Increasingly throughout my mindfulness journey, and especially in this year that I’ve dedicated to mindful engagement, I’ve discovered lifetimes worth of profound wisdom from all over the world, from ancient times to present, readily available to anyone with access to a library or internet connection. It’s clear that the roots of our most pressing societal problems are not new and the solutions have been available, repackaged and redistributed according to the era, from generation to generation.
Much like the personal challenge of living a wholesome lifestyle, our societal failure to solve major social problems isn’t because we don’t have enough information to do so. The problem is that its very challenging to implement lasting solutions that require a broad-based and sustained response. We have not, so far, demonstrated the collective will.
This may be changing. Increasingly, the interlocking threats of climate catastrophe, social injustice, and the death of democracy are motivating more of us to wake up and take action. We understand that short-term thinking and half-hearted measures aren’t enough. We see that it’s time to pull up the roots of our unjust and outmoded systems and start anew with fresh insights combined with the wisdom of our rich history and ancestors. Mindfulness can play a key role in this process.
The Seeds We Mindlessly Planted
In his article in Eudaimonia, Umair Haque wrote, “American cruelty is both legendary — and one of the world’s great unsolved mysteries. Just why would people in a rich country leave their neighbours to die for a lack of basic medicine, their young without good jobs or retirements, make their elderly work until their dying day, cripple students with lifelong debt, charge new mothers half of average income just to have a baby — not to mention shrug when their kids begin massacring each other at school? What motivates the kind of spectacular, unique, unimaginable, and gruesome cruelty that we see in America, which exists nowhere else in the world?”
As a psychologist and as a curious human, I’m also always asking why – and probably you are too. Why do we act in ways that harm ourselves, one another and the planet? What are some of the roots of our most challenging social problems? This blog post is a long one, so for busy readers, I’ll be moving right into the ways mindfulness can help with solutions. But, here is a summary of twin taproots as I see them, which you can click to read more about:
- Mainstream US culture doesn’t explicitly teach or value interconnection. Instead we elevate rugged individualism, self-sufficiency, hyper-competitiveness, zero sum thinking and perfectionism, and we tend to be overly focused on and measure worth according to material gain, consumerism and meritocracy.
- The unexamined human mind is reactive and takes short-cuts. Most of us are busy surviving, putting out fires, or just going through the motions. We’re disconnected from our own inner experience and at the same time, we make faulty assumptions about the external world. We don’t recognize our confusion and consequently, our actions tend to be misguided. Seeking immediate relief from afflictive emotions like fear and anger, we succumb to knee jerk or overly simplistic reactions such as othering through gender, racial and religious discrimination and stereotypes, scapegoating, aggression and violence.
Growing a More Mindful Garden
Engaged mindfulness involves the inner work of self-discovery as well as taking mindful, values-congruent action in our lives and communities. Through learning how our minds and bodies influence our experience and vice versa, and through practicing from an ethical framework that elevates social and ecological justice, a more mindful way of being can help us begin to mitigate some of our most difficult challenges together. Our individual work is essential, but it’s not enough. We are at the mercy of powerful systems that need to be dismantled and rebuilt, if we are to have any hope of deep and lasting beneficial change. It’s literally a matter of the survival of our species.
So how do we influence powerful systems? According to systems theorist Donella Meadows, the most powerful leverage point for change in a system is “the mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, power structure, rules, and culture — arises… Paradigms are the sources of systems. From them, from shared social agreements about the nature of reality, come system goals and information flows, feedbacks, stocks, flows and everything else about systems.” This is what the work of the Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness involves at its core.
It’s not enough for policies and laws to change – we already do too much of that. Hearts and minds must also change so that we have the intrinsic motivation to live our lives according to these aspirations. Through mindfulness, practitioners begin to develop the courage and resources needed to examine and question long held habits and deeply entrenched conditioning, including social and cultural norms and expectations, that create suffering for ourselves and others. We begin to understand, on a visceral level, our deep interconnection with one another and our environment.
