Time Magazine shows it is OK to practice mindfulness even if you have brown hair
On the Representational Politics of the Mindfulness Movement (10 minute read)
For a number of years I taught for, and then directed an organization called the Mind Body Awareness Project, which was created to bring mindfulness to incarcerated youth. I’m a white man, an American, in my early forties. This was from 2005-2009, way before Trump was elected, way before I knew that this was a White Supremacist country, despite having been raised in progressive educational circles, despite thinking that I knew something about our history. This was before I became aware that Whiteness was created, in the 1600s, in the colonies, to prevent the African-American slaves and the European indentured servants, whose interests were naturally aligned, from uniting to overthrow the ruling class, which they were on the verge of doing. This was before I knew that Whiteness was an explicit criteria for immigration to the United States from 1790 until 1952, before I knew that there were dozens of cases that came to the Supreme Court prior to 1952 debating whether or not different individuals who had applied for citizenship were, in fact, white.
What I knew at that time was that as a young person, in my early twenties, despite having grown up with significant privilege, despite having attended Yale University, as a result of my own experience of early adversity I had gotten cut off from my heart in a profound way, and that had led me to act out in increasingly extreme and reckless and destructive ways, and that if I hadn’t been insulated from some of the consequences of my own actions by a loving family, and assisted financially, I could very easily have ended up incarcerated myself.
What I loved about sitting with those young men, who in many ways were very different from myself, was that I couldn’t bullshit them. The only way to show up was in authenticity, from my heart, and in order to do that I had to be connected with my heart, and with my vulnerability. In the beginning I was quite afraid, and I had to face that. I didn’t know their worlds, I didn’t understand the day-to-day stressors and challenges they were dealing with, but I knew that mindfulness was the thing that had allowed me to stop running, to turn around and face myself, to sit in the fire of my own pain and rage and despair, and eventually to come back into my feelings, to an intimacy with my own experience, to be able to name what had been felt and unnamed and to begin to work it through. I knew that the content of what we were dealing with was very different, but I knew that this tool was real. In the trenches, in the dark night of the soul, in the moments where everything depends on it, I had found, again and again in my life, that the present moment, one breath at a time, was a thing I could depend on.
This was before the mindfulness movement blew up. There were a group of us working for the Mind Body Awareness Project then, and photographs of us look like the United Nations. This was 15 years ago. I’m not going to tell you who was part of that group, but let’s just say that at this point at least 5 of them have written books you’ve probably heard of if you follow this kind of stuff, some of them have had TV shows, TED talks, are front-lining conferences. But this was before all that. It was a truly multi-cultural group. And though we didn’t always run it perfectly, I think it was then that I first got a taste of how important and how vitalizing it was to be part of a community that was truly multi-cultural. And how difficult. How difficult, even with a group of people who had a lot of self-awareness, who were working in the field of self-awareness, who were committed to facing difficult stuff. How painful, and provoking, and difficult. Still difficult. (I was working on a film project recently and sent out an email to this group asking permission to use their likenesses from a photograph taken at that time, and two of them flatly refused). So let’s say it was not without its lingering hurts. And yet, and yet, I can’t help but wonder if it is any accident that so many of them have gone off to blaze new trails, to light things up. Maybe it was just an incredibly talented group of folks (probably it was)– but maybe also it was something about having to be together with people who were different and work it out, and also something about this mission– to bring mindfulness to the young people least likely to be able to access it– and to bring it in a culturally-informed way, as represented by people who looked like these kids, knew what it was like to walk in their shoes. Not all of us, not in all ways, but some of us for sure.
There is something to this phenomenon of recognizing yourself in someone else. Of looking up to someone who in some way reminds you of yourself, and in that awareness seeing a possibility of transcendence for yourself, that maybe you too could get beyond your situation, overcome the obstacles. For many years I got to go into classrooms with gifted mindfulness teachers, and watch the kids light up when someone who looked like them, someone who maybe had come up in a neighborhood like them, looked like their cousin, stood in front of the class and taught. That’s not to say I wasn’t a good teacher– I was pretty good– but there were moments with some of our instructors of color (and a couple of the white ones too) where I could see the moment that the young people saw themselves up there. Saw themselves represented, and therefore validated, and therefore possible. Therefore having space to exist. Thereby opened a possibility for them in a society that had foreclosed opportunity upon them, in a neighborhood, in a life, where all they saw around them, on TV, in the media was a hustle, or the underside of somebody’s boot.
