In 2011, I was a sad, anxious, skeptical, burned-out doctor that cried every day at work. I felt like a bystander in my own life. When I learned the practice of Vedic meditation in October, 2011, everything changed. My burnout went away. Nagging physical issues like irritable bowel syndrome improved. I felt more compassion and empathy towards my patients. I stopped trying to control EVERY LAST DETAIL of the world around me, and to my surprise, things always turned out better when I let go of that inner control freak perfectionist and allowed life to just unfold.
In addition to my emotional and physical benefits (there are so many more, too many to list here), I had finally found a community where I fit in. I waited and waited for the other shoe to drop, and it never did. I felt accepted and understood in a way that I never had in my life.
On my first trip to India (on a retreat with my meditation teacher), I had some absolutely incredible experiences- both in and out of meditation- that allowed me to experience first-hand the bliss of pure consciousness. Pure love. It underlies everything, and I realized I can call upon that love and support even when everything on the surface seems crazy and stressful. It’s there. It’s real, and I’ve experienced it. And if I can, anyone can.
It was on that trip to India that I decided to become a teacher in the Vedic meditation tradition, thus beginning 2 years of advanced courses in Vedic knowledge in preparation for a rigorous 3-month teacher training in India.
These advanced courses were taught by an old white American man at the ‘unofficial’ head of my meditation tradition who had spent years training in India with the Transcendental Meditation movement, and who considers Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to be his guru. In our tradition, this man portrays himself as, and is thought to be, enlightened and truly in touch with the source of Vedic knowledge.
In this advanced coursework (and on my teacher training), I was taught the Vedic world view: we are all one thing, which is consciousness. Consciousness is pure love. We are all individual expressions of this one thing, but it is the thing that unites us. All of us, no matter who we are, no matter where we come from. It felt good, it felt like truth, and it was such an incredible lens from which to view the world. Plus, I had direct, real experiences of this pure consciousness that were undeniable.
We are taught, in my tradition, that the very basis of our meditation practice comes from a passage in the ancient Vedic text, the Bhagavad Gita, in which Krishna (thought to be an incarnation of God) tells Arjuna (one of the members of the protagonist family in the larger epic story leading up to the Gita), who is imminently facing a deadly and disastrous battle with his evil cousins: “Established in Being, perform action”.
We were taught, by the old white man, that by meditating we are establishing ourselves in Being, in pure consciousness, which is preparing us to ‘perform action’ in the world. We aren’t renunciates; we are ‘householders’, meaning that we have families and jobs and we live out in the world. We were taught that just by expanding our own consciousness, we were expanding the consciousness of the world around us. As we ‘perform action’, any action, in the world, we are making it a better place. And I believe it, to a point. We’ve all encountered people who brighten up a room just by being in it. And conversely, we’ve all been around those people that suck the energy out of a room as soon as they enter.
This all worked for me. Until a year or two after my teacher training.
Until it all started to unravel.
The 2016 presidential election. I wrote a blog post from my experience of the Vedic world view about how ‘we’re all going to be ok’, and a friend suggested that my blog post was privileged. I didn’t know what the term ‘white privilege’ really meant (I thought she was calling me racist), so I started to examine racism, white privilege, and white body supremacy culture in earnest.
Then came “Me Too” allegations against the old white man. Controlling, cult-like behavior from this ‘enlightened’ old white man. Lawsuits for teachers who went against his teaching. An obsession with the ‘purity’ of the teaching, punishing teachers from straying from that purity while he himself made changes for VIP clients. An obsession with money, which was indoctrinated in us from the beginning of our teacher training, but mostly serves to protect the privileged financial position of the old white man.
I ended up leaving that community, changing the name of my meditation practice, and explicitly disassociating myself with the old white man. It was scary and traumatic, as leaving a cult often is, but it also felt liberating and empowering.
After a lot of intense self-reflection, I decided to continue teaching this meditation practice, since it had such profoundly life-changing benefits for me (and for my students), well before I had ever met the old white man. But I changed the way I teach it. I did my best to be honest about the shortcomings of the practice, the culty vibes of the larger meditation community, and the need to do more than just meditate in order to make the world a better place.
I still believed that ‘we are all one thing’. On the big-picture, spiritual level, I still do; at a quantum physics level, I am made up of the same energy particles as my computer, as the sound of your voice, as the light that the sun provides, and as the air that connects all of it.
But the more and more I examined my own whiteness, bias, white privilege, and the systemic nature of racism in our country and all over the world, I grappled with this: how do I reconcile the Vedic world view of ‘we are all one thing’ with the realities that people of color and other marginalized people experience on a daily basis that tells them otherwise, at the hands of privileged white people like the old white man. And like me.
How can I continue to teach this world-view without reconciling it with the realities of life? Is there a way to truly reconcile the teaching with the reality?
Sometime last year, I wrote a blog post about it, which I initially thought was pretty good. A Black teacher in my (mostly white) tradition commented on the blog post and loved it, so I thought to myself, sweet I got this. #Reconciled.
But now looking back at that blog post, at least the first half of it, I cringe. I want to delete it, but I need it there to remind me. It still misses the point. And it still relies on the spiritually bypassing notion (if you’re not totally familiar with what spiritual bypassing is, sign up for THESE daily emails and read the one on this topic. It will blow. your. mind.) that if we step back from our tiny little existences in this world, and see it in the greater scale of a gigantic universe and multiple lifetimes and choosing these bodies to learn certain lessons, that we can feel better about all of it. The old white man taught me that there are always bad actors in this world- the crusades, genocide, and more, so the evils of today’s society aren’t really all that different from the way the world has always been. He teaches that if there’s too much stagnation in the world, that invites forces of destruction, which then paves the path for creation and new life, much like a forest fire clears the way for new growth.
