This essay is published by The American Prospect in partnership with The OpEd Project's University of Texas at Austin Public Voices Fellowship.
Black History Month is like a meditation retreat where mindfulness is the goal, but it is not being cultivated in our everyday actions. In Buddhism, we say "mindfulness off the cushion" is the real aim of practice. Gil Fronsdal offers a wonderful analogy instructive even for those unfamiliar with Buddhist practice, describing meditation as “mindfulness with training wheels.”
In fact, #blacklivesmatter contains the seeds of a bona fide mindfulness movement within and across racial groups because it beckons our inner desire for meaning. Rather than resistance against something, it is life-affirming. It is expressed as a form of nonviolent resistance in a social media era. Not only is mindfulness critical to #blacklivesmatter, it is the very approach that accompanied so much progress from the past.
“We take off the training wheels when we bring our practice into our daily life,” Fronsdal says. “Perhaps that’s where the practice really becomes meaningful: Does it really change and support your life? Does it help you live a better life? Does it help your society become a better place? Do other people benefit from you being mindful and practicing?”
The answers to these questions, while central to Buddhism, are also important for other individuals and collectives who seek to improve their lives and others. Recall the friendship between civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. These questions could well be signposts in the lives of both leaders.
Within the growing mindfulness movement, Arianna Huffington advocates that we globally redefine success beyond money and power using a Third Metric centered on well-being, wisdom, and giving. To be clear, while money, power, and status have critically important political and economic consequences for the progress of African Americans—and need not be abandoned or dismissed—they are still a means toward an end, rather than the end itself.
If these metrics truly defined success, then the historic election of President Barack Obama would have marked the beginning of a post-racial era with problems of inequality and injustice solved. (These are the metrics being used by those who advance such an argument.) When examined in the light of post-racial era arguments, it becomes obvious that income and job title reflect a very limited and limiting definition of success. Such a definition supports the destructive human tendency to see oneself as an isolated individual rather than in community with all sentient beings.
Across eras and racial groups, the drive toward success is ultimately the desire to experience a feeling of wholeness that comes from complete acceptance (not unlike what Tara Brach terms Radical Acceptance). The problem is the meanings associated with success for African-Americans have shifted drastically across generations and have moved outside the early, African-based cosmology that supported our survival against all odds.
This collectivist cosmology is reflected in Iyanla Vanzant’s affirmation that, “I am not my brother’s keeper. I am my brother.” It is reflected in Samuel Jackson’s description of his experience growing up in a (segregated) African-American community where, he said, “(l)ife was devalued in an interesting sort of way, but I also was in a very loving environment with all of the people in my neighborhood.” Jackson describes how, regardless of projected job title and income level, all of the students in his class were offered the same level of attention and regard. For both communities and individuals, the power of mindfulness is knowing, while we may not receive acceptance from others, we can give it freely to ourselves and to those around us.
Like the broader culture into which we have now become so deeply integrated, many members of the African-American community now judge themselves and others using superficial, weak and outdated metrics of money and power as signaling success, value and importance. Fortunately, the emergence of #blacklivesmatters offers a natural, even game-changing, extension from protest events (think retreats) to daily interactions (think: “mindfulness off the cushion”).
As another example, the OWN cable channel recently broadcast two documentaries Dark Girls and Light Girls that highlight the painful and destructive colorism that reflect different valuations of black life and beauty. And #blacklivesmatter underscores the inconsistency of any movement that claims all lives are equally valuable but not equally beautiful.
The civil rights era, the “Black is beautiful” cultural movement urged mindful consumption of dominant media images, and the South African equivalent was called the Black Consciousness Movement. Not surprisingly, in Buddhist communities, consciousness is often discussed alongside mindfulness.
Annual Black History Month celebrations, which bear witness to the past and remind us how heroic individuals and groups created a different future, can help reinvigorate our commitment to the ideals of equality and justice. But this will only happen if we also contemplate our relationship with the present in our daily lives throughout the other 11 months in the year: not in terms of the present state of things, but on being present for others in our community and beyond.