Privilege and Equality

Trees Reaching for the Sky
May 11, 2022

What is privilege? Can we get rid of it? How do we relate to privilege and systemic inequality as practitioners? A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi

Can you actually let go of your privilege? Is that even possible?

Yes and no.

We all have various limitations and being attached to privilege is one of them. We can't just let it go. [laughs] That's magical thinking.

So some of these patterns that we have are personal, some of them are familial, some of them are societal, some of them are global, some of them are from past lives. There's just millions of these patterns.

In this lifetime, we're going to become aware of a small subset of the patterns that are going into making up this being. The question is, what do we do when we become aware that we are attached to our own limitation?

Obviously, if we have a certain kind of power that's been bequeathed to us, not because we have any special merit...that's what privilege basically is, it's power without having earned anything.

It's also power over. Privilege can only be defined against someone else who doesn't have that thing, because if it weren't defined as a thing that you have and someone else lacks, then it wouldn't be a privilege.

If I'm good at something and I just am good at it because I work at it or I just came in that way, but I don't have any concept about that, that that makes me a better person, and that someone else who doesn't have that skill or that capacity is not as good of a person, then it just isn't anything.

It's just something that I do or you do that you happen to be good at for whatever reason, and there's no flare around it. It doesn't change the way you relate to anybody else's value or your own value. So there's no attachment there. There's no privilege there. There's no power over.

But if I have some kind of capacity—even if I've earned it—and I use that to demarcate myself from other people so that they lose and I win, this is the same kind of attachment I'm talking about.

It's a very strong limitation. And of course, everybody in our culture, pretty much whether we're talking about marginalized people or not, is defining their value based on their capacities, based on what they can do and what they can't do, how smart you are and how smart you're not.

When we do that, please understand that there's always—even if we don't consciously think of it—there's always someone else who's losing out in our estimation.

If my sense of value is based on how smart I think I am, that means that I devalue people who I judge not as smart. If my sense of value is based on how artistic or creative I am, that means I judge someone else to be lesser than who isn't as creative as I am.

That trajectory where we base our value on just some impermanent way we're showing up, is always at the expense of somebody else and also at the expense of our ability to be actually really intimate with other people.

So when we talk about unearned privilege, it's operating in the same universe. Let's divide ourselves up into the worthy and the unworthy—the worthiest, the somewhat worthy, the slightly worthy, the 'neh', and the unworthy. You know? [laughs] We have so many classes and classes and castes of worthiness and unworthiness here.

White privilege and male privilege are two extreme versions of that. But there's other really extreme versions of that, too.

For instance, if we say some white man, well, he really earned his privilege. You know, he worked hard, he studied hard, he worked at whatever it is he's good at. Now he makes his grazillion dollars, and no one should criticize him because he earned it.

But every step along the way, he was benefiting from being a white man, helping him to achieve whatever it is he wanted to achieve.

So we cannot give up certain kinds of privilege in this society until everybody gives it up. There has to be some sort of herd immunity from privilege that develops. [laughs]

Otherwise, even if internally I have resolved to not harm people with my privilege, I walk into a bank and I'm still white. Or I apply for an apartment. Or I try to get into a university. Or I'm a woman and I want to be hired for things that men are hired for more—I'm still at a disadvantage.

And it doesn't really matter how many men have resolved to not use their privilege in a harmful way.

This is what's called systemic privilege. It happens through the vehicles of individuals, but it's so many individuals that it becomes this kind of field of privilege that can't really break apart until masses and masses of people give that up.

So how do we relate to this as practitioners?

We relate to it the same way we relate to any limitation. We have the resolve to be honest about it, to address it in a forthright way, to look at it with sober, wide-open eyes, and to do our best to open our hearts and not do harm to ourselves or anybody else.

If you're a practitioner and your first response is to mount a defense of yourself, really a defense of your own limitations—I mean, what could be more compromised? It's not that you have limitations, because we all do, it's that you're defending them.

Even if your first response is defensiveness, your second response should be, oh, I was being defensive, let me stop and regroup and see if I can be more in my practice. If you're really being in your practice, not more than an hour should go by before you recognize that and change your tune.

So it's not that any one of us can just step out of our patterns, including our internalized privilege, where we also value ourselves more.

Like, for instance, for male privilege, there is an internalized privilege that says my definition of something, my evaluation of something, my analysis of something is better than, more reliable than, and more believable than the definitions, analyses of women.

So that when a woman says something, presents ideas, or describes their experience, or says something about what's going on in analysis, then if I have internalized male privilege, I am going to be on my pedestal and I'm going to have naturalized the position of the definer, the explainer, the judger.

