Emancipating Ourselves from Mental Enslavement

By Stephen Kent

Saturday June 19 is Juneteenth, celebrated by many as the end of slavery in the United States.  The Garrison Institute is observing it with a daylong virtual meditation retreat for the Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) community. It’s designed for anyone who self-identifies as Black, LatinX, indigenous, of Asian descent, or as part of any other community of color. Led by Kaira Jewel Lingo and Dr. Marisela Gomez, MD, PhD, both long-time meditation teachers in the Plum Village tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, the BIPOC community retreat is titled, “Emancipating Ourselves from Mental Enslavement: A BIPOC Day of Mindfulness.”

If you hear echoes of Bob Marley in that title, it’s not accidental.  “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds,” is a line from his “Redemption Song.” The song title arose in Kaira Jewel’s mind when thinking of a theme for the retreat. We asked her and Marisela what they thought this mental “emancipation” might mean to BIPOC community members and meditation practitioners today, 156 years after the first Juneteenth. Their answer, like our history, is layered:

Juneteenth — also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, and Emancipation Day – was first celebrated in Galveston, Texas in 1865, more than two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  It took that long for Union troops to announce and enforce it in Texas, which was the most remote state in the Confederacy. 

That lag time foreshadowed how it took many more decades to end indentured servitude (which persisted into the 20th century,) Jim Crow, and official segregation. Unofficial but still open and institutionalized discrimination and violence against people of color persist in life in the U.S. today, whether it’s continued police killings of Black people, shootings targeting people of Asian descent in Atlanta in March, rising hate crimes against LatinX people, or rampant unsolved murders and violence against indigenous women and girls. In that sense the consequences of slavery and racism are still starkly present in our lives, as is the need for emancipation from them.

“The Emancipation Proclamation was supposed to be the legal end of slavery, but people felt that Juneteenth in 1865 was the more concrete end,” said Dr. Marisela Gomez, who is of Afro-LatinX ancestry.  But, as she points out, since enslavement is an inward mental construct as well as an instrument of outward oppression, emancipation is also self-liberation — an act of will, a question of one’s own consciousness. “People experienced enslavement in their bodies and their minds. They felt Juneteenth was the day to celebrate as a kind of self-proclamation that the spirit of enslavement as it was then known was over.  The deeper question is, how do we emancipate ourselves from mental enslavement?”

“We celebrate the liberation of enslaved Africans on Juneteenth,” said Kaira Jewel Lingo, who is Black and biracial. “But we are still not free in our minds as long as we are caught by our suffering, fear, anxiety, and internalized oppression. Today in the 21st century, there is still work for each of us to do to be free on a deeper level.”

That’s certainly true for all of us, regardless of race or class, and relieving that suffering is a fundamental motivation for practicing mindfulness. Yet it’s not as if BIPOC practitioners can simply ignore the racial oppression they have experienced an attempt to transcend identity or selfhood in meditation, Kaira Jewel says.

“There can be a spiritual bypassing if we skip over that step of coming home to our experience and honoring our identities as BIPOC people. That isn’t all of who we are, but we still need to honor it, and not be ashamed of it or hide it. We need to create space for and learn more about our unique lineages and heritage in order to see our true nature, to see that we are made up of our parents, our ancestors, the food we eat, the books we read, the people who impacted us and those whom we’ve impacted. These are all part of us, though we do not necessarily consider them ‘ourselves.’ Emancipation is seeing clearly who we are in our unique identities so we can also see that we are much larger than this, we are all the things that make us up, which is the whole universe. But to get there, we need the time and space to honor what we’ve experienced as people who identify as BIPOC.”

To that end, the June 19 virtual retreat will feature guided mindfulness meditation, deep relaxation, teachings from Kaira Jewel and Marisela, group sharing, singing, movement and somatic practices. Karira Jewel says these practices are meant to “nourish joy, touch freedom, and build community.”  Marisela says they’re also designed to help keep us awake as we emerge from a hard year of disruption and feel the pull toward falling back asleep.  In her blog on the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death, she writes:

This is the intention that we must carry: I will stay woke for racial justice….On the anniversary of George Floyd’s killing and 14 months into a pandemic, almost 50% of the US has been vaccinated against COVID19. And while this may protect us from being infected with the virus while we resume our normal busy way of being in the world, it also supports us falling back to sleep to racial justice….This is a call out to all those whose heart broke open during these past 12 months: don’t close it back up. Keep feeling that trauma of racism and ignorance as this forces us to find ways to heal and understand our collective history of racial injustices and its legacy, so we can recover ourselves…. Don’t go back to sleep…. Stay woke, whatever it takes.

Marisela and Kaira Jewel both studied and practiced with Thich Nhat Hanh, the founder of the engaged Buddhism movement, which sought peace by engaging the violent colonization and imperialism of the Vietnam War.  Thich Nhat Hanh famously influenced Martin Luther King’s stance on the War. Kaira Jewel’s social justice orientation dates back to her childhood and her parents’ involvement in the civil rights movement (her father worked with Dr. King).  Marisela has been a social activist in Baltimore for over 30 years, since she was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins.  Their commitment to social justice informs their views of how social identity ramifies in meditation practice. 

“Supposedly, you drop your racial identity and class status and discriminatory mindset at the retreat center door, but how absurd is that?” Marisela said. “Engaged Buddhism says not only don’t we drop these identities, we should engage them in meditation. If there is a fire around you, you don’t just breathe and meditate while it burns. You take care of it. In Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh came out of the temple, engaged communities, helped them learn how to farm the contaminated soil, gave them tools to educate their children. This is also practice.”

In 2004, Deer Park Monastery in California was the first Plum Village center in the U.S. to offer a meditation retreat for people of color, though it proved hard to keep organizing one every year, since, as Marisela points out, “Buddhism is a majority white, middle-class practice. You have to be exposed to it somehow, you have to have the time, etc. So we must look into how to invite more people into our practice spaces so they can benefit from this beautiful chance to heal. We appreciate how the Garrison Institute is continuing to hold space for this, bringing racial justice issues forward in a real way, not just into the conversation, but also into what they’re doing.”

In the case of the Juneteenth retreat and weekly BIPOC sangha meditations the Institute hosts, the space is virtual. That extends the reach of these events and makes them accessible to anyone, anywhere. All you need is a smartphone or laptop with the Zoom app downloaded. For more information and registration, click here.

You can order a copy of Kaira Jewel Lingo’s forthcoming book, We Were Made for These Times: Ten Lessons on Moving Through Change, Loss, And Disruption, here, and for more information, visit www.kairajewel.com. You can view Dr. Marisela Gomez’s TEDTalk here, and for more information, visit www.mariselabgomez.com.

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Stephen Kent is the president of KentCom LLC, a public interest PR practice serving non-profits working on environmental, peace and social justice issues.

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