This blog post was originally shared on the Living Inquiries web site as “What elephant? Naming systemic oppression”. Summary: Our own internal oppression is linked to oppression that exists in the world, and vice versa. Waking up necessities exploring this territory.
Oh, the elephant in the room! You know the one- the topic that people don’t talk about. In my most recent blog post about embodiment and waking upthere was an elephant in the room that I didn’t mention. I know in my heart that if we’re going to talk about embodiment and waking up, we have to include this elephant: Oppression is the elephant in the room, and this is the elephant we have to purposefully wake up to.
Why oppression? Why me? I’m not oppressing anyone! I’m not being oppressed!
Whydoesit even matter? I wrote about waking up to my own internalized racism, and how it counter-intuitively brought me closer to Love. Here’s a summary:
waking up to and connecting with oppression in the world allowed me to connect with and to the oppression in my self; waking up and connecting further to the oppression within myself then allowed me to wake up even more to the oppression in the world. My heart broke open, wider, and deeper. My fragility shifted, and, quite surprisingly, my sense of being safe in the world increased. It was all rather unexpected. Then I started seeing this happen with my clients.
We do not exist in isolated existence, we exist in relationship: a deeper sense of embodiment and safety with life develops as a more healthy and honest relationships with the world within and outside of one’s self is cultivated.
My relationship with Love, compassion and safety has never been the same, and only continues to grow and expand, as I keep being honest with the ways I oppress others, as well as myself. I continue to learn, and hope what I share will be helpful for you on your journey. May we learn together.
Embodiment and oppression intersect so deeply- it’s in the air we breathe- that it’s unrecognized by most into our family structures, our religious and spiritual modalities, and our political, health care, judicial, and educational institutions. We know that oppression is traumatizing to the one oppressed, and we also know that it’s traumatizing to the one doing the oppressing. As a client shared with me about his lineage of slave owners, ” You can’t oppress people and not have your soul ripped out of you.”
Here is the biggest elephant in the room: oppression has bled into the very structure of our beings- internalized into the composition of our minds, psyches, and somatic systems.
We often have the feeling that “I’m my own worst enemy.” It’s no wonder: we have systematically been taught beliefs, ideas, and ways to cope (by an oppressive culture) that lead us to oppress ourselves (and each other). Is it any wonder that we wind up hating ourselves (and others), as we unknowingly oppress and traumatize ourselves (and others) through our words, thoughts and deeds?
Is it any wonder why embodiment and healing is so darn hard? Or why those in the social justice arena get burned out so fast, or become bogged down in darkness? When we can’t see the oppression in subsistence of our lives or within our psychological make up, we are unable to function as sustainable change agents- even when we have the best intentions.
Opening our eyes to what we value
None of us have escaped from the tendrils from oppression, and we suffer immensely (and inflict suffering on others) when we do not look at what the tendrils are connected to. It might help to see these webs by exploring the values of dominate modern day culture, as well as transformativeor alternative values.
When we study the tenets of prevalent modern day culture, we find the following dominant attributes: power-over dynamics, authoritarianism, competitiveness, focus on the individual, over emphasis on the mental/linearity, secrecy, struggle for/consolidated power via hierarchy, scarcity, either/or thinking, us/them thinking, focus on achievement and outcome, and exclusion of the past and people of certain demographics.
When we study the tenets of what we might call transformative or “life valuing” culture, we find attributes such as: power-with dynamics, accountability/ responsibility, shared power, inclusion of heart and spirit, focus on the collective/on “we”, collaboration and cooperation, transparency, recognition of past, abundance, both/and thinking, “us” thinking, focus on the process/the journey, inclusion of all people, and focus on connection and relationship.
In my early years as a social worker 25 years ago, it became undeniable that the dominant values in our culture were not for the good of all people, and so of course I wanted to explore other ways of being in the world. Easier said than done. As I started to experiment with these paradigm shifts, my heart and intent was often in the right place and yet I often found myself utilizing the same tenets of oppressive culture, to try to change aspects of oppressive culture. I noticed that I was not the only one who wanted to do good, but kept getting bound up in oppressive ways. 
I didn’t realize that oppression was in me, not just around me.
The macro and the micro reflect each other
Changing our narratives is a process, and it requires conscious exploration to discover that oppression lives deep within our very psyches and somatic systems.
When we study the psyche within many of us, we will find a profusion of tenets that tend to exist within oppressive culture: competitiveness, self-loathing/lack of abundance, reliance on over-thinking, disconnection from/fear of others, striving to feel safe through a sense of power, bypassing the past, hiding behavior (the inability to be honest with one’s self), restrictive thought patterns, and right-wrong/good-bad (either or) thinking. There is also often a sense of fear in the body, or disconnect from the body altogether. There are usually life-affirming traits as well, but these can be overshadowed by the dominant values of our culture.
