The Circle of Hospitality

Hospitality and Race, part 1

Circles. Symbols of protection, inclusion, wholeness. The legendary King Arthur made his table round to indicate the equality of all the knights at the table. His round table was, of course, too small -- only the nobility had a seat. We've expanded table since medieval times -- and still have more expanding to do.

The writer and teacher Starhawk speaks of community – that deep “longing to go home to some place we have never been.” It exists somewhere, and it comes to us in circular images: “a circle of hands” that “open to receive us. . . . A circle of healing. A circle of friends. . . . where we can be free.”

Truly welcoming of others into our circle is difficult. The protective appeal of the circle is that we get to be inside, protected from what is outside. I understand that. Moving into our greater wholeness and healing requires that our circle be ever-expanding, ever-more inclusive. That’s kinda hard – hard the way that joy is hard.

Hospitality takes time, and hospitality is risky. You might get taken advantage of. Or you might be unwittingly facilitating someone’s self-destruction. There’s a time, say, for offering someone a beer, and a time for resisting that impulse, and we don’t always know which is which. We risk getting it wrong.

Imagine that at the center of your life were the question, “What does this guest need?” Everyone in your – circle – of direct awareness is a guest. And suppose your central question as you encountered each one was: What does this guest need? Yes, that would be risky: meeting people’s needs takes up your time, and you could get taken advantage of – not to mention the risk that you might get wrong what they really need. Even so: to live in the space of that question – always having our radar up for where the need is, and going toward the need we discern – is a life of healing.

The payback is the growing, softening heart. Deep down, we humans don’t crave safety. What we ache for is acceptance, and acknowledgment of our worth. Therefore, embrace others as worthy guests, even if they don’t meet our needs. Even if they scare us.

To embrace the worth in the other, even when their actions don’t meet our needs, is a radical notion. It might change your world into one in which you don't have to be smart or witty, deep or cultured, beautiful, young, healthy, enlightened, or handy. All you have to do is open the window of your heart and let the outer light in -- and let the inner light out.

Radical hospitality isn't safe or cozy. Commitment to radical hospitality is challenging. Having a good intention does not complete the work. Meaning well is only the necessary prerequisite for beginning the work. The work itself involves developing skills, constantly building the emotional and social intelligence to attune to needs, continuously learning about cultures different from your own so that you can adapt, meet them where they are. The work is learning about the impact of our words and actions will have regardless of our intention.

I do not come from landed gentry, but the concept of a gentleman was not entirely absent from my upbringing. I remember at one point when I was a teenager and had committed some social blunder from which I was on the outs with my classmates, my father said to me: “Son, a gentleman is a man who never gives offense unintentionally.”

Ah. So a gentleman might mean to give offense – might choose to insult someone – preferably with great cleverness. A gentleman can be witheringly insulting, as the one who said, "Meeting you has made me jealous of all the people who haven't." Or the one who said, "There may be no end to your good taste. There also may be no beginning." The gentleman has the skill to give offense with wit, and to never give offense when he doesn’t mean to.

Those put-downs might elicit a chuckle -- as long as they aren't directed at us -- but they're mean. They are decidedly inhospitable. If that's the gentlemanly ideal, I think we can do better. Indeed, it is an ideal that grew out of privilege, and patriarchy, and is problematic in a number of ways -- and my parents lives modeled a greater concern for equality and fairness than for aristocratic manners. I mention the aphorism about gentlemanliness only because of the larger point my father was making to me when he quoted it: I have an obligation to know what will give offense. And if I don’t know, I need to find out.

Here are some examples of microaggressions that Fordham students identified as being a part of their lives.
  • Asking a multiracial or apparently brown person, “So, like, what are you?”
  • Saying “So what do you guys speak in Japan? Asian?”
  • Saying, “You don’t act like a normal black person, y’know?”
  • Saying, “I never see you as a black girl.”
  • Making the Mexican student the automatic first choice for the role of Dora the Explorer in the high school skit.
  • Assuming Mexican heritage necessarily means one speaks Spanish.
  • Telling a person who might look white, but who identifies as a person of color, “No, you’re white.”
  • Finding it weird that a person of color likes the music of a white country-western singer.
  • Saying to a person wearing a head covering, “So what does hair look like today?”
  • Referring to person of Chinese ancestry as a China doll.
  • Assuming that the one black person in the room can be relied upon as the voice of all black people.
  • When a student is seen next to her parent, asking why to skin tone difference between them is so great.
  • Saying, “You’re really pretty for a dark-skinned girl.”
  • Asking, “Why do you sound white?” Or saying, "You are so articulate."
That you intended no harm is insufficient. It's true that you can’t always know what other people will be sensitive about. But you can find out most of what may hurt others' feelings, if you try. The work of radical hospitality is to do all we can to learn, “What does this guest need?”

* * *
This is part 1 of 2 of "Hospitality and Race"
See also
Part 2: Challenges of Hospitality


Qualities of the Resilient

Resilience, part 3

Among the "Practices of the Week" is a self-assessment for checking your resilience, identifying what you might like to work on to get more resilient (HERE). It lists 10 qualities that form a mutually supportive web of resilience. That inventory of 10 attributes was drawn from several sources, one of which was the work of Al Siebert. Siebert actually gives 13 key qualities to strengthen to develop your resiliency – and they're all helpful in developing further our racial resiliency, helping us be open to the new learning we need.

Does resilience fosters these qualities or do these qualities foster resilience? Both, I think. The way it seems to work is that the qualities all support each other -- such that developing in any of these qualities will be helpful in also developing the others. Collectively, these qualities constitute and define resilience. In other words, if you can do something to improve in any one of these areas, that will help your overall resilience, and an increase in your overall resilience will help you develop in all the other areas.