But, how can we move from the individual inner work of mindfulness to a nationwide and even a worldwide, collective paradigm shift? According to researcher Damon Centola, committed minorities can overturn established social conventions when a critical mass is reached and the tipping point for social change is just 25%. Only a quarter of our population must be on board for a substantial shift to occur – and mindfulness can help us build the wide bridges and deep interpersonal connections that allow this kind of shift to happen. I’d like to suggest a mnemonic of four Cs that can act as a framework for mindfully engaging in the work of creating such a paradigm shift.
The Four Cs of Engaged Mindfulness
Caring – Engaged mindfulness arises out of a foundation compassionate intentions for self and others, and as Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Institute often reminds us, we are living in a time in history in which compassion is at a deficit. Compassion is the awareness of suffering, our own and others, combined with a desire to eliminate it. Fortunately, compassion is a skill that can be trained, such that it eventually becomes an ingrained trait that is infused in our every decision and action. Through nourishing our innate capacity for altruism and the natural desire to be of service, we can establish new roots from which more beneficial actions might emerge.
Capacity – Our personal mindfulness practice can help us expand our capacity for the collective, committed and sustained effort that deep and lasting change requires. We do this through making the unconscious increasingly conscious, resourcing ourselves through self-compassion, learning to let go of what is unhelpful, and cultivating beneficial qualities such as patience and equanimity. Our mindfulness practice can help us reduce our biases, allowing us to build the “wide bridges” that enable us tap into collective power, creativity and resources. We can increase capacity through unlocking the boundlessness and non-discriminating nature of true compassion (rather than situational or in-group sympathy or empathy). We can also elevate a type of morality that is all-encompassing and universal rather than rigid and insular.
Courage/Confidence – The inner work of mindfulness helps us build self-knowledge and self-trust, which increases our confidence. It also brings insight into our interconnection and common humanity, increasing our trust in others. We become more willing and able to face fears, come into contact with the unknown, let down defenses, and discover where we are truly empowered. Our commitment to truth telling increases, because we are better equipped to face reality in an unadorned way, we more sensitively notice the dissonance of our dishonesty, and we observe the consequences of our false narratives. We also begin to understand on a gut level there can be no enduring societal trust without honesty.
In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act. – George Orwell
Contact – As we begin to apply our inner work of mindfulness to the outer world of people and things, we recognize our agency and increasingly open ourselves to engagement. Research demonstrates that intergroup contact reduces prejudice, promotes collaboration, and increases solidarity. Through increased contact, we build more intimate relationships with a wider diversity of people, gain confidence in one another, and strengthen social support networks for nurturing beneficial change. We begin to fill the wide bridges we built through our practice and create change from a firm foundation of mutual caring, trust and respect.
Sowing What We Wish to Reap Through Engagement of the Four Cs
- Explicitly training people in contemplative skills – including “matters of the heart” in our self-study, rehabilitation efforts, parenting, and core educational curriculum.
- Facilitating a change in consciousness that awakens us to and cultivates the inner resources and willingness to honestly acknowledge, explore, question, and challenge the unexamined assumptions at the root of our problems.
- Liberating ourselves from a “rigged game” by building “wide bridges” – including everyone in consideration and decision making, diluting and flattening out centralized power systems, and resisting the urge to elevate our own individual importance and desires above others. We can encourage this in our families and personal circles of engagement, but this also has to happen on a systems-wide level.
- Active, collaborative and mindful engagement – making contact beyond our personal circles in a way that is grounded in a sense of collective responsibility and compassion.
In her article Dancing with Systems, Meadows wrote, “The future can’t be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being. Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned… Living successfully in a world of systems requires more of us than our ability to calculate. It requires our full humanity–our rationality, our ability to sort out truth from falsehood, our intuition, our compassion, our vision, and our morality.”
We don’t teach or value interconnection as a culture
In mainstream American culture we don’t explicitly teach interdependence or values of the heart. Instead, we teach things like competition, materialism, and exceptionalism. From this perspective human beings are separate from and can master one another, other living beings, and the natural world. It promises us that if we’re clever and work hard enough, we can have everything we want, be anything we want to be, limitlessly, and at no real cost beyond personal energy and effort.
