What’s past is prologue; what to come, in yours and my discharge.
— William Shakespeare
What to the American Slave is Your Fourth of July?
On Monday, July 4, 2022, as part of the City of Lebanon’s Independence Day celebration, volunteers from Valley Insight Meditation Society planned, organized, and set up for the reading of Frederick Douglass’s powerful speech by this name in the city’s public square, Colburn Park. Originally sponsored in 1852 by the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York, the speech continues to inspire us. Today, 170 years after its delivery, Douglass skillfully continues to walk the audience into the horrors of the American domestic slave trade while at the same time drawing encouragement and hope from the yet unfulfilled principles put forth in the Declaration of Independence. This year, an estimated 150 people from Lebanon and the greater Upper Valley community listened as approximately fifty fellow citizens ranging in age from eight into their eighties took turns reading — voice by voice, paragraph after paragraph — words that brought some of the speakers on the podium to tears. This was the fourth year for this program offering, first conceived and brought to fruition by our Valley Insight racial affinity group in 2019.
This event is part of our sangha’s Engaged Buddhist effort. Our defining mindfulness practice of seeing clearly is not at all meant to be limited to formal meditations, where we sit privately or in small groups to silently bear witness to our mental habits. Clear seeing also applies to the practice of honestly looking at what is happening here and now in our society. Just as what is happening now in our personal relationships has deep roots in our past habits, so does what is happening today in our country have deep roots in our culture’s past — as the African- and Asian-Americans among us are disproportionally dying of Covid, imprisoned, killed by police, dying in childbirth, etc. To change the present, we must clearly see our past — not so that we feel shame and guilt, but so that we can feel the honest remorse that prompts us to vow never again to allow this kind of cruelty and moral depravity in our own hearts or in our institutions.
With our past as prologue, what’s to come is “in yours and my discharge.” This is the good news of Buddhism. We can become the “owners of our actions,” and what we do in the world will affect the course of our own lives and the culture’s life. Mindful awareness makes the difference. With its constant companions of honesty and clear comprehension, mindfulness gives us a moment of choice in what can sometimes seem like an endless repetition of ignorance and cruelty. It allows us to pause, to reflect, and, when necessary, to change directions to be in keeping with our ethical sensibilities.
When we hear ourselves say that our practice has been invaluable to us this during this challenging era of pandemic, climate crisis, blatant income disparity, and institutionalized racism, we don’t simply mean that meditation allows us to bliss out and forget about the world — though clearly and importantly, it can offer us the invaluable gift of deep rest. But we also recognize that mindfulness practice helps us to maintain an equilibrium, to find some balance in our daily lives. In the midst of what can feel, at times, like terrifying chaos, our well-trained hearts can sustain a connection with kindness and wisdom, and even joy — all the while allowing us to act appropriately, compassionately, and often more effectively than if we just reacted without pausing. Meditation is designed to help us refine our skills in becoming free from past unwholesome patterns of behavior, personally and culturally. It is also designed to help us become wise and kind activists.
Thank you to all who participated in the joy, solidarity, and good will that is the basis of the Frederick Douglass reading. Again this year, many people made the event possible. We heartfully thank everyone: supporters, volunteers, readers, and listeners. We want to note our gratitude to the administrators and elected officials of the City of Lebanon, especially to the Recreation, Arts, & Parks Department for their invaluable hands-on support each year; to the Upper Valley Music Center for providing the audio system; and to the First Congregational Church of Lebanon for offering indoor space in case of rain. We also thank The Valley News for the next day’s front-page coverage which contained a large photograph of our youngest reader, eight years old, standing at the podium above a very large picture of the thirty-six-year-old Frederick Douglass. The picture accompanied an insightful article that described the event with a central focus on the vitally pertinent question for our time: What is patriotism?
Perhaps we can all take this question into our practice and our reflections. What and where is patriotism in our lives? Is there any joy in it?
“The 4th of July is the great fact in your nation’s history — the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.”
— Frederick Douglass, from “What to the American Slave is Your 4th of July”