Point of View Episode 10: Mindfulness in Politics
Listen to Mindful editor-in-chief Barry Boyce and writer and editor Stephanie Domet discuss how mindfulness helps us deepen our caring not only for ourselves, but also for others, no matter how different from us they may seem.
Stephanie Domet: Barry, when you were a kid you no doubt received the message that you should never talk to anyone about their religion, their income, or their politics. So what made you want to write about politics in your Point of View column?
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Well, for many years we have received messages from people saying that mindfulness is not political, it shouldn’t be political, and please keep politics out of Mindful magazine and mindful.org. Generally these are common responses to things we might do in our Mindful or Mindless column, where we might ridicule, or be critical of somebody who was overpulloting, or seemed to celebrate contraception being made more available to college students for example. Or which trod into the area of abortion, one of the third rails of politics, particularly in the United States. When we’ve dabbled in climate change, we’ve had people bring that up. So I’ve been thinking for some time, I want to present the understanding that we’ve generally had at Mindful over the years about where politics fits in mindfulness and where it doesn’t. You know in what way is mindfulness apolitical? And in what way is it inevitably political, unavoidably political?
Stephanie Domet: It seems like it would be easy enough to leave aside the “big-p politics,” so party politics, particular platform ideas or politician’s points of views. But it’s the “small-p politics” that I think you’re talking about. And those are different. And you write in your column, “As Aristotle indicated, human beings are political animals, by which he meant that each human being lives within a community, if not many communities and within those communities we seek to work together to make a good life for all concerned. We aspire to make the world a better place.” Why is that kind of politics inevitable in the practice of mindfulness?
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Well, what I was talking about there is starting with the etymology of the word political, which comes from polis, a polis is a polity and is simply a community. So we live together. We share resources and food and we have to work together in communities families, extended families. So that is an inevitable part of our lives. And why is it that small-p politics comes in, in terms of mindfulness? When we start practicing mindfulness, we tend to be paying attention to ourselves, to our own anxiety, to the difficulty we may be having with our inner critic, to the feeling that we’re not able to pay attention. We get lost in thought too easily. So as we work on our relaxed focus, on attention to what’s immediately at hand, starting with our own body and breath and the immediate surroundings, ultimately we begin to focus or notice and work with the next layer out from there, is that we are connected to other people. that for example for working with our emotions, emotions have a great deal to do with other people. I mean if you were the only person on earth one wonders what kind of emotions you would have.
So when you look at your connections to other people, it automatically gets you into realms that end up being political. How do we share resources, for example? Which gets you into issues of equality and equity. Are people treated the same? Did they have the same opportunity? Are they discriminated against in various ways? Do they get the same level of attention to their health, to their education? Or are we just spoiling the planet, the environment that provides our shared resources? You can’t help but stumble into this kind of arena.
Stephanie Domet: Is that true, is it inevitable? Can you practice true mindfulness, and not take other people and their welfare into consideration?
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: I like to think of mindfulness as involving a mindfulness practice. We always make the distinction between mindfulness, the basic human capability, and mindful this practice which cultivates that capability. So I like to think of it as having a range of possibilities in terms of how deeply you engage it. So somebody might just take a minute here or there to focus on their breath and pay attention to what they’re doing. And if that helps lessen their anxiety, and perhaps also makes them a little easier on themselves, a little kinder to others around them, let’s say maybe they don’t scream at their child as a result of that, then fine. That’s what mindfulness ends up being for that person, and that’s fabulous. That’s good for that person and good for all of us. If you take it a little further and you begin to investigate with the power of your focused attention and your awareness, mindfulness I do believe will inevitably take you into these rooms that I’ve been talking about. So is there a mindfulness without the small-p politics? Yes, there probably is. But if you stick with it with some vigour and curiosity, you’ll run into those other things.
Is there a mindfulness without the small-p politics? Yes, there probably is. But if you stick with it with some vigour and curiosity, you’ll run into those other things.
Stephanie Domet: So what kinds of ideas would you say fall into that small-p politics arena from Mindful magazine and mindful.org?
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Well I think I’ve mentioned some of them already. I think you need to think interconnected, the things that arise when you think of how you’re connected to others and to the world. We share resources. So are we sharing them fairly? It can arise simply as a question of in your own heart: Am I being stingy or generous? And that the larger questions of equality and equity really emerge from that basic feeling in one’s heart. That’s where all the big-p political issues come from, feelings in people’s hearts and minds about what’s what feels appropriate and right and fair. A big-p politics manifestation of that would be tackling the issue say of guaranteed income or welfare reform. And that’s where we don’t go because we don’t have the expertise or the capability or the journalistic mission to investigate those kinds of questions in a sophisticated way.