We tend to live within a “just world theory” that says good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. This simplistic belief in free will convinces us that people are wholly responsible for their decisions and deserving of punishment when they make “bad choices”. There is also a viewpoint that to be average or ordinary is to be irrelevant or valueless. Increasingly we are taught to see ourselves as special, unique, and masters of our destinies. We are expected to aim high, never compromise our dreams, and never give up – to pursue our own personal success single-mindedly and relentlessly.
The people of your culture cling with fanatical tenacity to the specialness of man… This mythology of human superiority justifies their doing whatever they please with the world… But in the end this mythology is not deeply satisfying. The Takers are a profoundly lonely people. The world for them is enemy territory, and they live in it like an army of occupation, alienated and isolated by their extraordinary specialness. – Daniel Quinn, Ishmael
Umair named a unique kind of impoverishment that we are experiencing in the US, resulting from a singular focus on individual material gain. He wrote, “Each man for himself, everyone against everyone himself… Few championed a more balanced, saner, healthier way of life, about a common good, about virtue, about a higher purpose… That created a society in which there is no real opportunity to cultivate, nurture, or develop kindness or gentleness… The only lesson that people will really learn is that their neighbours and peers, young and old, are commodities. Things. Objects. Means. To be used, abused, and discarded, the moment that they are no longer profitable.”
…many of you have learned the painful lessons of colonial pasts and presents: you recognize that to displace another is to have displaced oneself… and that to be perched atop a pyramid is to occupy a very small place… – Bayo Akomolafe
Though the cost of this way of operating in the world and relating to others to those who are disempowered, vulnerable and marginalized is obvious to most of us, there’s also a great and tragic price to pay by the users and abusers, the scapegoaters and the purveyors of disinformation. This way of being not only disconnects us from the uniquely transcendent qualities and potentialities of our species, but it also entrenches a belief somewhere deep inside, maybe below the level of conscious awareness, that I too am nothing more than a commodity, that nobody really cares, and that when I one day lose my edge, I will be consumed and discarded. Over time, this way of being imprints itself in well-worn neuropathways, deposits itself in the marrow of the bones, and takes up residence in the antennae-like hairs on the back of the neck. A number of studies have demonstrated that those self-identifying as very conservative share the most disinformation on social media (Hopp, Ferrucci & Vargo, 2020, Grinberg et al., 2019; Guess et al., 2019; Guess et al., 2018) and this is correlated with a lack of trust in others (including the mainstream media and society in general) and feelings of social alienation. It’s a dissatisfying and self-perpetuating cycle of distrust and self-dealing.
Not too long ago, I was listening to an interview on Snap Judgment with John Alan Schwartz who produced the 1978 mondo horror film, Faces of death. The film was Banned in 40+ countries and became associated with lawsuits for psychological trauma and copycat murder. Schwartz was hired to direct and produce a nature documentary, but he wanted to do something “more ambitious”. He said he didn’t think about the film’s possible impact on vulnerable people, (though he and many of the crew used pseudonyms in the credits). When asked whether he thought about whether this type of film might cause harm, he said, ”I was thinking, ‘How can I get the most people packed in the movie theater and make the most money?’ Frankly that’s what it was about.” It seems the fruit of Mr. Schwartz enterprise may have been an extra dose of fear. He said, “My ex-wife says I’m paranoid because I have a gun… Many people avoid this because they think, dark things and evil people, that’ll never happen to me. It happens and it happens a lot – and it seems like in our society it happens a lot more than it ever did… This world is an f&%?ed up place and there’s a lot of bad guys out there… I refuse to be a victim because I’ve seen the dark side of humanity. I’ve made films about the dark side of humanity and I’m gonna be prepared.” In Acceptance and Commitment Training, a mindfulness based-approach to wellbeing, they talk about the dangers of “buying a thought or feeling” – this is the tendency for the unexamined mind to experience mental events as reality (buying into them), rather than seeing them as the passing mental phenomena they are. In this situation, it seems Mr. Schwartz became both the store proprietor and a customer of his own harmful wares.
The unexamined human mind is reactive and takes shortcuts.
