In my role as the Contemplative Life Advisor at Hampshire College, I support students to practice, develop and integrate meditation, mindfulness, and related principles of awareness and compassion into their lives. This includes reflecting on key systemic forms of suffering, particularly oppression, climate disruption and other environmental damage, and potential remedies/right actions of social justice and sustainability. The discourse around these issues is very active and analytical (with critical theory dominant) at Hampshire, and sometimes becomes urgent and confrontational, involving reactive emotions that can lead to overwhelm, withdrawal, and isolation.
I have worked on creating greater awareness, spaciousness, compassion, connection and capacity for wise action on these issues in many ways, including in the weekly meditation gatherings called ‘Community Mindfulness’ I lead and in specific programs in a series of ‘Engaged Mindfulness for Social Sustainability’ dinners. The overwhelming majority of students who come to mindfulness events (including those referenced here) at Hampshire are white; there are a few students of color who come frequently and others who come once or twice to various mindfulness events; there have also been a few mindfulness events specifically for students of color.
The weekly ‘Community Mindfulness’ meditation gatherings are open to everyone on campus and usually attract 6-12 students per week, and occasionally a staff or faculty member. They include foundations for addressing any form of oppression: practicing awareness of and compassion for self and all others; living in inter-being of self/all communities/all life; developing abilities to remain present with/uncaught in/examine and transform thoughts and emotions; continually developing/checking and acting on right understanding and right intention; and so on. I am deliberate about using examples of the illusions and suffering of racism as well as compassionate acts to challenge racism, and the transformational wisdom of leaders of color (Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, bell hooks, Alice Walker, etc.) in my talks and guided meditations.
Engaged Mindfulness for Social Sustainability
Over the past few years, student interest and mindfulness work on campus have combined to nourish the development of a student group called ‘Students Exploring Contemplative Practice for Social Change’; I serve as their advisor. We developed a series called ‘Engaged Mindfulness for Social Sustainability’ dinners, on key topics that we identified together. These have included ‘mindful relationships’, ‘mindful communication and conflict’, ‘mindful consumption’, ‘mindful activism for earth’, ‘facing injustice with mindfulness’, and ‘mindfulness for transforming race and privilege’. A few student leaders work with me to prepare the basic agenda for each topic; we always begin with mindful eating of a vegetarian dinner and include short talks, meditations and other mindfulness practices, deep listening and discussions.
The dinners build on each other and on the work in community mindfulness gatherings. They attract between a dozen and two dozen students (and occasionally staff and faculty members), including many who are not involved in community mindfulness and some who have never meditated. Students come away relaxed, energized, and connected, with conversations often continuing for hours after the official end of each program. It was remarkable to me that, although a few felt apprehensive about the topic beforehand, students felt especially present and connected at the end of the evening on transforming race and privilege - one sophomore said that this was the most present he had been in a discussion in his entire college experience.
Below are excerpts from my talks, guided meditations, and deep listening questions for the programs on ‘facing injustice with mindfulness’ and ‘mindfulness for transforming race and privilege’. In each case I gave short descriptions of mindfulness and meditation instructions tailored to the topics; these excerpts are specific to the topics themselves. Student leaders also spoke for a few minutes, sharing their insights and questions on the topics.
Facing Injustice with Mindfulness
Injustice is based on one person or group trying to get/control/hold on to resources, status, a ‘good life’ at the expense of another person or group – including subtle and extreme forms. Injustice can be understood as a personal and collective experience and as a set of well-developed systems that pervade our lives and include intersecting oppressions: classism, racism, sexism, etc. These are often hidden/obscured and difficult to face, calling for continual awareness and inquiry.
A key insight for awareness of injustice is inter-being – non-separation.
The attitude that we are benefit from others’ suffering is a fundamental illusion.
READ Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem ‘Call Me by My True Names’
We can look at the causes and conditions that produced the pirate’s actions. Ultimately, compassion includes acting skillfully to stop the pirate from harming others and free him from the causes and conditions that push him in this direction.
The causes and conditions of history and society ripple through us from our ancestors, parents, family, friends, classmates, school, workplace, the media, etc. We may not know where our own thoughts, attitudes and emotions come from, and they may be unconscious.
We need to work to recognize and transform guilt, fear, anger and other strong emotions so they do not dictate our actions or inaction in regard to injustice. Desmond Tutu observed that in order to free the blacks from Apartheid, Mandela realized he had to free the whites from their fears – this kind of analysis and related strategy is necessary for all of us.
We need to face and transform both sides of marginalization and privilege. People in marginalized groups more often face direct indignities, deprivations, and violence based on their identities. The suffering of privilege usually involves grasping, illusion, separation, guilt, fear, and manipulated/misplaced anger.
As people with privilege, we need to actually be present with injustice, be with the experiences, listen to people’s stories, the impacts, place ourselves where it happens and learn to be aware and act with compassion. Example of choosing as a white person to live in the inner city, hanging out on the porch, being present when police are patrolling, being witness and interacting with them to ensure decent treatment of neighbors of color.
