Podcast: Love and Rage with Lama Rod OwensOct 23, 2020
Lama Rod Owens is a Buddhist minister, Black activist, and author of Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation through Anger. As he says in this podcast, "Anger is the bodyguard for hurt." Anger wakes us up to what is happening inside ourselves, but it also requires stepping back into a space of reflection before fiercely stepping forward to address the source of our pain.
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Jeff: Okay. Lama Rod Owens, welcome to the Commune Podcast. Thank you for being here. I am excited to talk to you about your book that was published I believe over the course of the summer, which was timely entitled Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation Through Anger. And of course, I hope there is time to discuss the elephant in the room, the impending election. I suppose how we could we not discuss it and it's relationship specifically to social justice. But as a starting point, I was hoping that you could first scaffold our conversation in some biographical data, perhaps touching on your upbringing in the south and just the unique qualities of everything that have gone into making you you, I suppose your relationship with the church in your early life and perhaps elaborate on how and why you came to discover Buddhism and subsequently make it such a central component to your life.
Lama Rod Owens:I grew up in the south, in the American south in north Georgia, kind of a mid sized, smaller city. It wasn't a metropolis, but we were surrounded by a fair amount of rural northwest Georgia. I grew up in church. I grew up particularly in the United Methodist Church. My mother became a minister in the church when I was about 13. That was really quite exciting because I was just so really moved, impressed by just someone that I was related to who had such a strong conviction about their faith and the things that moved them and how they wanted to be in the world.
Lama Rod Owens: I was very fortunate also to be raised by her because she was also very open minded and I would say to an extent, progressive about how she understood religion and spirituality. I was really fortunate to have someone who embodied something that wasn't fundamental and conservative, which is what was often being expressed in the community around me.
Lama Rod Owens: My grandfather was also a Baptist minister, my paternal grandfather, who I really know in this life. He died when I was a baby, I think maybe right before a year after my birth he passed, so I never knew him in life, but always grew up with stories about how he was such an influential person and really quite a gifted preacher. I was also really proud of that as well. But having grown up around... in the faith, in the community, I didn't really find myself that connected to Christianity. I turned 18, started college. In college, Sundays become... Well, for me, Sundays became not so much about going to church, but trying to sleep off the hangover from Saturday night. That really began to break me from the habit of going to church. That began to give me a lot of space to question and explore what I really wanted to be in the world. I just really wasn't interested in Christianity.
Lama Rod Owens: Mostly, I wasn't interested because I just never... Besides my mother, I just really didn't see examples of Christians having fun. People were having fun... No, don't get me wrong. People were having fun, but it just felt like that fun was about repressing things. It was like, "Here's the space that we can have fun in," and that felt like not interesting at all for me. I don't want to go to a playground and be told that, "Okay, you can only play in this corner in the playground." If I go to a playground, I want to play on the whole playground. I wanted to experience life and have these experiences and have adventures. I wanted to try new things and I wanted to figure out who I was. I just felt like that was not being supported in the Christian communities around me.
Lama Rod Owens: I went to a Christian school. I wasn't too fundamental, but it was fundamental enough for me. By the end of college, I had broken up with God, but it was also in college where I started coming out as being queer. And also, I really started embracing these more radical, progressive expressions of who I was. I just had this really bizarre experience as I got older and that experience was that I was just not interested in judging people. I wasn't interested in telling people how to live their lives. I just didn't see why so many things were a sin. I just struggled with that. I just didn't get it and no one could argue enough for me to bring me to their side, so I broke up with all of that.
Lama Rod Owens: I graduated and I moved to Boston for the first time. As a young, 20 something and I joined a community, which was in the tradition of the Catholic Worker Community, which I loved. The Catholic Worker Movement started during the depression in New York by a woman named Dorothy Day and this man named Peter Maurin. They were radical Catholics with strong faith, strong roots in faith, but Dorothy Day was actually a convert to Catholicism too, which was really quite interesting in her narrative, but they were both people who believed that Jesus was teaching us to disrupt violence and they embodied that and created a culture and a community of people living together and doing basic acts of service, just right out of the gospels. They were feeding people and clothing people and housing people. They were also naming systems of violence and they committed themselves to disrupting those systems of violence through activism, through protest, through whatever seemed peaceful for them to do.
Lama Rod Owens: I joined a community that was inspired by the Catholic Worker Movement and a community that Dorothy Day herself had had some connections to as well, so that all felt really special and I became really devoted to Dorothy Day's ideas and beliefs. That really influenced me for several years. And of course, the Worker Movement was this Marxist and Socialist, Anarchist movement, but it had a lot of warmth in it. I really gravitated towards that. And the community that I lived in and worked in, it was just so many different kinds of people. That's what I had been craving my whole life, just everyone. There were monks and nuns. There were sex workers. There were drug dealers. There were people experiencing houselessness. There were wealthy folks. There were Catholics and Buddhists and Jews and Hindus, Christian science healers. I mean, it was just a wide range of diversity and we were all there trying to help as many people as possible, while trying to create community together.
