To the Portland and Pacific Northwest Plant Medicine Community-
In November I gave a talk on Trauma at the Portland Plant Medicine Gathering which stirred up lots of stuff in the community. I was somewhat confused by some of the reaction while at the same time understating that there are lots of things in these times that need to be brought to the surface and examined as so many of us work to create the conditions for a just society.
Not long after the Gathering I was able to share my experience with a group of men with whom I meet regularly. In sharing I realized that there was a part of me in resistance to really looking at what had happened because I felt shame that I’m not very aware of the issues around racial dynamics. “As a teacher and someone dedicated to cultural transformation,” the voice of shame within me said, “I should of course be aware of the issues around racism and cultural appropriation.” The truth is I grew up in a mostly white part of Los Angeles and have spent most of my adult life in Oregon. I’ve really had few if any opportunities to personally experience the racism that effects people in my community or to be in positions that challenge me to investigate my privilege as a white male living in 21st century America. Like so many I am horrified by the racism and other violent exclusionary aspects of our culture that I hear and read about, but until now I haven’t been given the opportunity to examine my role in perpetuating patriarchal systems of dominance.
I am fortunate to have friends more fluent with these issues who have been able to help me better my understanding and am currently attending California Institute of Integral Studies where a good portion of the curriculum is dedicated to examining issues around social justice in all of its flavors. Since being called out at the Plant Medicine Gathering I’ve spent time learning how to better conduct myself in these arenas. I’ve become familiar with the concept of white fragility and how important it is to listen with humility and just hear what people have to say without trying to defend myself. It is difficult to be put on the spot in front of a large crowd of people, and a part of me wishes it hadn’t happened that way. But I understand now that I have no right to expect this process to be easy. It is my responsibility to be okay with the discomfort, to own up to my obliviousness about institutional racism and other forms of oppression enacted daily by members of western white industrial societies, and to take responsibility for and actively alter my relationship to and within hierarchies of structural oppression. I also understand that my position in the community comes with responsibility. First, I must continually examine the thought forms, beliefs, and opinions that may unconsciously lead me to act in ways that bring harm to others, and following this I can share what I learn and set an example by which others may do the same.
I believe that in the plant medicine community as a whole we can conduct ourselves differently. White people must learn to receive feedback with humility and acknowledge that pain may be caused by our actions even when we intend no harm. With the help of the plants I believe that together we can all create a space of compassion where everyone’s voice can be heard and where, in the words of Chris Moore-Backman, we can forge “solidarity and heart unity across bitter lines of social division.” (The Gandhian Iceberg: A Nonviolence Manifesto for the Age of the Great Turning, pg. 16). Is it possible to do this without casting more shame about? I believe so.
Whispers of words have come back to me, things said about me by people who have never met me. After hearing some of these things a small part of me wanted to turn my back on the community, but with the help of Juniper (the plant being) and my wife, Kathryn, I was able to recognize that this reaction was arising from a place of deep woundedness. As I sat contracted and in a state of separation feeling the physical and emotional pain brought up by hearing this gossip, I read some beautiful and inspiring passages from Gloria Anzaldúa’s book Borderlands/La frontera including this one,
The answer to the problem between the white race and the colored, between males and females, lies in healing the split that originates in the foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts. A massive uprooting of dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness is the beginning of a long struggle but one that could in our best hopes, bring us to the end of rape, of violence, of war. (pg. 102)
and something shifted in me. Instead of asking the question: “Why is this happening to me?” and expecting an answer, I now understand that I have a lot to learn and am grateful for the opportunity to in some small way be a part of dissolving the dualistic mindset that pits oppressor against oppressed, this way of thinking and perceiving which in all its manifestations has brought so much suffering to so many, human and nonhuman alike, on planet Earth and the healing of which is the focus of my life’s work.
At the end of my talk at the Plant Medicine Gathering I invited people who wanted to continue the dialog to come talk to me, but no one has. Perhaps the conditions weren’t right. Perhaps I wasn’t ready. Whatever the reason, it feels like the time is now ripe. After sending this letter out I’m going to reach out to people of color who are leaders in the plant medicine community with the hope that one or more will be willing to organize and/or facilitate a public forum. I’m imagining that we put out a call to the plant medicine community. Those who are interested in doing this work for real can come together to share experiences, feelings, and understandings so that we can learn from each other, heal, and transform individually and collectively. It might not be a comforting experience. It might get ugly at times, but I believe that we can create a space of mutual respect where we can begin to heal this separation.
So many of us are now working to heal and transform society as we participate in the birthing of new cultures that leave behind capitalistic/industrial modes of domination. We are all working toward the same goal, but how can we expect change “out there” if we cannot ourselves do the work? This work of healing begins within each individual and within our local, bioregional communities. Imagine what might happen if we could all find a way to work together.