“Compassion is fierce. It’s not soft at all. So we resist because we’re afraid of what it will call on us to do.” – Prof. Rhonda V. Magee (paraphrased) August 8, 2016
Compassion is in the act to alleviate suffering. As we become aware of or empathize with suffering, either in ourselves or others, we naturally want relief – but neither the feeling nor the desire for relief by themselves constitute compassion. Compassion is in the act.
At the recent Summer Session on Contemplative Higher Education, Professor Rhonda Magee of the University of San Francisco law faculty almost perfectly echoed a point I made at the Global Chaplains conference in Australia last month. The definition of karuna in the Buddhist literature is the will and action to relieve suffering of oneself and others. If we note suffering in passing without acting to alleviate it, this is not compassion.
Contemplative practice is only contemplative so long as it is in service to “a more just and compassionate society,” according to the definition of provided by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, founded by Mirabai Bush and Daniel Barbezat, which sponsored the summer session. Contemplative practice helps us wake up, according to Professor Magee. I think the Buddha would agree.
Some prefer to present contemplation is a value neutral tool, lacking inherent spiritual or ethical content, perhaps in fear that yoga or meditation will accidentally convert them to some new religion. Some folks even use mindfulness techniques to improve their concentration on tasks that actually create more suffering, such as when stockbrokers host MBSR seminars and then make trades that bankrupt companies.
On the one hand, mindfulness does alleviate personal stress, and is that not also suffering? Yet, it can also become an opiate to numb us from the systemic sources of suffering, such as injustice. It can reduce our stress just enough that we can go back to work tomorrow and price gouge impoverished customers. Focus on your breathing, not on that crying woman over there. This is not what our contemplative gurus were hoping for.
Injustice can only flourish when we are trained to miss interconnection. We don’t notice that injustice for one is injustice for all. We focus on handling our stress and our response to stress and developing our mind. Which is a valuable exercise, but perpetuates the false notion that we have a solid self disconnected from others.
In reality, we each exist in a net of relationships and those relationships do matter. They affect our suffering and freedom from suffering, but the philosophy du jour says we can’t control other people, so we should only focus on controlling our own mind. This is a shallow truth, especially if we carry some form of privilege that allows us to overlook the suffering of entire groups of people, such as women and people of color.
I am guilty. I have long relied on my white privilege to shield me from the suffering of people of color. It’s scares me. It’s too horrible and too big and I feel far too powerless. I can’t look at all the suffering in the world, I tell myself, I’ll break down. I have to choose what suffering I devote my time and energy to or I’ll spread myself too thin and burn out. This is also a shallow truth.
Professor Magee and Dr. Rose Sackey-Milligan helped me finally look deeply at what I’d long known only intellectually. They introduced contemplative practices that got to the root of the suffering of black and brown bodies and at my own white privilege looking away. Accessing my privilege emotionally or intuitively is important, because privlege, by it’s nature is difficult to see by the person who has it. We practiced contemplatively to bring privilege into the forefront of our awareness in a non-threatening way (as much as any privilege-work can be).
Shortly after I returned from the summer session, a POC friend asked about my neighborhood. Another POC friend had warned her it was a racist area, which had never occurred to me. I have been shielded from that by my privilege. When I considered it, I realized I’ve never seen anyone of her race in my neighborhood. She worries about racism every day and may therefore miss out on having a good place to live or an affordable rent. I feel sad for her and chagrined at myself for never having noticed this before.
Everyone suffers form injustice in different ways. Some suffer oppression and terror, others suffer fear of the oppressed, many suffer both. Racism, sexism, ablism, and other forms of discrimination create systems of injustice within the very social structures we depend on for survival. They are in our police systems that keep us “safe” and our law systems that provide “justice” and our education systems that offer “opportunity.” But some people remain safer than others, some more likely to receive justice, and some have more opportunities than others. Those with privilege may perceive equality as economically and socially threatening because it is change, but the groups without privilege know that the status quo is a literal threat to their physical lives and the lives of their children.
We must remember that anti-discrimination laws were enacted in a systemic social structure that continues to profit from racism, sexism, etc. Professor Magee reiterates a truth that I’ve also heard from Dr. Najeeba Syeed, of Claremont School of Theology, where I study. Judges have received kickbacks from private prisons to incarcerate predominantly minority kids. The entire concept of prisons “for profit” is reprehensible, especially in a society that disproportionately arrests, convicts, and incarcerates people of color. And where people can be held in jails indefinitely for inability to pay a simple fine or make bail due to poverty. Our justice system is just one area in which inequality creates opportunities for the unscrupulous to profit from a broken system – which means they have an investment in maintaining that system.
When we teach contemplative pedagogy, is it inflected by social identity? Is there such a thing as “black” mindfulness? Professor Magee asks a crowd of educators, mostly white, but with a noticeable number of black folks, a few of East Asian descent, and an equally noticeable dearth of South Asians, Latinos, or Native Americans. I don’t know what I think of this question at first.
Inasmuch as we’re born with characteristics we didn’t choose and (mostly) can’t change that a preexisting social structure attach meaning to … she goes on, but my mind rewinds because I’ve never thought of it that way. What meaning do we as a society attach to these outward characteristics of people? What meaning do I attach to being a women? What meaning do other people attach to my gender when they see me? Most meanings exist in a hierarchy of meaning, a subconsciously constructed worldview. Where does the meaning of my gender, race, age, or appearance fall into my own worldview or those of others?
We can use mindfulness to wake up to our worldviews of unconscious meaning, learn them, and then choose to accept, contest, or modify these meanings. We can do it without spiritually bypassing using an “it’s all one” argument or “contemplation is contemplation.” Instead, we can actually honor, respect, and value different lived experiences while also seeing the blind spots they engender and using mindfulness to become further aware of and overcome those blind spots. Through contemplation I can look deeply into racism and my own white privilege to become a better ally.
Waking up NECESSITATES waking up to injustice and finding ways to overcome it. Waking up makes us fiercely compassionate. Meditate and wake up!