Lama Rod Owens: I was so thrilled to be there. That really challenged me to see Christians who were embodying a different way of being in the world, but also what I encountered were socially engaged Buddhist for the first time. That was even more interesting for me because the Buddhist looked like they were having real fun in the world. Yeah, I healed a lot of trauma and violence around growing up Christian and I really began to see Christianity in a different light, but Buddhism... Really, I just saw Buddhism as something that was really about freedom and liberation. It was a science about the mind and the body. That was something that I had absolutely no idea about, but I was excited to learn. Over some time there, about after a year of living in the community, I really started practicing meditation.
Lama Rod Owens: I came to meditation particularly after I really began to recognize that I was experiencing severe depression. I just opened my heart and my mind and just began to seek ways of working with depression. Of course, meditation became one of those ways, along with some other modalities and practices. Meditation, which was mindfulness practice at the beginning, led to really studying and having a hunger for Buddhist philosophy. And before you knew it, I was a Buddhist. And early on, I decided to train to become a teacher in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism, which I found really evocative as well. I believe it really fit my personality. And three years into practicing, I was living in a monastery so I moved from the community, went to a monastery and went into a three year retreat where I sat and practiced for actually over three years, it was closer to three and a half years, and finished that process. I was given permission to teach and I got the title Lama. I've been teaching for about nine years so far.
Jeff: Well first, as an aside, I will note that my mother and my grandmother also grew up Methodist and my grandmother was very, very middle class, kind of salt of the earth Midwesterner and went to the same Methodist church for 92 years.
Lama Rod Owens: Wow.
Jeff: She lived to 104. she played the bells. That was as about as animated as it got in the Methodist church, which she was a lovely woman. I had great respect for her, but she was stifled in a way and always had her top button buttoned. I mean, when she turned 100, we actually did a slideshow of her life. She was born in 1910. I think starting in about 1935, you couldn't tell the difference in how she looked for the last but 80 years of her life because she was this very, very serious, austere, put together woman. So when I hear you speak about fun, it's sort of the opposite of that spectrum I would imagine my grandmother in the Methodist church. But in terms of your attraction to Buddhism and obviously we can't recite the entire Pali Cannon here on this interview, but I wonder if you could unpack some of its central tenets, its general propositions around the nature of suffering and the potential pathways out of it and how that might have... what that relationship might have been with your depression?
Lama Rod Owens: Right. Yeah. These were some of the things that really drew me deeper in to Buddhism because I had been suffering my whole life. When I started practicing Buddhism and studying Buddhism, of course, the first teachings you get is that there's suffering and that you're not special because you suffer. That just kind of makes you human. I was just so blown away by that, that you start with the tart stuff. They weren't like... Their traditions aren't trying to get people in the door by selling the good stuff first, by promising liberation, they were like, "No, you're suffering. This isn't a figment necessarily of your imagination, this is actually happening. So if you can just accept that, then you begin the work of liberation from suffering." I was thrilled. I just felt victimized by suffering, particularly social oppression. It was like I was black and queer, poor at the time. I was just like, "I just can't get a break."
Lama Rod Owens: But in Buddhism, I began to see more and more that yeah, this is tenet, that there's suffering in life. And of course the Buddhist first teaching was that teaching that there is suffering and then he taught that we suffer because we crave. There's a craving, there's an attachment to things. That craving creates a sense of self and what we would call ego. There's not a lot of space within that kind of fixation and attachment and craving and that that lack of space intensifies this discomfort. Of course, he called discomfort dukkha, Crisis' early Buddha language. Dukkha, we often translate as suffering, discomfort, but it's so much more subtle than that. This is why I really appreciated these teachings because there are some people who are like... obviously who say, "I don't suffer. I have everything that I want. I'm beautiful. I'm rich. I have a really good life." I've met people like that.
Lama Rod Owens: I've met people who are just like, "Yeah, I've never had to struggle for anything, so maybe I don't suffer." But what dukkha actually is pointing our attention to is the fact that beneath all the worldly materialism that we take pleasure in, there's another kind of experience beneath that and that experience is the fear of all this being taken away, which is a correct fear because it actually will be taken away because we will have to die. In early Buddhism, the Buddha was really saying it like, "Yeah. You're going to have to deal with that eventually." I love that. But even further, dukkha, a very subtle experience of dukkha is this experience of having a Tupperware right. You have a Tupperware, you put some food in it. You put the messiest food like spaghetti sauce, tomato sauce in this Tupperware and you find a top for it, but it doesn't quite fit, but it fits enough. You put it in the fridge, you pack it into the fridge and then later you come around, you open the fridge, that Tupperware pops out, that ill-fitting lid falls off and all that tomato sauce splatters everywhere, all over the kitchen. That's dukkha.
