After a police officer killed George Floyd last summer, large-scale protests and riots erupted through the city of Minneapolis, and violence, which was often instigated by white supremacists, spread throughout our neighborhoods. More than 1,300 properties were destroyed in the mayhem, and 100 buildings were burned to the ground entirely (including the police department’s third precinct station house). The total cost of the damage was estimated at $350 million.
In the months that followed, community activists put together plans (such as The People’s Budget) to prevent such destruction from happening again, and many more took part in protests and other forms of direct action to make sure that the people with the power to enact change could not ignore these proposals. Yet, as the murder trial of former officer Derek Chauvin began, the City of Minneapolis, rather than investing in the community and addressing the cause of the problem, was spending public funds—with a projected price tag of more than $1 million—on fortifying government buildings and bringing in thousands of additional law enforcement officers. This plan does not protect the residents of Minneapolis; it protects the city officials who were widely criticized for their slow and ineffective response to the destruction at the time and now are seeking to avoid a similar situation during the trials.
Those of us invested in community activism can become angry and impatient when we contemplate how much money and resources city leaders are funneling into property protections and police. We can lash out in our thoughts and actions because, despite numerous community conversations, those in positions of power still don’t seem to “get it.” But this reactive energy will not help us. Our rage keeps us focused on what could have been rather than on building the capacity to be wise, kind, and tenacious— all mind states that this work requires.
It’s not easy to let go of these afflictive emotions and move onto the next challenge. But we can begin by recognizing that our frustration is not entirely the fault of the city officials who ignored us. They bear full responsibility for the pain that they have caused and will continue to cause the community by refusing to listen to its needs. But they are only partly to blame for our frustration, which is fed by our attachments to the outcome that we had imagined.
The Buddha taught us that attachment fuels samsara, an endless cycle of suffering. He also taught that lessening those attachments—letting go of our need to cling to things that make us feel good or push away the things that make us feel bad—allows us to develop equanimity and act skillfully to bring an end to suffering in an ever-changing world.
You have to believe in what you are doing because of your conviction that it is the right thing to do, not because you are attached to any tangible result in the world.
We can see that getting attached to the dream of the City of Minneapolis investing in a more holistic, humane, and sustainable approach to community anger about Floyd’s death is neither a wise nor effective course of action. City leaders have known that this moment would come, that the trials would take place here and stir up trauma for Black Minnesotans and everyone else. Stakeholders have had multiple chances to pursue other courses of action besides protecting property and increasing police presence. Holding onto our hopes that city officials will take proper action when all evidence suggests otherwise only sets us up for further disappointment and frustration. But facing reality about our current situation does not mean giving up on our future. It means putting aside this particular version of what the future can be in order to begin to imagine countless other possibilities.
We don’t have to be upset or disappointed by the City’s relentless commitment to upholding the racial and economic status quo. We just have to keep working to envision and create a more equitable—and therefore beautiful—world, while at the same time leaving room to acknowledge and honor our completely valid sadness and rage. We have to keep pressing for equity, both within and outside the courts, knowing full well that we may never get it. You have to believe in what you are doing because of your conviction that it is the right thing to do, not because you are attached to any tangible result in the world. That might sound delusional, but it is more grounded than the alternative of ignoring how the world really works or giving up hope that things can change—despite the fact that, for better or worse, things will always change.
I would argue that this is, in essence, what the Buddha taught: That by getting intimate with the way things are, by facing the truth of our existence, we can actually be more present with the vagaries of present moment experience without getting confused or attached to them.
Any student of social movements knows that the victories are small and infrequent, the losses large and everyday. To keep going, we have to be resilient, and we have to be nimble enough to change course when the situation demands it. In this context, attachment—holding onto what could or should have been—becomes just another impediment to doing the work of social change. We see this when we can’t step away from our organizing work to relax. We may be tempted to power through, clinging to our idea of what we should be doing, but a burned-out activist is less effective than a healthy one. We also see this when we allow our egos to lead when strategizing with friends, neighbors, and colleagues, and let our attachments to what we think should happen blind us to new possibilities.
Likewise, when we become so frustrated by the endless cycle of investing in police rather than community, we believe we have no other choice but to react in anger and violence. These are the aftereffects of an attachment that leads to more suffering, not less—an unfortunate characteristic that is endemic in activist and community circles.
We know what we have to do, but following through is a separate challenge. How do we care deeply about something without getting caught up in it? How do we show up to fight for George Floyd and all the other Black and Brown citizens murdered by police without becoming overwrought, burned out, or bitter? And how do we begin to take responsibility for our own actions, and our own minds and hearts that have led us to them?
The Buddha didn’t just teach about the cause of suffering (that is, attachments). He also taught us how to reduce and bring an end to that suffering—through a regular dharma practice that helps us to stop clinging to our thoughts and feelings. By locating feelings in the body, we can lessen our attachments and find equanimity. This teaching and practice can help us navigate the trials, as well as the responses to them from police and city officials. And we can also keep it in mind when it comes to positive change, too.
The Buddha said that everything we need to guide us on this path to being fuller, more compassionate human beings is right here in the body. Right now. The tightness of the shoulder blades. The clench of the jaw. The eagerness of the fingers. The intelligence of the ears. There is so much we can learn from just being with the body in the present moment, but most of the time we are too distracted by our thoughts, stories, and obsessions to notice.
We can begin to train ourselves to get interested in the body, our first and best teacher, by establishing a mindfulness practice. Sitting or walking meditation, for example, can help us see the loop of thoughts running through our minds that often stop us from experiencing everything the moment has to offer: the banality, the awe, the pain, and yes, the joy. These practices show us the futility and, ultimately, the pain of attachment. They also show us a way through and around suffering: letting go. Surrendering to what our senses are showing us now, in order to learn, be and do better for all beings. Even as the buildings are burning down the street, the white nationalists are terrorizing your neighborhood, and city leaders are calling for more barbed wire, I have discovered that one can still be whole, moment to moment. We can hold it all: anger, fear, doubt, anxiety—letting it move through us rather than move us. We can breathe in, breathe out, wherever we are, sensing the freedom of a gathered mind and heart. A heart held up, fortified not by soldiers or fences but an expansive commitment to justice.
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