Here's Siebert's list of qualities of resilient people:
Playful, childlike curiosity. Ask lots of questions, want to know how things work. Play with new developments. Enjoy themselves as children do. Have a good time almost anywhere. Wonder about things, experiment, make mistakes, get hurt, laugh. Ask: "What is different now? What if I did this? Who can answer my questions? What is funny about this?"

Constantly learn from experience. Rapidly assimilate new or unexpected experiences and facilitate being changed by them. Ask "What is the lesson here? What early clues did I ignore? The next time that happens I will…."

Adapt quickly. Very mentally and emotionally flexible. Comfortable with contradictory personality qualities. Can be both strong and gentle, sensitive and tough, logical and intuitive, calm and emotional, serious and playful, and so forth. The more the better. Can think in negative ways to reach positive outcomes. "What could go wrong, so it can be avoided?"

Have solid self-esteem and self-confidence. Self-esteem is how you feel about yourself. It determines how much you learn after something goes wrong. It allows you to receive praise and compliments. It acts as a buffer against hurtful statements while being receptive to constructive criticism. "I like, appreciate, and love myself…."

Self-confidence is your reputation with yourself. It allows you to take risks without waiting for approval or reassurance from others. You expect to handle new situations well because on your past successes. "These are my reliable strengths…."

Have good friendships, loving relationships. Research shows that people in toxic working conditions are more stress resistant and are less likely to get sick when they have a loving family and good friendships. Loners are more vulnerable to distressing conditions. Talking with friends and family diminishes the impact of difficulties and increases feelings of self-worth and self-confidence.

Express feelings honestly. Experience and can express anger, love, dislike, appreciation, grief–the entire range of human emotions honestly and openly. Can also choose to suppress their feelings when they believe it would be best to do so.

Expect things to work out well. Deep optimism guided by internal values and standards. High tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. Can work without a job description, is a good role model of professionalism. Has a synergistic effect, brings stability to crises and chaos. Ask "How can I interact with this so that things turn out well for all of us?"

Read others with empathy. See things through the perspectives of others, even antagonists. Win/win/win attitude in conflicts. Ask "What do others think and feel? What is it like to be them? How do they experience me? What is legitimate about what they feel, say, and do?"

Use intuition, creative hunches. Accept subliminal perception and intuition as valid, useful sources of information. Ask "What is my body telling me? Did that daydream mean anything? Why don’t I believe what I’m being told? What if I did this?"

Defend yourself well. Avoid and block attacks, fight back. See through and side-step cons, "games," and manipulations that others attempt. Find allies, resources, and support.

Have a talent for serendipity. Learning lessons in the school of life is the antidote to feeling victimized. They can convert a situation that is emotionally toxic for others into something emotionally nutritious for them. They thrive in situations distressing to others because they learn good lessons from bad experiences. They convert misfortune into good luck and gain strength from adversity.

A good indicator of exceptional mental health is when a person talking about a rough experience says "I would never willingly go through anything like that again, but it was the one of best things that ever happened to me." Ask "How can I turn this around? Why is it good that this happened? What is the gift?"

Get better and better every decade. Become increasingly life competent, resilient, durable, playful, and free. Spend less time surviving than others and survive major adversities better. Enjoy life more and more. (Al Siebert, "13 Ways to Develop Your Resiliency," The Resiliency Center)

Brad Waters' list of the qualities of resilience overlaps a lot with Siebert's, with some different angles and emphases that may be helpful.
10 Traits of Emotionally Resilient People:

1. They know their boundaries. Resilient people understand that there is a separation between who they are at their core and the cause of their temporary suffering. The stress/trauma might play a part in their story but it does not overtake their permanent identity.

2. They keep good company. Resilient people tend to seek out and surround themselves with other resilient people, whether just for fun or when there’s a need for support. Supportive people give us the space to grieve and work through our emotions. They know how to listen and when to offer just enough encouragement without trying to solve all of our problems with their advice. Good supporters know how to just be with adversity—calming us rather than frustrating us.

3. They cultivate self-awareness. Being ‘blissfully unaware’ can get us through a bad day but it's not a very wise long-term strategy. Self-awareness helps us get in touch with our psychological/physiological needs—knowing what we need, what we don’t need, and when it’s time to reach out for some extra help. The self-aware are good at listening to the subtle cues their body and their mood are sending.

On the other hand, a prideful stubbornness without emotional flexibility or self-awareness can make us emotional glaciers: Always trying to be strong in order to stay afloat, yet prone to massive stress fractures when we experience an unexpected change in our environment.

4. They practice acceptance. Pain is painful, stress is stressful, and healing takes time. When we're in it, we want the pain to go away. When we're outside it, we want to take away the pain of those who we see suffering. Yet resilient people understand that stress/pain is a part of living that ebbs and flows. As hard as it is in the moment, it’s better to come to terms with the truth of the pain than to ignore it, repress it, or deny it. Acceptance is not about giving up and letting the stress take over, it's about leaning in to experience the full range of emotions and trusting that we will bounce back.

5. They’re willing to sit in silence. We are masters of distraction: T.V., overeating, abusing drugs, risky behavior, gossip, etc. We all react differently to stress and trauma. Some of us shut down and some of us ramp up. Somewhere in the middle there is mindfulness-- being in the presence of the moment without judgment or avoidance. It takes practice, but it’s one of the purest and most ancient forms of healing and resilience-building.

6. They don’t have to have all the answers. The psyche has its own built-in protective mechanisms that help us regulate stress. When we try hard to find the answers to difficult questions in the face to traumatic events, that trying too hard can block the answers from arising naturally in their own due time. We can find strength in knowing that it's okay to not have it all figured out right now and trusting that we will gradually find peace and knowing when our mind-body-soul is ready.

