Thea Elijah is a white woman of Jewish descent who found her way to Chinese Medicine at a young age and was transformed by it. Her apprenticeship in Chinese healing modalities led her to Sufism, where she deepened her own healing practice and converted to Islam. As a mother, Thea blended core elements of both Chinese and Sufi healing into a set of practices that could help her child navigate a complex world and live a fully embodied life. After formalizing this work for adults as Whole Heart Connection practice, Thea began to have students of color ask her, explicitly, to teach these practices to white people so that they would be “easier to talk to.”
With her own focus, as a teacher and healer, on the body, Thea began to see the ways in which white folks enacted unconscious, embodied racism, and vowed to use her work to interrupt and clear these harmful patterns of behavior. This profile piece is based on an interview conducted by Margo Mallar with Thea Elijah in the summer of 2016.
What is your connection with White Awake?
“For some time, I’ve been wanting to come across people, commonly termed white, who are taking on the question of how to transform white privilege into conscious dedication to real change – in ourselves, and in other white people. I was looking for a peer group really.
I perused the White Awake website for a number of months and thought, “Wow! This is more than just well-meant; it’s well thought out.” I also had the feeling that I might be able to make a contribution, because my own approach to these issues is very body based. There is a very beautifully articulated intellectual rigor on the White Awake site, and a body based approach would clearly be complementary. This is valuable because while we can intellectually espouse a particular position, our conditioning is in the body. Our flinch when someone comes into the room doesn’t actually change based on our theories, or even our best intentions. What’s written in our bodies needs transforming, too. The practices I offer are focused on how we get into what is written in the body, so that we can clear conditioning that is preventing us from being our full selves, and honoring our best intentions.”
How did you connect Whole Heart Connection Practices with racial bias?
“I first realized that the practices I was teaching for healing per se were vitally applicable to racial considerations at a Chinese medicine conference. I was working in a room of almost entirely white people and we were doing embodied exercises around creating the body language of common ground – teaching people how to ground, not just think about it, but actually do it, which are two very different things.
I learned a lot of this from Chinese Five Element veterinarians. You cannot simply tell a cat, “I’m doing this to help you.” You cannot talk to a nervous horse about how “this will benefit your asthma.” You have to create presence on an animal level, and communicate your intentions without words. You have to create common ground. Dominance issues, intimidation issues, inclusion, exclusion – four–legged beings communicate this mainly with their feet. [At the Chinese medicine conference] we were working on creating inclusion through our feet. Then once we had created common ground, we worked on what I call equal weight, equal height.
Creating equal weight is a great exercise for people of different sizes to be able to get it that your weight is equal to anyone else’s weight. Not just to think it but to feel it, to establish it. Whether you’re working with a 5 year old or Goliath, the goal is to be able to establish equality at an animal level. We can do this with height as well. So, we were going around the room, and it was so beautiful. People were exploring this ability to ground, and this ability to work with someone who is having difficulty arriving, to help them ground.
Then we took a break and went out into the lobby, and I watched the participants practice this with all of the other white people in the room but not the people of color who were attendants in this situation. It was basically a bunch of white acupuncturists, who came out and worked with a larger group of white people during the break. They were able to practice what they had learned with those with whom they intellectually or unconsciously considered their peers, the other white acupuncturists, even though they hadn’t been in the training with them. They were able to take this new practice out into the world of white acupuncturists, but they didn’t take it into the world of the latina woman who was cleaning up the cups.
It broke my heart. It was like a silent implosion. It was one of those revolutionary moments when nothing showed on my face but inside I was taking vows. ‘This will not continue to go on in my presence.’ I am sure that not one person in that class would say that they are racist. I am sure that every single one of them was absolutely certain that they would never treat people with that level of inequality just based on racial background. It was so unexamined. So built in.”
Can you tell us more about your commitment to clear unconscious, embodied racism?
“That moment at the Chinese Medicine conference was what woke me up to my commitment to working with white people around healing and transformation of our unconscious dominance patterns. But there was another moment that took it much deeper for me, in a class I was teaching in Baltimore. A black woman was telling me a story about a shooting that happened in the street that week. When her five year old son heard about it, the first thing he asked was whether the one who shot was white, and whether the one who got shot was black. She told him yes. He asked his mother, “Mama, I don’t understand white people. Can you explain them to me?” She shook her head sadly and said, “No, sweetie, I can’t.”
My heart broke at the sincerity of that question, and I swore I would find an answer—that I would have something to say to that boy before he became a man, something to explain white people—something that would satisfy and hopefully something that would heal.
