Mindfulness can help us to discern, interrupt and transform power differentials and biases.
By Beth Berila.
First published in openDemocracy’s Transformation section.
According to Ronald Purser, mindfulness can be transformative when it helps people “connect the dots between their personal troubles and public issues.” Luke Wreford and Paula Haddock call for a “move beyond a focus on individual wellbeing towards more collective and systemic responses to the personal, social and ecological challenges we face.”
Their critiques of the individual focus of most popular mindfulness trends are on point. When placed within a social justice context, however, mindfulness practices can offer valuable ways to integrate both individual and collective change. Both are integral parts of social transformation. Mindfulness can, in the words of the great Grace Lee Boggs, help us “transform ourselves to transform the world.”
For that to happen, we need to practice mindfulness not just to ease stress and reactivity. We also need to reflect deeply on the ways we have been shaped by the broader world. We can then amplify those aspects that move us closer to liberation, while unlearning, dismantling, and disrupting those parts of the larger society that are harmful. We can reflect on how systems of power impact us in different ways so that we can heal from that harm and refrain from perpetuating it.
Doing so requires that we understand and account for our diverse positions in society. We can consider how the various aspects of our particular identities like race, class, gender, sexual identity, dis/ability, religion and immigrant status work together to locate us within sociopolitical power dynamics. Like coordinates on a map, these ‘positionalities’ (combined with a power analysis) tell us why we have our particular lived experiences.
This recognition deepens the individualized reflection of many mindfulness practices by asking us to mine our interpersonal experiences to understand why they are what they are. For instance, the storylines that arise for us when we meditate are shaped by our positions in the world. Those storylines will likely be different for the person sitting next to us, particularly if they live a very different identity than we do.
When we truly engage this level of reflection, we begin to realize that our socialization and position in sociopolitical power dynamics don’t just shape our sense of ourselves; they also shape our sense of other people. This intrapersonal level of reflection can help move us from a focus on the individual to a focus on relationships.
My positionality – where I’m marginalized and where I’m privileged – is in direct relationship to yours and vice versa. Often, the two mutually define each other in ways we may not even recognize. Since many of us are not in authentic community with each-other across our differences, that process can easily lead to “Othering.” We then create “us/them” constructs that perpetuate harm and inequality.
Our mindfulness practices can help us learn to discern and interrupt our implicit and explicit biases. Once we can better account for power differentials and their impact in society, we can transform them.
The intrapersonal level, then, helps us begin to reflect on the “we” instead of the “us and them,” but that still doesn’t complete the individual/collective cycle. What do we mean by “we,” and what conditions are attached to belonging to it? There are multiple levels of “we.” We have collectives in our family, our local community, our organizations, and even our identity groups. Then there’s the broad, collective “we:” all humans, all sentient beings.
On several occasions after talking in contemplative, yoga, or mindfulness spaces I have been asked how positionality and diverse identities can be reconciled with the emphasis on “oneness” that is so prevalent in mindfulness. This is a good question, and the answer comes in many layers.
First, we have to look at the particular mindfulness tradition people are referring to, with its long cultural and philosophical history. Different traditions likely talk about this question in different ways. One limitation of many contemporary mindfulness programs is their decontextualization from the rich cultural and historical traditions from which they emerge, which can easily result in cultural appropriation and misrepresentation.
Secondly while “oneness” might be an absolute or ultimate goal, we aren’t there yet, and we can’t get there without accounting for the different lived experiences that diverse communities have, and the power dynamics between them.
There is a tendency to presume that the only way to be “one” is to be the same. In this interpretation of mindfulness, sameness usually means the cultural norm. For instance, when discussions of racism are raised in predominantly white mindfulness spaces, some white people will say that talk of difference disrupts our “oneness.”
In this situation, oneness presumes whiteness and any challenge to that norm is read as the problem. The Reverend Zenju Earthlyn Manuel notes that “[w]hen we try to manipulate the nature of our oneness into a flat, one-dimensional sameness, we choose to ignore the concurrent multiplicity of nature.”
But this is a learned construction that simply preserves the status quo. Rev. Manuel asks, “How could a path to spiritual liberation possibly unfold if we turn away from the realities that particular embodiments bring…spirituality must acknowledge the body and the denigration of certain types of bodies in the world.”
Often, the interpretation of oneness as sameness comes from socialization, unexamined assumptions, and power dynamics. Mindful social justice offers us tools to dismantle these things. When we more deeply reflect, account for and unlearn them, we have more agency and choice about how we relate to ourselves and to one another.
We can then embrace the diverse richness of our differences and the interrelationships between them. This approach can reframe oneness to mean interconnection, as some mindfulness traditions already suggest. In this frame, we are all one because we are all part of a rich, interdependent web.
We hold different positions within that web, so difference is a rich and critical part of the system. But those differences don’t have to come with the power dynamics currently attached to them. As the great Audre Lorde wrote, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
In her book, Transformation Now!: Toward a Post-Oppositional Politics and Change, and drawing on the work of M. Jacqui Alexander, feminist scholar AnaLouise Keating captures this reframing well:
“This ‘vision of interdependence’ is not some abstract belief in an otherworldly reality to which we escape so that we can avoid the difficult conversations about embodied and psychic differences; this vision is rather deeply embedded in everyday life even our most ordinary actions and encounters….We practice a relational ethics that demands a new level of mindfulness.”
True transformation requires a fundamental shift in being. True social transformation toward justice requires this shift to happen at the interpersonal, intrapersonal, and collective levels. Fortunately, mindfulness practices – when situated within a social justice frame – offer rich potential do the work that’s necessary to access this interconnection.
Doing so requires that we uncover the conditioned meanings that get attached to difference, into which most of us have been socialized. It demands that we become unflinchingly clear on our own position in the world. And ultimately, it provides us with the opportunities to forge our interrelations in ways that co-create liberation.
Beth Berila, Ph.D., is the Director of Gender & Women’s Studies at St. Cloud State University. She is also a Leadership and Life Coach and a longtime mindfulness practitioner.