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Compassion and Peace (when I Accuse You!) July 19, 2020

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“And now the image of [our country] is sullied by this filth, and history shall record that it was under your presidency that this crime against society was committed.

 At the root of it all is one evil man. … Nobody would ever believe the experiments to which he subjected the unfortunate….

… what a cesspool of folly and foolishness, what preposterous fantasies, what corrupt police tactics, what inquisitorial, tyrannical practices! What petty whims of a few higher-ups trampling the nation under their boots, ramming back down their throats the people’s cries for truth and justice, with the travesty of state security as a pretext.”

 

– from “J’Accuse” by Emile Zola, published in L’Aurore on January 13, 1898

J’Accuse! I accuse you! Yes, you! This is all your fault!!!

Loudly, publicly, and bluntly, I accuse you of doing something heinous. Before we get into the details of the accusation, pause for a moment. Consider how you are feeling. Don’t be surprised if you are feeling a tightening; maybe an immediate impulse to do something to defend yourself; maybe – before we even get into the details – you are already spinning the story, as if you know what I’m going to say. Even though this is a safe place (and you probably do know what I’m doing here: i.e., giving you a container in which to practice), you may already be feeling the bite of the hook. Shenpa; it’s the Tibetan word that American Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön translates as hook, urge, impulse, charge, or attachment. She points out that while it is usually involuntary “it gets right to the root of why we suffer.”

When you feel it, even a little bit, you are feeling the “urge” or “impulse” to do something to defend/protect yourself… or, at least, defend/protect the afflicted thought that is your false sense of self. Remember, that while this may feel, physiologically, as if someone is threatening you with bodily harm – and while your body will react accordingly – shenpa in this context is not related to physical harm. It is related to suffering and, therefore, Recognizing what you are feeling (and why you are feeling it) is the first “R” in the practice of getting “unhooked.”

“At the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That’s the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us.”

 

– quoted from “How We Get Hooked and How We Get Unhooked” by Pema Chödön (published by Lion’s Roar, 12/26/2017)

 

“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

 

– Nelson Mandela

We are living in a time when a lot of people are getting “hooked” by a large number of things. One thing in particular that stands out is people experiencing shenpa because of loud, public, and blunt accusations. The accusations are all related to what in the yoga philosophy would be called avidyā (ignorance) and all four of the other afflicted or dysfunctional thought patterns. The loudest of the accusations comes in the form of one of several words: racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, Islamaphobic, or xenophobic. And, let’s be honest, if someone uses the right “mean” word, they don’t have to do it loudly (or publicly) for the accused to feel the bite of the hook. Furthermore, this shenpa-related reaction is so prevalent right now that we don’t have to turn on the news, read about it, or look online to see someone experiencing this particular form of suffering: all we have to do is look in the mirror.

Just to clarify, the suffering to which I refer – the suffering that comes from this particular type of ignorance – is not the suffering of the person who is doing the accusing. Yes, there is suffering when someone is subjected to another person’s hatred and small thinking (and yes, it is related to this same kind of dysfunctional/afflicted thinking), but that’s not the point of today’s practice. Today is more about the suffering of the accused.

Wait, what?

I know, I know, some of you are thinking I’m sleep deprived again – but stick with me.

Shenpa thrives on the underlying insecurity of living in a world that is always changing.”

 

– quoted from “How We Get Hooked and How We Get Unhooked” by Pema Chödön (published by Lion’s Roar, 12/26/2017)

For further clarification, let’s talk about a former housemate of mine. This person is a person of color (really, a member of more than one ethnic minority group) and held a position of power within a certain organization. They are also male-presenting and, let’s get real, there’s some power in that. At one point while we were living together, my former housemate was accused of being racist and sexist. Now, he was troubled by this for a number of reasons – not the least of which was that (a) as a minority he felt like he couldn’t be racist, (b) he adored and respected women, and (c) he had personally been the victim of a lot of different kinds of racism. Being accused of such a thing is hard on its on, it’s harder when you know how it feels to have that hatred directed at you.

Part of what makes it hard to be accused of being {fill in the blank} is that for many of us the idea of holding a negative and/or stereotypical view of someone because of something they can’t change goes against who we think we are at our core. We reject the very notion that we could hold views that have been described as “unmitigated evil.” Additionally, even if we think there’s nothing wrong with our view, we recognize that such views and the behavior associated with them are not socially acceptable. So, even if we think we’re right, it’s embarrassing to be accused of something that the populace views as wrong.

