Session Three Activities
Before We Were White
Below is the activities portion of your session three homework assignment for White Awake's 2021 Before We Were White online course.
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Activities for Session Three
If you are jumping into this homework assignment without having looked at the first two, please go back and (at minimum) read over the first two activities assignments, which explain the intentions of this portion of your homework and offer instructions for setting up an altar and spending time in your outdoor spot.
The subject matter of the next session, and the study assigned for it, is difficult. You may feel strong emotions while working with your study assignments (if not, no judgment! Emotions come and go of their own volition, not ours. :))
We hope that spending time in your outdoor spot can be a way of diffusing and grounding anything that comes up for you in the study you’re engaging in over these two weeks between sessions two and three. Here are a couple of activities you can do in your outdoor spot with this in mind. These have been adapted from the work of Francesca De Grandis.
Breathing and softening your focus
While you are outside, take a moment to simply breathe. You may want to take a couple of purposefully deep, cleansing breaths. Notice how it feels when you breathe in; notice how it feels when you breathe out.
Now, still connected to the breath moving through your body, begin to notice the sounds, sights, smells, and other sensory aspects of what is around you. We understand that not everyone has access to all five senses; please experience the space you are in through the senses that are primary for you, and disregard any instructions that are not relevant to you.
Do you notice birds? Can you see them or hear them? Can you distinguish between different songs or distances between birds? Do you notice squirrels, or other small animals? What are they up to? What do you notice about their movements?
Can you focus simply on the air around you? What is its temperature, how is it moving, how does it feel – both outside on your skin as well as inside when you breath it in?
Consider everything about this place that you can notice through your senses, and in so doing, soften your focus on the stream of thoughts within your own mind and bring your awareness to the immediate, multi-faceted environment in which you are immersed.
This practice is best done after checking in with your breath, and noticing the immediacy of the environment through your senses (as outlined above; though you don’t need to go into great detail with the first practice before beginning this one).
Allow yourself to notice emotions, sensations or thoughts within yourself that may be difficult to process or hard to hold. Don’t shy away from them. Just bring them to your caring attention.
Once you have a sense of what these thoughts, emotions, or sensations are, bring your attention to the ground below you. If you are standing, you might really connect with the sensation of the ground beneath your feet.
Imagine any emotions, sensations, and/or thoughts that feel difficult, challenging, or hard to hold simply flowing down through your body and into the soil. Use your imagination to direct these downwards, like a flowing stream, that flows, flows, flows into the ground until you are emptied of them, or until you feel a little bit more clear.
Now, imagine that these feelings flow deep into the soil and that down there underneath you they are changing. The ground, the earth itself, is cleansing anything that doesn’t serve you – the difficulties, sadness, grief, helplessness, anger, numbness, irritation … whatever it is, the earth is swooshing them around and around underneath your feet and healing, cleaning, or absorbing anything you might need help with.
Once the energy of these thoughts, sensations, feelings has been cleaned and cared for in the earth – much as a watershed cleanses the water that runs through it – imagine the energy of these things coming back up to you from the ground. Running back up through you from your feet (or lower portion of your body), imagine you slowly filled with the fresh, pure energy that lay at the heart of the difficult feelings you just sent into the ground. You might bring to mind a teaching Joanna Macy has popularized, which is that anger represents our deep desire for justice; fear is the flip side of courage; confusion can become an opening from which new understanding emerges; and grief is a product of love.
Once you have done this grounding practice, you might make an offering to the place that you are in – if nothing else, plucking a hair from you head and setting it upon the ground – while thanking this space. Notice any changes in how you feel, and cleanse your mind a bit more as you leave by breathing deeply, and noticing what is immediately around you.
If you are able to spend a little more time in your outdoor spot, you might spend quiet time in a receptive mode, after clearing your heart and mind through the grounding practice. Perhaps the land you are spending time with, or the other-than-human forms here, have wisdom to offer regarding how you relate to the stories of destruction and violence that you’ve been receiving through our study materials around Harm Caused.
