Alice Walker’s “Suffering Too Insignificant for the Majority to See” was delivered to participants at the first African American Buddhist retreat. It is a talk about meditation and spiritual practice, about suffering that will not cease and the necessity of healing despite this. It is not, strictly speaking, a talk about either narrative or storytelling. And yet it is: Walker’s understanding of meditation and the practice of Buddhism as a way of “healing us so that we may engage the work of healing our ancestors” is fundamentally about coming to know ourselves, as well as our orientation in the world around us and the context of our present existence (Walker 101). Meditation as Walker portrays it is about seeking to understand the ongoing narrative of which we are a part and a product—and, most importantly, about using our lives to mindfully continue that narrative and move forward, always forward, from suffering.
Walker’s talk begins not with Buddhism or with spirituality or with nature or meditation or “[connection] to the All” at all (Walker 101). It begins, instead, with “the harder, more collective stuff”: the story of George Slaughter, son of a white farmer and a black woman, who was ambushed and shot by a group of white men—including his father—because the horse he rode was too fine (Walker 53). This haunting story, Walker tells us, sticks with her. It is intensely painful. “What do we do with the shock [upon hearing a story of this sort]?” she asks, “What do we do with the anger? The rage? What do we do with the pain?” (Walker 52). In beginning her talk this way, Walker sets up in addition to these questions a larger, implicit question that guides and informs the rest of her argument: How can we even think about our practice, how can we address greater questions of our meaning and our existence, when the world does such continuous damage to us—our individual selves, our ancestors, our people?
“[The pain I felt upon hearing this story] is the pain that undermines our every attempt to relieve ourselves of external and internalized white domination,” Walker explains. “The pain that murders our every wish to be free. It is a pain that seems unrelenting. A pain that seems to have no stopping and no end. A pain that is ultimately, insidiously, turning a generous, life-loving people into a people who no longer feel empathy for the world…We are being consumed by our suffering. We are a people who have always loved life and loved the earth. We have noticed earth. How responsive and alive it is. We have appreciated it. We have been a nation of creators and farmers who adored the earth even when we were not permitted to own any part of it larger than our graves…This compassionate, generous, life-affirming nature of ours, that can be heard in so much of our music, is our buddhanature. It is how we innately are. It is too precious to lose, even to disappointment and grief” (Walker 53-54, emphasis in original).
Walker does not dismiss this question—how can we begin meditating and healing when we are suffering so much and so often?—nor does she make the pain into something less than it is. Rather, she acknowledges its “unrelenting” nature, it as a fact of black existence which “seems to have no stopping and no end,” and points to this pain as the very reason why having a practice is necessary. “The…good news for us is that we can turn our attention away from our oppressors—unless they are directly endangering us to our faces—and work on the issue of our suffering without attaching them to it,” she writes. “Screaming at the archer is a sure way to remain attached to your suffering rather than easing or eliminating it. A better way is to learn, through meditation, through study and practice, a way to free yourself from the pain of being shot, no matter who the archer might be” (Walker 99). For Walker, focusing on the archer is exactly what the archer himself wants: to remain the focus in the minds of his victims. To be given credit for the pain he inflicts; to have his victims focus on their suffering, which he has caused, and cause themselves more suffering by reliving it over and over again. Meditation, Walker asserts, is a way to move beyond the act of the archer and back to what he doesn’t want his victims to remember: who they are innately. Their buddhanatures. The archer, the oppressor, cannot change this in us, but he can cause suffering and distraction so intense that we forget.
Here is where mediation becomes important for remembering and understanding ourselves. Walker describes learning the ancient Tibetan Buddhist practice tonglen and its teachings lojong, which “involved, during meditation, learning to breathe in the pain [she] was feeling, not to attempt to avoid or flee it” (Walker 56). She explains: “It involved making my heart bigger and bigger just to be able to hold it all. It involved breathing out relief and happiness for myself and for everyone on Earth who was feeling as miserable as I was.” Interesting to note in Walker’s description of her meditative practice is the particular way she faces the pain she carries with her: breathing it in and “hold[ing] it all” rather than visualizing a variation on dissolution and exhalation. In Walker’s practice, she works to accept her pain as a part of herself, allowing it to inform who she is, then “breath[es] out relief and happiness” as a contribution to the world around her, rather than sending negative energy and pain outside of herself.
