It’s March 2018: I have arrived in Tepoztlán after a trafficked three-hour drive out from Mexico City and I’m buzzing with nervous anticipation. I’ve been invited to a gathering and I have no idea what to expect other than its intimidating ambition, we were meeting “about the future of politics and the role of design in changing cities, borders and the realities of citizenship.” I felt honoured to be invited in, but the truth was that I also sensed the heavy weight of imposter syndrome: who was I to be invited into a discussion about the future of politics?
I soon learned that I was not alone with this sense of heaviness. We were just over a year into the Trump presidency and the frustration was weighing on the group. There was a palpable desire to start finding solutions moving forward – that is after all, the reason why we gathered. However, the group is scarcely able to agree on the agenda and facilitation, much less the content of discussion.
I am late for an exercise and by the time I arrive, it’s already started and everyone is sitting cross-legged in a circle. It’s a beautiful rooftop space made of warm wood, with an expansive view of the mountain valley and desert surrounding the building. I feel embarrassed that I missed the introduction, but I’m ready to dive in.
The facilitators request that everyone who identifies as a person of colour stand in a small circle in the middle of the room, facing each other. Everyone else stands around them in a larger circle. They ask everyone in the larger circle to say everything that is usually left “unsaid” or secret, that people think or believe about the people of colour standing in the middle. For five minutes (maybe more, maybe less, I can hardly remember), this happens. Afterwards, the people of colour and the people who are white trade places, and it happens again.
We debrief the exercise afterwards, and it is intense. There has been something building up in my chest since I was standing in the circle – but I really don’t want to cry. I’m relatively shy around new people, and I hate drawing attention to myself. Furthermore, I didn’t go to Mexico for some kind of spiritual healing experience or therapeutic ayahuasca retreat. This felt more akin to crying at work – in front of a group of colleagues and co-workers.
The overwhelm increases and I can barely focus on what other people are saying. I think I’m nodding along while my heart is racing. I try to breathe slowly and deeply to try to dam it in. I think I finally understand what the word “trigger” means. This is more than just being uncomfortable, something deep has been unleashed.
At some point, I can’t do anything but run out of the room. Something had cracked open in me and a monster was flooding out. I run down two flights of stairs and fling myself down onto the stoop at the entrance – here, I can’t hold back anymore, and sobs spill through my body, desperately. These are heaving sobs that vibrate through my bones. I’ve never cried like this before, I do not understand what is happening. I think I’m wailing. I gasp for air, and an alarming thought flits through my mind: “what if they can hear me?”. It’s quickly replaced by: “I can’t breathe, is it normal that I can’t breathe?”, then “Is this a panic attack? Am I having a panic attack?”, and then “Is this ever going to end?”
At some point, I feel an arm wrap around me and a woman is murmuring in hushed tones that she is with me. My head is buried in my arms, but I get the sense that people are starting to leave the space. I appreciate that most people keep a polite distance, aware that I am being taken care of. I look up and notice that a man is hovering nearby, nervously asking if I need a glass of water. For some reason, their nervousness makes me feel better. I am not the only person shook.
Eventually, my crying dwindles. Eventually, I stand up, and I continue on to the next activity, feeling tender, raw, and embarrassed. I’m not exactly sure how much time has passed. Perhaps it was five minutes, maybe it was twenty. All I knew was that I had gone through a physical ordeal of my body.
I was embarrassed, but I was not ashamed. Because it was real, and there was no way I could have held it back.
This is a story about the first time that my body screamed at me: “NOTICE ME!”
It has catalyzed a process of reconnection ever since. I’ve had time to process this experience and learn about somatic processing and the traumas that are enfleshed. When I arrive back to it, I notice how the resonating threads of my self-directed masters are weaved together here.
But in that present moment, I was relishing in the shock and sense of alienation from my body. What was this strange, monstrous territory below my neck, and what possessed me in this fierce and animal-like way?
This experience invited a newfound curiosity about my body. A crack had opened up in the ground, revealing a deep and ancient well. Afterwards, I looked at my body as this mysterious new landscape, a dark forest that was beckoning me in. And I knew that I needed to crawl rather than walk in this shadowy territory, that I couldn’t just explore it through my mind and my thoughts. What is the container of the body, and where does it root down? I sense that the well I’ve uncovered is a deep channel that descends down to dark and primordial waters. There, the shadows and the monsters lie, the woman with the wet black hair, at the bottom of the well.
I realize that I’m drawn to Bayo Akomolafe because he encourages us to see how “monstrosity can serve as a cultural means to examine ourselves. To meet ourselves as if for the first time.” Monsters are a cultural technology that helps humans define what is normal and what disturbs the familiar – they are how we mark the ‘other”. But what if the monster is within us? What happens when we face the otherness in our selves?
“the emerging picture is that we are truly monstrous, composite all the way down, and that if we were to meet the meaty dimensions of our bodies, we would be frightened by just how unwieldly identities are. What we are learning about material embodiment is that to a certain degree, we really are at a loss for words when it comes to making affirmative statements about our core identities: where we come from, where we belong, and what makes us, us.”