If either of these practices are helpful, we hope you will consider repeating them as desired.
We hope you will set aside at least one period of time to spend with your altar between these two sessions. You might go back and review the first two assignments, and see if there are any items you would like to add to this altar at this time.
If you have not looked at any of the prior altar activities in your homework so far, please go back and read through them, as the following assignment builds on the earlier descriptions. Do not feel you need to do every activity we’ve described, but at least familiarize yourself with them and complete the activities that you feel called to.
Note that we have included multiple activities for your altar practice. We hope you will read over each of them, and then select the activities that feel nourishing to you. No need to complete all of them at this time! The one exception is the first activity, re your protective companion, as completing this exercise will be helpful for the work we do together in Session Three.
We have encouraged each of you to choose or call to mind a protective companion for your work in this class, and we will be working with this companion directly in Session Three. If you have not already selected a companion, we hope you can do so now. You might consider this companion to be a real, spiritual presence or simply a calming, soothing image or idea to call to mind, depending on your beliefs.
Some examples of who this protective guide or companion might be: a family member you love and trust who has passed on; an animal companion you were close to that has passed on; a natural place or specific tree, mountain, vista, waterfall, etc that you have a strong relationship with (if you select a nonhuman guide, it could be helpful to imagine it manifested in a human or animal form); a deity, teacher, or leader from any tradition or lineage you are a part of (such as Tara or Kuan Yin for Buddhists; Jesus or the Holy Spirit for Christians; etc).
Once you are clear as to who your spiritual companion will be, please select an object that represents them to place on your altar. We invite you to also spend time (sitting, standing, or laying) near your altar, simply calling this companion to mind. When you call your companion to mind, our hope is that you will do this in a way that prioritizes your emotions and your physical experience. For example, if your companion is a strong, soothing light, you might simply imagine that light enveloping your body. You might feel warm, or peaceful, or a tingling sensation, etc. If your companion is a beloved family member who passed on, you might hear the sound of their voice, or feel a wash of love and happiness in your body and heart, as you experience their closeness and enjoy their presence.
We hope you will spend a little time with this exercise at least once before Session Three.
Contemplating Harm Caused
This is the simplest activity we are offering for your practice. We encourage you to pair this activity with at least one of the others (such as calling your protective companion to be with you, or imagining a soothing healing space, or using the water & salt exercise, etc). These other activities are designed to help you move and/or discharge what arises as you work with the window of Harm Caused.
We invite you to spend with your ancestral altar and contemplate the harm your ancestors might have caused. You may also contemplate the harm upon which any privileges you or your ancestors may have experienced was built. You might light a candle or burn incense while you consider these things. You may want to hold one of the objects you have placed on your altar to represent your childhood or your family.
You might have questions about this harm – why people did it, how could they have participated in it, what should you do about it now. We invite you to notice and allow judgments to pass through you, while turning your attention to your body and your emotions. We hope you will remember to differentiate yourself from your ancestors (and/or the collective ancestors of whiteness – ruling class or not); remember that you did not personally commit these acts. We hope you will also open yourself to the value of bearing witness (rather than turning away), as well as the incredible value of setting your intention to repair or correct the legacies of this harm, and to work with others to build a world in which we do not treat one another this way.
Soothing, healing space
In much the same way you have selected an actual, outdoor space to spend time in, we hope you will select an *outdoor* space you can spend time in via your imagination, while you are working with your altar. You may call to mind a tree that you have loved and visited before, embedded in a healthy landscape; you might visualize a body of water such as the shore of an ocean or a flowing river or a creek in the woods; you might call to mind a clearing in a forest, a warm smooth sitting stone … you might simply imagine you are back in the outdoor spot you’ve selected for this course.
As you work with the material in the study portion of this lesson, we invite you to visit this soothing healing space and spend time there with your protective guide. In the same way we’ve encouraged you to ground difficult, painful feelings in the physical space of your outdoor spot, you can do this grounding activity anywhere by calling this place to mind, going there with your protective companion, and pouring whatever needs expression out into the ground of this soothing, healing space.
