Alice Walker: Finding Inner Peace and Compassion Through Hardship

How participating in the Civil Rights Movement led Alice Walker to find inner peace.

Woman meditating at sunrise

Finding inner peace is much like a new beginning, or as some might call it, a "Human Sunrise."

Photo by Fotolia/crispinmx

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The Cushion in the Road (The New Press, 2013), by Alice Walker, visits subjects such as racism, Palestinian solidarity, and Cuba in the narrative of her personal journey of political awakening and spiritual insight. In the following excerpt, from the chapter "Human Sunrise," Walker reflects on her experience finding inner peace during the Civil Rights movement in a letter to a university’s graduating class.

June 2009

"Someone told me once
that Earth is
the only planet that has
mornings."

The only planet that has mornings!

This is an intriguing thought: and, how would they know? The poet in me loves it, however, because it sees the metaphor of new beginnings, optimism, rising to the occasion (in Mexico a friend calls sunset "the occasion"), and getting on with the new day. I also appreciate the notion of our specialness, as a planet, whether it is accurate or not.

Dear Graduating Class of Naropa,

I have been thinking of you for many months. Wanting to share your day with something useful from my experience of Life. It is wonderful to see you; to know you have worked and studied and played hard. That you have meditated much. That you have struck out on your own through these perilous times to be of benefit to yourselves and to the world. You are children of this cosmos, this galaxy, of your no doubt innocent Earthling parents who brought you into this existence, and also children of the Buddha, which is to say, Beings who continue to grow into people who treasure wisdom, joyfulness, and peace. In fact, you are practically adults. We recall that to the Cherokee, as to other people who have noticed how long it sometimes takes for humans to develop fully, adulthood comes—if it is coming at all—at the age of fifty-two.

I salute you and your parents for the accomplishment your graduation represents today, in this most beautiful and inspiring place where, I am told, there is sunshine three hundred days of the year, and the mountains near enough to cause a continual raising of the eyes and rising of the spirit.

What have I learned that might be useful to you?

One thing I have learned is that just as we are lucky enough to live on a planet that has mornings, there is such a thing as a Human Sunrise.

Human Sunrise: Discovering Inner Peace During the Civil Rights Movement

Decades ago when I traveled to Mississippi to work in the Civil Rights Movement, which eventually gained voting rights for African Americans, I encountered this Human Sunrise for the first time. I met black people and a few of their white sisters and brothers who were attempting to dismantle a system of oppression that had been in place for centuries. White supremacy, fascism, the most virulent racism, were the order of the day. Black people, and the whites who supported them, lived in a state of terror. There were lynchings, bombings, assassinations, humiliations, jailings, on a regular and predictable basis. And yet, the people not only were determined to be free of these things, they were determined, as well, to free their oppressors—the racists and white supremacists of the world—of their need to oppress. It was in Mississippi that I witnessed, as an adult, the full implementation of the compassion for others that I, and most black people of the South, had been taught at home. And, of course, in our church.

With just their songs, their chants, their good and noble hearts, their marching feet, the black people of Mississippi met, with soul force, the violence of a system that had traditionally ground them into dust. "We shall not, we shall not be moved. We shall not, we shall not be moved," they sang: "Just like a tree that's planted by the water, we shall not be moved."

Their daughters and sons were raped and murdered. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the world’s great teachers, was killed. They continued to sing, and to believe in their right to have a voice in the running of America and in the protection of what was most precious to them: freedom to explore the universe unfettered by anyone else’s power to condemn, discredit, or dismiss them.

They knew they were the ones they had been waiting for, and took responsibility for shifting the direction of Life in Mississippi so that their children would not have to.

And we today, all of us on this Earth, are exactly who we have been waiting for. It is for us to change the direction of the planet and we must not lose our belief that we can do so.

We are rising all over the globe now, in this most terrible of times for Earthlings and for our home planet. People everywhere are moving, joining each other, plotting and planning how we may protect and provide for the challenges of the age. Still, there are, and will be, days of incredible depression and distress as we encounter the hard truths of the suffering of the Earth and her creatures. There are abominations occurring on our planet that I’m convinced would have been unimaginable in the Buddha’s lifetime. They are unimaginable even in my own lifetime—and I have actually encountered some of them. The horrible genocide, the incessant war and war mongering, the dropping of bombs on the poor, the starving, deliberately, of children. The greed. The mutilation, cannibalism, and enslavement forced on people who are at the mercy of weaponry and force wielded by people they’ve never even seen.

And I say to that: when it is all too much, when the news is so bad meditation itself feels useless, and a single life feels too small a stone to offer on the altar of peace, find a Human Sunrise. Find those people who are committed to changing our scary reality. Human Sunrises are happening all over the Earth, at every moment. People gathering, people working to change the intolerable, people coming in their robes and sandals or in their rags and bare feet, and they are singing, or not, and they are chanting, or not. But they are working to bring peace, light, compassion, to the infinitely frightening downhill slide of human life.

You will find those of the Human Sunrise movement speaking with heart about the suffering of animals, and also the necessity of preparing, in a good way, for death.

There was a recent article in Rolling Stone magazine about the treatment and slaughter, each year, of 27 million hogs in, I believe, Virginia. By one company. This is as many beings as the population of several large cities. Beings who are treated with such disrespect and cruelty that it is amazing that any of us can bear knowing what is going on. This must be the same blind heart and unseeing gaze that was turned on the slave trade, during its four horrendous centuries, when black people coming to America on slave ships were treated as cruelly as these hogs, their lives often eaten up by forced labor within as little as seven years. What have we turned off in ourselves to be able to bear the mistreatment of the precious other animals that inhabit the planet with us? The carnage, in this one case, is so bad that the countryside around the facility is completely, densely polluted, and the people who live there are sick. The freeing of animals, the returning of land and habitat to them, must become part of what it means to be human. Part of what it means to be animal. Without the other animals the land is dead in spirit, as it is dead in spirit when indigenous human life is removed from it.

