As I read Elizabeth Lessers’ book, I was reminded of my own spiritual journey and the significant role that my cultural identity has played. I realize that as part of this course we will write a spiritual autobiography, so I’ll try to restrain going into too much detail in this reflection paper.However, because her book is written in a semi-autobiographical format, I must share some of my personal thoughts. My intention is to shine a light on the shadows, so that I can more easily swim against the current of Western thought, and hopefully be able to relax a bit in the waves.
I will begin by saying that I appreciate the openness with which Ms. Lesser shares her experiences. She obviously has led a very spiritually rich life and has contributed greatly through her work at the Omega Institute. That said, one of my frustrations when reading these types of book is the universal “we” assumptions they make, and the one-sided views of history. For example Lesser states “our earliest ancestors were grappling with our own longings and questions…Cro-Magnon people had complex thoughts and deep feelings.” (p. 34) As a woman of African descent, I am not a part of this “our” as my cultural ancestors are not from Europe. (O’Neil, 2011) This does not mean that I am not a part of the human quest that is trying to understand the “mystery of creation”. I appreciate that she is sharing her search for a spiritual direction, however I think if your intention is to create an institution “where all thought converge(d)” to an “omega point”, then I expect the co-founder to acknowledge that the origins of humanity more.
So, I hope you can understand my irritation in reading a book that claims to be open to diverse spiritual perspectives, and yet you still have to deal with western-centric worldviews. For example, in recounting the founding of the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies she states, “as Pir Vilayat called his idea [it would] resurrect a concept of education put forth by the literary and scientific visionaries of ancient Alexandria in Egypt. Under the Ptolemies in the second century B.C….Alexandria was the enlightened center of the Hellenistic world.” In fact, this great African city and it’s museum and libraries began hundreds of years before the invasion of the Greeks and Ptolemy I. (James, 1954, pp. 49-50)
Occasionally, it would be nice to be able to simply read the text ‘like everybody else’ and not cringe each time people of color are mentioned or specifically, in the case of Alexandria –it’s African heritage is omitted. For me, one of the most frustrating things is when black people are portrayed in a two-dimensional fashion, such as violent/non-violent and, as an ahistorical people. Which is exactly what I experienced in reading “Book I: The American Landscape” when Lesser describes an encounter she had during her first years of college:
“I mistakenly got off the Barnard dorm elevator on the floor that a black students’ organization had demanded as their own. Walking down the look-alike hall toward a room I thought was mine, I was confronted by four girls I had seen on campus but had never dared talk to. “What are you doing on our floor?” they demanded. I suddenly realized my blunder and tried to explain it to them. Surrounding me, they pushed me toward the elevator. One of the girls grabbed me by my shirt collar and slapped me hard across the face as the elevator doors were closing. That slap woke something up within me, something that had been bothering me all year. I was ashamed of the mean-spirited rhetoric that pervade the anti-war movement…”
I have a number of concerns with how she describes this experience. First, the repeated use of the word “demanded” and that she was ‘confronted’, and never “dared” to talk to them. These “girls” (more on this later) are in fact college women, that with some research, I think where a part of the black students’ organization called the Barnard Organization of Soul Sisters (BOSS, established 1968) (Staff, 2003), Lesser doesn’t mention why the black organization was formed and why there was a need for having a ‘floor of their own’. When she reflects on the encounter she laments that “the great hero of nonviolence – Martin Luther King, Jr. – was dead, his message of tolerance and love no longer the unifying element of the civil rights movement.” However, King was more than a messenger of tolerance, he was black man that spoke truth to power. It is a commonly held belief in the black community, that it was his position on the Vietnam War that led to his assignation, as he was killed one-year later to the day (April 4th).
Dr. King was also more than a hero of nonviolence, he was someone that encouraged his people to not just sit and wait for their liberation from white oppression. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for black people to believe in themselves and “sign with a pen and ink of self-asserted manhood, [their] own emancipation proclamation” (King)
I suspect that like many Black people across the country, these young women were tired of what they may have perceived as white privilege, and the ‘mean-spirited rhetoric’ Lesser speaks of may have resulted from hundreds of years of oppression and disrespect from people who looked like her (Lesser). This is a lesson she had to be taught years later by Maya Angelou (p. 79-80). Yes, the slap “woke something that had been bothering her all year”; but it was probably delivered by someone who had been bothered much longer than that.
I am bothered too. I am bothered by the pain and suffering I see happening in the world, specifically here in Oakland, CA. My longing is to be an agent of transformation in my community and use the knowledge that I have from my studies of various spiritual traditions (western and others). I struggle with being able to read past the cultural limits of many of the authors of transpersonal and new age materials; I want to be compassionate and graceful in my critic of the literature. Like Lesser, “I yearned to speak from the depth of my heart, to educate, to fill in the missing parts of the story – to sing.” I too have “held back my songs and my tears many times. (p. 77) Hopefully, as I continue on my journey, I will be able to find the right balance of tones through my mindfulness toolbox.
King, M. L. (Producer). MLK that’s never quoted. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HlvEiBRgp2M
O’Neil, D. (2011), from http://anthro.palomar.edu/homo2/mod_homo_4.htm
Staff. (2003). African America History Month at Barnard.Retrieved from http://barnardarchives.wordpress.com/2010/02/03/african-american-history-month-at-barnard/