Category Archives: freedom

A Spiritual Warrior for Human Rights

FILE – In this Sept. 17, 1965 file photo, Fannie Lou Hamer, of Ruleville, Miss., speaks to Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party sympathizers outside the Capitol in Washington after the House of Representatives rejected a challenger to the 1964 election of five Mississippi representatives. (AP Photo/William J. Smith, File)

February is black history month in the U.S., and I recently learned about Fannie Lou Hamer, an inspiring and heroic woman who fought for civil rights, women’s rights, class rights, and overall human rights. What caught my attention was that her courageous fight against oppression was motivated by a spiritual awakening that she had at the age of 44.

During her lifetime, Hamer was extorted, threatened, harassed, shot at, and assaulted by racists, including members of the police, while trying to register for and exercise her right to vote. She later helped and encouraged thousands of African-Americans in Mississippi to become registered voters and helped hundreds of poverty-strickened people through her work in programs like the Freedom Farm Cooperative.

Hamer (1917-1977) was the last of 20 children born to a sharecroppers in Mississippi. Tricked into picking cotton when she was only six, the owner of the plantation promised her snacks and sweets that her family could not afford from his store. She only attended school until the 6th grade, having to return to the fields to help support her aging parents. By age 13, she would pick 200–300 pounds (90 to 140 kg) of cotton daily while living with polio.

In 1944, she married Perry Hamer and the couple toiled on a Mississippi plantation. Because Hamer was the only worker who could read and write, she also served as plantation timekeeper. The Hamers wanted to have children, but in 1961, Fanny Lou received a hysterectomy by a white doctor without her consent while undergoing surgery to remove a uterine tumor. The Hamers later adopted two daughters.

In the summer of 1964, Hamer attended a meeting led by civil rights activists in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). It was the first time she learned that black people had the right to vote. Hamer’s biographer, Dr. Keisha N. Blain says that, at that moment, Hamer found her calling. Blain explains:

“It was certainly a political awakening for Hamer, but it also was a spiritual awakening.

“She felt that it was God’s plan for her to become an activist and take a leading role in the expansion of black political rights.

“The one reason that she never gave up despite all she had to struggle through was that she really believed that ‘God was on her side.’ She truly believed that it was not so much a political mission, but a spiritual one. She saw herself ‘speaking light into a world of darkness’.”

Once the owner of the farm where she worked learned that she had tried to register to vote (which was initially denied because of a trumped up ‘literacy test’), she was immediately fired. Despite having to move house, loose most of her possessions, and ultimately flee for her life, Hamer was free to pursue her calling. Reflecting later, she said “They kicked me off the plantation, they set me free. It’s the best thing that could happen. Now I can work for my people.”

Hamer is perhaps most famous for her speech at the 1964 Democratic Convention during which she described her brutal beating in a Mississippi jail during her struggle to register to vote. President Lyndon Johnson was so frightened by the power of her message that he called an impromptu televised press conference so she would not get any television airtime. But her speech was later aired and inevitably moved even Johnson and many others to help pass the 1964 Voting Rights Act.

Hamer speaking at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J.

During Hamer’s time as an activist, she traveled extensively, giving powerful speeches on behalf of civil rights. Woven into her speeches was a deep level of confidence, biblical knowledge, and even comedy. One of her famous lines, that appears on her tombstone, is “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” She often inspired other activists with her singing of spiritual Gospel songs during times of great stress and even terror.

In 1964, Hamer was one of the 11 SNCC delegates (including John Lewis and Harry Belefonte) who visited Ghana. The visit was revolutionary for her, for she saw for the first time black people in charge of their own destiny, including holding positions of political power. (Hamer would run for both for the U.S. Senate in 1964 and the Mississippi State Senate in 1971.) After a three-hour interview with the Diallo Alpha, Director General of the Ministry for Information and Tourism, Hamer received a musical instrument only found in Africa.

In the end, Hamer grew frustrated with politics. She said she was “tired of all this beating” and “there’s so much hate. Only God has kept the Negro sane”. A great cook and knowledgeable about growing crops and raising animals, in 1968, she returned to her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi, and began a “pig bank” to provide free pigs for black farmers to breed, raise, and slaughter. A year later she launched the Freedom Farm Cooperative, buying up land that blacks could own and farm collectively. With the assistance of donors, she purchased 640 acres and launched a coop store, boutique, and sewing enterprise. She single-handedly ensured that 200 units of low-income housing were built—many still exist in Ruleville today.