Jeff: I've never heard that particular analogy in all of my discussions around Buddhism, so if nothing else, I'm happy for that one.
Lama Rod Owens: I can't quite take credit for it. This is actually a description that I got from one of my Buddhism professors in graduate school, but I gladly have taken it and expounded upon it. But yeah, I was like, "Oh, that's it. It seems good, but it's not going to turn out." Of course, the Buddha goes on to teach that if you could just relax some, then there's this kind of spaciousness that opens up. The spaciousness gives us the chance, the opportunity to actually connect to the nature of this reality that we take so seriously and that this reality is an illusion, is a dream and that this is, as we would say back home where I grew up, this world is not your home. This is an experience and we're practicing to have an awakening to the nature of all phenomenal reality. The vehicle of meditation is what drives us into that experience of awakening. I was thrilled to get that and to begin to train in that. Yeah, it's very hard.
Lama Rod Owens: One of the things that Buddhism does do really well is like yeah, they may tell you that suffering is an issue up front, but they give you all this really intense, profound, beautiful language of what enlightenment is. And then they tell you, "Okay, it may take you countless lifetimes to get there, so you might as well start now." I really believe that I've been on this path for countless lifetimes already and that I am really... I'm really grateful for how I've been able to come back to the path of dharma in this life and just really see very clearly the progress that I've made in this life alone, to come out of depression, to come out of so much trauma, to kind of have this life and this year of 2020 where I'm able to fill like as if I'm thriving, that I have a clarity, that I have a joy and I'm able to hold the space for all this anxiety and discomfort and mystery. I can hold it and I practice and it's okay. I love that.
Jeff: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the very attractive components to Buddhism, or at least for me. is the absence of dogmatism if you will that, for me, it feels very empirical on some level, like it really is just a play book to apply to your life if you are interested in the investigations of the nature of your mind and how it works. How could you not be given that entire, all of reality is birthed out of your mind. A couple years ago, you co-authored a book with Revered angel Kyodo Williams, who I know a bit and I'm a big fan of. Excuse myself in advance because I'm not sure I know how to pronounce Jasmine's last name.
Lama Rod Owens: It's Jasmine.
Jeff: Oh it's Jasmine, so I don't even know how to pronounce her first name even. Yeah. Called Radical Dharma. I'm very interested in this philosophy or this notion of the interweaving of spiritual liberation and I suppose sociopolitical liberation. I'm not sure if my understanding of it is spot on. But I've always seen those components of life as a [loid 00:23:13], as one thing and I think it's sometimes popular to see one's spiritual practice as something highly personal that gives you some degree of escape from the sullied world of politics or socioeconomic realities, but this philosophy kind of interweaves them. To me, that feels baked in to the notion of... that is at the core of much of Buddhism of self transcendence and eventually being able to come to terms with the notion that you were just kind of simply a modification of a larger self. But I wonder if you could take some time and kind of unpack the nature of Radical Dharma and maybe expand some of its core principles because it feels very foundational to your work?
Lama Rod Owens: Yeah. Absolutely. I think one of the core principles of Radical Dharma is that there's no ultimate libration without social liberation. This really ties into what we would consider in Buddhism to be the expression of bodhichitta. Bodhichitta, it's really this mental state, this aspiration, which is really a deep concern for the wellbeing of others. And within this kind of bodhichitta kind of expression, we are practicing not just to free ourselves, but to free everyone else around us. Bodhichitta is a collective expression. That fits right into this kind of social liberation, ultimate liberation arena because we can practice to touch into and to acknowledge the ultimate, but we can also do what we can to make sure others are being cared for around us, to work for an eradication of systems of violence. At the same time, we're working towards this ultimate enlightenment and we bind both of those efforts together.
Lama Rod Owens: Social liberation work, I think really it keeps us connected to this world because there's a tendency for us to bypass the concerns of the world, the concerns of people to exclusively tune into an ultimate view where we can bypass giving a shit about the world. This kind of extremism in terms of its relationship to the ultimate often sounds something like, "It doesn't matter what happens to the world because everything is nonexistent. It doesn't matter who wins the election because this is just a dream. It doesn't matter who gets sick because the body is just an illusion." That's just like bypassing the reality of the relative. That makes us really callous. That makes us mean to tell someone that, "Oh, don't worry if you're like struggling with violence, ultimately you're not struggling with it to being with so you should just like take refuge in that." That's not really helpful.
