A Conversation on Mindfulness, Bias and Racial Justice

It's difficult to have a conversation about racism, privilege and fragility without things getting heated. In this Point of View Podcast, experts weigh in on the role mindfulness plays in understanding and navigating racial justice.

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POV Podcast: A Conversation on Mindfulness, Bias and Racial Justice

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Stephanie Domet: I’m Stephanie Domet, an editor at Mindful magazine and a writer and podcast producer for mindful.org. This is a special edition of “The Point of View” podcast featuring Mindful magazine and mindful.org founding editor Barry Boyce in conversation with Rhonda Magee, Ram Mahalingam, and Mirabai Bush.

Mirabai Bush is the co-founder of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, which seeks to transform higher education through the introduction of contemplative practices and perspectives. Mirabai has worked at the interface of mindfulness and social justice since she learned contemplative practices in India in the 1970s.

Ram Mahalingam is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He’s the director for the Mindful Connections Lab. His current research is on mindfulness and dignity in hospital settings and in the cleaning industry, with a specific focus on janitors in India, South Korea, United States and Japan. He teaches an undergraduate course on mindful leadership and a course on mindfulness and engaged living.

Rhonda Magee is a professor of law at the University of San Francisco. Also trained in sociology and mindfulness-based stress reduction, Rhonda is a highly practiced facilitator of trauma-sensitive restorative mindfulness interventions for lawyers and law students and for minimizing the effects of social identity-based bias. Magee has been a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Law and Society and a visiting professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. She’s also the author of The Inner Work of Racial Justice published by Penguin Random House.

We convened this panel to talk about issues that arise out of racial justice, including a discussion of concepts around privilege and fragility—two ideas that are also examined in the October issue of Mindful magazine. It may be both unfortunate and fortunate that racism is so much in the news these days. It’s a hot topic in homes, campuses, offices, and in the media across North America and around the world. It’s unfortunate, of course, because we’re seeing a reigniting and re-emergence of hate speech and incitement to act harmfully, even violently. Fortunate, perhaps, because we may be uncovering deeper forms of division that we can explore in the ultimate interest of finding unity, interconnection, peace and justice.

When we talk about racial literacy and understanding implicit bias we get one kind of reaction. But things can get more pointed when we talk about white privilege, white supremacy and so on. It’s maybe the power and danger of calling it out—the power, perhaps, comes from truth telling, and the danger may come from labeling of someone as being on one side of a divide. And it’s a place where fragility can emerge.

Barry, Rhonda, Ram and Mirabai connected recently to begin unpacking some of these ideas and the role that mindfulness can play.

A Contemplative Approach to Social Justice

Barry Boyce: Thank you all for being part of this conversation. We’re talking with you today because you all have experience with both contemplative practice and equity issues, and I think that’s where we can make a real offering. Readers look to Mindful for encouragement and staying in and manifesting a feeling of interconnectedness, that we’re all one in some fundamental way, and that we need to be truthful about pointing out inequities and the harm resulting from bias. And we need to learn from that—go on some kind of a journey.

So today, let’s explore whether contemporary approaches have anything to offer, as Ram has suggested, “Keep the door open while not sidestepping the truth,” which I think is a great formulation.

So, in a few minutes we’ll dive into all the hot terminology: privilege, whiteness, supremacy, fragility, colorblindness, etc. But first, I’d like to hear from each of you about whether and how you see contemplative practice, and contemplative approaches to dialogue, aiding us as we navigate social justice issues.

So, perhaps we can start with Rhonda.

Rhonda Magee: Thank you so much Barry. So I think contemplative approaches can assist us in so many ways when we think about having conversations about these issues. As we all know, at a sort of fundamental level, contemplative approaches of a wide variety really help us with becoming more present and more aware to both the obvious and the less obvious aspects of our experiences in the world. So, mindfulness practices—often referred to as embodied mindfulness practices, those practices that help us become more aware of what’s going on within us as we are entering into these often choppy waters. These help us notice when reactivity is arising and enable us to respond rather than react automatically to the various stimuli that come up in these conversations. So, just basic mindfulness practice can assist us in that very simple way.

But I think compassion practices as well—those practices that enable us to put ourselves in the shoes of other people more profoundly and more pervasively. That is, compassion as a regular stance to being more flexible in our listening to each other and in choosing how to respond.

And so finally, in addition to having this compassionate awareness, another helpful aspect of mindfulness practice is the grounding in the body that many of the trauma-sensitive or more body-focused mindfulness practices get us really thinking about. Not just noticing the breath but really feeling the interconnection between the breathing body and the ground beneath us; really feeling the way in which we’re supported by way of being consciously aware of our connectedness—the connectedness that extends from our body into the environment around us. All of these different ways can help us with the reactions, the triggerings, the fragility responses that can come up in these conversations.

BB: Thanks. Ram, would you like to comment on that?

Ram Mahalingam: For me, contemplative practices primarily help us to foster interconnectedness. I talk to my students about three different kinds of interconnectedness: At one level is what we call intrasectional interconnectedness: that is, try to connect our own emotions and feelings and thoughts. So, the contemplative part helps us to ground, and then use the grounding to foster intersectional interconnectedness. That is, how to connect to people who are very different from us, and how to think about this. Like Rhonda said, compassion practices are very central in order to relate to other people. And how to use our own practices to really understand who we are, then use that understanding to connect to other people who are different from us.

Compassion practices are very central in order to relate to other people. And how to use our own practices to really understand who we are, then use that understanding to connect to other people who are different from us.

At the third level, we have what I call ecological interconnectedness. That is, how to connect to the larger world—connection to nature, globalization, and the suffering around the world that is consciously or unconsciously caused by us.

So, in a way, contemplative practice really helps us to connect—that’s my primary way of thinking about this. I try to emphasize that students consider these practices—such as meditation or journaling—so we can engage with what will help us to connect at the intrasectional, intersectional and ecological. That way, the whole practice is about grounding us to our own life, in a deeper and more engaged way, so that it helps us to lead a meaningful life.