Big-p politics, I have several friends who are in legislatures who have to take positions, and there’s always a push and pull. There’s no pure position in politics. You have to, when you make one group happy, you make another group unhappy. And when we get into real politics, where you have to adjudicate things and make laws and favor certain groups over others, and decide who gets taxed more and who gets taxed less. That brings out some really bad human habits, where we get polarized and we get nasty with each other. This is why we get letters, “Please keep mindfulness out of politics.” I understand that. I would like there to be room on any given issue, you have a range from conservative to radical you might say, or rather radical at either end of the spectrum. And there are age-old tensions that will never go away, in governing for example, the tension between individual freedom and community values, will that ever be decided? No, that’s not going to be decided. That’s it. That tension exists, it exists within the US Constitution for example. There’s not a permanent decision about well, it’s all about individual freedoms, forget about community values or it’s all about community values, forget about individual freedom.
The Role of Mindfulness in Everyday Politics
Stephanie Domet: I mean that tension is how we can make the best society that we can on any given day, right?
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Exactly, when democracy works. Through the debate around that kind of tension we arrive at the next best possible thing we can do. And then that changes over time. But I’d like there to be room for if somebody takes a conservative viewpoint on the political realm, I’d like them to feel like they could read Mindful and not be completely turned off. The conservatives have changed a lot over the years, but for a long time and maybe still in some cases, there’s something I think very admirable about traditional conservatism in that it was not big on war spending. They were much more conservative about spending on war. And that may have changed. But conservative turn of mind is not necessarily a bad thing in all cases.
Stephanie Domet: And so that’s a small-c conservative you’re working with.
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Yeah yeah. And I don’t know I know, did that answer the question?
Stephanie Domet: I think so. I asked you what things are in the small-p politics arena, and you talked about compassion, what’s good for the individual, and what’s good for the many.
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Yeah, I think it has a lot to do with caring for others. That’s the big-p part that get tricky. I gave one example about say welfare reform or guaranteed income. Another one would be to be anti-corporate, some people believe what’s important is to be in the anti-globalization movement, and it’s corporations that are the problem. Well, we’re not going to take a position on that. We’re going to allow people to see wherever their own mindfulness and awareness takes them, in however they want to manifest and then engage the world. That’s up to them. Because you’re getting into the specifics there, where more expertise is needed and the kind of journalism that we call fourth estate, which speaks truth to power and engages in true political decision-making, which we’re not capable of doing or interested in doing.
We’re going to allow people to see wherever their own mindfulness and awareness takes them, in however they want to manifest and then engage the world. That’s up to them.
Stephanie Domet: I think this about me, that I am engaged in a lot of making things with my hands. I sew all my own clothes, and I’m a cog in the wheel of an online community of people who are similarly engaged, and this is a conversation that’s happening there, where some people have named their patterns things that are culturally appropriative, for instance. And so there’s a push from other makers, “Could you change the name of that pattern?” And there’s a lot of conversation in the comments of Instagram posts about, “I don’t want politics in my sewing, can we all just get back to our sewing?” And I think politics is everywhere. Small-p politics is everywhere, and there’s a lot of privilege in being able to literally stick to your knitting. So I’m curious what you would say to a listener or reader who doesn’t, who would say, “I don’t want any politics in here, just stick to your mindfulness.”
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Well I would say that ‘s exactly why I wrote the column, that as an editor, and as editors generally, we have to walk along a lot of razors edges as where we don’t have the luxury of certainty. And we have to make a call, on a case by case basis. So we did a case recently by naturalist meditation teacher Mark Coleman who was celebrating being awake in the wild and engaging with wilderness, but he was also lamenting all of the damage to the earth that he sees happening from climate change. So I felt that that was a workable thing to do and didn’t prescribe exact certain policies. And so that’s the kind of judgment call we need to make.
When you talk about privilege and cultural appropriation and micro-aggressions, and this is an arena that is very difficult now, not only for the small political world but particularly for the big political world because my politician friends are beleaguered by identity politics at this point, because it carves up the citizenry into a lot of subgroups. And when you’re weighing, there’s all sorts of wrong being done in the world that you want it’s motivated to change. So in the realm of identity politics sometimes people end up with more division, when we should come together more around larger issues and be a little more patient with how change happens in terms of discrimination, by subgroup.