7. They have a menu of self-care habits. They have a mental list (perhaps even a physical list) of good habits that support them when they need it most. We can all become self-care spotters in our life—noticing those things that recharge our batteries and fill our cup. In part two of this resilience blog series, my guest Karen Horneffer-Ginter, author of Full Cup, Thirsty Spirit: Nourishing the Soul When Life's Just Too Much, shares her 25 ideas for cultivating resilience. Her blog just might inspire you to create your own self-care menu. Karen has taken the menu idea a step further by designing a self-care poster that serves as visual inspiration to nourish the soul when life’s just too much.

8. They enlist their team. The most resilient among us know how to reach out for help. They know who will serve as a listening ear and, let’s be honest, who won’t! Our team of supporters helps us reflect back what they see when we’re too immersed in overwhelm to witness our own coping.

We can all learn how to be better supporters on other people's team. In this L.A. Times article, "How not to say the wrong thing", psychologist Susan Silk and co-author Barry Goldman help readers develop a strategy for effectively supporting others and proactively seeking the support we need for ourselves. Remember, it's okay to communicate to our supporters what is and isn't helpful feedback/support for our needs.

9. They consider the possibilities. We can train ourselves to ask which parts of our current story are permanent and which can possibly change. Can this situation be looked at in a different way that I haven't been considering? This helps us maintain a realistic understanding that the present situation is being colored by our current interpretation. Our interpretations of our stories will always change as we grow and mature. Knowing that today's interpretation can and will change, gives us the faith and hope that things can feel better tomorrow.

10. They get out of their head. When we're in the midst of stress and overwhelm, our thoughts can swirl with dizzying speed and disconnectedness. We can find reprieve by getting the thoughts out of our head and onto our paper. As Dr. James Pennebaker wrote in his book Writing to Heal, “People who engage in expressive writing report feeling happier and less negative than before writing. Similarly, reports of depressive symptoms, rumination, and general anxiety tend to drop in the weeks and months after writing about emotional upheavals.” (Brad Waters, "10 Traits of Emotionally Resilient People," Psychology Today blog, 2013)
We can bend within our shape and not get bent out of it. We are a resilient people, and we have each other to help us bounce back from adversity. We can lean on each other to help us all grow more resilient together, including more racially resilient.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Resilience"
See also
Part 1: Three Opposites of Resilience
Part 2: White Fragility


White Fragility

Resilience, part 2

One particular sort of fragility that I began hearing about in the last couple years -- and perhaps should have heard of much sooner -- is white fragility. Let's look at that.

White fragility has been getting attention in the public discourse around race since Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson three and a half years ago – or since Trayvon Martin was shot six years ago. Robin DiAngelo, a white woman, has a forthcoming book that will be titled: White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. In an earlier essay, DiAngelo explained:
“White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.” ("White Fragility," International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 2011)
Anna Kegler, also a white woman, writes
“most White people can’t handle talking about racism. We flail. We don’t understand the subject, we get really uncomfortable, and we either clam up because we don’t want to say the wrong thing, or we bust out the whitesplaining....White Fragility is the thing that restricts our knowledge, shuts down conversations before they start, and invites us to lie to ourselves.” ("The Sugarcoated Language of White Fragility," Huffington Post, 2017)
We Unitarian Universalists, of course, do not have this problem, right? We have been in the vanguard of supporting civil rights. Unitarian Universalists were marching with Martin Luther King in Selma in 1965 in greater numbers than any other predominantly white denomination. We Unitarian Universalists are “a Beloved Community that is smart, savvy, well-meaning, informed, thoughtful, politically aware and just generally nice,” as one of us put it. White fragility is a condition of white supremacists like Richard Spencer, David Duke, and those people who marched in Charlottesville with tiki torches to defend confederate monuments. Not us Unitarian Universalists. Right?

I know I have more work to do – and maybe some other Unitarian Universalists do, too. I sometimes have a defensive reaction about my complicity with the systems that perpetuate white privilege. I acknowledge that, but still recognize that we Unitarian Universalists also have a good head start to build on in a lot of ways.

We aren’t reactive against people of color in positions of leadership – we don’t have a presumption of white authority that that challenges. Nor do we presume white centrality -- we go to and enjoy movies in which people of color drive the action but are not in stereotypical roles. We understand that group membership is a significant part of who one is, and we acknowledge that access to jobs, housing, and education remains unequal between racial groups. It doesn’t bother us when a fellow white person declines to provide agreement with our own racial perspective. We hold no expectation of white solidarity.

We are glad to get feedback about any behavior of ours that might have a racist impact, regardless of intent. We don’t cling to a cherished notion of white racial innocence, and we understand the concept of negligence: that a person can be blameworthy for harm done even if they don’t intend any harm. (A swimming pool owner doesn’t intend for the neighbor’s kid to drown in it, but absence of intent to harm isn’t enough. Pool owners must take positive action to make sure the harm doesn’t happen, such as putting up a high wall around the pool.) We understand our obligation to learn what words and actions are hurtful and avoid them because we know it’s not enough to intend no harm. We exercise due diligence to avoid unwittingly doing harm. This diligence includes actively seeking out and reading essays and stories by people of color so that we better grasp what harmful impacts we might have regardless of our intent. Right?

We appreciate hearing people of color talk directly about their own racial perspectives. At the same time, we don’t demand that people of color tell their stories and answer questions about their racial experiences, because that would be expecting people of color to serve white people. We aren’t bent out of shape by the suggestion that our viewpoint comes from a racialized frame of reference. We aren’t reactive about such challenges to our objectivity. Right?

Well, yes. That is right — mostly. I like that about us. We Unitarian Universalists do pretty much understand those things. We’ve got some work to do – I have some work to do – to understand some of those things more fully and to grow further less reactive to certain challenges, to grow less complicit in sustaining the systems of our white privilege. But from what I see – and I know my vision has a racial bias and isn’t entirely trustworthy, but from what I see – we’re ahead of the curve of white Americans generally.

