“I have spent much of my studies searching for the right question by which I might fully understand the breach between the world and me,” writes Ta-Ne“I have spent much of my studies searching for the right question by which I might fully understand the breach between the world and me,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me. “I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined.” These are unanswerable questions having to do with what it means to be a black man in the modern world — vague, wordless, nameless, indistinct, felt — but “the questions matter as much, perhaps more than, the answers.” In fact, “the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.”
Learning how to write means learning how to think. An award-winning journalist, Coates respects writing as a lifestyle choice, a means of investigation, even to the point of being a ruthless interrogation — “a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.” It means a commitment to never accept easy answers. “It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort,” cultivating this unwillingness to settle for happy endings. The goal then is not to discover a workable solution to our problems but rather to draw the world and its relation to oneself into consciousness, “see beyond the scramble of each day,” and find clarity.
In this autobiography, we travel Coates’s version of that path common to self-reflective writing, whether epistle or diary, which in its fullest range includes a cross-section of formative stories from youth; the books, role models, and heroes of growth into adulthood; and the sobering passage into parenthood, responsibility, and personal legacy. But this path takes on special significance here as it coincides with emerging from the narrow prospects of the streets. “The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books.” And the gap between knowing the phrasings of race in theory and a visceral understanding of the experience as fact is bridged in part through readings like this.
This book is certainly about the experience of race — of the wealth of diversities and the tragedy of stereotypes — and yet that's not the subject, as “nothing so essentialist as race stood between us.” No, this investigation has the courage to dig deeper into the very real yet largely unrecorded and for all intents and purposes forgotten centuries-long history of exploitation, torture, rape, and murder that ultimately encompasses everything from the elimination of indigenous cultures and ongoing human rights violations of First Nations populations north of the border down to the colonialist massacres and postcolonial marauding of the Central and South Americas but which found its most pernicious form in the US slave labor trade.
We are “living in the wake of a decimation,” and Coates depicts “the American galaxy” as “a moral disaster" where “the great American injury” and our collective shame, the demonic dragon terrorism of slavery, has been carried down through the generations as a heritage of “ancestral fear” and responses to power, an internalization of those forces and an embodiment of its violent brutality by lost girls and lost boys “enslaved by a tenacious gravity,” disembodied, “naked before the elements of the world,” victims of the unprotected world of ghettoization and “the culture of the streets” which is manufactured and enforced by “the machinery of criminal power” that lives on through criminal irresponsibility.
This is not an otherworldly mythology but an industrialized technology where black and white takes on calculable meaning, where “being named ‘black’ was just someone’s name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object” and “the quest to believe oneself white” is a persistent insistence on “the lie of innocence,” of being not personally implicated in our ongoing collective history, falling back on the it’s-not-my-faultness of “the politics of personal exoneration,” insulated by “the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact,” pretending that people do not experience automatic, unquestioned power over others as a fact of daily living.
Coates calls this villain “the Dream” and shines a hard light on the impossible distance between our beautiful white-washed pursuit of happiness and “humanity in all its terribleness” — the chasm between those comforting color-coded myths that preserve the social order and “the design flaws of humanity” responsible for its most inhuman corruptions. Recipients of this legacy, the Dreamers have refined it into a “casual wrath” of racism which hides behind claims of benevolence and piety, yet they “are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body.”
Among the saddest effects of systemic poverty and the ever-widening gap between the classes is its heritage of blinding people, of blindfolding them. On one side of the prison bars and ghetto walls hide panicked masses missing out on the humanity of the faces they fear — forgetting the history of the world they live in and the human cost of the hand that feeds them — and on the other side lives families brought up in the shadow of slavery’s cruel and violent heritage, “bound and blind” and scraping to survive, losing precious time and robbed of peace of mind.
In the end, Coates gives no hope for the planet or its inhabitants, as the squalling floods and swelling furnaces of climate change are the unavoidable destiny and shared damnation for the self-same sins of greed and superiority that brought slavery into the modern era. “It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age” — the plunder of the world, as of its people, has together created “the deathbed for us all.”
Writing, reflection, bringing our contradictions into consciousness and responding to them unflinchingly —such striving after awareness is not an answer, just a necessity. “You have to make your peace with the chaos.” There is no escape, and “we ultimately cannot save ourselves.” But “you are here now, and you must live.” And there is meaning in the struggle. “The struggle to understand is our only advantage over this madness” — this wisdom which took its earliest forms for Coates in surviving a life on the streets is “the key to all living.”
