Racism has plagued American society for almost four centuries. Debilitating our country on an individual, national, and international level, it seems to have no end in sight. Thousands must be asking themselves how to resolve this horrendous issue; that is, to prevent it from arising even in its subtlest form to that of claiming innocent lives, while recognizing it won’t ever be completely vaporized from human consciousness. As John Metta so rightly affirms in his article, “I, Racist”, in the Huffington Post, people who suffer racial injustice need not be silent but speak out, while those in the seemingly, unaffected majority must open their deaf ears and listen to the words of the besieged. Whereas taking these two actions should be considered as major steps to a solution, more needs to be done.
First, it’s essential for all parties in this conflict to reflect on racial conditioning and how they are and have been personally affected by it. Let’s assume, for example, that all of us are born into this world with a clean slate: that is, there’s not an ounce of racial programming in us; not that some would not debate this perspective, but let’s put that aside for now. This type of social customizing begins on the first day with our family, and however they’ve been conditioned will be taught directly and indirectly, good and bad, to us, no matter if they have or have not suffered racial prejudice. This training will continue on with other relatives, nursery and preschool, elementary and secondary school, the university, and finally coworkers, supervisors, managers, directors, the media and society’s groups and leaders.
Such programming affects how we think. When we identify with our thoughts (negative, neutral, positive), we lose control and act them out in the way we speak to others, including physical altercations, sometimes to the extreme, such as the nine killings that recently happened in South Carolina. Consequently, if we’re not psychologically abnormal, we may be consumed with guilt and regret. Although harmful thinking with all the racial slurs and similar verbalizations can be in our consciousness, we usually don’t consciously express them because most of us are cognizant of the consequences. Nonetheless, they’re still well communicated through our body language. Of course, if we’re really aware of this mental garbage and its outcomes and desire to be in control of ourselves, we’ll want to get rid of it. That’s the first step to a better life for ourselves and our society.
Changing this internal conditioning means cleaning out all the harmful racial thoughts and emotions and exchanging them for those that are beneficial. Certainly, it’s much easier said than done. Before anything can happen, we need to make a conscious decision to do it while recognizing this mental reprogramming takes time as we keep an eye on its rewards: a more tranquil and happier life, increased respect and compassion for those suffering from racism, and finding better ways to personally deal with this problem.
Having decided to change ourselves, no matter if we’ve suffered from racism or been on the side responsible for it via ignorance or outright abuse, means we’ve begun to use wisdom, and now it’s time to take the next step which is to strengthen our ability to concentrate our mind while continuing to deal with everyday life. This begins by giving ourselves some mental space and freedom.
Such capacity is generated by developing skill in focusing the mind, an ability currently being taught and used in schools, businesses, sports, and even the military. Normally, we find this craft listed under the title of Mindfulness Training. Its simplest formal method, however, is to find a quiet place, sit down, and follow our breath in and out without letting ourselves be distracted by thoughts or other phenomena—easy to say but takes real work to perfect. Done twice a day for about 15 minutes each time, i.e., morning and evening, we’ll find that it relaxes us during and after each practice session. It also helps us to think more clearly. After about a week, it’s possible to watch our breath for a minute or two every once in a while at work (informal practice). We’ll be surprised by how much it improves our positive time on the job; for instance, it calms us down before and after intense situations, clears our heads before presentations, and improves our energy and ability to listen. This technique also functions very well during after work and free time activities. When it’s well carried out, it’s quite formidable. The old saying, “cooler heads prevail”, is obvious when we’re mindful.
Such wisdom is evident in the next part of changing our internal conditioning, for this is the point where we incorporate both parts of John Metta’s solid advice. However, it’s best done after we’ve found a level of comfortability with the breathing technique in both formal and informal practice. The results of its ever-expanding mastery are significant; for example, old conditioning (runaway thoughts) simply disappears, our ability to stay calmer during increasingly intense situations improves, and our personal life is more cheerful and peaceful. Moreover, when it’s necessary to speak out forcefully and clearly to garner attention, we’ll find that it’s possible to do so without losing control to anger. Martin Luther King, such an outstanding leader, was one of the best examples of that talent in action.
