason but rather, as Hegel put it, ‘a succession of contingent happenings and surprises.'” The justification for subjugating others appears timeless- it is amazing how easily we demonize others, sometimes with shameless effortless ignorance.
Equally amazing is how we take credit for the fruits of the work of our inner-slaves. Just as the slave owner assumed ownership of what was tilled within, and born of his fields; or the madame at the brothel whose “hard-earned” wealth was collected upon the broken bodies and broken dreams of her two-bit whores (to quote Theodore Dreiser); it can be scary when we look at how much credit we take for the fruits of the parts of ourselves that we would rather ignore, the parts that we keep drugged, shackled, and subdued with cruelty.
While we assume our position at the head of the table, decked out in all of the fineries of our best projections of ourselves, dining upon the finest foods, receiving the accolades that deep down we feel we really deserve, entertaining our every whim and fancy- our self-hatred and inability to dynamically embrace the parts of ourselves that we may fear that others will come to know of often rules with the same tight fist as the cruelest slave owner. And just as such slave owners were known to rape their slaves, I wonder how we secretly rape the unintegrated parts of ourselves; secretly proclaiming love and acceptance of the parts of ourselves that we may indeed love, but fear, and perhaps secretly hate because we feel that we may know that they are integral parts of ourselves.
Ironically, it may just be that the most enslaved parts of our psyche may be the ones that we refuse to own; the ones of which we refuse to be conscious. They also may hold immense power and utility, if we could just be with them, just accept them…
As a chaplain I witness many people (patients, their friends or family, as well as staff) try to shackle their fears, to hide away their anger and sense of loss, to turn away from their sense of powerlessness, and to try to disguise their shame. I can see this in part because I try to explore these things within myself. It is not easy to notice things about ourselves that we are uncomfortable with- let alone loathe or fear. And yet in seeing this in myself and in others, I am often reminded of how naturally we create our own suffering.
I sometimes wonder about how as Buddhists it is possible to secretly hide away the slaves of aggression and anger, how easy it is to distract ourselves from truly knowing, exploring and interfacing with the way these feelings arise. That we might prefer studying the paramitas as a way of feeling good about ourselves but not really noticing, not taking stock, of how easy it can be to associate with a conceptual modality, a structural paradigm, rather than something that genuinely arises from our heart/mind complex. Even the idea of Buddhist practice offers a false sense of not being a slave owner. In this way, the overly friendly, overly compassionate Buddhist who is unaware of the horrors bubbling just under their surface can also become a slave owner by brutality repressing drives, emotional impulses and feelings. If not observed carefully, Buddhist practice affords wonderful ways of running away from oneself (if that is what you want to do).
In offering my steaming organs, the sun and moon of my eyes, the deep vital essence of my marrow, the mountain range of my fingers and toes, the ocean grasses of my hair, my flayed skin, the ground of the mandala offering, I contemplated what freeing a slave means. If I am to free my inner-slaves shouldn’t I do so in a way that allows for having a relationship with them in the future? Wouldn’t that presage deep growth and acceptance around just why I ghettoized an aspect of myself? And in having some sense of how and why I do this to myself, around my conception of myself, doesn’t this offer a wonderful means of connecting with others who find themselves with a whip in their hand, or fist raised in the air towards themselves?
In consciously releasing our slaves, with awareness, offering witness of how we maintained them for years, perhaps even a lifetime, I wonder if we can also allow them to remain part of us, in relationship with us, as liberated beings; liberated parts of ourselves? If this is the case, then the story of our aggression towards these ways of feeling is an important and powerful thing to honor. Knowing these stories around and within ourselves can create a natural sense of connection and intimacy with others in a way akin to the paramitayana. It may very well be that this awareness of our emotional history is central to honestly approaching the paramitas. Otherwise it can be very easy to inadvertently use the dharma as a tool to subjugate and maintain slaves. There may be the desire to release our slaves and “banish” them from our sight so that we never have to see our folly- this however prevents any honest growth and real witness of the story of our inner-ghetto beings.
I suspect that as we become more familiar with freeing our slaves and trying to maintain relationship with them, in accepting the hard truths which can become precious gifts, we can relax our grip around things specifically needing to be a particular way. In letting go, forgiving, and remaining in relationship, the dharma doesn’t become any one thing in particular; it becomes all things.
We, the creators of the new black generation,/ want to express our black personality/ without shame or fear/ If this will please the whites, much the better/ If not, it does not matter/ We know ourselves to be beautiful/ And also ugly/ The drums cry/ The drums laugh/ If this will please the whites, much the better/ If not, it does not matter/ It is for tomorrow that we are building our temples/ Solid temples we will ourselves know how to/ construct them/ And we will keep ourselves straight/ On top of the mountain/ Free in ourselves. -Langston Hughes
this is a first class article, my friend.
Here’s a letter from a slave to his old master that reminded me of this article.
I am really glad I read this and I am even more glad that you wrote this. I will keep seeking the truth. Thank you for writing it.