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Leslie Booker: Cultivating Compassion: Lessons from the Front Lines of Criminal Justice

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Nuggets From Leslie Booker's Call

Last Saturday, the remarkable sujatha baliga and I had the privilege of hosting Awakin Call with Leslie Booker.

Known as “Booker”, Leslie Booker brings wisdom and compassion to the intersection of social justice, yoga and mindfulness. An activist who spent more than a decade on the front lines of the criminal justice system, Booker is a mindfulness/movement teacher, trainer, writer, and consultant. She inspires others to find a sense of liberation within a world burdened by greed, hatred and delusion. Booker began sharing her practice in 2005 with incarcerated and vulnerable youth ages 12-15. “It’s heartbreaking to see another generation of People of Color starting their lives behind bars and feeling stuck there, like it’s where they’re supposed to be," Booker said. "But I knew that it was something I needed to do." In that setting, Booker re-embraced love and compassion, seeing that “these [master's] tools that we’ve been shown of fear and hatred and greed and delusion are not working."

Below are some of the nuggets from the call that stood out for me ...

  • In dominant culture, there's this whole thing around 'self care, self care, self care', which a lot of people translate as a small treatment as, you know, getting a mask or giving your nails done. And I am not above any of that, just so you know, I think all of those things are very important. But when we're really talking about changing the paradigm of self care, of self preservation, it looks like stepping away from the individual and really allowing the community to step in and to hold us. So that means that we reach out to the community.

    That we have a community that's been cultivated around us so that when we have fallen, when we are sick, when we are scared, when we need guidance and support, when we need to be bailed out of jail, when we need soup delivered to us, that, it is not left to us to do that for ourselves. And that when we feel like we're in the mud, we can't lift ourselves up, that it's not actually a personal failing but it's not something that we can all do by ourselves. And I've heard that expression, you know, "pull yourselves up by your bootstraps", but you can't do that if you don't have boots in the first place.
  • And decentralizing whiteness, decentralizing patriarchy, it is not about getting rid of white people. It's not getting rid of men. It's not getting rid of heteronormative folks. It's about opening your eyes, opening up your heart and realizing that you are not the only one there and all the ways that we normalized whiteness, like that is like the status quo. And from there, everyone else is divergent and we have to stop doing that.

  • I am on this rampage right now around DEI; Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. So when you say diversity, you are saying that something is normal, something is the status quo and everything else is divergent from that, which means black folks, which means Asian folks, which means etc. Inclusion means that there is like one central place that you are inviting people into because that's not their original home. And so, why isn't that my home? Why are you including me into that? So we need to really think about the language that we are using. We need to look at these tactics that we are using and to really look at why are we doing this? Why isn't this already a thing that's in place?

  • But I think that whiteness is so normalized in our culture. Ableism is so normal when we say spread all 10 of your toes, not everyone has 10 toes to spread, you know. And so whenever we are teaching, closing your eyes and dropping into your body does not feel good. No, it doesn't feel good. I have loads of trauma in my body so closing my eyes feels really fucking unsafe. Sorry. It feels really unsafe right. And so how do we create these teachings that allows people to show up fully with their trauma as well, and not make people feel that the trauma has been left on their side to be able to do this kind of practice.

  • Yeah so when we are de-centralizing whiteness what we're bringing in is shared leadership. We are bringing in community, we are bringing in open hearts, we are opening up to listening to different perspectives. And that's just not in a way that it's like, hmm, that's really interesting, but really finding a way to meet in the middle you know. My dear friend, Teo, once again, he says, if you could move towards your discomfort, I could move away from my pain so let's meet somewhere in the middle.

  • [Hindrance] - It's not something to push away. It's there because it's something that needs to be seen. It needs to be acknowledged. It needs to be witnessed. It needs to be tended to. It needs to be cared for. It's not a bad thing. There's this child that's begging for attention. And so when you think of it as that way, it's like, "Oh dear one, what do you need? How can I nourish you? How can I hold you with tenderness and love so that there isn't this strong feeling?"
  • My practice was very embodied and the way that I teach Dharma is through the body. If you can't feel it in your body, then the mind can't quite get there. It has to be a felt sense first. And people have different access doors, but for me, it's really about being in the body and it gives us wisdom, then lets us know how to move from there.
  • Yeah, so most people have a very distant relationship to their body, and that is part of this culture of shame around the body and that is deeply rooted in Christianity, this original sin. That we all come from sin and we spend our lives from dig ourselves out of sin. And I just don't believe that's true at all. And so there is a lot of guilt and shame and not wanting to be in the body. There's also, in our culture where we really put this hierarchy on the brain. We touched on yesterday and talking about like the accolades and having like, you know, the Ivy league named here and the seven sisters and, you know, all of that stuff and we put such a heavy value on that, that people forget that there is a heart, but there is intuition, that there is wisdom. And I am touching my belly when I am talking about my intuition and my wisdom that it really comes from the body. The body gives us so much information. And then the brain tries to make it logical. It tries to make it make sense. And when we are caught up in a trauma or needing to get away from something that neocortex at higher brain gets out of the way, but the limbic brain the animal brain can like get us into action. And we only utilize that part of our brain when we are in harm. And we really need to turn back towards that to really listen to the information, the wisdom that it's giving us.