And I say, well, actually, what know, blah, blah, blah. You know? [laughs]

So this is like internalized, naturalized privilege. And when this is pointed out, it's a limitation like anything else, because it cuts down on intimacy. It does harm for other people. It's not open-hearted. It's self-referential. It's limited and narrow. It's not how things actually are, it's just how you've been taught to behave.

That's where the rubber really meets the road.

That's where we have to say, oh, look how I'm limiting myself and other people. I'm causing harm. My heart is not open. I'm just performing this really boring thing over and over and over again.

If we don't want to give up those powers of privilege—and there have been several people who didn't want to give up those powers of privilege so much that they left the community when they were called on them.

And it doesn't matter how old you are or how hip you are or anything. Because a couple of those people were young and hip, and they just did not want to examine how they were hurting other people with their internalized privilege.

I grew up in a household where, not my mother but my father, really dividing the world up into the valued and the unvalued according to him. People who were not creative, he dissed them.

This is a huge limitation. It just keeps you in a cage.

Something that I've noticed, you know, first, successfully over the years of my life, like, every time I get a little older and have a little more life experience and I'm encountering somebody who's younger, I struggle with brand new senses of privilege, like, 'I know this! You need to learn this from me' kind of privilege.

The place to question oneself is, what about myself do I feel is part of my construction of my sense of self-value? Because anything that is an aspect of impermanence is not where our real value lies. We can enjoy our talents and appreciate them and share them. But the minute we start to attach our sense of value to them, then they become a weapon.

You were talking about know-how or knowledge gained over a lifetime. There's a way that one can share that just out of the joy of watching a young person come into their own. It's wonderful watching young adults come into their own. I love that process.

But if it's more about 'I have this knowledge and you must have it' and 'hey, look at me. I'm smart'...there's any of that kind of attachment to being that person, then that energy is all self-referential. It's all going back to you.

So even if you seem like you're sharing something or helping someone else, you're not really giving them all of that. A lot of it is being pulled back into you.

There's been situations, like, where, like, someone's teaching some ancient topic and they throw in a whole bunch of Sanskrit words that no one knows. I've seen this happen.

That sucks energy out of the room because then it's basically designed to create uncertainty in other people. It's designed to draw a line between oneself and other people. 'I know this. You don't.'

You know, if someone is standing in front of a bunch of people that they're supposed to be teaching, and they know that the people are completely new to this topic and they're all from the United States, they don't speak Hindi or Sanskrit or any language that would help them with the words, and they just start using these words without definition, this is all self-referential.

It's all, like, pulling energy. It's creating harm for the people in the room because they now feel self-doubt or uncertain. Or maybe they're even angry. Maybe they have the clarity to see what's happening.

But whatever they're thinking, they aren't thinking about the subject that is supposed to be being shared with them. They're all having this experience of this prideful attachment that this other person is displaying.

You can analyze this in terms of the energetics—who's getting the energy? What direction is the energy going in?

When you really have a joy in sharing your understanding of things, and you really are in your heart, and you're really feeling compassion for other people and love for other people, all you want is for them to receive it in the best possible way.

You have no thought to them thinking you're smart or knowledgeable. And you'll bend over backwards to describe things in ways you think that they will be able to assimilate. There will be no pride whatsoever in having to lower yourself to a beginner level. It'll all be a joy to be doing that.

I think I get caught up in not wanting my team to make a mistake.

Ah, well, mistakes are so much a part of learning.

For people who might be in a teaching position or some position of authority, it's very important for us to be able to make mistakes because it helps us with our pride.

It also relaxes people. If I get up and play the harmonium, I'm going to make 20 mistakes in one kirtan. The minute I go into a bhav of the kirtan, my fingers just stop moving. So it's like [laughs] I'm going to start playing the ektara instead and cut you guys a break.

But since 2007, I've been making mistakes playing harmonium. And I consider that to be sadhana for me and also permission for other people to get up here and make mistakes, too, when they're singing kirtan. And for us just to all relax around that whole idea.

So I think in our prideful Titany culture, it is a good sadhana to make mistakes in public and allow other people to do that, too. Hopefully not life-threatening mistakes, but [laughs], but nothing I do could possibly be life-threatening. So...[laughs]

If I were a brain surgeon, I probably wouldn't be talking this way. [laughs] I might be more into perfection then.

But even the mistakes are just God playing. That's really where we have to get to.

Perfection is also not an aspect of impermanence. Perfection is the absolute shining through impermanence.

If we have that vision, then we can see what perfection really is, but otherwise we're just making it up. I mean, any idea we have for perfection is completely made up.

I was just thinking about how our fixations are kind of pleasurable in some way and just wondering about privilege, I guess, from that point of view. Like, it seems like it must be especially stronger pleasure or something.