Lama Rod Owens: Though I am oriented towards the ultimate, I still understand that we earn our right to awakening and enlightenment through the work we're doing in the relative. We're trying to open our hearts and our minds to reveal the nature of phenomenal reality. We engage in supporting it and working for others to open our hearts and minds, to begin to understand that there's no separation between myself and others. That makes the world much easier to be in. If we can just confront the reality of living together and all the systems that create harm for us, if we can just lean towards that with an openness and with an attitude to engage in trying to benefit folks, trying to disrupt the violence, then we find ourselves less afraid of the world and that creates a kind of openness in the mind, which at the same time makes it easier for us to touch into this kind of ultimate expression of everything.
Jeff: Yeah. I think that's interesting because I think there can be a duality that is perceived between, I think, as you refer to as the ultimate and the relative. I guess one might see as the human experience kind of very much based in your body, mind and your personhood versus the experience of life as awareness of transitory phenomena, moment to moment, et cetera and to build not just a bridge, but in a way to see those things as conjoined, I think is not just important, but it enlarges the energetic potential of what it is like to be me basically. But it is not simple because I think as we address things that feel I guess so acute in the human, in things that are political, that feel so painful, that can make us so angry and can also make us feel, I suppose, paralyzed or almost numb in the face of their enormousness or their enormity, it is easy to retreat from that world.
Jeff: I guess I wonder how you manage to maintain some degree of equanimity between a sense of peace and enlightenment that is necessary in your own personal life and then I suppose a kind of spiritual activism that is needed in order to kind of bend the arc of the moral universe. I suppose this might even be slightly a bridge into anger and rage because to be honest, those seem so inextricably connected to our political life right now.
Lama Rod Owens: Yeah. I mean, I think for me the key to this is this kind of awareness of space. I have to move the world with a lot of mental spaciousness in order not to be swallowed, particularly by the suffering of the world, this acute pain, this acute trauma. That helps me maintain this balance and there is a balance here. There really isn't kind of this binary experience because it's the relative and ultimate are just one experience. But for us to kind of start wrapping our minds around it, we have to split it up into two separate experiences. What I'm beginning to experience in my practice is the union of both the relative and the ultimate. So as I'm moving through the world, I'm at the same time moving through the ultimate as well. Moving through the relative is moving through the ultimate.
Lama Rod Owens: It's not something that we're necessarily trying to articulate, but it's something that we're trying to life. We're just trying to be in the world and we say, "Yes, there's suffering. I'm going through this." There's anxiety and fear and trauma and violence. I get that and I can hold a lot of space around that because it is indeed being held by spaciousness. Even if I tune into that reality or not, there's still spaciousness, so I'm trying to remember the spaciousness as holding everything. And within that spaciousness, I get these glimpses of what the ultimate experience is, but I have to hold both of those experiences together because my work is twofold. My work is to be of benefit to myself and others and helping people to get free and my second work is to connect, experience the ultimate at the same time.
Lama Rod Owens: So I'm trying to maintain the space where both of these, these experiences are happening at once and that takes a lot of practice and it takes a lot of... Well, it takes a commitment to the trainings around watching the mind and really connecting to the illusion of everything, but in a way that we don't use that experience of the illusionary nature of everything as an excuse not to care. We talk about compassion and wisdom and these are the two things we're trying to keep together that can actually help us maintain this space. So compassion meaning ethical care, wisdom being clarity. I'm trying to care, but I need the clarity to understand what to care about and how to care. The same thing for wisdom too actually. I need a warmth, a kindness to my wisdom because wisdom can become quite alienating. It can become quite elitist. It can pull us away from people and their struggle instead of drawing us closer. This is the work of compassion. Compassion draws us closer, while the work of wisdom helps us to see clearly so we don't get lost in what we're being drawn closely into.
Jeff: Yeah. That's interesting. I've tried to attach the notion of humility to wisdom as much as I possibly can these days, that really delineating in some ways between knowledge and wisdom. And where wisdom is more of a moral character and it's sort of an admission of actually what I don't know and having the clarity, I suppose, as you say, to understand what I don't know and in a way, guard myself or surround myself with people and ideas and energy that really reflects an awareness of my own deficiency . Yeah. I mean, I supposed compassion as I've kind of... because these are notions that I consistently... I sort of define and redefine in the context of my own life. I'm trying to understand compassion as loving kindness in the presence of suffering in a manner that tries to alleviate that suffering. I'm sure that those definitions will continue to refine.
Jeff: I'm interested in that space that you talk about in the beginning of your book, I think you have a Victor Frankl quote and I would butcher it now if I tried to access it. But I know he addresses that notion of space and that area between the happening of things and one's response to them. I wonder if you could unpack that, how that space is cultivated and how that space addresses anger or the self care associated with one's anger.
Lama Rod Owens: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Well, that quote from Victor Frankl, it reads, "Between stimulus and response, there is a space and that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." That's really the heart of really the premise of Love and Rage is that when I feel something arise, I don't have to grab onto it. I don't have to react to it, I can just watch it and that watching disrupts the reactivity. That reactivity actually helps us to lean back into the spaciousness. And in that space, we get the opportunity to make a different choice. And right now, we're not able to do that because many of us are just super reacting to everything that arises in the mind. We feel as if there is no choice, there's a choicelessness to all of this.
