Honoring Grief and Strong Emotions

A central piece of white racial awareness work is what Rev. Rebecca Parker refers to as “remedial education”: acknowledging that our formal education most likely cultivated ignorance rather than knowledge of our country’s “history and its peoples”, and taking responsibility for our own “power and responsibility to reeducate” ourselves.

Confronting the harsh realities of the system that affords us privilege elicits strong emotions. Accompanying the act of reeducation are exercises that create a container for grief, anger, and other painful feelings. In addition, participants benefit from the opportunity to honor their desire for guidance and renewal in finding a different way of relating to themselves and others.

Index of Practices:

  1. “Remedial Education”
  2. “What did this bring up?”
  3. “Cultural Ancestors” or “‘Their’ story is ‘our’ story”
  4. “Breathing Through”
  5. “Open Sentences” to illuminate privilege
  6. “How does healing happen?”
  7. “Small group/Large group share”
  8. “Water and Salt”
  9. “Truth Circle”, adapted for White Awake

Return to Practices or Manual for Group Work table of contents page

“Remedial Education” – 30 minutes – 1 hour per resource shared

Building on Rev. Parker’s description of the need for re-education (see first paragraph of this post), we recommend that each White Awake gathering include some form of remedial education. Examples of materials that serve this purpose are: bell hooks’ article “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination”, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and the whitebison.org DVD “The Wellbriety Journey to Forgiveness”. Materials such as these help white participants begin to understand history from the eyes of the “other”, see ourselves through the eyes of another, and grasp the extent of racism’s legacy and modern day expression. Materials such as these provide white people with the opportunity to grow in humility as we begin to grasp the enormity of what we do not know.

There is a limit to how much material can be covered in a group setting. Assigning selections of educational material for “homework” is useful, as well as organizing small study groups that can explore books and articles at length over time. It is important, however, to make time for remedial education as a group activity during a White Awake gathering. Watch a video together. Read selections from an article or book aloud. The act of bearing witness to the truth is powerful in its own right. Allowing ourselves to be open to the emotions these stories evoke is an important part of the transformation that group work makes possible. (back to Index of Practices)

“What did this bring up?” – round robin, 5-10 seconds per participant

After sharing a provocative piece of material, it is good to make time for a quick round robin in which each participant shares a word or phrase about their experience. The focus is on the immediate response – what is coming up for each person right now. The facilitator can request that people not tell stories or going into long explanations, and emphasize the importance of each participant maintaining a curious, nonjudgmental attitude towards their own experience and that of others. (back to Index of Practices)

“‘Cultural Ancestors” (or “‘Their’ story is ‘our’ story”) – popcorn style share, 10-30 seconds per participant

Regardless of what our unique, biological ancestors were or were not involved in, as white people we have inherited privilege in this society as a result of the actions of our “cultural ancestors” – those who established and enforced systems of privilege and exploitation along lines of race.

One way to introduce, or frame, an experience of “remedial education” is to preface it with the concept that the story of an oppressed people is also the story of an oppressing people. For example, the story of a slave is also the story of a slave master. Before listening to (or watching) an educational piece of material, ask participants to look for ways in which the stories of people of color tell us something about our cultural ancestors. At the end of the reading (or viewing) open this question up for brief, fact based observations.

Request that participants refrain from analysis or interpretation, but simply describe the cultural ancestors of this particular story in simple terms. For example, after listening to the stories of Native Americans in “The Wellbriety Journey to Forgiveness” DVD, one participant described the white boarding school staff as “brutal”. Participants can also be asked to simply state the actions of the white people in the stories they just heard (such as “they beat children” or “they took children away from their families”).

A popcorn style share means that participants can speak up as they feel moved (as opposed to going around the circle). This activity can also be conducted as a round robin share.

