The racial ignorance and distress we see in the world today is a reflection of mind playing itself out in grand scale on the big screen, projecting our collective thoughts and actions. As we look at our views and experiences of race, or find ourselves in struggles or high distress, it’s important that we develop a capacity to examine our perceptions.
In our relational world of vast diversity, kinship, and division, we have all been racially conditioned, trained through many generations in how to perceive race, our own and others. So much is driven by the perceptions we have and by how these perceptions then feed certain thoughts, emotions, and beliefs.
Misperceptions are referred to in Buddhist teachings as perceptual knots—ways of viewing that block freedom. These include our attachments, aversions, distortions, and delusions. Misperceptions are called “knots” because they keep us entangled in knotty thoughts. They keep us thinking that life is personal and permanent, and that it should be perfect. One teaching in particular, the Vipallasa Sutta, speaks to the reinforcing mechanism of misperceiving— ways we distort reality to the detriment of belonging.
Simply stated, we perceive something through our senses. There is a sense organ and a sense object—eyes see, ears hear, nose smells, body feels, tongue tastes, and mind thinks. Once we perceive, we habitually jump to thoughts and feelings about what is being perceived. These thoughts and feelings, rooted in past experiences and conditioning, then influence the mood of our mind. When perception, thoughts, and feelings are repeated or imprinted through experiences, they solidify into view or belief. View then reinforces perception. This cycle becomes the way we experience and respond to the world.
We have racially conditioned perceptions that operate based on past experiences that are stored in the mind. These include memories, views, beliefs, and fears, all of which stimulate the mind to act or behave in ways that make sense to us. Once we perceive race, the mind immediately scans the memory bank of past experiences to interpret what is being perceived. We then add layers of meaning, and the experience shifts from bare perceiving into something more textured and nuanced. We refer to this in Buddhism as papancha—the proliferation or elaboration of thoughts and feelings. These extra layers added to perception—interpretations, judgments, feelings, fears, and preferences—are all our own mental creations. When layered, perceptions become distorted, sticky, and weighty.
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Essentially, we think we know something, then we are off and running—all based on past experiences, preferences, and beliefs. And usually (although not always) it’s all in our minds. When we perceive and thoughts and emotions are simultaneously activated, those thoughts and emotions proliferate, creating a state of fear and anxiety driven by what the mind is believing in that moment. In such moments, we are removed from presence; we vacate the premises of body and mind. And the experience is real, until it’s not. We’re streaming the past live.
We feel more reassured when our views are mirrored back to us, even if we don’t like our views. We are on guard when our views are challenged. And views that don’t align with our own go unnoticed. We stop being mindful when we think we know, and much harm can happen.
Years ago, my mom told me a noteworthy joke: On a one lane zigzagging mountain road, two black guys driving down the hill pass two white police officers driving up the hill and shout out to the cops: “Pigs! Pigs!” The police officers, pissed off by the offensive attack, keep driving. Seconds later, the police officer who is driving must slam on his brakes to avoid a herd of pigs crossing the road.
Related: Teachings for Uncertain Times: Racism Is a Heart Disease
Perception determines the characteristics of what we encounter; for example, whether a race is threatening or whether a race is worth paying attention to. It determines whether we like someone or something, and whether we shoot someone or run. What we see in race is not inherently good or bad, right or wrong. It is our judgments about race—how we have been conditioned to think and see—that are problematic. We place judgment on what we perceive; we add layers of meaning—papancha.
There is much we can do. We can make a practice of questioning our perceptions and critiquing any views and beliefs that surface in our mind that work against clear seeing, belonging, and healing. We can choose to reevaluate our racial perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and beliefs, try to recognize where they come from, and strip them of all those extra layers.
Excerpted from Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out by Ruth King. Copyright © 2018 by Ruth King. Reprinted with permission of Sounds True. www.soundstrue.com.