I just finished reading Caste, The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson. Because it is so beautifully written, it is possible to read the hard truths within it. Which is not to say they are sugar-coated. They are more brutal than most of us had known. But this book isn’t just a litany of horrendous racist deeds. It is an insightful exploration into the psychology, sociology, and economics of the mindsets that perpetrate or condone those deeds.
I had to read the book slowly, both to give the information time to sink in and to give myself breaks to grieve before picking it up again.
Even though what Isabel Wilkerson reveals is painful to read, I felt in good hands. Unlike some writers on the challenging subject of racism, she is not a scold. She isn’t pointing a finger but skillfully pointing out how the entrenched American caste system came into being, why it is so challenging to overcome, and what needs to happen for us to survive and thrive together as a species.
This is not a book review blog, so why is Caste my topic for a dharma post? Because, while all through the book, the American predicament of systemic inequity and injustice felt hopeless to overcome, there is light at the end of the tunnel. There is something we can do.
We can awaken. Though she never mentions the Buddha by name, the author encourages us to awaken as the Buddha did: to recognize suffering, to face that suffering, and to end suffering in ourselves and all beings. In awakening, we see clearly that we are all one species. We can see that there is no actual division even between species, that all life forms are intrinsically interconnected and interdependent, all made of the same stardust. Only with that expansive understanding can we meet the many challenges she writes about.
One of the most striking things the Buddha did in India 2500 years ago was to invite men of the ‘untouchable’ caste into the brotherhood of Buddhist monks as equals. So, yay, we’re on the right path, the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path! We set our intention to notice what’s arising in our experience, to notice the fear at the core of unskillfulness. We use wise effort to meditate and cultivate beneficial qualities of kindness and compassion. We drop the veils of fear from our lens of perception. That fear has only made us feel isolated, protective, divided, angry, and blaming someone we erroneously believe to be ‘other’. We see how the causes and conditions of life throughout generations affect all beings alive now so we can drop our judgments, assumptions, and defenses, and deepen our understanding of the complex tapestry of human life through the ages. We see that our words and actions matter, no matter how powerless we may feel. We cultivate the wisdom to see the fleeting gift of life in all its manifestations.
You don’t have to be a Buddhist to awaken. Buddhism offers clear means to cultivate the ability to see beyond artificial borders and boundaries into the joyous vibrancy of all that is. But this deep understanding of the interconnection of all life is not only spiritual perception. It’s scientific fact. Atoms form all matter including these bodies we mistakenly think of as solid and permanent and thus cause ourselves so much suffering. The more we understand the nature of the atom, that infinitesimal and constantly recycled building block of everything (There are about seven octillion atoms in your body right now!), and the better we understand how atoms continuously come together and break apart in every moment of every day, the closer we come to experiencing the unconditional joyous aliveness of being right here, right now.
Pause, close your eyes, and sense the energetic vibrancy of being alive.
Consider that the atoms in the air we breathe, the liquids and solids we ingest and eliminate, the skin cells we slough off and sweep away, are a continuous part of our experience. The variety of shapes, sizes, colors, textures, features, abilities, tendencies, and interests that make up the seemingly independent beings we humans each call ‘me’, are part of this ongoing shifting flux. The chemicals in our brain and the electrical activity of thought and emotion? All atoms in action. Our inclination to construct an idea of who we are is a byproduct of that activity. Can we make that an enjoyable part of the experience of living in human form rather than an isolating label we feel we have to defend?
Have you ever felt you are part of something larger than yourself? Or ever longed to feel that? Perhaps that comes from a deep understanding that we are not isolated in this skin sack of a human body. Let’s tap into that understanding! Because that isolated sense of ‘me’ causes us harm. It activates the adrenaline hormone, the fight, flight, or freeze reaction to fear, and causes the stress-related conditions so many of us experience that can shorten our lives and ruin our relationships.
It’s not just a nice idea to recognize our interconnection. It’s a life-saving technique to integrate it into our understanding, so we are not in a constant state of fear. That fear puts us in danger. First, our body self-destructs under constant strain. Second, people pick up cues from the fear we are putting out. A scientific study shows that humans can smell fear in others, as can other species. But there are also visual and audio cues we pick up on. So when we see ourselves as separate and we project that fear through what we do and don’t do, people react accordingly and that may either fulfill what we feared or activate something even worse than what we anticipated.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt
We also pass this habit of fearfulness on to our children and it travels down the generations. The divisions we have been taught don’t exist. But the habits of acting on those perceptions do. And that’s what we need to address, within our own patterns of thinking that haven’t been questioned, and in the society that we co-create. This 2021 iteration of atomic comingling we are experiencing now contains the possibility of loosening the painful patterns by making them visible, allowing us to see them in the light of greater understanding. Thank you to Isabel Wilkerson and everyone else who helps to shine that light, no matter how broad the reach.
We are each of us ever and always at a personal point of power, our shift of consciousness ripples out to affect the whole field of being. As we take the time to meditate and reflect, we are freed to question our assumptions, sense our interconnection, and cultivate compassion for all life.
Image: detail from painting Ripples by African-American artist Will Noble