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.
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.