BB: Ram, before I move on to Mirabai, can I ask you to clarify the difference between the first level of interconnectedness, intersectional, and the second one?

RamM: The first is INTRA-sectional: awareness of your own emotions. So, between intrasectional and intersectional.

BB: Right. Right. The first one is intrasectional.

RamM: It’s of my own emotions: we try to connect to our own emotions; what we feel, and how to stay with those emotions. That’s what I call the intrasectional interconnectedness; then there’s intersectional interconnectedness that helps us to connect to other people. So there’s self, other, and the larger world.

BB: So, self, other, and the environment, the greater environment.

RamM: Correct.

BB: Mirabai?

Mirabai Bush: Hi and hello to everybody out there who’s listening. I’m so inspired about however many of you have tuned in because I think this is such an important conversation—not just among the three of us, but nationally and internationally right now.

So I’d just like to review what we all know—anybody who’s read Mindful magazine—that mindfulness allows us to see things as they are, which of course is what we need to do before we can think about making changes in ourselves or in our environment or culture. We need to let go of judgment, meaning pre-judgment, mainly. Not letting go of wise discernment, but letting go of the pre-judgments we bring to situations—which is something that has a lot to do with racism and justice.

Mindfulness helps us listen more deeply, clearly, so we can really hear what the other person is saying—instead of with pre-judgment, assuming we know ahead of time. It cultivates humility—because, as you watch your own mind, I don’t see any other response besides humour and humility. I mean, when we witness our mind racing all over the place, and the kinds of things we come up with, which need care and attention.

And then, as Ram was just saying, our interconnection with others: More and more now, I teach a mindful practice called “Just Like Me.” It’s a compassion practice in which you stand across from someone—usually someone you don’t know—and then I guide it through phrases in which you discover that this person has suffered, just like me. This person wants to be happy, just like me. This person has been physically hurt in her life, just like me, and so on. And after about 10 minutes of that—of looking at the other person, whom you don’t know, and remembering, realizing, imagining the ways in which you are the same, has this profound impact on people. And that is so much at the heart of what we’re talking about here—getting beyond this other-ing of others.

And then last is impermanence. Mindfulness really leads us to recognize, as we watch our minds and watch the sensations in our body, we see how everything is impermanence. Everything is changing all the time, which I consider very motivating because that means the places where we’re stuck we can change; we will change, and we can help ourselves change in a positive way.

And I just want to say one more thing in response to what Ram was saying about nature. I just read this really great book called Spying on the South, and in it the writer traces a journey that Frederick Law Olmstead did in his life in the southern United States. It was before the Civil War. He was a northerner and wanted to really find out how people were thinking there. So he took these journeys through the South and he saw the incredible differences when it came to ways of thinking and holding on to beliefs. And he saw that the Civil War was inevitable. But what he got out that—he later became the landscape architect of Central Park and of many, many of the great green parks in our major cities, also Smith College. And he did that not just because he thought it was pretty, but he saw that as different as people’s ideas were about race and the country, everybody seemed to love being in nature. And then he thought if he could get different kinds of people in cities in nature together, it would go a long way toward them appreciating and being able to hear each other. So, just a thought.

BB: Well, that’s a beautiful thing, and it’s also ironic that some of those spaces have become spaces that are paved over, or they’re privileged spaces where not everybody feels they can be there together. And that leads me to my next question, which is about the fact that each of you host rooms—containers, you might say—where people come together who have all sorts of differences, and in those rooms you can, as we say, hold the space, where people can connect with their triggers and their reactivity, as Rhonda was talking about, and connect with a number of other things. In the presence of other people—you know, Robin D’Angelo, whose best-selling book on white fragility recently came out, she hosts a lot of spaces, but she encountered a great deal of fragility, fear and resistance to encountering these topics. And I was wondering how much of an obstacle is fragility in those in the rooms that you’ve been hosting, and how do you relate to it? Maybe we can start with Ram.

RamM: That’s a very important question. I used to be a civil engineer. I used to design buildings, before I became a psychologist, and one of my projects was designing foundations, which was part of our core training in learning foundation engineering. So, I use a metaphor from my former life when I teach about fragility. Fragility is about our inability to stay with discomfort. So, when we design a foundation, when there is quicksand, or when the surface is too soft, we have to add some piles to strengthen the base before we leave the foundation, before we build the superstructure. Contemplative practices are like the pile foundation. The quicksand, meanwhile, is all the history we carry with us—stuff we sometimes don’t engage with. The pile foundation provides the support—our contemplative practices anchor us when looking at our discomfort in an honest way. That’s one way I start: instead of focusing on the fragility, I encourage students to consider how to strengthen in order to look at these questions.

As a male faculty member—I’m probably one of the few male faculty members, a handful of them—in the Women’s Studies department. I always tell my students that it’s a very interesting experience, to sit and listen to all of my colleagues work, and we discuss gender. So, there is a lot of discomfort being a male because most of the work focuses on patriarchy and male privilege. So, I really see how I have to learn to stay with the space in order to listen deeply—the deep listening that Mirabai was talking about.

In a way, this is like the quicksand. Once we use the quicksand metaphor we might be able to see that it is the basic assumptions we have that prevents us from fully developing the capacity to stay with the discomfort. And that seems to really resonate with students. All of a sudden they can see how this approach could strengthen the way, how, they think about a topic. It’s contemplative practice that helps my students to consider how they’re going to engage with a question. I use this metaphor a lot to talk about fragility: it’s a way to engage with discomfort in a productive and meaningful way.

BB: So Rhonda, in your book The Inner Work of Racial Justice you give lots of great examples from the rooms that you’re hosting, and have been for years, at law school. So, tell us a little bit about your experience in the trenches, and how you relate to fragility and discomfort, and holding the space—the idea being to leave that discomfort there, without papering over it. So, what do you think?

