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Mindfulness and Social Justice

Prof Chris Goto-Jones explores the subject of Social Justice in the field of Mindfulness
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Greetings. Welcome back to following on from our last session in this module, the session on Trauma and Traumatic Stress. In this session, we’re going to look a little more carefully at the question of how contemporary mindfulness fits into and perhaps even participates in the wider cultural and political landscape, especially in terms of issues of equity and diversity and inclusion. We have some wonderful contributors in this module. We have Sydney Spears, and Dawn Scott, and Elizabeth Stanley, and Jeff Corntassel, and Susan Woods, and Pat Rotman. My remarks here are really meant just to humbly anchor these issues into the course rather than to repeat the offerings of these wonderful people.
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Perhaps the easiest place to start here then is with the end of our last session in which we looked into the question of the place of trauma and post-traumatic stress in contemporary mindfulness. We ended that session with the important insight that trauma is not only inflicted on individuals in singular dramatic events. Rather, we saw that trauma can also be experienced by an individual or group of individuals because of persistent or consistent exposure to oppressive or humiliating conditions. Some racialized groups, gender groups, differently-abled groups, and others may well be more exposed to trauma stimuli than others. This trauma will sit on the meditation cushion in each impacted individual.
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One crucial issue here might be a question of safety, whether this is felt or perceived or actual. What might this mean in practice? Well, perhaps I can ask the question in another way, a bit something illustrative. When you sit down or lie down to do your practice, do you feel safe? Does it feel safe for you to close your eyes when you’re in a room full of other people or on a park bench or wherever you practice? If it does feel safe, ask yourself what kind of privilege resides in that feeling of safety. Some of you will say, it depends where I’m sitting. Of course, that’s entirely correct.
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However, once again, perhaps ask yourself whether the range of places that feel safe for you will be the same as the range of places that feel safe for people from other backgrounds or social groups whose experiences of and in those places will likely have been different. Social identities, whatever those may be in the house or wherever we might signify them, have a powerful role in determining how we experience the world around us, as well as how we identify and navigate risks and dangers.
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Part of the power of traumatic experiences including those that are sustained by groups of people within structures and systems of differential privilege is that they not only change how we evaluate our safety, but they also heighten our vigilance for danger around us. Several years ago, I can remember being a participant in a mindfulness class in London, for instance, which involved about 16 people of various genders. The age range, I guess, was between about the mid 20s through to the 60s. It was a fee-paying class in a gentrified part of town, so everybody was reasonably affluent and tailored. Of the 16 participating people, 15 were white.
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At the start of the session, the teacher told us to lie on our backs and close our eyes. One participant did not want to do this, preferring to sit with his eyes open. The teacher calmly and gently explained that she wanted everybody to do the same practice because she’d carefully planned the session. She suggested that this participant would enjoy it if only he gave it a chance. She repeated her instructions that he should lie down and close his eyes. Now clearly uncomfortable, now also a little embarrassed, the man lay down and closed his eyes.
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From where I was lying, I could hear how shallow and irregular his breathing had become, and I was not surprised when he stood up in the middle of the practice and quietly left the room. After a few minutes, I went out to check on him. I knew him from some work meetings in the USA where he lives. I considered him a friend. He was sitting outside the room on a chair, his head in his hands, a tear on his cheek. I just sat with him, I didn’t ask him anything, I just sat there.
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Then after a while, he looked at me and he said, and I remember it really vividly, “How does she think it feels when an American black man is told to lie down and close his eyes in a room full of white people?” My point here is not that the teacher was mean or ill intentioned towards this man, and indeed, he didn’t blame her for anything. In fact, she was kind and gentle. She was very well regarded, very well-meaning as a mindfulness teacher. Rather, the point is that the systemic assumption that the whole class is sitting in the same room, that the room is or feels the same for everyone in it contains deep rooted privilege.
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My friend was actually sitting in a different room, and his room wasn’t as uncomplicated and safe as the teacher’s. If he’d been given the option to stay sitting with his eyes open, that would have helped him to stay regulated. He told me afterwards he would have stayed in the class. Instead, he was sitting outside the class crying, feeling embarrassed and ashamed. A variation on the situation might help us to get a sense of the complexity of the social structures of racism and orientalism that find their ways into mindfulness too. In this case, now in the Netherlands rather than in England, I participated in a mindfulness class that was deliberately framed as diverse.
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It’s specifically encouraged by participation and aimed always to ensure that white folks were less than 50 percent of participants. That is, it was very well-intentioned and I felt lucky to be in the group. However, something that became clear as the class progressed over a number of weeks was that the teacher subtly but consistently commented on how lucky the two Asian presenting participants were, because he knew that then quotes must have grown up meditating at home while we, yes, he said we, have to struggle to learn meditation as adults.