This method is sometimes called insight training because that’s what results the more we practice. To begin learning this part of mindfulness development, we should start by following our breath for about 10 minutes. Subsequently, we change our focus to our mind. As we notice the thoughts, images, sounds, and feelings arising, we try not to react to them. We just let them pass on by; however, if we do find ourselves carried away by them, we simply come back to our breath and then refocus on the mind. We remain patient when we see this happen frequently in the first week as we practice twice a day for about 30 minutes (15 minutes observing the breath, 15 minutes watching the mind). Over time, we notice that we’re becoming accustomed to the rising and falling of mental phenomena. And just as we carried the breathing practice into our work and other social settings, we find we can do it with this part of mindfulness training as well. We simply keep ourselves focused on what we’re performing, listening to, or watching without letting other things distract us; in fact, we may find that trying to multitask is a detriment instead of an asset at work.
Not long after we begin insight practice, we usually notice several things. We’re more attentive, which means our ability to listen to others is improving. Since we’re often facing some fairly strong thoughts and other experiences without finding ourselves carried away by them, we can liken this technique to speaking out when we’d ordinarily be silent, for our mental equanimity (balance) is developing real strength. Not surprisingly, the practice of facing our thoughts and emotions is like exercising a muscle; the stronger it becomes, the more the harmful thinking and forceful sensations dissipate and disappear. Finally, we experience an enhanced clarity of mind with the space in which we can respond to situations instead of fall into old reactionary patterns that hurt ourselves and/or others.
Of course, as we progress with the practice of watching the mind, we may begin to observe that not as much phenomena that has to do with racial injustice is arising as we would like. It could be that we might feel we’re slowing down in the process of resolving upsetting issues. At this point, we have two options: (a) continue to practice--trusting that in due time such thoughts, images, or feelings will arise, and they will; or (b) we can recall events or feelings associated with racism and let them cause phenomena to surface. Such internal investigation for material with which to work functions on both the conscious and subconscious levels. Generally, whatever comes up is something that we can face with equanimity; however, when anything does feel or look beyond our current ability, we need to use our common sense to back off and wait until we’re strong enough to face it or find a professional to help us.
Certainly, the above changes to our mental conditioning do not happen overnight, but they do occur if we’re patient, dedicated, and determined. We also find as we change our internal life that our external life changes too. For example, we find that when we open to people of other ethnic or racial groups, we’re better able to listen to them, calmly and effectively respond to their perspectives, or just continue being their listening posts even when they’re angry. Furthermore, we’re more willing to speak out, clearly and effectively, for ourselves and/or others to address perceived racial injustices. Our increased degree of compassion to resolve suffering due to racism permits us to change our behaviors and help the besieged. We might learn we can help others change their conditioning and behavior for the better too. Last, participating in meetings or other endeavors to eliminate racial bigotry and hatred in America can be a significant part of our lives. Of course, taking a Dale Carnegie course for speaking and joining the Toastmaster’s Club are two excellent ways to supplement mindfulness practice.
While speaking out and extracting the plugs from our deaf ears are major steps forward to resolving racism in the U.S., we must understand we need to do more. Seeing our internal racial conditioning, largely placed there by society, we can take action to transform it into something better and have a positive effect on our society’s external life, even that of changing the government system for responding to racism on a local, state, and national level. Of course, we need to continually increase our ability to focus our mind, pay attention to its patterns and contents, and develop the insight to use it wisely while seeking professional assistance when required. Certainly, there are other ways to improve; however, those who choose to do nothing may very well stay stuck in the same old rut wondering why things are not changing for the better—or not wanting to. But with consideration and determination, mindful modifications are possible as well as healthy for living better and more peacefully in our multiethnic, multiracial America.