Monday, December 23, 2019

The Unhealed Wound

How One Unity Minister Broke the Silence and Started the Brave Conversation About Race

Wendy was restless. On the surface she had everything – a great marriage, a beautiful family, and a long, successful career as the senior and founding minister of The Unity Center in San Diego, California. And still, no matter how many lives were changed for the better by the Unity teachings she taught and by the beloved community she shepherded, it wasn’t enough. There was unfinished business. With every book she read, with every documentary she watched, with every deep and honest conversation she had with both her black and white congregants it became increasingly clear – there was a hidden wound we in the New Thought community weren’t doing enough about: the wound of racism.
            She decided to do something about it. Her conviction to act came out of a bedrock Unity principle – that we create our life experiences through our way of thinking. If we in Unity and the larger New Thought community are serious about that principle, then it is of paramount importance that we examine our thinking in ways we never have before. Especially when it comes to hidden, unconscious bias.
            Like a lot of Unity and New Thought ministers, Rev. Wendy Craig-Purcell’s lessons from the pulpit often centered on cognitive or psychological dynamics – how our thinking affects our lives. Drawing from a wide variety of sources – world scripture, scientific journals, and her own spiritual experience – Wendy built a case, Sunday by Sunday, for the rectitude of living the examined life; that if we really want to awaken and contribute meaningfully to an awakening world, we must be willing to exhume our deepest and most hidden thought-structures, drag them out into the light, and let go of any thinking that no longer serves our highest good.
            Racism is the crisis that never seems to go away. No matter how much progress we make, and the progress is real, there are still dangerous undercurrents flowing through the American heart that threaten to drown us all. And the message Wendy received from the African American members of The Unity Center was clear. White people are the ones that have the best chance to change the whole game. Wendy got to work.

An Incomplete Education
            My wife Lori and I jumped at the chance to join a white ally group that Wendy was forming. Twelve of us gathered in her home early last year. We sat in a circle and looked at each other, not knowing what would unfold over the next five months. But we were willing. And that’s the biggest piece.
            In preparation for our first meeting Wendy had us read Waking Up White by Debby Irving. Irving’s memoir does a remarkable job, largely through confession, of delineating the extent of both structural racism and white privilege. In the same way that fish do not know what water is, white people are generally unaware that they benefit from unearned privilege simply by virtue of the color of their skin. I began to see it everywhere. As a straight white male I’m treated differently on the car lot, at the bank, by the police, and at job interviews. But don’t take my word for it. There are decades of research documenting the unconscious bias we all have, and the devastating impact this has on people of color.
            We also watched documentaries like 13th, Ava DuVernay’s essential film about the tenacity of racial inequity. When the Civil War and slavery ended, white supremacists simply changed their tactics, finding new, cruel, and innovative ways to keep African Americans oppressed. It’s disorienting and worse to realize how little you know about the real history of America. I kept thinking about that line from the Tao Te Ching: “The more you know, the less you understand.”
As we learned about black codes, work gangs, Jim Crow, sundown towns, inequities in the G.I. Bill, redlining, and racial disparities in arrest, conviction, and incarceration rates, it became painfully clear that many of the structures of American society were intentionally designed by white supremacists to benefit themselves and harm people of color. And that I and every other white person had unwittingly benefited from these structural advantages, even if we had no hand in creating them.

