Crisis as context

Earthquakes, war and other calamitous shocks to our ecosystems often bring inequalities between peoples’ access to rights, resources and respect into sharp and uncomfortable focus.  In normal times we might co-exist with these inequalities. We may be blissfully defended in denial or ignorance.  Or we may be compassionately concerned as individuals, yet not sufficiently moved collectively to dismantle the structures that divide the privileged from the less privileged.

In 2020, black, brown and indigenous people around the world are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 virus and weathering the worst of its economic consequences.  Shockingly to many, the patterns of death that the pandemic has etched onto our psyches and societies are exposing and exacerbating racially determined disparities.  At the same time, the execution of George Floyd by a white police officer in the United States seems to have shaken white-skinned people around the world from their slumber regarding the reaches of racism, …to the extent that many ended their quarantines to break their silence regarding skin-based privileges.   Floyd’s killing was, after all, the latest in a long list of unlawful racially motivated killings and seemed to tip people over their limit of tolerance.

The pandemic and the protests in support of Black Lives Matters should not be seen as coincidental or disconnected events.  Both reflect how our health and safety as individuals depend on the health and safety of others – no matter how far removed from our own situations we think they are.  Moreover, they demonstrate how centuries of rapacious and self-interested behaviour have led to our current state of devastating disconnection from the planet and each other.

Impulse to learn

In the days and weeks since the protests, my inbox has been inundated by announcements for trainings, book clubs, courses and workshops that aim to help me, as a white person, understand the unconscious role I play in maintaining the global scaffolding of white supremacy.  Psychotherapists, psychologists and trauma specialists in whose lists I participate also want to encourage me to become a more effective ‘white ally’ to people of colour by becoming more actively anti-racist in how I practice professionally.

The on-going lockdown has given me time to read some of the books and participate in some of the workshops, many of which are currently available online and at discounted prices.  From these I have learnt that the normalised beliefs of white supremacy birth all other forms of supremacy and oppression, creating irrational hierarchies of easily identifiable groups of people.  I have also learned that white supremacy is an embodied phenomenon, its reflexes and sequelae encoded within our genes and vibrating throughout our nervous systems. White supremacy, the authors and trainers declare, is pervasive in our interactions, relationships and institutions given that these depend on the presence of our racially conditioned bodies.

Being Accountable

In response to this expanding movement, my dance therapy and yoga communities have also started to reflect on how the adoption of practices from the global south, by scholars and practitioners in the global north, has upheld and advanced white supremacy.  In response, they are trying to highlight the work of black, brown, and indigenous practitioners, and open spaces for black, brown, and indigenous leadership.  The hope is that collectively they will learn to address the legacies of colonization, cultural appropriation and erasure of non-white voices and bodies from these practices.  In the longer term, they hope to see more equally distributed visibility and respect in the spaces where we preform, recruit, teach and advance knowledge in these fields.

I haven’t seen similar moves within the world of transpersonal psychology yet.  However, I am reminded of Hartelius, Caplan and Radin’s 2007 research, and also observations made by the organizers of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology’s 50th anniversary conference in 2019, that transpersonal psychology must do more to become accessible to diverse groups of people.  If this were to happen, more women might author publications, more black people might teach classes, and more indigenous theorists and non-white practitioners might be leading new debates.  As we emerge from the post-pandemic world, perhaps we can further this conversation and open more spaces for diverse voices and bodies within our discipline, its leadership, and its student population.

Responsible Change

Transpersonal psychology is a discipline that encourages expanded human awareness.  Born in the West, it embraces global spiritual traditions and elevates embodied and participatory epistemologies to the same level of academic acceptance as the rational science of traditional psychology.  At the same time it warns that taking refuge in spirituality could lead to psychological wounds being left unhealed and developmental tasks uncompleted at the individual level.  I believe that the concept of spiritual bypass can also be applied at the collective level and that those of us in the transpersonal field have significant responsibilities as well as exceptional access to wisdom and practices that we can and should harness responsibly to encourage the healing of our global transgenerational trauma.

Much has been said about the potential for the pandemic to catalyse a shift in global consciousness based on our renewed felt sense of the interconnectedness of all life.  Transpersonal theorists and practitioners have hoped for such a shift for long before the pandemic.  I would like to suggest that by becoming more actively anti-racist, perhaps Transpersonal Psychology could have an even greater role to play in this shift.  After all, consciousness expansion often requires an uncomfortable examination of individual and collective wounding, and compassionate willingness to assume responsibility for healing and transforming what we can, from the inside outwards.

