Managing the stress.

Reading “My Grandmother’s Hands” and RCL Pr16A

Menakem begins Part II of My Grandmothers’ Hands talking about the “soul nerve.[1]” He calls it the “unifying organ of the entire nervous system…” which reaches almost everywhere in the body except for the thinking brain. The soul nerve does not think. It reacts and is involved in any feeling you can imagine: love, fear, dread, hope, empathy, anxiety and of course the urges to fight, flee or freeze.

Menakem provides exercises in “soul nerve training” in order to help us be aware of and learn to settle our bodies.  The goal is not to reduce or avoid stress, but to increase our ability to handle stress and manage our reactivity so that we are free to choose our response.

Some of the settling exercises were familiar to me from Insight Meditation. I have used them to get distance from stress.  Menakem’s purpose is different. He wants us to remain present to stress. [2]

I had a chance to try it out a couple of days ago during a frustrating phone conversation with a company that had made a mistake with our order.  After saying “I would like to speak with your supervisor” I had about 15 minutes to wait before the supervisor came on the line. While waiting, I noticed the tension in my body. It was in my gut, my shoulders and even in my forehead. I did the two exercises I knew best (body scan and belly-breathing) and within minutes I felt settled. I wasn’t enraged or relaxed. I wasn’t distant or detached. I was present and free to think about what to do or say next. I was managing my stress. It was not managing me. Menakem’s exercises worked.

I remember what it’s like be in a group in which some well-meaning white person claims that they already know all about racism. There was a time when I thought the same thing. The anxiety behind the defensiveness understandable. No one welcomes the fear, anger and guilt that a sentient white person is likely to feel when learning the truth about anti-black racism in America.  

But there are ways to manage that stress. Ways that work.  Learning to focus on our own bodies and soul nerves is one of them and might help us open ourselves anew to the work of anti-racism.

A quick thought about this week’s gospel reading. Peter’s answer to the question of Jesus’ identity or significance feels a little odd. Jesus himself observes that Peter’s answer seems to come out of nowhere. Peter’s answer may have been a good one, but there was truth in the other disciples’ answers too.

The story is written to dismiss the other disciples’ answers as less worthy. I think that’s unfortunate.  A uniquely inspired Peter might be a good model for hierarchical church leadership, but it’s a lousy model for the kind of group or community work that values each of the members for the insights which arise from their own experiences, hearts and bodies.

[1] Others call it the vagus nerve.

[2] If we can remain present, we can become aware of how the stress manifests in our body and then develop the ability to calm the body while still in the presence of the stress.

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Looking in the mirror

Doing the exercises in Part I of “My Grandmother’s Hands” by Resmaa Menakem and RCL Pr15A

Jesus said… It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.  Mt. 15:10-11.

Last week I read Part I of “My Grandmother’s Hands.” It included twelve “Body Practice” exercises which Menakem said should be done as they arise in the text.  Last week, I didn’t do the exercises. I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the extra time. This week, I went back and did the exercises.

Some began with Body Scans in which you notice how your body is feeling. And there were more challenging exercises. One asked me to remember things I had said or done which would have been micro-aggressions or “exclusionary behaviors.”[1]

That brought up very unwelcome memories: things I have said or done which were race-based and wrong. Not excusable as “well-intentioned” or ignorant. Just race-based and wrong.  These were memories which I have ignored, denied or “forgotten” until now.[2]  Revisiting them made me feel very uncomfortable, mentally and physically.

Here are three things I know after doing the exercises in Part I.

1.      I was “raised to know better,” but I grew up in a culture which was infused with white privilege and all of the ways in which white privilege disguises and protects itself. My first language is English. My second is white supremacy.

2.      As an adult, I had opportunities to learn about the need to dismantle racism and white supremacy.  

3.      Despite those opportunities, there were times when my words or my actions were racially exclusionary. Sometimes I was well-intentioned and sometimes I did speak in ignorance. But not always. Sometimes I was just too comfortable in my own privilege to be bothered. And sometimes I was just a coward. Menakem’s Body Practices helped me know where these memories live: they reside very uncomfortably in my mind and my body.  

I think Menakem will say that these kinds of memories should not to be ignored, denied or forgotten. I think he will say that they need to be “metabolized” — processed — transformed into a different energy or way of being. I’m not sure how that happens. Maybe he will explain in Part II. I will keep reading.

“Becoming Anti-Racist” started because I was inspired by a friend’s Camino-experience of — as they say — having the Camino speak to her. This week, my camino spoke to me. It didn’t tell me what to do about the unpleasant memories of things I wish I had not said or done. But it did suggest that from here on in when I pray, I should ask for courage.

[1] Journalist and “inclusion strategist” Ruchika Tulshyan says that the term “microaggressions” is inadequate to describe the injury done by the “subtle, everyday putdowns, insults, or offensive remarks from well-meaning white peers…” We Need to Retire the Term “Microaggressions,” Ruchika Tulshyan, Harvard Business Review, March 8, 2022. She says that there is nothing “micro” or small about those injuries, and she prefers the term “exclusionary behaviors.”

[2] Most of them actually came up while I was working through Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy, (Sourcebooks 2020, 2023.) It remains the single best book for white people ready to work on their racism that I know of. Like My Grandmother’s Hands, in order to “get it” you need to “do it:” do the exercises in writing and reflect in a group or journal.

Photo by Laura Chouette on Unsplash