On Saturday 10 June, 18 participants from diverse backgrounds and from across the country gathered with three facilitators to workshop diversity, inclusion and social justice in the mindfulness world.

We worked together to understand the ways in which mindfulness spaces are exclusionary and exclusive. We explored how mindfulness trainings overlook difference by adopting a mantra of universal suffering, suggesting that we all suffer in the same ways. We considered how the mindfulness community, as a result, tends to ignore what is under our very noses: (i) how we fail to acknowledge the systemic, socio-economic and political inequalities that fracture and divide our societies privileging some at the expense of others; and (ii) how we generally disregard the ways in which some groups are marginalised both within society and within the movement. We challenged the notion of mindfulness as a neutral, objective practice, and set out to consider power at individual, institutional and structural levels to understand intersectional failures.[1] We then looked at how mindfulness can be and is already adopted to empower marginalised groups.

At the start of the session, we identified three immediate ways in which the practice of mindfulness is political:

1.     Agency and empowerment

Mindfulness is essentially about transformation. Easily mistaken as encouraging mere noticing of what is underway, mindfulness encourages us to bring about change. The acts of pausing, creating space, cultivating perspective and kindness are all acts of transformation, albeit personal. Through these acts of turning towards pain or discomfort with kindness and interest, we change the field of our experience. When we direct mindfulness inwards and outwards, it becomes possible to change conditions that perpetuate suffering or to hold them in a different light. In the inner realm, we become aware of the second and subsequent arrows of suffering[2] and, where possible, refrain from setting these off. We also attune more keenly to the first arrows that cause harm and learn to relate to these differently. At a social level, this marks a shift from “accepting the things I cannot change” as we come to recognise the causes of suffering and empower ourselves to change the conditions that perpetuate such suffering. Angela Davis’ notion of “changing the things I can no longer accept”[3] helps us, through mindfulness, to become social transformers and agents of justice and peace.

2.     The circle: who’s outside the inner circle?

Learning our inter-connectedness, what Thich Nhat Hanh calls our inter-being, is at the heart of mindful compassion practices. We come to see our inter-dependence: that our acts of savouring chocolate connect us to the growers and pickers of cacao beans, and realise that commonly, the workers who tend the beans cannot afford the product.[4] When we see how our lives are inter-twined in the ways Naomi Shihab Nye describes in Kindness[5] – that we are not only related to the persons we admire, but to the suffering and causes of suffering across the planet – mindfulness becomes an act of awakening: our social conscience grows. It suddenly is no longer an individual act of wellbeing but a political act of understanding relationality, common humanity and dignity. We become aware of how easily, when it focuses on our individual problems without recognising social causes of suffering, mindfulness becomes a force of separation and atomisation rather than one that fosters connection and builds community.

3.     What we embody: implicit biases, blind spots, and experiences

None of us exist outside the conditioning of society. We are all subject to its influences: its explicit and implicit training of the lenses through which we see and participate in the world. Recently, more attention has come to focus on the ways in which societies have, for centuries, privileged some groups more than others. ‘White privilege’ has come under the spotlight showing how societies, structures and systems are organised to advantage white, heteronormative, middle-class males at the expense of other groups that are, by comparison and irrespective of numbers, marginalised. Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack[6] and Robin DiAngelo’s exploration of white privilege and white fragility[7] show how skewed accessibility to education, the law, housing and work favours white, middle-class, straight men, and disadvantages anyone else to various degrees – most notably those who experience intersectional oppressions. As long as we, as mindfulness teachers and practitioners, remain blind to how these conditions inform our community and what we bring to the circle, we repeat these entrenched social patterns that reinforce stereotypes, socio-economic and political inequalities and reproduce the status quo.

This set the tone for the day. Looking at how we have appropriated and fashioned mindfulness in the West proved uncomfortable, but we made a start. We learnt that despite our best ethics, mindfulness can cause harm in its exclusivity, and that there are many emotions and uncertainties around uncovering unconscious bias and bringing this centre stage. We recognised that our learning environments have to feel safe and inclusive to participants; that hurts which stem from historically entrenched power relations have to be named; that the discomfort of ‘white guilt’ which may come with opening up the movement’s fractures is not meant to be assuaged or resolved.

We identified our strengths as a collective, our dreams for community-based mindfulness, and strategies that will bring these imaginings to fruition. We left feeling somewhat braver, stronger and more tender knowing that we’ve embarked on a process that will lead to further learning and action. It seems that some of our healing may come through combined group action rather than isolated introspection.

The coming days in this social justice series will celebrate community-based initiatives already underway, skill us in inclusion-building approaches, and identify further actions that foster mindfulness for the many.

CMI is committed to building community-based mindfulness – to putting communities at the centre of our endeavours. We hope you will join us as we seek to transform our own understanding of mindfulness and its delivery to ensure that we acknowledge, engage and challenge the social causes of stress, and never ask people to become more resilient to endure them.

[1] Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality in 1989 to explain how structures and systems exploit identities such as race, class, gender, sexuality and ableism as sites of discrimination that articulate to create multiple social injustices and compounded marginalisation for certain social groups. Her TED talk The Urgency of Intersectionality underscores the need to unpack the complexities of intersectional discriminations that are blindsided by white, middle-class patriarchies to create inclusive communities for all, especially those most marginalised. Found here.

[2] The first and second arrow of suffering, depicted in the Sallattha Sutta: The Arrow is explained by Thanissaro Bikkhu. Found here.

[3] WOW Angela Davis in Conversation. Found here.

[4] Ibrahim Mahala’s patchwork installation of used jute sacks titled Out of Bounds highlights Ghana’s production of cocoa beans, cheap labour, exploitation of markets and global inequalities. Found here.

[5] Naomi Shihab Nye talks about her poem Kindness. Found here.

[6] Peggy McIntosh discusses Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack with activities to expose hidden privilege. Found here.

[7] Robin DiAngelo discusses systemic oppression and race-based stress. Found here.

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