Yeah, they're benefiting a lot from it, and a lot of very interpersonal benefits, too. It's not just, like, the money or the opportunity. It's like what happens when you walk into a room [laughs] right? Or how much you get to speak or be believed or have your things paid attention to.

And then you get statements like, what happened when someone said Jaya Kula has turned into a support group for women. That's just because now more women talk a bit more, and we talk about things related to women's experience.

But believe me, that's, like, 10 or 15% more than it was happening before, not taking up the whole room. But to that person who was used to having 80% of the room, having only 65% of the room felt really like an encroachment. [laughs]

Whether or not this was ever fully embodied, and I highly doubt that it was, a big part of both the Trika tradition and Dzogchen tradition is the equality of all phenomena.

I mean, that's basically the definition of self-realization, that you realize the equality of all phenomena, and that equality is not just some, like, mathematical abstraction.

It means that everything is full of wisdom. Everything has equal value, that every person you meet is full of and made of that extraordinary wisdom.

So filtering down from that, each of these traditions says that, in a relative sense, all of the divisions of people that we have made up are just made up and that all of these divisions should be dissolved.

Now, of course, in reality, [laughs] that did not happen. But it's still the view and the hope of these traditions. So we have complete license to take this as our sadhana. To take the dissolving of these harms, of the hierarchical valuation of beings as our sadhana, or as part of our sadhana.

We can embody it more fully than perhaps people who founded these traditions. I don't know for sure, because those histories are lost. But certainly starting in the 5th century, we have writings from these traditions, and starting in the 8th century from Dzogchen—Dzogchen's a newer tradition.

So that's kind of a midpoint, probably. And, of course, there was already a lot of uptake of these traditions into the higher echelons, higher castes, more educated classes of people. And so all of the prejudices were seeping in there already by the time we have any documentation.

But the View is that there should be no caste distinctions, no gender distinctions. The View is that. So it's up to us to more fully embody it.

It isn't a social justice issue. It's a nature-of-things issue.

I mean, social justice is good, but it's really a horizontal change. When we enact laws and we use those laws to protect people, that's great, but we have to recognize the equal value of everyone. That's really where the vertical change comes in, where the deeper change comes in.

So we have that opportunity to do that with each other and that's actually an important part of these traditions and our sadhana.

I've been recognizing the impact of misogyny on my life is complicated by the fact that I'm raising a white male. I'm struggling to help him see [laughs] what I see in the world. I don't even know where to begin!

I think that doing some kind of sadhana with children is really, really important if we want to have the most direct route to feeling real compassion for other people, like having just natural compassion come out.

Clarity comes from that. Clarity comes out of open-heartedness. It doesn't really come out of having the right clear opinions about things, or the right analysis. That can be kind of a band-aid. But real clarity comes from open-heartedness.

There's a page on our website where there are a couple of meditations that focus on the image of the golden egg in the heart space. And there have been other kids in the community that have really liked to do that meditation and have kind of taken that image of the golden egg in the heart space as part of their personal way of relating to things.

That's like a long-term thing. It's not like an immediate, let's talk about this horrible TikTok. But it is the ultimate solution, which is to be open-hearted and to have that surge of compassion come when you read something that is mean toward other people.

To go back to the heart is the important thing and not wringing my hands any more than necessary about what a crisis we’re in socially.

I mean, I don't think you need to avoid those topics but I definitely think the emphasis should be on, 'I feel like this. How do you feel? How do you think someone else feels?', and then some practice of the heart.

If someone can have even a ten minute a day practice of focusing on that heart space in a certain way, over time, that's really going to accumulate and open things up.

And that's really where the clarity is going to come from, and that impulse to care about other people combined with clarity.

I was just wondering, like, I was bullied or recently somebody passes a demeaning or a body-shaming comment or a racist comment, isn't that also helpful for us to practice unconditional love and forgiveness?

That may be true for you, but it might not be true for a lot of other people.

So you have to examine very carefully whether that's actually true for you. Understand that if that were true for you, that would be quite an extraordinary situation, and that you would not have any impulse to hold yourself above other people who are not able to relate to those things in the way you just described.

The only thing that happens as a result of what you called 'unconditional love' is that you feel compassion for everyone, and you want the best for everyone, and you have no sense of disparagement of anybody. You don't want anyone to be lesser-than. You're not interested in putting yourself higher than other people.

So, yes, as practitioners, we want to try to use everything that happens as part of our sadhana, to bring everything onto the path. But we also have to recognize when that's extraordinarily difficult.

Whatever we're doing, we should just be 100% real with ourselves. So, yeah, it's good to try to relate to everything as sadhana. But also it's good to recognize how we're failing at it. [laughs]


Satsang with Shambhavi is a weekly podcast about spirituality, love, death, devotion and waking up while living in a messy world.