Mindfulness and Social Justice

By Rhonda V. Magee

For some, mindfulness practice inherently raises awareness of our inherent interconnectedness. For others, such awareness must be specifically cultivated. Whether inherently so or not, in my personal experience, and as I have observed among my own students, mindfulness supports increasing awareness of my interconnectedness with so-called Others in both the human and beyond-human worlds.

That mindfulness may increase our lived experience of interconnectedness is important. Many social justice theorists believe that the sense of interconnectedness is the central insight that supports compassionate action in the world. They share this insight with many long-term practitioners of contemplative practices. Thus, it is worth exploring whether and to what extent contemplative practices aid in the development of consciousness that best supports the sustained will to work with others on behalf of self-with-and-for-others.

Is Mindfulness Only a Personal Practice?

In the United States, mindfulness practice is most often presented as an individual, personal practice, with an emphasis on its capacity to increase well-being and enhance psychological flexibility and executive functioning. Indeed in most places where secularized mindfulness is taught, there is little if any emphasis on the relational dimensions of mindfulness, or interpersonal mindfulness. Even where mindfulness is offered in more traditional settings, to the degree that the sangha is an important discussion of practice, little is explored in the way of collective action for social justice.

The failure to explore the relational and systemic dimensions of mindfulness in most settings may be attributed to the common reliance on Buddhist modern adaptations of teachings of the fifth century B.C. teacher known as the Buddha. As presented in the West, those teachings emphasize personal practice. While even the early teachings of the Buddha offered counsel on such issues as the proper distribution of wealth, maintaining social harmony, and interpersonal practice, modernist adaptations have for the most part ignored the social and ethical dimensions that appear to have been as important as meditation and mindfulness training to the early teachers in the Buddhist tradition.

And yet, the ethical commitments that have long supported development along the path—the precepts that call for refraining from harming living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and becoming intoxicated—are not merely personal but interrelational and interpersonal commitments. They call upon practitioners to bring awareness to the ways that our relations with other beings and people affect the quality of our own experience: our own experience of suffering and that of others in the world.

While the precise formulation of the Four Noble or Ennobling Truths may vary, the received teachings focus on raising awareness of and comprehension of suffering; of the arising of suffering; of the cessation of suffering and the freedom it brings; and of our capacity to cultivate the path to liberation (Batchelor 2015). This focus on suffering, its causes, and our capacity to end suffering by ceasing reactivity applies not only to our personal and interpersonal experience, but also to our work within systems that create and maintain systemic suffering and structural violence. As Stephen Batchelor put it:

To ground mindfulness in the fourfold task means to keep these ideas in mind and apply them to illuminate whatever is taking place in our experience at a given time and place….When The Grounding of Mindfulness describes mindfulness as the “direct path to nirvana,” it affirms that paying attention to life leads to a falling away of habitual patterns….Nirvana is reached by paying close, uncompromising attention to our fluctuating, anguished bodies and minds and the physical, social, and cultural environments in which we are embedded.[1]

Moreover, the sangha—and the community of practitioners of mindfulness whose efforts to live well together serves as a means of awakening—is clearly central to the Buddha’s teachings. For example, in the well-known story of the disciple Ananda’s conversation with the Buddha regarding the role of friendship, in which Ananda posited as “half of the holy life,” the Buddha reportedly corrects Ananda, saying that “friendship is all of the holy life.”

Mindfulness Practice Deepens Both Personal and Interpersonal Well-Being

What if mindfulness practice were universally presented as a means of deepening both personal and interpersonal well-being and liberation? For example, what if the “all of the holy life” teaching story was seen and presented as an invitation to inquire deeply into the nature of “friendship” referenced therein? Surely, there may be dimensions of the notion of friendship meant to be conveyed by the term that resist the ready definitions for the term that emerge in the Western mind. This seems especially so given the great degree of emphasis and importance that the Buddha seemed to be placing on the notion of friendship here. If this is plausible, two questions seem naturally to arise:

  • Might the term refer to something more akin to solidarity than to that which we think of as “friendship?”
  • And if even possibly so, what might that entail for mindfulness-inspired social justice projects in the world?

