How Can We Transform the Effects of Racial Inequity in Mindfulness Spaces?
By Rose Mina Munjee, guest contributor
The social justice issues of racism and oppression of racialized people and their intersectionality, including social location and gender are explored here through examining the lived experiences of racialized mindfulness practitioners (1). Certain skills and approaches grounded in mindfulness and compassion and characteristics of mindfulness teachers, programs, and practice spaces are suggested as potential resources to help alleviate the challenges racialized people face. As a psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher, my intention is to positively impact structural inequities in mindfulness programs and spaces through social justice advocacy by increasing awareness and exploring more inclusive mindfulness approaches for racialized people with various intersectionalities.
In our society, we have been living with ongoing challenges throughout history. Recently, in addition to a global pandemic and social isolation, racism and oppression have been at the forefront of societal awareness. Increasing tensions and inequities in social systems have left deep wounds on the hearts and psyches of many who have experienced their effects. Sources of stress and trauma range from being ignored or made to feel different to being excluded or harmed. This article addresses the reality of the experiences of racialized mindfulness practitioners in a compassionate way to support greater empowerment. It also acknowledges the effects of challenges faced by practitioners with diverse life experiences. My interest stems from my identity as a racialized woman who immigrated to Canada as a child, with parents who struggled to survive. We faced numerous hurdles on our journey away from Apartheid South Africa, including poverty, racism, and oppression.
Addressing issues such as these faced by practitioners in mindfulness spaces requires honest reflection, acknowledgment, and a commitment to take necessary steps to alleviate suffering and affect positive structural change. My Buddhist mindfulness practice in the Theravada Insight tradition and the inclusion of compassion and mindfulness-based approaches have been instrumental in providing me with the tools to address the effects of race-based and vicarious trauma and related challenges of oppression in the context of my own life. I have witnessed and experienced multi-dimensional factors including race, gender, and social location contributing to these issues. These factors have influenced me and shaped my understanding of social justice and theology in context. As a result, I have applied Buddhist ethics, mindfulness, and compassion in my life and work.
According to Ibram Kendi, racism is “a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities” (2). Racial inequity is “when two or more racial groups are not standing on approximately equal footing” (3). A racist policy is “any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups” (4). Racist policies have also been described as systemic or structural racism (5). Systemic racism is what I am interested in exploring in this article with respect to mindfulness spaces and experiences of practitioners. Furthermore, Webster’s dictionary defines oppression as, “an unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power” (6). In this article, experiences of racist and oppressive policies and systems found in mindfulness spaces are of particular interest. Finally, mindfulness or sati (7) (in Pali, the original language of Buddhist scriptures) is frequently used in meditative contexts to refer to staying focused on a chosen object without forgetfulness. Sati is also translated as “memory,” as in “to remember” (8).
A Brief History of Buddhism in the West – A Question of Inclusion and Honoring Origins
It is important to understand the history of mindfulness in the west, as the context for colonialized and racialized experiences in mindfulness spaces. In their genealogy of mindfulness, McMahan and Braun trace modern meditation back to 1883 northern Burma (9). Simplified meditation for laypeople began with Mahasi Sayadaw (10) and spread to western cultures to integrate with meditation practices from other Buddhist traditions, such as Zen in the late nineteenth century in the U. S. Zen sparked the initial connection between meditative practice and psychology. This helped to pave the way for Theravada ‘insight’ practice in the 1960s (11). The tradition known as ‘insight’ or vipassana (12) was established in the west by a number of meditation teachers and writers including Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Joseph Goldstein.
It also became a springboard for other developments such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn (13). Salzberg and her contemporaries had studied and practiced in India during the 1960s and ‘70s and came back to the United States to teach western students. There has been a strong influence of white Buddhist converts and secular mindfulness teachers who have dominated the mainstream mindfulness movement and have been instrumental in bringing these practices to North America (14). Those with Chinese ancestry arrived in North America due to immigration or WWII and brought Buddhist teachings shared with them by their teachers. The Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and other Buddhist influences on the west are often not acknowledged in mindfulness practice centers in the west. However, people with these ancestries established practice centres and communities in the west before Salzberg and her contemporaries.
In the establishment of mindfulness-based programs, a conscious choice was made to exclude certain aspects of Buddhist practices to make the teachings more accessible. Most mindfulness teachers and practitioners in the west were not Buddhists and secular practices were stripped of language indicating their Buddhist origins, traditions, and Buddhist ethics (15).
