Practicing with Societal Barriers to Observing the Mindfulness Trainings

Thay has compared the mindfulness trainings to the North Star—we can use them to guide us, but, just as we will never reach the North Star, we will never fully live up the mindfulness trainings, for the simple reason that we are imperfect beings. But, beyond our own imperfections, there are other reasons we cannot live up the mindfulness trainings, ones related more to society’s failings than our own individual ones.

The second of the Five Mindfulness Trainings begins, “Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting.” This is clearly an effort to update the ancient precept against stealing to encompass contemporary concerns about the exploitation of others and other social injustices in today’s global society. But there is a disconnect here, at least in how the mindfulness training is phrased, though doubtless not in the intentions behind it. When we approach the mindfulness trainings, whether the five foundational ones or the fourteen of the Order of Interbeing, we usually do so in the context of reflecting on our own actions and whether they have been consistent with our best intentions as embodied in the mindfulness trainings. This is unquestionably an important part of our practice. The second mindfulness training asks us to reflect upon our actions not only to make sure we’re not hurting others, but to look for opportunities to be generous—to actively help others, whether with our time, money, or other resources.

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Reading the News Mindfully

I will start with a confession: I am a news junkie, but one who, despite that, tries to read the news mindfully, though admittedly there is something of a contradiction in this. Thay has on a number of occasions encouraged us to read the news no more than once a week, warning that reading it more often can water such unwholesome mental formations as anger and despair. In my own experience, he is not wrong about the ways in which regularly reading the news can weigh down one’s spirit, fostering not only anger or despair, but also a certain degree of jadedness to the suffering one reads about. But, given that I teach and do research in the fields of sociology and global studies, I actually need to read the news nearly daily to remain properly informed about developments in areas I study and to teach my classes well. But, even given that, I read the news more than I need, sometimes checking my favorites news sites several times a day, as a way of taking a “break” from whatever I am working on. I do so partly out of unhealthy habit energy, but partly also out of a genuine interest in learning more about the lives of others across the world–out of wanting to deepen my understanding and thereby my compassion for the people I read about. Continue reading “Reading the News Mindfully”

Practicing Compassionate Political Speech Through Deep Looking

Because of its emotionally charged nature, it is difficult to engage in political speech in a mindful, compassionate way. I often ask myself, How do I remain compassionate when criticizing others? Can we criticize others without disparaging or demonizing them, especially when we speak of them perpetuating injustices and other forms of harm to others? On a number of occasions, in sangha and on retreats and days of mindfulness, I have talked with other practitioners about these difficulties. On the one hand, some have told me that they deal with these challenges by simply not speaking of such contentious topics at all. While this may be appropriate for some people at some points in their practice, if none of us speak to these issues–to say nothing of working actively around them–changes for the better will not occur. On the other hand, I have talked to some practitioners who I felt were seeking for a Buddhist rationalization for speech that is not just angry but laced with ill-will by, for instance, making a distinction between anger and outrage, with the former to be avoided but the latter to be embraced as a mindful, positive reaction. Continue reading “Practicing Compassionate Political Speech Through Deep Looking”

The Creative Tension Between Fostering Dialogue and Social Justice

I teach sociology and global studies at the college level, which means that thorny social issues regularly come up in my classroom. As part of observing the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings in the classroom, I try both to foster dialogue between students of different worldviews, encouraging them to understand and respect each other, and also to create a classroom that cultivates social justice, particularly in giving those who belong to oppressed and normally silenced groups room to speak. But in mindfully observing the dynamics of the classroom, I have realized that there is a tension between these two goals, making it difficult at times to achieve both. If, in the name of open dialogue, we give too much room to speak to those who normally dominate the public conversation on social issues, they can silence those who are oppressed and marginalized. Sometimes I have found it necessary to intervene in classroom conversations in a way that cuts off a certain line of argument in order to create a space for where students from oppressed groups feel safe expressing themselves. The trick is doing so in a way that doesn’t permanently shut down students with worldviews reflecting the dominant belief systems and the experiences of the dominant social groups. Continue reading “The Creative Tension Between Fostering Dialogue and Social Justice”