In this poignant teaching originally recorded at Omega's Being Fearless Conference in 2017, best-selling author and mindfulness teacher Rhonda Magee honors her African-American heritage and discusses mindfulness for social justice.
She also leads a 6-minute standing meditation practice (skip to 25:09) that celebrates the stories that make up your own unique heritage.
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Welcome to Dropping In from Omega Institute. I'm Cali Alpert. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our Rhinebeck New York campus is temporarily closed, but we're still here for you. Now instead of dropping in on campus in real-time, we're dropping into our treasure trove of audio archives to offer you talks, teachings, and practices from some of Omega's most memorable workshops and conferences.
In this poignant 24-minute teaching, originally recorded at Omega's Being Fearless Conference in 2017, best-selling author and mindfulness teacher Rhonda Magee honors her African-American heritage. She discusses mindfulness for social justice and identity-based suffering. Later, Rhonda leads you in a six-minute standing practice that celebrates the stories that make up our families before closing with a powerful excerpt from Toni Morrison. So put aside some time for yourself, get comfortable, make sure you're not behind the wheel and drop in.
I want to thank Jon Kabat Zinn, my friend and teacher, and all of you for being here, certainly Omega for inviting me to be with you. I'm going to talk a little bit about the theme, the work for all of us, living fearlessly with identity-based suffering. Does anybody know what I'm talking about when I say something about identity-based suffering? We're going to do a little bit to kind of unpack that in the little brief time that we have, that I have the privilege of standing here. What I'm hoping is some of what I'll say to you and invite reflection on will really speak to you. Speak to that aspect of your own experience that tells you something about what it means to experience suffering based on our identities.
By identity, you know, this is a word that psychologists and others use, we use it in certain ways. I'm using it to sort of tap into or point toward the various ways that on the social plane—and we know that as Jon and other wisdom teachers have always taught us, who we are is so much bigger and beyond these narratives of self that wrap up around the packaging through which we engage the world as gendered, cisgendered female in my case, racialized as African-American or Black, identities around religion, around immigration status or country of origin.
There are so many different ways that on this sort of relative plane of our existence in human society, we have been invited to kind of almost reductionistically really reduce ourselves to these stories of who we are. And so, part of what I've been working to do is to bring these beautiful practices of mindfulness that have been the core contribution of Jon Kabat Zinn and many, many others who have been bringing mindfulness into the world, into the American context for the last generation or so.
But really I want to open this up a little bit more because mindfulness is one set of practices. They are beautiful and they have been well-researched so we can stand in confidence knowing that there's some efficacy there, if we need that. Some of us can sort of experience it and know that it's a value, but there's also research that supports us knowing that there's real value in the time that we take to sit in mindfulness and to develop our capacity to be present, and to respond rather than react.
All kinds of studies show us the great benefits, psychologically, health-wise, socially with developing emotional intelligence and being able to regulate our emotions in times of great distress. So mindfulness practice is actually my core practice in many ways. And yet, I come from a tradition of many different kinds of practices that are, I think, allied with or share much in common with these beautiful practices of mindfulness. So what I want to do is I'm going to ask your support here. Because I'm actually going to introduce something that I haven't ever done before, but I've been inspired, let me just say that, by the beautiful presentations last night. And by your presence to actually introduce something that I've been reflecting on a way of really inviting us into engagement with a practice of awareness that has roots in this country, that has roots in the African-American experience in this country.
And that I think can help us expand our capacities to look in our own histories. Each of us has a different lineage, so to speak. Each of us have people who have inspired us on the path that we are following into this space. Some of those are members of our own family, our own heritage group, and some are we've reached out and realized that we are connected. We have a community of teachers that expands well beyond the particular heritage group we come from. But I do want to kind of invite a deeper reflection on these ideas of who we are.
Spending some time. if you will. with the social dimensions of who we are. And I want to invite it in part by sharing a particular kind of practice, again, rooted in the African-American experience. Some of you know, if you've heard me present before that I name as one of my earliest teachers, my own grandmother, who when I was a very little girl in my family was going through the stress of what would be a divorce. I spent a lot of time living with my grandmother, who unlike myself, somebody who has benefited from the transformation of society that some of you may have fought for. We call it the civil rights movement. But really it was a heartful, ground-up call to live our way into the promises of this democracy that actually transformed things for many, many people.