Find the Human Sunrise that love of animals draws you to, and stay close to it, for that is the way of a future without self-deception and shame.

Always remember that there is nothing too small any of us can learn to do to help us out of our predicament, and that learning to extend the range of our compassion is activity and work available to all.

If we are open to it, we will be taught by masters.

'Be Grateful to Everyone'

Many years ago I visited Oaxaca during Day of the Dead. A local acquaintance took my friend and me to a cemetery far in the countryside outside the city of Oaxaca. It was astonishing, magical to see the people gathered in the middle of the night in this cemetery, brightly lit by thousands of candles. People were actively being with their deceased loved ones: sitting on and around their graves, talking, eating, playing guitars, playing cards. It was a giant party, filled with love and celebration. I was mesmerized and filled with joy.

Far in the distance we heard singing, beautiful, incredible singing. Mournful and loving and intense. It drew us to the back of the cemetery. And there, in the ruins of what had once been a church, many men and women were singing with a solemnity and passion so moving it was almost impossible to endure it. Who are these people and what are they singing? we asked, already weeping, though we understood not a word of what they sang.

These are the people who come each year to sing to those whom no one comes to visit.

I had already loved Oaxaca and the people of Oaxaca. This made me understand that love.

When the tragedy at Virginia Tech occurred, and I listened to the news that the thirty-two people had been killed, and we were encouraged, rightly, to mourn the loss of their beautiful lives, I thought of the singers in the cemetery. And of their compassion. We know it was not only thirty-two people who lost their lives, but thirty-three. And we must allow ourselves to feel compassion for the person who killed the other thirty-two before killing himself. This thought—that compassion does not stop at who was right or wrong, does not stop at feeling loving kindness for the miserable and oppressed, does not stop at feeling the pain of the victim while ignoring the pain of the victimizer—is a human expression of warmth, a human sunrise, our world desperately needs. This way of seeing the world, and the calamities now afflicting us, can be uniquely carried by meditators and contemplatives such as you. If human beings are not taught to feel compassion for the Hitlers, Mussolinis, and Stalins of the world, if Saddam Hussein is so demonized no one bothers to remember how cruelly he was beaten as a little boy, if our own leaders are ridiculed and called names that even in childhood must have frightened and scarred them, how are we ever to see these same shadowy parts of ourselves and do the real work of change that survival on our Earth requires?

The extraordinary teacher Pema Chodron taught me, via cassette tape, Tonglen practice. Knowing how to do this ancient practice of taking in pain and suffering and sending out peace and light has been a wonderful gift to the medicine bundle I carry in my life. One of the slogans in the lojong teachings that accompany Tonglen is: Be grateful to everyone. Be grateful to everyone. How beautiful is that! Because everyone is a teacher. Everyone brings us something of value, even if it seems totally negative to us at the time we receive it. I would add to that, and the Buddha of course already did so: Be compassionate to everyone. Don’t just search for whatever it is that annoys and frightens you; see beyond those things to the basic human being. Especially see the child in the man or woman. Even if they are destroying you, allow a moment to see how lost in their own delusion and suffering they are. It is only this insight into brutality and any form of meanness and cruelty that lessens the pain of being oppressed and, in so many cases on this planet, senselessly annihilated.

I thought long and hard about exploring this next area with you: preparing to die. Graduation day is, after all, something like a wedding celebration: you are marrying your future. And perhaps all thought should be happy, cheerful thought. On the other hand, you chose to invite me to speak to you today, and what has come up continually when I have queried Spirit about what to say to you is: talk to them about preparing to leave this plane.

I have thought about my own death a great deal in my life; I thought of it on a daily and almost moment to moment basis while I was experiencing the Human Sunrise in Mississippi. It could have come at any moment; it did come for many people that we knew. Over time I realized it is not death itself that frightens me, and in fact I suspect that being dead will be a delight. Such freedom, such spaciousness! And hasn’t everything in life, up to that point, been pretty mind-blowing?

What I recommend is much sitting with the thought of dying. Of the moments when you will be leaving your present consciousness. How would you like to transition? After much contemplation, I settled on the idea that if only I could die touching some shred of scrap of the Earth, a bit of grass, a trunk or root of a tree, a twig or stone, I would be content. If I could see some small corner of the sky, some leaf being blown by the wind. Smell the earth, whether flowers or straw—that would be enough. But later on, reading the news, listening to the heavy footsteps of death rumbling the planet, I refined this. I sat long enough to realize I might have to deeply know that a flaming plastic plane seat is also Earth. That a classroom filled with desks and computers is also Earth. That prison cells with their sadistic guards and cement floors are also Earth. That, in fact, all dying is returning to the Earth. And that, because I love Earth, I can be content to feel myself returning to Her in whatever is Her form. That Her elements are also mine. Since of course I am made of Her. This was very helpful to me.

Incorporating deep thought about how we might leave our present incarnation can make us stronger, like preparing for a challenging test rather than relying on guesswork can make us stronger. It will be a major moment of our lives, and filled with meaning—meaning that only we can give it. Instead of dissolving into panic or fear, it will be good to understand beforehand that, before transition, however unexpected it might be, you could just possibly be granted a moment of centeredness, mindfulness, even a split second of real peace. Peace that comes from gratitude for whatever life you have lived on this astounding Earth. If there is a moment to have the presence of mind to kiss Her, what a joy that would be. Imagine it! A kiss good-bye. A kiss hello. For you cannot ever really leave this Mother. She is all there is.


Reprinted with permission from The Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way, by Alice Walker, and published by The New Press, 2013.