The truth is, I know that I am very lucky. I haven’t experienced a lot of significant pain or loss (yet) that I would label as “trauma”. I know that this will inevitably arrive, because dukka: life is suffering. I will experience death – of loved ones, of myself. However, there are difficult and painful things in the world that we are called to collectively hold and be response-able for – my eyes scan over endless headlines about police brutality and black incarceration; planetary collapse and species extinction. There is horror in the territory of collective trauma, and it’s easier for me to protect myself through the maps, through the careful distance of “naming”. Anger and unfair pain is “Black Lives Matter”; fear of others is “Brexit” and “Trump”. As I file and map these concepts into my brain, while scrolling through endless stories of hurt, harm and fear, l urge myself to move on to the solutions.
But letting pain penetrate is part of grieving. And grieving is a part of healing: letting myself be split apart by loss is a natural and sacred process. Grieving is giving myself permission to release and sense-make through my body. If I don’t let myself feel it, where does all this pain get pent up?
A couple of weeks ago, I attended an online session called “the Grief Studio” (held in fact, by a couple of the people who were in Mexico with me) and one person shared: “we need to make space for the ugly in grieving.”
I ugly-cried in Mexico. Hard.
So you let yourself fall apart to the dust of the ground. Because there is also pleasure in the release, that eventually settles you and gives you peace. Grieving is an in-between state of rebalancing, so you can move from the past to the future and break from the endless cycle of trauma. Grieving allows us to let things die. It corrodes the boundaries between attachment and letting go, and forces a spilling through marked territory. My tears spill out of me, and it cracks open my heart.
The reason why I share this story is not to memorialize this experience as a single tipping point, in a linear stream of cause and effect. I can’t just pull one thread out in my journey of unravelling. Nothing that I share here is new, but I still claim it as a moment of diffraction. Bayo Akomolafe uses the word diffraction a lot, so I looked it up and found this wonderfully straight-forward definition in the Brittanica:
“Diffraction is the spreading of waves around obstacles… For example, when a beam of light falls on the edge of an object, it will not continue in a straight line. The point where the light hits the edge acts as a second wave source. As a result, some of the waves are bent slightly around the corner. Because of diffraction, sharp shadows are not produced, and there will be a blur at the edge of the shadow of the object.”
Our obstacles twist and contort us in weird ways, and can make us look monstrous. But when I’m forced to bend down, my chest heaving, my wet face pressed to the ground, my attachment to the “only way forward” is disrupted. Different paths are revealed (ones that were always there), even if it means I have to crawl.
The pattern of diffraction interpenetrates through fractal scales. Two years ago in Mexico, we were desperate with the belief that something was bad and wrong with the world, and we were this team of people – designers, activists, business innovators – called together to fix it. But we could barely agree with one another, and everything fell apart. Our group was a microcosm of deeply entangled relationships that weaved together conflicting ideas about class and borders and race, and more deeply, what does it truly mean to be “included” or “excluded”, to be seen as “other”? In my body, the same conflicts were brewing.
I’ve spent so much of my life wanting so desperately to “belong”, of trying to be on the “inside”. As an immigrant to Canada, I held deeply buried fears of being seen as “other”, as the “Chinese girl” who brings stinky lunches to school; as a “woman” who needs to be attractive to be valued, intelligent to be respected; as a “Catholic” who needs to be good for salvation. So I rejected the identities that made me other. I just wanted to be pure. I just wanted to be safe.
But what is safety? What really scares us about not being safe? There is no avoiding the shadows that the light casts, so how do we learn to dwell with it?
Through the gift of this experience, I learned that everything that I worked so hard to avoid or overcome was just buried deep into the shadows, and as Carl Jung would say: “I’d rather be whole than good.”
So now, I reconnect with my body to embrace the osmosis of my flesh as “sensorium”, an organ of perception to sense-fully engage how I, we, are always becoming with the world around us. Becoming-here, in this richly situated way, couldn’t have happened without this story of rupture, and this story couldn’t have happened without the unsafe and transgressive nature of its context, without the imperfect confusion of its people, without the strange and portentous time that gathered us all together. We were never meant to be perfect. We were never meant to fix or be fixed. Instead, the “purity” of the fix-it mind is contaminated and troubled by the embarrassment of the body, a teaming biome of complex contradictions and life forms.
I write this story because it is easy to feel like we/I failed, as though we/I did something wrong.
But then I close my eyes, and I remember the sacred healing of the place that brought us together. I look out at the distant mountains in Tepoztlan and I place my hand on the ancient rock. The guide tells us to notice the thrum of the energy. I’m still feeling the vibrational tenderness from crying so hard in front of so many strangers.
At the airport when we fly back, I get into a screaming fight with a friend who I had invited, even though(because) I sensed a growing distance between us. We fight like a bickering old couple about ideology. We become closer on the other side.
Let’s not try too hard to tease out the threads that this story gathers here.