THE SPIRITUAL TEACHER ALICIA LOVES: COLE ARTHUR RILEY
The bestselling author and founder of Black Liturgies deepens our connection to “self-hood.”
– KEYS SOULCARE
Since its debut in the tumultuous summer of 2020, Cole Arthur Riley’s project Black Liturgies has grown to over 180K followers — including our Goddess-in-Chief. The writer and poet with roots in Pittsburgh, PA, has built the online sanctuary on the foundation of nurturing Black dignity through spiritual lessons, reminders, and affirmations.
Cole unapologetically expresses Black beauty, power, and rage in her own words and in the words of Black leaders who have informed her practice. In her New York Times bestselling book This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories that Make Us, the spiritual teacher shares the collective sanctity of humanity through intergenerational anecdotes and dialogue. We chatted with the acclaimed author to learn more about her words, purpose, and vision for the future.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE PROCESS AROUND CREATING YOUR STUNNING DEBUT, THIS HERE FLESH?
I’d been interviewing people in my family for a few years — collecting and preserving stories where I could — just as a personal project. Initially, This Here Flesh was going to be a very different kind of book, but by the time I went to write it, the stories of my father and gramma, in particular, were just so awake in me. It was the only thing I could write. And so, I began to travel deeper into their stories alongside my own, many of which found a home in the book. I’d call one of them on Saturday and write the chapter on Sunday. In the end, I was most interested in connecting intergenerational storytelling with spirituality and questions of what it means to be human.
ALICIA IS A BIG FAN OF YOUR PROJECT, BLACK LITURGIES. WHAT’S YOUR HIGHEST VISION FOR THIS THRIVING + NECESSARY COMMUNITY?
When I started Black Liturgies, I thought it would be this small, intimate community. Maybe a dozen or so of us. Just a few weeks into it, I knew I had to shift my imagination for it a bit as [many] people began to follow and reach out. But while the size/form has shifted a bit, my purpose has stayed pretty firm, which is to integrate spiritual practice with Black literature, Black emotion, and the Black body. I want to see us closer to our true selves and grounded in the complexity and dignity of our selfhood. And I think that journey can only be taken in the company of others. I would love for Black Liturgies to be a part of that sacred company for folks.
WHAT IS THE THEME OF THIS SEASON OF YOUR LIFE?
Memory. Lately, I’ve been trying to practice remembrance more intentionally. I can often live in the past but from a place of anxiety, not true remembrance. So I’m trying to excavate some memories without so much stress and judgment, but instead as a form of honoring what stories I contain.
WHAT MANTRA, AFFIRMATION, OR QUOTE DO YOU TURN TO FOR COMFORT OR PEACE?
“Not all speed is movement.” —Toni Cade Bambara.
In the essay [“On the Issue of Roles”], she was referring to Black liberation, but it has a way of steadying my soul in [various] situations. In general, I live a pretty slow life; I have a number of health issues that have required it. But there are days I feel the urgency of the world creep into my own rhythms of life, and I have to check myself. “Not all speed is movement.” Rest can be very liberating. Slowness is beauty.
WHAT HAVE YOU RECENTLY LEARNED ABOUT YOURSELF?
I’m beginning to realize that I’m a perfectionist. My whole life, I would gasp at the poor souls out there stressing over grades or their to-do lists — I felt so sorry for them — but I’m beginning to think perfectionism shows up in distinct ways in Black women.
Some of us don’t fit the film or TV trope of the high-strung white girl. That image always felt so distant from how I present in the world that I never considered [myself to be a perfectionist]. But there is a perfectionism that I think is more subtle, maybe one born of survival. Like if this isn’t perfect, if I’m not perfect, what will happen to me? Will I make it? I’m trying to confront the origin of that relentless inner critic. It’s quiet, but it’s in me.
WHAT HAVE YOU RECENTLY UNLEARNED ABOUT YOURSELF?
That I’m not a burden.
WHAT’S YOUR SOULCARE RITUAL? HOW DO YOU LIKE TO REFILL YOUR CUP?
I start my mornings with silence. Usually, [about] an hour where I’m just not speaking. It’s very easy for me to get carried out of myself and into other people’s emotions or expressions. Silence always brings me home.
I’ve also surrounded myself with [a small circle of] people who are truth-tellers and artists — deep but also funny as hell — and they keep me grounded.
WHEN DO YOU FEEL MOST CONNECTED TO YOUR HIGHEST SELF?
When I’m present in my body. For so long, I neglected the physical. I saw the body as secondary to the soul. (Dangerous misconception.) Especially living life in a Black and chronically ill body, I cannot afford to live a disembodied life. I need to pay attention. And when I’m listening to my body, when I’m honoring it, I feel most whole.
WHAT IS YOUR HIGHEST VISION FOR YOURSELF?
That I would create more than I destroy.
WE DEFINE LIGHTWORKERS AS THOSE THAT BRING AND SPREAD LIGHT AND POSITIVITY INTO THE WORLD. WHAT MAKES YOU A LIGHTWORKER?
Maybe that’s more aspirational for me still. I’m not a very “positive” person, sadly. But I try to tell the truth and listen more than I talk. I’d like to think that has been a kind of light to someone.
Let’s take a chapter from Cole’s book: How can you thank your body this week? Share your high-vibe rituals in the comments!