These teachings are super helpful for privileged white people like me who want to feel better about the atrocities in this world. Who want to feel like they’ve found the right answers, and they’ve got it figured out. Who want to put themselves in a position of superiority in the world compared to other people who haven’t yet found this path. Who want to focus solely on spiritual growth and bliss and enlightenment.
But these teachings are dangerous to everyone, when they are not taught in the context of the realities of our world. They are dangerous to the privileged people within our meditation (and larger wellness) community, because it keeps us firmly entrenched in the spiritually-bypassing, white supremacy culture. They make us insensitive and harmful and a huge part of the problem, because we can say ‘oh they chose that body for a specific reason’ or ‘without destruction we can’t have creation’ and keep ignoring the realities of systemic racism.
But more importantly, these teachings are dangerous to BIPOC, because the teachings keep them marginalized. These teachings invalidate their experience as anything and everything other than ‘we are all one thing’ because their reality shows them otherwise. As white spiritual and wellness people, our lived experience of these teachings creates trauma.
On another level, these teachings also insinuate that we, in our meditation community, are somehow more evolved or advanced, that we have it truly figured out. We won the reincarnation lottery, we are closer to full enlightenment.
It sounds crazy as I write it, but I was knee-deep in that mindset for years, as many in this and other meditation traditions are, and I’m still clawing my way out of it.
My consciousness has never expanded so much as I learn about, and do the internal work to try to start correcting, my role in white body supremacy culture. And I don’t think I’d have the ability to do this work if I wasn’t a long-time meditator, if I didn’t have this belief that we are all one thing, and if I didn’t deeply question how that plays out in reality, in the everyday lives of humans on this planet.
Here’s what I’ve finally come up with (and please, future Jill, show me some compassion if I’m STILL getting it wrong):
1. We, white people in the spiritual and wellness world (including myself), are really good at establishing ourselves in Being, but we are total crap at ‘performing action’. Or, at least we’ve been taught to be total crap at the action part. ‘Performing action’ MUST mean more than just meditating to expand my own consciousness. It has to mean more than teaching others to meditate to expand their own consciousness. It has to mean that we work tirelessly, relentlessly, to make ‘we are all one thing’ a reality for everyone who lives on our planet. Not just the people who can afford to take our meditation course. Not just for people that make us feel comfortable.
So, yes, establish yourself in Being. Meditate. Do yoga. Bring positive energy into the world. But also, do the hard work- the ‘action’- to realize how your reality impacts others. How you are complicit in a system that oppresses and marginalizes. How no one is truly enlightened and free until we are all free. Say no to the ultimate selfishness of a spiritual path, unless that path explicitly includes consciously choosing, again and again, to do everything you can to dismantle white body supremacy culture- however that looks in your life. That path MUST include a way to externalize the teachings. It must include a way to use the teachings to face the discomfort that white people (including, and especially, white spiritual people) feel when truly addressing their own role in systemic racism. The Vedas are literally compelling us to take action, but as often happens in religious or spiritual traditions, we have co-opted the message to meet our own privileged needs.
2. We have to realize that our path is one of many paths. We, as spiritual white people, don’t have anything figured out; in fact, we are the patriarchy. We are the problem. White spiritual people who consider themselves to be highly evolved, but who don’t do the internal and external work surrounding racism, have not at all won the reincarnation lottery. They have not been ‘rewarded’ with their privileged, spiritual life; rather, I believe they have been cursed with it. They are not better than. They still have many lessons to learn, and they are no further on the path than anyone else. The old white man is not enlightened; he is an agent of destruction and he is dangerous.
3. Stop pointing the finger outside of yourself. If we are all one thing, then… guess what? We are all part of the problem! It’s not ‘out there’. It’s you. It’s the old white man. It’s me. Take radical responsibility for being a part of the problem. Say it with me: “I am part of the problem. I am part of the problem. I am part of the problem.” Saying that, and owning that, doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you a part of the solution.
4. By all means, don’t reject meditation and yoga altogether. When taught and practiced correctly, and responsibly, they are life-changing, and can be life-saving. They came from India, from a body of knowledge (the Vedas) that is filled with wisdom and that pre-dates all religion. The old white man didn’t invent the Vedas, and modern science is barely scratching the surface of this ancient wisdom that has been passed down for tens of thousands of years. This body of knowledge contains the tools we need to eradicate systemic racism, but only when we use them correctly. No one owns this knowledge, certainly not white people. But it can be used and harnessed for good, to make real change- both internally and externally.
5. Have compassion. For BIPOC and everyone marginalized by our system, for white people who are getting it wrong and making it worse, and for yourself. I thought I was so wise after my meditation teacher training, because I was brainwashed into believing that I had it all figured out. I thought I was wise when I wrote my post-election blog post in 2016, and again when I wrote my ‘trying to reconcile Vedic knowledge with racism’ blog post last year. Now, I’m not so sure about my own wisdom, but I’m trying to find the truth. I’m getting closer. I’m going to keep failing, but I draw upon my meditation practice to allow that to be ok, and to lean into the discomfort. And I know for sure that the more of this work I do, the more I will truly be able to experience the oneness that underlies everything, that connects everyone. Not by hiding behind walls of bliss and aspiring enlightenment, but by using my meditation practice (and other practices such as tapping) to dig deep and dredge out all of the dirt until all that’s left is truth.