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What Elephant? Naming Systemic Oppression

By Lisa Meuser.  
Artist Alexis Morgan.

Oh, the elephant in the room! You know the one, the topic that people don’t talk about. In my most recent blog post about embodiment and waking up, there was an elephant in the room that I didn’t mention. I know in my heart that if we’re going to talk about embodiment and waking up, we have to talk about oppression. It’s the elephant in the room, and it’s an elephant we have to purposefully wake up to.

Why oppression? Why me? I’m not oppressing anyone! I’m not being oppressed[1]!

Why does it even matter? I wrote about waking up to my own internalized racism and how it counter-intuitively brought me closer to Love. Here’s a summary: waking up to and connecting with oppression in the world allowed me to connect with, and to, the oppression in myself. Waking up and connecting further to the oppression within myself then allowed me to wake up even more to the oppression in the world. My heart broke open, wider, and deeper. My fragility shifted and, quite surprisingly, my sense of being safe in the world increased. It was all rather unexpected. Then I started seeing this happen with my clients.

We do not exist in isolation; rather, we exist in relationship. A deeper sense of embodiment and safety with life develops, as a healthier and more honest relationship with the world within and outside of oneself is cultivated.

My relationship with Love, compassion, and safety has never been the same and only continues to grow and expand, as I keep being honest with the ways I oppress others as well as myself. I continue to learn, and hope what I share will be helpful for you on your journey. May we learn together.

 

Oppression traumatizes

Oppression is in the air we breathe, proliferating unrecognized by most in our family structures, our religious and spiritual modalities, and our political, health care, judicial, and educational institutions. Oppression is traumatizing to the oppressed as well as the oppressor. As a client shared with me about his lineage of slave owners, “You can’t oppress people and not have your soul ripped out of you.”

Here is the biggest elephant in the room: oppression has bled into the very structure of our beings. We have systematically been taught beliefs, ideas, and ways to cope (by an oppressive culture) that lead us to oppress ourselves (and each other).

Oppression has been internalized into the composition of our minds, psyches, and somatic systems.

Is it any wonder that we often feel like our own worst enemy?

Is it any wonder that we wind up hating ourselves and others, as we unknowingly oppress and traumatize through our words, thoughts, and deeds?

Is it any wonder why embodiment and healing are so darn hard or why those in the social justice arena get burned out so fast or become bogged down in darkness? When we can’t see oppression in the existence of our lives or within our psychological makeup, we are unable to function as sustainable change agents – even when we have the best intentions.

 

Opening our eyes to what we value

None of us have escaped from the tendrils from oppression[2], and we suffer immensely (and inflict suffering on others) when we do not look at what these tendrils are connected to. It might help to see these webs by exploring the values of our dominant modern-day culture alongside transformative[3] or alternative values.

When we study the tenets of prevalent modern-day culture, we find the following dominant attributes:

  • Power-over dynamics.
  • Authoritarianism.
  • Competitiveness.
  • Focus on the individual.
  • Overemphasis on the mental/linearity.
  • Secrecy.
  • Struggle for/consolidation of power via hierarchy.
  • Scarcity.
  • Either/or thinking.
  • Us/them thinking.
  • Blame
  • Focus on achievement and outcome.
  • Exclusion of the past
  • Exclusion of people of certain demographics.

When we study the tenets of what we might call transformative or “life-valuing” culture, we find attributes such as:

  • Power-with dynamics.
  • Accountability/responsibility.
  • Shared power.
  • Inclusion of heart and spirit.
  • Focus on the collective/on “we.”
  • Collaboration and cooperation.
  • Transparency.
  • Recognition of past.
  • Abundance.
  • Both-and thinking.
  • “Us” thinking.
  • Transformation and integration.
  • Focus on the process/the journey.
  • Inclusion of all people.
  • Focus on connection and relationship.

Twenty-five years ago, in my early days as a social worker, it became undeniable that the dominant values in our culture were not for the good of all people. Having recognized this, I wanted to explore other ways of being in the world. I soon found that this was easier said than done.

As I started to experiment with these paradigm shifts, although my heart and intent were often in the right place, I often found myself utilizing the tenets of oppressive culture in my attempts to change it. I also noticed that I was not the only one who wanted to do good but kept getting bound up in oppressive ways. [4]

I hadn’t realized that oppression was not just around me¾oppression was in me.

 

The macro and the micro reflect each other

Changing our narratives is a process, and it requires conscious exploration to discover that oppression lives deep within our very psyches and somatic systems.

When we study the psyche within many of us, we will find a profusion of tenets that tend to exist within our oppressive culture:

  • Competitiveness.
  • Self-loathing and lack of abundance.
  • Reliance on over-thinking.
  • Disconnection from and fear of others.
  • Striving to feel safe through a sense of power and control.
  • Bypassing the past or acknowledging cultural impact.
  • Hiding behavior (the inability to be honest with one’s self).
  • Restrictive thought patterns.
  • Right-wrong/good-bad (either-or) thinking[5].
  • Pathology of our humanity.