The narratives most of us have are rooted in the very same things that our cultures prize encourage, and teach. Could it really be that culture is teaching us to suffer? Could it be that culture doesn’t really want us to be free? It would seem so.
When we study the psyche of a “healthy” or life valuing person, we will find tenets similar to that of that of transformational culture: a sense of abundance that allows for open and curious connections, a sense of well being, honesty (including “the dark side”), inclusion of heart and body, accountability and responsibility, allowance and acceptance of the vast terrain of being human, and acknowledgment of the past. There is often accepting relationship with the body, and a willingness to experience its vast landscape rather than try to control or limit. Sure, there will likely still be some oppressive tenets found within “healthy people”, but even those will be met with more inclusion and less self-judgment.
Could it be that by learning new ways of being that we create new narratives within us? Based on my experience, yes. Is it any surprise that these are the values that are a natural part of the embodiment process? I find it an exciting “coincidence”!
In my own study of waking up, and in working with hundreds of people who have been on the waking up and healing journey, I have seen radical narrative and experiential transformations. In each case, there had been a fierce sense of oppression within their psyche- this was the base they worked from and were fiercely bound to, until they consciously started to learn another way. Over time the dominant values slowly changed into transformative, life affirming values. Along the way their suffering started to turn into a healthy relationship with life and allowed them to be more effective change agents in the world.
Whenwe fail to connect with our internalized oppressive existence, we continue to harm others as well as ourselves. Being change agents for the well being of all embraces inclusion, we-ness, connectivity, intimacy, love, openness, abundance and possibility. In the denial of nothing, we stop oppressing ourselves, and those around us.
So, Now What?
In my blog post about embodimentI left out the elephant in the room. I didn’t specifically write about how important it is for us to inquire into our relationship with the oppression found in racism, sexism, nationalism, capitalism, classism, gender/sexual orientation, fatism, ableism and others. When we don’t address these topics, we deny, ignore, and exclude reality. We cannot live as embodied people when we are ignoring the reality of humanity. When we live apart from the hearts of those who are oppressed, we have to live in separation. In this state of separation, we suffer and experience oppression within, and in the process often cause harm to others.
I readily admit, for most of my life I have tried to stay removed from the hearts of those who experience the horror of systematic pain. I thought I had to figure out my own suffering and pain first as I felt too fragile to “get real” with the pain of systematic oppression. But then a strange thing happened:
One day, with the support of my somatic therapist, I was feeling despair and defeat with regards to the imprisonment of immigrant children coming in from Mexico. I wanted to turn away from it as it reminded me of my own despair and defeat with regards to being trapped and violated in my own past. The pain in my body was too much, I just wanted to be mad about it- and I was. I was enraged at our government, and felt that heat move through my body.
It was all too much, I said out loud, grabbling my heart, as if to protect it.
As I named this, something that already shifting, started to shift some more. With the compassionate presence of my therapist I started to fall into a pain that was deep in my heart. This pain took me in, all the way in. It felt excruciating, like it would never end, as I kept turning towards those children separated from their families, as I kept turning towards my own lived pains.
The heart I came out of was wider and deeper that I had ever known. I felt a Love that included myself and those children, in a way that had never felt safe to feel. It was then that my sense of fragility started to fade, and I was able to be more real with life. My relationship with empathy and compassion with others experiencing horrid pain and suffering felt different from that moment going forward.
I understand that not everyone is going to have the privilege of having the resources, the resourcing, time and most importantly support of others. But I hope those who are reading this post can at least ask themselves some big questions, which may create some space for deeper connections with the world in which we live.
The relationship we have with reality reveals the quality of our relationship with god, with life, with creation, with existence itself. Are we open to god (however we perceive that)? Are we open to life? Are we open to seeing the flavors of reality? Are we open to learning? Are we open to including more?
We often filter out oppression because we feel conflicted and uncomfortable, and many of us have never been taught how to be with discomfort. When we don’t know how to be with discomfort, we suffer more as we have to limit ourselves, more and more, to keep ourselves from experiencing what we don’t like. Ultimately, we wind up controlled by our fears, but will often try to control and oppress others as an attempt to escape that sense of debilitation. The cycle ensues.
Everything is connected- when one of us is oppressed, we are all impacted. When one of us authentically frees ourselves from the web of oppression, a light shines for others to follow. “The wound is the place where the Light enters you”- Rumi.
Can we be willing to move towards that light?
A New Way Forward
Some reading this blog post are in full acceptance that oppression is systematically woven into our culture. Thank you for all that you are doing to address the toxicity in our world. I hope that this has been helpful as a reminder that in order be change agents in the world, we must look inward into our oppressive make up. As we work to change the system we have to address our internal levels of psychic and somatic oppression otherwise we will stay in the same oppressive loop. We cannot employ the toxicity of the dominant paradigm to get to well being, we must embody life-affirming values to make effective, sustainable change.
