Racism and Letting Go

Akron, Ohio centennial parade 1925

Akron, Ohio centennial parade 1925

There’s an old Buddhist poem called Shin Jin Mei (信心銘), which means “Faith Mind Inscription.” It starts off, 至道無難 唯嫌揀択. This means, “To follow (至) the Way (道) is not (ç„¡) difficult (難). Just (唯) avoid (å«Œ) picking (揀) and choosing (択).”

The “picking and choosing” the author of this poem is referring to isn’t choosing what tie to wear or what kind of ice cream to eat. It’s the kind of picking and choosing we do moment by moment within our minds to decide which thoughts we allow as parts of that mental construct we call “self.”

To stop doing this sounds like it would be terribly dangerous. My worry when I first encountered this idea was that if I did not carefully select my thoughts as good and bad, encouraging the good ones and suppressing the bad, I might end up becoming a horrible person. But I tried it anyway because I felt like the people who taught me this thing were trustworthy and decent (though far from anyone’s notion of perfect).

It was a long, slow process. I found that I had to allow a lot of stuff through the filter that I had trained myself throughout my entire life to disallow. Some of it was just random noise, which was annoying but not necessarily disturbing. But some of it was thoughts I had learned to label as bad.

Let me give you one example. I was raised by very socially conscious parents who did not allow racism in their house. I grew up partly in Africa. Why, then, were there racist thoughts in my brain? That was certainly not me! If I did not force those thoughts to cease and desist, wouldn’t I be in danger of becoming just like the racist assholes I lived among when we returned from Nairobi to the nearly all-white Akron suburb of Wadsworth?

I was committed to this practice of allowing everything, so I tried it. And nothing bad happened. I had to face the fact that a propensity for racism was part of who I actually was. But allowing those thoughts to be there didn’t make me turn into a Klansman.

The only way you’re going to get anything even close to peace of mind, is to learn to be at peace with your own mind. You have to learn to be OK with what’s really in there.

Learning to be OK with the fact that you have racist thoughts does not mean you are OK with racism. Instead, it allows you to stop having to prop up the false image that you are good and those racist guys over there are bad. Your approach to racism radically changes. It’s no longer out there. It’s you.

What you define as “evil” and what you define as “you” are not really two different things.

This is not easy. You can consider this as an idea, or you can even decide to believe it because maybe you like it as a notion. But that’s not at all the same as doing the work necessary to fully and completely embrace it.

For me, allowing such thoughts (and more, believe me!) through was terrifying. I no longer felt like I was in control anymore. There was no telling what kind of thing might pop up next. I would sit on my little cushion and not even be me any longer. It felt like everything I ever stood for might vanish. It felt like the ground I stood on was torn out from under my feet.

Yet I survived to tell the tale.

I think this may be the only way to really address these kinds of issues. I’m not saying that Affirmative Action and education and so forth are useless. They certainly make a tremendous difference. It’s just that if we continue to wrongly define the root problem as out there and not within ourselves, we’ll never see what to do about it. If we merely understand intellectually the concept but refuse to look deeply into how we embody these things, we may never actually learn what to do.


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46 Responses

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  1. senorchupacabra
    senorchupacabra April 13, 2015 at 2:40 pm |

    Great article. Reminded me of this essays I read a couple of weeks back: http://disinfo.com/2015/04/ignorance-blissful-difficult-change-things/

  2. Fred
    Fred April 13, 2015 at 3:11 pm |

    “To follow (至) the Way (道) is not (ç„¡) difficult (難). Just (唯) avoid (å«Œ) picking (揀) and choosing (択).” means not clinging to a discriminative, conceptual framework.

  3. red leaf
    red leaf April 13, 2015 at 3:13 pm |

    Hi Brad, helllo everyone,

    Shin Jin Mie is one of my favorite (I know I’m choosing , picking) poems. I always felt it’s meaning was ‘who can say what’s good and what’s bad’ from the point of view of realizing the oneness and interconnectedness of all reality. If anything is said to be ‘good’, then all of reality must be supporting that goodness. Similarly for ‘badness, evil.’ Judging then becomes pointless. What’s left is action without judgment and a sort of confidence and clarity of mind or intuition to know how to act in each situation.