Perhaps one reason why Toni Morrison called this book “required reading” is because the journey out of “whiteness” for those seeking a more enlightened vision is the same as Coates’s journey through black nationalism as shared in these pages — “black power births a kind of understanding that illuminates all the galaxies in their truest colors.” It’s an opening of the eyes, of learning a respect for humanity as composed of individuals — particular, specific, active, and vast. “The power is not divinity but a deep knowledge of how fragile everything — even the Dream, especially the Dream — really is.”...more
The centerpiece of this inspiring set of essays is its namesake first chapter, a real page-turner of a Marxist critique of Machiavellian modern India,The centerpiece of this inspiring set of essays is its namesake first chapter, a real page-turner of a Marxist critique of Machiavellian modern India, the dystopian Leviathan incarnate where 100 people own 1/4 of the GDP through sprawling mine-pipeline-media-publishing-entertainment-infrastructure-sports-education conglomerates that include a diverse array of cars, hotels, foods, and cosmetics alongside steel plants, natural gas extraction, and monopolized telecommunications networks -- the world’s largest democracy having become the home of “obscene inequality” where more than 80 percent of the people live on less than fifty cents a day, where the new middle class of 300 million sits atop 800 million impoverished and dispossessed souls, “more poor people than all the poorest countries of Africa put together” -- a grand corruption and exploitation of the earth and its inhabitants facilitated by immoral, illegal, privatized, militarized robbery, repression, and massacre with police state arms reaching into the slums, villages, and forests of the world’s densest military occupation -- a parade of the Republic’s latest and greatest tanks and missles named after the Hindu gods Bhishma, Hanuman, Arjuna, and Vajra celebrated in the streets while 250,000 farmers are driven to suicide by crippling debt.
But it’s the second part of this essay’s argument that really spun me around. Starting at the turn of the twentieth century, we see how the globalized funding of academics, activism, and NGO activities through corporate-controlled philanthropy has gradually but inexorably fractured and defused the revolutionary will and narrowed the focus of its firebrands. The resulting domesticated, salaried “business” of human rights, liberal feminism, and special interests has become a microcosmic “atrocity-based analysis” divorced from the big-picture reality and the need for solidarity in the face of climate change and the mass migrations it will precipitate.
Old-fashioned grassroots, radical, progressive, militant anti-capitalism doesn’t stand a chance against the jobs-now demands and equality-now culture of “moderate” normality and “colonized ordinariness.” Especially not when the ultimate socialist goal is far beyond what mere “tinkering” with human rights and constitutional reforms could achieve -- the final essay, a speech to the Occupy Movement, outlines how universal access to shelter, health care, and education may necessarily go hand in hand with a hard cap on wealth and property; the public appropriation of family inheritances; and the total prohibition of corporate conglomerates and privatized resources....more
The Vision of Enlightenment in the Great Perfection
Sometimes it takes effort to become effortlessness. It takes practice to be simple, easy, and naturThe Vision of Enlightenment in the Great Perfection
Sometimes it takes effort to become effortlessness. It takes practice to be simple, easy, and natural. We meditate so that we can be calm the rest of the time, relaxed yet focused. The Dalai Lama is slow, methodical, and cautious when teaching the tradition. He advises us not to skip the preliminary steps, and to read deeply. So that, in the end, as the Dzogchen master Longchen Rabjam describes:
“Then a state of awareness arises, which is utterly inexpressible, Space-like, and beyond the ordinary mind. This is the clear light great perfection of bliss and emptiness, The nature of reality, radiant and inconceivable....
“By meditating on this day and night for several days, Your dreams will cease and you will see everything, inside and outside, Pervaded by the appearance of five-colored lights and The light of the moon, blazing fire, fireflies, stars, and so on....
"And you rest with your body and mind deeply relaxed. In that moment the stream of your thoughts ceases, And you remain in a state that is inexpressible by speech or thought. An experience arises that cannot be objectified and that is beyond the realm of ordinary thought....
"Final resolution entails lying on your back, breathing gently with the mind at ease. Not thinking of anything at all or clinging to anything whatsoever, Rest in the natural state, free from any conceptual elaboration, And you will achieve the great bliss of enlightenment without any hindrance."...more
In clear and relevant terms drawn from both ancient history and the computer age, this book explains what sets Dzogchen / Vajrayana / Mahamudgra apartIn clear and relevant terms drawn from both ancient history and the computer age, this book explains what sets Dzogchen / Vajrayana / Mahamudgra apart from other Buddhist philosophies -- a forgiving, accepting, and integrative approach to our inevitable experience of confusing human emotions that falls somewhat along the lines of Vipassana Yoga or Somatic Therapy:
"Instead of trying to stop it, let it come. Invite it more. Look at the nature of passion more nakedly. Look at the nature of aggression, look at the nature of ignorance, look at the nature of anything... That simple process of looking at it in every moment actually brings liberation on the spot."...more
We can best walk the “Middle Way” (or “Middle Path”) of the Buddhist tradition in the form of a continual meditation on emptiness – coming to understaWe can best walk the “Middle Way” (or “Middle Path”) of the Buddhist tradition in the form of a continual meditation on emptiness – coming to understand that things exist, but not in the way we think they do. They exit, but only arise through dependence on each other, having no inherent existence of their own.
This is a fine distinction, and parts of this book are devoted to discussing how various schools of thought in the Chinese, Indian, and Tibetan lineage (as well as those of other religions) view these principles in similar but crucially distinct ways. The Dalai Lama has worked with The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment for his whole life partly because its author “Tsong-kha-pa is unique in that he sets out to explain the hardest passages in the Indian texts.” But it is vitally important to have the correct philosophical framework if our meditation practice is to be an effective one that leads to insight and peace.