RM: Well, it’s a very important topic and it’s something that I’ve experienced quite a lot. When we think about fragility, we benefit from our own practices—the practices that we engage in that help us apprehend what is real, what there is to be seen, what there is to be known, but to do so with some compassion. So if we recognize fragility, as D’Angelo and others have described it, it’s kind of a stress reaction; it’s a somewhat predictable consequence of our typical ways of dealing with, or not dealing with, these particular social dynamics. What I mean here is, we may be more or less protected—depending on our own experience and our own identity—from conversations about race. Even more specifically, whites in particular—as Robin D’Angelo and others who’ve really looked at white privilege. And again, this is just one form of privilege. There are other kinds of privileges; it varies, as we know, quite a bit, depending on the context.

But if we look at the situation in the United States today, where whites, racialized people, continue to find themselves often in majority situations, or in situations where, if they choose, they can avoid regular confrontation with the perspectives of people of colour: that provides a kind of training, if you will, in avoidance, in being much more comfortable in not talking about these issues. So when we talk about fragility, perhaps we can recognize we’re talking about a specific kind of stress reaction, a specific kind of socially constructed suffering. Then our mindfulness and compassion practices can really assist us.

When we talk about fragility, perhaps we can recognize we’re talking about a specific kind of stress reaction, a specific kind of socially constructed suffering. Then our mindfulness and compassion practices can really assist us.

From what I’ve seen in my efforts to create spaces where these kinds of conversations can happen, on the one hand, it’s very important to name and identify who is present, and really take into consideration the particular context. For me, context is so important to everything that we’re talking about—in terms of a practical way of thinking about this, it’s always very important to start there: Who is in this room? What are the particular identities and the particular levels of comfort that the people in this conversation have, relative to each other? How might we be more or less likely to find ourselves feeling less comfortable?

So again, when we’re in mixed company, with people we don’t know, trust is a big deal. And a lack of trust is often really running through the spaces. So a big part of, the foundation, of the work is a set of practices that help facilitate the building of some level of trust. While some of those are the intra-personal practices of the sort that Ram and Mirabai have been talking about—practices that support us in building our own foundation, a kind of stronger base and higher degree of stamina for withstanding the shifting dynamics of any set of interactions—those intra-personal practices are one level of support. But everything we do to help facilitate the sense that this is a trustworthy space is key. This can be as subtle as greeting people as they enter in a way that makes as real as possible the compassion we have in our hearts. It’s about the recognition we’re bringing to meeting each person as a person who matters, whose perspective is valued.

I talk in the book about a variety of different ways I think facilitators, or any of us, could approach conversations where these topics arise—bringing in more of a contemplative approach to support us: moving from the intrapersonal or personal practices that ground us, and from there, being mindful of the contexts and environmental factors and the very different ways we might engage interpersonally, establishing a space that supports trust-building.

For example, choosing mindfully how we—physically—sit together. Do we use a circle format so we can see each other’s faces while we’re having this difficult conversation? A lot of research suggests that simple, traditional format, which has a deep history in human connection spaces, of just sitting in a circle so we can see each other’s faces: that can be a simple and important and profound support for having these kinds of difficult conversations. Also, making explicit some of the agreements or expectations or ways we might, together, create or co-create a space where we can connect with more intentionality and openness and willingness—to give people the room to find their way into the conversation. So there are many different ways.

I think just bringing awareness to the challenges inherent when we come together; acknowledging the tendency or likelihood that there might be fragility, and the need, therefore, to engage in ways that provide a foundation that supports us. And structuring the environment in ways, the rooms we enter into, and the way we communicate in ways that support us, those are some of the things that seem to be important for me, in the work that I’ve done, to help engage across difference.

BB: Thanks, Rhonda. That’s beautiful. Mirabai, do you want to say anything?

MB: There’s so much; where to start. First I want to say, if you haven’t already guessed from my voice, I’m white. And my mother was what was called “Black Irish,” and that all happened because Moors, from Morocco in North Africa, came into Spain and then up into Ireland and intermarried. So I was going to have my DNA done by Ancestry because I love watching Skip Gates do that program. So I did, I sent it off, and I was really hoping that there would be something in there that would make me feel, at that level, more connected to, well, people of colour—other people besides people in Ireland and England, my two obvious roots. Anyhow, I got it back, and it said, “You’re English, Irish, Scottish, and Swedish.” It doesn’t get much more white than that. So that’s who I am, and I’ll have to live with it.

I wanted to quickly say that learning about how to create these spaces: It’s a journey. I love that Rhonda said you start by welcoming people to it. Well of course, she knows too, we start before that when we’re doing the planning. You know, just noticing those things that are often invisible: the shape of the space, welcoming, and so on. At the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, what we did for years was introduce these practices to secular settings in American life, so that meant all different kinds of people, and we had to pay attention to the differences of each group.

But I remember back to the very first thing we did—this was in, like, 1990, and a group of us who had formed Seva Foundation were activists, and we also all had a spiritual practice, and we recognized the way in which those two really informed the work that we were doing and helped us to be as successful as we were. So we wanted to kind of spread that, and we very naively decided, OK, let’s have a retreat for social activists. And everybody in this initial group were all white, and many of us had studied in Asia in monasteries and learned these practices that had been developed for monks. Well, it’s a long story, but 100 activists, many of whom came from New York City, more than half were people of color, the issues of the time were housing and homelessness and AIDS and the first Gulf War. Anyhow, all these folks came together and on the first two nights we had the teacher of the meditation practice, all day long, was a white male; and on the first two nights we had two great white men—but [laughs]—talk about spirituality, basically, and activism.

So, by the third day there was a revolution. And many people of color said this is not what I expected and then identified all the ways in which they felt alienated from it. We had this brilliant facilitator and we then sat in one circle for about four days and listened to each other. And I’m telling this story because for instance, I remember one African-American woman saying, “I can’t do this practice. I can’t be silent until I’ve been heard.” And that was so important—that had never occurred to us. And there were many other things that emerged that had been totally invisible to the planners.

