Like many of you, I have been involved in the fight for social justice for many decades. I have seen movements develop and fall apart. A few years ago, I asked my meditation teacher who had been instructing me on the principles of Buddhism for over 15 years, why the movement for social change from the 1960s had pretty much dissolved with not a great deal to show for it. He said that in his opinion it was, in part, because too many of the participants in that movement came to the struggle out of anger, not love, and anger burns people out. I began to think about if there was anything in the practice of Buddhism which could prevent that burnout, sustain activists in the long-term struggle and not make some of the meetings and activities so difficult to get through.
It took me another ten or so years to put all of that together as I first had to find a more suitable practice for me within the Buddhist circles. I had been very appreciative of my meditation practice and the things I learned about Buddhism’s approach to ethical living, but I could not accept that one ended suffering, the main goal of most Buddhist practices, by individuals either sitting on a cushion meditating or being ‘mindful’ (present and aware) off the cushion in daily life. According to Buddhism, through meditation and mindfulness, we become aware of how our minds tell us stories which are rarely based in what is happening at the moment. This is because we become attached or cling to things which give us pleasure and push away things that cause us pain or discomfort. As a result, we get lost in confusion instead of seeing clearly what is around us and accepting it.
While this all true, the traditional Buddhist approach does not take into account that much of people’s suffering is also caused by systems of oppression – capitalism, racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism, etc. – and that to reduce suffering for ourselves and others, we also have to actively work towards ending those systems of oppression.
By the time I had come to that realization, I became aware of two trends within the Buddhist communities that offered an alternative approach. One is secular Buddhism. I met individuals in the Secular Buddhist Network who, like me, reject the ‘religious’ aspects of Buddhism, particularly the belief that it is possible in one’s lifetime, or after death in some reborn state, to find a realm referred to as ‘nirvana’, where there is no suffering. Secular Buddhists also reject an interpretation of the notion of ‘karma’, which claims that people who have been victimized by others or the system have been victimized as a result of their own actions either earlier in their life or in a previous lifetime.
For Secular Buddhists the goal is to have the best life one can have in the here and now by being aware in the moment of the suffering one causes oneself and others, using both meditation and Buddhist ethical principles and wisdom.
The second group of non-traditional Buddhists I met, the Critical Buddhist Study Group, is made up of young activists who, for the most part, are connected to Zen Buddhism and who follow many of the traditional teachings in Zen but understand the need for collective social action to end the institutional basis for suffering.
My experience with these two trends has shown me that we need to recognize that systems of oppression cause much of our suffering but also that Buddhism helps us to understand how we, as individuals, cause suffering to ourselves and others. Activist groups have, for the most part, ignored this latter source of suffering and this has been damaging to our movement. By incorporating Buddhist meditational awareness and an ethics based on Buddhist values and wisdom into our activity, we can prevent burnout, create greater unity, and promote effective political action.
Incorporating meditational awareness and key elements of Buddhist ethics does not mean adopting a religion. It’s a misperception that Buddhism is primarily practiced as a religion. While this is true in many Asian cultures, in the U.S. and other western countries Buddhism is more of a psychological practice and philosophical perspective which helps people to come to terms with and reduce their suffering.
Here are some of the specific problems that movement groups face, which meditational awareness and Buddhist ethics can help us respond to:
- Meetings are often too long because much of the discussion is repetitive.
- People get wedded to their positions and don’t take in what others are saying.
- At meetings, hurtful things are said to others, including unintentional micro-aggressions.
- White people in meetings, particularly white men, often dominate the discussion.
- Meetings are often characterized by tension, unresolved disputes, etc.
In addition to the bad experiences activists often have at meetings, there are more general problems that we face:
- The movements we are building are slow to get running and not enough people get involved.
- Movement work is frustrating because we are always going against what appears to be the mainstream capitalist system – a system based on greed and hatred. This frustration can be debilitating and lead to burnout.
- We also get burned out because we have limited time and energy as we are all involved in many things, including work and taking care of our families.
- We are all over-subscribed; thus, we often do not carry through with the work necessary to build the movement. As a result, there is often little follow up and no real attempt at consensus building.
- Because our organizations lack capacity and/or financial resources to join with others in building a broad-based movement to support one another, we are unable to do the work necessary to build a unified movement to break the hegemony of the capitalist class and offer real alternatives.
- Because of racism, social forces who should be natural allies have been unable to come together to build a unified movement and often attack one another.
Meditational awareness and an ethics based in the values and wisdom of Buddhists can help us respond to these challenges.
What is meditational awareness and how does it benefit the movement?
When I use the word ‘meditation’, I am referring to a formal practice in which one sits still in a comfortable position in a chair or on the floor with their eyes closed and focuses on a particular aspect of one’s experience. Many people do what is called ‘breath meditation’; one just breathes in and out, following the breath as it enters the body and as it leaves. Others will focus on sound, sensations in the body, or emotional states in their meditation. Still other people just try to experience in a receptive way whatever sensations, emotions, or thoughts is experienced.