I told her that I wanted to stay in touch with her so that when I had an explanation of white people, that I could give it. I don’t think she’s expecting much—but I can’t let it go, no matter how long it takes to find the understanding deep enough to heal.
Connecting with White Awake is a part of my attempt to fulfill those vows.”
How does the work you teach help shift social dominance in the body?
“The practices around equal weight/equal height are some of the practices that I’ve been working on to help people get into those unexamined places. It’s not just around race. I completely own that without this practice, when I’m around large men, I immediately go sub alpha. With this practice I’m able to catch myself and say “oh, what is the practice that I’m living for the sake of both of our healths?” … and then I ground, I make common ground, and I take my equal weight, and we both relax. It’s healing for both of us. Even though I consider myself a feminist, there’s conditioning inside of me that makes me get small before I even think of it. As I practice that shift, I find that over time it’s easier to go there more quickly. It’s much easier to catch myself when I’m drifting off to an unhealthy and unconscious place. In this way it’s like any other self-healing practice.
There are a number of other practices that I’ve developed, in part as a reaction to seeing what I’ve been seeing in groups, and in part in response to my students of color who have said “Teach this to white people to make them easier to talk to! … to help them become better allies.” I have a lot of practices that deal with the physiology of threatened-ness and there are a lot of people – men, or white people, or anyone in the “hey I’m normal” role – who can use some extra help on working with threatened-ness. Having some physiological tools to create more resilience, to feel unthreatened, allows them to stay connected in a highly charged situation.
Regardless of whether you’re in the position of social dominance or marginalization, in interpersonal practice the solution is the same: balance the see-saw. If I’m feeling smaller than you, then I can find where common ground between us is, and empower both of us. If I’m a really confident person and don’t mean to go alpha, but inadvertently alpha people, I can feel for our common root and come to common ground with you, without squashing myself. When I do that, I become ecologically responsible. I’m in my body so that we can be in our bodies together; we are part of a little ecosystem. It’s a body sensation.”
How did you learn Chinese medicine?
“Chinese medicine came first into my life when I was 17 and in Chicago. I was taking the “L”, the public train, and I got lost. I got off on the wrong stop and it happened to be the Vietnamese section of town. I wandered around for a while and basically fell in love. I can’t tell you why, but there was something there in the rhythms, the sounds, and the smells that was new to me and that I knew I had to know more about. So I kept coming back, and ended up in an herb dispensary one day, and there was the feeling of bingo. There was an old man in the corner taking people’s pulses and writing the script of the various prescriptions in calligraphy.
I was really interested in healing, and had not found a modality that spoke to me. I had dropped out of high school and ran away from home. I grew up in Manhattan and ran away to Chicago because there was a bed for me there. I was searching. This was a finding. Socially, I was a loser. I was difficult to be around – an undomesticated animal, basically – that couldn’t get along with anybody. I was awkward, real awkward, and Chinese medicine gave me a handle on being more aware of what I was doing that caused so many people to dislike me so immediately, and gently helped me with becoming somebody who was much more socially acceptable.
I began to learn Chinese medicine in the early 80s. There weren’t that many books available at the time. There was Ted Kaptchuk’s “The Web That Has No Weaver”, and there was something called Turtle Mountain (the first American company to make Chinese herbal formulas), but other than that the people I knew thought of Chinese medicine as things like chopped up pieces of gecko. It was not easily accessible information, and I just needed to learn about it.
After the experience at the herb dispensary, my approach to learning was to wander into as many Asian healing situations as I could find. I could tell hilarious stories of trying to communicate across language barriers. Trying to ask for formulas like pei pa koa and having people hand me paper towels. And then going home on the train to get a book with a picture so that they understood I meant pei pa koa. I slowly learned to enter the Vietnamese universe as a sort of amusing clown who was tolerated because I was funny and earnest.
I moved from Chicago to upstate NY and became an organic vegetable farmer—first an apprentice then a farmer. That first winter I saw an ad in the paper of some new grad that was trying to start an acupuncture practice, and I went to his various self-promotional lectures on Chinese medicine. His name is Lonny Jarrett. He has since become very famous. I apprenticed with him for 6 years. While I was apprenticed with him, he was studying with some of the top names in Chinese medicine. Like Leon Hammer, Ted Kaptchuk. Through him, I became their student, too. I also spent a lot of time studying with Elizabeth Rochat de la Vallee and Claude Larre, and just got myself into a lot of different learning situations during those 6 apprenticeship years while earning a college degree and being an organic vegetable farmer.