It all comes down to perception. As I told my housemate at the time, as soon as someone says something is racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, Islamaphobic, or xenophobic – it is. Full stop. The urge to argue about it is coming from being “hooked” and generates an endless (and, I’d argue, useless) cycle of suffering. Practice the second and third “R’s”: Refrain, Relax. We don’t solve anything by denying what is real in the moment. Our denial, however, is part of what is real and may prevent us from getting to the root of the problem: avidyā.

“I call it, it’s ‘dog-whistle racism.’ It’s something that, everybody could be in the same room as you, but you’re the only person who’s hearing it. And it’s loud and clear to you, as to the reason why you’re being treated this way or not allowed to come here; or being asked for your ID, several times; asked why you’re here; told to go sit somewhere else, even though you’re with a group of people – they don’t see you as part of that group. It happens a lot.”

 

– Canadian author and CTV news anchor Andrea M. Bain, appearing on ET Canada (07/16/2020)

There are very few, if any, modern (First World) societies that were not built on a foundation of ignorance. Here in the United States, racism, sexism, and xenophobia are – in many ways – the very bedrock of our civilization.  (Are you tightening up over these statements? Take a deep breath. Sigh it out. Repeat and then read on.)

To me, a woman of color (from the South, no less), everyone in this country has been socialized to be have ignorant thoughts (be they racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, Islamaphobic, xenophobic, ageist, and/or ableist. Yes, everyone! To turn away from this is to turn away from the opportunity to fix the problems that result in racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, Islamaphobic, xenophobic, ageist, and/or ableist behavior. Let’s be clear here, we may not (at this stage) be able to change our thoughts, but we can in this moment change our words and deeds/actions by paying attention to our thoughts. An accusation brings awareness to what’s real in this moment. It’s an engraved invitation to practice. Yes, it is a really stressful, awkward, and horrible invitation, but it’s still an invitation.

By accepting the invitation, we accept the opportunity to make real change. Bringing awareness to what’s going on in our minds (consciously, unconsciously, and subconsciously) gives us the opportunity to decide how we want to engage the world and the people in the world. In other words, pausing for a moment to recognize what is happening in this moment allows us to move forward with the final “R,” Resolve. It gives us the opportunity to internally declare, “I just had a racist thought, but I’m not going to follow that up with straight-up racist behavior. I’m not going to be racist today. I’m going to be {fill in the blank}.”

Here’s the thing though: You only get to fill in the blank if you let go of the impulse to defend yourself against the accusation. You only get to fill in the blank if you let go of the attachment you have to believing you are something you like when someone is accusing you of being something you dislike. You only get to fill in the blank if you allow your “false sense of ego” to die. Yes, you have to let go of you think you are. All of that is to say, you only get to fill in the blank if you let go of your avidyā.

“If we can see shenpa just as we’re starting to close down, when we feel the tightening, there’s the possibility of catching the urge to do the habitual thing, and not doing it. Without meditation practice, this is almost impossible to do. Generally speaking, we don’t catch the tightening until we’ve indulged the urge to scratch our itch in some habitual way. And unless we equate refraining with loving-kindness and friendliness towards ourselves, refraining feels like putting on a straitjacket. We struggle against it. The Tibetan word for renunciation is shenlok, which means turning shenpa upside-down, shaking it up. When we feel the tightening, somehow we have to know how to open up the space without getting hooked into our habitual pattern.”

 

– quoted from “How We Get Hooked and How We Get Unhooked” by Pema Chödön (published by Lion’s Roar, 12/26/2017)

 

“As they have dared, so shall I dare. Dare to tell the truth, as I have pledged to tell it, in full, since the normal channels of justice have failed to do so. My duty is to speak out; I do not wish to be an accomplice in this travesty. My nights would otherwise be haunted by the spectre of the innocent man, far away, suffering the most horrible of tortures for a crime he did not commit.”

