“The experiences of unity among peoples are more important and crucial than all the concepts, prejudices, ideologies, faiths that may divide. And if you can multiply these experiences of unity over a time interval of sufficient duration, you can undermine any barrier that separates one man from the other.”
~ Howard Thurman
I have struggled to write this post for more than a month. I have started it many times, and then, thinking more deeply, started it over, and over, again and again, on paper, in my mind, in my conversations and in my meditations and prayers. I have not stopped thinking about the “incident” at the Northwest Yoga Conference, as it is now commonly called, since the moment that incident occurred.
The last time I wrote, I shared a quote from Howard Thurman, a quote with which I began all of my workshops at the conference. I said that I needed some time to rest in its wisdom, for finding the right words and voice to speak.
“There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”
I have listened for the sound of the genuine, and thought deeply about what I want to say, and how I want to move on from this painful, destructive but also potentially restorative, experience. I will use this incident in my own life, my own teachings and my own exploration of faith, spiritual practice and social justice for many, many years to come. I have awakened, integrated and learned much from what happened and have had many clarifying moments as a result.
One of my students, in response to my first statement wrote, “I can’t imagine what must be testing you so completely. I have faith in your ability to find the best resolution to the issue. Please know you have my faith and support.”
Indeed the entire incident both tested and reinforced my faith, and it was interesting to me that she used the word faith twice in her response. In fact, I was at the opening ceremony of the Northwest Yoga Conference that cold night in February, asked to speak about faith and to provide the participants with an interactive experience where they could explore the idea of faith, what the word means, what the feeling is, and how we can share it with others.
This was not the first time I had spoken about faith and practice at the Northwest Yoga Conference. Four years earlier, I had given the keynote speech and talked about the gifts of our shared practice, inviting students to enter into a deeper relationship with yoga as a spiritual practice. At that time, I was just beginning to dive fully into an understanding of yoga as a mystic tradition, and was at the early stages of my own journey through yoga to a deeper faith in God, turning back to the Christian religion of my childhood and discovering a new relationship to both yoga and Christianity through the perennial tradition.
For me, the experience of the conference this year, the opening ceremony, the rest of the weekend, and the days and weeks that followed, proved to be an exploration of faith, a painful but necessary examination of the practice we came together to share at the yoga conference, and a leap into the darkness as we try to pull apart a web of complexity and reorganize around various truths. This will test our faith, and as tests of faith always do, invite more clarity about our true work, both individually and collectively.
My own experience of faith assures me that it was no accident that I happened to be immersed in the teachings of one of the greatest Black mystics of our time during this period, that I arrived at the conference “on the edge of the inside,” as my teacher Richard Rohr often says, ready to situate myself even further on the margins of the “yoga community,” one in which I had been an uneasy participant for years, no accident that it was in the context of Black History month that this event occurred or that it would prove so violent and divisive, no accident that I had recently dog-eared the pages of Howard Thurman’s “Jesus and the Disinherited” in which he wrote, in 1949,
“It is clear that much of modern life is so impersonal that there is always opportunity for the seeds of hatred to grow unmolested. Where there are contacts devoid of genuine fellowship, such contacts stand in immediate candidacy for hatred.”
I have faith, too, that this event unfolded as it must, and that if we see in it the opportunity for reflection and “centering down,” as Thurman often suggests, that we will grow in our capacity for fellowship, holding complexity, deepening love and radical transformation.
I can only share the work that I have done, the thoughts I have considered, the “truths” that seem to have stuck around the longest with the least amount of ego. This is no final treatise.
While I spoke at the opening ceremony, and witnessed in real time the entirety of what was captured on the now “viral” video, I have come to realize that whatever I might say related to those crucial moments and their aftermath will be of no use to the conversation. What is true, for everyone, is that watching a white woman pull the microphone out of the hands of an Indian woman – at a yoga conference no less – is disturbing at least and traumatizing at worst. It is to this ensuing trauma which we must turn our attention and apply the yoga we love in one its simplest definitions, freedom from suffering. This event brought forth an avalanche of suffering on individual, collective and systemic levels; the unease with the practice, the revelation of a fractured community, and the ever smoldering and insidious wound of racism. To test our faith, to apply our yoga, we must attend to each of these sufferings with great discernment and courage.
But how – when we are so reactive, so divided, when we have become so separate? How can we have that experience of unity such that it might undermine the barriers that cause that separation? And as a yoga community, if this is our current state, this is how we react, this is how we denigrate and exclude each other, this is how little curiosity we have about each others experiences, this is how little control we have over our own triggers, we must ask the question, “does the practice even work?” This harrowing incident gives us an opportunity to ask these important questions, to invite us deeper into awakening and into an individual exploration of our relationship to both the practice of yoga and the concept of community.