For Desmond Tutu and Thich Nhat Hanh
“Spiritual bypassing,” a term coined by the American Buddhist teacher, John Welwood, is the “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” Spiritual bypassing is a misguided attempt at premature transcendence, a way of separating ourselves from our common humanity. Bypassing is a denial of the task of living through all the absurd paradoxes we are confronted with during our lifetimes. Worse, it’s an attempt to separate from the inseparable, and, as mindfulness teacher Sebene Salassie argues in You Belong: A Call for Connection, “[t]he delusion of separation is at the heart of not belonging.”
A popular approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion work might be called woke bypassing: the tendency of institutions and the people—all people—who serve those institutions to bypass unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks and claim a level of enlightened transcendence that belies the reality of our fallibility. Consider: How quickly was the [email protected] movement swept under the rug by a “diversity and inclusivity” statement penned by a Board of Trustees or administration? How is the focus on equity and inclusion work contingent on social perception? How did your school’s “diversity and inclusion” roadmap get redirected when parents voiced concerns? Did you reroute to avoid parents or engage them? So many of us have wanted to get to the mountaintop without the struggle, and when we do, we often focus on semantics, not hearts. We often demand an immediate revolution instead of trusting that evolution requires patience, understanding, compassion, and love. This woke bypassing, like spiritual bypassing, favors “[a]bsolute truth […] over relative truth, the impersonal over the personal, emptiness over form, transcendence over embodiment, and detachment over feeling.” Bypassing is the absence of presence, which is why invitations to be present and embodied through yoga and meditation each morning, as well as the emphasis on indigenous practices, at this year’s NAIS People of Color Conference (POCC), were truly radical.
Dharma practitioner Martin Alyward retells a story about how his teacher showed him what presence truly means:
After the first day [of painting windows, my teacher] said to me, “Look, stop, your problem is you’re trying to paint the windows. Just stop. Just take care of the brushstrokes, and let God paint the windows. It’s not your responsibility. You just take care.” And I started to notice the smell and the way the light caught the paint and just to really give myself to that process. Sure enough, incredibly to me at the end of four or five days of sanding and painting, to stand back and see all these red shutters on the windows of the ashram, it did feel like that to me. It was like, “Oh, I took care of the brushstrokes. And God has painted the windows.”
The yoga and meditation, for example, were opportunities for us to avoid the woke bypass and prepare to paint the windows as we work to reveal our interdependence, which is at the heart of belonging. Yoga and meditation can also be used to create a sense of calm and peace that will help us engage with “unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks” before retreating to one side or another.
Contemplative traditions are part of a (r)evolution, a re-emergence of knowledge that has been, in many cases, lost, ignored, or buried. Salassie argues that this “epistemicide”—this “killing of knowledge” by colonization, domination, modernization—“is a primary reason we as moderns have lost our sense of belonging.” And this “epistemicide” applies to both East and West, from indigenous practices to Christian rituals. Consider the words of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk:
God is the ultimate nonviolent one, so we dare not accept any theory of salvation that is based on violence,
exclusion, social pressure, or moral coercion. When we do, these are legitimated as a proper way of life.
God saves by loving and including, not by excluding and punishing. (emphasis mine)
This epistemicide—this forgetting—has left us longing for a framework that helps us make sense of the world, to understand our relationship with it, to unveil the belonging always already present. We have forgotten what John Muir wrote in his journal on July 27th, 1869: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.” These contemplative traditions, then, are not calls to transcend, they are calls for recognition—the recognition that we are interdependent, that we belong to everything and everyone, that the “invisible cords” of our belonging are unbreakable, no matter how hard we try.
The Belonging Apocalypse
Two great spiritual leaders have recently died, Desmond Tutu and Thich Nhat Hanh. Throughout their lifetimes, both men emphasized concepts of interdependence to combat the grand, traditionally Western, narrative of the separate, individual self. Desmond Tutu used the concept of Ubuntu: “I am because you are.” Thich Nhat Hanh called it “interbeing.” Again, we hear the reality of our interdependence, the recognition that we belong to it all. This reality can be difficult to accept for anyone, perhaps especially diversity and inclusion practitioners, who have to grapple with its implications:
- We have always belonged; separation is delusion. Our work is to reveal the interdependence we cannot escape.
- That means people with intolerant, inequitable, exclusive, racist, sexist, etc. ideas belong, too, whoever they are and wherever on the political spectrum they hover. Separating ourselves from them is woke bypassing, because if we are truly awake, we will know what an impossibility separation is. Healing begins with relationship.