  • And in the yoga world, we talk about abhaya, which is this fire that we go through. We don't go around it, we go through it. And so I feel like the hindrances are the same thing, like, “Oh, why do I hate this so much? Like why is everything in my system being like, ‘Nope, get away’ - there's something I'm supposed to learn there. And so I really look at it as a portal towards deeper wisdom and understanding of my body. Yeah. It's not something to push away. It's there because it's something needs to be seen. It needs to be acknowledged. It needs to be witnessed. It needs to be tended to. It needs to be cared for. It's not a bad thing. There's this child that's begging for attention. And so when you think of it as that way, it's like, "Oh dear one, what do you need? How can I nourish you? How can I hold you with tenderness and love so that you are not... that there isn't this strong feeling?" And so that's how I'm holding that right now. And will always.

  • I think activism for some people, it kind of shuts down the conversation for them, but can you be engaged in the world? Can you be curious? Can you lean in, can you get curious, can you be in conversation? And so if people are looking at it as a linear thing as an equation, yes, I go internal first, feel the quivering of the heart, feel that the compassion arise up and the move into action, whatever that action looks like for you, depending on whatever your access point is.

  • First of all, I think that if you have a dear friend of another gender or another race or another culture and you're trying to understand where they're coming from, to first ask permission,”Do you have the capacity? Do you mind if I ask you? Is this a good time? What can I give you?” Or just show up and offer something. But now more than ever, black folks are incredibly taxed. We are taxed.
  • I think that people think, "You've been harmed. You've been oppressed", "You tell us what to do. You tell us how to fix it." But it's actually not my problem.
  • It's not the problem of oppressed folks, it is not the problem of women, or queer folks, or black folks. It's actually the problem of white folks. And so they need to figure out why they keep oppressing folks who are already oppressed, why they keep harming those who are already harmed. That's not for me to answer. That's really something for folks to be in relationship with their other friends and to figure out why this keeps happening and what they can do to interrupt that cycle, this continual harm onto folks of color, onto folks who have been historically marginalized.

  • It's hard enough that my people were kidnapped and raped and enslaved, and my culture and my       language and my religion and my spiritual practices were stripped away from me. Like that's not bad enough, you know? And then there's legalized lynchings and Jim Crow and the new Jim Crow. And you want me now to do the labor and tell you how to stop that, how to interrupt that. And it's not mine, it's not mine. This is the work of you and your ancestors. And so I think it's really important for people to do their deep work, and it's painful.  And it's not pretty, it's not going to be enjoyable, but neither was slavery. And so I really invite folks to do that inner journey, that inner work for themselves.
  • I think that some people, when they do their inner work, there's this felt sense and this embodiment and there's this quivering of the heart that's compassion. And when I speak of compassion, I love the definition of compassion. It's not just a quivering of the heart. It's a quivering of the heart that then makes you want to move into action.
  • if you're not angry, you're either a stone or you're too sick to be angry. So be angry, yes. But mind you, don't be bitter. Because anger feeds upon the host and does nothing to the object of its displeasure. So be angry, but you march it, you dance it, you vote it, you sing it, you write it, you talk it, you never stop talking about it.
  • Because anger feeds upon the host and does nothing to the object of its displeasure. So be angry, but you march it, you dance it, you vote it, you sing it, you write it, you talk it, you never stop talking about it. And so I love that because it goes back to this embodied way of moving this energy through your body. You don't just sit in the mud of it and you don't just sit there and just shoot anger at another person, but you allow it to move through the body in this really sematic way.

  • And we also need to remember that forgiveness is not for the other person ever. I don't know how you can ever forgive a person for harming you. It's an unforgivable act. Forgiveness is for ourselves, for our own heart, so we don't get colonized with greed, hatred, and delusion. It is so easy for us to take on those qualities of our oppressor. I often use the quote by Audre Lorde, the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. And if you are shooting anger and rage and hate towards me, and I take those same things and turn them back towards you, then you have won and I have lost because now my heart completely is filled with hate and that's not what we're doing here.

  • And so forgiveness is when we have burned through our anger and our rage, and we've discharged this energy enough so the body feels released and free from it. And then we can turn towards our own hearts and say, I forgive you for, I forgive you. I'm holding you, but it's us. It's our hurt. It's not the other person. And I think that's a huge part of forgiveness that we keep forgetting. It is not this abolishment like, oh, you are forgiven. That's not ours to do. That's some higher being's job to forgive a person for the harm they've done onto another person. But it's for us to keep our hearts and our minds and our full bodies safe because when we hold onto anger and rage, it turns upon us like cancer, like illness, like disease, like tumors. And I've been the recipient. You know, I've had illness in my body because I didn't know how to release anger in my body. I didn't know how to forgive myself. And forgiveness is one of those incredibly intimate and personal things. And you have to know for yourself when you've been angry enough, when you're ready to forgive and to begin to soften your heart. That's completely an individual journey.

Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen!

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