And, she writes, “It worked. So that today…I have almost concluded that it was the love of the Buddha reaching through two thousand and five hundred years wanting me to understand that I had some control over how much suffering I endure. Wanting me to try a remedy he had found and see for myself whether it works” (Walker 56, emphasis in original). For Walker, meditation is not merely a way of working through pain in order to make our buddhanatures clearer to ourselves—this a form of healing to which she points us—it is a way of connecting us to the present and past narratives of which we and our ancestors are a part. Here, Walker describes the Buddha reaching across time to guide her in healing, showing us that the time which separates us from our ancestors is little more than an illusion. Here and elsewhere, Walker speaks of connection to our ancestors not as though they are forever gone and untouchable, but present and perpetual. “As always,” she writes, “I thank the ancestors, those who have gone on and those who are always arriving. It is because our global spiritual ancestors have loved us very dearly that we today sit together practicing ways to embody peace and create a better world. I feel personally ever-bathed in that love.” (Walker 99-100). In order to feel “ever-bathed” in love, the love itself must still be present; this love is not gone simply because our ancestors are no longer physically with us. Walker’s point here is that we remain connected to our ancestors through love, despite the illusion of time.
Our current existences are the product of ancestors who “loved us very dearly,” and in turn we have the potential to engage not only with those who come after us, but with those who came before (Walker 100). “I cherish the study and practice of Buddhism because it is good medicine for healing us so that we may engage the work of healing our ancestors,” Walker explains. “Both George and his father are our ancestors. What heals ancestors is understanding them. And understanding as well that it is not in heaven or in hell that the ancestors are healed. They can only be healed inside us. Buddhist practice, sent by ancestors we didn’t even know we had [the Buddha, who reaches through time to share the remedy he has found], has arrived, as all things do, just in time” (Walker 101, emphasis in original). And here, concretely, is how meditation, for Walker, is tied up in narrative: What heals ancestors is understanding them; what heals us is understanding ourselves, remembering our buddhanatures. In addition to love, understanding and remembering are what connect us to our ancestors. In the meditation she leads at the end of her talk, Walker repeats a five-line refrain after her acknowledgement of each of our ancestors—George Slaughter, his mother, his father, those who rode with his father, his horse—in which she says, “May you be free / May you be happy / May you be at peace / May you be at rest / May you know we remember you” (Walker 100-101). The wish for freedom, happiness, and rest underscores Walker’s argument that our ancestors are ever-present, while her call for remembrance is an explicit call for narrative; how else do we as a collective remember but by passing on our knowledge, either by mouth or by written word?
For Walker, meditation and the practice of Buddhism is about understanding the narrative of which we are part and product—ourselves and our ancestors, separately and together—for it is only through understanding that healing, a result of meditation, can occur. “This is not a time to live without a practice,” she asserts. “We will be doubly bereft without some form of practice that connects us, in a caring way, to what begins to feel like a dissolving world…We must also ask: what is my practice? What is steering this boat that is my fragile human life?” (Walker 101). To remember who we are at our most essential, Walker argues that we must have something facilitating our understanding and our connection to the world around us. This, for her, is meditation. It is mindful acceptance of pain as a part of yourself in order to steer yourself forward in times of suffering. It is seeking inquiry and understanding not only of yourself but of the people from whom you come and the people surrounding you at present, keeping an eye toward the future. It is, at its core, a form of narrative. For what else can you call something that constructs understanding and preserves memory through repetition of itself?
Here is how Walker instructs us to move forward: with intent. With thoughtfulness. With awareness of our participation in a collective, ongoing narrative, and hearts expanding to accept it.
written under the supervision of Dr. Valorie Thomas,
Introduction to African American Literature