In fact, I wanted to say that in creating any space it’s important to pay attention to who’s at the table doing the planning. And not only who’s at the table but, as we now say, who owns the table? Planning, from the beginning, has to incorporate—leadership has to incorporate—many voices, if this is the work you want to be doing.

But what happened in that circle was really amazing. So many people in attendance had been to political and social justice meetings, witnessing and expressing anger over injustice. But what happened at this meeting was that those who had planned it really had an understanding of listening. Many had done a lot of mindfulness practice. And they understood that, oh yeah, we could have been wrong. We could have been really wrong about this. They listened. And then together we created a whole different way of being together.

I’ll say one more thing about fragility. In her book on white fragility, Robin D’Angelo lists some ways in which white people respond. And they’re so interesting. She puts [the responses] in two categories: One she calls us color blind—people who say, “Oh, I just don’t see race,” and variations on that. You know, everyone struggles, but if you work hard in America you can make it—ignoring structural issues. But the second group was called “color celebrate,” and I learned a lot from this. People say, “Well, I’m not racist. I work in a very diverse environment. I have people of color in my family. And you’ll like this one, Rhonda: “I used to live in Hawaii, or New York,” and so on.

And I went through that, and I realized that those arise in me, and you can learn from whatever is arising in you, challenging you—question it! And there’s research showing that, in fact, there’s benefit to these; they shouldn’t just be written off. But working in a diverse environment, putting yourself in situations with people unlike you, creating community with people who are not like you, living in places where you are a minority—all those things really do help, but you still have to keep challenging your assumptions for your invisible biases. OK, I won’t talk so much anymore.

The Tricky Question of Privilege

BB: [laughing] No, that’s great, a good story, Mirabai. OK, I want to pin it now to exploring some words that create challenges for people. We’ve already battered around fragility. Let’s talk about privilege a little bit. So this is a word that causes confusion for a lot of people, as we know. They may say, “Wait, I’m not more privileged than that tenured professor who’s lecturing me about privilege.” And the Indian equity activist Mallika Dutt has talked about this as well as many others have: One aspect of intersectionality is that we’re all made up of intersecting lines of privilege and oppression. In the West, Mallika is stereotyped as an exotic Asian woman and has to live under that constraint, or even oppression. In India, she’s seen as a Brahmin, so she enjoys a fair amount of privilege, even though her gender causes discrimination there as well. So, wow, it’s complicated. How do we help people sort through something this complicated in a creative, helpful way? Ram?

RamM: Sure. So, it’s interesting. You cited Mallika—that’s good. I come from the South, one of the backward communities, and the first generation who went to college. So I think it’s an interesting dilemma, how to think about this question of privilege. The way I handle it is, I talk about what I call situated intersectional awareness—an awareness of who you are in different contexts differs by a whole set of factors. I give three examples to my students—all of them are from my own life experience. One is, when I was a grad student I used to work really late with one of my female colleagues. We would work until midnight, past midnight, and then she would ask me to drop her off at the parking garage [where her car was]. And because this was the middle of the night, I would walk her from the department building to the parking garage. The irony is, she has a fifth-degree black belt, so if anybody attacks her she’s the one who’s going to defend me, not me defending her. Her point is that you have male privilege because you’re actually preventing something from happening like this, so [she doesn’t] have to use [her] skills. So you’re more like a preventive measure—you’re walking with me. So, I tell stories like this—I realized I can walk in the middle of the night by myself. And with that privilege, I didn’t think about that question.

I took African-American students to India to meet with a Dalits activist, about 10 years ago, to talk about race and gender, the intersection of caste, race and class.

BB: Ram, I just want to stop you there for a second—so you’re talking about the Dalits, the so-called “Untouchable” class.

RamM: That’s correct, that’s correct. Dalits, the “Untouchables” before. It’s illegal to do that now, but there’s still a lot of discrimination. So, at the end of the session the Dalits activist asked students—they were really exchanging their life stories with pedagogical intervention to foster compassion—so at the end of the session, the Dalit activist asked the student: “Oh, I see you are really marginalized within the U.S. context when it comes to race. But you also come from the most privileged location—when it comes to, globally speaking, where the U.S. stands. So, what is your responsibility as a leader of people who are marginalized across the world? What kind of responsibility do you have?” So, that was a very profound question because the African-American students never thought about their role, even their location having something to do with leadership, the way the Dalits activist framed their experience.

So, that really had a profound influence on one of the students: she went back, she learned Tamil, she went back to India and worked for five years, and she just got back. So in a way, that intersection—how to understand your own privilege as an American, being African-American in a global context, is a very different experience than being African-American in the US and navigating those challenges. The experience was very useful to them.

My third example is when I was teaching domestic workers who are doing the cleaning. I talk about the cleaning industry and how immigrants and working class women do the cleaning. So, we had a long discussion during a reading, and two women were supposed to lead the discussion. What I didn’t know [about them] was that one woman was actually a daughter of a cleaning lady. She actually cleaned houses with the mom. And the other person used to have a live-in nanny when she grew up on the Upper West Side. Both were white. So they talked about being white and how different intersections of class and privilege operates.

There is always a lot of resistance when we think of privilege, what privilege means. We talk about implicit bias—there is that kind of response. And when we talk about privilege there is a different kind of response. So one of the creative responses I use in my class is, I introduce the concept of negative capability. Keats wrote about this, the poet, the idea being that, as an artist, you have to stay with something. If you’re pursuing truth and the truth has a darker side, you have to pursue it with care and compassion, without flinching or shying away from truth. Somehow, you have to stay with that capacity to stay with this truth that is uncomfortable to ask, which is called negative capability. So, all artist have to have negative capability—that’s his point.

There is always a lot of resistance when we think of privilege, what privilege means.

