I want to write about self-ignorance.
Self-ignorance is ordinary and potentially destructive:
Ordinary because we all harbor unknown beliefs and attitudes; Potentially destructive because this unexplored territory is filled with landmines.
I believe Jesus is talking about self-ignorance in The Gospel According to Thomas, where he says:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.”
I am prone to self-ignorance as much as anyone, but the first time I identified its destructive power, it was at work in someone else. A few months after my mother died in 2011, my dear friend of 25 years—a consistently supportive, compassionate friend–dropped me.
My friend Risa (as I will call her), had taught me to embrace human complexity and contradiction.
But now she accused me of falsely grieving the loss of my mother. With eloquent zeal, she wrote to me, “We have always hated our mothers! You cannot be suffering her loss. You are either lying or deluding yourself.” She demanded that I admit that I was not in pain about my mother’s death.
I hadn’t known what to expect from the grieving process, but now that I was in it, I let it unfold without censorship. I told Risa this. I wrote to her that, as far as I could tell, the root-shaking fear and sadness was real.
I asked her to respect that I was being authentic, and doing what I needed to do. In her (final) response to me, she said it was time for us to part ways. She refused any further contact.
Wow. I did not know this ruthless, judgmental Risa. It was as if a stranger had hijacked her.
Whatever was going on with her made her willing to lose our precious shared history. And so I met the destroyer aspect of self-ignorance.
I now know that when we come up against something that is intolerable to feel, we will do anything to avoid feeling it—anything. Even discard a longstanding friendship.
Somehow my response to my mother’s death caused Risa to feel something she couldn’t tolerate. She had to get rid of me.
I lost my mom and my close friend that year. Ironically, Risa made certain that I had something “authentic” to grieve about.
Something similar happened recently with a beloved neighbor. I was dealing with a crisis, and she took it personally. For her, my crisis was “too close to home.” She was terrified that my misfortune would rub off, even though this was extremely unlikely.
She showed up at my door on the second day of my crisis.
I was exhausted and overwhelmed, wondering if I could endure the marathon of challenges before me. In this vulnerable state I opened the door to my kind neighbor.
But my kind neighbor launched into a tirade of righteous scolding. She blamed my crisis on my “irresponsible” actions and pronounced our friendship at risk. She said, “This is a dealbreaker.”
Her words struck me down. She did not seem to notice me crouching on the floor, trying not to faint.
Where was my empathic, helpful neighbor? Who was this mean stranger? Nothing in her manner conveyed even the most basic recognition of my humanity or situation.
She finished condemning me and left.
I deliberately avoided my neighbor after that. I was trying to protect my heart and save my emotional energy for the difficult weeks ahead.
Eventually I ran into her, and she said she had missed me, and hoped that our friendship could “get back to normal” once my crisis was resolved. She did not apologize for her tirade, nor she did she offer any comfort or assistance.
I blurted out my doubts that our friendship could ever go back to what it was; her words had hurt my feelings so terribly. She seemed confused to hear this. Offended. As if she had no memory of how cruel she had been.
is true that my kind neighbor did not deserve my mistrust. But my cruel neighbor did.
Thinking of her as two personas, Kind Neighbor and her evil twin, Cruel Neighbor, helped me make sense of her behavior.
What do I mean by evil twin?
I mean what Jesus meant when he said: “If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.”
Destroy you, or your relationships.
Given the right stimulus, such as being profoundly triggered, your deeply buried fears and beliefs can erupt in harmful actions.
Afterwards, if you are invested in seeing yourself as a “good person” at all costs, you will likely minimize or forget how you acted (or failed to act). That hidden version of you will slip back into the shadows until the next time.
In this sense, we all have evil twins.
We can reclaim and re-purpose our evil twins.
It is in the best interest of ourselves and everyone around us to practice acknowledging, feeling and owning the hidden aspects of ourselves.
The kind of “owning” that I recommend is not the same as solidifying oneself into a static identity of an “evil” or “good” person. Although the expression “evil twin” sounds like the name for a “real” persona, I mean it half humorously.
