The Inner and Outer Work of Engaged Mindfulness

Many people I know personally were sickened by COVID-19 over the last year, some lost jobs, and some died. Several people I know were impacted by nationwide rolling blackouts in last winter’s extreme weather. In my Missouri front yard last summer, I saw and breathed the haze of the rampant forest fires in Colorado. In June, I stood a block from my home in solidarity and peaceful protest against social injustice. Several years ago the aftershocks of an earthquake resulting from fracking in Oklahoma shook my house. For many years I have noticed there are fewer and fewer bugs on my windshield after driving on the highway, I’ve missed the lightning bugs flashing under the trees on summer evenings, and forebodingly enjoyed the slow creep of springtime’s emergence into what used to be winter.

Even though I’m privileged in most ways, I’ve been increasingly experiencing the more obvious negative impacts of a world in crisis due to what mindfulness teacher Rhonda Magee has called multiple “interlocking pandemics”, including systemic social injustice, climate change, and political corruption and divisiveness, in which I have been complicit. This last year has vividly demonstrated that nobody is safe, though some are more immediately impacted than others. Like many who are resourced enough to ignore it or perhaps are just too busy surviving to pay attention, these issues stayed in my periphery (or in my blind spot), seemingly distant from my everyday experience and low in priority compared to more immediate concerns. We tend to feel a lot of dissonance and despair when we think about these issues, so we don’t if it all possible. Our hand-picked social media and curated news networks readily offer up information in service of our comfort and preferences. Economist and psychologist Per Espen Stoknes calls these the Five Ds that block uplifting change messaging:  Distance, Doom, Dissonance, Denial, and iDentity.

Besides experiencing deep compassion for the disenfranchised and disempowered as I awaken to the truth of our flawed system and my role in it, I feel great sadness when hearing the stories of people who are empowered, but are suffering profoundly under the very ideologies and policies they are actively and vehemently supporting:

  • people who rely on crowd funding to pay for medical procedures, their child’s education or rent while voting against health care reform, public education funding, and social safety nets;
  • people who survived in arctic conditions for days without power while upholding sovereignty of their electrical grid and voting in ways that allow fossil fuel companies to bankroll politicians and block humane regulations;
  • people with mental health vulnerabilities who have fallen prey to conspiracy theories that have thrown them dangerously off balance, resulting in broken relationships, hospitalization, and even incarceration and violence;
  • people who feel unsafe in a world they see as rampant with violent crime, while denouncing any efforts to regulate gun ownership.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…and say “This is not just.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Time to Break Silence,” Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1967

Like it or not, intended or not, a mindfulness practice is a powerful clearer of obscurations like ignorance and denial. Over the years, my practice has made it harder and harder for me to live in illusion. It has also made it less appealing for me to avoid risks and be complacent. In my continuing awakening to the world’s deeply entrenched and interconnected problems, I have naturally become more outspoken and active in seeking change. In the process of educating myself and slowly stepping out of my comfort zone, I have learned two powerful truths:

  1. understanding our own hearts and minds is a necessary prerequisite to enacting beneficial change
  2. the inner work is not enough, action must also be taken

Doing the Necessary Inner Work

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. – Albert Einstein.

Generations of unexamined ways of thinking and being have caused and continue to maintain many of our most pressing social problems. These mistaken views have dehumanized and disconnected us, damaging our relationships with one another and the environment. Mindful self-reflection and other contemplative practices can broaden our understanding and help us see things more clearly. This in turn can inform our responses. When we jump right into action before doing the necessary inner work, we can actually contribute to, or even embody, many of the problems we’re trying to resolve. Some of the ways mindfulness can increase our capacity for wise action include:

  • cultivating unbiased compassion for ourselves and others
  • seeing ourselves, our actions, other beings, and our environment as fundamentally interconnected, rather than separate and autonomous
  • understanding the chain of cause and effect and the complex interplay of conditions (past, present and future) that impact behavior and outcomes
  • viewing the Earth as a living organism rather than a machine or commodity
  • welcoming differences, challenges and change as useful feedback to be responded to wisely
  • accepting responsibility with humility, within the acknowledged limits of our understanding and control

The Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness offers many opportunities for engaging in mindful inner work and we enjoy a dedicated and diverse community of teachers and practitioners who come together regularly to practice in connection with one another. Kansas City is also fortunate to be the home of The Resilient Activist, whose mission is to build resilience, optimism, and hope in response to the impact of the climate crisis and provide community-building programs that offer inspiration, self-care, and mental health support.

We have to be transformed ourselves in order to invite the world into that transformation. – Marcelle Martin

Taking Mindful Action

Part of taking mindful action involves a willingness to move out of our comfort zones by daring to get involved. We can do this wisely and intentionally by investigating the roots of the problems we’re awakening to, putting our energies where they are more likely to bear fruit, not being unreasonably attached to outcomes, and responding in ways that value and bring people together rather than sowing division, entrenching ignorance, and stoking hatred.

By getting involved and working for beneficial change, we are already swimming against the stream. Though we had record turnouts in 2020, the US has one of the lowest voter turnout rates of countries that vote. This is by design as there are many barriers to understanding the issues clearly, registering and getting to our polling places, and feeling like our vote matters. Each person has to discover for themselves what the most pressing concerns are and where they come from. Some of the possible roots are very old and some are relatively new. One possible “old root” is the tendency for unexamined centralized power to corrupt systems, while a relatively “new root” may be a largely unregulated digital information system that we don’t fully understand the implications of.

