Wisdom and systemic racism.

Wisdom and Systemic Racism

by Heather Ruce



As we continue on in the season of Epiphany, the veil still thin, we are invited to bring the gifts of Wisdom to that which is springing forth and desiring to manifest through form in the collective. We are in a conducive and fertile field for recognition, mending, and re-membering the mercy as we make our way through the collective traumas of our time. Last March, the Covid-19 pandemic made way for another awakening to the ongoing racism and inequity embedded in the soil of the world, and in particular America. This overdue awakening brought turmoil and unrest, a necessary condition for growth. Time goes on and it is important for us to stay awake, to keep our hearts tuned, to receive the help available to us, to integrate the resources needed, for something unknown to unfold as the future beckons us into new structures of consciousness.

There is an ongoing need to be present to this collective pain body and re-enacted trauma as it intersects with the Wisdom tradition. In particular, we can draw from theFourth Way teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff as a source of insight. The Fourth Way is all about making your life conditions the conditions for your spiritual work and transformation, hence in shorthand it has been called The Work. You don’t have to go away to a monastery but in fact your life can become your monastery no matter the circumstances.

Although I will name but a few likely familiar teachings, we can begin to make some important connections. Let’s begin with the notion of being asleep. The Work suggests that humans in our typical state walk through life unconsciously. We have become machines at the mercy of our conditioned thoughts, emotions, and even physical postures but we can wake up to our mechanical nature if we are open to doing so.

In this case, we can wake up to our mechanical nature specifically as it manifests in the very subtle and sometimes not so subtle art of othering, domination, exploitation, and oppression. The practice of self-observation is one of our most important methods in this aim of waking up and is about honestly seeing the state of our being. We see not from our super-ego, which often sits on the throne of the intellectual center judging and analyzing, but from witnessing presence, whose signature mark is curiosity.

As we observe and begin to work on ourselves we also see the particularity of each person’s experience. Using the word ‘we’ can be problematic because ‘we’ are not a homogenous group of people. At the same time, ‘we’ are all humans which does not need to negate these particularities. We are all part of a complex system in which there is both profound connectivity and differentiation.

Working with self-observation allows us to see for ourselves how we are prone to unique and similar ways of falling asleep in our three centers in regard to racism. The work with our intellectual center is through thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes; our emotional center through emotions and feelings; and our movement center through sensations, gestures, postures, instinctual reactions (fight, flight, freeze). Much of our sleep comes from over 200,000 years of human history. The reality is, racism has been an insidious thread running throughout the entire human experience.

There have always been groups of people objectifying, othering, and oppressing different groups of people for all kinds of reasons. There have always been those who dominate and desire power over others. This is not new, and perhaps was a manifestation of the deficient phases of the magical structure. In his book Seeing Through the World, Jeremy Johnson says, “The magical is also deficiently expressed as the capacity to be mindlessly destructive, a doing without consciousness, which also manifests as a kind of machine consciousness, or mass destructive violence, in the deficient mental age.” (p. 93) We can look at the history of humans and see this mindless destruction and mechanical nature as the same tendency which leads us to exploit animals and our planet.

Every one of us, wherever we sit around the planet, has been born into the deficient mental age and a context of the collective trauma structure inherent in slavery, racism, war, colonization, and other forms of violence and othering—which is more pervasive than it may appear. It is difficult to see that which we have been living in and is living in us. What is new is that more and more humans are beginning to see the mechanical nature of it, and wake up in varying degrees from the sleep.

Our conditioning can be seen, as two foundational Fourth Way teachers Maurice Nicoll and P.D. Ouspensky suggest, like old coats that are layered on. A person can have so many coats on that the person can hardly fit through the doorway and go into the next room. We have many coats that need to be discarded in order that we might be able to fit through the doorway in front of us. A large piece of the inner work necessary in this current experience is becoming aware of our sleep and removing these coats, both individually and collectively.

Through our self-observation we can begin to see how the conversation in regard to systemic racism and white body advantage brings up our identifications. Identification is about the ways we attach to an image of the self or identity. We become identified with certain narratives about ourselves and ways of doing things which support our sense of identity. In her e-course Spiritual Practices from the Gurdjieff Work[i] Cynthia says, “The main reason that identification is hard to spot is that it's so closely tied into the mechanisms from which our usual sense of selfhood derive that it's almost like trying to look at your own eyeballs!” We can loosen our identification as part of the healing.

We can also work with internal and external conditioning in regard to racial justice. Cynthia’s descriptions of external and internal considering are incredibly helpful here. She says:

"External considering is basically the Work equivalent of "practical compassion." It is fundamentally no more complicated or exotic than simply the capacity to actually see the condition of another, to walk in his or her footsteps, to "love my neighbor as myself"—all familiar territory in every religious tradition. But so often in the West these ideas have become infused with sentimentality and duty; there is no real consciousness involved. In the Gurdjieff version…the chief operatives are conscious attention and a well-honed moving center."

Cynthia continues:

"The opposite of external considering is internal considering, of course, which for Gurdjieff meant an excessive interiority and a preoccupation with one's own internal states, needs, and narratives. In this state, lost in one's story, it is very difficult to assimilate the actual condition of another, let alone see how to help. Everything moves in relationship to one's own interiority. Like trying to understand a phrase in French by first mentally translating it into English, one moves from selfto other and back to self again without ever grasping the relationship directly. That is why, according to Gurdjieff, so much of what we call "self-awareness" nowadays is merely narcissism writ large.

True self-awareness begins at the next level out, when those rigid boundaries between self and other are dissolved in a single, flowing energetic field. External considering does not require great personal empathy or emotional drama. It requires a quiet mind, a complete lack of inner talking, and an ability to take one's cues directly from the present moment."

This is exactly what is called for. How would we navigate our collective trauma if we were to integrate these resources? If each one of us took seriously Gurdjieff’s charge of "external considering always, internal considering never” and enlarged our capability "to actually see the condition of another," to walk in their footsteps, and love them as ourselves? What would happen if we leaned into the practice not from a preoccupation with our own internal states, needs, and narratives but rather with hearts as finely tuned spiritual instruments ready to play?

For one, we would water the earth with holy tears pouring out of a genuine remorse of conscience. Remorse for our being asleep. At the 2020 October Wisdom School at Claymont we spent some time with the idea of remorse. Cynthia reminded us that remorse is not about guilt or shame, although there can be a place for those, but rather an immediate seeing in which freedom and humility allow you to finally take responsibility without blame, self-justification, or denial. It happens when we can open to the higher emotional center and is a place where love can be awakened. The struggle with ourselves is on behalf of the collective. We have to enter through the gate o