Before I became a mindfulness practitioner and later a meditation teacher, I spent more than 20 years as an activist and organizer working for human rights and social justice in the United States, Africa, and Latin America. As a meditation teacher, what inspires me most is to bring our practice into the wider society and help heal the suffering of the world.
The teachings of the dharma—Buddhist wisdom teachings, including mindfulness, loving-kindness, compassion, equanimity, wise speech and action—are a powerful and healing medicine for these times. They provide support to help us meet all we are experiencing with kindness and acceptance and to respond to the suffering of the world with wisdom and compassion.
The “political” world needs the compassion and insight of Buddhist and other wise traditions—particularly as divisions within society have deepened—if we are to help create Dr. Martin Luther King’s “beloved community” and envision what Charles Eisenstein terms “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.” Peace in the world begins with peace in our own hearts.
Peace in the world begins with peace in our own hearts.
Within the IMCW community, we have launched or participated in a variety of socially engaged programs in the past two decades—including organizing to oppose the Iraq War; climate change initiatives; bringing mindfulness into jails and prisons; and efforts to create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive community.
As the 2020 election approached, it was clear that it would be the most important election in our lifetime and that the future of democracy and the rule of law—and any progress on issues like climate change, racial justice, and economic inequality—hung in the balance.
It’s not as easy to speak in a meditation class about issues of social, economic or racial justice as it is to teach, for example, about the four foundations of mindfulness. People come with different viewpoints and opinions, and some believe that social and political issues are outside of the purview of mindfulness practice and not “spiritual”.
Engaging with these issues calls for awareness, compassion and wise speech and action to ensure the community remains a welcoming space for all and that we don’t simply reproduce the divisions of the broader society within our community. But to not engage is to withdraw from a major field of human suffering, which can benefit profoundly from the teachings and practices of the dharma.
As we entered 2020, teachers and members of the meditation community launched a number of initiatives related to the election:
- We began a monthly series of Mindful Engagement 2020 meetings with the goals of 1) helping community members respond wisely to the wide range of emotions and reactions arising in this turbulent period; 2) engaging mindfully and compassionately in activities around the election and other crucial issues; and 3) supporting each other in community and breaking down the illusion of isolation and separation that are hallmarks of suffering.
- In the fall, getting-out-the-vote was an important part of our practice of Engaged Buddhism. In a campaign we called Action Absorbs Anxiety we invited community members to write letters to irregular voters in swing states. Over a hundred people participated, sending 3,200 personalized letters to prospective voters, encouraging them to exercise the hard-won right to vote.
These efforts provided an opportunity for community members to bring our practice into the world, cultivating mindfulness, compassion, non-clinging to outcomes, and wise speech in areas where conflict, judgment, and blame are often the predominant reactions.
As we face the challenges ahead and the deep divisions within the country, it will be important to get beyond a view of politics as a zero-sum game—of “us” vs “them”, winners and losers, and clinging tightly to our beliefs and desired outcomes. Buddhist and other wisdom teachings can help us break through the separation of the spiritual and the political. The spiritual is political and the political is spiritual.
Coming out of a period when division and dishonesty were wielded as tools to maintain power, I believe we are entering a time of hope and change. We are all important actors in addressing the existential threat of climate change, the long overdue actions in support of racial justice, and the urgent need to share the wealth of the country and the planet more equitably.
Cultivating active hope—taking a clear view of reality, identifying what we hope for and wish to accomplish, and taking steps to move in that direction—can help make our aspirations and actions a material force in creating a more compassionate, just, and sustainable world.