Note on intention: The purpose of this exercise is not to elicit blame or shame, but to simply acknowledge deep within ourselves the truth of our collective history. White people are socialized to shy away from truthful expressions of racial oppression, or to feel intense personal shame around this reality. The goal of this type of exercise is to bring mindful awareness to the truth and to stay present despite the pain this truth brings with it. In being present to the pain in our own hearts, without falling into shame or denial, we are able to bear witness to our own humanity, our own love for life, and our own deep desire for justice. (back to Index of Practices)

“Breathing Through” – 10-15 minutes
Breathing Through is an adaptation of a traditional Buddhist meditation for developing compassion. The practice is designed to help us increase our resiliency when confronted with painful realities. It is rooted in the principal that we are not separate beings or objects that can break, but “resilient patterns within a vaster web” of life. The full exercise can be found in Coming Back to Life, pages 190-191.

This exercise can be done after sharing a piece of difficult truth, or it can be introduced as a preparatory exercise – one that, once learned, can be practiced as participants bear witness to painful realities of racism and social exploitation.

Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Don’t try to breath any special way – just notice your breath. Note that it happens all by itself, without your will, without your even deciding each time to inhale or exhale. When you pay attention to your breath in this way, notice how it is less like you are breathing and more like you are being breathed. Breathed by life – the same way everyone in this room, in this city, and on this planet now is being breathed by life as well. We are all connected.

Now visualize your breath as a stream or ribbon of air. See it flow up through your nose, down through your windpipe and into your lungs. From your lungs, visualize the breath flow through your heart. Picture it flowing through your heart and then straight out from your chest to reconnect with the larger web of life. Let the breath-stream, as it passes through you and through your heart, appear as one loop within that vast web, connecting you with it.

If following an educational piece of material, adapt from this text:

Now open your awareness to the suffering, cruelty, and injustice that we have born witness to today. Drop for now all your defenses and open to your knowledge of that suffering and of the wrongness of racial exploitation. Let the knowledge of these come to you as concretely as it can … (Reference can be made, simply and factually, to what the group learned from the material that was just shared.)

If preparing for a piece of education material, adapt from this text:

Now open your awareness to the suffering, cruelty, and injustice that we know racial exploitation to be. Take note that in our time together, we will be looking at difficult, painful pieces of historical and contemporary racism. As you practice this exercise, experience the way in which your connection to the rest of life gives you resilience in the face of pain. You are learning to breath these painful truths into yourselves and through your heart, without holding on.

In both instances, continue with the following text:

Breath in the pain like heavy granules on the stream of air. Allow these granules of pain to pass through your nose, down through your windpipe, into your lungs, into your heart, adn out again into the web of life. You are asked to do nothing for now but let the granules, the heaviness, of that pain pass through your heart as you breath the heaviness in and through and out. Be sure that the stream of breath flows through and out again. Do not hold on to the pain. Surrender it, for now, to the vast healing resources of life.

With Shantideva, the Buddhist saint, we can say, “Let all sorrows ripen in me.” We help them ripen by passing the sorrows through our heart, making good rich compost of that grief. We help them ripen by bearing witness to their truth, and to the our own desire for justice. We know that breathing the sorrow and the anger through our hearts is transformative, without any effort on our part. Effort can be chosen, and if chosen, comes later. Right now we are bearing witness to truth. We are breathing truth, and letting that truth flow through us to be strengthened for the good of all.

If you feel no pain, only emptiness, numbing, or a sense of grey, breath that through. The numbness is itself a very real part of our world.

If what arises in you is your own personal suffering, breath that through, as well.

And should you feel an ache in the chest, a pressure in the ribcage, as if the heart would break, that is all right. Your heart is not an object that can break … but if it were, they say a heart that breaks can contain the entire universe. Your heart is that large. Trust it. Keep breathing … (back to Index of Practices)

“Open Sentences”, used to illuminate privilege – 10-15 minutes, in pairs
The original form of this exercise can be found in Coming Back to Life, pages 98-100.

Concept: Privilege is, often, not something special that is awarded, but the simple assumption of a freedom, a need that is met, or a comfort that is generally taken for granted until it is withheld in some way. Begin with an explanation of this concept, then continue on to the exercise.

In the exercise “Open Sentences”, participants work with a partner and alternate answering a particular open ended question that the facilitator poses to the group. When one partner is talking, the other partner will not make comments or ask any questions, but simply listened with mindful attention to what the other is saying.

