The Difference Is the Practice

When I went to the People of Color retreat at Deer Park last week, I went in thinking only that it would be a place to connect with and spend time with other people of color who practice the Dharma. The theme of the retreat – healing – was incidental in my mind. I just took it as a “theme” that the organizers chose, something nice sounding that goes after the colon in the title. In past experiences, for example with General Assemblies, to be honest the chosen theme does not generally affect my experience of the gathering at all. (Justice GA was the one exception.)

I've been to many People of Color gatherings now, but never before in a Buddhist context and never before for so many days together. It was interesting to see how things were similar and how they were different. There was the same woundedness and rawness. The first couple of days, I kept thinking to myself, "So much pain here. So much pain here." Even as most of us expressed joy and gratitude to be gathered together. But around the second full day of the retreat, I started to understand the difference between this gathering and others I'd been to.

The difference is the practice. In many ways, the teachings of Buddhism can be likened to deescalation techniques. (In fact, sometimes I wonder whether that's where they came from, tho of course it's entirely possible the same principles have been discovered repeatedly over time.) The gist of it is that instead of reacting to what another person is doing and thus (most often) escalating conflict, we sit with it. Try to understand that their behavior is due to causes and conditions, and to understand what in us is reacting, being triggered, due to our causes and conditions. So instead of feeding and thus escalating conflict, we let that energy dissipate. NOT suppress it, which would be different, just not add to it, not make it stronger, bigger.

Most everyone at the retreat has an understanding of this practice, but the organizers and the monastics are especially versed in it. So, for the first day and a half or so, they just let folks express their anger and hurt and dissatisfaction, without responding in defensiveness. Whether or not they were as calm on the inside I do not know, but outwardly, they just let the criticisms be voiced. And once folks were able to voice their dissatisfactions without being told that they were wrong for feeling that way, that in and of itself was healing. And that allowed participants to open more as well, and be more gentle with each other. It was an amazing thing to behold. (Altho I think I personally spent more time observing it in admiration than actually allowing myself to be transformed by it.)

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