As suggested above, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, solidarity means “unity of agreement in feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest or members of a group.” Given the nature of the common engagement with the dharma that arises naturally in a sangha, at least some degree of “unity of agreement in feeling or action” seems highly likely to arise in sanghas as a matter of course. And that is likely true not only of traditional sanghas, but of the less traditional “sanghas” by which group mindfulness is often defined in the West.

Whatever the logic of such a proposition, in contemplative inquiry, it fails the test of what might be called truth to the degree that it does not comport with our lived experience. Fortunately for me as I reflect on this set of questions, I can draw on personal experience with many sanghas—formal and informal—in which such a feeling emerged.

Indeed, sangha practice tends to generate among participants a feeling of support and well-being unlike most anything else. This is so whether the “sangha” has been working together for many years or is instead a temporary community of practice and learning, such as that arises among participants in relatively short-lived mindfulness-based workshops and retreats. In setting after setting, participants report that group practice tends to generate a sense of the strength and re-awakening to the power of the community. At appropriate times, I highlight and amplify the community dimension as it arises in the contemplative or mindfulness teaching and learning communities I am fortunate to guide and support in secular settings. For example, in the context of a course on mindfulness for law students taught at the University of San Francisco, a student shared the following with me in an email after a class discussion:

In response to the opinion that mindfulness is useless against, i.e. the KKK, you said that those who are mindful, who are capable of personal development, can have a community of our own, help who we can (or at least that’s what I remember).

I’m still kind of floored by how positive a revelation this is to me. I think my original stance, as expressed in my reflection, was mostly based out of a sense of loss of community and a deep fear of what I expect will be an escalation in violence as the white community further unravels. I’ll spare you the personal details, but, the white community hardly felt like a community in the first  place, and this apparently “official” split leaves me “between communities” in the sense that one is “between jobs” after mass layoffs.

So with all that…I wanted to thank you for responding to my fear and ignorance by reminding me that “community” is not limited to one’s bio family and childhood friends.

Thus, we should expect mindfulness teachers at least on occasion and perhaps as a matter of course to bring mindfulness to that dimension of individual and group experience—to suffering and to solidarity—and to actively explore ways of bringing mindfulness to bear on real problems in real life.

Unfortunately, such explorations are not common. A survey of mindfulness teachers, a sampling of mindfulness training venues, and a visit to any center of practice would reveal that social justice is often not associated as core the practices of mindfulness. Instead, social justice is often seen as something separate from, and optional to, mindfulness practice and mindfulness in the world.

This fact is exacerbated or perhaps pre-figured by the contexts within which Western mindfulness emerged: predominantly among white, male, and upper class students of Buddhism with a dream of taking the practices into the world. Given the relatively privileged backgrounds of many of the original teachers and practitioners of mindfulness in the West, it is easy to see why the practices have become largely if not primarily associated with personal well-being and productivity, not social justice.

For this reason, mindfulness practices are often perceived as more or less unavailable to or unhelpful for members of traditionally marginalized communities. In my experience teaching and facilitating groups discussing the use of contemplative pedagogy or mindfulness, I am often approached by one of the few attendees of color who poses a question like, “How might I take these into the community where I teach/live/work?” followed by a signifier that implicitly or explicitly suggests a host of cultural and social challenges. Most recently, for example, the question was put to me by a Latina professor who was exploring bringing mindfulness into her sociology classes to deepen the students’ learning and development together. When she wondered about “how to take this to my students,” she included a reference to the place where she lived: “San Jose.” Similar questions have been raised to me by people seeking to take these practices into low-income communities of color; Native American/American Indian communities; and, indeed to groups of lawyers or teenagers.

That these questions arise again and again appears to confirm that culture and context matter to the teaching of mindfulness. Context and culture matter deeply to the development and delivery of practices to be brought to bear to assist suffering individuals, families, and other social groups within communities of any kind—suffering whether it be existential or social/structural in nature. It is especially troubling, however, that these questions of culture and context may render practically inaccessible the practices of traditional mindfulness to those communities who might need them the most.

