Wisdom and Systemic Racism

As we continue on in the season of Epiphany, the veil still thin, we are invited to bring the gifts of Wisdom to that which is springing forth and desiring to manifest through form in the collective. We are in a conducive and fertile field for recognition, mending, and re-membering the mercy as we make our way through the collective traumas of our time.

Last March, the Covid-19 pandemic made way for another awakening to the ongoing racism and inequity embedded in the soil of the world, and in particular America. This overdue awakening brought turmoil and unrest, a necessary condition for growth. Time goes on and it is important for us to stay awake, to keep our hearts tuned, to receive the help available to us, to integrate the resources needed, for something unknown to unfold as the future beckons us into new structures of consciousness.

There is an ongoing need to be present to this collective pain body and re-enacted trauma as it intersects with the Wisdom tradition. In particular, we can draw from the Fourth Way teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff as a source of insight. The Fourth Way is all about making your life conditions the conditions for your spiritual work and transformation, hence in shorthand it has been called The Work. You don’t have to go away to a monastery but in fact your life can become your monastery no matter the circumstances.

Although I will name but a few likely familiar teachings, we can begin to make some important connections. Let’s begin with the notion of being asleep. The Work suggests that humans in our typical state walk through life unconsciously. We have become machines at the mercy of our conditioned thoughts, emotions, and even physical postures but we can wake up to our mechanical nature if we are open to doing so.

In this case, we can wake up to our mechanical nature specifically as it manifests in the very subtle and sometimes not so subtle art of othering, domination, exploitation, and oppression. The practice of self-observation is one of our most important methods in this aim of waking up and is about honestly seeing the state of our being. We see not from our super-ego, which often sits on the throne of the intellectual center judging and analyzing, but from witnessing presence, whose signature mark is curiosity.

As we observe and begin to work on ourselves we also see the particularity of each person’s experience. Using the word ‘we’ can be problematic because ‘we’ are not a homogenous group of people. At the same time, ‘we’ are all humans which does not need to negate these particularities. We are all part of a complex system in which there is both profound connectivity and differentiation.

Working with self-observation allows us to see for ourselves how we are prone to unique and similar ways of falling asleep in our three centers in regard to racism. The work with our intellectual center is through thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes; our emotional center through emotions and feelings; and our movement center through sensations, gestures, postures, instinctual reactions (fight, flight, freeze). Much of our sleep comes from over 200,000 years of human history. The reality is, racism has been an insidious thread running throughout the entire human experience.

There have always been groups of people objectifying, othering, and oppressing different groups of people for all kinds of reasons. There have always been those who dominate and desire power over others. This is not new, and perhaps was a manifestation of the deficient phases of the magical structure. In his book Seeing Through the World, Jeremy Johnson says, “The magical is also deficiently expressed as the capacity to be mindlessly destructive, a doing without consciousness, which also manifests as a kind of machine consciousness, or mass destructive violence, in the deficient mental age.” (p. 93) We can look at the history of humans and see this mindless destruction and mechanical nature as the same tendency which leads us to exploit animals and our planet.

Every one of us, wherever we sit around the planet, has been born into the deficient mental age and a context of the collective trauma structure inherent in slavery, racism, war, colonization, and other forms of violence and othering—which is more pervasive than it may appear. It is difficult to see that which we have been living in and is living in us. What is new is that more and more humans are beginning to see the mechanical nature of it, and wake up in varying degrees from the sleep.

Our conditioning can be seen, as two foundational Fourth Way teachers Maurice Nicoll and P.D. Ouspensky suggest, like old coats that are layered on. A person can have so many coats on that the person can hardly fit through the doorway and go into the next room. We have many coats that need to be discarded in order that we might be able to fit through the doorway in front of us. A large piece of the inner work necessary in this current experience is becoming aware of our sleep and removing these coats, both individually and collectively.

Through our self-observation we can begin to see how the conversation in regard to systemic racism and white body advantage brings up our identifications. Identification is about the ways we attach to an image of the self or identity. We become identified with certain narratives about ourselves and ways of doing things which support our sense of identity. In her e-course Spiritual Practices from the Gurdjieff Work[i] Cynthia says, “The main reason that identification is hard to spot is that it’s so closely tied into the mechanisms from which our usual sense of selfhood derive that it’s almost like trying to look at your own eyeballs!” We can loosen our identification as part of the healing.

We can also work with internal and external conditioning in regard to racial justice. Cynthia’s descriptions of external and internal considering are incredibly helpful here. She says:

External considering is basically the Work equivalent of “practical compassion.” It is fundamentally no more complicated or exotic than simply the capacity to actually see the condition of another, to walk in his or her footsteps, to “love my neighbor as myself”—all familiar territory in every religious tradition. But so often in the West these ideas have become infused with sentimentality and duty; there is no real consciousness involved. In the Gurdjieff version…the chief operatives are conscious attention and a well-honed moving center.