I believe we are fluid, uncategorizeable beings. And we are choiceful beings. We can set the intention to bring what is unconscious into consciousness to minimize harm to ourselves and others.
DANGEROUS & DEADLY
If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you can be dangerous and even deadly. This holds true for communities as well as individuals.
I will speak now of my own white community/communities.
The majority of white people in North America live racially segregated lives.
This segregation prevents most white communities from witnessing firsthand the predictable, brutal treatment by police of Black and brown people. “Business as usual” policing of Black and brown people looks like habitual disrespect and disruption,torture and murder.
Police “business as usual” for white people looks very different. My experience is typical for a white woman. While I do not feel at ease with the police, my lived experience has not led me to expect that the police will gun me down if I reach for my wallet or run away. There is a vast gulf between white andBlack (and Native American and Latino) communities’ direct experience with police departments.
This combination of structural segregation and starkly different treatment by police disconnects white communities from communities of color. This double disconnect feeds the collective white self-ignorance about how our own privileged treatment co-arises with the mistreatment of Black people and people of color.
As James Baldwin wrote in 1963 in The Fire Next Time: “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.”
Thus we see the white consensus mind throughout North America has been expressing outrage over (a minority of) protesters’ vandalism and property damage, instead of outrage over the severing of a Black man’s spine, or the taking of a Black life.
If you are invested in seeing yourself as a good person at all costs, you tend to disavow or forget your unkind actions. If we are invested in seeing the justice system that serves the white community as benevolent at all costs, we tend to overlook the casual cruelty inflicted by police on communities of color. Instead, we blame the victim. White folks like me habitually turn our backs on what is being done in our name, and allow brutality to carry on in our collective shadow.
If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you.
Black activists and their allies in Ferguson, Baltimore, Oakland and other places are bringing forth what is within the North American policing system.
These activists are bringing into the light the hidden (hidden only to white people) everyday police attitudes-in-action that demean and destroy people of African descent. This consciousness raising is a profound gift to all of us. Bringing forth what is within our communities will save us.
Implicit bias is another aspect of self-ignorance. Implicit bias means unconsciously harboring bias and stereotypes against a stigmatized group, such as women, Black people, people with disabilities, etc.
I find implicit racial bias in myself. It pops out of me at the slightest stimulus—for example, if I am in public, and I see a Black person I do not know, I often catch myself checking to see if my wallet is zipped.
Implicit bias is inculcated in childhood. When I was around age seven my father told me that my Ugandan friend Aggie, who was staying with my family, was a liar and a cheat.
As adults we have the power to act out implicit bias in harmful ways, some of us by how we teach students or treat patients, and some of us by how we wield a badge, taser and gun. Some of us present biased news stories.
Bringing forth the implicit racial bias that is within white communities is a life and death matter. What can we do about it?
My Buddhist teacher, Anam Thubten describes something similar to implicit bias: “There is a whole ocean of thoughts and intentions below our awareness that influences our actions and words. In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, this “ocean” is called Alaya, or storehouse consciousness.
According to Anam Thubten, the remedy for these hidden motivations is meditation. Indeed, the whole purpose of meditation is to become aware of our concealed, deeply rooted tendencies.
As Anam Thubten says, we need to “Invite our hidden thoughts to tea.”
There is some scientific evidence that mindfulness can transform implicit racial bias.
Dealing with that ocean of hidden tendencies is a lifelong, perhaps many lifetimes long process. We cannot expect to catch all of it.
Anam Thubten explains that the “storehouse consciousness” is vast, like an iceberg of unconscious kleshas (mental states that cloud the mind) that are individual, ancestral and collective. Kleshas are meant to be unearthed, acknowledged and digested.
This long-term process of inquiry and purification requires enormous compassion, patience and humor. But we can do our best, and begin now. The stakes are too high not to.
Next month I will share some tools to quicken this unearthing process, for the sake of personal and relational healing and social justice.
You can schedule a somatic and intuitive coaching appointment or find out more about Dr. Vanissar Tarakali at www.vanissarsomatics.com