When I consider mindfulness and social change, two contrasting impulses arise within me.
One voice suggests coming to peace with what is. That voice recognizes that the problem may not be “out there” so much as it is within me. That I need to develop a quiet, a stillness, a readiness, a clarity of intention before I act so that that when I do act, I do so having filtered out the far-reaching traces of my greed, malice, confusion and grasping—as those energies will only re-insert and perpetuate the injustice I’m seeking to end. As mindfulness coach George Mumford asserts, I need to find and maintain the calm eye within the storm. To this voice, social change remains primarily an inside job.
At the same time, another voice calls, things do need to change. Now.
I need to wake up from my complacency and comfort, to open my eyes to the very real suffering happening around me. My privilege may let me linger in an apparent world where the universe feels fundamentally friendly. But—and—others have been dealt hugely different circumstances through no fault of their own.
For them, the universe often presents with greater ferocity. The woman—every woman?—who must run an instantaneous risk assessment every time she meets a new man. The faithful parent who feels a twinge of heartbreak every day she drops her kids at school because she knows the building has the word “Hebrew” or “Jewish” on its side, announcing to those who would do harm where her children are. Or the friend of black African heritage whose heart and hormones surge into life-protective overdrive when blue lights flash behind him on the road because he knows this could be the day a failed taillight leads to another tragic ending.
Is their universe fundamentally friendly? Is it truly safe? As a white man with layers of privilege to spare, I do well to sit in humility before I claim too much about the beauty and ease that come from accepting the world as it is—and I better get off my ass and do something about helping bring about the world I want.
Paradoxically so, both voices ring true. All is well. All is not well. At the same time. And that simultaneous truth could lead to paralysis. I’ll never figure it out and I don’t want to make a mistake. So I’ll stay out of the fray.
This is where meditation and mindfulness practice come in. In some mysterious alchemical manner, each breath we take with intention and presence, we build our capacity to hold such paradox. Each time we return attention from its wandering way, we make more space for mystery. Any paralyzing properties transform into fuel for engaged inquiry and open-hearted participation. We build a more muscular strength for confronting the truth—and acting on it. We may not have an immediate answer, but we can lean into living the questions. We can take grounded and patient part in helping discover what comes next. We might make mistakes…and we might make a difference.
Ted DesMaisons is the founder and principal of Anima Learning, a collaborative consultancy that honors and feeds the spark of curiosity in leaders, educators, and individuals. He also serves as the US Coordinator for the UK-based Mindfulness in Schools Project.