With the upcoming release of Ronald Purser’s book, McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, the media is offering a lot of interviews and articles highlighting his point of view. The problem is, one very important point he makes tends to get lost in all the hype and promotion. His valuable point is that, in order for it to be a truly revolutionary act, mindfulness must be practiced for the benefit of all, not just for one individual’s temporary stress relief.
Check out the wonderful work of mindfulness activists and teachers of color like Rhonda Magee, Rod Owens, Angel Kyodo Williams, Mushim Patricia Ikeda, Dekila Chungyalpa and Larry Yang to see how engaged mindfulness can be a catalyst for social and ecological justice, equity and inclusion.
In order to rise above the fray and capture our distracted and short attention spans, creating emotionally charged titles and bite-sized over-generalizations is a temptation that many have succumbed to. Mr. Purser’s definition of mindfulness as “basic concentration training”, a stress management self-help tool, and a product to be packaged and sold, is an over-simplification and a very circumscribed view. His writings and interviews that I have encountered online seem to have the tendency to lump all kinds of practices, providers and services into this narrow view of mindfulness. And while the “evil empire” approach is very effective in stirring fear and controversy, bad means don’t lead to good ends.
In his article, The Mindfulness Conspiracy, Mr. Purser concedes to one (1) “worthy dimension” of the mindfulness he is describing – “Tuning out mental rumination does help reduce stress, as well as chronic anxiety and many other maladies.” This is a misconception of mindfulness, which has nothing to do with tuning out. The practices are actually teaching us to tune in. In Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) we explicitly teach participants how to face suffering and relate to it in a more skillful way. There is a popular saying among mindfulness practitioners, “What we resist persists”. Teaching people to tune out is neither mindful, nor effective over the long term. If he has worked with many of the foremost teachers in the field (as Mr. Purser has suggested he has), I believe he has misinterpreted the teachings.
Compassion in action has always been an important part of mindfulness and is increasingly an area of exploration for Western mindfulness practitioners. Of course philanthropic efforts are a major undertaking at most Buddhist centers and it’s at the heart of many secular organizations as well. In fact, my friend who recently completed Google’s Search Inside Yourself training sent me their social impact initiatives which include:
- providing Trauma-Sensitive Emotional Intelligence & Resilience Skills Training for Community Recovery in Parkland, FL in response to the shooting there
- bringing core mindfulness and resilience curriculum to non-profit and community agencies in Flint, MI in response to the water crisis
- training San Francisco Department of Public Health trauma-informed systems specialists in building resilience skills to help them in their difficult work in homeless shelters, jails and city hospitals
- training school teachers and civil servant leaders in Bhutan
- providing training to many other non-profit organizations and government agencies whose missions are to improve the quality of our lives and society
The Ulex project, a training center for social justice and environmental activists, has been developing “programs that embed mindfulness in activist education for the last decade, helping activists to become more sustainable and effective”. They have found that “mindfulness and meditation have been key in helping [activists] to address burnout, feel more equipped to face challenging circumstances, collaborate better, and balance action with reflection in ways that enhance organizational learning.”
At Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness we wholeheartedly agree that action must be an option in the experience of compassion. We cannot ignore the systematic injustices and social ills that plague society. Social justice is woven into our mission and vision, we do our best to cover these social issues in our classes, and we provide pro-bono and low cost services to many philanthropic organizations. However, we also know that revolution must start from within. Most people have only a cursory awareness of their inner experience including their deepest drives and motivations. How can we take right action if we aren’t aware of our true intentions? Discernment requires us to be awake and to see clearly.
Mindfulness isn’t just attention training. As my teacher, Steve Hickman, says, “It’s not THAT you pay attention, it’s HOW you pay attention.” There are a whole set of attitudes we must cultivate that are an integral part of training or minds. When practiced in this “special way”, we see our fundamental interconnection and our compassion for self and others grows. We understand on a deep, experiential level that we cannot be truly and sustainably happy when others are suffering and we are inspired to do what we can to make a difference.
It will not always feel good,
This stretching beyond the boundaries of the known,
It will not always feel safe,
This learning and relearning of your own abilities
This reexamining of beliefs
This pushing of envelopes
This breaking through enclosing walls.
You will shiver.
You will doubt.
You will want to run home.
Back behind walls of safety.
This walk to the edge will not
Feel good, safe, or comfortable,
But there is no faster way to learn.
There is no other way to grow.
So step out.
Leave your home base
Your comfort zone
Acknowledge the fear and discomfort
But step out all the same.
With each step you take,
Your world expands
Your caterpillar mind will
Strain to comprehend the unbounded vastness of the sky.
Unfurl your wings.