In aid of
me straight back to that early idea I’d garnered, that people sat in order to
create a little happy glow for themselves that wore off as they interacted with
the world, whereupon they had to go back to the cushion to regain it. Is that really why we sit? So we can be happy? So we can feel more connected to people when
we’re on the cushion than we do when we’re actually interacting with them? So we can come to see all of our stories
about the world as just that – stories?
Do we really sit to get better at sitting?
sidebar: On a seven-day silent retreat
last year, one of the teachers – an older, white, cisgendered woman – talked us
through the metaphor of seeing our mental stories as a film. That, as we sit and watch the rising and
falling away of the stories that we tell ourselves about our lives, we can come
to the realization that they are like a film, and we are the audience. We may become absorbed to the point where a
movie feels real – our heart races, we lean forward, our muscles tense when the
hero is in trouble – but then we can suddenly realize, it’s a story! And we can sit back and catch our breath and
see how we are separate from the action on the screen.
true, and very helpful in many ways.
When my colleague dismisses something I say with absolutely no
acknowledgement, it is easy to get caught up in a larger story. No-one takes me seriously. Or, I’m a failure and nothing I say is very
important. And if we believe and act on
those stories, we’re trapped. But at the
same time, if I am a woman, and my colleague is a man, and this kind of
dismissal happens regularly (and worse yet, he then repeats what I’ve said as
his idea), it seems to me that to say that my understanding of that interaction
as sexist and as part of a large structure of misogyny is just a story I’m
telling myself – well, that’s simplistic. And, perhaps more importantly, devoid of
So I wrote
a question to the teacher, saying that, while I find it very useful to
understand many of my stories about my life as, just that, stories, I wasn’t so
sure that I was comfortable thinking about, say, racism as just a story and
could she please address that?
later, she said that she’d received that question, and offered a one-line
answer about how, of course, we wouldn’t want to say that racism is a
story. Period. The lack of depth and understanding were
deeply troubling to me (and, I found out later, to at least one person of color
in the room). But also, I think,
symptomatic of what I’ve been circling around with all of this writing – that
mindfulness, as it is often practiced and described and taught today, has had
its radical potential subverted by a paradigm of individual practice geared
towards self-understanding and self-improvement.
What do I
mean by that?
mindfulness is something we do on the cushion, with very little teaching about
how to carry it out into the world, it is robbed of its potential. When it is about a detached watching of the
mind, decoupled from teachings about wise action arising from an understanding
of the self and others and the nature of reality, it is robbed of its
potential. When we sit on our cushions
offering compassion to people near and far, and then sit in a meeting unable to
even recognize that we’re Othering the asshole across the table who just.
won’t. listen. Well, where is our
not saying it’s easy. In fact, when people
talk about how they couldn’t do a week-long silent retreat, I want to say, dude
– that’s the easy part. It’s doing a
life-long engaged retreat in the world that’s really really hard. And doing it without engaging in spiritual
bypassing (I just love everyone!) is even harder. It requires getting very down and dirty with
some really difficult emotions. Because
here’s another secret no-one wants to say out loud about mindfulness – it’s not
all about being peaceful and serene and happy.
If you’re going to be mindful of whatever arises as it arises? Well, my friend, you are going to feel anger,
and fear, and deep grief. You are going
to feel agitation, and a very strong desire to run away from all those things
you’re feeling. That’s what our minds
and bodies do. They feel it all. It’s just that our minds keep wanting to
stick with the emotions that we’re comfortable feeling (or that we feel like
we’re allowed to feel – and there are all kinds of social constraints around
that; another essay for another time), and tell us all kinds of stories to keep
us in those emotions.
think, radical change comes when we feel all the feels, as my daughters would
Kyodo Williams, in her jointly-authored book Radical Dharma, talks about mindfulness and anti-racism work. And she calls for white folks to come to
anti-racism work not from a space of “what can I do for you (poor people of
color)”, but, instead, to begin by recognizing the pain that the system of
racism inflicts upon us. Not to center
ourselves, but instead to understand more clearly what Lilla Watson means when
she says, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation
is bound up with mind, then let us work together.”
understand that my liberation – the cessation of my pain and suffering – is
bound up with the liberation of everybody else?
To feel that in my bones, instead of just in my head? Well, my friends, that – that – is radical. That is transformative.
And it can
be one of the gifts of mindfulness, practiced, well, mindfully. When it, first, engages with what Kabat-Zinn
calls the whole catastrophe – not just the joy and the bliss, but the sorrow
and rage. And when it gets its ass off the
cushion and into the world to continue that practice. When the practice take place not only in the
isolation chamber of our own minds, but in conversation with others. In mutuality with the world.
If I truly
look at someone else through the eyes of lovingkindness – eyes that recognize
our common humanity – how could I possibly lock someone up at the border? Separate someone from their child? Draw zoning lines that limit the access of
other people’s children to the education my children enjoy? If I look at myself through the eyes of
lovingkindness, how can I allow someone to encroach on my boundaries? Dismiss me as worthless? Waste my time with hateful and draining speech?
If I look
at the world that way, how can I not want to find ways to adjust my consumption
to cause less damage? How can I eat an
animal that has lived its entire life in fear, pain, and misery?
through all of this, when I regard myself with compassion, how can I not sit
with my own fear of failure, my grief that the world is this messed up, the
shame that I have contributed to these systems, the feeling that I am not
enough and can’t do enough – how can I not hold all of that with love and offer
myself kindness for being an imperfect being in an imperfect world? Not alone in my imperfection, nor in the
world, but in community with other imperfect beings.
If we all
really could hang on to that, off the cushion, the world would tremble.
when I see all the ways in which we turn mindfulness into an isolated, isolating
practice. When I see how the ways that mindfulness
is practiced exclude broad swaths of embodiment in favor of those that align
with one dominant model of being in the world.
When I see those who raise these issues being dismissed with the
suggestion that they just need to sit with their feelings until they come into
a more right understanding of them.
honesty, it pisses me off. It frustrates
me. I grieve. And I also understand. I recognize those things in myself and in my
own practice and discussion of practice.
I see that I am implicated.
feel fear. To truly live this way? What a commitment. What a tremendous life’s work. And people – to do this means, for me, that
I’ve got to learn to set boundaries out of a place of love and care for myself.
And that’s not the only fear. I quite literally cannot imagine what our world
would look like if we lived from this place of loving presence.
That’s what I mean by transformative. And by radical. It seems to me that a practice like mindfulness,
fully engaged with, changes everything.
And maybe that’s why, when mere mortals engage with it, we do it in our
limited, human way. We fit it into the
systems we already know so well – here, in the West, systems which emphasize
individuality and achievement. It gets
smaller, but also more approachable and manageable. Explicable.
And the potential diminishes. We