“Discovering Mindfulness”

A few months back I received a mass email from someone in my general professional circle asking for information or stories regarding the use of mindfulness in our social justice education, activism and research. More specifically, the person said they were interested in compiling this information as a foundation for their “cutting edge research on mindfulness in social justice work”. And that last bit is what really made my stomach turn: there is nothing “cutting edge” about examining mindfulness in social justice education, activism, or research. The “edge” is only in this White, male, U.S.-born, tenured professor’s mind simply because he has not seen it before. And sadly, the mindset that makes him think that he is “discovering” mindfulness as it pertains to social justice work is the very same mindset that will make it extremely difficult for him to actually develop or attain mindfulness. Much like the mythical Columbus narrative, this academic professional believes that because it is new to him, it must therefore be new to the field; “if I have not seen it referenced in all these years, it must not exist”. Never mind that all over the globe these traditions have formed the pillars of social structures geared toward what we call “social justice” for millennia. Or, more recently that Thich Nhat Hanh has been espousing engaged Buddhism for decades, or that the Dalai Lama has long supported extensive research on the important role meditation can play in education, or even that the traditions of non-violence and non-harming in U.S. social justice activism in large part arise from deeply rooted, and decidedly pre-Western traditions globally and in North America.

Thus, “mindfulness” is not a new concept in social justice work. What is “new” is the ubiquitous framing of millennia-old practices from all over the world as one, uniform “mindfulness” package. And that framing has not come about because it is the next step in a natural evolution of these bodies of work, information, practice, or tradition. No, this framing has come about, particularly in the U.S., because it is fast enough, easy enough, and basic enough for U.S.ers to understand and engage in. In many of its U.S. iterations, “mindfulness” could be described as the McDonald’s of deep insight practice. It is quippy enough for CNN to do a short report on it, it is easy enough for a magazine to feature it on its cover and run a 2000 word essay presumably explaining it all, and it is marketable enough for volumes of books to be written by U.S.ers for U.S.ers and that fit within the U.S. frame. Take for example the mass marketing of yoga. I have a friend who has been a “hot yoga” instructor for a handful of years but if you were to ask her what deep tradition that yogic style comes from, she would have no idea. Not because she is not intelligent enough to know, but because her teacher training did not emphasize it. That yogic practice does not need you to know the deep spiritual significance of what they do, they just want you to feel like you got a good work out and that “something happened in there”. Now, this is not at all to dismiss those studios, teachers, and practitioners who have been quietly, respectfully and thoughtfully cultivating a practice in this country – those people have taken great pains to be ever-conscious from whence they came and are a strong model for how this work can effectively be brought to the U.S. However, it should be noted that these same people would never say that they have “discovered” yoga or that they are doing “cutting edge” yoga instruction. Similarly, the Vipassana center I occasionally study at is constantly framing its teaching within the core instruction the Buddha laid down 2500 years ago.

To return to my initial example, I am not at all saying that a White, male, U.S.-born, tenured professor should not talk about, read about, speak about, think about, or practice mindfulness in his social justice work. What I am saying is that there must be a measure of humility and introspection and self-analysis that goes along with that practice in order to have any credibility and thus to have any real contribution to the overall social justice environment. It would be refreshing if this person had instead said something to the effect, “The U.S. education system (social justice education and activism included) has been woefully late in recognizing the huge range of millennia-old practices that encourage students, teachers and administrators alike to be mindful of the work we do and the impacts we have. As such, I and my colleagues are conducting a small body of research to identify what it is that we have been missing and what other societies around the world, as well as indigenous societies here in North America, have known for thousands of years. We broach this topic with deep humility and a full recognition that the limitations of our social histories and long-standing frames of reference allow us to understand only a small portion of what we will uncover. Nevertheless, we are interested in adding one more voice to the many already there regarding the topic of mindfulness in social justice work and welcome your thoughts and contributions.” An unlikely missive from anyone who has as much privilege as most U.S. academics do, but in my opinion a necessary approach if we are to grasp the complexity and full application of these traditions we are lumping together as “mindfulness”.

And so what leads a White, male, U.S.-born, tenured professor to claim that his research on mindfulness in social justice work is “cutting edge”? In a phrase, roughly five centuries of colonization – colonization as it impacts the minds, bodies and spirits of our society’s people, and colonization as it constructs large-scale ideologies, systems, and identities that are rooted in power, privilege and access for some at the direct expense of others. It is this colonial mindset (substantially honed in higher education) that hides these systems of power and privilege behind the notion of “discovery” or “research” and then ties them to one’s value and identity as an academic. Unfortunately, academics such as these will perhaps be seen by their peers as having actually “discovered” mindfulness in social justice education and activism. Their publications on the matter will likely be lauded as the very “cutting edge work” they claim it to be, and they will be asked to speak and train and teach on such matters. I say “unfortunately” not because I do not like this colleague or others like him, but because if this work is viewed as the foundation or starting point for mindfulness in social justice education it dismisses the centuries upon centuries of work already done in this regard and sets our overall social justice work back by significant degrees. Rather, I would like U.S. work on mindfulness in social justice education and activism to start squarely from a place of humility, rather than discovery, such that we open ourselves to the voluminous bodies of work that can light our way and support us in our desire for justice, hope, and peace in our world.