These tenets also promote a sense of fear in the body or disconnect from the body altogether. Even though there are usually life-affirming traits as well, these are often overshadowed by the dominant values of our culture.

The narratives most of us carry are rooted in the very same things that our cultures prize, encourage, and teach. Could it be that culture is teaching us to suffer? Could it be that culture doesn’t want us to be free?

When we study the psyche of a “healthy” or life-valuing person, we will find the tenets of transformational culture:

  • A sense of abundance that allows for open and curious connections.
  • A sense of well-being.
  • Honesty (including “the dark side”).
  • Inclusion of heart and body.
  • Accountability and responsibility.
  • Allowance and acceptance of the vast terrain of being human.
  • Acknowledgment of the past and the culture we are a part of.

There is often an accepting relationship with the body, where a willingness to experience its vast landscape replaces past habits of trying to control or limit. Sure, there will likely still be some oppressive tenets found within “healthy people,” but even those will be met with more inclusion and less self-judgment.

Could it be that, by learning new ways of being, we create new narratives within ourselves? Based on my experience, yes. Is it any surprise that these values are a natural part of the embodiment process? I find it an exciting “coincidence”!

In my study of waking up, and in working with hundreds of people who have been on the waking up and healing journey, I have seen radical narrative and experiential transformations. In each case, there had been a fierce sense of oppression within their psyche, a base they worked from and were fiercely bound to until they consciously started to learn another way. Over time, the dominant values slowly changed into transformative, life-affirming values. Along the way, their suffering started to turn into a healthy relationship with life, allowing them to be more effective change agents in the world.

When we fail to connect with our internalized oppressive existence, we continue to harm others as well as ourselves. Being change agents for the well-being of all embraces inclusion, “we-ness,” connectivity, intimacy, love, openness, abundance, and possibility. In the denial of nothing, we stop oppressing ourselves and those around us.

 

So, Now What?

In my blog post about embodiment, I left out the elephant in the room. I didn’t specifically write about how important it is for us to inquire into our relationship with the oppression found in racism, sexism, nationalism, capitalism, classism, gender/sexual orientation, fatism, ableism, and others. When we don’t address these topics, we deny, ignore, and exclude reality. We cannot live as embodied people when we are ignoring the reality of humanity. When we live apart from the hearts of those who are oppressed, we have to live in separation. In this state of separation, we suffer and experience oppression within, and in the process often cause harm to others.

I readily admit, for most of my life, I have tried to stay removed from the hearts of those who experience the horror of systemic pain. I thought I had to figure out my suffering and pain first, as I felt too fragile to “get real” with the pain of systemic oppression. But then a strange thing happened:

One day, with the support of my somatic therapist, I was feeling despair and defeat with regards to the imprisonment of immigrant children coming in from Mexico. I wanted to turn away from it, as it reminded me of my own despair and defeat with regards to past experiences of being trapped and violated. The pain in my body was too much. I just wanted to be mad about it¾and I was. I was enraged at our government and felt that heat move through my body.

“It was all too much,” I said out loud, grabbing my heart as if to protect it.

As I named this experience, something that was already shifting started to shift some more. With the compassionate presence of my therapist, I started to fall into a pain that was deep in my heart. This pain took me in, all the way in. It felt excruciating, like it would never end, as I kept turning towards those children separated from their families as well as my own lived pains.

The heart I came out of was wider and deeper than I had ever known. I felt a Love that included both myself and those children in a way that had never felt safe to feel. It was then that my sense of fragility started to fade, and I was able to be more real with life.

My depth of empathy and compassion with others experiencing horrid pain and suffering was different from that moment going forward. My ability to look directly at the oppressive matrix of our culture became clearer, and as a result my training to pathologize human pain and suffering further diminished.

 

Curiosity Changes Everything

I understand that not everyone is going to have the privilege of having the resources, resourcing, time, and most importantly, support of others. However, I hope those who are reading this post can at least ask themselves some big questions, which may create some space for deeper connections with the world we live in.

The relationship we have with reality reveals the quality of our relationship with God[6], with life, with creation, and with existence itself. Are we open to God? Are we open to life? Are we open to seeing the flavors of reality? Are we open to learning? Are we open to including more?

We often filter out oppression because we feel conflicted and uncomfortable, and many of us were never taught how to be with discomfort. When we don’t know how to be with discomfort, we suffer more because we have to increasingly limit our experiences to keep out what we don’t like. Ultimately, we wind up controlled by our fears, but will often try to control and oppress others as an attempt to escape that sense of debilitation. The cycle ensues.

Everything is connected¾when one of us is oppressed, we are all impacted. When one of us authentically frees ourselves from the web of oppression, a light shines for others to follow. As Rumi once said, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” Can we find the willingness to move towards that light?

 

A New Way Forward

Some reading this blog post are in full acceptance that oppression is systemically woven into our culture. Thank you for all that you are doing to address the toxicity in our world. I hope that this has been helpful as a reminder that, to be change agents in the world, we must look inward at our oppressive makeup. As we work to change the system, we have to address our internal levels of psychic and somatic oppression; otherwise, we will stay in the same oppressive loop. We cannot employ the toxicity of the dominant paradigm to get to well-being; rather, we must embody life-affirming values to make effective, sustainable change.

