Mindfulness: A Tool for Social Justice

In The Huffington Post article Here's Why You Need to Question Mindfulness in the Classroom, Natalie Flores postulates that teaching students mindfulness may neutralize negative student behaviors and cause students to accept hardship rather than challenge it. She writes, "The emphasis on sublimating strong emotions such as anger could send unintended messages about not speaking up in the face of injustice, which has serious ramifications for dissuading children's later participation in social activism." 

While the idea that mindfulness teaches us to "sublimate anger" is erroneous, I can understand the fear of it breeding passivity. When I started my mindfulness practice, I worried about blind acceptance of personally intolerable conditions. If I learned how to be content with things as they were, why would I ever do anything to change them? Wouldn't I be happy to sit back and let the world treat me and others as it did without questioning my responsibility? And wouldn't that lead to complacency in the face of larger injustice? 

I do not think so.

Teaching our children to notice thoughts and emotions, to focus, and to develop compassion through experiential practices will, instead, heighten their sense of agency in the face of injustice. 

Martin Luther King. Mahatma Gandhi. Nelson Mandela. Dalai Lama. These social justice revolutionaries recognized things were not as they should be.  They were furious at what they saw, but that does not mean their rage dictated their actions. Each of these great men had a deep spiritual practice that compelled them to seek justice through peace. They knew how to see clearly what was in front of them and act from there. Their anger did not make them rash and tyrannical in their approach to seek justice. Their sadness did not sink them to their depths, rendering them useless. Instead, it compelled them to act, and to act from a place of compassion. In The Atlantic article The Kindness Cure, David Desteno reports that Thupten Jinpa, a close confidant of the Dalai Lama, told him, “meditation-based training enables practitioners to move quickly from feeling the distress of others to acting with compassion to alleviate it.” We need to experience the distress of another, then modulate our own experience, so that we may be of service. When one is overwhelmed by emotion, it is impossible to move forward with intention. Emotional resilience is crucial to any great social movement, allowing change-makers to mirror what they hope to bring to the world: peace, justice, equality, and relief from suffering. 

As Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

While these great leaders may draw their equanimity from their spiritual practice, secular mindfulness can provide similar benefits. It can help us empathize more deeply with others, notice their distress in our bodies, and thus feel compelled to act on their behalf. 

A Northeastern University study recently published in Psychological Science found that after nine weeks of meditation, participants were over three times as likely to give up their seat to a person on crutches than nonparticipants. There's little personal risk in giving up your seat, but the suggestion is that your moral compass becomes more acute as you cultivate a mindfulness practice. 

How does this translate to the classroom?

The program I trained with, Mindful Schools, holds compassion as integral to mindfulness practice.  Just as the curriculum emphasizes concentration, on breath, sound, and body, so does it emphasize compassion practices for self, loved ones, and even "enemies." We purposely invite emotions in to explore how they feel in our bodies rather than "sublimating" them. When we feel compassion for ourselves and others, we are more likely to act because we recognize and feel our worth.

One of my most powerful experiences as a teacher was hosting a discussion with my eighth grade advisory in Washington, D.C. about the death of Freddie Gray and community response in Baltimore. They were given the space to speak whatever was on their minds about the incident and fallout. It brought up a spectrum of emotions, and all were given space. Part of my responsibility as a mindfulness educator is to create an environment where students can express their true experiences, whether that is outrage at societal injustices or annoyance with younger siblings. At the end of this discussion, we closed by sending compassion to those who were suffering just north of us. To me, that is the essence of mindfulness in the classroom.  

Mindfulness does not, and is not intended, to numb children and make them passive. Students can learn to fully experience their emotions, empathize with the experience with others, and respond thoughtfully. Mindfulness can be an important tool in social justice curriculum by reinforcing compassionate and intentional action in our students.