Dharma talk by Marisela Gomez at the ABC Home in September 2016
I felt very nourished during our walking meditation together. I felt like Thay was here because every time I looked up, he was speaking to us. So that was very nice.
I want to share a little bit about what love in action may look like, and maybe why it is necessary. This is not just for activists, but this is for everyone who is negotiating and navigating today’s world.
I recently had the pleasure of being on a retreat with Bikkhu Bodhi. If you do not know him, I would like to describe him as an elder monk in the Theravada Tradition. He has translated a lot of the original Pali text into English, and we are really grateful for that. He was leading a retreat at the Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, a retreat on Abhidhamma. After the retreat, I asked him if I could ask him a few questions about mindfulness, social justice, and activism because that is a big part of my world.
He was very open and flexible even after four days of teaching the Abhidhamma. His face lit up, and I could see that he had something to say about these topics. He invited me to wait until everyone was gone so we could sit together. One of the questions I asked him was what good mindfulness was in today’s world with all the difficulties we are facing.
Mindfulness would be very helpful because in the midst of all the difficulty where a police officer might take advantage of their power, if you have calm and peace inside yourself, you can fundamentally change that situation then.
I gave him a very specific example. Two weeks prior in Baltimore, Maryland, our Sangha—Baltimore and Beyond Mindfulness Community—hosted a panel discussion on the role of mindfulness in the criminal justice system because we are facing a lot of difficulty with the criminal justice system and policing, especially with the black community and low income community in the city. It was up to us to look into what we are going to do about this difficulty—this inappropriate action that is harming many of our brothers and sisters. We had two Dharma teachers and a young man who had been incarcerated for murder as our panelists. One of the participants, a young black man, asked the panel this question:
“I’m a black man. I get pulled over all the time by the police. What’s this mindfulness going to do for me?”
That is a great question, right?
It is the question we are asking today: how does our practice, how does coming back to ourselves, and how does finding peace in ourselves help us bring peace in our very intimate interactions and also in the ones that maybe we would not want to be so intimate. This is what social change is, isn’t it?
The individual cannot bring about change outside of themselves if they are not already in the body, so I asked Bikkhu Bodhi this question.
He said this [mindfulness] would be very helpful because in the midst of all the difficulty where a police officer might take advantage of their power, if you have calm and peace inside yourself, you can fundamentally change that situation then. You can have the control in making a different outcome. If we have that peace in ourselves like Kaira Jewel was saying, this is what we are going to bring out. That is the process of changing the world.
I understand this response to be a teaching on being more peaceful and more calm inside ourselves, so when we bring ourselves into the spaces that are going to be challenging, we know how to act because we have appropriate action. I felt his response was appropriate because I have experienced that myself. It was because of my peace and my calm that the outcome of something which could have maybe resulted in me being shot turned out in a completely different way.
I was cat-sitting for a friend who happened to live in a middle income white neighborhood in Baltimore. When I woke up in the morning, I forgot there was an alarm. I do not usually think about these things, so I did not take it off and the alarm went off. I also did not realize when the alarm goes off, the police comes. [Or perhaps I did not think of it?]
I called the alarm company to tell them it was okay, but apparently the police had already been responding, which was amazing. That was a really quick response; I wish the police would respond that way in all of the communities.
I was in so much control; I do not think I have ever been in so much control, but I also knew that my life was at stake.
So the police came. The door was open, but the screen door was still locked. It happened very quickly, but in my mind it happened very slowly. That is because when you have peace inside of you, everything slows down. When things become still, you see things more as an observer rather than being pulled and absorbed into it. I was walking toward the door, and the police appeared at the door; one police officer yanked the door open.
He came in with a gun drawn at me, and the other one was going to his holster. They were coming in, and it all happened so quickly. All I could think in my mind was “I really have to be peaceful right now.” This was a very dangerous situation, so I went very slowly because you usually have to put your arms up slowly when there is a gun pointing at you. I put my arms up. I was in so much control; I do not think I have ever been in so much control, but I also knew that my life was at stake.
I said, “We don’t need any guns here.”
I had stopped; the police had stopped and I looked into their eyes, particularly the one with the gun already drawn.
