Harsh Reality

vigil

“What?  This can’t be.  Oh, my God, this can’t be.  How could this be?  This can’t possibly be.  What are all of these overnight text messages about.  They are no longer celebratory, as they were last night.  This can’t be true.  Let me look at the internet.  Oh, my God.  Oh, my God.  Please, no.  Please, this can’t be.  So many people would suffer.  This is impossible.  How could Americans elect this person?  How could anyone vote for this man?  Please this is just a nightmare.  Let me wake up.  This can’t be.  Let me text back to some of the texts.  Please let it not be so.  It can’t be!  My God!  No, please, this can’t be! So many people would suffer!  The economy! Unchecked hatred!  Please say it is just a nightmare!”

Often before I start a new text for this blog, I write automatically for ten minutes. Writing automatically usually helps me to find an entry point, a theme, maybe even an idea for a structure, but today my mind remains scattered, dulled by its struggle to accommodate the new reality that my fellow Americans have elected Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States.

At Kierra Foster Ba’s workshop “Light & Shadow” last weekend, Kierra took us on a journey through the shadow aspects of each of the 5Rhythms—the shadow of Flowing, which is inertia; the shadow of Staccato, which is tension; the shadow of Chaos, which is confusion; the shadow of Lyrical, which is the quality of being spaced out; and the shadow of Stillness, which is numbness.  In addition, she introduced the idea that the shadows might have to do with the parts of ourselves we would rather keep hidden or disown completely.

After the workshop, I wrote feverishly, very much wanting to deliver a text on the shadows work of last weekend before Tuesday’s election results, realizing that no matter what happened, anything written before Tuesday would become automatically outdated.  Although I was very nervous, I wrote with the assumption that there would be a Hillary victory in the end, and, too, with the assumption that after the election that we would have to find ways to work with and address America’s unleased collective shadows of abject hatred and opportunism.

Before the election, my psyche simply could not accommodate the possibility that Donald Trump might actually win the election.  It was simply too surreal—too much the stuff of nightmares.  It simply could not be. Americans certainly would not go to such extremes, even in the face of anger and disempowerment, that we would actually elect such a person, someone who does not believe in and would threaten our very democracy, who is the confirmed perpetrator of countless, outrageous crimes and abuses, possibly even of rape.

The lively activity at my polling place in Brooklyn made me feel like Hillary would surely win.  The better the voter turnout, I argued in my head, the more likely she would prevail.  I brought my six-year-old son along with me, regaling him with stories of when Obama was first elected—the long, happy lines to vote; and after the results came in, the streets filled with celebration, people thronging Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I lived at the time.  I told him excitedly, “This is a moment you will always remember, when we voted for the first woman president!”

The memory of the first 5Rhythms class I attended after Obama was elected in 2008 seemed like a totally different lifetime.  It was Tammy’s Friday Night Waves class.  For days, I had been walking around the city sobbing for joy.  It would hit me, buying a tea, waiting for the walk sign, standing on the subway.  Talking with everyone.  Beaming.  Not only had we—a nation built with the blood and sweat of slaves—elected a Black man, but we had elected an ethical, competent, intelligent leader, who was intent on building consensus, examining the minutiae of evidence on the many matters that faced him, and with the stated intention—and possibly the skill—to extend the prosperity that a small number of Americans enjoyed to a larger portion of society.  That was the first time since I was a baby in a leaf pile playing with my parents, that I had ever moved in pure joy.  The room was filled with a different kind of vocalization than what we experienced in class this week—hooting and hollering that moved through the air in waves of its own.  We were a glowing mess, drenched, crying, leaping many feet off the ground, the entire wood floor bouncing, the music getting louder and louder.  It was paradise.  I couldn’t believe how lucky I was—to be alive in this time, to be part of this seismic shift, this uncontainable joy.

A few sleepless, dark morning hours after learning the results (during which my son and I sat on a meditation cushion together, my stomach in knots, him reading quietly or practicing meditation along with me) one of the people I am closest to—a Black and Latino man—entered the house.  He shared an opinion that I have since heard echoed by more than one person of color—that this was no surprise, and that “Black people in America have been dealing with this level of hatred and injustice all along.   Now, it is just out in the open.”  He also reminded me that his joy when Obama was elected had been mitigated by his prediction that there would be a monstrous backlash after Obama’s term.

Since the election, hate crimes have surged, according to the New York Times, USA Today, CNN and a long list of reputable sources.  “Make America White Again” has been scrawled on a whiteboard in a University of North Florida library, and in countless other places countrywide.  My father told me with grave consternation that there had been a KKK rally in my parents’ small town in Northern Connecticut, to my knowledge an unprecedented event.