“What do you love about being alive? Talk about things – be they spectacular and unusual, or completely mundane – that make life worth living for you.”

Each partner gets two minutes (longer or shorter depending on the momentum of the group) to respond freely to this question. The facilitator gives a time check about thirty seconds before it is time to switch partners. A bell may be rung when it is time to pause, and then allow the second partner to speak. Re-state the original question for the second person before beginning again the two minutes of unbroken response.

*Due to the nature of the White Awake work, it is important to be clear that the intention is for participants to take this question at face value. It is as simple as it sounds. Forget about “race”. Talk about what brings you joy.

Follow this round of open question sharing/listening with one or more questions that focuses on a “privilege” (basic freedom or met need) that has been withheld. Examples could include: “What of these things would you loose access to if you were incarcerated?” or “How would your joy be effected if you feared being pulled over when you drove a car?” or “… you feared being followed when you entered a store?” or “… you feared for the safety of your child when they left your house?” or “… if your child was incarcerated?” or “… the primary breadwinner of the family was killed or incarcerated? or “…if places essential to your spiritual practice or religion were destroyed or in danger of being destroyed?” or “… if a foreign group of people came and took over the place where you lived, killed most of the people you know, forced you into small spaces of land where you couldn’t leave, destroyed your means of livelihood and made you a dependent upon them for material sustenance?”

Repeat the instructions given after the first question. Close with a silent pause before moving on to other activities. (back to Index of Practices)

“How does healing happen?” – 5-20 minutes (before and/or after sharing “remedial education” material)
Listening to the story of racial oppression from the point of the view of those who are being oppressed helps us as white people learn about the social system that affords us privilege. In addition, if we use our intuitive mind in the process, we may also gain insight into what our role might be to end that oppression and contribute to healing. This is not unlike the Buddhist principal that when we look deeply at our own suffering, we see the path to the end of suffering.

At the most practical level, understanding the exact nature of how racism oppresses shows us what systemic changes would need to take place in order for racial oppression to end. At a more subtle level, however, understanding what healing and justice looks like from the point of view of people of color can give us insight into what our role might be in this process.

For example, in the DVD documentary “The Wellbriety Journey to Forgiveness“, community members of multiple Native American groups emphasize, repeatedly, the deep need for radical forgiveness. Listening closely, a white person may take note of the fact the an integral piece of this forgiveness lies in telling the truth of what happened. One way to mirror this process, then, as white descendents of genocidal cultural ancestors, is to listen to these stories.

“This DVD and/or reading we are about to watch and/or listen to is a powerful testament to the healing work people of color are doing within their own communities. As you watch and/or listen, think about what kind of healing work needs to be done in ours. How can their journey justice and health inform our journey toward justice and health?”

Offer these words as a frame or lens through which participants can experience a “remedial education” piece. If time allows, this question can be returned to after the material is shared – either as a round robin share, group discussion, or small group break out discussion. (back to Index of Practices)

Small Group/Large Group share – 20 minutes with 15 participants
This is structure can be used for infinite purposes. The questions asked here are specific to the “remedial education” process.

Have participants break up into small groups of 3-4 people each, and address the following question: “How does our lack of information effect our relationships (or experiences) with people of color?”

Request that groups monitor themselves so that each participant gets equal time to speak. Time checks can be made in which the group moves on to the next person, if they have not already done so. Total time for group process can vary depending on the moment of the group response. The time calculation here is based on about 6-8 minutes per small group discussion.

Once the first small group discussion is concluded, ask the groups to use the same process to respond to this question: “How can more information – more awareness and understanding – change our relationships, or experiences, with people of color?”

Once the groups have responded to the second question among themselves, open the process up for a whole group share. Ask that each group share something about what came out of their response to these questions. Emphasize that not everything that was discussed will be shared to the whole group, and that they will want to be selective about what they share.

At the same time, request that groups allow each participant to speak for their own experience, rather than assigning one group member the role of “reporter” for everyone else in the group. This prevents more dominating personalities from taking over the group process, and continues to honor the shared agreement of sharing from our own experience (rather than speaking for another).