Mindfulness, Compassion, Ethics, and Safety
Early adopters of MBPs have since developed second-generation mindfulness programs that strive to hold the ethical integrity of mindfulness as it was intended to be transmitted. Inherent in this evolution is an understanding that the journey from Buddhist spiritual practice to a secular application is complicated — mindfulness programs and teachers must be deeply rooted in ethics to provide responsible care. There are specific considerations for MBP teachers, including competency, ethics, and an understanding of the therapeutic relationship (16).
Issues addressed in current day mindfulness-based programs include informed consent, evidence- and practice-based content, and respect for the diverse spiritual affiliations of participants (17). Founders and adapters of these programs also consider what types of organizations to provide mindfulness teachings to — those who practice non-harming or avoiding misappropriating practices (18).
It is also important to remember that mindfulness is not a magic pill learned over a weekend to eliminate all suffering. Mindfulness is one tool amongst many secular therapeutic modalities to help ease stress — it may not work for all, particularly racialized people who have experienced trauma or oppression or those who are emotionally vulnerable, without a proper consideration of ethics. We cannot rely only on implicit learning, and therapeutic relationships are not necessarily values-neutral (19).
Therapeutic relationships include value-driven goals, informed consent, and transparency about the roots and intentions of mindfulness. Because mindfulness is a relational process, it necessitates promoting an ethical environment. We also need to be aware of the indirect effects of our values. The inquiry process in mindfulness programs guides participants, demanding first-hand awareness, acknowledging the relational nature of the experience to emotional patterns, and informing a new way of perceiving experience (20). These perspectives would also lend themselves to adaptation specifically made accessible to racialized practitioners and their intersectionality.
Secular mindfulness originates from Buddhist mindfulness meditation from the Theravada Buddhist tradition, and is generally derived from a practice-related scripture or sutta: the Satipatthana Sutta or the discourse of the four foundations of mindfulness (21). This sutta outlines a detailed practice of mindfulness meditation with the intention of awakening. The Buddha offered this discourse as a guide for practical application — this is one of two related detailed guides, with the other being the Anapanasati Sutta, the discourse on mindfulness of breathing (22). The foundations of mindfulness include: mind, body, feelings, and phenomena. Each of these is examined in mindfulness-based programs in particular ways through practice and reflection. Mindfulness practice leads to insight, greater perspective, and the space to make wiser choices (23). In the space between perception and choice, ethical considerations may surface.
Mindfulness, when combined with an ethical foundation, encourages practitioners to be aware of their own suffering, see the truth of their experience and the causes of suffering, and exercise compassion for themselves as they learn from experiences. This, in turn, allows them to have greater perspective and less reactivity when dealing with the mistakes of others. They may find wiser and more skillful approaches to resolving difficulties than the reactions, self-blame, and disconnection they may have felt without the benefit of mindfulness and compassion.
In addition, emotional safety is cultivated through compassion rather than the usual criticism we experience for the self or others (24). This self-criticism can be prevalent amongst racialized people due to internalized messages of racism and oppression from society. Germer and Neff describe the elements of nervous system activation that occurs when one feels under threat and needs to protect themselves. Self-criticism is a sign of feeling overwhelmed by a stressful situation (25).
Many racialized people are constantly feeling under threat and experience a lack of safety. Compassion-based practices, with awareness of the feelings of unsafety underlying the activation lead to greater emotional safety, thereby empowering practitioners to take a wider perspective, seek out appropriate resources, and experience more ease. This enables them to make wiser choices and feel more connected.
Themes from lived experiences with intersectionality of race, gender, and social location
Kimberle Crenshaw points out the dangers of treating race and gender as mutually exclusive. She refers to this as the “single-axis analysis” and highlights that we miss the multidimensionality of Black and other racialized women’s experiences (26). This idea of multidimensionality showed up as a theme in groups conducted with Black and Indigenous women and men, highlighted by Black women’s experiences of feeling invisible and overlooked and the stereotyping of Indigenous men and women in society and in mindfulness spaces.
Other intersectionalities also became apparent in my research in addition to race and gender, including socio-economic class, specific ethnicity or sub-group such as country of birth or light versus dark skin amongst groups of Blacks or Asians. Crenshaw states that “Black women are sometimes excluded from feminist theory and antiracist policy discourse” and the interaction of race and gender is missed (27). Similarly, in mindfulness practice spaces and workplaces where the Black and Indigenous women in groups have attempted to incorporate mindfulness, but were excluded or overlooked, race was rarely a factor that was mentioned as a reason.