    Brad do you find this to also be true?

    Deep peace and respect to all of you,

    red leaf

    1. Fred
      Fred April 13, 2015 at 3:22 pm |

      “What’s left is action without judgment and a sort of confidence and clarity of mind or intuition to know how to act in each situation.”

      Tony Parsons says that there is just action, but there is no actor/no self to know how to act in each situation.

      So how does anything get done?

      1. Fred
        Fred April 13, 2015 at 3:31 pm |

        “Emptiness here, Emptiness there,but the infinite universe stands always before your eyes.Infinitely large and infinitely small;no difference, for definitions have vanished and no boundaries are seen.

        So too with Beingand non-Being.Don’t waste time in doubts and arguments that have nothing to do with this.One thing, all things:move among and intermingle, without distinction.

        To live in this realizationis to be without anxiety about non-perfection.To live in this faith is the road to non-duality,

        Because the non-dual is one with the trusting mind.Words! The Way is beyond language,for in it there is no yesterday no tomorrow no today.”

      2. red leaf
        red leaf April 13, 2015 at 3:38 pm |

        Eat when hungry.

  4. red leaf
    red leaf April 13, 2015 at 3:29 pm |

    Eat when hungry.

  5. Hungry Ghost
    Hungry Ghost April 13, 2015 at 4:18 pm |

    collaborated on a two hour gastrectomy today – eat when hungry not always true

    1. Fred
      Fred April 13, 2015 at 6:59 pm |

      “In 2010, Dr. Maté became interested in the traditional Amazonian plant medicine ayahuasca and its potential for treating addictions. He partnered with a Peruvian Shipibo ayahuasquero (traditional shamanic healer) and began leading multi-day retreats for addiction treatment”

      Dr Gabor Mate found another way to treat the hungry ghosts.

      1. Fred
        Fred April 13, 2015 at 7:01 pm |

        They wanted heroin but he gave them DMT to cure their hunger.

        1. Shinchan Ohara
          Shinchan Ohara April 14, 2015 at 8:33 am |

          Iboga gets some good results too… but like Ayahuasca, there’s the odd fatality. It might be worth the risk for a chronic crack habit, but probably contra-indicated for less life-threatening addictions.


  6. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote April 13, 2015 at 5:15 pm |

    I got sold on science when I was a kid, I have a science hangover.

    I look at the way people move, and I find that there are differences among the races, more pronounced in some individuals than others.

    I notice that every generation has their own slang, and that a thing that people relate to easily in other people is the slang they use, the music they listen to, and the way they relate to society and life. There’s also body english, and that accounts for a big part of the difference in the way people move, but not all of it.

    Sometimes, timely action necessitates the extension of the mind of friendliness through the four quarters, through the entire world, above and below, and likewise the mind of compassion, of sympathetic joy, and of equanimity. To be in an unfamiliar place, among people who move differently by virtue of their anatomy, and who in addition have a different body english and a different way of relating to society, special attention must be paid to the basis of action.

    1. Leah
      Leah April 14, 2015 at 1:27 am |


      That’s interesting. I haven’t ever thought that people move a certain way according to race. I’ve always thought it was demographics–social class and upbringing as well as location.

      For example, Somalian-born supermodel Iman doesn’t walk the same way as tough black girls in the ‘hood walk. Barack Obama doesn’t strut like black boys (and others) in Harlem strut (I spent a lot of time in NYC for awhile).

      The lower-income, rural-raised southern white guy across the street (and others here) carries himself more like black boys in the ‘hood compared to the obviously higher-income, black university student who lives in my building. And said white guy listens to hip-hop and rap whereas I’ve heard classical music coming out of my black neighbor’s window a few times.

      And white, lower-income women in my apartment complex carry themselves (and dress themselves, do their hair etc) much like lower-income black or Latina women compared to white, black, hispanic, or Asian (or whatever) university women from higher income backgrounds.

      And Asian folks–Chinese etc.–seem to take small, quick steps if you’re in Chinatown in NYC or Philadelphia (I’m from Philly). But here (north central Florida) university students–nope. Not so much.