What Racism Is and Is Not
            White allies are used to being angry about racism. Some of us even take comfort in a sense of moral superiority over those we consider less enlightened. So it was particularly transformative to begin to realize that racism is not so much a moral failing as it is a cognitive error. In a way that’s good news. We can drop the moral condescension and simply work to expand everyone’s understanding, including our own, about the pervasive and destructive nature of unexamined implicit bias.
            That’s why Wendy introduced Dr. David Campt’s White AllyToolkit into the curriculum of our white ally work. Dr. Campt is a nationally-recognized leader in dialogue training with a long resume of ground breaking work in both the private and public sector. The underlying premise of the White Ally Toolkit is that the only thing that’s going to move us out of our centuries-long entrenchment in racist consciousness is honest, compassionate, and empathy-based dialogue with our “racism skeptic” white friends, relatives, and co-workers.
            Racism skeptics run the gamut from explicit white supremacists to ordinary white people unaware of their implicit biases. Racism skeptics comprise 55% of white America. They believe that racism is no longer a significant problem. They express the view that talking about racism makes racism worse, and that we ought to “just move on.” They say things like “I don’t see color.” So this is where white allies must focus their work – on their racism skeptic friends, family members, and co-workers. If we could bring even a small percentage of these folks out of their skepticism and into racism awareness, real change would unfold.

The R.A.C.E. Method
            It starts with conversations. Dr. Campt suggests a four step process called the R.A.C.E. method.
            First, reflect. Make sure you’re emotionally ready to begin this challenging work. Come out of judgment, drop all your arguments, and don’t try to win. Bite your tongue, get ready to do some deep listening, and use your compassion and empathy to find common ground.
            Second, ask. If your racism skeptic friend says something problematic like, “I don’t see color. I don’t have a racist bone in my body. I judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin just like MLK said,” then you might say something like, “O.K., that’s interesting, tell me more about that. Tell me an experience you had that leads to you think that.” (It’s key that you lead them away from their beliefs and toward a story about a specific experience that led them to have that belief.) They might tell you about a project they just completed with their black colleague at work, and about how well they get along
            Third, connect. Mirror their story by describing a great relationship you have with a person of color at work. Now, your friend’s worldview is not under attack, so he has no need to get defensive. You’ve established an empathetic bond. When we talk about our beliefs and opinions, we argue. When we talk about our stories, we connect.
            Fourth, expand. Now it’s time to gently lead your friend out of their racism skepticism, not by citing statistics or quoting studies, but with another personal story. Here you might tell them a story about a time when you caught yourself being biased. You might say something like, “So one time this black guy in a hoodie came into the store where I work, and for a second I got a little nervous. But then I saw that he had his baby in one of those slings around shoulders, and he was just buying some diapers and formula. Man did I feel like an idiot. Here I am this open-minded guy, or so I thought. I mean, I’m not a racist right? And still this unconscious bias leaped up out of nowhere.” And with any luck, your friend is nodding his head. He’ll probably share a similar story. By using self-disclosure, empathy, and compassion, you’ve enticed him to admit his own unconscious, implicit bias. He’ll take this with him. It is slow work, but it’s powerful, and when done properly, truly transformative.

What it Takes
            What it takes is leadership. For years Reverend Wendy has been building programs at The Unity Center designed to draw her congregants from the inherently interior work of spiritual practice toward the challenging application of our insights and principles in the field of action. Her “Brave Conversations” initiative brought a large group of African American congregants into Wendy’s home to explore paths forward (an effort out of which the white allies groups were born). Her “Muslim Outreach” initiative built ongoing interfaith dialogue and joint activities with a neighboring mosque. Her “Bolder Together” initiative brings Unity, CSL, and other New Thought ministers into her home to form coalitions committed to meaningful social justice action and community service. With these programs and others, Wendy is teaching us how to wield our time-tested Unity and New Thought principles as tools of transformation.
            If we are serious about both our own awakening and the awakening of the world, then it is time to come out of our privileged timidity, safety, and comfort and practice being bolder together with the fullness of our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls. To no longer just witness suffering, but to be party to its diminishment and end. This is where our spiritual work has been leading us. It is time to finish the job. Our compassion demands it.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Wisdom in a Post-Truth World

