The last week or so has seen some dangerous, disturbing, and frightening developments, especially in the USA. Some of you have written to me to express your heartache about the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May. For some, your response has been despair and horror, for others anger and outrage, and for a few something like resignation. And then many of you appear to be struggling with how to feel about the protests, the destruction, and the violence that has been unleashed in the period since then. Some of you have been directly involved.
To be honest with you, I too have been listening to various responses to this terrible situation and I have also been struggling with how to respond. As I mentioned in my mail last week, the COVID pandemic has both revealed and exacerbated social and material inequalities in all societies. Racism and other forms of bigotry and chauvinism, none of which are new to our societies, seem to be being emboldened as the pressure-cooker of lock-down is beginning to be released. People are venting, sometimes in the most offensive and dangerous ways. ...
As I said last week, mindfulness is not a magical fix for this situation, although the cultivation of mindfulness can certainly support us as we strive to respond compassionately, effectively, and skilfully. Mindfulness practices can help us build the emotional and psychological capacity to take action, and they can also help us find some mental space in which to consider what might be the best actions to take. To some extent, the idea of ‘skilful action’ in mindfulness refers precisely to the combination of capacity and wisdom that emerges from what Buddhists call ‘right mindfulness’ (samma sati). With humble apologies for quoting myself, perhaps you will recall that last week I wrote about a possible mindful response to awakening to the suffering in the world around us:
"We might ask: given what I know now about inequality and prejudice, how can I do something beautiful in this world? If our mindfulness practice enables some answers to this question, then it is playing its role."
Some of you will immediately recognise this as a variation on the foundational question of Buddhism itself, the question that the Buddha famously asked himself when he sat under the bodhi tree and refused to stand up until he’d found an answer.
It’s worth reflecting on the path taken by the Buddha to get to that legendary tree. Perhaps you can recall that he was born a prince, into great privilege, in an environment free of all the signs of suffering. Until one day he finally witnessed the reality of sickness, aging, and death. And this realization (that he was staggeringly privileged and lived in a kind of artificial bubble of ease) changed him forever. In a way, this was his awakening. And he then set out to find a way to act in the world that would contribute to the alleviation of the suffering of all people, to which end he eventually sat under that tree and meditated (and attained enlightenment). Buddha’s skilful action was then to teach others how to accomplish the same.
My point here is simply that while it may seem that much of the field of (what we have called) ‘construct mindfulness’ today is politically naïve, there’s a sense in which ‘original mindfulness’ was deeply embedded in and inspired by these profound questions of social justice. Becoming aware of the injustices that we don’t experience ourselves (because of our privilege) is part of the imperative of practice. Which is also a way of saying that practice should reveal to us the dimensions of our own privilege, even when that provokes shame, or guilt, or fear. And then it should support us in dealing with whatever arises in honest, wise, skilful ways.
With that in mind, let’s take a moment to look frankly at the landscape of mindfulness today. Once again, it’s worth pausing to correct the commonplace assertion that ‘we’re all in the same boat,’ either during this pandemic or even in a mindfulness class. We’re not. The ‘construct mindfulness’ field today is dominated by North America and northern Europe, where (without wishing to diminish the genuine suffering of people in these complicated societies) the experiences and backgrounds of practitioners are (from a global perspective) deeply privileged. Hence, it would a mistake (and might also be offensive) to generalize about mindfulness practice only from the experiences of this relatively privileged majority.
And likewise, even within these relatively rich, ‘first-world’ countries, the landscape of mindfulness is dominated by the white middle-classes, which again (without wishing to diminish the genuine suffering of any individuals in these complicated societies) is the most privileged of categories. Hence, even within individual societies, it would be a mistake (and might also be offensive) to generalize about mindfulness practice only from the experiences of this relatively privileged majority.