I wouldn't be here if we hadn't actually gotten ourselves organized. Many of you, some of your ancestors, fathers, sisters, brothers, spiritual teachers actually made change, demanded change, walked with Martin Luther King and the many other advocates for change in the 60s, sat with him, kneeled with him and demanded that this society actually live up to its promises. It's because of those efforts that then caused the law and policy to change that I'm here. My grandmother, born in 1906 in Kinston, North Carolina, was not allowed to have an education, a formal education really much past the second grade. Born in the South, in the throes of really entrenched segregation, what we call Jim Crow. The path before her really was quite limited.
People like her, that sort of strata of the African-American community in that era, in that place, we're still consigned to live and play out the roles that had long been designated for African-Americans in a caste-like way. So my grandmother, Nanny Suggs, cleaned houses for people during the period that I knew her. And before that, she worked as a sharecropper. But every morning during that when I knew her in a later part of her life, she would get up before dawn and practice her devotional meditations, prayers.
She wouldn't call it mindfulness, but it was her way of grounding herself in a sense of her own deep value and worth. A sense of the meaningfulness of her life and her community. And from there going out and taking care of this family called the Outlaws and then coming back and doing as much as she could for her family that she would have to leave obviously to take care of the others. And then working in community on the weekends to help inspire and help be a source of support.
That's the teaching that sort of inspired me as a very little girl, just watching her, to have a deep sense that there was something beyond what society would tell us about our value that was innate for all of us. And so, growing up in America, born for me, I'll name it, in 1967. So yes, this is a year of the big five-oh. Woo-hoo! Yes! But 50 years on this planet, 50 years really standing in the legacy that, again, I know some of you fought for, that enabled me to actually live a different kind of life, to get an education, to learn not just the profession of law, but actually now these beautiful teachings that we call mindfulness.
And yet, there's a way that those kinds of trainings that sort of prepared me to kind of enter into traditional spaces of authority and support and respect, law schools, law firms, and all of that. The training that can come with that, as I think Dr. Cornel West alluded to, often sends a signal that you're only worthy if you have those things like the JD, the PhD, the MA and all of that behind your name. Especially African-Americans and maybe particularly African-American women, there is this sort of messaging that we don't come from any place. And we have to constantly prove our value. We have to worry about every little thing.
I was joking to myself this morning. I was thinking, "I'm probably spending just a little bit more time worrying about my hair this morning than my good friend Jon is." Am I right? We don't know. We'll talk about this, but there's a way in which not only black women, but women—we know that we're evaluated based on every little thing. And black women in particular—I'm just going to say, this whole thing about the hair, it's just one of the ways. Our natural hair since the time of enslavement has been a source of every measure of, on the one hand denigration and disparagement—we were ugly because of that. We were vulnerable and available to abuse because of supposedly the way we looked, not being attractive.
And so, this idea of sort of doing everything we could to fit in and to be accepted, it's been a legacy of that time. And there's so much I can say about that. Laws were passed once African-American women started to really say, "All right, we can find ways to make ourselves be as beautiful as we can be in this context." Then all of a sudden in the late 1800s in places like New Orleans, laws were passing. "Oh, wait, they're looking too beautiful now. They have to cover their hair. They must cover their hair if they have any black blood in them. A woman has to cover her hair." This is a law passed in Louisiana to distinguish those suddenly now more beautiful women who bore some of the lineage of the blackness and were beautiful. To distinguish them, to stigmatize them. You must all wear these covers.
And so, again, women have now kind of taken that history of not being able to find our way through this culture and be accepted, and turned it into ways of naming their own beauty and naming their own power. But I say all of that to say each of us then has different kinds of struggles in this society. And it is important to pause to kind of know that we're all one. And to know that there is this way in which those senses of identity just dissolve into nothing. It's not an invitation to just bypass. They use a phrase spiritual bypass. It's not an invitation to bypass the ways in which we actually are differently situated and differently vulnerable.
Whether we are racialized black in a society that still is, as Dr. West mentioned, shot through with white supremacy. Or whether we are transgendered in a society that is powerfully still oriented around these notions of static gender and so on and so on. Our particular identities do make us more vulnerable. And so, if we speak about being able, through the practices of awareness, to sit with people's vulnerability, starting with our own. As Dr. West said, if there's some message for all of us, look at the context in which we are in and see if we can meet the vulnerability of others entering into our own vulnerability.