Our faith, then, calls us to do two things. First, we must continue our own work and get ourselves even farther ahead of the curve, learn more, become even more racially resilient and less reactive, less complicit, better allies of people of color. Second, we can do a better job of challenging the presumptions that are still too prevalent in our country at large – presumptions of white centrality, white authority, white innocence, and white objectivity. Unitarian Universalism IS a force doing that in the world – AND we can do it more.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Resilience"
See also
Part 1: Three Opposites of Resilience
Part 3: Qualities of the Resilient


Three Opposites of Resilience

Resilience, part 1


Have you ever been bent out of shape?

Bent out of shape. Such an evocative phrase! It means “upset or angry." “Don't get all bent out of shape—I'm sure she didn't mean to insult you.” Or, “You should apologize to Phil before he gets bent out of shape.”

There’s also a more literal meaning. You might say, “Ever since the car accident, my passenger-side door has been bent out of shape.” In this case, “bent out of shape” is “misshapen or misaligned.” Which fits. When you get upset, you become misshapen or misaligned. Your shape – your form – the form of your life – the lovely shape that your life has, takes, and fills in relation to the world becomes misshapen when you get upset. It doesn’t align.

That happens. When things are bent out of shape, they don’t roll smoothly. When you’re bent out of shape, you don’t roll smoothly. So if you are bent out of shape, then what you need is to shape up, get into shape, snap back into shape.

Resilience is about being able to return to form after being bent, compressed, or stretched. It's about recovering readily from illness, depression, adversity, setbacks. Resilient people bounce back – like a pillow whose foam returns over and over to the same shape.

Pillows and Rocks

Actually, about that pillow analogy. The poet Jane Hirshfield calls that "simple resistance." The pillow resists being changed. One kind of resistance is like a stone that just won’t budge. The resistance of the pillow is more passive aggressive. It happily gives under pressure but snaps right back to exactly the same shape as soon as the pressure is lifted.

Resilience is about adapting to new reality. This means that the shape you snap back into isn’t exactly the same shape that you were bent out of. It’s more like, as Hirshfield calls it, “sinuous tenacity.” Her short poem is titled “Optimism.”
“More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
Returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
Tenacity of a tree; finding the light newly blocked on one side,
It turns in another. A blind intelligence, true,
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
Mitochondria, figs – all this resinous, unretractable earth.”
There’s toughness – but not the toughness of stone that isn’t pliable, doesn’t reshape itself to adapt. There’s also softness, but not the softness of a pillow that molds itself around every pressure only to go back to its unchanged shape as soon as the pressure is removed. It’s “sinuous tenacity.”

What both the stone and the foam pillow have in common is they don’t change. The pillow appears to change, but it accepts no enduring lesson. There are, then, at least three opposites of resilience.

One opposite is firm rigidity. Like the stone, unbending. It never gets bent out of shape because it never bends at all.

Another opposite might be called purposelessness, not standing for anything. As the saying goes, “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” There’s no inner purpose, no sense of “this is what my life means, and my calling is to live out who I am, to offer a particular and unique set of gifts to the world, understanding that every gift necessarily comes with shadows.” That pillow readily accommodates every pressure, but only for as long as the pressure is being directly applied.

So on the one hand there’s no learning from the pressure – no integrating it. And on the other hand there’s no selectivity about which pressures to accommodate and which ones to push back against. So: the first opposite of resilience is rigidity. The second opposite is purposelessness, not standing for anything.

The third opposite is fragility: totally cracking under pressure -- just breaking into thousand tiny pieces. I’m not talking about the cases where extensive psychiatric treatment and hospitalization is needed – that’s a story unto itself. The fragility I’m talking about is able to maintain functionality, can compartmentalize to a certain extent the part of the self that in a thousand pieces, and often does eventually find a way to put the pieces back together in a new shape, but takes a long time doing it. Or the compartment of the broken pieces gradually gets smaller – or maybe better hidden.

It is to a particular kind of fragility that we will turn in the next post.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Resilience"
See also
Part 2: White Fragility
Part 3: Qualities of the Resilient


Ways the Body Thinks

Embodiment, part 3

One study gave participants a brief interaction with a person they’d never met before. Participants were then called upon to make a judgment about the trustworthiness of that person they’d just met. The participants who had been holding warm cups of coffee during the interaction were more likely to judge the person trustworthy than those who had been holding a cold beverage. Literal warmth gives us warm feelings.

In another study, participants were asked to remember a time when they were socially accepted, and then asked to estimate the temperature in the room where that happened. Other participants were asked to remember a time when they were socially snubbed, and then estimate the temperature of the room where that happened. On average, the participants who were recalling an experience of acceptance judged the room to be 5 degrees warmer than the participants recalling an experience of being snubbed. Affection is Warmth.

Warmth can make us more trusting, and experiences of acceptance make us think it’s warmer. We “warm up” to people.

We think about time as space – not just when we draw a timeline to represent time spatially. When we think about the future we tend to lean slightly forward. While recollecting the past, we’re more likely to lean slightly backwards.

In another study, participants were shown a picture of a face that was rendered as gender neutral, indeterminate – without any of the cues we usually use to discern a male or female face. Participants were then asked whether they thought the person is the picture was male or female. While they were looking at the picture, some of the participants had been given a soft ball and instructed to squeeze on it. Others were given a hard ball to squeeze. The participants squeezing the soft ball were more likely to guess that the face was female. The participants squeezing the hard ball were more likely to guess the face was male. We associate female with softness.

When people are taking a survey while standing up, and the survey asks them to judge the value of a picture of a pile of money, or judge the importance of a leader, the respondents who were given heavy clipboards judge greater value to the currency and greater importance to the leader than those who were given lighter-weight clipboards. Heavy is important. It’s got gravitas.

Subjects asked to think about a moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to request an antiseptic cloth after the experiment than those who had thought about good deeds. We think of morality with some of the same circuitry we think of physical cleanliness.