What the Dalai Lama describes is an ongoing practice of renunciation (of refutation, or even of deconstruction). “We have to take the form as we perceive it and then negate its inherent existence.” But the trick is “not negating too much or too little.” We must remember that the objects we encounter of course exist in reality, but not essentially. They may be materially real, but our perception is still illusional. This is true of objects, others, and the self.
“Among the origins of suffering,” the Dalai Lama tells us, “the real root is ignorance regarding the ultimate nature of reality.” This includes ignorance about the ultimate nature of ourselves. We make up stories to fill in the gaps, to feel like we know who or what we are. But grasping after a sense of self is the central source of suffering, just as seeking spiritual fulfilment in the material world is futile. Meditation on the emptiness of existence is the key. “Direct knowledge of emptiness is the only antidote powerful enough to eliminate the root of cyclic existence.”
However, this begs an important question. If our senses and perceptions are unable to give reliable knowledge of the essential nature of things, then how are we supposed to see this intrinsic emptiness? Again, this is the challenge of our practice. Meditating on this idea makes it more familiar to us and starts bringing real benefits: it softens the need to make sense of things; loosens the grip of our attachments and anxieties; shows our fears to be less significant than we imagine them to be; and frees our heart and mind to do the greater work of remaining peaceful and open in the present moment.
Cleansing and focusing our mind through meditation is therefore the way to bring the wisdom of discernment into alignment with the right path to our highest welfare. Cessation of these mental activities – the cyclic existence of our compulsions – is an end to the continual rebirth of our desires in new forms. It thereby promises to bring about a final liberation and nirvana in this lifetime. And once again, the correct view of emptiness is “the heart of the path” to this liberation.
Belief, ordinarily an act of faith, is here an act of intelligence, a directing of consciousness. Belief in a literal God or Buddha is not necessary – this is simply the way to transcend our limitations. “Faith here refers to confidence in the benefits of meditative stabilization,” the Dalai Lama tells us, “a sense of trust in what one is trying to accomplish.”
Even compassion is not an end in itself but a means to an end. If attachment to this world brings suffering, then the puzzle is how to keep engaging our heart while at the same time restraining our ego. Compassion becomes that key to moving beyond the prison of our own narrowness. Meditation on the suffering of others is the way to apply our heart to this world without getting caught up in self-interest or self-pity.
The Dalai Lama also tells us to meditate with the goal of fortunate rebirth in mind. Belief in reincarnation is not necessary – this is simply the way to renounce our attachments to this world while at the same time investing our energies in it. Meditate with the goal of liberation in mind – not a heavenly reward but a freedom from suffering which means quieting the longings and cravings that distract and dissipate our focus.
Meditate on the path to enlightenment as described by the Tibetan masters and dedicate the practice to the bodhisattvas. Becoming a Buddhist is not necessary – rather, building a sense of discernment in line with and dedicated to our gurus (including the wisdom of whichever religion we were raised under) is how to avoid the harms of negative thoughts and actions without cultivating the distractions of aversion, judgement, or preference.
But most of all meditate on emptiness – on how impermanence, change, and death is necessary and inherent. This brings the wisdom of the knowledge that everything is illusion, built up from our shared illusions. After all, this is our greater reality. We meditate on impermanence because that's what we experience constantly. Everything changes, passes on, goes away. Nothing remains except for our practice of meditation, for as long as we are fortunate enough to be alive to maintain it....more
This is a powerful group of essays, stories, plays, and poems about, among other things, the importance of awareness, especially of the value of margiThis is a powerful group of essays, stories, plays, and poems about, among other things, the importance of awareness, especially of the value of marginalized voices. The subject matter of inclusiveness in this case also helped me overcome the tendency to judge one piece as better or worse than its neighbors. The result was accepting and even embracing all entries in a way that's unique for a collection like this. For me it also opened up a greater appreciation of the innocence in Ensler's I Am an Emotional Creature and a deeper grasp of the importance of The Vagina Monologues.
Due to my previous reading I was most looking forward to the entries by Sharon Olds, Michael Eric Dyson, Edward Albee, Dave Eggers, Michael Cunningham, Jane Fonda, and Eve Ensler herself. It also boasts contributions by Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams. But I was most impressed and moved by the pieces by Winter Miller, Robin Morgan, Marie Howe, Mark Matousek, Moisés Kaufman, and Kathy Najimy, words and images that I hope will stay with me and grow stronger with future readings.
The majority of women and girls will escape the fate of many of the women and girls in this collection. They will never be sold, assaulted, raped, or mutilated. But the heart of darkness that perpetrates this evil, the primeval machine that profits on their frozen and broken souls, the business as usual attitude that banks on their daily and infinite loss is protected by a mind oblivious that enables the global attack on women's rights, bodies, lives, and potential – the repressive social forces that seek to rob us all of our freedom.
A Memory, a Monologue, a Rant, and a Prayer ends on a spiritual note, the hope for man's transformation from blind violence through compassionate grief to humble equality, the vow to view every woman as an enlightened being. Reading this book was life changing for me and invaluable for my heartfelt support of a local production of The Vagina Monologues as part of the V-Day movement. If this book and its public readings help spread the fire for what is right then it is a success. It has, and it is....more