Hamer may be remembered best as a civil rights activist, but she was foremost a spiritual warrior. Her faith and calling is what sustained her. Hamer was convinced that God was working through the civil rights movement to usher in the Kingdom of God.  Her favorite Bible passage was from the Gospel of Luke 4:18:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, he as sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captive, and recover the sight to the blind, to set at liberty to them who are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.

In the end, Hamer died of breast cancer after suffering for many years with various physical illinesses, some sustained from her beatings. May God rest her soul.

May God grant us all the her spiritual strength to preserver in whatever area of activism we are called upon to passionately undertake.

Discover More about Fanny Lou Hamer

Read the speech Hamer gave with Malcolm X in Harlem, New York.

Read the full report of the SNCC visit to Ghana.

Read an article about Hamer’s pastoral and prophetic styles of leadership as acts of public prayer by Breanne K. Barber.

Buy Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America by Dr. Keisha N. Blain 

Search for more information on Fanny Lou Hammer in the digital collection at the University of Southern Mississippi

Freedom under Lock Down

Nearly all of us have experienced some form of “lock down” during the past year of the pandemic. During this time, perhaps you’ve had time to reflect on what ‘freedom’ means to you personally and to all of us collectively.

I will be exploring this concept of freedom in an upcoming Webinar, sponsored by the Psychosynthesis Trust London.


Freedom in Jail: A Reflection on Pigeons, Paper, and Paradise

Date/Time: Monday, October 11, 1900-2100 (London time)

Cost: Free.

To book your free space please email: events@ptrust.org.uk


In this webinar, you will have the opportunity to learn more about Roberto Assagioli’s reflections on the deeper meaning of ‘freedom’ – a word that is bandied about without much thought – from advertising soda drinks to promoting war.

The concept of freedom will be explored through Assagioli’s autobiographical account Freedom in Jail. This book outlines Assagioli’s own experience before, during and after his own imprisonment in Regina Coeli prison by the Italian fascist regime in 1940. Freedom in Jail offers insights into Assagioli’s understanding of true “inner freedom, pure freedom … attained rising above the fetters, a sense of expansion …”

We will begin with a presentation during which I will talk about Assagioli’s time in prison and how he practiced his psychosynthesis concepts and techniques. While in prision, he ultimately experienced his own personally transformation and self-realization.

The presentation will be followed by Q&A. Then we will break up into smaller groups and share our thoughts on a specific excerpt from his book. At the end, we will gather together as a larger group and share whatever insights we might have gained.

I hope to see you there!

Mourning Tiananmen in My Own Way

I just read that for the first time since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, there will be no formal commemoration event held in the Chinese-speaking world for the anniversary. People are being told to “Mourn June 4 in your own way.” So I am reposting this blog from two years ago. In memory…


tiananmen_1989_pays_reutersIn 1989, ten days before the Tiananmen Square massacre, my friend Julie and I sat in the China Travel Services office in Hong Kong and debated whether we should travel to Beijing. The U.S. embassy was warning that our safety could not be guaranteed. Should we go anyway? Grappling with our indecision, Julie asked the stone-faced woman behind the counter, “Is it safe?”

The woman stared hard at us and then looked away. “It is China.”

We decided to trust our intuition and go. Three days later as we walked towards the international gate in the Hong Kong airport, two university students carrying a stack of newspapers stopped us. “Are you going to China?” they asked. We nodded dumbly. “Please take this newspaper for the students.” Their request was half-plea, half-command. Julie faltered, worried about the consequences of smuggling suspicious reading material. Our tour book clearly stated: “It is illegal to import any printed material detrimental to China’s politics, economy, culture, and ethics.” The newspapers were full of Chinese characters that we could not read, and we had no idea just how ‘detrimental’ they might be.

Hoping the custom officials would overlook the newspapers, I reluctantly agreed to carry them. Besides, as a U.C. Berkeley graduate, I found it difficult to resist a student protest. I stuffed two copies of the newspaper into my carry-on bag.

The plane was full. A zombie stewardess served stale crackers and dishwater tea. We arrived and breezed through customs without any problems. The air in the terminal felt squeezed dry, all actions confined, all conversations muzzled. I kept thinking of how many times as kids we believed we could dig a hole to China.

Waiting for us in the arrival room was Miss Ren, our 23-year-old tour guide. “Hello, my name is Elizabeth,” she introduced herself and paraded us toward the exit. Tall and slight, she raised her arm high above her head and slightly waved her hand, like a lily caught on a summer breeze. This hand seemed to magically invoke wondrous adventures. She led us outside into an old van.

Our ride to the hotel was along a shady road full of people on bicycles, donkeys pulling carts, cars, trucks and an occasional flock of sheep. “So where do you like to visit?” Miss Ren dutifully asked. With the flurry of tour cancellations, Julie and I were to have Miss Ren and the driver all to ourselves.