To those who want to have access to opportunity and privilege, and are somewhat disconnected from the reality of oppression, but who are interested in healing and well being, I hope you will be willing to become more aware of the systemic and systematic practices that our culture is rooted in, otherwise we too will stay in the same oppressive loop. Those of us who exist in privilege are still governed by psyches that are rooted in oppressive values. Our circumstances do not mean that our internal landscape is free from oppression. As we become willing to take a look at the external landscape that we are enmeshed in, we will become more aware of what is keeping us from being rooted in well being and in full participation with life.
Let’s Journey Together
We cannot be embodied human beings while we are immersed in oppression- either from within our psyches or in how we interact with the world. If we are not aware of our oppression and the oppressive system of our culture, and if we are not aware of the oppressive system within our psyche, we are doomed to suffer, and our world is doomed to suffer. There must be both freedom from oppression inside ourselves and outside ourselves.
Oppressing others is traumatic to one’s own psyche. Oppression always breeds more oppression, within one’s self and outwardly. Unless consciously integrated, this trauma, oppression, and violence passes on to future generations.
We are living in a culture that is paying the price for this repressed and unacknowledged trauma. And it continues to be poor and Black or Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) (and other marginalized peoples) who suffer the greatest and most overtly.
Being able to name and then consciously explore the matrix of systemic oppression as it lives within my psyche and as it lives in the fabric of our culture has been a necessary and fundamental part of my embodiment journey. It is impossible to convey the level of safety and well being I have now, as compared to when I was bound by the values of dominant culture.
It all started by asking curious questions of myself, and being willing to look honestly at and feel deeply into who I was, who I wanted to be, and getting serious about the harm I was creating in my life. Change comes through honesty and vulnerability. It’s not always easy, but in my experience it’s always worth it. A lot of us are waking up together- there is so much support available! I look forward to continuing to learn with you.
Practical Explorative Options
1. Unsure as to your level of internalized oppression? Take some of the Harvard Implicit bias tests free, here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html
When we don’t know our bias’, we live in a choice-less world bound by the bidding and the wiles of oppression.
2. Questions you can ask yourself:
- What resonance does the voice in your head speak from?
- Does your internal voice tend to be kind, and loving voice? If not, who’s voice is that? Is that how a caregiver used to speak to you? A teacher?
- What does that harsh narrative need or want? Is it wanting support? Safety? Love?
- When you listen to perspectives from BIPOC, women, people with disabilities, and so on, what does that bring up in you?
- Pay attention when you’re reading or listening to. What perspective are you hearing? The dominant narrative, or the transformative narrative?
- Do you feel defensive when you think about your own privilege?
- How do you employ dominant values while you are trying to do good in the world?
- Do you become overtly or subtly violent as a change agent?
- How am I unintentionally or intentionally oppressing others?
- How am I oppressing myself?
- How can you support yourself, or be supported, as you journey into this vulnerable terrain? Finding people and groups where I can have real conversations about these very real topics and challenges has been life altering for me. You are not alone on this journey- there are people and groups to support you. We are growing and learning together. Email me for more information or for ideas.
3. There are so many ways to learn about oppression. Journaling can be a powerful practice, combined with aspects of #2 above. Reading and listening to voices other than my own has probably been the most important part of my evolution. I’ve been compiling a list of books, face book pages, blogs, podcasts and so on to pass on. In the mean time, feel free to email me for recommendations. Get clear on what you’d like to learn more about before you email me, and I’ll do my best to match you up to something that aligns with your request. Also, if you have a beloved source, please pass that onto me!!!
Some reading this blog post are in full acceptance that oppression is systematically woven into our culture. Are you aware that it is systematically woven into your psyche? This post is for you too!
Oppression is the in the very creation of western culture, and if you’re from the United States, it’s in the very fabric in which the United States came to be. There would be no United States of America if it had not been for the slave labor that quite literally manufactured and built up it’s existence, making the U.S. into a world power. Oppression is not unique to the U.S.- world history is filled with it. The level of oppression that is a systemic part of the world has fused itself into our minds, our psyches, and our somatic existences.
We commonly use violence or oppressive strategies while trying to eradicate violence: countries “bombing for peace”, spiritual teachers misusing their power, parents who spank their children for misbehaving, vegans who dogmatically judge those who eat animals, pussy hats, parents, friends or therapists who want to fix people, and trying to makepeople be accountable are a few examples that come to mind. I have participated in many of those just listed, creating harm in the process.
Rigid right/wrong/good/bad thinking is the perfect breeding ground for what we can call “should energy.” It is very oppressive in that it is rooted in harsh judgments and often comes with shame. It also causes people to control and oppress others as a way to bypass the self-loathing that is often experienced in this oppressive thought structure.