As our departure time approaches and we will soon be meeting our friends in Kashmir as part of the Global Citizen Journey Kashmir project, I am reflecting on past travels and the powerful experiences they evoked. One of those would have to be a visit to a 17th – 18th century slave fort in Ghana. What follows is an article that I wrote describing what moved me about this place, a place that was at one time a place of unspeakable horror but in which there is hope as well. This was originally published in Miracles, vol. 8, no. 1, issue 43, Jan/Feb, 2009, pp. 35-38.
I wish to share with you a very moving experience that I had while visiting the West African country of Ghana. I was there as part of a delegation, sponsored by the Seattle based organization Global Citizen Journey (http://globalcitizenjourney.org/), consisting of a small group of Ghanaians and North Americans on a many-faceted mission to build an orphanage in the fishing village of Axim. It was a challenging, but also joyful process in which hands, minds and hearts reached across the illusory barriers of geography, language, race and culture to join in common purpose.
The outpouring of welcoming friendship, gratefulness and love we shared there was so deeply moving! For many in the village, this was their first close contact with North Americans in which people from the two continents really had a chance to know one another. There were so many highlights from this trip that it is hard to single out even a few because there was such a flow of many converging currents. But I will give it a shot anyway.
One of those standout experiences would have to be visits to some of the slave forts along the coast. These were built in the 17th and 18th centuries by the colonial powers, initially for trading, especially for gold, but soon turned into commercial centers for the sale of human beings. In these places terrified people were crammed by the hundreds into small, dark, poorly ventilated dungeons amidst the smell of death and excrement where they stayed for weeks or months until a ship arrived to carry them through “the door of no return” to the new world to work as slaves on the plantations.
As we visited these places, I would find myself pausing and just standing alone in the darkness of the dungeon for awhile, breathing in the experience of those who were here long ago in time – both the prisoners in the dungeons and the “prisoners” who imprisoned them – and breathing out a deep compassion and forgiveness to all. Yes, all of the participants in this drama were prisoners. For some, the walls were tangible and surrounding them. For others the walls were in their own hearts and minds in the form of their blindness to what was in front of them and the ghastly events they participated in. I wondered what these people were seeing as they looked upon the suffering of their prisoners.
At the time we visited the forts, we were immersed in the vibrant culture and people of West Africa. Everywhere we went were beaming, joyous, friendly, welcoming faces around us and as part of our delegation. It was a wondrous journey, filled with love and connection. It would not be possible to see what we were seeing and experiencing and still carry out the acts of two centuries ago. One’s heart would break first.
No, to imprison and mistreat another requires first that we not see them as the divine creation that they are. We first must see them as something different, something separate from ourselves that we can project our own sense of guilt upon and then attack that. And as we do so, we no longer can see ourselves as the creation that we are, but only as a body, also vulnerable to attack. And as the guilt in our own mind grows and grows from repeated attacks on others that push it out of awareness but does not save us from its effects, we become more and more fearful of attack directed against us. We erect more and more defenses, but they never quite seem to be enough to completely allay our fear of attack.
It is neither an accident nor a coincidence that those slave trading centers were also military forts. They were all fortified with high, thick walls with parapets at the top and many cannon to fend off the outside attackers made necessary by the attack within. They represent a stunning example of projection in form of the conflict inside.
And yet there is also hope here in these forts. Just beyond the “door of no return,” when one turns and looks back, there is another sign, “the door of return,” that is an invitation, a welcoming, to African Americans to reconnect with their roots. But the hope and healing that I see is deeper than just a compassionate awareness that this is the ancestral heritage of the vast majority of African Americans, though that is certainly a part. Real healing is not a matter of validating the victims and vilifying the perpetrators and trying to wrest out some retroactive justice that only perpetuates the guilt-projection-attack-more guilt cycle.
Real healing comes first through recognition of the thought system from which the horrors of the slave trade stand out as only an extreme example of a daily occurrence within us all. We are all capable of great cruelty and its counterpart, the angry, devastated victim, when we see the world through the lens of the ego, the thought system of separation, of attack. Through its blinding filter we are all very capable of projecting our own sense of guilt onto another and then seeing them as worthy of our contempt and attack. In doing so we inevitably see ourselves in the same way and fear the contempt and attack of others.
The undoing of this cycle is the process of forgiveness. It begins with our willingness to look upon the ego’s devastation in ourselves, in honesty and humility, and take responsibility for it. This is an essential and often seemingly difficult first step. But by itself it is not sufficient. We cannot undo the ego with the ego. In recognizing the ego’s voice inside of us, we become aware also of another Voice.
Unlike the intrusive clamor of the ego’s voice, this Voice, this Inner Teacher, will not force Itself upon us, but is always available in the stillness of the heart awaiting only our openness to hear It. It goes by many names in many traditions: Holy Spirit, Higher Power, Higher Self, Christ Consciousness, Buddha nature. The specific names are not important except as symbols of an experience that transcends our limited sense of separation and leads us gently home to our true nature as divine beings at one with one another and with God as transcendent Oneness.
As we are willing to come to a place of stillness inside, even if only momentarily, a door is opened. As we are willing to see our projections in a different light, as we are willing to gently look upon the ego, not through its judging lens, but in the light of that wise Inner Voice, that Voice that remembers who we really are, not the little separate selves we think we are, the ego’s fortress begins to crumble and the walls we perceive around us can no longer contain us. We stop being our own jailers as we stop trying to jail others in the boxes we place them into in our minds. We see beyond bodies and forms to the divine essence within. As we see that quality in what seems like others, we inevitably experience it in ourselves as well. As we experience ourSelves as that essence, we recognize that there is only Love, and Love wants only to be extended. Attack, imprisonment, enslavement are not possible for us as long as we remain in that holy instant in which there is no time, no place, no bodies, no separation, but only One. From A Course in Miracles:
We say “God is,” and then we cease to speak, for in that knowledge words are meaningless. There are no lips to speak them, and no part of mind sufficiently distinct to feel that it is now aware of something not itself. It has united with its Source. And like its Source Itself, it merely is. (W-pI.169.5:4-7)
And so we find our freedom and our healing not by throwing off some yoke of oppression from outside of ourselves, nor through vindication for our stories of personal and collective victimization that are so often used to justify the victimization of others. The ego will always demand justice on its terms and offers an empty sense of righteousness as its reward while the peace and the healing that we deeply yearn for eludes us.
But if we will listen in willingness to that quiet Inner Voice we will be shown how our freedom lies in the freedom we give, not in the freedom we try to take. It is impossible to be a jailer without being in some way imprisoned in turn. It is impossible to see another as a body, a personality, or any of the countless categories we fragment one another into without perceiving ourselves in the same, limited, way. As we forgive each other, we realize forgiveness as accomplished in ourselves. As we free one another from our projections, we free ourselves from the burden of our own deeply harbored sense of guilt. As we see the Divine Light in others, we experience it and know it in ourselves.
I am grateful for this “side trip” that moved me more deeply than I could have imagined beforehand. I was deeply touched both by the horror I felt as it flowed upward through me in the sacred silence of the dungeon’s darkness but also by the very loving bond formed with the African people all around us that filled me with a sense of joy and hope. I could feel the healing occurring within me and amongst us. In A Course in Miracles it says: “When I am healed, I am not healed alone.” We all owe it to each other to be healed!