Friday, July 17, 2009

Maintaining Oppressions

I'm sitting in one of my favorite coffee shops here in St. Paul, Minnesota. It's in a large, late 19th century hotel building that has been converted to offices and store fronts. It has huge windows that open out onto the street, and very high ceilings - probably 15-20 feet high, which makes the place feel so spacious and yet, cozy somehow as well.

It's a good place to people watch. Author and radio show host Garrison Keillor, who owns the bookstore below the coffee shop, just popped in. The Mayor of St. Paul is speaking with a small group of people in a corner. One of the first Hmong state representatives in Minnesota is sitting in a meeting at a table across from me. And around the corner, the leader of a fairly influential Somali non-profit also sits in a meeting. It's a little unusual to see so many locally "important" people in here, but not unusual for at least a few like this to be here.

I have been thinking about how we are so effective at maintaining of suffering, both individually and collectively. How, even when faced with the truth that nothing is permanent, and nothing has its own stable "self," we're still so damn good at keeping the train going down the side of samsara mountain.

The Reverend Hilda Gutierrez Baldoquin, a Soto Zen priest from Suzuki Roshi's lineage, writes that she has experienced many forms of suffering in her life, including "believing in a reality that has been conditioned by oppression." I'm definitely guilty of this, and when you look around the world and see all the oppressive structures and actions around, you can't help but believe this is IT.

She continues "One reason oppression remains so firmly rooted is because our clouded minds project this distorted reality, and our conditioned selves - who we think we are - are kept very busy maintaining this reality."

To me, the beauty of what Baldoquin is saying is not that oppression doesn't happen, but that it isn't permanent, and it doesn't define who we really are at the core. This is true at the individual level, and it's also true at the collective level, which is so filled with racism, classism, heterosexism, war and other forms of violence. There's no denying the presence of these issues, and it's essential that we continue to work towards breaking them down, and yet they are not who we are - what a relief!

At my yoga class last night, our teacher gave us an assignment: ask for help in a situation where you don't need it. Why do that? Because, for one thing, at the center of all oppression is the twin powers of control and fear, and doing simple acts like asking for help breaks down those mechanisms in the mind.

As I have written before, I believe we are called to act individually through our meditation practices, and collectively through some form of action that aims to benefit the wider community. It's a slow process, this untangling of samsaric knots we have created, but it has to begin somewhere. So, sometime in the next week, ask someone for help when you don't need it. And along the way, watch your mind go through whatever it goes through during the process.

These little acts support our larger acts. I truly believe this. We do not need to maintain an oppressed reality any longer.


Jennifer Campaniolo said...

I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall at that coffee shop! I love Garrison Keillor. But then again, I was an English major so I'm required to like him.

I will mull over this idea of asking for help when you don't need it. I assume I should be asking someone I don't know or are not close to?


Nathan said...

You could really ask anyone for the help. It's more in the asking, even when you don't need it, than if you do it with someone you know or don't know.