Overhauling a Broken System with Mindfulness

Photo by Markus Spiske

Due to the recent murder of George Floyd by a police officer, the longstanding injustice of racism inherent in our country’s system of policing is understandably in the spotlight. Unfortunately, there are countless other systems in our country that show similar disparities, including the system I work within. Being a part of the mental health system for over 20 years now, I’m keenly aware of its brokenness and the overwhelming complexity of fixing it.

When my view becomes myopic or I’m feeling stuck or overwhelmed, it helps to take a step back and look at things from a broader perspective. In addition to the law enforcement and mental health systems, we also see significant disparities in corrections and juvenile justice, education, health care, food, housing, employment, environmental protection, and on and on.

Let’s consider the child protective services (CPS) division of the child welfare system, which offers a typical example of a broken system in our country. As with many other systems and institutions, there are measurable disparities in the proportion of white to non-white children (particularly African American and Native American) involved in the system, the length of time they spend there, and the services they receive (Dakil, Cox & Flores, 2011, Racial Disparity in Child Welfare, 2016).

I remember some years ago when it was all over the news that a Florida CPS department lost track of an at-risk child they were supposed to be protecting for many months. People were understandably outraged (though this certainly wasn’t a new thing) and many questions were being asked. At first there was much speculation about the incompetence of the particular social worker involved, then about the director of the agency. In time it came to light that social workers in some overburdened areas across the country had 100 or more vulnerable children on their caseloads (the Child Welfare League of America recommends caseloads of between 12 and 15 children per worker). The lack of resources and large caseloads for those who are tasked with caring for vulnerable children and families in very complicated, high stakes, and often dire situations, puts these relatively low paid workers in untenable situations that result in errors and high rates of burnout. In addition, a 2010 study found that those who received CPS interventions were essentially indistinguishable from those who did not in terms of risk factors such as social support, family functioning, poverty, maternal education, or child behavior problems.

These systemic problems are a consequence of racism and, even more broadly, of who and what mainstream society values as demonstrated by where we place our attention, energy and resources. This is largely dictated and modeled by those who hold power and has been repeated throughout history from the beginning of recorded civilization in various ways. In our fear and greed (reactivity), instead of having compassion for the vulnerable, we mindlessly scapegoat, marginalize and dehumanize people so that we can justify ignoring, exploiting and hoarding. Over time, this scapegoating is normalized and internalized such that even those without power may act against their own self-interest. Yet even those in power experience harmful consequences, such as intolerance of one’s own vulnerability, disconnection from common humanity, and separation from the joy of compassion. The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic showed us that no one is exempt from the consequences of self-dealing and unrestrained growth. Ultimately, the broken system works for nobody.

Our longstanding and entrenched problems are complex. Though individuals and entities who make mistakes that harm people should certainly be held accountable, this alone is unlikely to create the kind of paradigm shift that is needed for profound and lasting change. Our understanding of ourselves as a whole, our interconnection with other beings and the Earth, and our fundamental attitudes and perspectives must change. If some police officers are brought to justice or if change happens in some departments around the country, let’s hope we don’t stop there.

If, going forward, we can channel our justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained, and effective action, then this moment can be a real turning point in our nation’s long journey to live up to our highest ideals. – Barack Obama

The confounding problems with injustice, economic disparity, and hatred exist not just in this country, but worldwide. There is a movement of ethnonationalism and authoritarianism sweeping the world, rooted in the instrumentalization of our innate vulnerabilities. Humankind is in need of an examination of our baser instincts and their incompatibility with the world we currently live in. According to Robert Wright, who writes about the logic of non-zero sum progress, “…we need to be willing to think radically, to fundamentally reform both domestic and foreign policy. In fact, I’d go further and say we need to work at becoming better human beings—better at transcending the perceptual and cognitive distortions that have helped polarize politics, making it hard for us to think clearly and dispassionately about the kind of reform that’s needed. You can call this critical upgrade self-help or moral edification or spiritual progress or whatever, but in any event what’s needed is substantial change on a large scale. Radical change” (nonzero.org).