I did the bulk of my training as an apprentice to Lonny Jarrett, but received my acupuncture licensing credentials via the Traditional Acupuncture Institute in Columbia, MD (now Maryland University of Integrative Healing in Laurel, MD).”
How were Chinese medicine modalities passed down to the teachers you worked with?
“My connection to lineage in Chinese medicine is very diverse, and rooted in non-TCM sources. TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) is a modern version of Chinese medicine systematized by the Communist government under Mao-tse Tung. The history of Chinese medicine is rich and diverse, and TCM doesn’t even come close to representing that vast diversity and depth of wisdom. It also is not very traditional in many ways—for instance, in order to conform to the tenets of dialectical materialism inherent in Communism, all references to the spirit had to be suppressed (except for insomnia—even the Communists will admit that the spirit has something to do with insomnia as a medical pathology).
My own teachers have all been rooted in pre-Communist traditions which emphasize the role of spirit in both pathology and healing. I am a Worsley-style 5 Element acupuncturist, but I am also an herbalist who has studied extensively with Ted Kaptchuk and Leon Hammer (and others). In my earliest years as a student of Chinese medicine, I was fortunate to have spent a lot of time in seminars with sinologists Claude Larre and Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée of the Ricci Institute. They have been my teachers in the fundamentals of how my Western mind needed to shift in order to understand classical Asian ways of thinking. What it means to be a Western white woman practicing pre-Maoist Chinese medicine in a post-Mao world is a complex discussion worthy of an entire article unto itself!
Many of the Whole Heart Connection practices are based on Chinese medicine and Qi Gong – what I call “supermarket qi gong,” the kinds of things you can do when you’re just standing around, being with other people. Another significant source is Sufism.”
Can you tell us about your experience with Sufi healing modalities, and your conversion to Islam?
“I came to Sufism because no one would teach me the things in Chinese medicine that I wanted to learn. What does it take to be capable of having whole heart connection with someone else? I knew that it was a part of the medicine. I was searching for it everywhere. Qi Gong teachers got closer, but I didn’t find a teacher who could help me learn what I was hoping to learn. What eventually happened was that I found Sufis who were teaching healing methods that gave me the embodied heart connection that I was missing, and so I followed that direction. Initially, it was because I wanted to learn the hidden or missing pieces of Chinese medicine – which are of course not just part of Chinese medicine, but part of being human, and so of course Sufis can do it; anybody can do it, and it shows up in many lineages.
Basically, someone suggested I go to a Sufi workshop – which I couldn’t attend – but I did make it to a gathering afterward of about twenty people and a teacher named Ibrahim Jaffe, a Jewish white man (convert also). He was telling everyone in that room the truth about themselves, right to their face, with so much compassion that there was no shame. They couldn’t hear it right away; they’d say things like “what do you mean I’m holding anger at my father?” and then you’d see their whole body relax about twenty minutes later when they got it. Nobody was fighting, nobody was shamed.
I said, “Whatever than man has done in himself, to be able to speak the truth in such a way, I want to learn!” and enrolled at the school out in St Helena CA, University of Spiritual healing and Sufism. I dove headfirst into it, then fought like hell as a Jewish woman who was taught that all Arabs want to kill us, they want to turn the seas red with our blood, they are the enemy, an ancient enemy. My Jewish background is strongly Zionist and filled with prejudice. The word Allah filled me with terror and, underneath that, hatred. So it’s been a very long journey – it’s been 17 years now!
Part of my initially difficult experience was with sexism, as well. At first I really thought that I was racist against Arabs. I thought that I just hated them. It wasn’t just theoretical. When I was in their presence I didn’t like it, until I figured out that what I didn’t like was being around sexist Arab men. I had no problem with Arab women, so I learned a lot about the ways that what initially seemed like racism was just my experience with a different flavor of sexism than I’m used to.
I’m used to the sexism of white men, and don’t react in the same ways; but the sexism of any other culture sends me through the roof. Working with that understanding helped me to liaison directly with the women and realize, “Oh, I can know the truth of a culture much better if I’m with the women.” It was through Muslim women that I was able to find my way of understanding Islam differently. I’m so glad that I’ve had enough connection with Muslim women to understand womanhood differently – to understand the biases inherent in Western feminism differently, and to understand that Islam isn’t necessarily what men say it is. It’s just as much what women say it is, but that’s not what’s on the news most of the time.
In the Sufi community, I’m associated with two different tariqas (two different communities). Both communities are branches of the Shadhuliyyah tariqa. My primary affiliation is with Sheikh Sidi Muhammad al-Jamal, who is Palestinian, although here in the United States the tariqa has a majority of Western white converts. The other tariqa I’m associated with is that of Sheikh Hossein, Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who taught at George Washington University before his retirement. He is an Iranian man, and that tariqa is quite international, even here in D.C.”
