At the start of every single week, I think to myself, Letâ€™s go to meditation this week. The last couple of months, I have had to defer my personal Wednesday evening preferences in favor of work-related meetings and events. Last Wednesday was different: Today is free, and all mine, I tell myself, and off I go to meditation. The familiar rituals of 7.30pm: Park at the curb, shoes off at the door, enter the darkened hallway, down one carpeted step and find a seat on the cushions already laid out on the floor of the dimly-lit living room. Close my eyes for one hour and focus on breathing, relaxing, dhikr, reflection, even inadvertently napping, as used to happen when, as an exhausted university student, I’d regularly drive two hours from Sacramento just for this lovely experience.
Then, one hour of sharing thoughts. We talk about pain, and I am reminded once again of my friend H, and the strength that lies in professing our vulnerabilities. I am so tempted to pass on sharing my thoughts – I even joke about this when the mic makes its way around the room and is finally handed to me, because the three people before me chose to pass – but then I take a deep breath and decide to jump right in. So, I talk a little bit about emotional pain, because our default association with “pain” is usually the physical, and that’s the sort for which I have a high tolerance level. Emotional pain, however, is a whole other thing as far as I am concerned – public displays of tears and weakness have never come easily to me, and I am not one to focus often on awareness and acknowledgment of my emotional vulnerabilities and insecurities.
The people around the room nod as I speak, whether in understanding or encouragement, I don’t know, but I find it reassuring. I pass the mic down the circle.
One young woman, a kindergarten teacher, relates that someone once told her that people remove their shoes when they enter sacred spaces, and how moving it was, then, when she arrived at this place tonight and found a sea of shoes at the front door. I think about the fact that even in this space, a living room in the heart of Silicon Valley, people have created an environment that is reflective, compassionate – and, yes, a little bit holy. I think about how there is peace here, and grace, and light in everyone.
The kindergarten teacher continues her story. “Bear with me,” she says. “This may be a little bit of a stretch.” But we are all leaning forward attentively. “There’s an elephant tent in my classroom,” she says – a tent shaped like an elephant. She has turned this into a private space for her students, a place they may enter when they are feeling particularly lonely or upset or worried or angry or hurt. She has promised her students that this is their space, and she will not infringe on it in any way. The children have readily adopted the elephant tent as theirs, and treat it with care. They take turns stepping into and out of it, instead of fighting and struggling over who’s been using the space.
It is a little bit reverent for them, this ritual. They honor everyone’s right to use the elephant tent, and are respectful of one another’s emotions, needs, allotted time, and privacy in times of pain. The children practice diligence and care towards that space, even if they aren’t usually as mindful of the rest of the classroom: “Just this morning, someone left a tuna sandwich on the radiator,” says the young teacher with horror, and the rest of us laugh out loud.
And somehow, her students have silently, unequivocally, decided to remove their shoes before entering the tent.
Their teacher references Nelson Mandela and the concept of Ubuntu, which she is teaching her class. A popular definition is: “The belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.” Desmond Tutu explained it this way:
A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.
Nelson Mandela described Ubuntu in the following manner:
A traveller through our country would stop at a village, and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but it’ll have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to improve?
There is no specific translation for Ubuntu in English, it seems. But Ubuntu is about relationships and sharing, about unity, about connectedness with the rest of humanity.
The teacher tells us how, this afternoon, she ducked her head into the tent and found something created by one of her five year old students: the word UBUNTU written shakily but in reassuringly large letters, on a sheet of paper taped to the inside of the elephant tent.