Shamanism, yoga, meditation, entheogenic plant medicine, and other sacred sciences that we study, practice and promote for transpersonal wellness and healing, for example, are endogenous to cultures and societies that have been repressed. Meanwhile, at the same that indigenous practitioners have been derided, fetished and/or criminalized for their beliefs and practices, aspects of their practices have been extracted, appropriated, and commoditised in the global north and where they mainly benefit lighter skinned people.  Yet those very practices offer powerful somatic, contemplative, imaginal, and intuitive ways to face the shadows of our discipline and transform them. There is much to unpack and discuss regarding how that might happen.

Suggested Steps

In the current context, the impulse to rage against structural racism in our communities, institutions and societies seems to be strong.  In fact social constructions of ‘whiteness’ encourage action first and reflection later. That is precisely why anti-racist trainers urge those who wish to be better white allies to listen deeply before acting.   Firstly, they invite us to listen inwards, to observe our full selves with compassion, to take time to notice the defences, triggers and beliefs that may stymie connection with others, and then to pause and practice releasing them.  This, they explain, is key to bringing consciousness to our own well-hidden race-based privileges and biases. Only once these are acknowledged and released should we act.  It is in the pause before action, they say, that we may know our own wounds, heal ourselves, and transform our praxis in ways that allow us to step back rather than to step forward, widening the circle for others rather than making it smaller.

Based on these suggestions, here are some ideas for how we might explore our personal and collective shadows and strengthen our discipline together:

Non-judgemental self-observation:

  • What sensations, emotions and thoughts arise in your body and mind as you contemplate the racial composition of your classes, reading lists, research participants, conference panels, trainings etc.? Who do you notice is absent and how does that feel?
  • What do your imagination and intuition tell you about your reactions? How might you express and process those reactions in creative, embodied and healing ways?

If after exploring these questions you feel moved to act, here are a few initial ideas that you might consider:

 Learning, healing, transforming:

  • Learn more about how your transpersonal practices may have been impacted by colonization and/or racism throughout their history;
  • Honour the roots of your transpersonal practices by making sure you are not using language, clothing and other accoutrements in decontextualized or unintentionally disrespectful ways;
  • Search for texts (not just written texts) produced by people born into the traditions or cultures that your own transpersonal practices draw upon and cite those that are relevant in your assignments;
  • Expand your transpersonal research participation criteria to ensure that you consider experiences from a diverse range people;
  • Adjust your marketing and pricing strategies to make your transpersonal trainings more accessible to people who enjoy less privilege than you do and who are not always represented in your groups;
  • Establish equitable and democratic partnerships with people, organizations and communities that are guardians of your transpersonal practices;
  • Learn more about white supremacy and anti-racism by yourself or with a group, and commit to introduce more anti-racist practice into your transpersonal practices.
  • Don’t expect to learn from black, indigenous or people of colour without honouring their knowledge, expertise and efforts (show-up for what they teach, pay for their services and cite their work).

I look forward to engaging in more conversation about this with anyone who is interested in sharing experiences and ideas.  In the meantime, you might find the following resources useful for encouraging reflection, inspiration and conversation:

Accesible Yoga.   30 hour training and twice yearly conferences.

American Dance Therapy Association (2020).  Letter to Address Unjust Policing.

Clausen, M.  (2015).  Whiteness Matters: Exploring White Privilege, Color Blindness and Racism in Psychotherapy.

Cultural Somatics Institute.  Racialized Trauma Homestudy Course, Free 5 day course.

DiAngelo, R. (2018).  White Fragility: why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism.  Boston: Beacon Press.

Hartelius, G.  (2014).  The Imperative for Diversity in a Transpersonal Psychology of the Whole Person (Editor’s Introduction).  International Journal of Transpersonal Studies 33(2).

Kendi, I. X.  (2019).  How to Be an Antiracist.  New York: Random House.

Menakem, R.  (2017).  My Grandmother’s Hands: racialized trauma and the pathway to mending our hearts and bodies.  Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press.

Saad, L. F.  (2020).  Me and white supremacy: combat racism, change the world, and become a good ancestor.  Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks.

Welwood, J.  (2000).  Toward a psychology of awakening: Buddhism, psychotherapy, and the path of personal and spiritual transformation.  Boston: Shambala.
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