Can you describe the Whole Heart Connection practices?
“The first practice is making ourselves at home in our chair, as a first step towards making ourselves at home in our own body. Am I living indigenously in my own body, or am I living like a refugee? Feeling at home in our own body, and in our own chair, is the first step towards living indigenously. People who are living even slightly more indigenously are less likely to trash the planet, themselves, other people. When was the last time you (or your parents or other ancestors) actually felt at home, here and now? No matter what brought you and your ancestors to where you are today, begin the healing—be here now, and know that you live here: this planet is your home, this body is your home. This chair that you are sitting in right now is not where you were born, but while you are here, can you begin to feel what it would mean to make yourself at home?
“Home” is a crucial missing experience in many people’s bodies, and you can develop it through awareness of your relationship to the chair you’re sitting in right now. To what extent are you in “on your mark get set go” mode, and to what extent are you trusting the chair? What is the degree of trust that you have in the chair, physically? The actual sensation of your butt – how clenched is your butt? How clenched are your thigh muscles? How tense? It’s not so much the answer to these questions that matters most, but the process of shifting into being aware enough of your body to know: Am I working awfully hard just to be in a chair?
Can I feel the chair’s support? Can I experience the feeling of being supported? There’s no way we can access trust in the Tao if we can’t even access trust in the chair. The best way to translate the whole notion of Tao is the phrase: you can’t push the river. That flow state of Tao is not available to those who are in ‘on your mark get set go’ mode or ‘oblivious’ mode or ‘high power intellectual’ mode. It’s a fundamentally ecological relationship with all of life. It starts with opening, which starts with greater ease in our body, in our chair.
Somewhere in that beginning of being body-aware, we might notice a bit of a clutch in the chest, or in the gut, or a clutch somewhere. The places in us that do not feel at home—that have perhaps not ever felt at home—begin to be more obvious. When people begin to open those places, we can begin to have conversations about safety, and about how safety is created.
Feeling basically safe in our body (a.k.a. accessing the parasympathetic) allows us to drop out of our head and into our heart. This is a very real shift, studied in the emerging field of neurocardiology. A lot of what we’re doing in Chinese medicine and Sufi healing is not biochemistry, it’s biophysics. We work with the coherence and the entrainment of electromagnetic fields. You see that when fish become a school of fish, when birds become a flock of birds, when basketball players become a kickass basketball team … you see it in really great jazz players.
There’s no amount of neurons in the brain that bring us into that state. To be able to come out of head thinking and into whole body thinking gives us tremendous access to a capacity for entrainment that we otherwise don’t have. A capacity for insight, a capacity for listening, a capacity for an engagement on a pre-intellectual level.
The application of the embodied work around race and racial conditioning is something I think white people are really hungry for – basically, “how do I feel differently around people of color? How do I lay the groundwork in my body for a greater sense of ‘us’?”
How would you sum up the relationship between what you do with Whole Heart Connection and the work of White Awake?
The most important baseline practices that I have learned both from Chinese medicine and Sufi healing teach that vast access to inner resource begins with feeling safe. The feeling of not being safe is clearly an epidemic for oppressed people. That’s clear. What is not perhaps as clear is that the feeling of not feeling safe is also an epidemic for oppressors, or people in a dominant class.
There’s not a rich person who doesn’t know that there are poor people. We may do our best in our places of privilege to ignore those who are being ripped off or being kept hungry, but on some level we really do know what’s going on. There’s a defendedness that we need to maintain, and so long as we are defending that defendedness, we will not be able to access vast realms inside of us, and we will not be able relax our parasympathetic nervous system.
We need to have the ability to feel safe enough in our own bodies to be able to be honest. These are all basic practices for making honesty and insight physiologically possible. All the good intentions in the world won’t make us capable of honesty. Denial is a response to pain; it’s not a conscious choice to go into denial – it’s an expression of what we don’t let ourselves know. We can’t make ourselves be aware. We can work to help ourselves come home to our own body, to be capable of working with what comes up in us, as well as what might be coming up in others when they tell us what their experience has been. This is the beginning of true ecology.
My students of color have asked me to teach these practices to white people. They see this as helping white people become much easier for them to talk to, honestly.
Tools to help people honor their best intentions – that’s what Whole Heart Connection is all about.”
This article was created with the support of Margo Mallar, a member of the staff at the Insight Meditation Society, a Buddhist retreat center in Barre, Massachusetts. Many thanks to Margo for making this profile piece possible!