The Politics of Mindfulness


Photo by Ashton Bingham

There have been a couple of instances in which people have asked me if the Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness (MAM) has a political stance. I think it’s a great question and during these politically divisive times, it’s no wonder people are asking. Maybe a deeper question is, do mindfulness and politics go together?

I find it helpful to unpack a term first when I’m trying to understand it. Politics are defined as “the activities associated with the governance of an area” or better yet “agreements between people so that they can live together in groups.” Just because we hear politicians debating certain concepts doesn’t mean those ideas are inherently political. Anything can become political if politicians take it up as a cause. The hope is that politicians take up causes that are actually important to and beneficial for the people they serve.

Partisanship is strong adherence to a particular party – it’s interesting that this term is also used in warfare. So, it may come as no surprise that partisanship in politics is also about power and control. Causes are often taken up to preserve the status and privileges of those in power. It’s very interesting to research the history behind how certain issues became partisan. Things as seemingly mundane as lawn watering and concerns as weighty as having children have been subject to politics. If you do a search of obscure laws and statutes, you will find that politicians have lobbied and debated who you can marry, what you can eat and drink, and even which way building doors swing – all in the name of people living together in harmony.

The editor of Mindful Magazine, Barry Boyce, in his June 2019 article Is Your Mindfulness Practice a Political Statement? said of mindfulness teachers, “We see ourselves as existing within the public square, where each of us is respected, acknowledged, and heard regardless of whatever religious, spiritual, political, or ideological beliefs we may have—so long as the beliefs and behaviors don’t advocate hate or racial superiority.” He explains that mindfulness in and of itself is not political, but when we practice mindfulness we come face to face with our deepest values, gain a more intimate understanding of our interconnection with others and the environment, and connect with our natural desire for our own happiness and that of others. These qualities tend to reshape how we live in community, which is the essence of politics – “of, for, or relating to citizens”.

At Mindful Schools, an organization that helps school teachers share mindfulness practices with students, they believe that taking their role as mindfulness educators seriously means “talking about difficult things that matter” and “clearly affirm[ing] our guiding values of compassion, empathy, tolerance and integrity.” To this end, Mindful Schools representatives Matthew Brensilver and Oren J. Sofer have had the courage to address difficult questions about mindfulness and religion and the impact of 2016 presidential election. To ignore these issues that have been so relevant, both within the educational system and in society as a whole, would be avoidance at best. How can mindfulness be transformational if we are only willing to explore the superficial?

Mindfulness is also being practiced directly within the political sphere. In the UK, they are using mindfulness training to help politicians from all sides make political decisions and “disagree better”. The Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group is a cross-party forum exploring how mindfulness might be applied in different areas of public life and how it might benefit the political process itself. This group believes that “mindfulness can be viewed as a ‘foundational capacity’: not only for us as individuals, but to support a flourishing society.”

My own political stance is something that I’ve been thinking about more and more – probably not unlike many Americans. Although I don’t align myself with any political party or ideology, I definitely have ideas about what is ethical – and ethics do inform my decisions. It’s never a perfect situation, but there does often seem to be a clear preponderance of evidence that ultimately determines my political choices. I think this is also true for organizations. Although MAM doesn’t espouse political affiliation, we have a clear mission and vision with important values. The conduct we aspire to and elevate above all else includes:

  • cultivating compassion, wellbeing and peace
  • believing in the inherent worth, dignity, and wisdom of all people
  • sustaining an inclusive environment that welcomes all
  • working to decrease suffering in ourselves and others
  • understanding the importance of science
  • leading by example

MAM is made up of more than a dozen teachers, about 100 community members, and lots of folks that just drop in from time to time. In our classes and workshops, we don’t discuss political party affiliation, but we do often explore important issues mindfully that are being debated in the political arena. MAM operates within a society where politics determine governance – so if we are to truly pursue our mission and adhere to our values, our choices are going to intersect with politics on some level. I don’t think it’s possible to be entirely apolitical without surrendering your voice to those who are willing to wade into the muck. When asking whether MAM has a political stance, you might ask yourself, is it a political act to:

  • provide services and donate funds to organizations promoting social justice and environmental protection;
  • offer free or sliding scale services to people in financial need;
  • consider environmental impact in selecting the products and services we purchase and use;
  • lead affinity groups for people who are marginalized in our society;
  • mindfully explore topics like consumerism, diversity, equity and inclusion, unconscious bias, and the impact of racism?

If you believe that these actions are inherently political, then you will indeed see MAM as having a political stance. The important thing to remember is that MAM welcomes all people, regardless of political persuasion. We will never ask you your party affiliation or tell you what you should believe. What our teachers will do is assist you in developing skills and qualities that might help you better understand your values and explore your beliefs more mindfully.

Mindfulness training is ’transformational education’, …understood as educating the whole person by integrating the inner and the outer life, by actualizing individual and global awakening, and by participating in compassionate communities. – Mark Nepo

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