In the spring of 1991 I co-taught a workshop called “Spirituality for Social Activists.” There were 100 social, political activists, and then there were ‘we spiritual teachers.’ We had planned the whole curriculum for five days, and we had scholarships to bring a lot of these people, because these people were out on the firing line. They were burning out because they’re dealing with incredibly frustrating situations all the time, and the question was whether a spiritual perspective could shift their consciousness enough to allow them to do a dance without getting burned up by it.
Around two days into it, the African American and the Latino groups formed a caucus and they stopped the whole game. They said, “No white people are gonna tell us how to run a workshop.” In a way, they disempowered us, and I went from being a teacher to not being a teacher in one swell poof. We spent several days figuring out where to go from there, because we had five days together, and now it was a free-for-all.
I learned that when they started to do that, I, in effect said, “Hey everybody, why are you busy making yourself separate? We are all one.” And they said, “Don’t give us this ‘we’re one’ bullshit. You have to honor our diversity.”
Now just listen for a second. That led me to hear something else. When I was doing an interview for this vastly expensive PBS series that we hope we’re all gonna see some day, one of the people I interviewed was a rabbi whose name is Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. He’s a real “meshuggeneh” rabbi, he’s way, way out there. My first question, as the camera roles, is “Zalman, if you were an Israeli, what would you say to a Palestinian?” He said, “Oy, Such a problem, Oy,” and then what he said next was so precious to me. He said:
“Before we can be together, we have to learn how to grieve with one another.” In other words, we have to hear each other’s pain and feel heard before we can be together.
Some of you have played fishbowl before. Everybody sits in a circle, and in the center of the circle are some spaces, and what we did was we had people that were feeling oppressed go in the center of the circle, and share with each other their oppression, the feelings of oppression, while the rest of us listened. So first, there were people of color that went in the center, and we all listened as they shared what it was like. We went through the incredible pain that many of these people had been through, and then they left, and the gay and lesbians came into center, and then women came into the center, and then white men came into the center, this was a far out one- what it meant to be oppressed by being part of that which is oppressing. In each case, we all listened, and as each person felt heard by everyone else they allowed themselves to become part of everybody else. It took until the fourth or fifth day before I could say, “We are in unity,” and everybody could say “Yes” and that was the process.
Can you hear that? It taught me a lot about not using the spiritual cop-out, up-level to avoid the pain. Instead, find the balance of listening to the separateness, hearing the unity that’s within the diversity, and honoring this balance.