A different survey asked people about first cousins marrying. Those who were standing next to a smelly trash can gave much harsher judgments against it. Moral disgust is connected with physical disgust.

I am fascinated by these studies, and they don’t surprise me because I’ve gotten used to seeing myself and others as bodies. It can seem all rather disconcerting if you prefer to think of reason as a disembodied, universal process. But one of the effects of getting in touch with our bodies is taking ourselves less seriously. Don’t cling to your own opinions: even if you didn’t form them while standing next to smelly trash can, they emerged from processes equally tangled up, messy, and nonrational. As I like to put it: don’t believe what you think.

The world is taking your body for a ride, and you are not in the driver’s seat – so relax and notice and enjoy all that’s coming past and through you. We don’t have a choice about whether to be embodied – we are.
"He lived at a little distance from his body." (James Joyce, "A Painful Case")
Joyce’s Mr. Duffy does not really live at a little distance from his body -- he only seems to, to himself or to others. We do have a choice about whether to notice all the ways our thoughts and emotions are embodied – manifest in, and through, and from the body. The fictional Mr. Duffy seems to have chosen not to notice. He lives disconnected from himself in the sense that he's unaware of himself, unaware of who and what he really is.

That we are embodied, that we think with our particular bodies rather than with disembodied and universal reason, is a mystery. Our own thought processes are largely inscrutable to us. This is not the kind of mystery that can be solved. We can expand our understanding of our embodiment in various ways -- scientific, poetic, artistic -- yet an underlying mystery will remain that we cannot dispel but only savor.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Embodiment"
See also
Part 1: Mind and Body: Different?
Part 2: Feelings Metaphors Body


Feelings Metaphors Body

Embodiment, part 2

The great philosopher and psychologist William James published an influential paper in 1884 called “What Is an Emotion?”
“In this paper James put forth the theory that standard emotions such as sadness or rage or fear are not antecedent to the physiological responses we associate with them, but rather the product of these bodily changes. This was a radical notion at the time, a reversal of the usual way of seeing things.”
James also didn’t trust common sense.
“Common sense tells us that when we lose our fortune, we are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike. Yet this order of sequence is incorrect, James asserted. The more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry; angry because we strike; afraid because we tremble. Coming between the stimulus (bear) and the feeling (fear) is the body: quickened heartbeat, shallow breathing, trembling lips, weakened limbs. And that collection of responses is what lets you know that you’re afraid.”
He’s not saying the body reacts on its own, without the involvement of the brain. It’s the brain that processes stimuli and releases neurotransmitters, hormones such as adrenaline. James is just saying all that happens milliseconds before there’s a conscious experience of the emotion.

  • The commonsense view was that emotion comes first and triggers physiological expression.
  • For William James, physiological activity precedes emotional experience.
  • Other psychologists followed who said, it happens at the same time: subjective experience of emotion and physiological changes are simultaneous. Still others said its our physiology and our conscious thought about what’s happening – both physiologically and externally – that combine to form an emotional experience.
  • Neurologist Antonio Damasio describes a feeling as “in essence an idea: an idea of the body when it is perturbed by the emoting process."
The point of mentioning these theories is not that there’s going to be a quiz and you better pay attention so you can get an A in Sunday worship. The point of mentioning these theories is to raise the question: well, how does it seem to you? What are the details of what you experience, and you’re your body does, and what your thoughts do, and which happens when?

How DO you know what you feel? Instead of saying, “I just know it – it’s immediately evident” – try investigating how that works.

And the point of raising these questions is that, however you turn it over, and whatever you notice or think you notice, whatever conclusion you draw, you were paying attention to your experience in a new way. And just noticing it is the path to not being ruled by reactivity.

So, actually, there IS a quiz, and it’s the quiz you’re invited to take over and over throughout the day, and it’s really just one question: What’s happening here? – where “here” includes your body as it is in relation to what’s going on around it.

* * *
Years ago at another congregation, a parishioner said to me after the service one Sunday that I was reducing us to mere meat. It’s true that the notion of ourselves as souls trapped in a body does trigger my logic – such logic as I mentioned earlier: if a soul isn’t physical, then it doesn’t occupy space, and if it doesn’t occupy space then it can’t be “IN” anything. And it’s true that logic is reductive – it leaves out all the poetry of experience. What I really want to do is celebrate ourselves AS bodies – not as souls trapped in a body – and that’s not reductive at all.

All the wonder and mystery that might seem discarded by the phrase “mere meat” returns when we notice how wondrous and mysterious this meat is. We will think of thinking differently when we notice how embodied it always has been. Western thought for a long time conceived of reason as disembodied because the mind that did the reasoning was disembodied. We thought of reason as a transcendent and universal force – and parts of that legacy still show up sometimes in our tacit assumptions.

We are coming to understand that we reason in metaphors, and the metaphors come down to being physical, spatial. We speak of control OVER, of being ON TOP of a situation. Relationships are described in terms of electricity or chemistry. Basic feelings of happy and sad are spatial – we feel UP, meaning happy, and DOWN, meaning sad. Cognition is grounded in bodily experience. Even mathematics – argue cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Rafael Nunez in their book, Where Mathematics Comes From – is grounded in the body and is embodied in metaphor. Turning over almost any phrase, unpacking its metaphors and tracing them back to the physical, is also a way to embody.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Embodiment"
See also
Part 1: Mind and Body: Different?
Part 3: Ways the Body Thinks


Centering 1: Darrick Jackson, "Othering and Belonging"

This is the first in a series of reflections on the essays collected in Mitra Rahnema, editor, Centering: Navigating Race, Authenticity, and Power in Ministry (Skinner House, 2017). In this post, I reflect on Darrick Jackson, "Othering and Belonging."