      Seems to me more commonalities exist among similar education/income groups than racial groups. People assimilate and copy one another (usually unconsciously) in a group that they’re a part of.

  7. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote April 13, 2015 at 5:20 pm |

    “highly imaginative riffing off all sorts of mystical notions”- Conrad, have you ever seen my letter to Brian Stross, The Gospel of Mary and the Mesoamerican Sacrum Bone?

    Brian liked it!

  8. Mumbles
    Mumbles April 13, 2015 at 7:51 pm |

    I just realized I haven’t actually read Brad’s post in maybe a year, only the comments.

    1. Mumbles
      Mumbles April 13, 2015 at 7:53 pm |

      (It’s probably been longer than a year)

  9. Leah
    Leah April 13, 2015 at 10:14 pm |

    Interesting post. I’ve had all sorts of unwelcome thoughts in my mind at different times, including racist thoughts. Just today I had some very nasty words in mind for some people who gave me a hard time on a Facebook group, but I didn’t think I was bad or the thoughts were bad. I know that’s just how I was brought up to respond to harsh words. Did I respond in kind or use those nasty words? No, although I didn’t act like a doormat either. (I know I’m placing judgment on things here for convenience).

    With the occasional racist thoughts, it’s like something will trigger a memory (or something), and a certain sentence is suddenly in my mind. That feels worse than today’s angry thoughts and four-letter words. I remember feeling shocked a few times. Same thing, though: I heard it somewhere and it stuck. It doesn’t make me a bad person or someone with nasty thoughts any more than other stuff.

    But it does say what you’re saying, that racism isn’t just other people. It’s me too. We’re all a part of the whole she-bang. I guess you could call it a collective thing. Like violence–I loath violence, but I’m a part of it because I can be violent too (at least in words as well as thoughts).

    I also have what seems to me stronger or more embedded “-ism” type thoughts than racism thoughts, though. Let’s just say I have my pet peeves with some people, and it has nothing to do with skin color, ethnicity, sexuality, race, or the usual. I say “stronger” because they’re more entangled in my brain or beliefs because of my own negative experiences rather than just stuff I’ve heard. But as you say, they don’t make me a bad person, and they’re not bad or good or better or worse or whatever judgment in themselves.

    I’m not much for repression (don’t know how to do that), so I’ve been working on understanding and compassion, kind of reframing my outlook.

  10. Zafu
    Zafu April 14, 2015 at 7:10 am |

    So basically we need to embrace our inner racist.

    Have you been watching Opra again, Brad?

    1. Shinchan Ohara
      Shinchan Ohara April 14, 2015 at 8:21 am |

      I embrace my inner Zafu. Then I spank it soundly, and send it to bed without any supper.

  11. Shinchan Ohara
    Shinchan Ohara April 14, 2015 at 8:20 am |

    Thanks for your article today, Brad. It reminded me of this talk I watched recently…


  12. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote April 14, 2015 at 9:23 am |

    Hi, Leah; yes, I’ve noticed that too, that education and upbringing can change a person’s use of language, their demeanor, and their gesture. But I’ll give you an example of someone whose body speaks of a different anatomy in motion:


    Yes, Jimmy Fallon definitely moves differently than the other two people in this video, don’t you agree?

    1. Leah
      Leah April 14, 2015 at 12:54 pm |

      Haha Mark that’s funny. As for how Jimmy Fallon moves in that video–he’s acting. He’s an actor. He’s intentionally appearing submissive, unsure, and all that. It’s not his natural movement, the way he would walk if he were hustling down the street, unselfconsciously, alone. Same for the others. They’re on camera.

      Maybe I’m missing the joke 🙂

      It’s really all about socialization. For me, as an example, I can hardly understand what my younger siblings mean when they talk–I don’t share the same slang, communication “system”, body language, music, almost anything because I didn’t grow up where they did or in the same situation. I went to uni, they didn’t, etc.

