Sunday, October 30, 2011

Prejudice Meets Bravery

A friend recently told me about the stories she tells herself about other people, like the lady with the $3,000 handbag and the perfect hair and nails, the lady that smokes in front of her baby, the right-wing-wackos that drive her nuts, fat people, skinny people, poorly dressed people, smokers, health nuts, scary looking men on dark streets, etc. I know she doesn't mean any of this maliciously. She was being brave and honest by admitting that these thoughts exist, like they do in most of us. Prejudices can be a disturbing facet of our selves and its hard to know what to do with them if we struggle to do more good than harm while hanging out on planet earth.

The truth is that we all have prejudices. We all judge people. Some of us can't stop looking down on other people to pump ourselves up. Some of us are a little more aware of our judgements, so we judge and then maybe feel bad about ourselves. Some of us judge and then laugh it off because we see the tricks our minds are playing on us (again). Actually, maybe not all people have prejudices. I like to believe that there are some awesome people that don't judge, enlightened people whose egos have dissolved to the point that they can just be here with us, totally present in the moment. Those Sangha members that have taken Boddhisatva vows aspire to this ideal.

Cats and dogs have basic goodness too!
Negative prejudice about others ultimately comes from fear or a feeling that one is not "worthy." In the teachings on basic goodness, we are taught that the goodness in us is permanent and the faults in us are temporary. Everyone has basic goodness, but many of us have lost touch and need to uncover that goodness in order to know our true nature. While this teaching comes from Shambhala, the idea that humans are good in nature is present in all forms of Buddhism.

Aggression is about pushing things away, and we often want to push away the things we fear. It is a way to escape the grip of fear. Another way we reinforce prejudice is to justify it. We establish elaborate stories about our prejudices so that we can buy into them and carry them around proudly. Some of what we come up with may be based in logic or experience. But of course figuring out clever ways to justify our prejudices usually just causes more confusion and pain.

Learning to dissolve prejudice is part of a long process, which might include training yourself to dissolve fear and ego. It might also include contemplations on compassion and interdependence. However, on the most basic level, a meditator needs to stop avoiding things and hold the discomfort. In situations where I'm afraid, irritated, or feeling something else that might lead to aggression, I find myself often turning to Pema Chodron's sage advice: "Feel the feeling, drop the story-line." The idea is that rather than giving in to your reactions - in this case, a false judgement about someone else - you can follow a process:

  1. hold the feeling, taste it,
  2. see how it manifests in your body (maybe a feeling of tightness, faster heartbeat, sometimes nothing...) 
  3. once you have touched the feeling, let it go.

Pema Chodron talks about getting "hooked" on storylines that are like movies where you are the star, and they get played over and over again. These storylines often try to justify or give ground to a situation where there is no ground. They form our prejudices and create the patterns and false realities that we come to believe in. Often they cause us a lot of pain and suffering. In the form of prejudices, they have been the source of much suffering throughout history. They always start in someone's mind.

The practice of holding onto a feeling and dropping the storyline is a way to connect to your own good heart and build comfort with groundless realities. In the YouTube clip below, Pema Chodron says, "to the degree that we are open to ourselves, we can be open to other people and the world."

In meditation training in the Shambhala tradition, one of the first things you will learn is the importance of being gentle to yourself. At first this might sound touchy-feely (that's a story-line I used to tell myself in my prejudice against touchy-feeliness), but gentleness is absolutely essential to this path. Gentleness is not valued much in our super-aggressive Western world, but only through gentleness and opening up, can we reveal any true insight into reality. Also, if we ever want to be truly brave, we need to be gentle with ourselves first. I'm not talking about the pump yourself up and power-through-it kind of bravery, but the kind that shows dignity and power, the kind that is based on true confidence about your place in the world. This courage that comes out of gentleness is what Chogyam Trungpa referred to as "warriorship."


  1. I really like that process of sitting with a feeling and then putting it aside. Sometimes if I keep pushing a feeling down without giving it any space, it doesn't help me get to its root so that I can begin to change.

    A lot of this reminds me of psychoanalysis!

  2. Yeah, I guess a good psychoanalyst would also tell you to be gentle to yourself, which is another way of saying that you need to give your thoughts some space.

    It's important to note that there is no such thing as a "bad" thought. There is nothing to be afraid of. They are just thoughts, even prejudice. Thinking something is not the same as acting on a thought. The reactivity is where the problems can arise.

    The process of meditation is not wack-a-mole. You aren't waiting for thoughts to appear so you can bash them with a hammer. You are learning to treat them kindly, gently, respect them, treat them like you would handle something precious, and then let them go, like you would let a bird go. If you practice meditation for a few years, you will have done this millions of times, with millions of thoughts. Seems like this should have some effect, right?