What stood out most after what was claimed the “wrongful death” of Eric Garner* were the words, “I can’t breathe.” It became a collective mantra. Soon many were wearing t-shirts that said, “I can’t breathe.” This collective voice rose to a crescendo and announced that we cannot inhale or exhale. We are dying; black people are dying.
At the same time I heard inside myself another mantra. “I want to live. I want to live.” Suddenly, the mantra “I can’t breathe” evolved into “I want to breathe. I am breathing. I insist on breathing. I can breathe.” It became an exploration: How is it that I am breathing while surrounded by bigotry and hatred?
I was taught that everything and everyone are integrated, creating oneness. If such is true when hatred is experienced then at the same time loving-kindness must be accessible. Maybe it is not seen or felt but it exists. I’m not talking necessarily about being loving and kind to the person spewing hatred but rather recognizing in the moment of experiencing disregard that the experience of loving-kindness is available. In essence both hatred and loving kindness exist simultaneously in the sphere of life. Hatred is strengthened in losing sight of the existence of loving-kindness, not in you or me, but in the realms of oneness. And still the pain, rage, anger, or fear must be acknowledged while breathing fiercely into the gross parts of such oneness.
It is very difficult to believe that hatred exists within oneness. Often, oneness is seen separate from the material world created by humans. We might say that there is no hatred in the oneness of things. Yet, it is an experience in this oneness of life, for many, to be killed because of such hatred. I have been asked as a Buddhist teacher because of being black, “What action do you take in the face of racism or any act of hatred against you? If your life is filled with daily harmful acts of disregard, how do you live, how do you breathe with such suffering? Honestly, most of my life I couldn’t breathe. And like the Buddha who in near death realized he needed a body to be enlightened, it became clear that I, in near death, needed to breathe in order to live.
Eric Garner’s spirit might say, the breath is the only god-given medicine or protection one may have in the midst of a racist or oppressive act. To come through racist, sexist, homophobic assault I breathe myself back home. I breathe myself back to my original face, back to being awake to the truth that I am a legitimate form of nature. Some day I will not abandon this knowing of myself and I will not have to breathe myself back. I will not adhere to distorted images imposed by those who hate. So, while I can still access my breath, I can breathe as an act of resistance to the hatred in this world.
I Can Breathe: A Meditation on Surviving Acts of Hatred
May I come back to this body,
May I come back to this breath,
May I come to know this body as the earth itself.
May I breathe myself back home,
And once again be introduced to this great life.
May the great light of this Earth surround me,
May I be released from past harm and imposed hatred.
May I come to recognize my existence in the true nature of life.
May I come back to this breath,
to this body, as the sacred place in which I remain awake
and connected to the fragrance and taste of liberation.
May I remain visible on the path of spirit,
and be seen and heard,
May love given be returned tenfold,
May awakening be known in this body,
at this time.
And when I can’t breathe,
May, I breathe in the next moment,
May I say, I can breathe.
*Eric Garner, a black man, father of six, was choked to death by Staten Island, NY police in July 2014. A film shot from a smartphone recorded Garner’s words, “I can’t breathe.”