Lama Rod Owens: When I talk about spaciousness, I'm talking about that space that opens up when we are not busy and getting distracted with reacting and including with anger. Anger is so... There's a seduction to anger because it's so powerful. There's a lot of energy, but that energy is a reaction to the hurt that we've experienced. In my work, I say that anger is the bodyguard for the hurt. Because from my practice, I understand my anger is first and foremost telling me that I've been hurt and that I need to take care of the hurt. If I don't do anything to take care of the hurt or if I don't at least acknowledge the hurt, then I find myself reacting to anger in such a way that I create more harm for myself and for others.
Jeff: Yeah. That's interesting. I mean, I think just even that basic of acknowledgment that anger occurs as the result of being hurt is essential and I'm not sure how popular it is.
Lama Rod Owens: Right.
Jeff: I read a book recently written by Elizabeth Kubler Ross that... She writes extensively on grief. Shit, I think this book was from the early '70s. I think it was called On Death and Dying and she outlines the five stages of grief. I believe anger is stage number two. I remember that her writing very articulately about this, that anger in a way is a more socially acceptable way to express emotion as the result of being hurt versus vulnerability. I supposed Brene Brown is bringing vulnerability into vogue, but it's not something that I think comes naturally to a lot of people.
Lama Rod Owens: Right. Right. Absolutely.
Jeff: I wonder if you could outline a little bit of your experience with anger because you write beautifully about growing up and about a lot of anger that you had in your life, but that in many ways belies how I find you, which is this absolutely, evanescently gentle human being. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that, about how you were able to identify that in yourself and cultivate your gentleness.
Lama Rod Owens: Yeah. I think we talk about who gets a right to be angry and particularly in American culture just to say that... In American culture, I think men get to be angry and we see this over and over again in the media right now. Women are conditioned not to have that same access to anger. There's a lot of gender conditioning around emotional expressivity or emotional expressiveness. But when I was growing up... Because this also very intersectional because we have to actually include race and class and sexuality into how we're trying to understand who gets to express anger. I grew up knowing very clearly that I did not have a right to express anger as a black man, even though I am a cisgender assigned male at birth, I still didn't have the privilege of expressing anger and I saw how other black men were policed and disciplined for expressing anger.
Jeff: Yeah. Well, to be honest, there was a section of your book that I found so jarring in a way that I wrote it down. I'll just read it actually, but it's very short.
Lama Rod Owens: Okay.
Jeff: "As a black man, I was conditioned to believe my anger was dangerous. If I channeled anger and expressed anger, then I would be punished. I would be killed. I would be put in jail. I would be silenced. I would be erased." Wow.
Lama Rod Owens: Yeah. I saw it over and over again. In school growing up, going to elementary school, we weren't... Black boys were disciplined at such a higher rate than I saw white students being conditioned. I didn't grow up with a lot of diversity either, so it was just black and white students where I grew up in the south. That's when I saw really clearly, and of course you look at TV and as I got into my teens and Rodney King, all of that... This stuff began to really get super implanted in my head. And of course, I've even had experiences with police where I couldn't even look police in the eye without being reprimanded and being considered a threat. I learned that early on through my experiences. It was like I was expected to keep all of that, all of my anger, all of my rage under wraps.
Lama Rod Owens: When I was actually able to move into the community, into the Catholic Worker Community, it was the elder Buddhist in the community who came to me. I remember them, both of them, Kathy and Jane came to me. They were like, "You're really pissed off." I had no idea what they were talking about because I had learned to survive in the world, I had to be really passive aggressive. I had to hide the anger and I thought that just manipulating people was good because that was really hidden and I wouldn't be punished, but they were like, "No, that's anger." I had to really struggle to connect to anger. I had to allow myself to experience anger, to be angry. When I did the work, and of course all of this was happening in meditation, I was like, "Oh my God, I am pissed off."
Lama Rod Owens: It took even more work to learn how to experience the anger. That's really also the point of the book, as well as anger isn't wrong, we're just trying to figure out how to experience it in a way so that we can get free and liberated and not repressed and shut down in ways that anger trigger for us. I learned from my meditation practice how to really embody anger and how to give it a lot of space, but I learned early on that the anger was actually pointing me to the hurt, the woundedness and that's actually where I have spent an incredible amount of time with, which is tending to my hurt, my woundedness. So you see that in Love and Rage. I don't know if Love and Rage is actually about anger as it about suffering and depression and trauma because I've had to spend so much time practicing around these experiences. Because I've been able to do that with... I call it broken heartedness. Because I've been able to work with broken heartedness in that way, I've been able to really enter back into a relationship with my anger where there's a lot of space, there's a lot of agency.
