The Buddhamama Blog
Finding Calm within the Chaos
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Why the Sidelines are Not an Option
‘Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are’
‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice then you have chosen the side of the oppressor’
- Desmond Tutu
In my most recent blog, I wrote about the tonic that is nature and the blessing that the coincidence of sunshine with lockdown has been. Which is all still true. But the truth is, its only half the story. Because if I am completely honest I have equally found the immense beauty of the weather and of nature over this time a little haunting. I have spoken to so many people who are relishing lockdown, attesting to loving it much more than normal life, willing it not to be over. I too have been one of the lucky ones, able to pick out the best of it, and concentrate on lockdowns silver linings.
But I have also never been able to shift the underlying feeling that this is no holiday. People are suffering , something that the beauty of the weather is in danger of masking - especially those of us who have the luxury of lovely gardens and incomes intact or government supported. There is the reality of global death tolls, of course, and the illness running rampant through care homes and amongst people at their most vulnerable and lonely. But there is also the much bigger picture of livelihoods lost, the backlog of urgent medical treatments been put on hold, the mental health of vulnerable children and the grotesque inequality in how this experience is affecting people- being in an ethnic minority has now been found catergoriacally to be a risk factor for COVID-19. And consider the horror of the lockdown experience for people who were already living close to the bread line or whose sunny days have been largely spent staring at what must feel like the cage of only four walls. We are in this together, but we are by no means experiencing it equally.
And then last week, whilst many of us we were no doubt basking in the twilight of another glorious day, the horror of horrors was happening on the other side of the Atlantic. A white policemen with his knee to the neck of an unarmed black man, killing him, mercilessly and without any hesitation in broad daylight. Watched by his police peers, and immune to being filmed by passers-by, whose lives too will be forever scarred by what they accidentally witnessed.
8 minutes and 26 seconds of brutality that lead to the death of an innocent black man but also serves as the microcosm of a history, past and current, of police brutality, entrenched racism and a broken society. I echo the words of a fellow yoga teacher when I say, as traumatic as it is, every white person needs to watch the video of George Floyd’s death.
When you do it is impossible to stop thinking about it. Or to contain the emotions it provokes; the horror, anger, shame, despair and utter utter unbridled sadness. And so, I would be lying if I said that the sunshine didn’t somehow feel bitter sweet. A shiny and unreal gloss over the very real cracks that need addressed by every single one of us if anything is truly to change.
I am fundamentally dedicated to well being and mental health. My quest in my work is to help you, and me, navigate life in all its messy glory and with all it inevitable suffering. Though I have always been deeply political, I have equally tried to keep politics out of my blogs. But this transcends politics and sits right at the heart of health. I feel I can’t write about anything else until I write about this. For it is impossible for us to be well when society is sick. And it is simply a mark of our privilege if we feel otherwise. Our well being is necessarily and inextricably linked to that of society’s.
What happened to George Floyd might not have happened in our own homeland, but it is very definitely our problem. A few years ago, the journalist Caitlin Moran wrote a very compelling piece on date rape. In it she argued, with her particular brand of acerbic wit and fierce insight, that whilst it was largely women who campaigned against rape, the only way in which things would change is if men started to take part in the conversation. That it wasn’t enough for a man to protest that he would never, not in a million years rape a woman - in the same way that white people might proclaim, loudly and vehemently that we as would never be/endorse/accept/tolerate racism - they needed to do something about it. Their silence, like our silence is part of the problem. White supremacy, and that is what it is, is a white problem. We can’t hijack the conversation, but we can and we should listen, and we should call out disparity in all the places it lurks, both seen and unseen.
I grew up in Singapore in an entirely multicultural community. I had barely any friends who were from the ‘same place’ as me. I went to an international school - one of the now 13 United World Colleges- who aimed, in their own words, to ‘foster a global education movement that makes education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future’. There were 1200 students and 44 different nationalities and aside from United Nations Day when we deliberately celebrated our culture differences, we were a melting pot and our nationalities were an aside. It followed, almost naturally, that race relations and international understanding were at the heart of our thinking as teenagers. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela were idols of mine, as much as Tears for Fears ( remember them?!), U2 and The Cure. I read about race relations, apartheid, the slave trade and segregation. I precociously & relentlessly took people down over dinners - especially the older generation- if they said something that even sniffed to me of racist.
And then, at some point- and I can’t work out exactly when- I went quiet. I moved to the UK and found myself surrounded increasingly by friends of largely white descent. They were political and insightful and engaged, no doubt, so I didn’t notice the change to begin with. And then I got consumed with the largely white rave culture and with Brit pop, with an ever growing family and anti-capitalist marches, with the Iraq war and folk music and to the perils my growing family of children faced in mainstream education. I was still political, but very gradually and without realising it, I unknowingly hung up my racial injustice rage. I never actively decided that race wasn’t my problem anymore, but I behaved as though I had.