During and after the “Light & Shadow” workshop, I grappled with the concept of ground, wondering if in clinging to the idea of ground, I might be limiting my perception of reality.  Kierra sought to share her insight, and an insight likely shared by Gabrielle Roth—the creator of the 5Rhythms practice—that the ground is always there; and that it is possible to find the ground even in an earthquake.  Instead of only finding the ground in Flowing, where we traditionally establish it, Kierra lead me to also consider finding it through releasing into Chaos.  My idea of “the ground” as Gabrielle Roth intended it continues to evolve, but I realize that the idea of ground is compatible with the realization that absolutely everything is in constant, dynamic flux; and that there is truly nothing to cling to.  The ground is the foundation, from which we hear and trust our instinctive, physical selves, and from which we come to trust the fundamental correctness and workability of reality.  Truly, finding the ground and being at ease through releasing into Chaos is a powerful tool, as we seek to navigate (at minimum) the next four years.

Driving alone to a 5Rhythms class, my first since the election, I bawled and keened, my face contorted, tears streaming down my cheeks to the point that my skin actually started to itch from all of the salt.  My mind raced, “Would I choose to leave the US?  What steps would I have to take?  Is there anywhere in the western world that is exempt from this impulse toward xenophobia and aggression, this reaction to globalism?  Should I stay and be part of the resistance?  What would the resistance be?  What would happen to all the people without insurance?  Would my son be safe from racism, hatred and violence?  Would New York City be safe, once Trump started provoking countries around the world?  Would I lose my job as a result of recession?  Would my friends lose their jobs?  Would all of my parents’ lifelong hard work for social justice be wiped away, just as they are growing old, beginning to tally their contributions?  Would they lose heart and lose faith?  Would I?  Do all of the people who voted for Trump hate women?  Do all of the people who voted for Trump hate me?  Do they all think that the sexual trauma I have suffered in my own life is no big deal and that the pain I have struggled with for a lifetime is just someone’s lark—locker room pranks—without accountability?  And how, in this crazy world, would I counter this monstrous influence on my small son?  Is there any way to protect him?”  I had no schema for any of this.  Through years of diligent practice, I had developed powerful faith in the basic goodness of human beings.  How could I reconcile these seemingly contradictory realities?

Arriving at class, I took my time to enter the studio, noticing the powerful ritual of stepping from the world into the space of formal practice.  I was not wracked by grief.  There was no catharsis, as I had in a way hoped for.  Instead, the group moved through the first wave, breathing in and out, trying our best to release into Flowing and then into each of the other rhythms.  I noticed that my version of Flowing was agitated, and I made an effort to slow down, to let it in.  To let in the reality of my stress and grief-wracked body, and the reality of the outcome of the election, which I still could not fully grasp.  Staccato barely arrived in this first wave, finding me fumbling, unsure of my feet for once, disassociated, perhaps still in the throes of shock despite my stated willingness to let in. Chaos was loud and energetic, though mental activity continued to churn, in disjointed snippets and unruly threads.  The tiniest hint of Lyrical emerged, and it crossed my mind that somehow I would have to find a way to let joy in, too, despite everything, or I would lose four years of my life, perhaps even causing an atrophy of joy that I would not recover from.  I reminded myself that expressing joy is not an intrinsic affront to suffering, and that being miserable, angry or sad wouldn’t help me to control anything.  It would just make me miserable or angry or sad.  Whether I find Lyrical or not—the situation is very much outside of my control.

On Wednesday morning, arriving to work, I went straight to my one strong work ally.  Hugging him, I sobbed.  Although there were a few people there who were also devastated by the results of the election, I felt very alone, both at work and in the context of the country.  On parting, I said, “This is a call to arms.  We must each become a warrior of the heart.  That is our only hope at this point.  As of today, any kindness is now an act of political resistance.”

At the class, I felt like a whole layer of neurosis had become outdated, along with everything else that happened before November 8, 2016.  Most of the people I was moving with were allies, and could be trusted.  Petty irritations seemed extra pointless, considering the need to build community.  Despite this, some irritations did arise, and I wondered if they were a last sprint of a certain kind of ego, or if they might be a way for my psyche to work on some things that I couldn’t manage to confront directly.

In the interim between the two waves, I sat leaning in a little pod with a small group of friends who happened to be seated near me; then, began to flow back-to-back with one friend, at first just gently swaying from side to side.  I was still disassociated and not capable of fully releasing to ground, but did my best to show up for my friend and for myself.  Eventually gaining our feet, we moved around each other with great energy, then smiled thankfully, beginning to move separately throughout the room.  I spent part of this wave considering disaster preparedness, with a long list of specifics, despite the shared intention to really see each other, to really give to each other.  In Staccato, I found ferocity in bursts, but still felt disassociated.  I partnered with one friend, and marveled at her fire.  Inspired, I grew gigantic, too, forcing it ever so slightly, trying it as an experiment, an intention, rather than as my full expression in that moment.  Even so, I recognized the need to step up in every way, to step into my power, to help the people around me to step into their power, to organize, to defy, to build community, to speak, to listen, to offer, to receive.