“Tiananmen Square,” we said in unison. This was definitely not one of the stops on our five-day Beijing tour. “Oh, no. You can’t go to Tiananmen Square,” she explained. “It is dangerous there. Bad men will steal your money.”

The squareOnce she was gone, Julie and I considered her advice, but decided to take our chances and quickly ordered another cab. “Tiananmen Square, please.” We pointed to the Chinese characters in our tour book, the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Without a word, the cab driver dropped us off at the Beijing Hotel, three long blocks from the square on Chang’an Avenue. The street was like a giant river flowing with people and bicycles. We entered the moving stream of humanity, many wearing Mao suits, and arrived on foot to the square.

Upon arrival, I was stunned to see Tiananmen Square filled with hundreds of thousands of young people, its massive 109-acres alive like a giant squirming organism. Julie and I began to penetrate the crowd, occasionally reaching for each other’s hand, afraid of being separated. Slowly, we began to focus on the sights around us. There were piles of people, piles of garbage, piles of bedding. Legs stuck out beyond large umbrella roofs. Long lines for bean soup, cabbage, and flat bread wove around us. Hands stretched eagerly to grab orange ice pops. Waving above the crowd were hundreds of red flags, each bearing a school’s name. A voice shouted over a loud speaker. Later we learned that these announcements celebrated the return of Lee Wong from the United States, denounced the stubbornness of Premier Li Peng, called for ambulances, and sang out slogans.

Mao

Buses with broken windows acted as toilets. Shattered glass was strewed dangerously close to makeshift hovels and bare mattresses. Looming over the student protest was Mao Zedong’s Mona Lisa smile; his gigantic, now desecrated, portrait baring witness to the scene.

Standing behind nylon cords, student guards protected the inner sanctity of their leaders. Julie and I slid under the cords and walked closer toward the core of the rebellion, the Monument to the People’s Heroes. Twice we froze as tall student sentries harshly barked, but our Western faces were our tickets through. I hugged my purse tightly against me. Inside were the Hong Kong newspapers.

We arrived at the monument to find a cluster of young people recording a political statement. Another group was running an old printing press while others painted signs, yellow characters on red backdrops. Nearby, two male students sat eating raw garlic and tomatoes.

Students at Tiananmen Square

A young woman who spoke English approached us. She was a medical student and had just arrived from Hunan province. Fueled by the recent demonstrations, spirits were high. Our new friend offered us a metal cup of cold bean soup. I hesitated, not wanting to insult her, but ashamed to eat what little food the students had. I felt awed and humbled by how these students had empowered themselves with the hope and determination to change their iron-clad country.

“Are you afraid?” I dared to ask. “No,” she answered bravely, full of joy. “We are supported by all of Peking. We would not be able to survive without their feeding us. They will never let the soldiers through.”

A male student then joined us. “What change do you want?” I asked.  “We want freedom,” he said. “We want a kindness. There is no freedom when one man rules everyone. The cry from all the students in China is only one.” He raised his fist. ‘Li Peng Go Away.’”

“We want to travel freely like you,” answered the young medical student. “We want to read newspapers and know the truth. You have democracy in America, don’t you?” she then asked. “What do you think?”

I was startled by the question. “Well, yes, I suppose we do,” I said, looking out at the hundreds of thousands of students who inspired and shamed me at the same time. How often had I taken my freedom for granted? I could read any newspaper I wanted, live wherever I wanted, even travel to places like China. But freedom is only relative, I thought, remembering Rosa Parks, World War II Japanese internment camps, Kent State. I wondered how long it could last here like this. Suddenly I remembered the newspapers and gave them to the two students. They scanned them as if they were a map to lost treasure.

Tanks

Julie and I stayed with the students until nightfall. The protest was eerily quiet, orderly, poised. We met no bad men. Our money was not stolen. As we wove our way out through the crowd, I spied a couple holding hands. Dressed in stockings and heels, the young woman demurely sat on a dirty mattress. Her delicate, floral print dress accented her long pale neck. Together the couple smiled hello.

That evening my heart wrestled with the fear that I might soon learn of the students’ demise. For the rest of my stay, I thought about them constantly. While we sat on camels for our photographs at the Great Wall. While pedaling rented bicycles through the peach orchard near the hotel. On the way to Ming’s Tomb, we spied soldiers riding in green army trucks. Our guide forbade us to snap pictures of the passing enclave.