Community-Engaged Mindfulness as a Response

In contrast, some teachers in the West have discussed an approach to Buddhism that focuses on engagement with the problems of the social world. For example, Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hahn emphasized the ways the Buddhism supported social action aimed at alleviating suffering in the context of of the Vietnam war and found common ground with Martin Luther King in the fight against the triple evils of militarism, capitalism, and racism. Sometimes using the term “Engaged Buddhism,” teachers have been known to advocate taking the practices of mindfulness into direct engagement with issues of social justice and inequality of the world, and/or, to communities where the practices are not typically available. Elaborated by Donald Rothberg (as “Engaged Spirituality”), Fleet Maull, and others, engaged approaches explore means of interpreting the dharma and spirituality more generally not merely as paths to personal awakening, or inner work, but to awareness that extends to engagement in the world aimed at redressing social suffering and injustice through structural oppression (Rothberg 2006).

Relatedly, Jon Powell and others have examined some of the ways that social justice itself is spiritual practice and as such may inform traditions of practice not typically seen as being “about” social justice—including, perhaps, Western mindfulness (Powell 2003). At the 2014 International Symposium for Contemplative Studies, Powell encouraged students and researchers in the Contemplative Studies community to explore ways of examining justice and injustice in the contexts in which we find ourselves, exploring our own lived experience of othering and belonging, and opening to the dimensions of spirituality and ethical engagement that exist in diverse communities.

In the work of advocates such as these, the “engagement” dimension may be said to operate simultaneously on three levels: personal, interpersonal, and systemic. Personal practices increase awareness and ethical approaches to life that lead to empathy, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity and extend to awareness of the experiences of those around us (the interpersonal dimension). Ultimately, the commitments to non-harming and right relationship that are at the core of Buddhist ethics tend to heighten the sense of interconnectedness upon which compassionate action often arises, and appear to support work against structural inequality and oppression in our midst (Batchelor, 2015). One way to distinguish the more socially conscious approach to teaching and practicing mindfulness that may result, and to link it to efforts to engage specific communities in need is by use of the term “community-engaged mindfulness.”

I define community-engaged mindfulness as the discipline and practice of bringing mindfulness—awareness with compassion—into engagement in community, using and adapting mindfulness and compassion practices as aids in community-engaged, social justice work. Community engagement—working with real people in various geographic or otherwise loosely bound collectives to support awareness of community resources and to deepen capacity to work and thrive together—provides the opportunity to simultaneously do the following:

  • Develop the personal dimension of our own capacity to work with and learn from our own capacity to work with and learn from our own experiences, including experiences of social suffering and to learn about the structural nature of the suffering of others (the personal dimension);
  • Offer and receive supportive practices and collaborate across lines of real and perceived cultural, racial, and other differences (the interpersonal dimension); and
  • Work with others to relieve suffering at all levels, including the material and structural—institutional (the systemic dimension).

As long-term practitioners may readily sense, what I’m describing here may not be a new approach to mindfulness at all. Instead, it may be seen as an elaboration of an orientation that might naturally evolve from the practice of mindfulness in ways that gradually expand our circles of compassionate concern for others. It accords with Stephen Batchelor’s vision for an ethical, secular Buddhism grounded in, among others, a “commit[ment] to an ethics of care, founded on empathy, compassion, and love for all creatures” in which “[p]ractitioners seek to understand and diminish the structural violence of societies and institutions as well as the roots of violence that are present in themselves.” And yet, because we seldom encounter discussions of these dimensions of the mindfulness perspective in mainstream settings, it may be helpful to set forth community-engaged mindfulness as a dimension of the practice and invite consideration of what such a dimension might look like.

Adapted from Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context and Social Engagement, edited by Ronald E. Purser, David Forbes, and Adam Burke

Rhonda V. Magee is a Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco, and is an internationally-recognized thought and practice leader focused on integrating mindfulness into higher education, law and social justice.

Rhonda will be leading a retreat with George Mumford and Rose Pavlov on Mindfulness and Social Justice on October 5-7, 2018. To learn more, click here.

[1] Batchelor (2015), p. 322.

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

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