Like many of you on this course, I am feeling the relentlessness of things at the moment. The pandemic continues. And continues. ... And continues. Attempts to alleviate it are uneven and sometimes confusing. Resistance to these attempts can be infuriating. Violence continues to haunt so many streets around the world. On some days, it can be very hard to see through to the light – the wounds can feel very deep and dark. However, as the great poet Rumi tells us when asked what to do about pain and sorrow: ‘Stay with it. The wound is the place where the light enters you.’
In that spirit, I’m like to invite you to take a breath, right now, gather your awareness into your breath, and then ground your breath into your body. Yes, now. Do it now. Each in-breath like a new beginning, and each out-breath a letting go or a letting be...
I can wait a few minutes, if you’d like to breathe a bit more ...
... OK welcome back.
Many of you have been in touch to express your dismay about the horrific shootings in Atlanta last Tuesday. Eight people were murdered. Six of them were Asian-American women. It seems impossible to feel this as anything other than anti-Asian and misogynistic violence. Rather than allowing numbers to obscure our awareness of the weight of this, perhaps it’s helpful to honour that each of these ‘numbers’ had names, families, hopes, dreams, and fears, just as do we: Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, Suncha Kim, Yong A. Yue, Delaina Yaun, Paul Andre Michels.
In the context of our course, I have written to you before about some of the ways that mindfulness might (and might not) help us to confront racism, bigotry, and prejudice. Including some of the ways in which mindfulness might help us to encounter anger and rage more skilfully. I won’t repeat myself here. However, over this last week, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the way that the field of mindfulness is sometimes rather ambivalent about its relationship with Asia. And I’ve been trying to consider what might be the wider impact of that ambivalence.
This week, it seems so important for us to name the debt of gratitude that all mindfulness practitioners owe to various Asian traditions. While we spend quite a lot of time in our course considering how and whether we might also make use of some non-Buddhist traditions in order to understand mindfulness, we can never lose sight of the tremendous power and richness of Buddhist, Daoist, and Hindu teachings on meditation and mindfulness. Without these beautiful historic and living traditions, which all have their roots firmly planted in Asian cultures, this field would simply not exist today.
With that in mind, I have been thinking about the tendency for practitioners of (what, in our course, we have called) ‘construct mindfulness’ today to avoid acknowledging or even mentioning this heritage. In the most extreme cases, Asia is stripped out of a technologised version of mindfulness, sometimes on the basis that naming this identification might alienate some of the people who could benefit from the practice. This is often called ‘cultural adaptation,’ and it is frequently seen as unproblematic or even as strategically efficacious.
However, it’s worth pausing here to reflect on what this move effectively endorses. There is at least a sense in which the strategic disavowal of the connections between mindfulness and Asian traditions tacitly endorses a background assumption of anti-Asianism in some of the societies where mindfulness is being taught. Not only might it serve this negative function, but this disavowal also misses an opportunity to make a very positive point about honouring the mutliple Asian heritages of this powerful practice. In the worst cases, cultural adaptation becomes something more like ‘cultural appropriation’ for the (often financial) benefit of mindfulness vendors.
For some mindfulness providers (such as therapists and clinicians), presenting mindfulness in a historically, ethically, or politically sensitive way may be only a secondary consideration; their main consideration may be to ensure that mindfulness helps their patients. If cutting an Asia-shaped hole into the picture means that some patients can experience amelioration of their suffering through mindfulness practices, then this might be a deal they’re willing to make. And it’s not clear that they’re wrong to do this in their context. Indeed, there are many ways to argue that they’re right.
Nonetheless, science labs and medical clinics exist in society, not abstracted from it, and they have tremendous prestige and influence. Even if such actors do not intend to make political interventions, their stance on a particular topic makes an important difference. As we all struggle to understand the workings of endemic and systemic racism today, this seems like a clear site for reflection. Is it really the case that cutting an Asia-shaped hole into mindfulness (in order to serve non-Asian clients) does no harm? It might (or might not) do no harm to a client, but what kind of impact does this action have on others?