Lama Rod Owens: I'm not propelled through the world because I'm reacting to my anger, but my anger is there as a teacher for me. I'm still pissed off. Absolutely. I still get triggered, but the thing is I know that I'm hurt and I take care of the hurt, then I turn it back to the anger and I can consciously channel anger into something that's much more beneficial and productive than just reacting to it and creating harm for myself and others.
Jeff: Yeah. I mean, I suppose one of the things that I'm interested in is if there is some degree of utility in anger and how you would think about that? I mean, certainly to bring it into modern context, we've seen a national reckoning on racial justice since I guess May 25th, since the murder of George Floyd like we haven't seen in multiple generations. This reckoning I suppose has been kind of punctuated by a long summer of protests. I wonder if you see usefulness inside of anger in that regard?
Lama Rod Owens: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, anger is telling us that something's wrong. It's indicating that something's really, really off. And when I look at all the stuff that's been happening this summer, for me, it is an expression of... on one hand, a lot of anger from a lot of injustice, but I also see a lot of people, not just people of color or black people, but all of us really struggling to make sense of this really intense experience of suffering, of trauma that we actually don't know how to be with. Of course, it comes out. Of course, it explodes and that's not a judgment of that. It's a recognition that there's incredible hurt for us. This hurt is asking to be seen and worked with and tended to. The anger that we see, it's calling for balance.
Jeff: Yeah. I'm trying to phrase this the right way. I'm curious to know what you think the movement for black lives has accomplished and where we have fallen short, but one thing that you just said that kind of was striking me is that if one could frame the movement for black lives as a reflection of the deep hurt that there may be... I mean, there's a tremendous amount of support for it, but in a way, I think how could there not be universal support for it if it was able to be messaged like the way you just did?
Lama Rod Owens: Yeah. Well, I think that the issue is that those who are living within the dominant culture... and in this case, we're talking about racial justice, we're talking white folks. If you're living in the dominant culture, you maintain that dominance through disembodiment. So if we're disembodied, we're not that connected to the reality of suffering, of pain and trauma because the body is holding that experience. If we can maintain distance outside of the body, then we're not going to connect to that. If you don't connect to the pain, you'll never be able to empathize with the struggle and the suffering of others who are being marginalized and decentered. That is the issue of white supremacy. It's a deep issue that's about a lack of empathy and a lack of embodiment for white folks because white supremacy has demanded a disembodiment because how do you hold centuries and centuries of violence meant to repress people of color and how do you continue to enjoy a culture that is derived and perpetuated by genocide and slavery and perpetual discrimination and decentering?
Lama Rod Owens: It takes a lot of work and it takes a lot of energy to do that. Of course, we do it really easily by being outside of the body. I come from a community where we were really close to the body and we were close to the trauma. It's those of us who are close to the trauma, close to the body who will be the one to liberate us, including the oppressor from the systems of violence. Because it's through being close and empathizing with our discomfort that we understand the discomfort of others around us.
Jeff: Can you have true profound empathy without embodiment?
Lama Rod Owens: No, because it's performative. Embodiment doesn't always mean that I'm really in my body, in my experience. It can mean also that I'm oriented towards the body as well. Because honestly, not all of us are going to get embodied in our life because there's just the reality. There's just a level of trauma for some of us that will never be okay for us to be with, but we can still say, "You know what? I'm still going to be in relationship to the body." That can be a lot to work with in terms of empathy. You can say, "God, my body is full of trauma. There's a lot of pain there. I'm trying to be in relationship to that, I'm not quite in it, but I know it's there and I feel a little bit of it. I wonder what others are experiencing themselves?" That opens up a lot of space.
Jeff: Yeah. As a white person, one can do the work to cultivate a true degree of empathy through some form of embodiment, even though one can always as a white person step out of that reality. And because I think this is, to be honest, a place of confusion for white people, not just from a sense of like, "Well, what is my role in this? What should I say?", but more from, "How do I truly cultivate empathy and compassion?"
Lama Rod Owens: Yeah. Turning back towards, again, this experience of trauma, but there's also not just turning back, there's also the studying that we have to do. We have to understand why we're doing this at the same time. We have to understand the histories of what we're trying to work through, the legacies of what we're trying to work through as well. It's hard to do this work when you're just swimming in a sea of dominance. You're swimming in a sea of a lot of comfort. That's what we're up against. You're swimming in the sea of deep comfort and therefore there has to be a lot of effort to decenter comfort and to begin to see that when you're uncomfortable, that's actually a doorway deeper into the sense of empathy.