Cynthia continues:

The opposite of external considering is internal considering, of course, which for Gurdjieff meant an excessive interiority and a preoccupation with one’s own internal states, needs, and narratives. In this state, lost in one’s story, it is very difficult to assimilate the actual condition of another, let alone see how to help. Everything moves in relationship to one’s own interiority. Like trying to understand a phrase in French by first mentally translating it into English, one moves from self to other and back to self again without ever grasping the relationship directly. That is why, according to Gurdjieff, so much of what we call “self-awareness” nowadays is merely narcissism writ large.

True self-awareness begins at the next level out, when those rigid boundaries between self and other are dissolved in a single, flowing energetic field. External considering does not require great personal empathy or emotional drama. It requires a quiet mind, a complete lack of inner talking, and an ability to take one’s cues directly from the present moment.

This is exactly what is called for. How would we navigate our collective trauma if we were to integrate these resources? If each one of us took seriously Gurdjieff’s charge of “external considering always, internal considering never” and enlarged our capability “to actually see the condition of another,” to walk in their footsteps, and love them as ourselves? What would happen if we leaned into the practice not from a preoccupation with our own internal states, needs, and narratives but rather with hearts as finely tuned spiritual instruments ready to play?

For one, we would water the earth with holy tears pouring out of a genuine remorse of conscience. Remorse for our being asleep. At the 2020 October Wisdom School at Claymont we spent some time with the idea of remorse. Cynthia reminded us that remorse is not about guilt or shame, although there can be a place for those, but rather an immediate seeing in which freedom and humility allow you to finally take responsibility without blame, self-justification, or denial. It happens when we can open to the higher emotional center and is a place where love can be awakened. The struggle with ourselves is on behalf of the collective. We have to enter through the gate of remorse with forgiveness, and a recognition that there is a universal burden I’m going to carry a piece of.

And finally, we can also allow Gurdjieff’s Obligolnian Strivings to speak directly to these threads:

The first striving: to have in one’s ordinary being-existence everything satisfying and really necessary for the planetary body.

The second striving: to have a constant and unflagging instinctive need to perfect oneself in the sense of Being.

The third: the conscious striving to know more and more about the laws of World- creation and World-maintenance.

The fourth: the striving, from the beginning of one’s existence, to pay as quickly for one’s arising and individuality, in order to be free afterward to lighten as much as possible the sorrow of our Common Father.

The fifth: the striving always to assist the most rapid perfecting of other beings, both those similar to oneself, and those of other forms, up to the degree of the sacred “Martfotai,” that is, up to the degree of self-individuality.

What if we sat with and ingested these strivings in regard to how we externally consider people from every ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, political affiliation, and on and on? How can each one us cultivate the organizing principles in support of regulating the collective nervous system?

As we become more conscious and work toward healing the wounds of racism and colonization, we can remember Jeremy Johnson saying in Seeing Through the World:

…that consciousness is not ours; we might speak of its realization in us but it is not, in truth, ours to possess. Rather, creativity and the structures of consciousness themselves are an originary phenomena (and therefore can only be traced back to the spiritual, the ineffable). Rather than heroically taking a leap into new consciousness, each spiritual mutation is a participatory process of entrusting oneself to origin and stepping into a process that is co-enactive rather than territorialized (nearly taking, claiming, or conquering a time-space realization) (pg. 87).

Perhaps, this is all part of origin calling us forward from within to join in the creation of a new structure of consciousness, latent in us, groping to unfold. There are many more questions to live with than answers.

Cynthia’s words from her recent blog post, Integral as Theotokos: A Western Take on Origin, are apt in this exploration. She says:

It is being able to “ware” consciously the dance of time and timelessness right at the heart-of-the arising itself, the ever present springing forth of the new into the old. The capacity of consciousness that can allow you to do that is also the capacity that can hold the complementary perspectives of each of the structures, not on a flattened linear map, but in the pure spherical wonder of the divine delight in Becoming…

…The goal here is not to dissolve the Ursprung in a final realization of the illusionary nature of all form and time, but rather to stand in it with all the strength of one’s being and integrated ego strength (the true fruit of the mental structure of consciousness), so that one can shape and give ‘voice’ to the mysterious yearning of the divine heart to take form, which would otherwise overwhelm with its sheer life force any finite womb in which it yearned to gestate.[ii]

This moment requires something from each one of us. And although that something will be unique in expression, each one of us can stand in the current tensions with a wide heart and strength of being, offering ourselves in service of the collective. We can see to it that everyone has what is needed. We can study and work with the law of three and the law of seven as they speak to this thread. We can “lighten as much as possible the sorrow of our Common Father” and strive always “to assist the most rapid perfecting of other beings, both those similar to oneself, and those of other forms.”