In recent years, there has been some excellent work on ‘trauma-sensitive’ or sometimes ‘trauma-informed’ mindfulness practice. One of the important advances in that work is the call for mindfulness practitioners to become more aware of the (sometimes wildly) varied life experiences of people in classes or in therapy sessions. Importantly, this does not only mean having people complete disclosure forms at the start of a course (which should be routine for all responsible mindfulness teachers), but it also means recognizing that some groups in society are likely to be dealing with an ongoing process of surviving structural discrimination and trauma, which will seriously impact their interaction with mindfulness.
A couple of simple examples may suffice to illustrate what I mean:
I once attended a mindfulness retreat in Europe in which all but one of the participants appeared to be (and self-identified as) white. One participant was a man of Japanese descent. At various points during the first couple of days, the retreat leaders made casual references to the natural advantage this Japanese man must have learning meditation because of the way he grew up. On the third day, the man had gone. He had quit the course. In conversation with him later, I discovered that he’d quit the course (and a few others) because of the Orientalism of the teachers, which he found offensive and pervasive in the field. As a result, far from being easier for him to learn, mindfulness had become almost completely inaccessible to him, unless he was willing to sit through constant caricaturing of his ethnic background, to which he was also relentlessly exposed in society at large. While he knew that the teachers meant him no harm (and indeed, they were gentle, compassionate, and caring teachers), the structural Orientalism of the field alienated this individual.
At a local meditation group that I was visiting at one time in North America, the teacher was taking some time to explain different kinds of postures that people might use in their practice. The group was well established and had been meeting every week for a long time. They sat around in a circle and listened carefully. She was an excellent speaker, and her intention was clearly and deeply compassionate. At one point, she started to explain how having our eyes open (rather than closed) in a practice might change the quality of our concentration. To demonstrate this, she observed that one of the participants in the group tended to practice with his eyes open, so she invited everyone to do the next practice with their eyes closed including (and especially) that one individual.
In the middle of the following practice, the man who tended to practice with his eyes open – the only black man in the room – stood up and left, clearly agitated and distressed. I followed him out to see whether he was ok, and he explained that his experience of racism in that city centre had conditioned him to be constantly watchful and aware of the space and the people around him – he was literally frightened of closing his eyes in case he was in danger. Requiring him to close his eyes, and effectively singling him out as someone who needed to do so, felt like violence against him.
Just as in the previous case, there was no suggestion that the teacher was ill-meaning or anything other than caring. However, it was clear that the teacher was simply unaware that the simple act of closing one’s eyes in a public space relies upon a level of trust and a feeling of safety that is far from universally shared by all populations in any society. Being unaware of this, the teacher inadvertently activated the trauma of a form of structural racism.
So, what is my point in all this?
I guess that the first point is that mindfulness is not a panacea for all of society’s ills. It’s not going to provide a magical solution to social injustice. However, we can certainly make use of our mindfulness practice to support ourselves in our endeavours to act more skilfully, more wisely, and more compassionately in the world. Our practice should help us cultivate the emotional and psychological resources we need, and should help us to inhabit the mental spaciousness we need for ‘right mindfulness’ and ‘right action.’ Starting with our own impact on the world around us, mindfulness makes its contribution.
And my second point is that the field of mindfulness is not free of its own forms of prejudice, discrimination, and injustice. We need to guard against complacency. Indeed, just as in last week’s message, I think a key issue here is to use our sadness, or outrage, or despondency about the violent racism in our societies as a portal to a re-evaluation of ourselves, our actions, and our priorities. We might ask: given what I know now about inequality, prejudice, and violence in my society, what do I need to do differently and how can I do something beautiful in this world?
I wish you all freedom from enmity, freedom from danger, and ease of being.
Dr. Chris Goto-Jones.
Leiden University - Centre for Innovation; University of Victoria.
During the 2020 COVID19 pandemic, Chris Goto-Jones writes weekly emails to the participants of the MOOC DeMystifying Mindfulness on Coursera and FutureLearn. Following requests to put them all in one place, they are reproduced here.