Soon afterwards we flew home. A few days later, one morning while walking past a newsstand, I froze and cried out. The People’s Liberation Army had stormed Tiananmen Square in the night. I felt as if I had swallowed a stone, like someone had died in my own family. The balmy spring day became obscenely bright. I will never forget how those Chinese students – their courage, hope and faith in humanity — touched me … on their own battlefield. On their own burial ground.

Tank man

Free Will will Sent You Free

hamburger over truthIs free will an illusion? According to an recent article in the Guardian, about 12% of philosophers believe this to be the case. They argue that our choices are determined by forces beyond our control – perhaps even predetermined all the way back to the beginning of the universe – and that nobody is responsible for his or her actions.

From their perspective, we act only when prompted by physiological reasons. For example, we choose between eating a banana and apple due to a pattern of neurons firing in our brain that can be linked all the way back to our birth, our parents’ meeting, their births, and eventually, the birth of the cosmos. As evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, says:

“Free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics.”

Continue reading

Pigeons, Paper and Paradise

Photo of Regina Coeli prison by Pietro Snider/Inside Carceri

Nearly all of us have experienced some form of “lock down” during the past year of the pandemic. During this time, perhaps you’ve had time to reflect on what ‘freedom’ means to you personally and to all of us collectively.

I will be exploring this concept of freedom in an upcoming Webinar, sponsored by the Association of Advancement for Psychosynthesis.

In this webinar, you will have the opportunity to learn more about Roberto Assagioli’s reflections on the deeper meaning of ‘freedom’ – a word that is bandied about without much thought – from advertising soda drinks to promoting war.

The concept of freedom will be explored through Assagioli’s autobiographical account Freedom in Jail. This book outlines Assagioli’s own experience before, during and after his own imprisonment in Regina Coeli prison by the Italian fascist regime in 1940. Freedom in Jail offers insights into Assagioli’s understanding of true “inner freedom, pure freedom … attained rising above the fetters, a sense of expansion …”

We will begin with a presentation during which I will talk about Assagioli’s time in prison and how he practiced his psychosynthesis concepts and techniques. While in prision, he ultimately experienced his own personally transformation and self-realization.

The presentation will be followed by Q&A. Then we will break up into smaller groups and share our thoughts on a specific excerpt from his book. At the end, we will gather together as a larger group and share whatever insights we might have gained.

I hope to see you there!

Freedom in Jail: A Reflection on Pigeons, Paper, and Paradise

Date/Time: Saturday, May 15, 2021. Noon-2pm EST

Cost: Free for AAP member, $25 for non-members, May 15, 2021.

Register by: Monday, May 10.

To Register and for more Info: Click here.

Two Black Women’s Voices Once Heard

Jarena Lee and Julia Foote

They were two women preachers during a time when only men preached. They were black preachers who preached to both slaves and slave-holders. They were black women preachers who inspired men and women, believers and ‘backsliders,’ Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists and Presbyterians, lawyers, doctors and magistrates.

Their names were Jarena Lee (1783–1855?) and Julia Foote (1823-1901), two of the first African American women to achieve the right to preach in the newly formed nation. Overcoming both gender and racial barriers, both women preached widely over great distances. A widow and mother of two children, Lee traveled 2325 miles, walking many of them, to preach 178 sermons. Defying her husband and parents, Foote was a deacon and minister for five decades, traveling to the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic region, California, the Midwest, and eventually Canada.

“I had nothing to do but open my mouth and the Lord filled it.”

Jarena Lee
Continue reading

Leave Her at the River

Monk riverHow often have you been awake at night processing what happened to you the day before? Perhaps you were reworking a conversation with a family member or colleague. Or maybe you were wondering how to pay that bill that just arrived in the mail. Or perhaps you are a teacher and were busy (re)giving your lecture again, only in a “better way.”

But at 2:00 in the morning, none of these mental exercises are serving you. You really need to sleep – not figure out how you might have more clearly explained yourself to your boss/students/son or daughter. You are losing energy trying to work out how to pay a bill that’s not due for weeks. But still … you can’t seem to stop. These thoughts are swirling around in your mind, keeping you busy and awake. Continue reading

Bring Me Breath

Suffocate

I can’t breathe. I am the African-American man named George Floyd whose neck you are breaking with the weight of your body. The pressure of your knee is blocking my windpipe. You are crushing the spirit from my soul. I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe. I am the person dying of COVID-19. Grasping for a hand to hold, longing for a comforting word from a loved one. I am alone in my New York City apartment, alone in my prison cell, alone under a plastic tent. I can’t breathe.