With all these types of meditation, one tries to keep the focus on the ‘primary object’ of the meditation but our minds will inevitably drift away to thoughts, emotions, and fantasies. Once we notice that we have drifted away from our primary object, we gently bring our attention back to the primary object. That is, we become mindful that we have drifted away. As we develop a consistent meditation practice over time, we are better able to calm the mind, focus on the primary object, and become more discerning.
What are the benefits of mindful awareness in meditation?
- Through meditation people will notice how their minds tell stories which have little or nothing to do with what is currently going on, as well as how the mind holds on to, perseverates, over things one desires or hates, or gets stuck in confusion and misunderstanding.
- Through meditation one notices the tension or other sensations and emotions arising in the body, and where the tension rests in the body (‘embodied awareness’). With that awareness, one can let go of and be more accepting of some of the emotional and thought patterns which cause us distress.
- Through meditation people notice how they hold on to things – whether ideas, a desire for a specific outcome, an analysis, opinions (pro or con) about others, and even an opinion about who ‘we are’ – and ignore how they and others are changing all the time.
- Through meditation and paying close attention to what is happening around you, people get to notice that everything is impermanent – how everything changes from one moment to the next.
In these ways, meditational awareness allows us to deal more wisely and compassionately with our experiences and to reduce the stress of everyday life. With meditational awareness as a base, we are better able to listen to one another and take in what others say before responding. We will be more open to new ideas and ways of doing things.
What is Buddhist ethics and how does it benefit the movement?
Buddhist ethics can also help us be more effective and compassionate political activists. Like meditation, Buddhist ethics are part of the core teachings of Buddhism. The emphasis in Buddhist ethics is on the value of care and compassion and the need to embody these values in everything we think, say, and do.
The ‘five precepts’ in traditional Buddhism lay out the key ethical tasks. They are to refrain from: taking a life; stealing from anyone (including from Mother Earth); wrong speech; inappropriate sexual behavior; and from taking intoxicants which cloud the mind. The overall objective is to live a life of non-harm and compassion for ourselves and others. Both traditional and secular Buddhists support the key values of care and compassion, but secular Buddhists do not believe that the object of an ethical life is to transcend life and find some transcendent place (i.e., Nirvana) sometime in the future where there is no more suffering. Instead, secular Buddhists see ethics as a crucial aspect of creating a flourishing life for ourselves and for others in the here and now.
Buddhist ethics provides important guidelines for how we speak and relate to each other and the kind of work (both paid and volunteer) that we do. It speaks, among other things, of people holding jobs which do not oppress people, of not engaging in telling lies, gossip, idle chatter or unsolicited advice (referred to as ‘right speech’).
In addition, Buddhist ethics, whether traditional or secular, is based on the need for people to see the interconnectedness of ourselves with other human beings, animals, other living beings (like plants and trees), and the universe as a whole. It also emphasizes the need for compassion and loving kindness towards all human beings, even those we do not agree with, to revel in the good things that happen to people without envy or jealousy, and to develop a sense of equanimity amidst life’s ups and downs.
Buddhist ethics provide a framework for our activity that contributes to more fruitful political activity:
- The Buddhist notion of ‘right livelihood’ make us aware of how our work (paid and volunteer) affects others.
- The admonition to engage in right speech helps us interact with each other (including fellow movement activists) with compassion and respect.
- We prioritize showing compassion and loving kindness to others, even people we do not agree with.
- We can see things more clearly as they are, without harsh judgments and without being excessively attached. We can relate to the world with equanimity.
- We recognize the interconnectedness and impermanence of all that exists. That allows us to have a more holistic and open approach to political change. We can learn to live better with uncertainty and not be wedded to the outcome of what we are working on.
- We understand that we have different ‘identities’ but that these are fluid; like everything else, we, and all those around us, are constantly changing and that what we call our ‘selves’ are identities handed down to us by our families, our environment, and our experiences. They are thus not innate traits.
- Yet, based on our sense of common humanity and our compassion toward others, we become more aware of racist, sexist, homophobic and other oppressive attitudes and behaviors; and where we carry those unconscious feelings in our bodies.
- Finally, Buddhist ethics and wisdom help us to look at anger in a different way. Anger can serve as a wakeup call to injustice and as a motivating factor in the work we do to undermine the oppressive systems we live under. However, holding on to that anger after the initial wakeup call, is destructive both within our bodies, and towards others. It also often times burns us out. So, the issue is not being pro-anger or anti-anger but how we handle it.
The insights and skills that we obtain through meditational awareness and Buddhist ethics allow us to recognize that while we work to change oppressive institutions and structures, the outcome of our efforts is uncertain and we may not succeed. We need to learn how to not get wedded to specific outcomes. This is a crucial lesson for political activists who often burn out if our movements do not succeed in the way we want them to. So, for instance, while those of us in the environmental struggle recognize the need for and fight for zero emissions by a certain year, we recognize that we may not be able to achieve it. Instead of dropping out or walking around very cynically or depressed, we do the best we can at this time to work to achieve such a goal.
What we must remember is that while we are fighting to undo all the oppressive institutions and structures which prop up capitalism and all forms of oppression, we also have to be the change we are seeking.
Throughout the United States and other countries in the world, are people committed to this vision and trained in developing it. We need to step up and share these insights and skills with our sisters and brothers in the movement who have not had the opportunity to experience them.