  13. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon April 14, 2015 at 9:31 am |

    Racism is also common in fictional stories…

    “Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon.
    And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.
    But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us.
    But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
    Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me.
    But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.”
    – Matthew 15:21 – 15:26

    “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”
    – Matthew 7:6

    “These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not:
    But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
    – Matthew 10:5 – 10:6

    1. shade
      shade April 14, 2015 at 11:14 am |

      I’ve got to jump in here. Are these quotes supposed to demonstrate that the gospels in general and Jesus in particular are “racist”? . That’s just ridiculous. Jesus was always hanging out with people he wasn’t supposed to be hanging out with, like that Samaritan woman by the well in John 4. (The Samaritans descended from the Israelites but had intermarried with the Assyrians for generations and, by the time of Jesus, were especially despised by “the Jews”) But that quote from Matthew 15 in particular you take completely out of context. You just lopped off the end of the story! To wit, this:

      “And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.
      Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.”

      In the end the Canaanite woman gets pulled into the fold and receives a special blessing from Jesus. What’s important is her faith, not her ethnicity or tribal affiliation . That’s the opposite of racism.

      1. The Grand Canyon
        The Grand Canyon April 14, 2015 at 12:06 pm |

        That does not change the fact that in that story and elsewhere Jesus implies that that woman, and all Gentiles, are dogs, swine, and inferior to Jews.

        If a homeless black man asked you for spare change and at first you ignored him and then you called him a monkey but you eventually give him some money, that act of charity would not negate the racist insult.

  14. Jinzang
    Jinzang April 14, 2015 at 9:55 am |

    I understood the verse to mean don’t judge the circumstances that you find yourself in as good or bad. Judging circumstances as good or bad is just a superimposition of your mind.

    But your interpretation of the verse sounds very good too.

  15. Shinchan Ohara
    Shinchan Ohara April 14, 2015 at 10:06 am |

    Thinking about Brad’s post, and also on what Hungry Ghost and Fred commented about cravings and addictions…

    One effect of purgative concoctions like Ayahuasca and Iboga is that the person taking them can spew up his/her conscience. I saw a documentary where an explorer took Iboga, and got vivid flashbacks to times in his life where he’d harmed people emotionally. He said he saw the situation through the others’ eyes, and felt their feelings. I wonder if that’s part of how those substances help addicts get clean: by letting them expiate an unconscious sense of shame or guilt? I also wonder if a similar mechanism occurs in people who learn deep acceptance, shinjinmei style?

    Most chronic narcotics addicts suffered abuse and neglect in early life (Dr Mate’s book talks about that). Abused kids blame themselves, rather than their ‘caregivers’, and end up carrying a deep sense of shame through life… which is impossible to live with, and has to be drowned in opiates. So it makes sense that taking a drug that either – forces you to experience shame and guilt in all its rawness and learn to live through it; or lets you experience a state that transcends guilt/innocence – could dig out addiction at the root.

    Similarly – while I still think it’s possible to be a ‘good guy’ or be a ‘bad guy’, I’m stuck somewhere on the grubby samsaric pendulum that runs from self-righteous indignation to shamefaced self loathing. If I can accept everything, including my own hostile or negative thought patterns, I’m off it. At the expense of ever getting to feel superior, or getting to wallow in self-pity

    I guess that’s where the ‘Faith’ comes into the ‘Faith Mind Inscription’. You need to trust that your body/mind (or the universe, or your teacher) have wisdom that your thinking can’t access, before you go jump into the deep end of controlling-nothing-accepting-everything-zen… without that trust, it would be too scary to contemplate.

    It sounds like shikantaza could be a safer, if slower, cure for addicts than the ayahuasca (with the downside that you’d have to be drug free for a while before shikantaza could even be an option, whereas Ayahuasca is good anytime, any place, anywhere).

  16. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon April 14, 2015 at 11:15 am |

    “The book relates the development of language to the development of myths, religions, and cultic practices in world cultures. Allegro believed he could prove, through etymology, that the roots of Christianity, as of many other religions, lay in fertility cults, and that cult practices, such as ingesting visionary plants (“psychedelics” or “entheogens”) to perceive the mind of God, persisted into the early Christian era, and to some unspecified extent into the 13th century with reoccurrences in the 18th century and mid-20th century, as he interprets the Plaincourault chapel’s fresco to be an accurate depiction of the ritual ingestion of Amanita muscaria as the Eucharist. Allegro argued that Jesus never existed and was a mythological creation of early Christians under the influence of psychoactive mushroom extracts such as psilocybin.”

