The American Soul: Race & The Danger of New Age Spirituality
Looking to the East: Dismissing America’s Black Spiritual Power
Posted June 30, 2014
Gurus, yogis, meditation masters, lamas -- these have become spiritual authorities for many New Age Americans who have looked to the east for spiritual wisdom. However, while there exists some fine eastern light to help illuminate our paths, from Gandhi to the Dalai Lama, this turn to the east can inadvertently dismiss the spiritual wisdom of our own African American elders -- teachings rooted in our own soil, pain, and shadow.
These spiritual teachers are Fanny Lou Hammer and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who faced beating and death with voices compelled by love. They are John Coltrane whose vision of individual freedom and collective expression manifested in America's finest music as well as Billie Holliday and Nina Simone who brought soul to pain and misery. (Is there a finer thing for a spiritual tradition to do?) They are also Howard Thurman who brought brilliance and guidance to the practice of a uniquely American Christianity and Cornel West whose intellect and spirit soar in pronouncement of a love-based ethic. And how could we leave out Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou--African American women that have revealed the glory and need for redemption of each individual as well as our nation as a whole. They didn't turn water into wine, but tears into the blues. They didn't walk on water but they created music that we float on. They didn't carry a staff and part the Red Sea, but they did honor to the Hebrew cry "Let my people go."
These elders, and countless others, have elucidated a spiritual wisdom that has arisen from the fires of America's own alchemy--a process of cooking the demons and injuries of injustice along with the spirit of love and perseverance creating a unique brilliance out of the heat of diversity. Further, it is wisdom that honors and redeems those who have bled for America's soul.
These individuals may not look like spiritual teachers to many but that is not for the lack of the spiritual depth and riches they offer. For example, I remember wondering why I was listening to Buddhist chanting instead of John Coltrane's "Love Supreme" during my morning meditation period; I remember several black elders teach me how to make heated dialogue into a meditation on relationship instead of an inner practice of loving kindness; I remember Dr. King waking me up to the fact that spiritual work was also a public practice when I heard him say that justice is what love looks like in public; I recall the late Maya Angelou teaching me how to turn great suffering into powerful humanity, something I looked to eastern teachers for earlier; and I recall poet Etheridge Knight singing to me of desperation, being imprisoned, and becoming free--lessons I was taught from eastern spiritual teachers years prior. These black teachers don't necessarily don robes, hold weekend workshops, or show up in the kind of classrooms or retreat centers that many associate with spiritual teaching. Further, while many are accustomed to spiritual teachings coming in the form of music, literature, and sermon, many Americans liken these teachers to artists and activists more than spiritual elders. In these ways sitting at the feet of these elders challenges our fundamental paradigm of education, especially spiritual education. Nonetheless their spiritual powers cannot be denied offering a way of living, loving, and dying in a world of darkness as well as light.
Let me be clear, I have no inherent objection to eastern philosophies and spiritual disciplines; I myself have been a student of many fine minds and hearts, from Sharon Salzberg and Pema Chodrin to Bante Gunaratana, Steven Levine and Jack Kornfield, teachers who helped bring eastern traditions to these United States. But when these teachings are highlighted at the expense of those forged and deepened on the backs of those who have suffered under the weight of America's shadow an injustice is perpetrated. For the purposes of righting this injustice permit me to offer a critique of our turn to eastern New Age teachings in contrast to the relative value and power of African American wisdom teachings for Americans today.
First, some New Age eastern teachings can foster a practice that avoids the shadow. Practitioners can be found blessing each other while remaining unconscious of how they patronize, seek to relieve the pain and suffering of others regardless of its meaning, and 'anti-depress' people even when their path is taking them down into their deeper feelings. I have personally witnessed such groups being open-hearted toward streaming tears but not screaming ire and seen competition and jealousy treated as "negatives" to be rooted out instead of used as fire and heat to deepen knowledge of self and the bonds of community. At worst, this kind of spirituality can become a form of denial--a flight toward spirit that marginalizes the soul's descent risking the same fire that brought Icarus back to earth.
On the other hand, much African American teaching is rooted in shadow as its elders have had to sit in the fire of brutality as well as projections of inferiority, aggression, and deviance. I am reminded of an African American man who attended a workshop on conflict resolution with some 300 participants from over 25 different countries. Many of us grew to admire his wisdom, personal power, and leadership capacity when he helped to resolve our most protracted tensions. He had a hard-earned ease with anger and aggression that most of us hadn't. One night he walked in to our workshop hall pushing a mop and garbage pail singing a slave-like song. He said that in his garbage pail was all that we throw away--aspects of our sexuality, our greed, our anger, our desperation and more. "I eat this garbage; I live on all that you throw away and that's what makes me strong, true, and a person you look to for keys on how to be alive." His spirit grew strong in the shadow of mainstream America's compulsion to climb the latter of success leaving behind the rags and bones of a true spirituality.
