On the Hook

I invited a friend to the Zen Center this week. She is a female friend who is physically small with a quieter voice. It went exactly how I was afraid it would. Despite a format designed to allow everyone an opportunity to talk, the rest of the group was composed of mostly large, older, white males who talk way too much, interrupt constantly and take up all the space and time in the room. I watched my friend as the conversation never allowed her an opening to speak even when it was her allotted turn in the round. When she finally did get to speak, she was interrupted quickly by one of the men. I was embarrassed, anxious, tense, guilty, and ashamed of my sangha, ashamed of my gender. I watched this go on for a half hour and felt it as a tightness in my chest that slumped my shoulders forward and made me want to disappear into the ether. I wondered if I was overthinking it and checked my friend’s face to see if she was getting frustrated and to my relief (validating that my perception wasn’t crazy) as well as further shame and embarrassment, she was growing very visibly agitated and frustrated (which of course none of the other men noticed). She looked at me with exasperation and I finally spoke up and gently reminded the room to keep the rotation going and give space for everyone to talk. Then she was interrupted within moments of speaking and the room was off again just as it had been.

I brought this to my therapist, because what am I supposed to do!? I am “one of the good ones” as Allan Johnson points out, which I am saying with sarcasm in this paper in order to express the frustration that even when I am trying to be a good person, fully witnessing issues of power and privilege with every intention to be nothing but what the situation requires, I see no good option for behavior in the situation. I am “on the hook” as Johnson dubs it, but completely powerless. I could shout the men down and/or publicly shame them by pointing out their rudeness in the middle of the talk, but then I am fighting dominance with dominance. I am fighting bullies in the zendo with male power and the authority of position. I am reinforcing the patriarchy I am fighting. This would then make me the same as them and everyone loses. I could take them aside in private later, explain to them about protocol and gender politics and help them find their best intentions, but oh wait, I’ve done that several times and they always agree, listen, appear very concerned and excited to do better, and then immediately forget. I am the facilitator on these nights, but I don’t have the authority to change the format. Brad and the rest of the sangha (including women (who not surprisingly are an increasingly small portion of the sangha)) value spontaneity and informalness in discussion, and also the men seem to be much more polite and well behaved when Brad is around so the real authority doesn’t understand the problem. I’ve explained it, we’ve discussed and altered the format slightly, but still to no avail.

My therapist told me there is a third option that is not passivity or fighting for control. This is the same lesson that is coming up over and over again this semester for me. The only person I can work with in that moment, he told me, is myself. I have to have compassion for the person sitting there anxious and twisted in total suffering over the situation, who is me. From there, maybe compassion for everyone involved will flow, maybe even compassionate action might flow, but it would be spiritual bypassing to not go inward first. And my friend? That’s her practice, he told me. At that point it dawned on me that when she looked at me in frustration and I took that as license to finally attempt to wrangle in the room, I was doing the same thing as the other men. I was trying to control, and almost worse, I was trying to protect and save a woman who I was not allowing to address the room and situation herself. At best, looking back, I would rather have given her an understanding look and maybe a silent encouraging nod that says “whatever you’re thinking and feeling right now, do that. For the love of God let them hear what is boiling inside you.” I like this answer, but it still it reeks just a little of patriarchal control. Also though it feels a bit like supportive ally and aware facilitator, so who’s to really say? The point is I don’t know what the third option would have done because I didn’t take it. I did not sit with my own anxiety and discomfort as the practice, I was trying to take hers, and hate the men’s obliviousness, I was trying to look everywhere else except the one place I needed to look. But hey, no judgement here. Maybe a little compassion for the poor gender self aware anxiety prone male who is small enough to know full well what it’s like to be dominated your whole life by oblivious larger males but was also raised with a strong sense of leadership that demands responsibility for all situation combined with a total resentment of all authority including his own. That sounds like a rough moment for him. I think he did his best, and I’m sorry he was in that situation that perfectly combined a whole being into that level of anxiety and tension. I also think he learned some things that might help for next time.
I purposefully read Rev Williams piece immediately following Johnson, because I know her writing has triggered me in this class before. Reading about denial and resistance in Johnson, it sounds like a possibility for why that happens to some degree, so I wanted to see what her writing would feel like with that warning fresh in mind. Uncannily, I really enjoyed her piece this week. It spoke to me and the above story perfectly. She said “we create better images of who we are and we simultaneously believe worse images of who we actually are. So we create fantasies and we believe fiction. Neither of these things abide in truth. It’s easier to leave these parts aside, at least to our conscious mind, than to even begin to consider if we will be able to survive the grief of facing them. It’s easier to just claim our progressiveness, to claim our enlightened hearts and spirits or our radicalness and commitment to the struggle—so you can’t possibly be racist, or sexist, or transphobic, or think your spirituality is more real, or you’re just better—than to actually have your despair show up for you.”

What she is talking about on a purely personal level is a lot of what I was doing to the situation. I wanted to create a better image of my sangha in my mind. I couldn’t accept the reality of what it is. This is what produced the anxiety and suffering, and instead of facing that, which was the truth of the room and situation, I looked for how I could fix it, how I could be more effectively progressive enough to end the patriarchy in the room so that I wouldn’t have to accept it. I can’t get it out of my head that I still have a responsibility to address these issues somehow in awareness and action, but I know I have to accept their reality first so that all my action is not based on anxious avoidance. I’ve said that over and over in this class and I’ll keep saying it as long as it takes

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