The Stress of Being Black

Shortly before I began reading Centering, I heard a story on NPR's Morning Edition that brought home in a particularly poignant way one of the myriad effects of US racial prejudice. The Center for Disease Control has reported on the infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births in 2015. For white nonhispanic Americans, the rate was 4.8%. For Hispanics, it was 5.2%. For black nonhispanic Americans, it was 11.7% -- more than twice the rate for whites. OK, that's appalling. But why is it happening? Is it poverty? Is it genetics? NPR's Rhitu Chaterjee and Rebecca Davis reported:
"Scientists and doctors have spent decades trying to understand what makes African-American women so vulnerable to losing their babies. Now, there is growing consensus that racial discrimination experienced by black mothers during their lifetime makes them less likely to carry their babies to full term." ("How Racism May Cause Black Mothers To Suffer The Death Of Their Infants," Morning Edition, 2017 Dec 20)
The essence of the matter is stress on the mother. Stress causes early labor, thus premature births, thus higher infant mortality. This gives us a very concrete manifestation of the stress of being black in America.
"Even educated, middle-class African-American women were at a higher risk of having smaller, premature babies with a lower chance of survival....Black and white teenage mothers growing up in poor neighborhoods both have a higher risk of having smaller, premature babies. 'They both have something like a 13 percent chance of having a low birth weight baby.'...But in higher-income neighborhoods where women are likely to be slightly older and more educated, 'among white women, the risk of low birth weight drops dramatically to about half of that, whereas for African-American women, it only drops a little bit.' In fact, today, a college-educated black woman is more likely to give birth prematurely than a white woman with a high school degree....Some people suggested that the root cause may be genetics. But if genes are at play, then women from Africa would also have the same risks...[But] babies of immigrant women from West Africa...were more like white babies — they were bigger and more likely to be full term. So, it clearly isn't genetics....[Moreover,] the grandchildren of African immigrant women were born smaller than their mothers had been at birth. In other words, the grandchildren were more likely to be premature, like African-American babies....Meanwhile, the grandchildren of white European immigrant women were bigger than their mothers when they were born....'So, there was something about growing up black in the United States and then bearing a child that was associated with lower birth weight.'...What is different about growing up black in America is discrimination....'It's hard to find any aspect of life that's not impacted by racial discrimination, whether you're talking about applying for a job, or purchasing a new car, finding housing, getting education....' Higher education and income did not necessarily mean people experienced less discrimination....In 2004, David and Collins published a study...in which they reported the connection between a mother's experience of racism and preterm birth. They asked women about their housing, income, health habits and discrimination. 'It turned out that as a predictor of a very low birth weight outcome, these racial discrimination questions were more powerful than asking a woman whether or not she smoked cigarettes.'...Other studies have shown the same results. ("How Racism May Cause Black Mothers To Suffer The Death Of Their Infants," Morning Edition, 2017 Dec 20)
In what does this extra race-based stress consist? For some details, I looked at J.B.W. Tucker's "The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics and Data Post"." A few lowlights:
  • The stress of being black in America comes from the fact that Blacks are less than 13% of the populations, yet, as best we can tell since many police departments do not report, blacks are 31% of all fatal police shooting victims, and 39% of those killed by police when not attacking. Yes, it's worth remembering that 61% of the "killed by police when not attacking" category are not blacks. Still, the number that are is disproportionate.
  • The stress of being black in America comes from the fact that young black males, ages 15-19, are 21 times more likely to be to be shot and killed by the police than young white males. Between 2005 and 2008, 80% of NYPD stop-and-frisks were of blacks and Latinos. Only 10% of stops were of whites. 85% of those frisked were black; only 8% were white. Only 2.6% of all stops (1.6 million stops over 3.5 years) resulted in the discovery of contraband or a weapon. Whites were more likely to be found with contraband or a weapon.
  • The stress of being black in America comes from the fact that blacks (remember, 13% of the U.S. population) are 14% of regular drug users, but are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 56% of those in state prisons for drug offenses.
  • The stress of being black in America comes from the fact that one in every 15 black men are currently incarcerated, while for white men the statistic is 1 in 106. Prison sentences of black men were nearly 20% longer than those of white men for similar crimes in recent years.
  • The stress of being black in America comes from the fact that whites are 78% more likely to be accepted to the same university as equally qualified people of color -- and that a black college student has the same chances of getting a job as a white high school dropout. For every dollar a white man makes, white women make 78¢, black men make 72¢, black women make 64¢.
  • The stress of being black in America comes from Voter ID laws, which do not prevent voter fraud, but do disenfranchise millions of young people, minorities, and elderly, who disproportionately lack the necessary government IDs.
  • The stress of being black in America comes from news reporting that regards black lives as less significant. African American children comprise 33.2% of missing children cases, but only 19.5% of cases reported in the media.
  • The stress of being black in America comes from knowing that financial institutions expect to be able to exploit you and take advantage of you. In 2009, bailed-out banks such as Wells Fargo and others were found to have pushed minority borrowers who qualified for prime loans into subprime loans, which can add more than $100,000 in interest payments to a mortgage over the life of the loan. Among high-income borrowers in 2006, African Americans were three times as likely as whites to pay higher prices for mortgages: 32.1% compared to 10.5%. Black car buyers are charged $700 more on average than white car buyers of the same car.
  • The stress of being black in America comes from consciously or unconsciously racist real estate agents. When looking for a home, black clients looking to buy are shown 17.7% fewer houses for sale, and black renters learn about 11 percent fewer rental units.
  • The stress of being black in America comes from facing hiring discrimination. In one study thousands of identical resumes were mailed to prospective employers -- identical except only for the name. A black sounding name – say, Daunte Williams instead of David Williams – was 50% less likely to be called back. Fifty percent.
  • The stress of being black in America comes from a medical establishment and a political establishment that doesn't care about you as much as it does for white folks. Doctors did not inform black patients as often as white ones about the option of an important heart catheterization procedure. White legislators – in both political parties -- did not respond as frequently to constituents with black sounding names.
"The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics and Data Post" has a lot more data . If you don't know it, take a look.

