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How Buddhism shaped my understanding of anti-racist work as grief work

Updated: Oct 22, 2023


In my journey of exploring the concept of fear of loss as a form of grief and its connection to racism, I am often asked: where did this idea originate, and how did you make this connection?

This blog delves into the relationship between grief and fear of loss. It explores how becoming aware of and leaning into the reality of loss opens the path to healing. More importantly, it discusses how attending to our own relationship to grief and fear of loss, as well as the suffering attached to it, is necessary to fulfill the moral imperative to end racism.

For context

One cannot escape the inevitability of loss and suffering. Dogen Zenji, the founder of the Soto school of Zen wrote: "Life and death are of Supreme importance. Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost. Awaken, Awaken, take heed. Do not squander your life."

In Zen Buddhism, we call this the Evening Gatha, and it’s recited at the end of many formal Zen Buddhist gatherings. I frequently chant this at the conclusion of my night-time meditation practice.

Dogen’s wisdom encapsulates the essence of our existence and the urgency to embrace the truth of suffering.

This is a crucial component to effective anti-racist advocacy.

Understanding the Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths are the heart of Buddhist teachings and encompass the essential understanding of suffering and its transcendence:

1. The Truth of Suffering: Life is inherently marked by suffering, encompassing physical and emotional pain, dissatisfaction, and impermanence. This truth acknowledges the universality of suffering, irrespective of one's circumstances.

2. The Truth of the Origin of Suffering: The root cause of suffering is often identified as desire, attachment, and the endless craving for worldly pleasures and possessions. This clinging to impermanent things leads to further suffering.

3. The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering: Liberation and the end of suffering are possible by eliminating the underlying causes, desires, and attachments. This cessation requires mindful awareness and a disciplined way of living.

4. The Truth of the Path: The path to the cessation of suffering involves following the Eightfold Path, which encompasses ethical conduct, mental discipline, and wisdom. Practicing mindfulness, meditation, and compassion leads to the ultimate freedom from suffering.

Fear of loss as a form of grief

The First Noble Truth is the foundation of all Buddhist practices grounded in the universal truth of suffering

The First Noble Truth speaks of the reality of impermanence, or of the temporary nature of all things, and links it directly to emotional pain and suffering. Another way to understand impermanence is fear of loss.

The Second Noble Truth focuses on the cause of suffering: attachment. We are born into attachments. Craving is a part of our very being–if only for water or food. Since we are born into attachments, we are born into a relationship with fear of loss. The subconscious awareness of impermanence contributes to suffering because humans develop attachments to things that we do not want to let go of. When we desperately reach for something and are driven by attachment and desire, such as the desire to protect our loved ones, our money, our jobs, etc., we do so at all costs. This includes the cost of other human beings. Being subconsciously driven by attachments and desire perpetuates suffering for ourselves and others.

It is the attachment to life and the endless craving for time, resources, etc., that urges White people to systemically take from others, leading to increased suffering and marginalization of others.

It is their unexplored fear of loss that creates concrete grief and loss for Black people.

Fear of loss in practice

Observing suffering firsthand in hospitals while supporting patients and families through grief helped me realize the universality of suffering. Outside the hospital, I witnessed how individuals grappled with fear of loss and grief amidst apparent happiness.

Even in moments of apparent happiness, our cravings are never satisfied. Consider a successful individual who constantly fears losing their job despite making a six-figure salary. Their fear of future loss and the grief associated with it becomes a significant part of their present reality. They ruminate over work dynamics and overwork themselves to keep the jobs that they already have because losing those jobs comes with additional losses such as health insurance, the ability to afford housing, and access to food—all of which are directly tied to survival, grief, and death.

It is a fact that when faced with death, people will do almost anything to survive. Most of us are woefully unaware of how far we will go to protect ourselves from facing loss. That’s why it is a moral imperative to explore our relationship to fear of loss such that our fear of death does not lead to the death of others via systemic oppression.

Liberation, mindfulness, and the end of suffering

Mindfulness is widely adopted by medical, mental health, spiritual, and secular communities for its transformative benefits. The practice derived from Buddhism, and is a powerful tool in addressing grief as fear of loss

The Third Noble Truth alludes to the potential cessation of suffering, which involves becoming intimately aware of fear of loss and attachments by cultivating acceptance and awareness. Many mindfulness practices reduce meditation to a relaxation tool for personal benefit. In Buddhism, mindfulness is not just interested in the cessation of suffering for an individual—it is wholeheartedly committed to the end of suffering for all beings.

The Fourth Noble Truth provides a concrete path to liberation, calling us to not only be aware, but to engage. It calls us to use the realizations gained from mindful meditation to take action to eliminate the suffering of others by making compassionate, ethical, and wise decisions.

Fear of loss and systemic racism

Humans have found ways to oppress others throughout space and time. For example, patriarchy has been around for at least 12,000 years. If White Supremacy were to end tomorrow, another system would immediately pop into its place.

The root of systemic oppression cannot be solved by educating those in positions of privilege. Fundamentally, the cause of systemic oppression stems from a spiritual, human dilemma. When addressing the systems that plague society, we have to get to the root of suffering, which is in ourselves.

When White people embrace their relationship to fear of loss and attachments, they release beings trapped by their suffering. Awareness of their suffering allows them to take responsibility for its outcomes, setting the foundation for ethical and wise conduct. Walking the path of their own liberation prevents White Privilege from being a barrier to the liberation of others via implicit bias, all forms of violence (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual), and senseless death.

This is why anti-racist work is inherently grief work.


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