So I always tell students: Think of yourself as a method actor and you’re going to play a role. It’s always easy to play the role of Robin Hood or a prince because it’s easier to play likeable characters. But what if you’re going to play a child molester or a pedophile or a serial killer? So if you are a great actor, you have to have a lot of compassion for that role. So you’re going to bring what I call negative capability: a sublime form of compassion where you have a lot of care so you understand the character and bring some humanity to the character. That’s what they do.

So when we talk about privilege, we try to humanize who we are. So when I say “privilege awareness,” that is a way of humanizing who we are—to connect, to understand. So think of Robert De Niro or Marlon Brando or any of the great actors who bring a lot of humanity to their roles: that’s why we remember them. So the idea is to think of it as a process by which we become more human.

I really talk about it in the context that’s situated in intersectional awareness, to understand who we are; to have an awareness of our various identities; context plays a role; how we think about our identity, how we use our identity to connect or disconnect from people; and what are the ways, the practices, in which our identities are also embedded. Sometimes we don’t pay attention to this—like Rhonda said, saying hello in a group meeting always makes the difference for an ethnic minority or a person who is a minority in that particular context.

So there is a set of practices; it’s an awareness; it’s also a combination of our awareness about our privileges and marginalities, and how to use it to connect and humanize our own experience and how to be authentic in connecting with other people. So that’s why I created the frame using negative capability and brought it to this conversation.

BB: Yeah, I think that idea of negative capability—capability to work within negativity—is a wonderful comment on fragility and awkwardness, which, you know, Rhonda described fragility as a stress response. And as you were talking about method acting and bringing humanity to roles, I was thinking of two roles that Denzel Washington played: the husband and father in Fences and also Training Day: he plays a criminal and in each of them there’s a tremendous humanity, and all of them are heroic and flawed in curious ways. And, you know, it’s about entering into our feelings in a deep way.

Rhonda? Do you have any comments on this issue, generally?

RM: Yeah. Thank you. I mean, I love this conversation as it’s flowing, and one thing that comes up for me is, I think about the challenges of raising our capacity to bring awareness to this aspect of our experience that we’re pointing to by use of the word privilege. I think the piece I haven’t heard raised and I’ll just add here is that when we say that privilege is very in context, what we might add to that to help us understand why, and again, what it is that we’re talking about, is that privilege is related to differentials in terms of power and access. So I mean this privilege is really a way of pointing to structural circumstances in our context, in our communities, in our institutions, our schools, our workplaces, in our cultures, that have enabled members of certain groups to accrue certain kinds of powers, access to opportunities, a sense of normalcy or welcome in certain places vis-à-vis relative to others who are arrayed along this line of privilege in counterpoint to those who are esteemed. And so everywhere that you have some group that has experienced more access, more opportunity, power in this way that we’re calling privilege, there is a corresponding, countervailing array of different identities and groups who have experienced less of those different resources, and so on, because of their identity-based associations in the context, in the culture, in the place.

So we’ve had examples where we’ve looked at how gender can be privileging, and class, how the intersections of gender and class and race, or culturally specific statuses like we saw when we looked at the context of India. I mean, there are so many complications that it’s really quite interesting. And so, on the one hand, yes: it is, in an identity sense—if we’re just talking about privilege as an aspect of identity and an aspect of how we hold the experience of being human, yes, it’s about humanizing us, opening our eyes to the diverse diversities that are in all of us.

But on the other hand, I think if we don’t also add to the conversation that we have these different degrees of privilege because of the context within which we live and the power differentials that have been associated with different identities: therein lies, I think, the rub. It’s hard for us to have conversations about power in mixed company. Especially in the US, I think, we aren’t particularly well trained to dive deeply into the ethics or the sort of moral conversation, the moral imagination that might be brought to bear when we think about fairness and equitable distribution of power. And so privilege: Yes, it can get us really more richly sitting in the space of our humanity and all that comes up with that as Mirabai pointed out, if we can do that with humility and humour, that’s really the great gift of grace that can come from our contemplative practice—the idea that we take it all with a little bit more lightness.

But I think there’s another piece of it—and the part that’s most challenging is that it’s a political conversation. Suddenly, we’re now talking about the just and unjust distribution of resources and access—and that’s where it gets difficult, I think, for most people.

BB: Yeah, I think, what you said was very powerful—which is that we’re not used to talking about power in mixed spaces and mixed company and it gets to the heart of a lot of matters. It’s central …

RM: Yeah, I’m not even sure we’re used to talking about it very much on our own. I found myself—you know, I’m thinking about my own life as a woman of colour, African-American woman born in the southern United States. I grew up, on the one hand, very aware of the way that, as a black woman, there were certain things that were not expected of me, certain opportunities that had traditionally not been made available for people like me. And I, fortunately, was born into what I call the integration generation: that period of time where we were actively trying to address some of these inequities, and so I had some opportunities that women like me, and my family, didn’t have. My mother, my grandmother didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, to become a law professor, etc. These things didn’t just happen—there were deep political social movements that made these things possible.

And yet, as a woman in the American, late 20th-century context, I had embedded in me strong feelings about or strong trainings about what success should look like, and that included being a mother; that included being married. And so when I found myself not able to fulfill those particular expectations—I was married and then divorced, I tried to have kids and I couldn’t have them—all of a sudden, I started having these conversations with myself about what does it mean to have a sense of my own experience as a valid one, given all the dimensions? That dimension of being a woman, of being a black person, now having moved from very low class to upper class, from being a poor black woman in segregated North Carolina to being a law professor in San Francisco.

So there were a lot of different moments for me looking at where do I have power, where don’t I have power? And what is my relationship to this idea of power? Because I knew as a law professor I certainly had more power than my grandmother who cleaned houses for a living had. But I also had some ambivalence about power. And so when I think about the challenges, I realize the challenges are intrapersonal, right? Many of us have not really uncovered how we have ambivalence, or what our relationship is to the idea of our own personal power. But also we’re not as well-versed in analyzing how our sense of power, and what power means, is constructed by our social and political location, and our sense of what our ethical responsibilities are in our positions in the world.