The critical problems that loom over us—economic, political, and ecological—can be dealt with in either of two ways. One is the symptomatic approach favored by policy wonks and conventional liberal politicians, who view each problem as distinct and propose tackling them through more finely tuned policies. The other approach is holistic. It looks at these problems as interwoven and mutually reinforcing, seeing them as objectifications of our subjective propensities mirroring back to us the distorted ways we relate to ourselves, other people, and the natural world. From this angle, any effective solution requires that we make fundamental changes in ourselves—in our views, attitudes, and intentions. These can then ripple out, coalesce, and inspire transformative action.Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

First order change is the kind of change that happens when the structure of a system remains intact but some parameter is changed. Second order change involves a dismantling of structures and an overhaul of the system (Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974). We frequently turn to first order change in our attempts to solve problems because they are simpler and easier to accept. But this is why decades of reforms enacted by hard working and well-meaning people often lead nowhere. Instead we need to shift our perspective, question fundamental beliefs, be more farsighted, and think more holistically. That’s a hard sell though – its much easier to blame the social worker, mandate additional training and continuing education, create new laws governing the profession, or strengthen licensing board sanctions.

Among other things, we can use the lenses of mindfulness, trauma sensitivity and and systems theory to help guide a more profound kind of change, both individually and in community. Mindfulness can help us address many of the foundational skills deficits underlying some of society’s most pressing problems. Through mindfulness training, we can begin to adopt insights, attitudes and practices that help us clear away illusions and respond from a place of newfound wisdom, such as:

  • Valuing and strengthening the skills of somatic, emotional and cognitive self-awareness, self-reflection and self-regulation
  • Cultivating beneficial qualities such as compassion for self and others, patience and equanimity, which widen our window of tolerance for attending to inconvenient or painful realities, so that we might respond to them more skillfully
  • Expanding beyond our constant self-referencing and recognizing our role as one thread in the vast fabric of existence
  • Being aware of and humble about all the ways in which our amazing but limited human brains are vulnerable to bias and illusion so that we can non-judgmentally question untested beliefs and assumptions
  • Noticing our preference for simplicity in a complex world and thinking more flexibly beyond the dualities of this and that, either/or, us and them
  • Making space to align our actions with our highest intentions, even when we are activated or triggered

While meditation will never be a cure-all for the injustices of the world, it is a salve that can help us disinfect our wounds as it teaches us to sit with the truth of our experiences and help us cultivate a clearer and more honest reflection of ourselves… It is our hope that something that begins as a simple curiosity intended to relieve discomfort around emotions like stress, anger, sadness or anxiety blooms into a true practice, a capacity to meet those emotions directly and with an open heart and eyes. It is essential that this internal practice lights the way to our collective responsibility and gives rise to external action. – MNDFL

In trauma sensitivity training we learn to ask, “What happened to you?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?” This helps us understand that “bad behavior” isn’t due to the evil character of a defective person, but the predictable, learned, contextually influenced, and often biologically based responses of a person who is acting from a complex intersection of experiences. It also helps us better understand how to meet people in a way that is helpful rather than condemning them as intrinsically hopeless. We reject the idea that there are “throwaway people” and instead take a restorative approach in which everyone belongs and can continue to belong.

When addressing social problems, we can view them holistically by looking at systems. According to systems theory, a social system that works for all members must consider everyone’s needs. In addition, when breakdowns occur, we look to systemic interactions rather than focusing on the actions of one person or small group of people within the system. Because of the complexity of systems, it’s always tempting for us to want to simplify by pinpointing one individual or subset. But a simplistic approach may miss the mark due to the complex feedback loops and structurally embedded causes inherent in systems. These interactions can often be subtle, but their consequences tend to accumulate over time. So when we enthusiastically champion short-term or narrowly targeted interventions, we risk abandoning them in frustration when they fail to result in desired changes. Policy decisions made from a narrow lens not only can be ineffective, they can have unintended harmful consequences. Systems thinking can be used as a public health tool, widening our lens to include the social determinants of wellbeing and health inequities in our approach to problem solving.

You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time. – Angela Davis

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