 

– from “J’Accuse” by Emile Zola, published in L’Aurore on January 13, 1898

 

Today in 1898, the novelist and essayist Emile Zola fled France after being found guilty of libel in a case associated with the “Dreyfus Affair.” The libel case and subsequent conviction were based on an open letter in which Zola accused the army, the government, and even the court system of illegally arresting and convicting Captain Alfred Dreyfus of espionage and treason. Dreyfus was a French artillery officer, who was also Jewish, and there was no indication (or evidence) that he committed the crimes in question. In fact, two years after Dreyfus was court martialed and imprisoned for crimes he did not commit, evidence proved that the real culprit was a French Army major named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. Esterhazy was tried, found “not guilty” of conspiring with the Germans, and allowed to retire in 1898, with the rank of Major. Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, who brought forward the evidence against Esterhazy, was transferred to Tunisia. Once he was out of the country, military officials portrayed Picquart as anti-Semitic. Meanwhile, military officials manufactured evidence against Dreyfus (and convicted him a second time) – and all of this was leaked to the press.

While historians still debate why Dreyfus was arrested, framed, and convicted, everyone agrees that he was innocent. This is not revisionist history. His innocence was firmly established at the time – which is why Zola, a noted writer of the time, was so outraged. Knowing the power of his words and the power of his reputation, Zola penned a 4,500-word article which was published on the front page of L’Aurore. The headline, above the fold, read “J’Accuse…!” and almost 300,000 copies were distributed (on January 13, 1898). That was 10x the normal distribution. The open letter was a detailed timeline of “L’Affaire.” It included names of officials, accused them of anti-Semitism, and provided explicit details to back up the accusations. Zola wanted to “hook” the government and force them to sue him for libel so that all of the evidence from the secret court martial cases would be made public. Additionally, Zola’s letter further incensed the French public, which became even more outraged by Zola’s trial and conviction. His sentencing did not go well, as it turned the already volatile populace further against the military. As Zola fled, more publications took up the fight, the world started watching, and the citizens of France began what many consider major social reformation. They took a look at themselves and the reality of what they were versus what they professed to be: a Catholic nation or a republic where all citizens had equal rights regardless of religion.

“The government of the Republic has given me back my freedom. It is nothing for me without my honor.”

 

– Alfred Dreyfus, after accepting a Presidential pardon

Dreyfus was offered a Presidential pardon in 1899, which he accepted; however, he was still considered a traitor to France and spent several years under house-arrest. It would be 1906 before he was officially exonerated by a military commission, readmitted to the army and promoted to major, and then named to Knight of the Legion of Honor. He retired within a year, but returned to the army at the beginning of World War I. He would eventually be promoted to lieutenant colonel and be awarded the rank of “Officer” within the Legion of Honor. When he died in 1935, he was given full military honors – plus a little extra pomp and circumstance since his funeral procession occurred during Bastille Day. His tombstone inscription is in Hebrew and English, and only refers to his unfaltering service to France.

Zola returned to France after the French government collapsed, but would die of carbon monoxide poisoning in 1902. In 1908, during a ceremony to honor Zola by interring his ashes at the Panthéon, a right-wing reporter would attempt to assassinate Dreyfus. In 1953, a roofer admitted, in a death-bed confession, that he had murdered Zola by initially blocking the chimney. Years after the fact, there were still people getting “hooked.”

“Working with shenpa softens us up. Once we see how we get hooked and how we get swept along by the momentum, there’s no way to be arrogant. The trick is to keep seeing. Don’t let the softening and humility turn into self-denigration. That’s just another hook. Because we’ve been strengthening the whole habituated situation for a long, long time, we can’t expect to undo it overnight. It’s not a one-shot deal. It takes loving-kindness to recognize; it takes practice to refrain; it takes willingness to relax; it takes determination to keep training this way. It helps to remember that we may experience two billion kinds of itches and seven quadrillion types of scratching, but there is really only one root shenpa—ego-clinging. We experience it as tightening and self-absorption. It has degrees of intensity. The branch shenpas are all our different styles of scratching that itch.”

 

– quoted from “How We Get Hooked and How We Get Unhooked” by Pema Chödön (published by Lion’s Roar, 12/26/2017)

Please join me for a compassionate 65-minute virtual yoga practice on Zoom today (Sunday, July 19th) at 2:30 PM. You can use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. PLEASE NOTE: Zoom 5.0 is in effect. If you have not upgraded, you will need to give yourself extra time to log into Zoom. You can always request an audio recording of this practice (or any practice) via email or a comment below.

Today’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify.

 

“Your actions speak so loudly, I cannot hear what you are saying.”

 

– Ralph Waldo Emerson  

 

 

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