Mindfulness for All

We can use mindfulness to bridge race, gender, age and class divides.

Posted Sep 21, 2016

Here in the West, the study of mindfulness has been available primarily to the privileged few. Fortunately, things are changing. With my colleagues at The Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy (IMP), we organized Mindfulness for All: Moving Beyond the Barriers of Race, Gender, Age, and Class, a groundbreaking conference to explore ways to make mindfulness practice available to everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual identity/preference, income, or social class. This daylong symposium featured talks, panel discussions, break-out groups, and was supported by Jeanne Mahon and Beth Faria at Harvard’s Center for Wellness and the Office for Work/Life, as well as the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Cambridge Health Alliance.

This past spring, in a conference on Buddhism and Race at Harvard Divinity School, the Zen teacher Greg Snyder of Brooklyn Zen Center said something that turned my head around. He was talking about Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and the tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray. “The problem,” he said simply, “is our minds. Our minds are filled with fear, hatred, and rage.” He paused. “We need to change our minds.”

And that was before Baton Rouge, Dallas, and the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five cops. And before the June massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. And the recent killing of Terence Crutcher.  As New York Times commentator Leslie Jamison wrote, “This has been a summer of vulnerable bodies, a summer of unjust violence once again carried out in the guise of justice, a summer of fear and fear mongering.” This violent and blood-soaked summer has had an impact on us all.

How does mindfulness fit in? The good news is that recent research suggests that when we take responsibility for our minds, and engage in and cultivate practices that are meant to foster compassion and equality, we can decrease racial bias. The following post by Wendy Hasenkamp describes the research.

Our keynote speaker for the conference was Lama Rod Owens, whose new book, Radical Dharma (co-authored with Rev. angel Kyodo Williams and Jasmine Syedullah), is a guide to liberation and a call to action. Both profound and practical, Rod’s work reframes the often arcane Buddhist practices of compassion so they become accessible for our world. More importantly, Rod shows us how they can become a vehicle to address our collective trauma and foster healing.

Let me share with you an adapted and simplified version of a compassion practice that Lama Rod taught.

  • Spend a moment sitting comfortably, allowing yourself to settle and relax.
  • Your eyes can either be open or closed.
  • Call to mind someone who has been a source of kindness and compassion in your life. This being can be living, or someone who has passed. It can be a deity or a pet.
  • Visualize this being materializing in front of you, wishing you well, repeating a prayer for you that you be happy, healthy, peaceful, free from suffering. That you may experience kindness and love.
  • Let this being repeat this prayer for you over and over again.
  • Visualize this being sending you the warm, white light of compassion that radiates from their heart to your heart, penetrating into every crevasse of your body, from your head to your toes.
  • If you like, you can put your hand on your heart, feeling this warmth and love.
  • Tune into what it feels like to be filled up with love, compassion, and kindness.
  • Feel a sense of not being alone, but being held and cared for. Rest here.
  • When you are ready, let your benefactor slowly dissolve into the light, allowing the light to be absorbed into your body, carrying that light in your heart.
  • See if you can extend this kindness, joy, freedom and compassion to everyone you meet.

While mindfulness and compassion can help us train our minds and decrease bias, Rod encourages us to bring awareness to our behavior as well, to examine how we are creating relationships that exclude people. Can we live, can we practice in a way that is restoring our humanity? Can we create that kind of healing and transformation?

Psychologist Susan Pollak, MTS, Ed.D., co-author of the book Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy, (Guilford Press) has been teaching and supervising at Harvard Medical School for over twenty years.