Lama Rod Owens: We can use these experiences of discomfort to say, "Oh, this is my discomfort and this is where so many marginalized people are living in this moment, in this discomfort. They have no agency to bypass," but knowing also the system of white supremacy will suck us back into comfort. I think initially so much of this work is performative, which means we're just kind of going through the motions and we're doing things because that's where many of us have to start if we're centered and dominant within culture. We just kind of have to start with just going through a checklist that will create more of the conditions for us to authentically begin to connect to the discomfort, but it's also the reality that there's time. That it's just going to take time, that this work isn't just going to happen in a week or within a year, that this is like lifetimes that we're engaging in. White supremacy, patriarchy, anything like that, it won't be disrupted now.
Lama Rod Owens: We won't ever see... In our lifetime, we won't ever see the end of white supremacy, but maybe we begin this work, we teach our kids to do this work, they teach their kids to do this work, we begin to shift society so that this becomes part of the conversation and the education that we're beginning to do collectively. And over a course of a couple of generations, we will see something really significant happening.
Jeff: Yeah. Do you feel like there has been some progress made over the last six months? Does it give you optimism? I suppose I've read some of your reactions to the results of the 2016 elections. I mean, here we are... I think it's... What's today Tuesday? I think it's-
Lama Rod Owens: [crosstalk 00:58:33] two weeks yeah.
Jeff: Recording two weeks before this next election and God only knows when we'll actually determine the result. Clearly one can look at the candidates in this particular election and find significant differences between them, but I suppose on a meta level, do you see these choices as very narrow goal posts or pretty wide in regards to really dismantling the systems and structures of white supremacy?
Lama Rod Owens: Yeah. I think for me it's a matter of harm reduction. It's not like I have this really radical choice that I'm making. It's not this complete opposite kind of candidate that I'm voting for in terms of Biden, but what I'm interested in is making a choice to reduce as harm as possible right now and slowly beginning to do this work to dig our way out of this. I think that we're still having to be committed to... Even if Biden wins and Kamala Harris wins, we're still committed to the work because we are in a situation where white supremacists, terrorism is super activated now and the work will just continue.
Lama Rod Owens: Hopefully, we'll have an administration who is committed to supporting us in the country and in the federal government, so forth in doing this work of dismantling white supremacy. But the thing also that's happening is that... There's a deep disruption to the systems that we've been relying on, to our financial systems, to capitalism in particular and that's going to have an impact on these other structures and institutions in our country. Things may have to crash more for us to have the spaciousness to actually really rebuild things.
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah. It's perplexing to me because as I look at the constant undermining of the institutions that have provided our democracy with stability, often at the expense of justice and equality, but nevertheless some degree of stability, journalism and media, science and medicine, government and this kind of constant drone of fake news or anti-Fauci-ism or, "I'm leading the government, but I'm actually not really part of it." All of those kind of tropes that are echoed by Trump over and over again, certainly could propel a more radical thinker to believe that like, "Okay, well this is just part of tearing all of these systems and structures that really have just propagated injustice over generations." Or then, there's the other side of like, "Well, liberal democracy is actually pretty decent." It seems to be the best form of government that we've discovered and there's certainly many works on it, but to discard it is to maybe throw the baby out with the bath water. It's a very complicated equation right now.
Lama Rod Owens: Mm-hmm (affirmative). But you know, we may not even get a choice. Things may indeed just completely crash and then we're in a post-apocalyptic world, which we're teetering on the edge of. It only takes the stock market crashing for us to see that. Sometimes it's like this reformism isn't really what's going to get us free.
Jeff: Yeah. I wonder from just a pure self care perspective how you might counsel people in this time given that uncertainty is not a friend of the conceptual mind?
Lama Rod Owens: Well, you have to start making friends with uncertainty. Yeah, it's not a [crosstalk 01:04:21] mind, but listen, it's there. It's just like you might as well invite uncertainty in to have a seat at the table. That's part of my self care really is that like I'm just actually inviting everything to be at the table right now. All the fear, the anxiety, the uncertainty, you might as well just be here. I want to see it and I want to name it because I want to have agency over it. I can't do that if I'm always running away from it. It's the same thing with anger. I can't keep running away from it if I want to be in a libratory relationship with it. Even further than that, when I'm taking care of myself or sitting with others in self care, it's really we have to create the space to understand what it is that is restorative for us, even during times of an apocalypse.
Lama Rod Owens: We have to remember that we need rest. We have to remember that we need food. We have to remember that we have to clean ourselves, really basic things that I think are lost. People are forgetting to do... You forget there's so much anxiety that you don't have an appetite. You just bypass basic self care things and you just have to keep doing the basics. We look at the world and we say, "You know what?" For me, of course my foundation and my trust and faith comes out of Buddhism and of Dharma, so from my perspective, I look at the world and I say, "The world is doing what it's supposed to do," which is fall apart because that is the nature of impermanence. Things are always changing, but I also really believe and have faith that... I have faith in the goodness of people quite honestly and I believe that we are moving towards a more virtuous experience. We're moving back towards goodness, but we have to go through the pain of recognizing how far we've gotten away from this virtue.