I’ve been a philosophy professor for 29 years. One of the central projects in philosophy is the task of establishing meaningful and accurate criteria for truth. What makes one claim true and another one false?
            My students are very interested in this question. We should be too. Especially these days.
            A fundamental trust has been broken. A growing number of us no longer trust scientific consensus, well-established research methods, or even the very notion of expertise. Political leaders, corporate spokesmen, and agenda-driven zealots lie with such numbing regularity that many of us have simply given up. Maybe there’s no such thing as truth. Maybe it’s all just opinion.      
This is bad. Philosophy can help.
            In philosophy, truth is defined as justified true belief. Anyone can have a belief. No evidence is needed. You can believe whatever you want, say, that the earth is flat, or that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, or that vaccines cause Autism – three propositions for which there is no credible evidence. (It is a curious phenomenon that the absence of evidence excites conspiracy theorists. They cite the absence of evidence as evidence of a cover-up – the scarcer the evidence, the more effective the cover-up, or so they believe.)
            But a justified true belief is different. A belief rises to the level of truth when two criteria are met. First, is the belief supported by evidence that informed, rational people would accept? Second, and this may seem obvious, but is it true? Does the claim match real events, circumstances, and conditions? If both standards are met, we’ve got ourselves a truth.
            When the Internet was born a few decades ago applications like Google and YouTube revolutionized our search for knowledge and truth forever, in good and bad ways. The good news was that now all of us had unfettered access to information previously curated and meted out by gatekeepers. The bad news is that those gatekeepers were peer-reviewed journals, credentialed journalists, and accredited educational institutions committed to the global good. Now we’re drowning in a sea of contradictory truth claims cooked up by literally anyone with a laptop and a modem.
You watch a little YouTube, read a few blogs, haunt a chat room, and suddenly you’re deluded into arguing as a peer with your pediatrician about your children’s vaccinations. You have come to believe that your pediatrician – a well-respected professional with decades of peer-reviewed training, education, and expertise – has been duped by Big Pharma into injecting toxins into your baby. But you see through the lies.
            What parent doesn’t want to protect their child? And questioning authority is always a good idea – consensus alone does not confer truthfulness. But replacing time-tested standards for the establishment of truth with egocentric, fear-based beliefs is dangerous.
            All of this is just a starting point. Missing from our inquiry are the transcendent, mystical truths most often discussed in spiritual circles. Here, another sort of epistemology is required, for the rules of logic, evidence, and rational discourse no longer apply. The great philosophers and mystics of the world – Plato, Plotinus, Shankara, Nagarjuna – all agree that there are levels of knowing beyond reason that elude the grasp of the conceptual mind. These transcendent truths are best understood as ineffable experiences, not thoughts, yet they still retain all the authority and transformational power of the best, well-reasoned ordinary truths. Wisdom means living in both realms – ordinary and transcendent knowledge – and integrating them into a meaningful, truth-based life.

[This piece originally appeared in my column "A to Zen" in the January/February 2020 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A Light in the Dark