Allow approximately 1-2 minutes for each group to share about their experience with the larger group. (back to Index of Practices)

“Water and Salt” – 15 minutes with 15-20 participants
This simple ritual can be a strong closing piece for a gathering or for a section of a gathering. This activity comes to White Awake via Jodi Lasseter, a community organizer based out of Durham, NC and founder of the North Carolina Climate Justice Summit.

Arrange participants so that they are seated in a circle. In the middle of the circle, place a large bowl of water. Have another, small bowl that is filled with salt.

Let the group know that this is an opportunity to honor the emotions that have arisen during the gathering, and that (once again) we are in a nonjudgmental space. One where we do not even judge ourselves, simply be present to what is there. The instructions are for the group to pass the bowl of salt around the circle, giving each person the opportunity to sprinkle a pinch of salt into the bowl of water in the center. Salt water is a powerful medium on our planet. It is the substance of the ocean, and it is the substance of our tears.

The purpose of the salt in this ritual is to represent one of three things, at the discretion of the participants. When they place their pinch of salt in to the water, each participant is invited to: make a request for guidance; make an expression of grief; or, name something they want to let go of. This these things can be spoken out loud, or the participant can step forward quietly. Participants can pass their turn, and they can place more than one pinch of salt into the water if they have more than one thing on their mind.

As the facilitator, it can be helpful to begin the ritual, and speak at least one thing out loud. While it is important to make space for silent participation, having someone speak their intention to the group in the beginning often makes this a more comfortable choice. It can be helpful for participants to hear what one another is bringing to this activity. (back to Index of Practices)

“Truth Circle”, adapted for White Awake – 30 min for 15-20 participants
Instructions for this community ritual can be found in Coming Back to Life (Joanna Macy and Molly Brown), as well as this Youtube video of Joanna herself. This is a powerful ritual, and one that can be done in its entirety when there is adequate time and the participants have established relationships with one another. This modified version of the Truth Mandala was made with shorter gatherings in mind, in which participants might be new to one another and/or to this work. This version of the Truth Mandala allows the group to engage in some depth of emotion without being overly cathartic or more time consuming than a 1-2 day workshop would allow. One way to think about the modified version, versus the longer version, is that is “introductory”, whereas the Truth Mandala as introduced in Coming Back to Life is “advanced”.

Like “Water and Salt”, the Truth Mandala can be a good closing exercise for an entire gathering, or one section of a gathering.

Arrange the participants so that they are seated in a circle. In the middle of the circle place three objects: a stone, a stick, and a feather. The instructions for the ritual are as follows:

Each object in the center of this circle represents something we may be feeling at this time. The stone is a container for sadness. The stick represents anger. And the feather holds the space for hope.

Each of you is invited, as you feel moved, to step into the center of the circle, take one of these objects in your hands, and speak about your sadness, your anger, or your hope. If you have something to express which none of these objects represents, you are welcome to simply come to the center of the circle and speak. Likewise, you can come to the center and hold an object without speaking any words. You are free to take one turn, or multiple turns, and you are free to hold and speak with more than one object.

Keep in mind the time we have for this activity (30 minutes), and notice whether or not other people have spoken before taking multiple turns yourself. When you speak, keep in mind that you are speaking directly to your own experience, and try to keep your words succinct. Please refrain from giving advice, responding directly to what someone else has said, or telling a long story. Do not feel the need to fill the void if no one is speaking. Moments of silence together can be equally powerful as the moments when we share.

When one participant is in the center of the circle, the other participants commit themselves to giving the person at the center their full attention. We can silently listen, or we are invited to respond with one or both of these two phrases: “I hear you” and “I am with you”. Stating these simple phrases affirms and strengthens the truth that each participant is sharing, without invalidating or explaining. These phrases simply give voice to our solidarity with one another.

One way to begin and end this kind of community ritual experience is with sound. The group can intone a simple “ah” syllable together, or the facilitator can ring a mindfulness bell at the beginning and close of the exercise. (back to Index of Practices)