Lama Rod Owens: We can argue here in America maybe we've never actually been a virtuous country, given the fact that American was founded on the land from the genocide of indigenous Native Americans and from the labor of African slaves. We didn't really start on a good foot actually.
Jeff: No. No.
Lama Rod Owens: Our country is driven by perpetual discrimination. We actually are on a quest to actually maybe for the first time discover what our virtue is and telling the truth is the first step towards that virtue. Telling the truth like, "Yeah, this is how America was founded and these are the systems that perpetuate inequality." We have to tell the truth that everyone doesn't have what they need. We have to tell the truth that we're actually quite a mean country. We're this supposedly Christian valued country, but we don't want everyone to have healthcare, which is directly in line with the teachings of Christ.
Jeff: He was a healer as far as I remember.
Lama Rod Owens: Well, according to the book, he was a healer, but maybe not the made for TV movie that we tend to be referencing instead of the actual text. Where does that meanness come from? Then we begin to interrogate the role of capitalism and white supremacy and patriarchy, the ways in which these systems have co-opted a deep empathy, concern and compassion for the wellbeing of others.
Jeff: Yeah. Well, I suppose that telling the truth is a practice in and of itself, which I think you codify as part of Radical Dharma. Do you see your legacy, and I know that that's sort of a big word given that you're still quite young, but now that you kind of are I would say in the throes of your creative prowess, is your legacy about instantiating the virtue and goodness back into the world?
Lama Rod Owens: I would say that the virtue never left, but we have turned our attention away from it, I would say. But I would say yes, I'm concerned with what it means to express goodness, to express goodness that isn't necessarily informed by systems of power and abuse. What does it mean to care about people? What does it mean to care for ourselves? How do we do that individually? How do we do that as a collective? There's a way in which I want to simplify this, in a way. It's like if people need food, we should give people food. People need healthcare... I mean, this isn't like... I'm not making this up, this is just from the bible. If people are hungry, give people food. If they need housing, give people housing. If they need healthcare, give people healthcare. As someone who I'm not like poor anymore, but I'm pretty in the middle class at this point in my work as a teacher, which I'm really grateful for. But even in this position, I am more than willing to offer what I can to make sure everyone in this country has what they need, but the problem is there are people who have much more than what they need.
Lama Rod Owens: When we have more than what we need and we're not willing to share this, that's not virtuous, that's not goodness.
Jeff: Yeah. Capitalism has a tendency to sanctify individualism and a feeling of separateness, such that what one has, there's a scarcity around that and it doesn't connect the notions of self interest and the collective good, which I believe inevitably are one and the same thing. But certainly when you're working within a system that generally treats people as transactional units, it is very difficult to instantiate that notion of collective good and even those words, collective good, get cubby holed into some sort of Marxism, socialism, communism thing you can't even really have a discussion about it, which becomes quite frustrating. I guess I'll just maybe finish here, which is I'm trying to come back really to the path out of suffering within the Buddhist tradition, which I always associate with the Eightfold Path, and if you see that path as kind of layered pretty directly on top of your work in a sociopolitical way?
Lama Rod Owens: Absolutely. Because the Eightfold Path is really about what is appropriate for us to do. In my practice, I define appropriate as anything that reduces violence. We're talking about doing what is appropriate for work. We were saying what's appropriate. We're having the appropriate attitude and the appropriate diligence and effort. We look at our lives and we say, "What is it that I should be doing to reduce harm for myself and others?" And whatever I do to do that is actually what is appropriate in the moment. These are the guiding principles of my work because my basic ethic is the reduction of violence. It's understanding what violence and harm is and then making choices to reduce that, but it doesn't mean that I'm necessarily going to erase violence 100% because that's actually quite impossible to do. We're always going to impact people in harmful ways, even in ways we actually don't even understand or know about.
Lama Rod Owens: These are the questions that I am writing about in my next book, this ethic of nonviolence and what it means be actually good. What does goodness mean? What does virtue mean? What's appropriate for us? How do we understand what a harm reductionist ethic is for us? But we have to.
Jeff: Yeah, that's a window into a book that I want to read.
Lama Rod Owens: I am writing it.
Jeff: Good. Please, write quicker. Because yeah, because this is what consumes, to be honest, much of time, which is like what are the structures of ethics and morality? Where are they going to come from, particularly as we enter sort of a more religiously disaffiliated world? What are these primary notions of goodness and how do we connect to them? I'm very excited. I will say, I'm new to your work, pretty new and I find it so eloquent. I love your writing and I'm a snob about writing. I am very... I'm grateful for it because just the turns of phrase and the articulation have a way of landing, not just in my head, but in my spirit. I'm very appreciative for that and for the work that you're doing.
Lama Rod Owens: Thank you. I appreciate that.
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