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It happened these two Asians presenting participants who were Asian American exchange students who I knew relatively well, neither of them had any history of meditation at home, and neither of them came from Buddhist families. They had decided to take this mindfulness class to help them manage the stress of doing graduate work overseas, but they found themselves instead feeling singled out, misunderstood and even more stressed. One day they just stopped going to the class. Now once again, my point is not that this teacher was malicious or evil in any way, indeed, he’d made all kinds of efforts to make this class more open, more diverse, and more inclusive.
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The point rather is that a strong current of orientalism in the dominant culture shaped the teacher’s expectations of what it meant to be Asian, and without critical reflection on how this ideological fantasy might be impacting his behavior, the teacher’s comments, which he meant to be encouraging and friendly, impacted on these two real people as discouraging and isolating. Following the horrifying anti-Asian shootings in Atlanta in March of 2021, the complex position of Asians and systemic anti-Asian ism in mindfulness is the subject of one of the podcasts included in this module. I’m not going to repeat myself here. I hope you’ll listen to that.
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But before leaving this topic, I think it’s important to address a tendency for white teachers like me at this point to throw up their arms in despair and say something like, if I’m really expected to accommodate every single person sensitivities and subterranean traumas, how am I supposed to do anything at all? Isn’t it enough that I mean, no harm? I do my best. Now I hear this kind of thing a lot, and it’s actually a really good question. There are a range of possible answers, its not yet clear that anyone has got this perfectly right, and it’s not even clear to me that perfectly right will ever be possible, may not even mean anything.
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My preferred response to this question, is to break it up into two different things and to say something like this. First, no, nobody can be expected to be aware of and prepared for all the possible issues that people bring with them into mindfulness classes. Yet, there are some really simple trauma sensitive modifications that we can make, that will lessen the potential inadvertent damage being done. This in the last session. Part of what it means to be doing my best for students of mindfulness and part of what it means for me to say that I mean, no harm is that I will commit to responsible training in these issues.
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Second, becoming aware of the systemic and structural workings of racism and privilege takes time and commitment and it’s really painful. There’s a whole lot of suffering to be found in this work. But if we’re serious about doing our best, as the hypothetical question I suggests, then this is exactly the work that needs to be done. One of the amazing pioneers of the Radical Dharma movement, the queer black American Tibetan Buddhist Lama, Rod Owens, once remarked to me that the best question for white allies, or accomplices to ask is this, what am I willing to give up? Really struck with me and stuck with me as a question.
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I sit with that nearly in every day, what am I willing to give up? It’s such a powerful and helpful question, because it draws my attention to the fact that it’s not enough just to recognize when structures, or systems disadvantage others. It’s also necessary to recognize how I benefit from, or even enjoy my privilege in these situations. That is, in many cases, wanting to end the injustice will also require me to want to give up my privilege and my enjoyment of it. Hence, Lama Owen’s question, what are you willing to give up? If I want to end injustice, but I’m not willing to give up my privilege, then I met an impasse before I even start.
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The Radical Dharma movement is full of resources for people, including white people, who want to do my best to tackle individual and systemic racism and privilege in mindfulness and elsewhere. One teaching from that movement that I found helpful, is to incorporate a question into my mindfulness practice. I discussed it in one of the podcasts included in this module, so you can listen to it. But in brief, as I said in my practice when aspects of my body, or emotions, or thoughts emergent into my awareness, I pause and ask myself, what influences in my life have led to the arising of my feelings about those parts of me. Why is it that I feel shame about one part of me?
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Why is it that I feel anger about a particular feeling? What are the factors in my world of experience, that have caused these things to be as they are. In fact, this practice feels a lot like the fourth stage in the establishment of the foundations of mindfulness in the Satipatthana, mindfulness in Dharma’s. Which is very much concerned with folding mindfulness of causation into our mindfulness of the moment. In some ways, this practice enables us to bring a quality of mindfulness, precisely to those invisible structures and systemic forces that otherwise manipulate us into contributing to harm. If you’re interested in some audio guidance for practice like this, let us know and we’ll sort it out for you.
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For me at least, I don’t mean any harm and I’m just doing my best. Means amongst other things, that I’m at least working on these questions in sincere, ardent, and effortful ways. In this session then, we build on their discussion about trauma in the last session, to explore some of the ways in which structural and systemic prejudice and privilege, might find expression in mindfulness. We’ve also touched on some of the ways to begin the difficult process of addressing these. In the other videos for this module, you’ll hear from a range of other voices about other issues in trauma, in social justice, in diversity and inclusion. I hope you get something out of it and I wish you all well.

In this video I explore the subject of Social Justice in the field of Mindfulness.

How does contemporary mindfulness fit in, and perhaps even partcipates in, the wider cultural and political landscape, especially in terms like equity and diversity, and inclusion?

Leiden University

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Demystifying Mindfulness

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