And then last week I read this quote from Martin Luther King, ‘In the end we will not remember the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends’ and I realised that my silence has been making me complicit. By default rather than by design but complicit all the same. Every time we don’t call out racism where we see or hear it, every time we don’t follow a news story because it isn’t about ‘one of us’, every time we say thank goodness the UK isn’t as bad as the US and then turn back to our comfortable lives, we are being complicit in a system that values white over black. And that is allowing white people to kill black people and get away with it.
So - and its not much at this stage I know - but I have become determined to re-educate myself. To contribute to causes where my means allows, to follow and listen to black activists and to take their lead, to educate my children in the ways in which racism can enter their lives insidiously ( because this generation is far more on it than ours has ever been) and the way in which they can, I can, we all can, call out racism every time we see or hear it.
I spent the afternoon of BlackOutTuesday researching where we can all start if -like me- you feel a need to engage.
The list below is by no means exhaustive. I find those just overwhelm me to such an extent that I file them away, alongside all my good intentions, and then unwittingly forget about it all.
So this is my whittled down short-list.
There is still a lot here, so my plan is to try and realistically weave an ongoing education into my life going forward. A donation by direct debit, a book a month, one podcast series at a time, even just an episode a week. My teenagers are pledging to do the same.
Things that take 5 minutes-
The musician Dave’s performance at the Brits in February this year. Immense.
Sign a Petition
Color of Change
Petition that seeks the arrest and charging of the three other officers complicit in the killing of George Floyd
You need a US zipcode. Here is NYC one 11201.
Lobby your MP and the DofE to update their school syllabus’
Michael Gove stripped the GCSE English syllabus of all black female writers in his questionable overhaul a few years ago and Black History barely features anywhere at all.
For those of us with UK schooled children I feel this is key. Follow links here. https://www.theblackcurriculum.com/action
and sign this petition
Donate to an organisation or cause and consider setting up a direct debit
- Black Lives Matter Movement; to support ongoing fight to end state sanctioned violence, liberate black people and end white supremacy forever.
- Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust is named after Stephen Lawrence who was killed in a racist attack in 1993 in Southeast London. The organisation is a legacy to his memory, and aims to support young people to ‘ transform their lives by overcoming disadvantage and discrimination’, encouraging greater diversity in business and continuing to campaign for fairness and justice. www.stephenlawrence.org.uk or donate here
Broaden your social bubble by following these people on Instagram
THINGS TO LINGER OVER
Podcast Series that have been recommended
A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson.
Hauntingly prescient, and another angle on issues of race- his poetry about Grenfell is some of the most beautiful, and heartbreaking things I have read about it.
Documentaries to watch ( while you still have empty evenings)
Ava Duvernay's 13th - fascinating and blood boiling documentary about racism and the judicial system. Details here & watch it on Netflix.
Ella Fitzgerald; Just One of those things. On BBC Iplayer now.
Toni Morrison - recent documentary about Toni Morrisons life ‘The Pieces I am’. Available here.
A Book List
( I’ve piled them these by my bed and intend to read them, one by one, over what is now going to be the longest summer holiday on record. A massive list is here if you need more. )
How to be Anti-Racist by Ibram X Kendi ( out of stock but available as an audible book)
Why I am no Longer talking to White People about Race by Renni Eddo-Lodge
Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women White Feminists forgot by Mikki Kendall
Me & White Supremacy by Layla Saad
White Fragility by Robin Diangelo
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
Queenie - by Candice Carty Williams, currently free on Soundcloud
And For Young Adults
Noughts and Crosses ( also now a BBC documentary, but am told by my teens that the book is better)
The Hate We Give
Pledge to call out racist commentary or assumptions, against any person of colour or ethnicity, when you hear it & even if it is an otherwise trusted friend or family member. There are areas in life where political correctness has arguably gone mad, but this is not one of them.
Feeling Blue? The Answer is Green
‘Our origins are of the earth. And so there is a deep seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity’
It seems silly, beyond the age of seven, to think about your favourite colour. But lockdown has, on certain days, reduced me to conversations of equal banality. Not long ago, and I am not making this up, I started a conversation with my twenty year old daughter with the words, ‘If I was a sheep…’, so pondering favourite colours is highbrow by comparison.
If anyone were to ask me, I’d say my favourite colour is blue. The deep blue of Sydney sky and sea, the longing for which I have become used to carrying around with me, with the inevitability of a shadow. England has, admittedly, done an unparalleled job in serving up every equal to that usually unrivalled Antipodean blue. The coincidence of our lockdown days with the gift of an unprecedented spring almost warrants suspicion. Is it a reward for our resilience? Or god given to fashion it in the first place? Whatever the reason- and there probably isn’t one- it has certainly helped.