Continue reading

After Freedom in Jail

Accompanying the stirrings of spring are the stirrings of what life will become after the COVID-19 crisis. To be honest, nobody really knows. But then, nobody ever really knew. We often like to think that we are entirely in control of our lives, our surroundings, our future. But if nothing else, the virus has taught us that we cannot control everything around us. However, we can take responsibility for our inner attitude towards everything from adversity to discomfort to death, and for our own outer actions in how we choose to live our lives. Continue reading

Finding Freedom in Jail

Regina Coeli Snijder

Photo of Regina Coeli prison by : Pietro Snider/Inside Carceri

Today I read a beautiful account by Jennifer Toon, a 41-year-old woman who spent half her life in prison. Just as she was finally given her full freedom, she found herself living once again under the Covid-19 lockdown. She writes about her time in prison:

“The most important lesson I learned during this time was that I had to accept my circumstances as they were, then change my perspective about them.”

Toon continues to explain how a change in her attitude totally changed her prison experience. Her moving account resonates with that of Roberto Assagioli.

What better time to read Freedom in Jail than when we’re all locked up at home? Roberto Assagioli intended that his “prison diary” might become an account of the time he spent in Regina Coeli prison under the fascist regime in 1940. Throughout his testimony, Assagioli offers a personal example of how to use difficult life events as an opportunity to develop one’s personal and spiritual psychosynthesis.

As most of us know by now, you don’t need to be incarcerated to feel imprisoned. Part of the human condition, at different points in our lives, is to find ourselves enslaved by some uncontrollable situation to which we feel bound. Freedom in Jail shows us that we always remain free and responsible for choosing how we actively accept the situation and what attitude we take. The mystery is that these circumstances can also lead us to our Higher Self.

Okay. Sounds good. I’ve convinced you, but how can you get a hold of a copy? Of course, as the book’s editor, I would love you to buy a book. Not only does it contain Assagioli’s writings, but 160+ footnotes, numerous photos, transcribed citations from Keyserling’s From Suffering to Fulfillment, copies of Assagioli’s official prison records, and a detailed “Introduction”.

But did you know that the handwritten notes that were compiled into Freedom in Jail are actually available online through Assagioli’s Archives?

Archive announcement

A Guide to Finding Freedom in Jail

If you are unfamiliar with how Assagioli’s Online Archives work, now’s a great time to explore this treasure trove. I have written a short Guide to Finding Freedom in Jail to help you get started. Now you too can discover the world of Assagioli’s Archives and see how you can find Freedom in Jail.

For those of you who already know your way around the archives or who already have a copy of the book, there some suggested readings from Freedom in Jail at the end of this reflection.

Buying a Copy of Freedom in Jail

Even with all this material available online, I still hope you consider buying the book. Here’s what Piero Ferrucci, Psychotherapist and Philosopher, Author of What We May Be has said:

I am impressed with the splendid work you did with Freedom in Jail. You have turned it into a microcosm, with useful psychological, spiritual and historical material that will benefit many people. Assagioli often would have the inspiration for a book, would write the outline perhaps, then leave it because he was too busy already with something else. But this book represents a milestone in his life and a crucial theme of his teachings. So I am very glad you took care of it in such a precise and complete way. The editorial level is first-rate.

To purchase a hardcopy of Freedom in Jail, please contact the Istituto di Psicosintesi in Florence at: istituto@psicosintesi.it. Books are also available from the Psychosynthesis Trust London by contacting enquiries@ptrust.org.uk.

Below are some suggested readings from Freedom in Jail. To find them in Assagioli’s Archive, just enter the Doc # in the Quick Search field.

Proposed Readings from Freedom in Jail by Roberto Assagioli

Freedom

In Jail and Freedom

Assagioli also had to accept his situation and figure out what he wanted to do with this time in jail. Like those of us under quarantine during the Covid-19 crisis, he too faced the uncertainty of how long he would be in jail and even if he would survive. These passages reflect his coming to terms with the uncomfortable situation he suddenly found himself in.

In Jail: Doc # 7670, Acceptance: Doc # 9274,
The prisoners: Doc # 9303, Freedom: Doc # 7664


An Incident and a “Test”

Assagioli did not really spend time in solitary confinement as we might understand it today. At that time, more affluent prisoners, like Assagioli, could pay for private and more comfortable cells as well as better food. Assagioli actually writes about his personal struggle when his money nearly ran out and he faced the possibility of having to share a cell with other prisoners and the idea that he might lose his “‘freedom’ … of solitude and of privacy!”

An Incident and a “Test”: Doc #7687


Transpersonal Experiences

Assagioli described some of his transpersonal experiences while in prison, including Love, Joy, and a deeper realization of the Joy within himself.

Love: Doc #7785, Joy: Doc # 7787, Joy – A deeper Realization: Doc # 8438