The Systemic Box Won’t Dismantle Itself


Once you start to see all the ways the systemic box has been made to trap youthe impulse to break free of the box naturally arises. The question is: How? What does it really mean to think outside the box when the way we think has been shaped by that box? What does it take to tear down a box that has been built to suppress us? Can we create a different container outside the system where more people have capacity, possibility, and choice? These are the central questions of Creativity in Context; the thesis: we need to understand our context in order to change it. Now that we know how the systemic box has limited our imaginations, we have the choice to act differently, disrupt the status quo, and step into the unfamiliar. How do we do this? Depends on your commitment to the creative process. 

My experience as a facilitator has taught me a key lesson in creating new contexts: there is an important difference between just holding space and setting intentional space. If you do not set ground rules for creating a different space, the dominant culture will replicate itself. We live in a patriarchal white supremacist individualist culture; extraverts, white people, and men will speak the most if you do not establish different norms. There is a stark contrast between the commitments of “All are welcome” and “We prioritize marginalized voices.” Meaning you cannot be passive in changing the box; you have to actively disrupt it. I’ve learned this directly: 


Six years ago I joined a meditation community (sangha). The teacher’s clear wisdom on how mindfulness can change your relationship to yourself has had a significant impact on my life, but as time went by, I felt a growing longing for a space that centered collective instead of individual liberation. This need became more apparent when another meditation community disbanded due to their leader’s sexual misconduct, bringing to light that no matter how mindful you are of your internal conditioning, you can still be blind to systemic conditioning. I pondered what to do about this: I could ask my teacher to speak more directly to issues of systemic oppression, provide him resources, or find another teacher who was already steeped in this work. I chose to create a different container within my current sangha and asked my teacher if I could share an idea to start a discussion group. Over the next year, I gathered more than 100 people to join Questioning Cultural Conditioning, a sub sangha focused on mindfully engaging with how power systems affect us internally and interpersonally. 

In awareness of how my whiteness would shape the group, I intentionally made room for collaborative leadership. I organized open leadership meetings and collected community feedback, continually asking the question: How do we hold space that doesn’t replicate oppressive power dynamics? Except it’s much easier to ask the question than to live the answers. As a drop-in multi-racial group, it was difficult to facilitate safe spaces for generative conversation. While everyone had grounding in meditation practice, people had wide ranging awareness of systemic oppression and its impact. The conversations often devolved to arguments centering white people’s understanding instead of the emotional needs of participants. We had dwindling numbers of participants of color and I had to face whether I could truly provide a safe container for a diverse group.

This is still a question I grapple with (and likely always will), but through feedback and adaptation, we discovered a way to hold more inclusive space: encouraging participants to speak from their embodied experience. This opened up pathways for connection and communication that wouldn’t have been possible from an intellectual standpoint of right and wrong. Embodied practice involves having to be vulnerable together instead of sharing opinions that drive disconnection; it requires us to pause and question our habitual thoughts before sharing them with the group. This was the foundational shift that allowed a different space to emerge; it wasn’t just the idea of starting a new group, but the ongoing work of creatively responding to the needs of the collective. And the clincher: my meditation teacher began talking more explicitly about race and oppression. There had been growing pressure from across the community to normalize this conversation and through this creative action and responsive leadership, we shifted the container to hold more of us. 


The moral of this story is that dismantling the box is an ongoing process. In fact, without continual action, the system will usurp liberatory efforts: With the end of Jim Crow segregation came the War on Drugs and a racial caste system of incarceration (1), prisons that are shut down for decarceration turn into ICE detention centers (2), and hard-won labor protections like “eight hours of work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will” (3) are losing meaning in an economy built off freelance contractors. To tie it all together, embodied practice brings you face to face with how hard it is to shift systems; I often experience what feels like a breakthrough insight only to find my patterned behavior come back with full force. This is the process of life; the creative process of living. Change takes practice, resilience, and creativity. And there is no creativity without action. 

Living is a creative act,
Evelyn Thorne


Everyday Creativity Tip

Given the resilience needed to continually work on dismantling the systemic box, it is imperative to resource your body and soul. As the saying goes: “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” To persist we must sustain. And since this newsletter has been focused on embodiment, I offer a few body-based practices to keep you going: 


Footnotes

1. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 2010
2. Deanna Van Buren, “Unbuilding Racism”, talk for UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design Lecture Series, https://vimeopro.com/user29727690/architecture/video/451974458
3. Motto of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in the fight for the 8-hour workday, from How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell


Originally published September 7, 2020 on the Creativity in Context Newsletter by Evelyn Thorne.


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Living is creative act

Published by Evelyn Thorne

Evelyn is a writer, educator, and facilitator who helps people unlearn misconceptions and limiting beliefs about their creative identities.

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