And I don’t want to be vague about that. I want to give it some sort of very specific example, so African-Americans are subject to all sorts of micro-aggressions, just to take one group, and I’ve seen and witnessed with my black friends those kinds of micro-aggressions, and I’m probably and certainly have perpetrated some of them myself. I saw a situation where a guy was trying to be friendly on the train and saying to this black guy, are you the same guy who is working here yesterday? And he said, Well, no. And basically, the implication was that “all black people look alike to me.” And that’s a micro-aggression. Now is a fight going to break out over that? No. And this is a real place where mindfulness awareness should come in, can come in
My friend Rhonda McGee, a law professor who has a new book coming out called Color, about color insight rather than being color-blind, she’s an African-American legal and justice advocate. She says, how do we continue to open doorways while not denying the truth? So there is the truth of micro-aggressions, but if you put too much energy into fighting around that you may. alienate the very people whose minds you’re trying to change. And that’s a fine line that she’s always walking. I want to bring people around, so I’m going to try to be accommodating. But I’m not going to do it in such a way that I’m going to lie, and deny what’s happened. So another area would be privilege. Privilege is a very tricky word. White privilege means that automatically when I walk into a room as a white male, I have certain advantages that other people don’t have. Unearned advantages. Now what some people mistakenly take the term to mean is that I am necessarily privileged and have privileged myself, which isn’t necessarily the case. What it’s asking us to look at is with awareness, and here’s where mindfulness comes in, how does that inherent advantage affect the environment? And how should I respond to that? That’s one thing. So let’s say if I know that I am inherently privileged in a situation, how can I undercut that? How can I bring us to a place of shared humanity with? So that’s one thing, your personal behavior around it.
Stephanie Domet: So you can use your privilege to, I don’t know, help level the playing field, or put an apple box under somebody who needs that to reach the playing field.
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Yeah, well it’s a simple thing like, let’s say I’m introducing my friends who run the Holistic Life Foundation in Baltimore. How long, as a white male do I spend, how much oxygen do I take up in the room? It’s supposed [be about] pushing them, putting them forward.
Stephanie Domet: It’s getting out of the way.
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Getting out of the way. And there are just all sort of simple examples like that. But the more profound way in which the awareness of something like privilege can be important is in understanding how it’s systemically built into our political realm. You look for creative ways to undo that over a long period of time, like the Martin Luther King quote, “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” I hope I haven’t screwed that up. So it’s these intractable, long-term problems need long-term concerted attention. They don’t just flip overnight.
Stephanie Domet: Right. Right.
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Related to Rhonda’s discussion of opening doorways while not denying the truth, is an attention to words and how words work. And this is something that mindfulness and awareness can bring. It can help us to have a subtler understanding around words. Because part of mindfulness is not redefining things quite so much. So for example, you can understand that the word privilege could mean different things to different people in different contexts, not that it could but that it will. So when I heard and was educated in the notion of white privilege, when it first started coming around, I found it enlightening. And it offered insight.
But I was talking to Rhonda the other day and she said that also at times, words like that can be offensive to some people and then some people will use it as a club. So any word can offer a certain amount of light and insight, but it could also offer alienation, and being aware of the kind of yin yang quality of words in that way can be very helpful. And it’s interesting that Rhonda is a legal expert, because when when justice systems are working at their best, they’re really careful with words, because they understand the nuances around words and why that’s a political topic. As I was saying before, any time you take a political act, an overt political act, a certain number of people are happy, and a certain number of people are less happy.
Extending Kindness and Compassion to Others
Stephanie Domet: All right. Let’s change gears a little bit here. At Mindful, we start our meetings in a really beautiful, nourishing way with a few minutes of mindfulness. And lately you’ve been leading us in a practice near the end of our set, where we sort of feel or become aware of the heat of our own hearts and send that warmth out to someone in pain, to lift their pain, and then extend that warm to ourselves as if there were no difference between us. Is that political?
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: It’s certainly about kindness and compassion. And I think the phrase there, when you’re first starting with sending the warmth out to soothe somebody in pain, that has a direction. But then when you let it come back on yourself and soothe your own pain, as if there is no difference between you and the other, then you can understand the compassion to be environmental.
When we understand our interconnectedness, it’s understanding that we are connected but yet we’re different, and we see things from different perspectives and hopefully our awareness and our feeling of compassion can help us in negotiating these differences.
There’s an environmental warmth there and I think where that relates to small-p political is that we work best when we have some kind of shared ground to move forward on. If we only have polarity, then we end up usually in the bloodiest kinds of fights that don’t end well. When we understand our interconnectedness, it’s understanding that we are connected but yet we’re different, and we see things from different perspectives and hopefully our awareness and our feeling of compassion can help us in negotiating these differences, whether the difference is in terms of privilege or our viewpoint about climate, or bicycle lanes, free college education, all these kinds of things. We’re trying to negotiate those to the extent that we can remember our interconnectedness. We may be able to negotiate it a little bit better, but I think that’s finally where Mindful and mindfulness and awareness can be helpful to the political process. It can be helpful to activists, it can be helpful to the average citizen in trying to work with our emotions and behavior when we need to negotiate things in the world.