BB: That’s great, Rhonda, you know, there’s lots of awkwardness and fragility for human beings to go around.

RM: Oh, yes!

Learning to Spread Light

BB: I want to pivot to another topic area. All of you are very skilled, and that’s why I’ve called on you, one of the reasons: you’re all skilled at unpacking the nuances and meanings and dimensions of these different, very powerful concepts we use. And one of the classical definitions of meditative awareness includes the assertion that a deeper awareness of what’s going on—as you said, Ram, an embodied awareness—allows us to better apprehend how words and language actually work, that meanings are fluid and contextual, and for one person, in one instance, a word might shed light. Whereas, in another context, it might create confusion to them, or harm, or division.

For example, the word “racist” now, the dimensions of its meaning now in public discussion covers a much broader range. A lot of people still think if you say somebody is racist they’re just talking about a person’s intentions in their mind; whereas it might now refer to a systemic context that you may be implicitly participating in—this can be a very challenging concept for people to get to without some unpacking. So, what can we offer from the contemplative realm in terms of how we can use words that spread more light than harm? And we haven’t heard from you in a while, Mirabai, so why don’t we start with you?

MB: Well, it’s a great area to bring mindfulness to. And it’s true: single words can trigger all kinds of responses and mean different things to different people. I was just reading this morning something about a Presbyterian minister who’s taking on the issue of gun violence and gun regulation. And she said something that I never quite got before. She said, when you say “gun,” for people who have guns, it goes immediately to their sense of identity and to the amygdala, which generates a feeling of fear. The idea of taking their guns away has to do with something very primal, where for them they think it means defending themselves, and otherwise they would be very vulnerable. Somehow, her just saying that, I saw it in a more personal human way than I had before.

So, of course, it’s the same with all these words around privilege and fragility and racism and they all can trigger all these responses in people. And I think that mindfulness gives us the skill to listen for those responses, think ahead of time about how people might respond to different words to, then, in the moment—as Rhonda stated the importance of embodying these practices—in the moment, get in touch with what’s being triggered in you by the new sensations within your body, and then breathing, and then maybe shifting and changing—always trying to remember the ways in which we are humans here together. And [remembering, too that] people defend themselves when they think they’re being attacked. So it’s really important to find that common space so you can hear and so other people can be heard.

And just recognizing that in different subcultures and spaces in this country, people use language in different ways. And we were talking yesterday about how, at the Center for Contemplative Mind, when we were trying to create a welcoming environment for people from many different professions, each with others of common interests, how we would be teaching the same practices and creating the same kind of space, but we would use different language, different words, in different settings. And there are lots of examples but I do remember we were teaching one group of judges, and they asked us to do a special workshop for them in which they could learn to be non-judgmental [laughing]. So, it’s really important to listen to the words we all, you know, I have a PhD in literature and I still use long words in lots of settings. But recovery, you know? Being aware of what had been invisible; listening to your own words and then recovering with humility and dignity.

BB: That’s beautiful. Ram?

RamM: It’s always a difficult conversation with students when we think about these questions. I think, like Rhonda said, it’s important to talk about the structural issues, which I spend a lot of time talking about: Intersectional awareness is not just individual awareness; it’s also how social structures play a role and how to think about the structural disparities and inequalities, which create this accumulation of privilege—and it’s also unequally distributed. I think that’s the kind of question, how to use this language to talk about it.

When I talk about mindfulness in my work one of the things I focus on is dignity. I really emphasize the importance of dignity in leading a life—a mindful life is how you treat yourself with dignity, and others, and how to make sure the dignity practices around you are consistent with the values you hold. I think that’s how to really have a conversation about these questions. And of course, there are a lot of times, like Mirabai said, you make mistakes. Choosing what kind of language you’re going to use affects how you think about the question itself.

Setting up some deep-listening tools in the beginning of the course, or class, in order to talk about these questions helps a little bit, but still there is a lot of work we have to do. There are a lot of difficulties in this culture to talk about social class itself. So many think they are middle class, and I was amused when I came to the U.S. and first saw that. Whereas class is so pronounced in India where I came from, as the first generation who’s gone to college.

So, one of the exercises I do is I ask them to look at what they’re wearing that day, and look at where it was made. And they track—usually it was made in Bangladesh or India or Sri Lanka. And then from there, how it came to Ann Arbor: they track the history of the object. They also do research on the product itself; they write a paper on that, and so they realize how corporations are involved, whether there is any child labour, sweatshop labour, and who is distributing [these products]. So they’re really creating awareness around how a simple thing they’re wearing has so much social information they’re not paying attention to. And also look at how they benefit from that; how to think about the benefits that are accumulating over time. [The approach is], in a way, to use it to talk about solidarity and deep listening.

It’s always a challenging conversation. It’s not always easy. But with mindfulness training and skills we set the stage in the beginning of the conversation itself: [establishing that] it is very important to have this conversation. Like Rhonda said, we are not trained to talk about these questions in a social setting. The conversation always goes in the direction you don’t want it to go, usually. And that’s always a challenge—how to navigate this.

It’s a continuous, ongoing engagement: how to preserve your own dignity and recognize the dignity of others, and how to sustain a culture of dignity around us that preserves the dignity of human beings. And that’s really, for me, that is what being mindful is about. And that’s a message I try to convey to my students.