I could see anger; I could see fear, but I could also see me. It was just another human being, right? The police was in a very difficult situation, trained and imprinted to respond in a certain way, especially when you see someone who looks like me in a house—in a white neighborhood—where an alarm went off and maybe thinking I should not have been there. He was thinking this obviously, but you know what?
I happened to be there. I happened to forget to take this alarm off, but I had to say it twice. I kept my hands up; I could see in the moment that he was really thinking, and he had to make a decision what to do. With my hands still up and his gun still drawn, he said that he needed to see some I.D. When you are scared and angry, you say stupid things. There was no way I can show him my I.D. with my hands up. But that was all good because one of us was in control, and it was not the police with the gun. It was me with my breath.
It ended well, and I am still here. The other police did not take his gun out. He kept his hand on his gun, to make sure I guess, but he did not take it out, right? So that was a stopping, right?
I convinced him to let me walk over to my bag behind him and told him I needed to put my hands down so I could get my I.D. Then he put the gun down.
I said, “We do not need any guns here,” because we did not need guns there. I really felt that, but I also felt I had the ability to control and change that situation.
But all this happened by not responding with anger, fear, and a sense of worthlessness. When we are faced with very difficult situations, depending on how we feel about ourselves, we might allow someone to act in a way toward us, in a way that we feel we deserve to be treated. As a woman of color, I have noticed that as I continue to practice, my sense of who I am in this world has fundamentally shifted because part of taking control of the situation is feeling that you can, you are worthy of being present, and that what you say is valid.
There are all kinds of things that happen when we stop and find stillness. We find ourselves; we find value in who we are; we find peace. That all comes from stopping and looking. Unless we stop, we cannot look because we are moving too fast. There is too much stuff going on up here in this mind [in the head] and down here in the cells’ mind [in the body], but it is all going on together. What I remember is the force and the power and the control with which I said, “We do not need any guns here,” because we did not need guns there. I really felt that, but I also felt I had the ability to control and change that situation.
Now I could have gotten shot. This is true, but some part of me did not think so. Some part of me felt like this was unnecessary. I saw it all as unnecessary. I thought this man was acting with rage, and there was no need for a gun. You get lines of observation; you get distance [with this practice]. And there is something else you get from being able to have some stillness: I didn’t want him to do something that he would have regretted the rest of his life… and that’s love, right?
That is [metta] when you are helping someone not to do something that will cause them harm, right? This is love in action. We do not practice just for ourselves; we practice for every person whom we interact with. If there is a mindful presence in our interactions—that is the action you bring every time you communicate by phone, in person, or through email. That is what we bring, and we are offering something to the other person. We are changing the world because the way we bring ourselves into a space fundamentally shifts the energy and the dynamic in that space. There is no other way.
That is [metta] when you are helping someone not to do something that will cause them harm.
When people ask me, “How do you change the systems of oppression?”
I say, “Change yourself.”
Start looking at how you are moving through the world. If you bring anger and rage into those spaces because these systems are so oppressive, how do you think that those means are going to justify the ends for a more just world? In practicing, we bring a different way of doing the work of action and justice. In practicing, we are saying the means has to justify the end, and the only way we get to that end is through saying what we want and in a single step we make it toward this. What are the words we use when we go to protest?
Are we violating the person in front of us because they are a police officer?
If we work in a non-profit organization and work with people who do a lot of anti-gentrification work, do we call the developers terrible names because we think they are greedy? If they act in ruthless ways, as if they could not care less that they displace people over and over again, how do we engage? How do we practice this thing called peace? How do we practice this thing called love in a fundamentally real way every day in this world that we are moving through? How do we do this? How do we change this world?
Yeah, it is cool to say ‘Be the change you want to be,’ but what does that really mean when it comes right down to it? When we are faced with a difficulty, where we can actually shift the situation [of how to ‘be the change’]? Because we have the control [of how we respond in every situation] every single time, we have the control to change a situation if we are aware of what we bring into that situation. But if we are unaware, then we are as clueless as the person in front of us because we do not have the means to make this fundamental shift in a very peaceful way.