According to Albert Einstein, the most important question facing humanity is, “Is the universe a friendly place?”
Do you believe the universe is abundant, generative, safe, and nurturing? Or do you believe the universe is characterized by scarcity, conflict, selfishness, and danger? The portrait you choose, he argued, shapes the entire arc of your life.
            Beneath this inquiry is the bedrock truth that we do not see the world as it is – we see the world as we are. Our preconceptions shade everything we see. When Hamlet said to Rosencrantz, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” he was affirming the fact that none of us has the objective perspective we think we do. Pure objectivity is impossible. We see the world through a grid of presumptions, some of them self-wrought, most of them built into the structures of consciousness by cultural conditioning.
            But let’s look at the fuller scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet for an even subtler idea. The jaded Danish king is talking with his trusty sidekicks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and as he often does, he pours his guts out to his two confidants.      
Hamlet asks his friends, “What brought you here to this prison?”
            “Prison?” asked Rosencrantz.
            “Prison, my lord?” asked Guildenstern.
            “Denmark’s a prison,” said Hamlet.
            “Then the world is one,” said Rosencrantz.
            “A goodly one,” Hamlet replied, “in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one of the worst.”
            “We think not so, my lord,” said Rosencrantz.
            “Why, then, ‘tis none to you,” Hamlet replied, “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.”
            Shakespeare’s famous line “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” is often misunderstood as an affirmation of moral relativism. But it is not an ethical proclamation. It is a purely a cognitive one. Our preconceptions shape our truth more than any real-world evidence. To Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Denmark is perfectly lovely. For Hamlet it’s hell. How can one phenomenon, Denmark, elicit two such different responses?
            One could ask the same question about so many things – Christmas, Trump, Nickelback. Why do some people love these things, while others don’t?
            The answer lies in human evolution. Over tens of thousands of years our brains have developed coping mechanisms for the bewildering array of stimuli each moment brings. These cognitive shortcuts are, at first anyway, enormously helpful. We wouldn’t be able to think at all without our biases.
            As we view the world, each new experience is quickly processed through the memory database and categorized. We don’t truly understand this new thing – we simply shove it into a conceptual box of seemingly similar things. This “fast thinking” as some psychologists call it is quick, dirty, and effective. But there’s a downside. Our hasty generalizations blind us to the subtleties and realities of this new experience.
            In junior high I was intimidated by a bully named Jesse Sanchez. He wore jeans and perfectly pressed white T-shirts with creases in the sleeves. His black hair was slicked back with what appeared to be Vaseline. He and his sidekick would lurk in the boy’s bathroom and mug other kids for their lunch money. He was a terrifying presence – I didn’t understand him. His very existence filled me with dread. Life took on the quality of a nightmare. How, I wondered, could people be so irrationally cruel? 
            Despite the fact that I had had countless positive interactions with Latinx friends and classmates all through my schooling years, this one experience was so overwhelming that for many years after I carried with me the bias that Chicanos were terrifying. It wasn’t rational – it was visceral. It was fast-thinking. Whenever I saw a guy who looked anything like him I was triggered, and suddenly I was that terrified 7th grader again. I still clench up a bit whenever I enter public restrooms. And that was 50 years ago.
            The only cure for the disease of unconscious bias is slow thinking, the deliberate decision to be humble, question your assumptions, and come up out of your fear into the bright sunshine of the real world. I understand it all so differently now. Jesse Sanchez was a victim too. He struggled under systemic racism and a dominant culture that every day diminished his value and his humanity. His resentment against white kids like me had a cause. Maybe there was cruelty at home. Maybe he was tormented by bullies too. Maybe the very system that privileged me modeled for him cruelty, indifference, and the infliction of pain. I slowly came to understand the deeper truth: wounded people wound, and complex human behavior has complex, multidimensional causes. The story was so much richer than a cartoonish dichotomy of victim and villain.
            No matter who you are, no matter how free you think you are, you see the world through unconscious biases. Denying them only makes them stronger. The path to freedom, knowledge, and forgiveness begins with humility and self-awareness. And as we wake up, the whole world awakens.
            When Einstein asked the question, Is the universe a friendly place? he was saying something really important: that our starting points, our cognitive frame, our guiding principles, give birth to everything else. Reality is not a single, monolithic thing – it’s many things at once. And how you choose to see it shapes the quality and character of your life. If we believe the universe is a dark and miserable place then we live in perpetual fear and use our considerable creativity to construct systems and weapons that perpetuate misery. If we believe the universe is light-filled and beautiful, then we live in perpetual faith and use our considerable creativity to construct systems that institutionalize compassion. The fate of the world literally depends on how we perceive it.
            No matter how dark it gets, light a candle. A single flame destroys the darkness. Be the flame, and witness how your light emboldens others to light their flames too. Soon the world is awash with light. Never listen to the people who say it can’t be done. Align your hearts with the people who doing it.
            Deep down Jesse Sanchez and I are the same. We want the same things. But his was a world of scarcity and conflict. In his mind, the only way to get power was to take it from those who had it. We were both victims of a system neither of us created, and of our own cognitive distortions. To him I was the enemy, and he mine. Both of us were wrong. Neither of us then knew that we were, deep down, a light in the dark. We just didn’t know how to be.