So I think this is a call for us at this time. Because, again, I think the ways that we have been in a way deformed by our dominant culture are profound. And so, a lot of the work that I seek to do with law students and lawyers, it's to sort of go in there from within, try to change that system, which has had such a formidable impact on us, our whole society positively and negatively, in terms of forming these ways of being in the world that are not necessarily to the good. So this is what I wanted to introduce in terms of a practice.
I mentioned my grandmother because the practice I'm going to offer, actually when I first read this, it reminded me of so much for a lot of reasons. How many of you have read the book Beloved? Some of you have. This is a book by Toni Morrison. I recommend it to you or recommend the books. There is a scene in the book Beloved in which there's a representation of a woman who has been called to the ministry to preach, essentially. Her name is Baby Suggs. How many of you remember the Baby Suggs character?
Every time I think that Toni Morrison writes Baby Suggs' name, she says, "Baby Suggs, holy." This is a person who had found her holiness, was not necessarily allied with any particular tradition at that point. And yet, people from various other traditions would come to her for some kind of sense of spiritual support. I want to read a little bit from Toni Morrison's book to give us, to remind us, of the power of what was described there. And see if you can hear some of the ways that the practice that she—and again, this was set in clearing, pre-Civil War.
So imagine, if you will, a person, a racialized Black gender, female, black woman standing in a clearing, having issued a call and African Americans from all over coming to hear her. Because that was the power of her message. "In this clearing, Baby Suggs called the women to her. 'Cry,' she told them. For the living and the dead, just cry. And without covering their eyes, the women let loose. It started that way. Laughing children, she called to her. Dancing men. Crying women. And then it got mixed up. Women's stopped crying and danced. Men sat down and cried. Children danced, women laughed. Children cried until exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the clearing damp and gasping for breath."
They were coming alive to themselves, to their emotional territory, to their senses. This is another way of talking about what we've been talking about here, how to come back to ourselves, and from there to be of some service in the world. "In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart. 'Here' she said. 'In this here place, we flesh. Flesh that weeps, laughs. Flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder, they do not love your flesh. They despise it. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder, they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use tie, bind, chop off, and leave empty. Love your hands. Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face because they don't love that either."
"You got to love it. You. And no, they ain't in love with your mouth. Yonder out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it, they will not heed. What you put into it to nourish your body, they will snatch it away and give you leavins instead. No, they don't love your mouth. You got to love it."
So she's going on to say, "This is flesh I'm talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Flesh that needs to rest and dance. Backs that need support. Shoulders that need arms, strong arms I'm telling you. And O my people out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed." Unnoosed, unnoosed, unnoosed.
"They do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck. Put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts, they just assume slop for hogs, you got to love them." Just as Jon was just saying, "Do we know we even check in with that heart?" "Love" she says, Baby Suggs says. "The dark, dark liver. Love it. Love it and the beat and the beating of the heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than your life, holding womb, and your life, giving private parts. Hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize."
I'm not an actress, just reading. So I want to honor and really thank Toni Morrison. And I'll say that one of the particular reasons that I've been thinking about offering and finding a way to sort of bring that sermon into our consciousness as we do this work of mindfulness for social justice, for transforming the world. There are many reasons, many reasons. Really just the deep sense that I carry, a legacy of that era, that era that many people think of is so long ago. The era and enslavement. "Oh, it was so long ago. Why are we still talking about it?"
How long ago was it? How long ago was it? Are there people that you knew in your lifetime who knew something about slavery? There are people that I knew in my lifetime. My grandmother that I mentioned, she was married to a man named Haywood Suggs. Haywood born in 1903 in North Carolina was the son of Johnny Suggs. Johnny born in 1858 before the ending of slavery. Listed on an 1860 census as a two-year-old in a home, one of the property of a slave owner in North Carolina. So my grandfather's father was born in slavery. Okay?
My grandfather's father Johnny happened to also be a preacher. So my grandmother had been called to the ministry. My grandfather's father, Johnny, his brother, my grandfather's uncle. So his father's brother Griffin was also a preacher. Griffin was born much deeper into slavery, 1843. And his father, Ellis, was also known to have been a preacher. So when I came across Baby Suggs' sermon to those enslaved people, when I first read it I didn't know that much about my own family's experience seeking in some way to serve the spirits of the people during enslavement.