You may feel fear or anger or grief or numbness too large to contain. Let any harshness, anything too large for you to hold, flow down into the ground of this place. Be comforted by the tree, by the rocks, by the water, by what ever more than human presence is here with you, and by your protective guide. As you have been prompted to do in your outdoor spot, you might leave an offering (via your imagination), and you might also receive a gift. Once you are clear in spirit and mind, you might quietly sit and see if this landscape of your imagination has any wisdom to offer regarding how you relate to the stories of destruction and violence that you’ve been receiving through our study materials around Harm Caused.
Water & Salt
This exercise is one I (Eleanor) was introduced to through my colleague Jodi Lasseter, an activist and organizer based in North Carolina. Unlike the first two activities, this one is very physical and immediate.
You are invited to place a bowl of water on your altar, and place beside it a smaller bowl of salt. Call to mind the stories of violence and harm that you are spending time with in the work of our class. You might notice specific things that weigh heavy on your heart. Begin to take a pinch of salt that represents your grief for what you are bearing witness to. It can be helpful to be very specific about these feelings of grief – one pinch for story, or one type of violence. Set your intention for that pinch of salt to embody your grief, and place the salt in the water in the bowl. You can sprinkle it over the bowl; you can place your whole hand into the bowl with the salt and swish it around. Now go back, and take another pinch of salt, allow it to represent another fact or story, and place this pinch of salt into the bowl.
If tears come during this exercise, we hope you will welcome them as a gift, though no particular emotional expression is required or even desired (remember, we don’t control the emotions that come to us – only how we express them). As you continue to place the salt into the water, you may want to say a simple prayer for the ones that were harmed. Something like, “I honor you. I take this moment to remember what happened to you, and to also acknowledge that the violence committed against you is not all of who you are. You were a human who loved and received love. You were beloved to your community. May you be at peace with the ancestors.”
There are no right or wrong words to use, and you may also express your intentions without words. You may already have a spiritual practice or prayer that works well for this purpose. You may feel called to offer an apology, though we would recommend avoiding projecting your guilt onto the person or people this moment of prayer is intended to honor. Our main goal for this activity is that you have an embodied way to express your grief, anger, or even despair at the harm that has been caused.
Spending time with your ancestors who are well in spirit
Our last activity is one in which you call your own ancestry to mind. Considering what I shared in Session One (that there is trauma in our ancestral lines, and it is good to take care when approaching them), we hope you will be specific about your invitation – you are inviting ancestors who are well in spirit, who can support you in your process without bringing further confusion or dis-ease. Your belief system may preclude the possibility of ancestors actually existing beyond death, or potentially being unwell if they do, and this is completely fine! Out of an abundance of caution, we would encourage you to include this caveat when using your imagination to reflect on your ancestors (known or unknown), albeit doing so in a way that makes the most sense to you.
You might light a candle when you make this call. You might feel the presence of ancestors, hear their voices, have a conversation. You may invite ancestors whose names and stories you know – you may have a picture of some of these ancestors on your altar, in which case looking at the photograph (or holding an object that is connected to them) could be the focus of this reflection. You might invite ancestors whose names and stories you do not know. Our spiritual consultant for this class, Katrina Messenger (who we will work with in Session Five) reminded me that, “We may not know them, but they know who we are!” Rest assured, these ancestors are there (or, if you do not have this belief system, at least you know they truly existed!) whether we know their names or not.
It can be enough to simply call these ancestors to mind (opening yourself to feeling their presence in your body and emotions), and then be with them in a quiet, reflective space. You may feel comforted by the idea that they did in fact once live, even if you do not feel they exist in a way that can literally be called up right now. You might find that you have questions for them, and if you ask these questions you might find that answers arise. If you have a strong experience, make note of the fact that this experience is information. Know that you are safe in body and spirit – and make note of any information that might be valuable to you (like a detective!) as you continue this work, during and after this course.
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