Many who want or have access to opportunity and privilege are disconnected from the reality of oppression. Some of these individuals are also interested in healing and well-being. If this describes you, I hope you will be willing to become more aware of the systemic and systematic practices that our culture is rooted in, as there is no other way to break the oppressive loop.

Oppressive values govern not only the oppressed but those who enjoy our culture’s privileges, as well. Our circumstances do not mean that our internal landscape is free from oppression. As we become willing to take a look at the external landscape that we are enmeshed in, we will become more aware of what is keeping us from rooting in well-being and fully participating in life.


Let’s Journey Together

Oppressing others is traumatic to the oppressor’s psyche. Oppression always breeds more oppression within both oneself and others. Unless consciously integrated, this trauma, oppression, and violence are passed on to future generations. We live in a culture that is paying the price for this repressed and unacknowledged trauma. Black or Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), the poor, and other marginalized peoples continue to suffer the greatest and most overtly.

We cannot be embodied human beings while immersed in oppression, either from within our psyches or in how we interact with the world. If we are not aware of our oppression, the oppressive system of our culture, and the oppressive system within our psyche, we and our world are doomed to suffer. As we connect with oppression both inside and outside ourselves, transformation becomes inevitable.

Being able to name and then consciously explore the matrix of systemic oppression as it lives within my psyche and the fabric of our culture has been a necessary and fundamental part of my embodiment journey. It is impossible to convey the level of safety and well-being I have now compared to when I was bound by the values of our dominant culture.

It all started by asking curious questions of myself and being willing to look honestly at and feel deeply into who I was, who I wanted to be, and how much harm I was creating in my life. Change comes through honesty and vulnerability. It’s not always easy, but in my experience, it’s always worth it. A lot of us are waking up together¾there is much more support available than ever before! I look forward to continuing to learn with you.

 

Practical Explorative Options

  1. Unsure as to your level of internalized oppression? Take some of the Harvard Implicit bias tests free here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.
    When we don’t know our biases, we live in a choiceless world, bound by the bidding and the wiles of oppression.
  2. Questions you can ask yourself:
    • What resonance does the voice in your head speak with?
    • Does your internal voice tend to be kind and loving? If not, whose voice is that? Is that how a caregiver used to speak to you? A teacher?
    • What does that harsh narrative need or want? Does it want support? Safety? Love? Be curious!
    • When you listen to perspectives from marginalized peoples, such as BIPOC, women, and people with disabilities, what does that bring up in you?
    • Pay attention when you’re reading or listening. Which perspective are you hearing: the dominant narrative or the transformative narrative?
    • Do you feel defensive when you think about your privilege?
    • How do you employ dominant values while you are trying to do good in the world?
    • Do you become overtly or subtly violent as a change agent?
    • How are you unintentionally or intentionally oppressing others?
    • How are you oppressing yourself?
    • How can you support yourself, or be supported, as you journey into this vulnerable terrain?

Finding people and groups where I can have real conversations about these very real topics and challenges has been life-altering for me. You are not alone on this journey – there are people and groups to support you. We are growing and learning together. Please email me for more information or ideas.

  1. There are so many ways to learn about oppression. Journaling, combined with aspects of #2 above, can be a powerful practice. With that said, reading and listening to voices other than my own has probably been the most important part of my evolution.I’ve been compiling a list of resources to pass on, including books, Facebook pages, blogs, and podcasts. Feel free to email me for recommendations. Get clear on what you’d like to learn more about before you email me, and I’ll do my best to match you up to something that aligns with your request. Also, if you have a beloved source, please pass it on to me!

To read more about Lisa Meuser, click here.

[1] Some reading this blog post are in full acceptance that oppression is systemically woven into our culture. Are you aware that it is systemically woven into your psyche? This post is for you too!

[2] Oppression is in the very creation of western culture, and if you’re from the United States, it’s in the very fabric in which the United States came to be. There would be no United States of America if it had not been for the slave labor that quite literally manufactured and built up its existence, making the U.S. into a world power. Oppression is not unique to the U.S.¾world history is filled with it. This oppression is a systemic part of the world and has fused itself into our minds, our psyches, and our somatic existences.

[3] Some of this terminology comes from Crossroads, an amazing organization doing much good in the world.

[4] We commonly use violence or oppressive strategies while trying to eradicate violence: countries “bombing for peace,” spiritual teachers misusing their power, parents who spank their children for misbehaving, vegans who dogmatically judge those who eat animals, white feminists donning pussyhats, parents, friends or therapists who want to fix people, and trying to make people be accountable are a few examples that come to mind. I have participated in many of those just listed, creating harm in the process.

[5] Rigid right/wrong/good/bad thinking is the perfect breeding ground for what we can call “should energy.” It is very oppressive in that it is rooted in harsh judgments and often comes with shame. It also causes people to control and oppress others as a way to bypass the self-loathing that is often experienced in this oppressive thought structure.

[6] God- or whatever name we give to that existence that is wiser than our egoic sense of self.