In mainstream American culture, we don’t tend to value restraint when it comes to taking action in response to strong emotions. We aren’t taught the value of exploring and understanding our internal landscape. We value action, taking charge, and seeing ourselves as masters of our own destinies. The problem is, we tend to bypass any meaningful examination of our inner experience. In fact, many of us don’t even realize we have rich inner worlds that are operating behind the scenes even as we interface with the outer world of people, circumstances and things.
Of course we all want to be safe and happy – right now. Our lack of inner understanding causes us to be fused with our emotions, aversions and desires and our hard-wired biological response to fear and anger predisposes us to focus on the external. But, our knowledge of the external world can be manipulated by nefarious interests. Many of us either don’t have the time, the know-how, or the inclination to dig into the research, so we educate ourselves through the firehose of dubious sound bites, click bait, and simplistic memes at our fingertips at all times. We tend to feel much more confident about what we know than we actually know. We also receive a shot of effortless and instant relief and gratification when we imagine each crisis as an outlier, make the danger someone else’s problem, or perhaps push for a hastily drafted bill promising a remedy.
Since humans aren’t omniscient, we have to operate in the world on our best hypotheses about reality. From these hypotheses we write our personal and collective narratives that we live and die by. The problem is that many of our theories are wrong (by accident or by design) – and the theories that we are most wrong about are often the ones we believe most firmly. The US economy offers one example. Venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, in his podcast Pitchfork Economics, explains that the operation of the US economy over the last 40 years, arose out of and is maintained by the false assumption that “people are perfectly selfish, perfectly rational, and perfectly calculating in their own self interest”. The problem is that research and a careful examination of history doesn’t bear this out. Hanauer said that because of this narrative, “…we live in a culture… where people celebrate selfishness – where people literally believe that the more aggressively and narrowly they pursue their own self interests, the better it will be for everyone… Bad theory leads to bad narrative, which leads to bad policy, which leads to bad outcomes… when you look around the world at all the prosperity in it, what you can see quite clearly is that it was reciprocity and cooperation and morality that created all that prosperity – not selfishness. And once you see that connection in a more honest way about what creates prosperity in human societies, then you can optimize for more of the good thing…”
This fusion with our emotions, over focus on the external, and vulnerability to mis- and dis-information can cause us to look outside ourselves for solutions and make poor choices, such as condemning and lashing out at scapegoats. Scapegoating individuals is shortcut we often take in response to difficult societal and systemic problems. One example of this is our relationship with firearms in the United States. Firearm homicide rates here are higher than any other similar country. A combination of easy access to deadly weapons and our vulnerability to externalizing and scapegoating can have deadly consequences. Research indicates men in the US are more vulnerable to externalizing their problems than are women, more likely to be gun owners (especially white men), and more likely to choose guns as their weapon of choice, which may be why 98% of mass shootings and 87% of firearm suicides are committed by men.
Recently A 21 year old man, citing sex addiction, visited several massage parlors and killed or injured nine people, mostly Asian women, in order to “eliminate temptation”. A 51 year old man at an Olathe, KS bar shot two South Indian men and wounded another man that came to their aid out of toxic American pride and patriotism at who he perceived as “Middle Easterners” and “illegals”. At least six mass murders, resulting in a total of 44 deaths, have been committed by self-described or authority determined incels, predominantly young, white males who are frustrated with their inability to find a romantic partner. Some incels see violence as the only solution to their problems, which they perceive as societal oppression and abuse against them.
Not only are individuals vulnerable to scapegoating, so is our larger society. Every time there is another tragic mass shooting, we hear the impassioned call for better screening for mental illness before gun purchase. However, many years of research show that mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all gun-related homicides.
In the article, Mental Illness, Mass Shootings and the Politics of American Firearms, researchers Metzl and MacLeish analyzed data and literature over the past 40 years and found that, “Fewer than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness”. Though the evidence is clear that people with mental illness are more likely to be targets of crime than perpetrators and gun laws targeting them only add to stigma, making us no safer, people with mental illness make a convenient scapegoat.
