Why mindfulness matters now

I didn’t learn how to cross lines of difference when I was younger. Maybe you didn’t either, but we can all learn it now.  

Claudia Horwitz
1 February 2017

Credit: Flickr/Darragh O Connor. Some rights reserved.

Many years ago I was working with a group of high school students from different faiths and races in Washington DC when a conversation around race surfaced and all sorts of things started happening at once: stereotypes, white guilt, people shutting each other down, and well-meaning attempts to fix the situation by universalizing particular experiences. The staff met to unpack these threads, but it didn’t lead to any clarity about what to do. 

Then I remembered a time when a friend had called for a few minutes of prayer in a secular meeting of national community service leaders.  So I suggested that we take ten minutes to be quiet together. When I opened my eyes, I saw my colleagues spread out around the room: Jason, a white rabbi, at the window praying; Liz, Catholic and Latina, on her knees with her hands clasped on a chair; and Christian, an African-American Baptist who had pulled out his bible.

The room seemed different—quiet but charged with a palpable energy that made it easier to to figure out next steps.  We decided to use an exercise called “Cross the Line” to increase the students’ awareness of difference, empower students of color to articulate their own understandings of race, and engage everyone in dialogue.  Through a time of shared practice and the specific pathway of each person’s tradition, we’d been able to tap into a more expansive wisdom about interconnectedness.  It was one of the first times I’d experienced a link between the intelligence of the quiet depths and the urgency of action.

If you’re an activist, you’ve likely experienced multiple versions of this story. People who want change spend a lot of time in groups. Progress depends on how well we can hang together and get things done, whether that’s lifting a ban on refugees, ensuring climate science prevails or discerning right action and priorities in the era of President Trump.  As the assaults on human dignity and freedom pile up the weight can be paralyzing.  But the fact that so many different fronts are being threatened holds the key to our future because we know how deeply different forms of oppression are interwoven—and why that requires action across issues and identities. 

The nationwide demonstrations currently taking place under the hash-tag #NoBanNoWall provide a great example, making visible the interdependence between refugees, immigrants and those fighting alongside them. Likewise with the organized groups of Christians, Jews and veterans who showed up in solidarity with the Sioux Tribe at Standing Rock, who made explicit connections between colonialization, marginalization and occupation. However, coming together powerful lines of difference can be tough. The ability and willingness to cross more boundaries more frequently and with greater skill isn’t something that most of us automatically possess, and this is where creating space for people to engage in contemplative practice, prayer and ritual can be vital. 

I didn’t learn how to cross lines of difference when I was younger. Maybe you didn’t either, but we can all learn it now.  And we have to, because our shared humanity and collective survival depends on breaking through old fears and patterns.

Early in the Black Lives Matter movement I was living in Houston, Texas. Like many cities there were town hall protests, campaigns for police body cams and efforts to sign up more people of color to sit on grand juries. These were all vital actions, but there wasn’t much opportunity for people to connect with each other across racial lines. I was working at the Rothko Chapel, a unique space dedicated to art, spirituality and human rights, and we decided to host a program to encourage a deeper dialogue and enable members of the community to hear from historians of transatlantic black migration, elders, judges focused on cooperation with law enforcement, community organizers and many others. We wanted people to be able to express their feelings in the midst of a turbulent time and really hear each other’s perspectives.

At the beginning of the program we included a short meditation, encouraging people to connect with their hearts and with their breath, and explicitly welcoming different emotions into the room: grief, compassion, rage, hope and confusion. Then people broke into small groups mixed by race and age to talk. The room was filled with the buzz of laughter and tears, the energy of people speaking, and listening.  When the groups came back together, people were invited to share. Black parents spoke about their fear for Black youth; a white woman shared her struggles with a racist relative; and a journalist described the challenges of covering the complexities of what was happening. Much of what was said was difficult for some people to hear, but they kept on listening. 

It’s a good illustration of how practices like meditation or prayer can lend depth when people come together across lines of difference. There’s always a lot of creativity at the boundaries of things, in the spaces where open fields meet the forest, or at the edges of society where differences collide to create new possibilities and give birth to revolutionary ideas.  But these boundaries can easily become fault lines which embed differences deeper into society and politics. The good will that’s often expressed in one-on-one interactions doesn’t scale up so easily.  As groups grow and become more diverse, their members tend to be more competitive and less friendly.  Writ large we see this frequently on the left among those who are basically aligned with each-other around core values. And even when we do agree, we stumble and fail to build on each other’s good ideas or make the links between our different struggles. 

As a white woman working in multiracial settings I’ve learned these lessons the hard way, over and over again, and I know how it feels to freeze up in confusion or let fear push me to the safer sidelines. But I’ve been fortunate to have spaces that allow for vulnerability, and I’ve worked to create those spaces for others. I’ve seen what happens when the rough edges of racism are met with a gentle fierceness, and I know the difference between unhealthy shame and healthy regret. A lot of possibilities open up when we meet discomfort at the boundary with courage.   

This is where practice comes in. Many studies have documented the benefits of mindfulness meditation and yoga. They include an improved ability to handle stress, stronger cognition, less depression, and the ability to regulate emotions so that we are not knocked sideways when things get difficult.  One recent study showed that meditation can reduce what the researchers called “implicit bias” around race and age. Intuitively this makes sense, given the ways in which mindful attention slows down the stream of mental activity.  Practices like meditation interrupt our conditioned responses and enable us to step back into a different kind of awareness in which we can start to pull apart pernicious stereotypes and the oppressions they create.

Stopping or quieting the mind, or moving the body in a compassionate and mindful way through something like yoga, brings more attention to the tensions we feel in activism or when talking with those who disagree with us.  We can observe our thoughts and feelings with a little less judgment, and meet others in new ways.  And that’s what begins to short-circuit the default mechanisms we have, and the prejudices or internalized oppressions we might carry around inside of us. As a result, we can think more clearly and interact with others using the best version of ourselves.

However, we’ve barely tapped the potential of these shared practices to transform our politics and our future.  Now more than ever, we need to be bolder and more intentional about including them in our work.  We can plan ahead with colleagues to include yoga or meditation in group settings, not just in the easy contexts but in those with higher stakes too.  We can practice noticing people’s bodily responses and invite them to stretch in simple ways that might shift their energy and attention.  Or we can invite a few moments of silence and reflection when talking seems to have run its course. I think the United States is still in its adolescence when it comes to engaging with the realities and consequences of racism.  And I believe we all want to grow up.  Going forward, that is going to require greater capacity for risk.

As we scale up these practices we can increase our collective capacity to meet others across the boundaries of race, gender, sexual identity and political beliefs, and build stronger relationships of solidarity. It’s about being brave and willing to meet in the tight places, being willing to struggle and even squirm. Being at the boundary with each other is like going further in a yoga pose: if we’re mindful of the stretch, it becomes a fruitful place of growth, but if we’re mindless we can get hurt.  If we relax into the fullness of our breath, the mind softens too.  What’s difficult becomes generative of new ideas and solutions. 

Like the cells that build the body, all of this starts with us—in our daily interactions and in all the groups in which we find ourselves. I believe we all want what every group I’ve ever worked with has wanted: to be seen and heard, to connect authentically with each other, and to move forward to real results. Practices that bring us to the root of our truth like mindfulness can strengthen our capacity to face the future with compassion and solidarity.  And it seems like we’re going to need that more than ever.

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