If you are interested in this exploration, you can join Jeanine Siler Jones and me, Heather Ruce, in a Wisdom Circle beginning this month. You can find out more details below.


[i] Available now at the Spirituality & Practice website as Spiritual Practices from the Gurdjieff Work with Cynthia Bourgeault, an ever-current, on-going e-course first offered in November 2014. [ii] See Cynthia’s post here Integral as Theotokos: A Western Take on Origin, Exploring Jean Gebser Lesson VIII

Wisdom Informed Anti-Racism Practice Circle
Wednesdays, February 10 ~ June 9, Spring 2021
with Heather Ruce and Jeanine Siler Jones

This monthly gathering is for those grounded in the Wisdom lineage and practices in which we seek to know God and our world with more of ourselves through the three centers of our heart, mind, and body. This experiential gathering is designed to expand our capacity to be awake to racism in ourselves and systems of racism in our community. Our time would consist of embodiment and grounding practices, engaging materials around racism/anti-racism, and time for small group deeper dives into the intersectionality in our lives.

We call this group into being because we sense a calling personally and collectively to do this work as the wounds of separateness and polarization continue to be illuminated. The Wisdom lineage invites us to deeply connect with our wholeness, to feel our remorse and to offer the qualities of our aliveness as we move through this period of great reckoning.

For more information, click here to go to the Event page.
Thank You


Images in blog post, from the top: Overhanging Branches, public domain; Gears in a machine, public domain; Planet, Space & Time, Art Gallery New South Wales, courtesy of Fiona Feng, Unsplash; Mary Magdalene of the Tears, original painting by Tanya Torres, courtesy of her website; Globe (metallic gray undifferentiated), courtesy of Charles Deluvio, Unsplash; Tree Ocean Sun Sky montage, public domain. Intertwining branches image in flyer, origin unknown.

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4 thoughts on “Wisdom and Systemic Racism

  1. Thank you for this, Heather. There is much here that feels foundational for our work in these times.
    One thing I notice: unlike many other Wisdom practices, external considering can not practiced exclusively in solitude. It involves listening to someone else, and, in regard to systemic racism, it means listening deeply across lines of historic division.
    Where can we find opportunities to practice external considering in this way? In my experience, I have seldom found it in our Wisdom Schools. Where I have found it — in an organized way and held within a Spirit-based frame — is in the work of Be Present, Inc. (bepresent.org).

  2. Gosh Heather, I am a kindergarten student when it comes to Wisdom isues but I did want to tell you how much I loved your blog. I read it through twice because I needed to percolate through the wisdom it contained. I personally, and my husband, an Episcopalian priest, are dedicated to persuing the metamorphosis necessary to heal our world and ourselves, and self observation is a bit part of this. Almost all of what you have written is rich in material that helps us take the steps we must to continue on this journey, within ourselves and in our community. I would love to join your practice circle but I am afraid that I would not be able to contribute at a meaningful level. But I continue to read and learn and I will be watching out for further blogs. Grace and blessings to you and your team.

  3. Heather –
    Thank you for this deep and thoughtful consideration of racial justice work through a wisdom lens. It offers all of us an opportunity to approach the subject with humility, care, and urgency. I am always deeply touched by the fourth Obligonian Striving: “to pay as quickly for one’s arising and individuality, in order to be free afterward to lighten as much as possible the sorrow of our Common Father.” This is a reminder that we only do the work on ourselves for the sake of the other and the Father, not abstractly but actually.

    Finally, THIS –
    “What would happen if we leaned into the practice not from a preoccupation with our own internal states, needs, and narratives but rather with hearts as finely tuned spiritual instruments ready to play?

    For one, we would water the earth with holy tears pouring out of a genuine remorse of conscience. Remorse for our being asleep. At the 2020 October Wisdom School at Claymont we spent some time with the idea of remorse. Cynthia reminded us that remorse is not about guilt or shame, although there can be a place for those, but rather an immediate seeing in which freedom and humility allow you to finally take responsibility without blame, self-justification, or denial.”

    In gratitude for tackling the subject so thoughtfully –

  4. Thank you for this beautiful post. I’m grateful to be reminded that holding grief over our country’s past and present deep wounds is helpful, and that the small and insignificant-seeming attempts we each make to try to heal the divide in our country with love really do matter.

    I’m behind with Cynthia’s posts and readings and will catch up, but I love that all of this is Jungian, and also what every good actor learns to do, on some level: Switch sides. Try on our ‘other’ as ourself. This practice is vital in all times, and is so especially needed now. I get into trouble when I suggest this exercise on social media, but I’ll keep trying.
    Thank you for being there in wisdom for us all.

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