This knee jerk response to crises allows us to bypass the facts. The US has by far the highest number of civilian guns per resident than any other similar country, states with more guns have more gun deaths, and states with tighter gun control laws have fewer gun deaths. Yet, the rich and powerful gun lobby uses its incredible resources to convince us otherwise. And because we are busy and it feels intuitive, quicker, easier, and gives us the illusion of safety – its what we want to hear and we believe it. “In a way, it is a failure of the system often that becomes represented as a failure of the individual,” Metzl and MacLeish wrote. But, their research revealed that the factors that most predicted gun violence included:
- Drug and alcohol use
- History of violence
- Access to firearms
- Personal relationship stress
These factors are deep seated, complex, and require well thought out, multi-level, collaborative solutions. It’s no wonder we’d rather blame it on mental illness and shift our collective responsibility onto gun dealers and mental health professionals.
In the wake of the Capitol insurrection, some powerful people in the public eye are now being sued for defamation for things they’ve said that resulted in harm to others. Some of these folks are using a legal defense strategy that “nobody in their right mind” or “no reasonable person” would believe they were stating facts. Basically, they are saying they aren’t responsible for the consequences of their rhetoric, because only a crazy person would take them literally. However, some of their followers who are being prosecuted for their role in the insurrection are saying they believed the talking points and were acting in good faith on that information. In our flawed system, vulnerable individuals who actually believe and react to untruths and manipulative rhetoric end up taking all the blame, while the folks in power line their pockets and get even more airplay.
I recently learned of the My Lai massacre of 1968, in which more than 500 mostly elderly men, women (some pregnant), and children, were murdered, gang-raped, and had their village burned to the ground by US troops during the Vietnam war. Shaun Raviv, in his article for the Smithsonian called The Ghosts of My Lai, documents following up with the man who became the face of this horrible war crime, to see how his life turned out. He was the only one of 200 soldiers involved in the massacre who was convicted of criminal offenses and his time served was short. On the surface it may seem he walked away unscathed, but according to Raviv’s research, “…he spent most of his adult years feeling powerless both at work and at home… consumed alcoholic beverages in his own area of the home on a daily basis”, suffered from prostate cancer and gastrointestinal problems, went through a painful divorce, fell into depression, moved in with his son, and lived off his savings until it was depleted. Over the years, this man and other soldiers of the platoon have repeatedly explained they were merely carrying orders as issued. They also reported it was the unavoidable result of pent up frustration at and fear of a faceless and dehumanized enemy.
As the means, so the end. – M. K. Gandhi
Mainstream American culture teaches us more is better, but there’s not enough to go around, so we must compete and fight for what we want, need, or even “deserve”. One person’s gain becomes another’s loss within the zero sum game. A scarcity mindset, like many other harmful ways of thinking, attempts to address our fear of uncertainty, pain and death. But, in our attempts to bypass or compensate for our human vulnerabilities, we dehumanize and disconnect ourselves. We neglect to cultivate our greatest strength – the courage to be fully present with one another in our one precious life, with all its messiness, difficulty and uncertainty.
Centola, D., et. al. (2018). Experimental evidence for tipping points in social convention. Science; June 8, 1116-1119.
Everett, J. et. al. (2020). Political Differences in Free Will Belief Are Associated With Differences in Moralization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Forscher, P. S., & Kteily, N. S. (2020). A Psychological Profile of the Alt-Right. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(1), 90–116.
Grinberg, N., Joseph, K., Friedland, L., Swire-Thompson, B., & Lazer, D. (2019). Fake news on Twitter during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Science, 25, 374–378.
Guess, A., Nagler, J., & Tucker, J. (2019). Less than you think: Prevalence and predictors of fake news dissemination on Facebook. Science Advances, 5, 1–8.
Hopp, Toby & Ferrucci, Patrick & Vargo, Chris. (2020). Why Do People Share Ideologically Extreme, False, and Misleading Content on Social Media? A Self-Report and Trace Data–Based Analysis of Countermedia Content Dissemination on Facebook and Twitter. Human Communication Research. 46. 357-384.
Knoll, J & Annas, G (2016). Mass Shootings and Mental Illness. American Psychiatric Association
Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness Racial Justice (Mindfulness of Whiteness) Resources List
Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness Mindful Consumption (Environmental Stewardship) Resources List
Waytz, A., Iyer, R., Young, L. et al. (2019). Ideological differences in the expanse of the moral circle. Nat Commun 10, 4389.