Second, practitioners of New Age and eastern traditions often urge individuals to deal with disturbing feelings like hurt, anger, insecurity, and impatience by looking inside themselves; however, many use these same practices as a way of avoiding relationship difficulties and conflict. For example, I have counseled many people who turn to their meditation cushion when they are angry with their partners instead of learning to address the issues directly in relationship or who practice letting go of the judgments they have of their families and communities rather than use the power and impulse of their judgments to speak out for change and healing.
On the other hand, African American elders through music, protest, or even the church's call and response teach dialogue and the fine art of democracy found in jazz highlighting the conversation between voices and instruments, making beauty and the moral/spiritual development of individuals and country out of engaged interaction--not only silent reflection--even when it is heated.
Third, some practitioners of New Age spirituality promote the idea that we choose our reality, our emotions, and what comes into our lives. However, these ideas can inadvertently deny the genuine victimization and collective responsibility for injustice perpetrated against groups, from blacks and women to Jews and gays by suggesting that all responsibility lies with the individual's consciousness but not with the collective's unconsciousness. It is worthy noting that this kind of denial is less likely to be forwarded by people who identify with being marginalized by mainstream culture--people who are more likely to be treated as members of a group and not as individuals. For example, I recently spoke with a friend who quoted an eastern spiritual teacher saying that working on our own individual consciousness is the most important thing that we do. I told her that I had a slight allergy to spiritual ideas that highlight the consciousness of the individual relative to that of the collective.
On the other hand, I am reminded of the legacy of Emmett Till's mother who spoke in front of the open casket of her murdered son saying, "I've not a minute to waist, I will pursue justice for the rest of my life."  She practiced a spirituality aimed at awakening a whole culture and country to free the hearts and souls of many regardless of their personal choices or practices.
Finally, while many who turn to the east consider themselves progressive, their progressive attitudes too often manifest in condescension, care taking, and charity towards blacks and other marginalized groups. While they may even be involved in working toward social justice, they don't treat our African American wise women and men with the same authority, respect, and reverence they do for their eastern spiritual teachers whose feet they are more likely to sit at.
On the other hand, some of our African American wisdom teachings have sat at the feet of those who spoke for America's Judeo-Christian heritage. I am reminded of the powerful twist of spiritual fate demonstrated in an African American slave prayer. The slave woman was on her knees praying that God's forgiveness be given to her Christian slave owner who stood above her believing he was spiritually superior. She prayed, "Oh Lord, bless my master. When he calls upon thee to damn his soul, do not hear him, do not hear him, but hear me - save him - make him know he is wicked, and he will pray for thee." Clearly she who was on her knees was the teacher; he who stood above was in need of redemption. Is this not still the kind of reversal Americans need today? In addition, as a man of Jewish tradition, I am also aware of how African Americans have enriched the story of Moses through Zora Neal Hurston's Moses, Man of the Mountain as well as by embodying this myth of freedom in the civil rights movement. This kind of poetic and spiritual irony highlights the spiritual depth of a people who were often more spiritually developed while having to assume a station of inferiority.
The prophetic poet, Rainer Rilke suggested almost one hundred years ago that people in the west suffer a kind of soullessness, that they have lost their spiritual way, and as a result their children may have to go far out into the east “towards that same church which [they] forgot.” Rilke was eerily correct--a whole generation did indeed go far to the east to find their "church."
Why look to the east? Why not sit at the feet of America's African American wisdom teachers? First, let me suggest that reaching out to this tradition, especially as white folks, means bearing a certain pain and, dare I say, responsibility for a legacy of suffering. In this way many of us don't walk into this "church" with clean hands--a darkness we need not bear in the ashram or zendo. However, bearing this darkness may be just the deepening we need.
Second, the color line, as Du Bois phrased it, is still a powerful social demarcation and, while many of us have joined our voices with those who cry out for social justice, this attitude doesn't embody the same valuation as looking up to folks for spiritual wisdom and development.
James Baldwin wrote "The black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations." It's time to shake our foundations, root out not only our negative projections and stereotypes but also the unconscious devaluation, even patronization at times, of America's black elders. While much wisdom can be found in eastern New Age traditions, there is a rich tradition of wisdom grown right here, paid for in blood and tears, and ready made to address the souls, psyches, and dilemmas we face as Americans.
 Cornel West, Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations, CD (2007).
 "A Slave Woman's Prayer (1816)." Found by Stephen Hays. Conversations with God: Two Centuries of Prayers by African Americans, James Melvin Washington, Ph.D., Ed. HarperPerennial, New York (1994).
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