Individually we can begin to address the information age crisis by challenging mis- and disinformation with the sharing of reliable and accurate evidence. For example, despite what we might see in social media, Americans across the political spectrum tend to agree broadly about human rights. A national survey by the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard Kennedy School found that 93% of Americans surveyed considered the right to clean air and water and protection of personal data important by 93 percent of those surveyed. 92 percent agreed that the right to a quality education and racial equality, 89% affordable health care, and 85 percent the right to a job. Even seemingly divisive issues like immigration (66 percent) and protecting a woman’s right to choose and make decisions affecting her body and personal life (72 percent) were considered important by a majority.

My actions are my closest companions. I am the beneficiary of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand. – The Five Remembrances, Upajjhatthana Sutta

Polling has shown again and again that a majority of Americans, regardless of political affiliation, support compassionate policies of caring such as medicare for all, expanding social security, tax reform that requires the wealthiest and large corporations to pay more, stricter environmental protections, paid maternity leave, government funding for childcare, control of prescription drug prices, and boosting the minimum wage. Yet again and again, these proposals fail to pass both the house and senate. How can this be?

I’m increasingly convinced that reducing the influence of capitalistic interests in the workings of government is necessary for change. And I’m not alone. According to Ipsos, 79% of Americans agree we need sweeping laws to reduce the influence of money in politics. The undue influence of corporations and billionaires is one of the reasons why our individual efforts alone are not enough.

The Electoral Integrity Project, an independent academic project based at Harvard University comparing elections worldwide and developing and deepening concepts and theories concerning the causes and consequences of electoral integrity, found that among the Americas, the US was ranked below Grenada, Argentina, Chile, Jamaica, Peru, Brazil, Barbados, Canada, Costa Rica and Uruguay in electoral integrity because of unjust electoral laws, voter registration practices, and drawing of district boundaries. Our votes won’t count if the system is rigged against our influence.

In 2014, a pair of researchers (Gilens, M & Page, B) studying influence in American politics concluded, “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence… our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

This imbalance of power in favor of monied interests is largely due to a shift in the ideological balance of the supreme court, resulting in a trend in relaxing campaign finance regulations and voter protections while increasing the rights of corporations and large donors, reducing the impact everyday people can have in political decisions.

If everyday people are to have a voice in decisions made about our country and how it operates, we have to get involved. We can increase this likelihood by helping to make voting more accessible for all eligible citizens and by reducing the influence of big money in campaigning and lobbying. We can contribute in person power and economically to important causes wherever possible, but people like you and I can’t compete financially with large corporations and billionaires. According to the Brookings Institute, “With regard to campaign giving, very few Americans donate, of which only a small subset contribute the bulk… the 50 most generous individual donors in the 2018 electoral cycle was composed mostly of entrepreneurs, investment and hedge fund managers, heirs to substantial fortunes, and those with private foundations.” This is why I believe one of our highest priorities must be demanding policy and systems changes that limit the influence of money in politics – and if we all work toward change in a mindful and compassionate way, we are more likely to bring about changes that reflect our deepest values and highest intentions.

If you are ready to begin the outer work of engaged mindfulness, here are some resources to get you started:

Resources for Learning and Action

Being good consumers and sharers of information:

Getting involved politically:

Getting involved in social and environmental justice:

  • Racial Justice Resources (Google Doc) – Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness
  • Mindful Consumption Resources (Google Doc) – Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness
  • Rime Buddhist Center – Kansas City Buddhist center providing community outreach for refugees, the shelterless, and incarcerated and hosting a social justice committee
  • Engaged Mindfulness Institute (EMI) – delivers trainings developed from a rich tradition of spiritually grounded, contemplative and mindfulness-based peace and social change work, as well as the latest developments in neuroscience-based leadership training.
  • Practice Matters – cChange, Karen O’Brien and guests discuss why mindfulness practice matters in the actions needed to create an equitable and thriving planet. They explore what it means to embody conscious, creative, collaborative, and courageous change in the personal, political, and practical spheres, and why practice lies at the heart of quantum social change
  • Showing Up for Racial Justice – a national network of groups and individuals working to undermine white supremacy and to work for racial justice. Through community organizing, mobilizing, and education, SURJ moves white people to act as part of a multi-racial majority for justice with passion and accountability.
  • Black Lives Matter – a global organization in the US, UK, and Canada, whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.
  • International Rescue Committee – responding to the world’s worst humanitarian crises and helping people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover and gain control of their future. If you are interested in fighting human trafficking, this is a good organization to partner with.
  • Poor People’s Campaign – confronting the interlocking crises of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.
  • Project Drawdown: The World’s Leading Resource for Climate Solutions
  • Sierra Club – the most enduring and influential grassroots environmental organization in the United States amplifying the power of 3.8 million members and supporters to defend everyone’s right to a healthy world.
  • Pachamama Alliance – a global community that offers people the chance to learn, connect, engage, travel and cherish life for the purpose of creating a sustainable future that works for all.
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