Darrick's Dilemma

It's a good idea to have this reality clearly in mind as one begins reading Centering. Were it not for this reality, then Rev. Derrick Jackson's essay, "Othering and Belonging," which opens the book might seem to be merely Rev. Jackson's statement that his preferences in worship style differ from most other UUs.

Rev. Jackson was raised in the AME Church. When he says, "I often ache for the music that makes my heart soar," he means the kind of music he was used to growing up. Whether Jackson also thinks that this music is objectively better, more heart-soaring, regardless of one's upbringing, isn't entirely clear. That is, is typical UU worship music different from AME worship music because UUs find a different style of music makes their hearts soar, or because UUs prefer not to have their hearts soar in worship? I don't know what Jackson would say, but sometimes he seems to imply the latter:
"Music can evoke a deep spiritual strength in me that helps me transcend the issues and concerns in my life. In worship, it can help me connect with the theme for the service in a visceral way. But most UU hymns feel like vehicles for the words, not for an experience of the holy." (4-5)
The point seems to be more than just that Jackson personally doesn't experience the holy in UU hymns, but that UUs have opted for hymns in which human beings generally will not experience the holy.

The same goes for sermons. UUs "look for sermons that make them think and find sermons that stir the heart lacking" (5). Again: is it that other UUs find their hearts stirred by a different kind of sermon from the kind that stirs Jackson's heart? Or do UUs prefer sermons that don't stir their hearts? Jackson's implication seems to be the latter. When he says "I want to touch the heart, to nurture the soul," he implies that "the intellectual sermon" typical of UUs doesn't do those things.

I suspect Jackson is mostly right about that, but that that's not the whole story. Suppose we grant that  typical UU sermons touch UU worshipers' hearts less than AME sermons touch AME worshipers' hearts. Even so, those UU sermons do touch the hearts and nurture the souls of many listeners more than they do Jackson's -- and a more AME-styled sermon would touch their hearts less than it would  Jackson's.

It's possible, I think, to be both intellectual and heart-stirring. A. Powell Davies' sermons made worshipers think and also quickened their pulses, fortified their spirits, and expanded their souls. Granted, even Davies wasn't universally appealing -- even in his time, and even among worshipers theologically aligned with Davies, some worshipers found the thinking getting in the way of the feeling and would have preferred more feeling. For the great bulk of preachers less gifted than Rev. Davies, the either/or of mind OR emotion/body/spirit is transcended less far and less often. The practical reality is that one side or the other will be emphasized. Sunday after Sunday, the average UU minister leans more to the intellectual than the average AME minister, and the average UU worshiper is less heart-stirred and more mind-stimulated than the average AME worshiper. Is that a bad thing? Or are both groups pretty much getting what they want and what feeds them?

Here's why it's a problem. At the first level, people want both their theological preferences and their worship-style preferences satisfied. If worship-style preferences were the only dividing line among US congregations then having different congregations with different worship styles would be all we needed. But Americans also fall into different theological groupings. People who, like Jackson, have a theology that is liberal but a worship-style preference that is body-experiential and emotive currently have no very satisfactory home. I do believe that Unitarian Universalism must make itself into a more satisfactory home for people like Jackson -- or Unitarian Universalism will (and will deserve to) whither and die.

At the second and deeper level, my phrase "worship-style preference" must now be exposed as misleading. There are worship needs at stake that are not mere preferences. And Jackson's experience cannot be reduced (as, so far, I have been doing -- in order to now expose its reductiveness) to the experience of finding UU worship different from the worship to which he happened to have grown up accustomed. What's at issue isn't just a fond nostalgia for childhood church experiences.

Race is fundamental to all our experience (though whites find this easier to ignore -- that's part of our privilege), and Jackson's experience as a black American is fundamental to his. This is why I began this post with an extended account of the stresses of being black in America. The music and preaching of AME worship is not accidental. Such worship emerged and was sustained because it responded to the needs (not "preferences") of a community under tremendous stress.

Nor is the music and preaching of historically-typical UU worship accidental. It is a response to the needs of people whose bodies are not at risk, who have sufficient physical security to indulge the luxury of philosophical exploration. They -- let me say, we -- may, indeed, find our hearts stirred and souls cultivated (interestingly distinct from "nurtured," isn't it?) by these explorations because we can take for granted a certain basic belongingness. Our experience of alienation and partiality (i.e., not feeling whole) is based more in ideas than in direct threats to our bodies, so our path of healing depends more on engaging with ideas. It's not that the ideas we explore in worship don't touch our hearts and lift our spirits -- for our predominantly white, middle-class congregations, they often do. But (a) they don't do much to touch Darrick Jackson's heart or lift his spirit, and (b) folks like Jackson won't find their hearts much touched or spirits much lifted in worship unless that worship addresses the fundamental stresses to which their lives are subjected.

How Can This Change?

If belongingness is the, or at least a, fundamental psychospiritual need of corporate worship, the belongingness that UU worship has tended to provide for its predominantly white, well-educated congregations is reassurance of a place within the structures of white privilege. Our community-building provides networking for mostly whites. Our pastoral sermons have often assured congregants "you're OK" within a system of unjust privilege.  Our social action has flowed at least partly from an attempt to conscientiously deploy our privileges to "do good" -- and thereby make ourselves feel that we deserve to have these privileges, and are "at home" with them. In short, the belongingness our worship and our congregations have offered is belongingness within white power. (Yes, we have occasionally been able to extend that belongingness to a few people of color -- but this is because the structures of white power themselves admit a few exceptional people of color.)