When we talk about where love and action meet, where spirit and action meet, when we think about what is justice, even when we think about what is injustice, I start thinking about how I participate in injustice in very small ways. It is easy for me to see the big injustices, the oppressive systems, and it is really easy to address that. But when we start coming back home to ourselves, to this very self, this Marisela and how she is moving in this world, doing that thing she says is about justice, how do I do that? How do I fundamentally do that in every single action?
So it’s this mindfulness thing, right?
This step, this walk – slowly take a breath. Closing the door behind you, and remembering the door is there before you go through it. Putting your shoes down and making sure they are lined up. By doing just that, [we change the world]. Can everybody leave here and every time you take your shoes off from now on, can all of you make sure that it is lined up? Because that is the practice of mindfulness. It does not get much deeper; it is not that profound. The effects are profound; what we take out of it and what we bring to the world when we are aware and present with what is in front of us is what changes because we do not do that now.
If we want to enact social change, let’s start changing by how we interact socially because most of the time we are not present, and we have so many things going on.
If we want to enact social change, let’s start changing by how we interact socially because most of the time we are not present, and we have so many things going on. How do we come back, how do we train ourselves, how do we come back to this breath? Remember the breath is there. We can only be present with the breath when it is here because the previous breath is gone, and the next one is not here yet.
When we are aware of that breath, we are present. How do we begin to fundamentally train ourselves to be following this peace so that when we meet those systems, aggressions and sufferings that we will meet just by walking down the street and someone cuts us off, how do we do it in that moment? Can we look at how we respond? [Can we see] what was the first thing that came to mind?
A Day of Mindfulness is precious right? Because we get to come back together as a community; we are are being supported and protected, and we are held by the energy of this community. It is training us and imprinting different things in these neuropathways so that when we go out, we may have a little bit more of a reminder the next time that person does cut us off, or we are late for a meeting and it is a really important meeting in our head. But that moment of remembering – that is justice there. It is how mindfulness becomes justice because the way you are going to interact in that meeting and talk about justice when you cut someone off or maybe thought some unkind things about someone, it is a contradiction. Isn’t it?
What I am challenging us to say is: let’s fundamentally shift the whole thing. It’s time; it’s really bad now, right? Things are crazy, and what are we going to do to change it? We can change policy, we can address laws, we can protest. And we can change ourselves.
I had another interaction with the police where I ended up in jail. I was so angry [for being pulled over for no legal reason] because I did not deserve that. Well, of course I did not deserve that, but I was so caught up in my anger. I could not take control of the situation. I let the situation control me, and that meant I let the other person’s uncontrollable anger, rage, and misperceptions of me affect me. In that situation we are playing off each [other’s anger], and we do not expect anything good will come of that because I am letting their perception of me control how I respond.
I got egged on by that, but when under control [in the first police interaction I described], I knew what was happening with those two white police officers; there was no time for anger. If I had gone to anger, it would have been jail and it might have been a bullet, but I did not go to anger. I thought, “This is a crazy situation. What am I going to do to handle it?” So I had a comparison: I have an angry Marisela, a calm Marisela, a Marisela in between, and it is all a continuum. It is all a process of where I am in my body, how much am I aware of what I am doing in that moment, and how present I am of what is happening in front of me. For me, it always comes back to the breath. If I can remember to breathe, it is a whole different space.
When we are present and we are touching our truest selves, it is going to be harder for us to act in unjust ways.
We talk about justice, we talk about being activists, we talk about wanting our action to be informed, we want it to be based on love, we want it based on peace. My challenge today to all of you is to really re-think that. I am sure some of you are probably already doing that profound thinking and for those of us who have not, we must do that because that is our healing; that is the healing we are going to share with others.
I think it is a challenge. It is difficult and I do not think it is easy because outside in the world, there is a completely different mindset of what justice means. But I feel that justice means love, and justice means mindfulness because mindfulness allows us to be present. When we are present and we are touching our truest selves, it is going to be harder for us to act in unjust ways. If we can act in less unjust ways and more ways of justice, that is what we are going to bring to every interaction we have. And that is social change.
So I am going to close here. Thank you for listening to me and for listening to Kaira Jewel.
Transcribed by Martina McNaboe