Previously published by Spirit Rock Meditation Center in 2019
We are classroom teachers and mindfulness teachers, we are offering embodied practices like yoga, qigong or dance to children in the public school system, we are sharing practice with veterans, folks living with addiction or who are incarcerated. We know the complexities of bringing folks INTO their bodies; the potential danger, and the possibility of great liberation and healing.
I use the word vulnerable to speak of the folks I’ve shared practice with over the years. I began offering yoga and meditation to system-involved youth in New York City in 2005. I then shared with folks who were living with HIV and AIDS, experiencing homelessness, living with addiction, and of course the intersectionality of all of those experiences. For 10 years, I shared with incarcerated youth, and on Rikers Island, the country’s most notorious and violent city jail, for 2 years as a facilitator on a research project.
As I struggled to find the throughline of all of these Dear Ones I practiced with, I came to realize that those who were most affected by trauma were those who have historically been less protected: children, women, sex workers, trans and queer folk, Black folks, immigrants, the elderly, veterans, and those who are living with mental illness. These are communities who are continually marginalized, many of whom also carry the historical traumas of displacement, enslavement and legalized oppressions.
Having conversations about systemic conditioning, bias, and its implications for generations of people, are important to me because I didn’t always know how to engage; or that it was needed. I thought that folks who were leaning in and wanted to do the work, was good enough … not understanding that Intent and Impact were two very different things. Without wisdom, compassion and clear understanding of the world some folks are coming from, we can create so much more harm than intended. Conveniently, there is an inherent pause in our practice that allows us to move forward with intention, accountability, and spaciousness.
Dr. David Augsburger, the American Anabaptist author and Mennonite minister says, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.” Take a pause here, and feel into that. Have you had the experience of truly being seen, heard, and your experiences validated? Did your body rest in this knowing, was the breath more spacious, was there a felt sense of being unconditionally loved?
This is a big part of how we can hold, support and guide vulnerable members of our community: taking the time to deeply listen, without assumption, about their experience in the world. Remembering that there is an Absolute reality, a capital “T” Truth, but more importantly, a Relative one. These little “t” truths around fairness, equity and safety is different for each of us. Folks move through the world with varying strides; some of us are allowed to move with ease, even to saunter, while others move with a staccato gait, hesitancy, and trepidation.
For some, coming into our classrooms, yoga studios and meditation halls, instructions like “relax the body”, “close your eyes”, and “let go”, can trigger experiences of harm. Speaking of “blindness” to mean ignorance or referring to “darkness” as something to bring “light” to, demonstrates our preference to ability and Eurocentric values. We might assume that all folks have a right arm to extend up or 10 toes to ground down.
The habitual ways that we communicate through our privileged lens can be examined, as a start, to begin being inclusive to all Beings. Parker Palmer says that “Relational trust is built on movements of the human heart such as empathy, commitment, compassion, patience, and the capacity to forgive.” So we begin at this commitment to cultivate the capacity to not collapse under guilt and shame, but to forgive ourselves, and to keep growing. To meet others at their lived experiences… at their humanity.
Embodied awakening means being radically present; to do our work so that we know, and can unpack the systems we are working within. It means to see our conditioning, our projections, our biases… to know that these first thoughts are not our own, but a social construct created by the world we live in. To embody radical presence as facilitators, classroom teachers, teachers of movement and mindfulness, means awareness of power dynamics and our implicit biases in order to create a culturally responsive spaces. This dismantling of power structures is itself an act of love, the place from where real impact occurs.