The challenge is to proffer a different kind of belongingness. At first, we would offer it mostly to white people because those are currently most of the people in our congregations. The new ground of belongingness that I have in mind depends on identifying with -- not just sympathizing or even empathizing with -- the sufferings and stresses of all people. Their suffering is apprehended as my suffering; their stress is understood as my stress.
"All the pains, the joys, the sufferings, the cries of everyone in the universe are as such my own pain, my joy, my suffering, my cry....A straightforward look at our present world as it is will manifest the state of suffering of countless living beings, those suffering in the midst of dehumanizing poverty, where malnourished babies die every minute, and where many continue to die victims of violence both individual and structural. All this is my very own suffering, and my body is racked with pain from all sides. And I cannot remain complacent and unconcerned; I am literally inspired by an inner dynamism to be involved in the alleviation of this pain and suffering, in whatever capacity I am able." (Ruben Habito)
Darrick Jackson observes that UUs tend to find "sermons that stir the heart lacking." Even if we are allowed the qualification that we love sermons that stir our hearts, it's true that we haven't much cared for the kind of worship that is healing for people who live under much greater social stresses than middle-class whites. If we are to become a people who appreciate, who yearn for, who need the kind of worship that theologically liberal American blacks like Rev. Jackson appreciate, yearn for, and need, then we need a theology that takes on the stresses blacks face as our very own. Care, of course, must be taken not to do this appropriatively, and not to claim any of the moral high ground that comes from being a voice of the oppressed. We can't speak or act or judge as, for, or on behalf of the oppressed. We can simply take in the pain and grasp it as our own.

We can revise one of our hymns -- Sarah Dan Jones' "Meditation on Breathing," which goes:
When I breathe in, I breathe in peace.
When I breathe out, I breathe out love
We can replace this with something more like tonglen practice, in which we take in the suffering of ourselves and others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath send back compassion to ourselves and all who suffer. A single word change yields:
When I breathe in, I breathe in pain.
When I breath out, I breathe out love.
After about 10 minutes of chanting that, even white UUs with PhDs might be ready and eager for the most joyful, emotive, embodied, lively, shouting and dancing worship that Darrick Jackson could imagine.

And if not, well, it would still be a start.


Mind and Body: Different?

Embodiment, part 1

Mind and body, body and mind. Our common sense understanding tells us these are two different things. But I don’t trust common sense. I’ve been told that this is a sour grapes attitude on my part – that I don’t trust common sense because I don’t have any. And that may be true. Still, the common sense consensus about body and mind being two different things falls apart pretty quickly – like, as soon as someone asks, “Which category is brain in?”

Some people say – or seem to imply – that mind is not the brain. Brain is body – it’s physical, made of matter – but mind is something else. This has been the prevailing assumption for most of Western history. The problem is, if mind is nonphysical, nonmaterial, then it doesn’t occupy space, and if it doesn’t occupy space, where is it? If my mind is nowhere and everywhere, why is it picking up only the sights and sounds coming to THESE eyes and THESE ears? How can a nonphysical, nonmateral whatsis CAUSE my physical body to move? Any force that acts on matter is a physical force. That’s what a physical force IS: whatever can cause motion of a physical object. Electro-magnetism, gravity: those are invisible, but they’re physical forces. So if your mind were nonphysical, nonmaterial, it would be nonspatial, and not particularly connected to your sensory experiences, and it would also be unable to trigger your body to any actions.

The increasing awareness of the insolubility – or at least awkwardness – of these problems has shifted culture so that more of us now regard – or talk as if we regard -- the brain as the same thing as the mind, and body is something different. A quick check on the internet turns up “Brain and Body Tai Chi” and “Body and Brain Yoga” and “Dr. Amen’s Supplements for Brain and Body Power.” Brain is material and physical, but neurons are so different from muscle cells, bones, blood, or organs, that they’re in a category by themselves.

Well, that’s more promising. But if the brain’s job is to process information into a motor response – take in sensory information from outside the skin and sometimes pains or other sensations coming from inside the skin and turn that into a response – that processing doesn’t all happen in the brain. Even just the Central Nervous System includes the spinal chord, which includes both sensory and motor nerves. Then you’ve got the peripheral nervous system – all over your body there are nerves, both sensory and motor, that are part of your overall processing of the world into actions you take in it. Your body is processing – your hands and feet and stomach are, in a manner of speaking – thinking.

Thomas Edison was missing something important about being human – being mammal, being vertebrate – when he said, “the chief function of the body is to carry the brain around.” Your body is thinking, but are you listening?

Sometimes we can get all in our heads. I am myself more susceptible to that than most. James Joyce’s character, James Duffy, “lived at a little distance from his body” ("A Painful Case"). That’s me – or it was me, and I’ll always have that proclivity, though I’m aware of my tendency and these days intentionally direct myself back to my body.

Indeed, last month’s theme, “mindfulness” is intricately linked with this “embodiment.” Gotama – known as the Buddha – taught:
"Monks, I will teach you the unconditioned and the path leading to the unconditioned. Listen to this. And what, monks, is the unconditioned? An ending of greed, an ending of hatred, an ending of delusion: this is the unconditioned. And what, monks, is the path leading to the unconditioned? Mindfulness directed to the body: this is called the path leading to the unconditioned.”
When Gotama says “the unconditioned” he’s not talking about some absolute state untouched and untouchable by any conditioning. I don’t think there’s any such thing, and I don’t think he thought so either. When he says “the unconditioned” he means – as he actually says in this passage: unconditioned BY greed, hatred, and delusion.

And the way to not be conditioned by greed, hatred, and delusion is pretty simple: mindfulness directed to the body. If you can catch yourself being reactive – angry, hateful, greedy, clinging – notice where the feeling manifests in your body. Pay attention to what’s going on in your body when you’re having that reactive feeling. Shoulders? Throat? Stomach? Just paying attention – simple awareness of how reactivity embodies in you – is helpful. It won't not instantly cure you of all greed, hatred, and delusion, but it is the path to a life where reactivity is not in control.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Embodiment"
See also
Part 2: Feelings Metaphors Body
Part 3: Ways the Body Thinks