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  • Writer's pictureMetta


I attended two talks this week - one by Ta-Nehisi Coates and one by Larry Yang. Both talks left me with so much to think about. This was not surprising, with who they are and their voices and thought. I’ve been feeling the reverberations for days.

Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke about story, the power of story. And how we need to consider who controls the story. There are parts of this that I knew, and understood, but a big missing piece for me has been how story is at the center, and is so secondary to fact. I hadn’t considered why people need to hold on to story. I haven’t been able to understand the degree to which people are holding on to stories that are completely false and have thought with enough facts, they would change their minds. But folks are holding onto stories, and eating up new stories, that don’t have anything to do with facts. At its most extreme I see it in people like Marjorie Taylor Greene. In its every day I think of how many years I went before understanding even part of the bigger picture of structural racism in the U.S. and the daily impact of racial profiling and violence on the part of police. I was part of White society holding onto stories not based in truth.

Ta-Nehisi Coates brought up the story within the film Birth of a Nation, a film from 1915, a film so skewed, so racist, rewriting history, that has had a lasting impact for more than 100 years. This article here explains more of why. But to have the lies of that film last so long, the power of story. And he astutely said that only story can explain why White people would go to visit plantations on fun trips, including having weddings there. That it is like having a wedding at a concentration camp. That really reverberated in my head, the power of story to make that possible and to uphold injustice and erase accountability and the possibility of repair.

I’ve thought of some of the reasons for these stories not based at all in fact: news sources that have put a veneer of legitimacy on top of a pile of lies in order to keep power in the hands of a few and uphold existing structures of injustice, such as Fox news. And part of the way they do that is through generating fear, and blame, for real and made-up events - it’s the ultimate distraction. That is an old playbook move. Divide and conquer.

That’s how racism began. Racism itself is built on story. A story to drive people apart. It has no basis in fact. It is just a sandcastle. It is like spun sugar. But how the story was used in reality to get sugar for money, and much much more, for riches, through violence.

But Larry Yang reminded me of a key thing in his talk. It is easier to split people apart than to build community. Community is hard to do. It takes energy, care, forethought, covenant, planning, accountability. The notion that it can just “exist” without energy, and particularly without addressing the lasting impact of racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-semitism, abelism, anti-muslim retoric, and more is false. If community tries to go without addressing these aspects, even if things don’t fail immediately, it is ultimately a community with deep invisible failure, because there are people that simply won’t be there. They won’t bother with community that continues to uphold daily challenges they face because of attacks on their identity.

Story is also used to avoid the truth. Thinking back to plantations. I’ve thought about shame, and how believing in a skewed story that omits some pieces and rewrites others, helps avoid feelings of shame. Also the discomfort of taking in horror, trying to run from discomfort, especially if you have some part in the horror even if it’s complacency. I feel like that is part of the reason for White omission of the true reality of racial injustice in the U.S.. Part of it I think is wanting to hold on to un-truths to not feel, to numb, to enforce an interior notion of “how things are” that feels happier, safer somehow. More comfortable than the burden of truth. I feel like that is one of the pieces of climate change denial. Understanding what you don’t have control over, what you never had control over, I think that can also contribute to hiding in untruth.

When I get very close in with my heart I think about the stories I haven’t been willing to let go of, and what happens as those stories break free. I’m left with the truth which can hurt, but I also feel the breeze coming in the window of freedom. Actual healing begins.

One of the most powerful practices of Buddhism is the practice of undivided concentration on the present. That means being here, in this moment, now, and as story arises, letting go of story. Stories of the past, stories of the future. There is also a deep practice of “don’t know mind”, learning to step back over and over into a space of not-knowing. Not having the stories of the past or dream states of the future that inform experience. The hand un-grips from a wheel that does not exist.

In Mahayana tradition, there is relative reality and ultimate truth. There is the existence we are all in, and the complexity of story, and the interaction between all the pieces, and what I touch around me, and very real felt pain and joy and experience in the world. But there is also an ultimate truth. None of this is real, the present is all there is, all of this is impermanent. There is no “there” there. Everything that exists is slipping through my fingers, and none of it really ever existed because nothing is the same from moment to moment. Even a rock or a mountain is different in every moment, the change is just so small that with my human sense of time I don’t see those changes.

This not-knowing and landing the present must be done carefully. The water I am swimming in, and my location (where and how I live and the privilege that led to this moment and my Whiteness) are so deep that I can never assume I have actually come to a place of not-knowing, that I truly have let go of story. Nor should being in the present and non-knowing be used as spiritual bypassing, trying to jump past what healing and care and repair is needed in landing in the present. Simply shrugging and saying “ultimate reality” when there is harm being done in relative reality is not an option. Or saying “well I don’t hear you because I’m in not-knowing” is also not ok.

I can remember why I can’t just talk people out of stories based on trying to hand over facts. And remember that community is so hard to build, but the very act of building community is resistance and resiliency. As Larry Yang explained, if we don’t do that work, we do the work for those that benefit in keeping us all apart. And that it’s not just making everyone share the same space, it requires affinity group work, as well as larger collective work. It is deep deep work.

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