    1. The Grand Canyon
      The Grand Canyon April 14, 2015 at 12:07 pm |
    2. Shinchan Ohara
      Shinchan Ohara April 14, 2015 at 12:12 pm |

      The obscure origins of the Christian religion make it a natural subject for “hidden history” conspiracy theories. Dozens, if not hundreds of books have been written over the years, arguing, among other things, that Jesus was a magic mushroom, a solar deity, an Essene or a guerilla fighter sanitized to make him more palatable to the Romans. Some authors claim that Jesus was actually the deified Julius Caesar or that the gospels were propaganda written by the Flavian emperors to help pacify a rebellious province. Whatever the argument, the scarcity of original sources and the ambiguous nature of the evidence leave a lot of room for entertaining speculation.

      The plot thickens…


    3. The Grand Canyon
      The Grand Canyon April 14, 2015 at 12:29 pm |
  17. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote April 14, 2015 at 2:05 pm |

    “And the cool thing is that no interpretation needs to be true, they just need to be meaningful.”

    I think the thing I crave is relationship, not so much meaning. You could say they’re the same thing, except that I can experience relationship without meaning. As in, the beauty of the sunrise.

    Like to see Michelle Obama do this!


    1. Zafu
      Zafu April 14, 2015 at 2:31 pm |

      How do you know that sunrises are beautiful? Maybe they are ugly.

  18. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote April 14, 2015 at 8:10 pm |

    “… All the buddhas of past, present, and future are thieves too, the successive generations of patriarchs are thieves too. They were well able to snatch away people’s eyes. As for the skill not to blunder, I only approve Chao Chou. But tell me, how does he make a good thief? ‘Chen Chou produces big turnips.'”

    (Blue Cliff Record Case 30, trans. Cleary & Cleary)

    How can anybody see the sunrise, if their eyes have been snatched?

    1. Fred
      Fred April 15, 2015 at 4:36 am |

      yellow, mellow custard
      from a dead dog’s eye
      who fails to see
      the beauty in that?

  19. Mumbles
    Mumbles April 15, 2015 at 4:44 am |
  20. Conrad
    Conrad April 15, 2015 at 7:14 am |

    Mark, thanks for the link. Interesting stuff, but the physiological analysis is out of my league. Breath is in many respects at the practical core of my moment-to-moment practice, but I don’t analyze it at all. Nada. I simply breathe the life force and let it make me, rather than make any effort to manipulate it or coordinate it or anything like that. So I practice “natural pranayama”, and not any strategic breath discipline. But I do agree that breath is spirit is consciousness-in-life.

  21. Andy
    Andy April 15, 2015 at 8:42 am |

    How do they know sunrises are beautiful?
    Maybe you are ugly.
    Know you are maybe ugly sunrises.
    How beautiful are they?

    Do they know how you are maybe ugly?
    Do they know how you are maybe beautiful?
    Sunrises are beautiful.
    Sunrises are ugly.

    Maybe they are beautiful.
    Maybe you are beautiful.
    How do you know sunrises are ugly?
    How do they know sunrises are ugly?

    Know you are maybe beautiful sunrises.
    How ugly are they?
    “How do you know sunrises are beautiful?
    Maybe they are ugly.”

    1. Mark Foote
      Mark Foote April 15, 2015 at 3:30 pm |

      Applause, applause! That was just ______, I can hear Zafu now. 😉

  22. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote April 15, 2015 at 3:39 pm |

    It’s out of my league, too, Conrad, but I don’t seem to get a choice. I think it was ’85 when I figured that out, and went head first.

    Still, it’s like the button on Jane Kosminsky in that Alexander technique film with William Hurt- “I don’t do anything- can you?”, it said. Jane explained that visualization is all that’s necessary, no additional effort should be applied. I would take it a step further and say coming to one’s senses is all that’s necessary, and only “natural pranayama” should be applied (& good luck applying that to anything).

  23. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote April 15, 2015 at 3:43 pm |

    Waking up and falling asleep as appropriate, at your service.

  24. Conrad
    Conrad April 15, 2015 at 8:54 pm |

    I very much enjoy not applying techniques to anything.

Comments are closed.