BB: So, you’ve all talked in various ways about, as I’ve been calling it, hosting the conversations, hosting mindful dialogue for students, in many cases, but also for people who do various kinds of practice programs. I know particularly, Rhonda, you’ve done that, and Mirabai. I’ve done that kind of thing. So, when we have people in a container like that, let’s say for a day, a couple of days, or for an ongoing course, people can, we find, get in touch with their dignity and stick with the awkwardness and the pain, the fragility—there’s a journey that begins to happen. But then folks are let loose into the world at large, where they’re operating outside of those kinds of contexts. And the things you’re able to discuss within that kind of protected space, one kind of thing can happen, but then somebody walks out of one of these classrooms and turns to somebody and says, “Check your privilege.” And before you know it, they’re in a harsh fight with the person. Or [for another example], something in writing where there’s not a dialogue, there can be much more polarity and duality than you can foster in the kind of spaces you’re talking about.

So, Rhonda, what can you say about that bridge between a safe, protected space where creative things can happen and the big, old world where, you know, things can get much trickier?

RM: Right. It’s challenging, as we’ve said. There’s so many different things coming up for me. Fundamentally, for me, contemplative practice is about constantly waking up to the thing that, in this moment, is most difficult for us to see, and then figuring out a way to relate to what we’re seeing with more heart, more compassion, more dignity, more humility.

With regard to the challenges that come up around moving from safer spaces to the broader world, when I try and ground myself in my own practice, I’m aware that language is always fraught. Especially as a lawyer—Mirabai, as a literature professor, all of us—we have these different trainings around using words. But I think these contemplative practices help us hold all of experience a little bit more lightly, and they kind of trouble some of the professionalized trainings that we have about how we have to use words or how, as advocates, we need to frame a conversation. We get these trainings and we have these tools, and then we hold them with a kind of contemplative awareness, and it constantly pushes me against, or away from, being too tight with my expectations about how things should be, or how someone should say something.

So, I think bringing together the world and training around social justice on the one hand, with the world and training around contemplation on the other: that’s right where I’ve been sitting for many years. And so my own experience has been about recognizing the illusory nature of so many of the different things that really make us crazy. And, as Mirabai was saying, when we look at the thoughts, and the way we hold them, and the reactions, and the way we posture—again, we’ve been trained in our professional, our educational, our institutional settings to be in conversations in a certain way, and we sort of have to continue to manifest, or do that, in order to be able to stay in these places and make a living.

We run the greatest risk when we are all speaking the same language and so we assume that when I use the word “love,” for example, or the word “race,” or whatever it might be, everybody knows what I mean. But in fact, we are all so radically different in terms of how we think of any one thing.

But on the other hand, contemplative awareness is a constant reminder that words can never adequately convey what experience really is about. So, it really invites a, real, very nuanced appreciation for the difficulty of connecting. Sometimes I say to my students and to folks in workshops: we run the greatest risk when we are all speaking the same language and so we assume that when I use the word “love,” for example, or the word “race,” or whatever it might be, everybody knows what I mean. But in fact, we are all so radically different in terms of how we think of any one thing.

I remember doing a raisin meditation—the simple, traditional practice that’s often used as an introduction to mindfulness—through the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, where we explore what it’s like to experience this thing that we later identify as a raisin. I like to give an exercise like that, often at the beginning of an engagement, just to surface how even some simple thing like a raisin, which we all sort of know so well, but we know it so differently. The associations that people have with it—just going around a circle of law students or any members of a workshop that I’ve done—they’re so different that I use it as a reminder to all of us that we’re each our own kind of world.

We’re each a kind of river, if you will, into what mindfulness can help us see is an ocean of experience. And I’m thinking of a teaching from a South African teacher I was privileged to work with a little bit earlier this year in South Africa whose basic teaching was for us to be like the ocean that refuses no river. So, if the river of somebody is using the word “white supremacy,” and we’re, like, “wait … that’s a word that triggers me,” mindful holding is an invitation to, again, notice, soften, open a doorway or an access through which can flow this river of someone trying to communicate about something that, at the end of the day, is another human being we just want to understand better.

So I just think these contemplative approaches open us up to being with reality in a way that can hold more nuance, and that I think is one of the greatest gifts of the work.

BB: So one of the things I’m hearing you say is that, I envision in that room where you’re holding the space and challenging people to explore bias and how they respond to things, and triggers, there may be a lot of intensity there. As you move out in the world, one needs to carry oneself a bit lightly. And, you know, part of contemplative practice is to explore deeply, but also how to carry yourself as you go about in the world where we’re all living different worlds. I think that’s quite beautiful. Mirabai? Do you want to say anything on that?

MB: I think it helps. Well, leaving a class or a workshop I always give the participants cautions about going home and trying to convert everybody in your family to whatever it is we’ve been talking about. And also it’s often more helpful to talk about your own experience and hope that some of the insights into the problems of, well, I’ll just say racism as shorthand for the whole thing, especially for people who think it’s not a problem. So, I think speaking from your own experience is often helpful, and then out of that they can say, “I had this amazing experience in this workshop or class, where I saw that I actually didn’t really think I was holding much privilege, but when I looked more deeply I saw it.” Or, “Oh yeah, even though I’m a woman and I feel disadvantaged by men getting all the jobs and getting higher pay and so on, that actually, I also have privilege because I’m white, I’m educated.” So I think that’s a helpful way.

And people will often not hear you anyhow, and you have to know that. The one thing, though, is that for many people it’s invisible. That’s the point. That’s how they sustain white supremacy. It’s invisible. They don’t see it. And if it were really revealed, many more people would say, “This is really unjust. We’ve got to make some changes here.” But it’s pretty much invisible. And people living largely with people like themselves reinforce that, and mindfulness can really help us bring it into visibility within ourselves—our own resistances to relieving suffering wherever it exists. It can also lead us to find ways to educate ourselves about what’s going on.

BB: Well, we just have a little bit of time left, so I want to ask each of you, starting with Ram, if you have any last thoughts you’d like to share, anything you didn’t get a chance to say that you’d like to share with Mindful readers and mindfulness practitioners about mindfulness and social justice, and issues of race and privilege, divisiveness and unity and interconnectedness. Ram?