Cutting through illusions also means being with the complexity of existence - within even the deepest oppressions there is some sufficiency, courage, kindness, nourishment and joy of essential elements (gave example of my experiences with ‘untouchable’ Nepali children)
We need to be aware of our own blessings/privileges and use them for all well-being.
Meditation: compassion for suffering of injustice
Aware of breathing in, aware of breathing out (essentially using the gathas of Thich Nhat Hanh)
Aware of body, releasing tensions
Aware of heart, opening heart, tenderness to heart
Aware of emotions, holding in compassion, smiling, easing/releasing with breath
Notice own suffering of injustice – be aware, notice how it manifests in body, emotions,
Hold this suffering in compassion, ease suffering with breath –
Be aware of this suffering as a pattern in the world– visualize how it affects many people, take in this pattern of suffering, hold in compassion, send ease, wish for relief (akin to Tonglen practice)
Notice suffering of marginalized people…what are you aware of? See specifics, feel in your body, emotions, hold in compassion, send ease and relief in your mind…
Return to awareness of breath, ease, release of tension
Notice suffering of privileged people…see specifics…guilt, disconnection, feel this energy, hold in compassion, release, ease, send relief
Share what came up with a partner – listen deeply with complete acceptance.
Return to discussion with group: what did you notice, realize?
Return to awareness of breath, body, heart
Coming from the awareness of this evening, what are your deepest intentions for addressing the suffering of injustice? What step might you take? How does this feel in your body, emotions?
Closing: what are you carrying forth from this evening?
Mindfulness for Transforming Race and Privilege
Awareness itself opens up understanding and transformation.
Loving relationship is the motivation for caring action – forms of love include kindness, compassion, generosity, protection, courage, putting others needs on par with your own
Awareness is needed in two areas:
1) The inherent and ultimate goodness and capacity of all people – touch this deeply and in detail, including ourselves, people of all races whether marginalized or privileged or both. This awareness is integrated into the work of many of the world’s most inspiring, effective liberation leaders, e.g. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and, Nelson Mandela. As Sakyong Mipham wrote in the latest issue of Shambhala Sun, this awareness is essential for moving towards full well-being for all; if we do not recognize human goodness, we cannot call it forth into the actions that are needed at this historical moment.
2) The historical and present dynamics of race, racism and privilege. Among the needs for awareness are of race as a social construct. We are all part of the ancient African diaspora (in the sense that homo sapiens originated in Africa), physically there is no more difference between racial groups than within each group. At the same time, differences of race, racism and white supremacy are experienced as pervasive reality with deep historical roots. Its important to understand that the particular experiences of people of color are not entirely negative or impoverished, and may include a greater sense of being embedded in community and the natural world, generosity, immense creativity and resilience.
Practice awareness of:
- racism and white/all privilege – particular forms of social suffering
- samsara: a complicated web of illusion, grasping, aversion
- society set up so that resources flow to people of white/lighter skin and the cultural tendencies that go with European heritage, while belittling/dehumanizing, excluding, exploiting and encouraging/tolerating violence against people of color
Facing – for whites especially, much is invisible, much is denied. Facing in mindfulness is being with all aspects of race, open to understanding, being with the heartbreak, fear, anger, guilt, suffering of all, resilience and determination,
STAYING IN AWARE DIALOGUE with others rather than withdrawing
Transformation – cutting through the illusions, dropping the grasping and aversion healing from all – individually and collectively, changing personal decisions, actions, social structures
PERSISTING WITH LEARNING AND ACTION
Intro: this guided meditation to awareness of ourselves, human goodness, perceptions and emotions about race
Begin with awareness of our own dignity and vast consciousness, supported by earth
Aware of breath, body, heart
In touch with my goodness, in touch with all goodness
In touch with perceptions and feelings about my race, feeling in heart, body, compassion, easing, releasing
In touch with perceptions and feelings about people of other races, feeling in heart, body, compassion, easing, releasing
Being fully in the present moment: breath, body, sensations, letting go of all that arises in mind
Pairs: what was that like? How do racism and privilege affect you? Others you are aware of?
OPEN DEEP LISTENING DISCUSSION:
We will stop periodically, with BELL for everyone to breathe – notice how your thoughts and feelings come and go, where they are in your body, and practice staying present.
Share insights from duos: How do racism and privilege affect you?
How did it feel to listen to others?
What steps can you see to create change?
One word or gesture on what you are taking away
Susal Stebbins Collins has served as the Contemplative Life Advisor in Spiritual Life (part of student services) at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA since 2011. She is also an Adjunct Instructor at the School for International Training Graduate Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont, teaching inter-cultural communication, multi-cultural teamwork, and qualitative research (integrating mindfulness into her courses). She has practiced and studied Buddhist meditation and dharma for nearly 20 years, focusing on the traditions of Thich Nhat Hanh and Tibetan Buddhism, and has been teaching/guiding meditation since 2005. She holds an MA in Inter-cultural Service, Leadership and Management from SIT Graduate Institute. Susal is also a certified Transition Trainer, supporting Transition efforts at Hampshire and in Southeastern Vermont; serves on a Restorative Justice Panel in Brattleboro, Vermont; and grows her own vegetables.