As our world and nation continue to face tragedy and difficult questions, we are called together to hold space for emerging consciousness and radical healing. We continue The Garrison Institute Forum with a conversation between Rhonda Magee, Law Professor and Mindfulness Expert, and Dr. Angel Acosta, Contemplative Scholar-Practitioner, moderated by Garrison Institute CEO Jonathan Wiesner.
Magee and Acosta began by acknowledging the tension of this moment, as they intimately feel both heartbreak and joy, terror and tenderness. They also named the need for bringing a contemplative dimension to social justice, understanding that the work of justice must start with the body and the self. As Magee said:
“The first approximation of what racial justice or any type of justice looks like is right here: how are we with ourselves and with each other?”
Starting here, we can then look more deeply at who is being rendered vulnerable and what we might do to disrupt patterns of suffering. Regarding tending to the self, Magee and Acosta both referenced Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard. Acosta reflected on how right now, “the impulse for many of us is to care for others. We’ve seen it with healthcare workers and essential workers, and it’s crucial. But what does it mean to engage in self-regard in a deep way? This week I shifted towards really holding myself and attending to myself in order to show up to conversations like this with more force, more vigor, more energy.”
To cultivate wellbeing and presence, we must listen deeply to our inner landscape. But we can’t stay “inside” for long, given the world’s suffering. Acosta advised that we practice introspection and contemplation in service of changing the very structures and systems that create and perpetuate inequality. Magee remarked that pausing itself can be a form of disruption:
“Contemplative social justice education and praxis presents the opportunity to slow down and more deeply understand and resource ourselves in an ongoing way so that we minimize the tendency to get burned out, to feel overwhelmed, and to take on more.”
As educators, Magee and Acosta delved into American history, seeing how this history connects to the present, and the role of contemplating and metabolizing history in order to heal.
As a young person and student at the University of Virginia, Magee remembers wondering how the history of African Americans intersected with the suffering of other oppressed groups, and how students and practitioners of the law might contemplate history. As she progressed in her law career, she began to see the connections between the legal discrimination African Americans have faced with the discrimination of indigenous Americans, Japanese Americans, and others.
Today, she teaches a course on Race and American Legal History that covers the laws, practices, and policies that allowed for slavery, the dispossession of land from indigenous peoples, racial discrimination, and other forms of inequality. “The law moves along protecting the interests of the powerful,” she observes. “It institutionalized the idea of whites as privileged over others for hundreds of hundreds of years.”
Acosta has been tracking America’s racial history, too, through his work with the 400 Years of Inequality Project at the New School. He and his colleagues designed a timeline that allows people to see how the U.S. slave trade combined with the dispossession of native people to create a unique set of conditions where the U.S. began to entrench inequality legally and socially.
“Inviting people to slow down enough to sit with this… to visibly see the system for how it works and how it reproduces itself and also to see how it lives inside oneself,” is vital for stopping the reproduction of inequality, Acosta argued. Magee expressed a similar sentiment, quoting MIT lecturer Otto Scharmer:
“In order for the system to change, it needs to be able to see itself.”
While Magee believes this moment is calling us to know our history, she acknowledged that reflecting on history and the way it lives in us can be discomforting, painful, and triggering. Teaching such painful history semester after semester has taught her to rely on contemplative practices. Such practices allow us to look deeply at history and ourselves, preparing us to mobilize for change.
Acosta identified the awakening of consciousness that is taking place as one of the opportunities that this time presents. We are in a unique moment in which people are coming together to have conversations that could actually lead to changing policies, structures, and the fabric of communities, he shared. Magee added that “consciousness is shifting because our experience is causing us all to recognize our interconnectedness, our vulnerability in this moment.”
Yet a clear “edge” in racial justice work is that not everyone is ready to have these conversations or this kind of reckoning. People and communities stand at different points on the continuum of consciousness, which leads to diverse perceptions of what’s happening. Acosta elaborated:
“As Dr. Cornel West talks about, there is progress and there is regress. This is an opportunity that could split both ways. I think it’s an opportunity where some really powerful conversations are happening to tilt towards change in the realm of consciousness and in the realm of practice and policy… but there is contestation from communities that don’t fully agree. It’s a cultural contestation, we’re debating and contesting the idea of what a world that is different would look like.”
Magee mentioned that another edge of this work is our lived experience, which is still very segregated. We exist in the very systems that we are trying to change. “So even as we try to break free intellectually and, in our practice, seeing radical interconnectedness, seeing the construction of race, etc., we still live in these systems.”
Acosta and Magee also explored how contemplation and contemplative practices can inform our engagement with others. Magee finds that mindfulness can be a profound aid for dealing with cognitive dissonance, and in difficult conversations, it can help us be aware of what is coming up for us and how we are responding to others. The key is to “see all of this as practice,” she said. “It’s not about performing or demonstrating that you already have it together.” Acosta echoed that contemplation can also help reduce our reactivity:
“It starts with yourself… readying your spirit and readying your body. When you enter a space, when you bring people together, it is a social field. Start with yourself and make sure your spirit is settled.”
However, he also noted that there are times when anger is useful and should not be dismissed. Magee agreed, saying:
“I don’t see there being tension between contemplation and protest. For me, contemplation opens up the possibility of the full spectrum of experience. Rage is a gift that helps us discern that something in our world needs to change. I think contemplation is less about forming us into pacified beings who can always, with a smile, confront whatever comes. Sometimes it is going to be the loud yell of ‘no more, enough.’ Contemplation is a way of feeling the opportunity to transform.”
In closing, Magee shared that rage, like the struggle for justice, is rooted in love:
“We resist, we do this work, out of love. We try to wake ourselves up and others up because we care, because we love each other, and we feel that there has already been too much suffering. We realize, with some humility, that this is a ‘we’ project. We can’t end any suffering by ourselves. We were born into these projects that cause a lot of pain and we will die with projects unfinished… so can we, as we go, work together with some loving ability to be together that is itself a manifestation of our commitment to justice?”
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Rhonda V. Magee, M.A., J.D. is a Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco, a Fellow of the Mind and Life Institute, and the Chair of the Board of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. She has spent more than twenty years exploring the intersections of anti-racist education, social justice, and contemplative practices and is an internationally recognized innovator, storyteller, and leader on integrating mindfulness into higher education, law, and social justice. She recently published her first book, The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness. Visit her website to learn more.
Dr. Angel Acosta has worked for the past decade to bridge the fields of leadership, social justice, and mindfulness, facilitating leadership trainings, creating pathways to higher education, designing dynamic learning experiences, and consulting with organizations such as the NYC Department of Education, UNICEF, and others. He recently designed the Contemplating 400 Years of Inequality Experience, based at the New School, and holds a doctorate degree in curriculum and teaching from Columbia University.
Jonathan L. Wiesner is Chief Executive Officer of the Garrison Institute. As CEO, Jonathan leads the organization in growing and nurturing a network of thought leaders, scientists, teachers and others who are applying contemplative practices to address social, civic, and environmental concerns.
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