Yes, thank you for inviting me for this wonderful conversation. My main message I try to communicate whenever I do workshops or teach is to convey that mindfulness is not just a self-enhancement tool. It’s a way of living with a strong ethical component. I think it’s important to realize our responsibilities, our privileges, in a way that we can lead a mindful life. And I think dignity is very central to leading a mindful life: dignity of self, dignity of others, and dignity as a cultural practice around you. I think it’s important for us to make ourselves accountable.

So, the social justice research always makes us think and act in a way: Are we perpetuating inequalities? How do we deal with privilege in our own life and in the way we practice it? In a way, social justice work really makes mindfulness researchers or practitioners become more accountable to what they do, how we think about it. And I think that’s the most important way to engage with the question of why social justice matters in mindfulness communities: the way we think about sexuality, race, gender, class, you name any set of systemic inequalities perpetuated by identities and social structures that perpetuate those inequalities. Thank you.

BB: Thank you, Ram. So I flipped a three-sided coin here to decide who to give the last word here to, so Rhonda won, so Mirabai, do you have any last words to say before we give Rhonda …?

MB: Yeah, why it’s important to understand issues around social justice? We live in a fragile democracy. We hope it’s not too fragile, but we live in a democracy that says all beings are created equal—didn’t quite say it like that, but we believe that. So, it’s important for every one of us to cultivate compassion, to remember interconnectedness, to work to assure that we’re not contributing to creating suffering for others, and to relieve it where we can. It’s important for our children and our grandchildren.

Ram was saying this is a long-term proposition: our children, our grandchildren. I have to say it, my granddaughter Dalia—she was graduating from fourth grade the other day—and after, we were sitting at a table and a boy ran by. She said, “I don’t like him.” And I said, “Why not?”

“He’s mean to me,” she said.

“What does he say, what does he do?” I asked.

And she responded, “He said that I had a fixed mindset. And I don’t!”


So the children and the grandchildren—she’s nine. Isn’t that great?

BB: That is a special kind of bully!

RM: Bullying sounds quite different today than when I was on the playground! Even bullying has evolved.


RamM: It would have never occurred to me when I was that age!

BB: Them’s fightin’ words, boy: “fixed mindset.”

MB: OK, we should probably end on that, but I’m not going to because I have more to say. [laughter]. Children and grandchildren, and as Elijah Cummings says, those generations yet unborn. My hope is keep practicing, educate yourself about what you don’t know. Maybe it’s the systemic level of racism. Make friends different from yourself. Build community. Find areas where you can make positive change—large or small. Do what you can. Act. And act with love. That’s all.

BB: And if somebody accuses you of having a fixed mindset …

MB: Be compassionate!

BB: Rhonda?

RM: Well, I agree very much with those sentiments that Mirabai expressed there. I do think, and as Ram was saying, mindful living is about ethical living—at its foundation. So it is about how we are in the world, with each other, what awareness of interconnectedness suggests for how we might live better together. And so, as Ram was mentioning the ways in which bringing a social-justice awareness to mindfulness work can help us be more accountable—in terms of this question of how we are and what we’re doing with each other with a view towards minimizing social suffering—I would just highlight that this is also a conversation that those of us who enter through the doors of social justice might hear a call for a more mindful, contemplative way of being with that work. This is not about pacifying. This is not about being more [accommodating]. It is a radical invitation to really bring a heart-full capacity for complexity and nuance to how we do that work.

Because we all know it’s challenging to stay on the front lines of the work of trying to make the world a better place. And we’ve all seen the ways that sometimes doing that work can also harden our hearts, can also be held in such a way as to make it hard for us to connect with other people across what are perceived or real differences. And so the temptation sometimes, as that person who’s really concerned about these issues, might be to be so focused on the injustices that we see and the way we think they need to be addressed that we ourselves can be doing some harm in those efforts.

So, I think just as we want to bring social justice more forthrightly into the conversation about mindfulness, I think we also want to bring mindfulness and contemplation in a huge, big way, as Mirabai suggested, forthrightly into the work of social justice.

RamM: Yes.

BB: That’s beautifully said.

I think it’s been said before that, as you’ve been talking about accountability, in the mindfulness world sometimes we practitioners, when we think of something like bias and injustice, and we think of our personal intentions, and we think of ourselves as pretty broad-minded and understanding—but we may have an under-appreciation for deep, systemic issues and deep, systemic methods of oppression, and reducing access and power.

And, as you were suggesting, within equity work, where people understand that so deeply, they also might benefit from taking a pause to do those kind of practices that you were talking about. It’s kind of a great marriage, where we have knowledge and insight and practice that we can all benefit from being together. And I hope that Mindful—you know, we haven’t exhausted this topic, these topics, by any stretch of the imagination, and we just want to keep returning to that well and being a participant and helping to host these kinds of conversations and explorations in whatever way can be helpful.

So, I want to thank you all, it’s been a real pleasure, Rhonda, Mirabai, and Ram, thank you for contributing to this conversation. Thank you.

RamM: Thank you, Barry, for inviting us. It was nice to be with you all. Thanks.

MB: Yeah, thanks for bringing this together and bringing it to everyone out there who’s listening. Thank you for listening.

RM: Yes, thanks, everybody for your time and caring in this conversation.

BB: Well, a great phrase to end on is: You are all welcome.

Stephanie Domet: This has been Point of View with Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce.You heard Barry in conversation with Mirabai Bush, Ram Mahalingham, and Rhonda Magee. If you want to learn more about racial justice and the role mindfulness can play, Rhonda Magee’s book The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness was published in September 2019 by Penguin Random House.

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holding hands. dismantle inequality

Can Mindfulness Help Us Dismantle Inequality? 

The same mindfulness practices that transform problematic habits and thought patterns can help us tune in to the subtle ways that society cultivates barriers and “draws us to reinvest in segregation,” says mindful law expert Rhonda Magee. Read More 

  • Barry Boyce
  • May 27, 2020