It seemed that the patriarchal or hierarchical nature of the structures were more obvious, overshadowing the intersection between race and gender that may have also played a part. In other cases, both racialized women and sometimes white women have also been subjugated in some instances of misogyny or abuse of power by community leaders, yet more investigation would need to be done to determine the intersection of race and gender in these cases of harm, looking at whose voices have been heard, who felt comfortable enough coming forward, and what was done about it (28). So, it seems the inclusion of Buddhist ethics is not enough even in Buddhist spaces. These ethical principles must be explicitly stated, honestly reflected upon, and practiced by both leaders and practitioners.
As observed by racialized practitioners, there has been an under-representation of racialized people in mindfulness practice spaces and amongst teachers. As a mindfulness teacher, I have been told that it is refreshing to see a racialized person in a practice space filled with anywhere from 20 to 200 mostly white people; I have also been told it feels more accessible and safer to be guided by a racialized mindfulness teacher, someone the practitioners can relate to. This includes the voices heard on mindfulness practice guided meditations.
Of course, race is not the only factor. There are also socio-economic class, gender, and other intersectionalities. Group members commented on their experiences as the only people of color in mindfulness spaces as well as in school and workplaces. They also alluded to the fact that their race was often ignored when they were told even by multi-race family members that their skin color was not noticed; or their experiences of speaking up and calling out racism or racist structures were turned into an opportunity for those from the dominant caste to exhibit their fragility.
I have also taught in predominantly queer spaces with mixed races present and as a racialized woman, I have also been well received; I have been told this is because I come from the perspective of someone who understands marginalization and oppression across various identities. The intersectional thinking encouraged by Crenshaw reminds us not to continue “single-axis analysis” or assume a theological bias toward justice (as one might do when in a mindfulness space) but to continue to grapple with the intricacies of intersections of difference in examining experiences of oppression (29).
The term postcolonial may also be helpful in this examination. It is defined as “the historical condition in the aftermath of colonization, as in postcolonial era.” Having this theoretical lens to understand the legacy and historical impact of Eurocentrism and its intersectional influence in systems of knowledge, practice, cultural and societal norms, and social relations may help to unpack the experiences of racialized people in mindfulness spaces that have been created through a legacy of colonialism and Eurocentrism (30).
In the groups I conducted, many participants mentioned experiences of being the only person of their own race or ethnicity in a large group gathering and feeling uncomfortable, in contrast to feelings of greater safety and comfort in spaces where they were more represented or by teachers with similar backgrounds were present.
Kwok Pui-Lan describes her journey of reflection on why knowing is a struggle. She mentions, “It is a struggle because you have to spend hours learning what others told you is important to know, before you acquire the credentials and qualifications to say something about yourself. It is a struggle because you have to affirm first that you have something important to say and that your experience counts” (31). She also talks about the fact that women have not been used to articulating their experiences of colonization and they have not been allowed the opportunities to represent themselves or be considered significant by cultural establishments when they tried to tell their stories. No doubt the intersectionalities of race, gender, class, and culture were at play here. When Kwok examines the question of how we come to know what we know and begin to decolonize the mind and the soul, she says that we need to take certain steps in order to steer our mindset away from Euro-centrism or idealizing our traditions (32).
Changing systems: addressing racism and oppression with mindfulness and compassion
To address these issues, we begin with the mindfulness pillars of attention, intention, and attitude. To this, we add practices to raise awareness, turn towards the difficult with compassion, build bridges, and take wise, insightful action. We benefit from exploring the lived experiences of affected people and witnessing the connectedness contained within.
Mindfulness professionals must look at what is needed to invite inclusion and the barriers and challenges faced by racialized communities. We can bring mindfulness to bear within the context of racialized communities and acknowledge the issues we face with care, compassion, and an open dialogue. We also need to consider the current and historical context of our lives.
Mindfulness teachers need to straddle all the worlds with their intersectionalities and context and seek balance. They may start a dialogue and encourage those who have implicit bias or experience internalized racism to wake up. Racism is practiced not only by white people, but also racialized peoples, including Asians against Blacks, and sub-groups within racialized communities who practice colorism or ableism or homophobia. Also, the internalized racism in racialized people degrades themselves. For mindfulness teachers, regardless of how these issues affect how mindfulness is being delivered, we need to bring a trauma-informed lens to the work to process anger, shame, and trauma while considering mental health and sustaining capacity for this work.
