The Examined Life
A Mindful Response to the Riots
Like most people who’ve expressed a view on the English city riots this month, I wasn’t there. Having relocated last year from inner London to a small countryside town an hour’s drive away, my experience of the unrest was mediated through television, Twitter and news websites. It was also filtered by the habitual tendencies of my mind when faced with events that seem to be creating widespread anxiety (it likes to take a contrary line: “Everyone is over-reacting/the media frenzy is out of proportion/don’t they know there’s a famine in Somalia with millions of people at risk of starvation?” and so on).
This is complicated further by thinking I know a bit about what happened and why. I’m a Briton who lived for 10 years at the top of one of the main riot streets, and felt the simmering tension of a neighborhood where mugging or burglary could seem an ever-present threat—my projections are partly based on past encounters in those same streets. On top of that, I have an anti-establishment streak, the voice of which says: “Bankers, politicians and advertisers have been fuelling materialism for so long, is it surprising the disenfranchised ransacked shops?” Memories of seeing similar riots on TV as a child in the 1980s also color my interpretations, as does a feeling of social status born of privileged education. All these elements and more come together to create an outpouring of thoughts, emotions and body sensations that make me want to react in certain ways. These reactions probably say more about me than they do about the riots.
All over the world, there have been pronouncements about what caused the disorder, ranging from budget cuts, social deprivation and cultural narcissism, to “criminality, pure and simple,” the latter being the words of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron. There have also been attempts to dismiss any motivation through describing people’s actions as "mindless." There were "mindless thugs" doing "mindless looting" in a display of "mindless consumerism" which has led to (a catcall from the other side, this time) "mindless retribution." Yesterday, I did a search of the Guardian website for uses of the word "mindless," and found 50 in the week following the riots; the previous week there were three.
Social psychologist Meg Barker has eloquently pointed out that there’s something fishy about describing someone else as "mindless." It means we assume their motivations are not worth hearing, not worth exploring. If these people don’t have minds, we imply, they must have nothing worthwhile to say. And so the opportunity for listening to other views, perhaps some that differ from our own, is eliminated. Our chance to reach a fuller, more multi-layered truth is diminished.
As mindfulness practitioners, it can be tempting to say that everyone should have some meditation training—rioters, government, and media to boot. But this too is fishy—trying to impose an uninvited worldview and solution smacks of a sneaky kind of aggression. "If only they were mindful" is just a slightly politer way of saying: "They are mindless."
So where does that leave us? After all, we know that mindfulness can be a great healing balm, as evidenced by the community work often described on this website; by the burgeoning science of meditation (latest finding: mindfulness helps us make more rational decisions); and from the experience of practice in our own lives.
In our own lives—that seems to be key. We know that mindfulness heals by training us to be present. As soon as we move away from our own situation, away from the juice of being, we can get lost in the territory of cold concept. Our views easily become theoretical, dry, hardened—and when we try to fix problems from this place, it doesn’t usually go well.
There are people who are truly present in communities affected by the violence, living in them, working in them, and attending to them. Some of them may practice meditation, and many more may have the good fortune to be naturally inclined to mindfulness. Some may inspire mindfulness in others, whether through formal or informal means. Perhaps more importantly, they might know how to listen—bearing witness to people’s experiences and perspectives, without judgment.
In allowing people to share their minds, we ensure they are not dismissed as mindless. We prove by our presence that they can be heard and acknowledged. We might also learn something useful about them, something that helps us connect rather than create more separation.
I don’t really know much about what happened in London last week, or why, or what can be done about it. I am too far away, in all sorts of ways, to say anything with confidence—indeed, it’s a challenge to be aware and take care of my own projections. But there is something I can do, and that is to work on being more present where I am, right now. I can listen a little bit more carefully to the people around me in my little country town, perhaps dismissing them less often when their views differ from mine, and acknowledging that my perspectives are only a partial take on reality.
I’m fairly sure my meditation practice helps me to do this, so I can continue to work with that too, and to share my experience with those who seem interested. It doesn’t feel like much of a response when there’s chaos in a city I not long ago left behind, but it does feel like a genuine one. After all, the chaos was one reason why I left...