For myself, whenever I teach contemporary or therapeutic mindfulness, I have always tried to locate it in a constellation of contemplative traditions, most (but not all) of which originate in Asia. More recently, alongside a ‘territorial acknowledgment’ that recognises the Indigenous people upon whose land I live, learn, and teach, I’ve started to offer a form of ‘lineage acknowledgment’ at the start of classes. This ‘lineage acknowledgement’ recognises the roots of much of modern mindfulness in diverse Asian traditions, especially Buddhism.
To be fair, I usually emphasise that the contemporary practice of mindfulness that we learn in MBSR or MBCT isn’t a Buddhist practice per se, and I’m always clear that the practice doesn’t require any of us to adopt or change any particular disposition to religion. But, I want to be clear with participants in my classes that we wouldn’t be sitting and breathing on these cushions with our eyes closed were it not for the work of hundreds, thousands, and millions of dedicated practitioners from Asian countries throughout history. Do I lose participants who are anti-Asian? Possibly. But credit where credit is due, right?
Sadly, as some of you know very well, something like the opposite situation can also be a problem. In our course, we talk about Orientalism as an ideology that romanticizes ‘Asia’ and Asian people. Like systemic racism, Orientalism can be in the water we drink and in the structure of the walls around us. It’s in the way the popular media represents ‘Asia,’ often as an undifferentiated or monolithic site – the mythical ‘East.’ It’s in all those little comments and images that go unchallenged.
Some of the markers of Orientalism include the assertion of binary opposites (‘In the West we abc, but in the East they xyz’), the exoticisation of Asia (‘In the West we’re scientific/modern, in the East they’re mystical/ancient’), or the feminization and fetishization of Asia. And, sadly, we see these hints and signs of these markers very often in the field of mindfulness.
Many people outside of Asia who fall into this ideological group are well-meaning but just naive: they feel a genuine affection for a vision of ‘Asia’ that is at least partially a fantasy. For instance, once, when I was teaching at a prestigious medical school, one very earnest student asked me whether I’d learned to levitate while I was living in Japan ... and when would I teach them to do it? When I said that we wouldn’t be learning to levitate, the student left the class.
Just as we saw with the strategic deployment of a kind of ‘Asia-shaped hole’ in mindfulness in order to make it more approachable for people with ambivalent or negative attitudes towards ‘Asia,’ so we also sometimes see the strategic deployment of Orientalism as a way to entice other groups into the practice. Again, for providers such as therapists or clinicians, the driving question is usually whether some form of Orientalism is helpful and efficacious for their clients, rather than whether Orientalism might be causing harm in some more nebulous way. This approach is understandable in that context, but it still warrants reflection.
On some level, Orientalism is often well-intended, but in the end it’s also a way of denying the reality and diversity of Asia and Asian people. And then, sometimes, when real people from Asia don’t perform these fantasy roles, Orientalists can get angry or resentful.
Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, Suncha Kim, and Yong A. Yue were real people with real lives. None of them could levitate.
I’m pleased to be able to tell you that we’re going to be rolling out some new content into our MOOC in a month or so, which will include some new lectures and interviews about issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion in mindfulness, and also some new content about the relationship between mindfulness and the natural world around us. Watch this space!
Meanwhile, if you’re one of the many people who are struggling with some of these issues at this difficult time, I might simply encourage you to offer a word or two of gratitude at the start of your next practice. When you first sit or lie down or stand ready for a mindful walk, take a moment to acknowledge the land beneath you, to thank it for supporting your weight, and take another moment to acknowledge the lineage of the practice you are about to perform, perhaps offering a word of thanks to the people who have kept it alive for so long. This could be as short as a few breaths, or as long as an entire practice. Whatever feels right for you. So, if recent events have felt like a wound to you, see whether you can allow that wound to let Rumi’s light into you.
Wishing you happiness, health, safety, and freedom from enmity,
During the 2020/21 COVID19 pandemic, Chris Goto-Jones started writing periodic 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.