Today, as I write, I have a bone infection in my jaw.  It is incredibly painful.  Instead of succumbing to self-pity, I remind myself that there are many people around the world who at this very moment are also experiencing excruciating dental pain.  Maybe also on top of other kinds of pain, too. The great Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron teaches a Tibetan meditation practice called Tonglen.  In Tonglen, instead of resisting or pushing away pain, negativity or other afflictive emotions, we breathe them in.  Then, we breathe out equanimity, positivity and pleasant emotions. In the process, we work against our conditioned impulse to push away what threatens us, frightens us, or rocks our fundamental notions of who we are.  In doing so, we transform our relationship to aversion—the energetic pushing away or non-acceptance of things we usually can’t escape anyway.  An aspect of Tonglen that acts as a counter to despair is that we remind ourselves again and again that we are not alone, that whatever pain we are experiencing, there are countless others who feel or have felt the same pain.  As such, it is impossible not to call to mind the billions of people who suffer or have suffered under the leadership of corrupt, greedy, dishonest or incompetent leaders.  I am not alone.  We are not alone.

I have been very careful to write about the nation as “we,” though it is a stretch for me at this moment.  One sneaky form of aversion is setting up a group of people as “others” who are distinct from “us.”  This is a fundamental premise of postmodern identity politics and of post-colonial theory—the idea that in order to construct ourselves a certain way, we set up groups of people as “others” as a counterpoint to the “us.” It is like we can only have an identity by defining who does not have our identity, excluding certain people from our experience completely. I am using “we,” and thinking of the many complex causes that gave rise to this moment, rather than succumbing to the temptation to simply revile Trump’s supporters to make them “other.”  Truly, this is a phenomenon that all of us have participated in producing.  This place we find ourselves is not an anomaly, and is not simply the result of someone else’s misconduct.

The Black and Latino man I wrote of earlier and who is one of my most important allies again shared his thoughts on the current political moment, reminding me very much of the teachings on the shadow aspects of the 5Rhythms.  He said, “The thing is, people of color have always known it was this bad.  It always has been.  The good thing is that we know that the only way to change things is to first actually accept how bad things are.  That’s the thing that white people just haven’t realized; and that’s why so many people are so shocked.  It is only when we can really accept what is actually happening that real change can finally occur.”

Gabrielle Roth often expressed that the rhythm of our time is Chaos.  As volatile as it inevitably has been, she believed that our era is also marked by possibility and creativity.  I try to imagine what she would say now, if she were still alive.  Perhaps that no matter what, we have to keep moving.  Perhaps that to shut down and lock up would be the real death of us.  Perhaps that the best way to work with Chaos is to release directly into the middle of it.  Perhaps that, ultimately, nothing and no one can take away our freedom or peace of mind, unless we ourselves allow it.

Rending, guttural screams flew through the space as we moved in Chaos.  I found the floor, pulsing vigorously through my middle back, on my hands and knees and crouched into the hips with my pubis almost touching the ground, then I would leap and spin, finding all the while stops and edges inside my own maelstrom.  The friend who was so ferocious in Staccato moved with just as much vigor right next to me.  I moved to the floor and up from it, leaping quickly, perhaps in a primal defensive gesture, landing first in a deep squat, bursting upward, my head a car on the speeding rollercoaster of my spine, then moved back to the ground.  I remembered Kierra’s words about releasing into Chaos, and as the rhythm played out I found more softness, less edge.  If I was tempted to check myself out of this intensity, I reminded myself of the critical importance of releasing to Chaos as a tool for survival.

Lyrical came, too, and then Stillness.  I partnered with a friend who I love to dance with, and we beamed as we moved together, more expansive than in our past dances.  High up on my toes and both finding discrete patterns, we played in and out of each other’s orbits.  In Stillness, I moved unselfconsciously, pulling away from a friend who wanted to partner, giving myself a quiet moment to turn inward.

Though there will be times that we all need to turn inward, community has become critical.  Right before the election, I had invited several friends to a series of dinner parties because I had realized the need to re-focus my priorities on the people around me, rather than on my very stressful job.  Now, after the election, having a way to gather together and cultivate our relationships seems even more important—in fact, like a matter of emotional and political necessity.

At the height of dental pain, I decided to take a yoga class.  I reasoned that I would try it, and if it was impossible I would just leave.  The pain was an 8 or 9 on a scale of 1-10 most of the time, but at moments it receded to the back of my mind, as I attended diligently to the poses and to the breath.  I was surprised that I made it through the entire class, despite the pain.  The teacher, who I trust deeply, said, “It might be hard to hear this right now, but the truth is that we are made for these times.  This is what we have been practicing for.”

On Saturday, I attended a candlelight vigil and rally at Fort Greene Park, where thousands of all races, classes, ages, religions and orientations came together to affirm our commitment to oppose injustice and hatred in all its manifestations, to affirm our commitment to love, and to support each other in resisting the temptation to feel isolated or incapacitated.  A heartful voice sang out, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…” We all joined in, raising our candles in the falling night.  My voice was ragged, the words barely coherent.  A friend from the neighborhood I hadn’t realized was right next to me turned and embraced me.  I looked to my other side and saw another friend—this one from college in Boston—and I turned and kissed her cheek.

We are not alone, my loves.  We are in this together.  In the words of the woman whose light guides me, the woman who continues to show my heart the way, Gabrielle Roth, “There is only one of us here.”

November 13, 2016, Brooklyn, NYC

(Image is a photo I took at the “Vigil for Hope & Human Kindness” that took place in Fort Greene Park on November 12, 2016)

This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.

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