Be the Change: Mindfulness and Social Justice

What do you think of a monk going off to meditate in a cave for years at a time? How about decades?

Such a person might well be the world champion of meditation. Maybe they are a bona fide Enlightened One. Or maybe they’re a certifiable headcase from the lack of human social interaction.

But the thing is, either way, what good are they? What good is the infinite compassion of an Enlightened One who never interacts with people with whom they can be compassionate towards? What good is a Buddha or a Jesus who no one has ever heard of?

The issue of whether mindfulness is compatible with engaging with the world and seeking social justice is a surprisingly contentious one. I always just took it as a given that a practice centered on increasing your insight and compassion would make you think to extend that compassion beyond yourself and your immediate circles, to care about wider society.

At the very least, I would’ve thought that even a purely selfish person would have to care about the social, economic and environmental conditions in which they, themselves, live… But I was wrong.

THE OPIUM OF THE MASSES

Some critics of the mindfulness movement have been concerned that it is essentially anti social change. In this view, meditation pretty much makes us like the monk in the cave, withdrawing from the world to self-indulgently work on changing ourselves at the expense of changing the world.

Ronald E. Purser, for instance, has infamously coined the term “McMindfulness” to describe the way that mindfulness has become “the new capitalist spirituality.” 1 Essentially, the corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon; and anyone who has walked by a store and seen a sale sign for “Mindfully Made Jeans” and the like has an idea of how mindfulness has been co-opted by consumer materialism.

But Purser’s concerns go further than that. Employers have been forcing their workers to attend professional development meetings and workshops in mindfulness; not because they care about their workers gaining special insight into their minds or the world, but because a happy worker doesn’t complain or go on strike.

Turns out, when mindfulness is tweaked the right way, it can become the new opium of the masses, a potent concoction for creating a zombie horde of happy slaves, all “living in the moment” in order to avoid their real problems.

Far from empowering us to “see things as they really are,” then, meditation wraps us in a blindfold to blissfully sleepwalk into the abyss as the world burns down around us. At best, this “mindful” renunciation of the world is a tacit endorsement of the status quo, an unthinking embrace of the unfair and exploitative power relations that exist in our society.

And even if the workers themselves won’t have it, mindfulness is still a great excuse for employers to just pull out the classic and well-worn blame-the-victim card: “No, my workers’ problems can’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that they’re precariously employed, overworked and underpaid while facing crushing bills, no- it’s just because they’re not being mindful enough.”

PRIVILEGE BLINDNESS

More soul-crushing is that fact that there seem to be plenty of people in the mindfulness movement who are happily doing their utmost to prove their critics right. I’ve mingled in circles of people at meditation workshops or online forums who have quite cheerfully dismissed the idea of engaging in politics or social justice, viewing these as antithetical to their goal of cultivating mindfulness.

Fighting for a cause is frustrating, agonising, stressful. Why would you do it when you can just be blissfully mindful and non-attached to it all? I have no way of knowing scientifically just how widespread this frankly terrifying attitude is, but I’ve seen it enough to know it exists.

The truth is, it takes a certain degree of privilege to even be able to articulate the sentence “I don’t care about politics or social justice.” A slave – to take an extreme example – doesn’t have the luxury to utter such a sentence unless they are one hell of a masochist. All that sentence tells me is that you, personally, are comfortable enough that you are able to insulate yourself from society’s cracks and flaws and tell yourself that “all is well.”

When nothing is actually forcing you to look, it is always easier – less stressful, less frustrating – to just turn a blind eye than to make the effort to see the world from the point of view of someone less privileged than yourself. The term for this is “privilege blindness.”

And sure, it would have been much easier for 19th century abolitionists to not bother fighting slavery, to just retreat into a cave and bliss-out in meditation. But it should be obvious that the fact that something is easier and less stressful does not make it right. If your mindfulness practice makes you go for the easier option just because it’s less stressful, well… I can see why some might start to sympathise with mindfulness’ critics.

MINDFULNESS AND SOCIAL JUSTICE

But mindfulness critics like Purser are only half right. At the end of the day, meditation is a tool; whether it’s a “good thing” depends on how you use it. Just as a hammer can be used to build a house or to crush a skull, meditation can be used to deepen your insight into your mind and the world, or to turn you into a happy slave or a blissful ignoramus.

There is, in other words, such a thing as right mindfulness and wrong mindfulness; a distinction that was always present in Buddhism but which seems under-emphasised in the modern mindfulness movement.

As philosopher David Loy has said, mindfulness and social justice need each other. 2 Mindfulness without social justice is the shallow, self-absorbed mindfulness of the comfortable and the privileged; it is not the mindfulness of love and compassion.

And yes, fighting for social justice without mindfulness is indeed stressful and frustrating; it is easy to get down, get angry or get overwhelmed. Far from making us just drop out of the fight and ignore the world’s problems like a sociopath, mindfulness, by allowing us to just take a breath, step back and see things more rationally, can actually empower us to respond to such problems more effectively.

None of this is to say that there is never a time and place for focusing on yourself. I’ve been there. There was certainly a time when I had far too many problems of my own to contend with without also having to battle the Keystone Pipeline or the resurgence of Neo-Nazi numbskulls. Sometimes you do have to take the time to work on yourself before you can take on the world.

But if you claim to give a damn about others, that your mindfulness practice has something to do with compassion, then eventually – when you are able – you have to return to the world and show it.

Sure it’s a cliché, but that’s only because it’s true: You must be the change you want to see in the world.