Tag Archives: shamanism

Crossing the Racial Divide – A Psychological and Spiritual Journey

We are here again–facing the raw and ugly feelings of bias which make conversations across racial lines uncomfortable at best. The differences in perception that align with our racial identities are stark. Fear and mistrust are on the rise. It brings me to reflect on my own journey with the boundary between the races, a barrier built by our ancestors and passed through the generations.

When I was a child there were many boundaries of varying densities that surrounded my Jewish world. The unspoken lines of separation that I feared to cross were mostly defined by religious, ethnic or racial identities. Though the schools were integrated, the neighborhoods were not, and once past the first few grades of elementary school, there was little mixing of the races.

My family had a maid, a colored woman, who came in weekly to do housecleaning. My parents and their generation referred to her and all Black people as shvarzas. When asked, one was always told that, “shvarza literally means ‘black’ in Yiddish; Jews aren’t prejudiced.” But the term mostly had the same connotation as the “n-word,” which I never heard spoken. What I was told is, “They all steal. They all lie.”

I was a freshman at the University of Florida in 1962 when it admitted it’s first 7 Black undergraduate students (of about 16,000 undergrads). I was oblivious to their presence while I nervously found my people by joining a Jewish fraternity. Jewish students had a choice of three fraternities amongst the several dozen that would not admit Jews. Walls and barriers were taken for granted.

UF was situated in Gainesville, central Florida, a deeply Southern town, strictly segregated. The few Black students were not allowed to eat or shop off campus except in the Black section of town, far from the University. When a small group of white and Black students began the first civil rights protest, they picketed the restaurant across from campus and only asked that the Black students be served. Most students and faculty were outraged by this affront to the rights of private property owners. My fraternity brothers considered the protestors geeks, very uncool.

This was the setting for my first experience of crossing the psychic boundary of race identity. I made the choice to go to a meeting of the protestors, “The Student Group for Equal Rights.” I was afraid. I had the sense I was entering another world. Inside, I saw Blacks and whites talking and joking together and strategizing their next moves for pressing the cause of integration. As I write this now, it’s embarrassing to acknowledge how amazed I was by what I saw. But for me at the time, it was mind-blowing. I stepped over a line that defined my people as Jews, (and white), rather than as humans. At the same time, I stepped across a line that kept me a passive observer of events, and I became an activist involved in changing the way the world is.

Years later, I experienced a much deeper understanding of the racial divide and how it had been imprinted in my psyche. In the mid-Eightees, I had begun exploring the teachings and practices of indigenous people, the spirituality we know as shamanism. I was with a group of people experiencing a practice drawn from the Amazon region–working with the medicine plant Ayahuasca to connect with deeper sources of awareness and healing. As I entered an altered state, I had a heightened sensitivity to very subtle sensations in my body. I became aware of tightness and fear related to the man sitting next to me, who happened to be Black. The discomfort was not something I’d been aware of when I met him or when I first sat next to him. In fact, I had been fairly certain that I was free of racial prejudice, what people like to call “color-blind.”

In the shamanic journey process the agreement is to go within, not to try to engage or communicate with others during the experience. So I focused my attention within and asked for guidance. Shortly, a vision opened up and I saw my grandfather coming from “the old country” (Eastern Europe) through Ellis Island and into New York City. He was encountering Black people for the first time (in the context of the early 20th century). What struck me, what he seemed to be showing me, was the dramatic difference in body posture and rhythm. There was a vibrational difference with which he could not relate, the alien nature of which triggered fear. Faced with this, he embraced the very old European assumptions of superiority.

My grandfather was showing me this and encouraging me to see this false sense of difference and separation. In my vision, he was helping me dissolve what feelings of fear or discomfort with Black people I was holding in the very cells of my body. At the same time he was helping me, I sensed that he was clearing his own karma through healing the negativity he had passed along. This negative transmission was not only an emotional sense of separation, but of choices in behavior complicit in the exploitation of African-Americans that were part and parcel of the economic world.

In my vision, my grandfather helped me cut the chain of the “sins of the fathers” from passing to another generation. As I relaxed and opened to the flow of energy within, my feeling of brotherliness with the man next to me grew and my heart opened as if for the first time to the whole human family–all infused with the same Spirit.

As I look around now at our country and at the world, it is easy to despair at how deeply racism continues to express itself through the massive incarceration of young Black males, ongoing wealth disparity, and discrimination regarding job and educational opportunities along racial lines. So I share these personal boundary crossing stories and encourage others to do likewise. My hope is that the stories will help embolden more people to experience the joy of stepping into active participation in the movement for world harmony and justice. Likewise, to know the comfort of accepting our spirit-ancestors’ guidance and healing power which transforms the deeply embedded delusions of racial superiority and fear.

-Alan Levin


Welcome to Crossing the Boundary

This is to welcome and introduce you to Crossing the Boundary blog and website. The site is designed to focus on the book, Crossing the Boundary – Stories of Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths. Here, you can learn more about the background of the book and read short passages from the chapters on each of the fourteen teachers interviewed for it. I’ve added some descriptive information about each of these men and women and links to their websites, books, and schedules for their teaching activities and workshops. You can find all this under the People of the Book menu.

This project began from an experience I had on a vision quest in the desert of Southern California in 1983. Wandering and fasting in the desert, I realized that after many years of denying it to myself, I was a Jewish man. It opened up for me a quest to understand what that meant and deepened my spiritual explorations into the nature of identity and reality itself. If it is true that I am a Jewish man, what does that mean for how I live my life? Do I need to begin observing and practicing Jewish rituals and ceremonies? Further, where do the notions of who I am and what is real come from? How much choice do I have in the matter of what I think or believe, what I feel and experience, of who I am?

As I explain in my autobiographical chapter in the book, I tried for a number of years following that vision quest to incorporate Jewish religious practices in my life. But it never felt comfortable, it didn’t fit. I continue to honor Jewish spiritual teachings, especially the mystical aspects such as Kabbalah, and I open to what they bring to me and the world. But as a daily practice, I have for over 45 years been meditating with methods drawn from Agni (light-fire) Yoga and Buddhism, and exploring the many realms of consciousness through shamanism. Jewish spirituality is one of a number of streams of wisdom from which I drink.

However, Jewish identity is more than observing religious practices. A large number of Jews, if not a majority, are non-observant (of Jewish religious rituals) yet see themselves as spiritual, or consider themselves atheists. How does the sense of Jewish identity inform their lives? Is there something in the  DNA of Jews that unfolds as a way of being in the world, as a set of inherent values? How does the connection to a common ancestry and mythical story influence the way Jews see the world? How do these issues operate in the other tribal peoples that inhabit this planet? These questions and others are themes in my interviews with the fourteen spiritual teachers of the book, Crossing the Boundary, and I continue to explore them here in a form that invites your participation.

For some folks, being on a spiritual path that is dramatically different from that of one’s family is an act of heresy. But, as I say in the description of the book, “We are walking on the precipice of a massive catastrophe coming about due to human ignorance and greed and masked by the ethnocentric blinders that pit us against each other. It is my hope that the stories and wisdom of the “heretics” gathered in this book provide keys for our collective awakening, and lead us towards not only tolerance for others, but eagerness to encounter and learn from the ways of all peoples.” My vision is that through this awakening, we will find the wisdom, courage and strength to live through these times with grace and do what needs to be done.

~Alan Levin