The experiences highlighted in the previous section may also be helpful in informing the cultivation of greater safety and inclusion for racialized people. From the perspective of secular mindfulness, we need to ask questions about how programs can ethically meet participants' needs and even whether we should teach mindfulness to those who may misuse the knowledge. Often racialized people working in certain organizations are at greater risk and feel stigmatized due to racist exclusion as well as mental health effects of stressful work. Encouraging participation in these programs may be a way to get employees to return to the same work that caused the trauma in the first place.
If mindfulness is applied carelessly, there is a danger that it can repress the individuals’ emotions through spiritual bypassing and perpetuate the harm to practitioners that are meant to be helped in the first place (33). We also need to understand the circumstances and severity of psychological stress that incites us to address existing suffering. Additional examples of problematic systems are worth noting. Gleig examines what she calls a class problem (34), which is an issue in secular mindfulness. The structure of mindfulness spaces and the system itself are the problems, as evidenced by how differences in socioeconomic class, language, stigma, and exclusion are dealt with or how programs are not accessible to those from lower-income and marginalized populations. Suggestions to address class discrimination include consciously acknowledging issues and accepting practitioners of all backgrounds, and recognizing rather real-world problems (35).
Specific pre-existing characteristics may also be contra-indicated. There may be an increase in distress linked to the amount of individual home practice, which is often encouraged without enough knowledge of the impact on participants (36). Purser highlights significant dangers, including depoliticizing stress and minimizing societal pressures that need to be changed. Mindfulness may make practitioners feel better about their situations, thus putting the onus on individuals rather than government or corporations to change harmful structures or behaviour (37).
The displacement of racialized and other identities avoids the fact that the same systems and political agendas are the root causes of stressors in the first place. We can be more considerate of the programs and techniques we offer to understand trauma and its effects on potential participants. Using trauma-informed approaches such as somatic experiencing (38) or sensorimotor therapy (39) may be more beneficial for those who are psychologically vulnerable. For example, for practitioners who suffer from trauma-related depression or contemplative dissociation due to past trauma, techniques such as titration or modulation to help clients self-regulate and stay within their window of tolerance are recommended.
The participants I interviewed mentioned that mindfulness practices have been instrumental in first raising their awareness of difficulty, building resiliency, learning self-compassionate approaches, and then making wiser choices to support them in their lives. Some even said that mindfulness and compassion practices and teachers they met who exhibited compassion had been instrumental in saving their lives. I personally resonate with this experience in my own life.
The practices I have found the most helpful include: the short breath meditation with a focus on approaching difficult experiences, the three minute breathing space, reflection exercises examining pleasant and unpleasant experiences and parsing them into thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and behaviours, loving kindness meditation, body scan with a compassionate attitude, somatic practices, mindful movement, and therapeutic yoga, giving and receiving compassion, and compassion with equanimity, to name a few. Recordings of these can be found on my blog site: https://roseminamunjee.com/guided_meditations. I am inspired by the work of Ruth King, Insight Meditation Dharma teacher and author, who says it this way: “Racism is a heart disease. It’s a heart disease that requires intervention. It’s curable. But it requires that we pay attention to ourselves as individuals and as members of racial collectives” (40). King highlights practices that support racial awareness: doing no harm and maintaining a regular meditation practice; forming racial affinity groups; expanding one’s creative expression and connection with nature; investing in a culture of care and speaking out against injustice; committing to changing racist or oppressive social systems; and cultivating mindfulness, and compassion (41).
Further work is needed in research with racialized practitioners to examine more deeply the practices and specifically adaptations of practices, language, and approaches that are most beneficial. I would also like to see affinity mindfulness programs, where traditional secular programs are adapted for racialized groups and more teachers are trained from these groups so that they may share the practices and resources with their own communities. My research and writing on this topic continues and is soon to be published in a book with the purpose of helping those who wish to learn more and create positive social and structural change in mindfulness spaces.
Rose Mina Munjee is a Registered Psychotherapist in private practice and a Certified Level II MBSR and MBCT teacher, mentor, and teacher trainer. She is a certified MSC teacher, craniosacral practitioner, and restorative, therapeutic, and trauma-informed yoga teacher and trainer. Rose Mina has a private practice and does clinical work in health-care and public health settings in trauma-informed care, mindfulness, and psychotherapy. She is of South Asian descent with various intersectionalities and has a particular interest in social justice and cultivating greater diversity, inclusivity, and belonging for marginalized populations.
Rose Mina is an instructor for our MBSR course. Click here to learn more and view upcoming classes.
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1. ‘Mindfulness practitioners’ throughout this paper refers to those who practice mindfulness. Teachers or professionals using mindfulness are explicitly referred according to their roles.
2. Kendi, How to be an antiracist, 7-8.
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