Meditation and Social Change

You might have noticed that "mindfulness" meditation is having a moment. I've seen a number of fairly breathless feature stories about how this kind of meditation can have real benefits for personal growth and professional performance. They present this as a new story, but mindfulness meditation has been a part of the social-cultural-spiritual landscape in the US since (at least) the 70s. Allen Ginsberg famously became a student of Chogyan Trungpa Rinpoche, whose book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is a classic of modern Buddhism, and founded the Naropa Institute in Boulder to bring Buddhist mindfulness practice into relationship with the creative arts and various strands of psychology. Shambhala Publications in Boston publishes Trungpa Rinpoche's works and many, many related titles. Mindfulness meditation is also known as vipassana meditation, and grows out of and is associated with various schools of Tibetan, Zen, and Theravda Buddhism. Jon Kabat-Zinn has been promoting mindfulness as a secular, stress-relieving activity since 1979.

OK, enough context-setting. Mindfulness meditation is misleadingly named, since the objective is not to fill the mind, but to empty it of thoughts. More specifically, one purposely engages in not thinking. Instead, one observes thoughts and lets them dissipate and go when they inevitably appear. You learn to settle the "monkey mind" and to not neurotically latch onto thoughts, which is a crazy-making activity. You learn that thoughts are not "yours," but ephemeral phenomena, like all of existence. Mindfulness urges a simple focus on one's breath.

So once the mindfulness stories reached a certain threshold, a minor backlash ensued, saying that meditation is fine and all that, but what good will it do in terms of social change? What will it do to rectify the crisis of Black incarceration or mitigate climate change? Well, put that way, not much. What it will do is to make one less reactive, and therefore better able to make decisions and act in ways less dictated by fear and confusion. In becoming an observer of one's own mind, one can become more aware of the shadow self, thus becoming better equipped to make the distinctions that are essential in the fight against evil and injustice (a topic I discussed here).

I think a more self-aware, less reactive populace will make for a better world, but I don't think we can say, nor would we even want to be able to say, that a meditater will end up voting a certain way, that meditating will turn someone into a global warming activist or the like. For many concerned with injustice, this isn't good enough. The spiritual or meditative approach to social change relinquishes an attachment to particular outcomes, even as we pursue certain goals. It holds that people who are less susceptible to propaganda and fear-mongering, people who are less prejudiced and more open, will have the capacity to contribute to a more just world, even if we can't say exactly what it will look like. Meditation is not a substitute for social action, but rather a foundation to help ensure that our social action is clear-eyed and effective.

For the record, while I have practiced mindfulness meditation on and off for many years, including at Naropa, I now practice mantra-based meditation, which focuses the mind. This is another way to get rid of neurotic thinking, and has the benefit of inviting positive vibrations. A phrase, I might add, that I use without irony!


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