by Matt Sherman
I have the pleasure of working with a group of young men, and an occasional woman in Harlem. They are at a crossroads in life. Brought down into a very vulnerable state due to their involvement in things that were less than legal. Many of them are in this class with us awaiting court dates and possible sentencing because they’ve never been able to slow down and respond, but instead have raced through life reacting. Things that trigger them enter their lives, and unable to receive the trigger in a way that allows a conscious response, they go blind with rage, or on the other side lose themselves trying to fit in and be liked.
On this day I’m writing about, my mission was to slow things down and transmit a new approach. We’d be working from Lesson 15 in The Art of Soulmaking. The lesson is on reception and gives the recipe to unlocking this power through the ingredients of approval, intuition, intimacy, power, and optionality.
Meeting the students in a world they can relate to is important. Therefore, I cooked up examples to give them a taste of the flavor of each ingredient. I used cancel culture, Kanye, Ryan Coogler, watermelon, Daryl Davis, cultural caricatures, and flute music.
First in the pot, approval. This step is the simple acceptance of reality. Love it or hate it. “It is what it is.” We used a Kanye example. They all could agree that they loved his music. He was their inspiration and soundtrack musically. He said things that some didn’t love. Some didn’t vibe with his political agenda. And some did. How do you love the unlovable? How do you respect the genius that comes through Kanye? The sounds that brought you joy. You find approval for him being exactly who he is. That’s the reality. Slowing down to accept that is the first step.
Next, we showed a clip of Ryan Coogler, who none of the guys had heard of. He was born in Oakland, California. His mother, Joselyn, is a community organizer, and his father, Ira Coogler, is a juvenile hall probation counselor. Ryan is now 38. He is the director of the monumental Black Panther films. His first film grossed over 1.3 billion worldwide and broke numerous box office records, becoming the highest-grossing film directed by a Black filmmaker.
Even with this success in his pocket, Ryan told a story of traveling in Africa, where he was met with an age-old conflict. The question: would he be made fun of for eating watermelon?
The Jim Crow Era South and its caricatures of the beastly black man slurping down a watermelon in one swoop had it be that black folks now demonize the thing that brought us so much health, hydration, and deliciousness. Coogler shared a story with a vendor in Africa, how we are made fun of for eating watermelon. Meanwhile, the locals were treating the watermelon like “gold or diamonds.” They couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t want to eat what’s so important to us and our culture. Something clicked for him in that moment. He found approval where he had given it away to be liked. With approval, there is no need for an explosive reaction to triggers or shame around what is true for us.
Now for the next ingredient: intuition. Approval along with intuition allows us to sense for a play and not a punch. I showed them Nick Cannon’s “Wildin’ Out, Wild Style Battles.” This TV show began in 2005 and is now in its twentieth season. It features two teams going back and forth improvising insults. They roast one another in rhyme. All with a smile. They dance together through the your-mama jokes and high-five through the body shaming. Words that would cause fights in the streets, phrases that would have someone canceled in the media — here these players have found approval. They’ve opened to what’s coming at them. They receive it in real time. Nothing pre-rehearsed or planned. Then they allow their intuition to flow. Intuition tells them the words to play back; It downloads to them the moves to dance with their Devil, the adversary. It’s how hip hop freestyle battles channel the energy of a boxing match without the blood and bruises. It’s how approval combined with intuition can keep these students in this class free and alive. Literally.
Next in the pot are intimacy and power. When added to approval and intuition, there’s an ability to be in any room, even with our so-called enemies. Take Daryl Davis. He’s the black man who attended Ku Klux Klan rallies and invited Klan leaders to sit down and talk. His only agenda, being intimate. Fueled by his mantra, “How could you hate me if you don’t even know me?” after talking with him, numerous active Klan members and Neo Nazis withdrew from their organizations. They literally handed over their robes to Daryl. There wasn’t any convincing or coercing. There wasn’t a use of force. The power of reception through intimacy became the power to change deeply ingrained ideas. At first, the students hear the words intimacy and become a little stand-offish. Afraid they might come off as soft. Daryl showed the soft power of intimacy at work. A new power. A power greater than the unconscious reaction that is force.
The last item, optionality. The final spice to give our reception that zing. This example takes us deep into the 1990s. Two figures, Andre Benjamin and Big Boi rose to stardom out of the deep American South. Performing as the group known as “Outkast”, they transmitted to the world the southern sound. The style. Still young and filling the expectations of his hip hop peers, Andre postured and performed dressed in an Atlanta Braves jersey, pumping poetic verses about pimps and ‘playas,’ leaning back riding in classic Cadillacs.
Fast forward through the years and a number of looks and sounds. Andre, aka Andre 3000, found optionality. Andre 3000 just released his latest creation. A completely improvised album of him playing wind instruments. No lyrics, no raps, just “Dre” in complete optionality. Not fitting his fans’ expectations. Willing to do the thing that’s calling him. A seemingly complete detour from what his culture would expect.
Through optionality, these brilliant students can break the social constructs. The cultural contracts that say to carry a gun is the natural order. That fast money is the only option. That common jobs are beneath them. That yoga and meditation are for other people and not them.
With reception fully cooked, with approval, intuition, intimacy, power, and optionality carefully blended, we have a dish the world is ready for. It’s a nutrient equipping all of us to thoughtfully respond to the world around us, not react to the tempting, tasty triggers.
Matt Sherman is an Unconditional Freedom volunteer and class facilitator. With a background in arts, communications, and event management, he loves teaching, writing, and creating experiences that focus on connecting people to opportunities for discovering purpose, value, and flourishing.