Monday, July 27, 2015

At the Intersection of Mindfulness and Compassion in a Complex World (I)

Though my view is as spacious as the sky,
My actions and respect for cause and effect 
are as fine as grains of flour. 

- Padmasambhava

I have a tremendous appreciation and respect for the Buddha-dharma and its teachers. The Buddha-dharma is part of me anywhere and everywhere I go. But if I have a criticism of meditation and mindfulness as they are taught today, it concerns a disrespect of the effects of karma for students. Many of the people arriving at the gates of practice are facing multiple difficulties in their lives. Meditation and mindfulness are a balm, but encourage passivity in the face of those difficulties and, initially, teach only the simplest interpretation of karma by focusing on personal responsibility and self-improvement when the systems of our society, even if not all the people in those systems, are corrupt. 

Has Tibet won autonomy from China? How much harm have its people suffered in the interim? 

Are the only options in the face of extraordinary levels of suffering in the US and across the globe, meditation, malnourishment, deprivation and self-immolation? 

If that's the case then none of us, not even the Dalai Lama, can say we've avoided doing harm by sitting.  

Moreover, the wave of meditation and mindfulness that's sweeping across the US as a counter-current to unregulated capitalism is at risk of de-powering, if not outright harming, some of the individuals most aware of the need for a more altruistic approach. If a major demographic is the white middle class woman looking either for self-improvement, a strengthening of some sense of spirituality, or recovery from depression or depressing circumstances, what are the long term effects on equality for all women going to be if the primary recommended response is passive acceptance? Moreover, in contrast to a view voiced at a Mindfulness and Compassion Conference I attended recently, the Sanghas I've been a member of have been racially diverse and included traumatized, low income and unemployed.

There aren't enough monasteries in the world, let alone the US, to accommodate all the individuals arriving at the gates of practice. A traditional role of monasteries has been to provide protection as practitioners move through the ranks of perceptual shifts meditation gives rise to. 

In addition, the meditation and mindfulness movements, as well as funding for neuroscience research fueling those approaches, are at risk of burning themselves out if they don't recognize a need beyond introspection, one that recognizes the reality of phenomena and circumstances. Precisely because karma is not only the result of our own actions.

From the kamikazi pilot to the middle class white woman to the peace activist, the majority of karma lies in the roles other people project onto us -- good and bad --whether we've recognized and agreed to those roles or not. The lethargy of our social and political systems demonstrate in bringing about positive change is, in part, caused by the inertia of thousands and millions of people accepting things as they are, in addition to different strategies for how problems should be resolved.

I'm convinced that to address the wrongs within corrupt systems we all need to learn to communicate more effectively with ourselves as well as others. 

In that regard, one of the best books I've read in recent years is Marshall Rosenberg's Non-Violent Communication. If you haven't already read it, read it now! The forward by Arun Gandhi, alone, is worth the price -- or the trip to a library.

For one thing, in my case, Rosenberg's Non-Violent Communication put me in touch with the types of questions I should be and should have been asking of my feelings. Feelings are highly sensitive indicators of distress. But if we only sit with them allowing them to dissolve into forgiveness, equanimity and kindness, none of us will ever develop the ability to think outside the box or do more than accept the status quo.

Considering our society's continued inability to identify and negotiate needs-based solutions across political boundaries such as race and/or religion, socio-economic status and gender, and considering the increasingly rapid depletion of our planet's natural and economic resources, accepting the status quo is simply not good enough.

The disconnect we experience in communication about serious problems ranges from individuals to political parties and countries. 

Using some of Rosenberg's suggestions and using my past feelings as a guide, I'm going to unpack some of my experiences as a woman in academia because it's the situation I'm most familiar with. One issue I'll be addressing is the continued low number of women in faculty ranks in spite of being recipients of approximately fifty percent of doctorate degrees

My sense, however, is that some of the problems, as well as strategies for resolution, are generalizable. 

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