I was only later to learn that. But what I did know was that the name that Toni Morrison had selected for that character was resonant, Baby Suggs, because my grandfather's great-grandfather's all of those names that I just mentioned who married my grandmother Nanny, their last names were Suggs as well. So this idea of a lineage, we all know that there's some way in which the wisdom traditions that we practice are our lineage. Each of us has some actual lineages. And often in America, we're seeking lineages from all kinds of different backgrounds and different cultures. We feel like our own culture is bereft, but I'm here to say and stand for the value of the struggles that have taught Americans rooted in this soil something about what it means to suffer unnecessarily, to suffer by virtue of being poor, by virtue of being born of a disfavored religion, or in some ways born into a body that's not respected and loved.
We know something about that and we know something about overcoming the pain of that. So I want to invite us in our own way to just sort of, if you will, if you're willing to kind of stand with me. I know you've been sitting for a while.
Yeah. Feel the body. Feel your own body. Yeah, stretch if you need to, move. Think about your own ancestral lineage. And we do this again not to wrap ourselves up and reduce ourselves to these stories, but to kind of know that we have some experience, some human experience that might be relevant to these times. All of us do. Who were your teachers? Who were your people? Who are those from whom you may have learned something about what it means to struggle? How does this body that you have inhabited teach you something about the ways we struggle, the ways we try to avoid struggling? The ways we try to defend ourselves against it, by allying ourselves with this group of that.
The pain that we carry, what does your body carry in terms of inner knowing about this? That you don't have to read about and you don't have to come and hear somebody talk about, you know. So if you can just sort of stand with the kind of a conscious invitation to ask the body, "What do you know about identity-based suffering?" What have I learned? What have I witnessed? How have I been wounded? Because of my gender, because of my class status, because of my immigration status, how might I have been privileged or wounded because of my race and sometimes both in our own experiences?
So breathing in and breathing out, think about your families, your own grandparents and ancestors, how they arrived here. Our stories are very different. Some of us when we came were given all kinds of rewards, land to come from Europe some ancestors got, even while people here were denied the right to even own land, even own themselves. So we have varied experiences around that. Can we own those? Can we at least acknowledge? And as we stand recognizing that we do know something and we might not think about it very much and we might not think it's that relevant, it is.
See if you can also just take a moment to really look at your own body and invite a little bit of what I call kind of bearing witness and beholding. So if you can just look at your hands. This is a little bit of Baby Suggs and Rhonda Magee kind of merged. Looking at our own hands how they've carried us through this life, how they've worked and cared for and nurtured others. Think of the people that who've been touched by your hands. There are very many ways that research tells us that these hands can give ourselves a lot of support, so self-compassion practice. If anything that I've shared is painful, you might want to put one hand over the heart, one just beneath the belly button. This is a research-verified practice for bringing self-compassion.
Again, our own hands. These hands that have worked, suffered, nurtured others can certainly nurture ourselves. Call into mind what you know of also, not just about identity and suffering, but about love, but about movement and dance as a way of healing, about connection with others as a way of grounding yourself when you're distressed. We know these things in the body. Breathing in and breathing out, recalling the ways we've been supported, the ways we've learned.
And also calling forth the sense of responsibility to go from here with a renewed sense of the value of every human being and every culture and every background, and also of our capacity to engage with that. Because I think part of what ails our culture is our inability to turn toward our own history and know what we know, really know what we know about our history. And work, do the work of healing that our own history invites us into. Can we embrace that with some responsibility and integrity?
These are the things that I think and I could say obviously more, but thank you for giving me the time that I have. May you from this day really more deeply engage with the beauty of your own life story, your own family histories in a way that opens you up to conversations with others, so that we can live our way into that 99.9% within which we're really all one family. We know that we are just one family, but our family histories are different and let's talk about them. Let's love our way into a deeper, richer way of honoring what it means to be a human being at this time. And being able to then give something more rich and beautiful to our children. They deserve it. They need it.
I will just close by saying I teach law students. I have young people of all backgrounds, often whites, frankly, coming to me saying, "We haven't been taught. We don't even know for example why white supremacy's a bad thing. No one's actually talked to us about this history." What have we been doing? What have you been doing? Have we talked to our children? Have we really sat down with them?
We are wanting our children to have a life of comfort and ease and not really have to grapple with who we really are, but we owe a responsibility to our children. We owe a responsibility to this country. I love this country. This is why I'm here. I know we can be better. I know we can heal. And I know you all know that too or you wouldn't be here. And I thank you. Thank you.
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