Those moments had a magic for me that touched me so deeply, because they echoed back into my own early adulthood, and the moments when I had mentors– by which I mean people who were viable in their movement through the world who I admired and could also relate to– who demonstrated to me a different possibility for being in the world, and thereby gave me the freedom to want a particular future for myself, instead of just rejecting what I didn’t think was for me. Even with all of the privilege that I had, I had already rejected so many things. There were already so many roads I knew I didn’t want to go down. And so, for me, with certain mentors, these moments when I caught just a glimpse of a possible future, a possible way of being in the world, gave me a tiny whiff, the faintest scent, of a direction. The briefest glimpse of someplace to dream forward to. How much more important then, for these young people, overcoming horrific adversity, oppression, and discrimination to have this briefest glimpse at a way up, a way out, a way through.
One of the things we learned how to say to these young people was, This is for you too. This is not just some hippie shit for white people in yoga pants. We had to re-invent our language, reinvent the way that we approached these practices, because speaking frankly, when alot of the Buddhist teachers who introduced mindfulness came to the West in the 50s and 60s, the people who showed up to meet them were the middle class white kids, the ones with leisure time, the ones who’d read Herman Hesse, or heard Timothy Leary, Ram Dass. We had to teach these kids that they too could claim mindfulness, that this was a UNIVERSAL human technology of awareness. We had to reclothe, in new metaphors, the commonplace aphorisms of mindfulness, which had been created to speak to the middle class white people who showed up for the dharma talks. There’s a common phrase in mindfulness called Holding Your Seat, which refers to staying on your cushion, staying with the practice in those moments that get so hard, when all you want to do is go somewhere else, be somewhere else, anywhere but with yourself and what is arising. But that metaphor comes from riding horses, and the young people we were sitting with didn’t fashion themselves equestrians.
So you see- who is saying it, and how they are saying it is important. It is important because of who it includes, and who it doesn’t include, what it says, and what it doesn’t say. You feel me? Whose images and language it performs in, and all the associative resonances thereby evoked, or not. Which is why I found myself so profoundly disappointed the other night, standing in the checkout line of a Safeway grocery store, to discover a third Time magazine about mindfulness, and for the third time, on the cover, a well-put together white woman.
There’s an irony for me at the heart of the mindfulness movement, and I am aware that some poeple aren’t going to enjoy me saying this. But mindfulness is a universal human quality of experience rooted in every indigenous and ancestral culture in the world, and there’s something a bit odd about it being co-opted by whiteness, by European culture, which is the only modern culture that systematically killed off its indigenous practitioners of mindfulness. This is important specifically because I’m not sure that the modern mindfulness movement fully realizes the degree to which it is complicit with agendas of whiteness. Where mindfulness is being marketed as a strategy for improving worker performance and efficiency at tech companies like Facebook that purport to build community while quantifiably damaging the mental health of large segments of the population. Where, at a deeper level, the modern mindfulness movement’s focus on internal practices, over relational practices, shows up as well-meaning middle class white mindfulness teachers going into urban schools with traumatized children of color, and telling them to close their eyes in situations where they don’t feel safe.
I started going into Whole Foods with my daughter and picking up mindfulness magazines in the checkout line, and counting with her the number of photographs we had to look through of white people doing mindfulness- in a class! on the beach! at the office! with friends! in a forest! as a couple! in bed! in the weightroom! in the classroom! in the boardroom! at the doctor’s office! before we came across a picture of a person of color featured. In one magazine, 19. In another magazine (not counting His Holiness the Dalai Lama), 37. Are you kidding me?
I want to say to Time magazine- even if your readers are white women, and that’s why you’ve done this 3 times in a row- show me a picture of someone else doing mindfulness on a cover of your magazine. Please. Because being mindful means not just noticing what is going on inside of you, not just mindful of your breath in your belly, but what is going on in this culture, in the world. And what’s happening out here is that people are dying because they are not being seen. They are dying because white culture is centered, and normed, and because white culture sees white culture, and doesn’t realize, because it moves around in white spaces and isn’t in proximity to other cultures, that it is missing something. With regards to racism, and White Supremacy, the symptoms of the illness are in the oppressed, but the illness itself is in the Oppressor. The illness itself is in the White people. Until we, as white people in the mindfulness movement realize this, this movement will be as dissociative as it is connective. A genuine mindfulness movement is an applied mindfulness movement, a liberation-oriented movement, a movement that includes others and the living world. That’s when this movement will reach its full potential.
Wake up Time.