- Separation is a delusion many people suffer from, even ourselves at times, and egocentrism and self-righteousness are at the core of this delusion.
Walt Whitman famously symbolized belonging by using his round table where “the poet” invited the prostitute and the slave and everyone else to sit, a truly democratic appeal in the 19th century, yet this circle betrays a misunderstanding about belonging. We are all already at the table. Where else could we be? There is no entry, no ticket, no price of admission. You were born, you belong to it all. A web might be the only symbol that can encompass belonging. As Alan Watts said, “We didn’t come into this world. We came out of it.”
Our contemplative traditions simply remind us of the fact, make us aware that:
[…] the forces of oppression need not even magically disappear (though that would be cool) for us to
experience belonging. And get this: we also don’t need to feel belonging to belong. Belonging is truth and
it is the fundamental nature of reality right here and now, whether we feel it or not.Selassie
None of this upends the reality that our communities—students, teachers, administrators, parents—are always searching for signs of belonging, a process researcher Stephen Porges calls neuroception (i.e. our brains are constantly scanning for signs of safety). Though we need to use strategies that cultivate systemic belonging in our classrooms and beyond—and the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning published a great article in the Winter issue of Independent School magazine about this topic—these strategies are a call to the awareness of belonging, not an invitation to start belonging. All of our students always already belong, so how do we teach them that? This is a radical mind shift that prevents us from bypassing the challenging work of building more equitable and inclusive environments. When considering the implications of neuroplasticity—that we are always already interdependent, that we are always shaping each other’s brains—you see that you can only sense unbelonging, but this isn’t true (though its impact is real): we are all connected whether we like it or not. This is the belonging apocalypse, the “unveiling” of what has always been. When we think about belonging as a state to achieve, we are working from a place of exclusion. And in that, there is an implicit suggestion that some students don’t belong. This is a deficit mindset. Great teachers reveal: they reveal the value of each student, they reveal the sacredness of each student, they reveal the interdependence that is the foundation of equity and inclusion work.
In Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul, John Phillip Newell, a teacher of Celtic Christianity, summarizes our reality:
We now know too much about the interrelatedness of all life to pretend that well-being can be sought for
one part alone and not for the whole, for only one religion, one nation, one species. There is no returning to
the limited notion of sacredness as if it were somehow the preserve of one particular people over another, of
one race, gender, or sexual orientation. Sacredness is the birthright of all that is.
Yes, we teachers are there to prepare students for their futures, but we often limit ourselves by thinking about that future in terms of how they will perform in the economy. Important, absolutely. But if teachers can help students discover the sacredness, the divine, the Christ, the Buddha, the light that already dwells within them, if they can reveal the interrelatedness of all life, then hearts will be changed, and the semantics of our current social and political battles will lose their power. This is the great awakening, not to our separation but to our interdependence.
Start from there in your classrooms. That’s the foundation the strategies for cueing belonging spawn from, whether you’re setting high expectations for all students by providing “wise feedback” or integrating more equitable grading practices. In schools, as elsewhere, we suffer from the delusion that our differences—our socioeconomic status, politics, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion—separate us, when in fact, they bind us. It is the interaction of all these things that should be the focus of our equity and inclusion work, absolutely, yet all of these identities are like waves on the water, unique in size, shape, strength, and scope, but still inseparable from the ocean of belonging. Again, separation is a delusion.
Delusion “hides what is real,” Sayadaw U Tejaniya claims, “and then throws up an illusion for us to see and fools us into believing that is the reality.” The popular narrative, the delusion, is that there are certain people who belong and others who do not belong. This is inaccurate. We experienced this delusion at times during this year’s POCC, often at workshops that were rhetorically energetic. Anti-racism, white supremacy, power: All the usual semantics were there, used in a way that didn’t reveal belonging but reinforced the delusion of separation. And “separation begets domination,” according to Selassie. This language spawns from woke bypassing, not wisdom and understanding. It creates dichotomies instead of pushing us to explore the complexity of how difference and belonging are always present and inseparable and should be celebrated. Some of this rhetorical energy came from a place of justified anger, but justified anger can still be poisonous, and this approach should not drive equity and inclusion work moving forward. It leads to the woke bypass because, though it may generate applause publicly, it avoids navigating the “muck” of belonging, which is where the real work is.
Many of us were heartened at the POCC by the return to contemplative traditions; by the return to silence, wisdom, presence, and embodiment; by the celebration of and return to indigenous knowledge that has often been excluded from the conversation. There is great potential in this approach, and our commitment to it will likely bear paradoxical fruit: the celebration, acceptance, recognition, and empowerment of difference in the midst of always already belonging.