But for all a blue sky’s majesty, it is the green of the English countryside that has most bewitched me in the last few weeks. Watching the monochrome landscape become increasingly green- washed, and now wallowing in its almost insane lushness. My daily immersions in the natural world have been accompanied by little prayers of thanks, to no one in particular, for the tonic that is the green of nature.
And that it is a tonic is not imagined. Just the colour itself is said to be the most restful of the whole spectrum as it is is most easily seen by the human eye. Psychological research shows that just looking at the colour green stimulates the pituitary gland, which is responsible for cultivating feelings of calm and relaxation.
Literature is littered with references to writers and thinkers who have sought solace in nature; to ease melancholy, to provoke thought and to inspire creativity. Thoreau, Kant, Nietzche, Darwin, Hemingway- and that list is by no means exhaustive- all used walking in nature as means to order their thoughts and provoke more positive thinking. Scientific findings now abound which back this instinct to seek out the natural world as artful help to living. In one study in 2015, researchers compared the brain activity of healthy people after they walked for 90 minutes in the natural world, as compared to those who walked in an urban setting. Those in nature were found to have much lower prefrontal cortex activity- which is the part of the brain most active during rumination and catastrophist thinking -so anything that reduces its activity is beneficial. Spending time in nature has also been also shown to lower blood pressure and cortisol levels- so much so that holistic medicine in Japan includes ‘forest bathing’ ( known as shinrin-yoku). So potent is the simple act of sitting or walking in a forest that it is prescribed - successfully and widely - as an antidote to depression and anxiety. And so compelling are the findings as to the impact of the natural world on our mental health, that the psychologist Oliver Sachs said quite categorically, that after 40 years of medical practice, and alongside music, gardens were the single most vital non pharmaceutical therapy for patients with neurological illness.
It sounds simplistic, but if you are feeling blue, then immersing yourself in green - by walking, gardening or even simply lying on a grassy spot and staring up at the trees- would be a potent first port of call.
For those for whom green spaces are further afield, all is not lost. Even simply listening to natural sounds - real or recorded- has been shown to provoke the same soothing brain connectivity that naturally occurs when we are in wakeful rest or daydreaming.
None of this should come as a suprise. And yet for many, it has taken so much else being stripped away for us to realise that much of what we truly need is actually already within easy reach. And free. Our disconnect from nature- stifled as it is by our indoor living, our rushed commutes and our pavement pounding - is only a relatively new phenomenon. This communion with concrete and cities, and with screens and their neon lights- which we up until now have taken for granted- is only really several generations old. For far longer we were farmers, our lives tied to the rhythms and actuality of the land. And for milennia, some 50,000 years or more we were hunter gatherers.
The truth is, our disconnect from nature is only surface level, whereas our need for it, and our deep-rooted connection to it lies deep within our DNA.
If the gift of lockdown has been that we have been given a chance to re-explore this deep rooted need, then we can be, at least in part, thankful for the lesson. And as we emerge from lockdown, little by little, we would be wise to make sure a daily interaction with nature is the very last thing we give up.
WAYS to COMMUNE with NATURE
Walk- on the doorstep for rural dwellers, but still entirely within reach for city-slickers too, whose green spaces are now entirely open and beckoning. Footpaths is a brilliant app to help you devise walks from your door.
For Londoners this Green Chain Walk is an amazing resource https://tfl.gov.uk/modes/walking/green-chain-walk and this article contains a host of ideas for green London walks.
And whilst long walks hold a particular charm, even twenty minutes a day walking in a green space is said to be notably impactful on the mind.
Listen to the natural world - the dawn chorus at this time of year is a pleasure, and even those living in cities have attested to the fact that the birds have been louder under lockdown. Sleep with your windows open, and use it as an early alarm clock.
This soundscape created by the Guardian has also completely captivated me - I have listened to it and scrolled down more times than I can count, and is lovely to show to children.
Get Your Hands Dirty - It has been shown, in countless studies that exposure to a bacteria in soil, known as MYCOBACTERIUM VACCAE has been shown to encourage the production of serotonin in the brain, which is the chemical responsible for happiness. Planting up a herbs in pots to put in a sunny windowsill or tending to indoor plants will have the same effect.
Watch these videos - the weekly videos by the florist Willow Crossley are one of the most soothing things I have found in lockdown. Utterly enchanting as well as so useful to the budding gardener. Follow her on instagram @willowcrossleycreates and scroll back to find the whole archive.
Her book, The Wild Journal, is equally magical. Perfect for reading under a tree and inspiring you with countless ways to ponder & enhance your connection to nature.
Take your yoga mat ( and perhaps one of my recorded sessions) outside and practice under a tree. You might be more off balance if you are grappling with grass and root systems underfoot ( as I was this morning), but there is something entirely magical about doing yoga whilst immersed within the elements. And the breath is definitely more potent. It is best to follow the advice of the yogis and not practice in full sunshine if possible.