Stephanie Domet: Because it can help us kind of regulate ourselves and imagine that other people are just like us, with equal things at stake, extend our compassion.
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Think Nelson Mandela.
Stephanie Domet: All right.
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Think of what he was able to accomplish politically, through his great personal discipline and mindfulness and awareness. He accomplished something that nobody would believe possible. And he famously, as the movie Invictus shows us, he famously reached out to the boards and tried to understand their psychology and how to negotiate with them. Very importantly he did not deny as, this was kind of a pretty good example of what Rhonda McGee was talking about, he was able to open doorways while not denying the truth that apartheid was a criminal regime. But then you’re left with, Ok, how do I get rid of it? How do I get rid of it with the least possible bloodshed and the greatest long term outcome? South Africa is still negotiating around that. But they’re much better off, obviously, for having had Mandela and we’re much better off. So I think that’s where, that’s an example of personal discipline and true mindfulness and awareness.
Stephanie Domet: Well that’s compelling, I’d like to be more like Nelson Mandela. So I mean, how can I work with those ideas, what’s something I could introduce to my practice that would help me work with those ideas?
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Well I think you were talking about it already. First is to work with regulating our emotions. And then in practice, it can be to explore your aspirations and values, which is a contemplative exercise. It’s not simply, when I talk about a contemplative exercise I mean it’s a situation where we use the stability of our mindfulness and awareness to take the time to dispassionately examine something in our mind, like the fact that it’s something you may be maybe very motivated about. For whatever reason I’ve been motivated around social justice by all life. So I’ve had to examine my own mind, what’s the best way for that to manifest, how can I fulfill that aspiration in a way that works best for who I am in my life?
So frankly I think being an editor at Mindful magazine is one of the ways to do that. And it’s brought me in touch with wonderful people who I’ve learned so much from, so you regulate your emotions, examine your intentions and your aspirations and see where it takes you. Nobody can. This is a really important point coming out of the piece. Nobody can dictate for you, or ought to dictate for you, precisely where you arrive at in terms of your political engagement. But mindfulness awareness can help you to get there, but we’re not going to say you ought to take this position or that specific position. That’s a little tricky when if you have climate change deniers, Well ok. There is a line there. It’s scientifically there’s a strong scientific consensus. A trickier area is abortion. I’m sure that a high percentage of our readers believe strongly in a woman’s right to choose. But I’m sure we have readers coming out of faith traditions who take a different position on that. I will respect how they arrive at that position, and they know mindfulness practice is not denied to them because they’ve arrived at a different position on that. Am I going to support them if they decide to blow up an abortion clinic? No. So how you engage around an issue is really important. And what they call third rail issues in politics are ones where we tread gingerly, but there they’re very dangerous.
Mouthing Off Mindfully
Stephanie Domet: Well thank you for working through that with me.
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: I hope it makes some sense.
Stephanie Domet: I feel like it did. I want to do something totally different now. Here’s a question I’ve been longing to ask you, for probably as long as I’ve known you. Tell me about the mindful vulgarian.
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Yeah and that’s interesting. I was teaching a program a number of years ago, and somebody wrote an evaluation calling me a “vulgarian.” Because I think I dropped a few f-bombs, and I used to work in Washington and if anybody’s seen the show Veep, behind the scenes Washington is a very vulgar place. It’s also the same with comedians.
Stephanie Domet: Newsrooms also.
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Certain sectors where, when you have this outer world where you have to be very careful, behind the scenes you let loose and you talked like a drunken sailor, maybe. And it’s fun.
But it’s interesting, I find it interesting that when we lose brain function—I used to take care of a patient when I was in university, an old guy who was so sweet, but he’d lost a lot of brain function. But what he had left was swearing. And apparently swearing or epithets whatever you want to call it, comes from some sort of deep place in our brain, supposedly, that’s because they have a lot of power. So I’m not going to swear here. Damn it. It’s as close as I’m going to get, I’m not going to get in trouble. But so yes, the “mindful vulgarian,” is me and it’s about being plain spoken. And then my friend Pat Rockman and I want to do something with this. She has the idea that we’re gonna do something together called “mouthing off mindfully.”
Stephanie Domet: I love this. I’d like to be involved.
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Yeah. You want to hear some more pet things that we want to mouth off about?
Stephanie Domet: Of course.
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: We want to mouth off about the mistaken idea that mindfulness means that you turn into an inert, nearly motionless, highly controlled, measured person at all times. So you can almost see the white light beaming out from every pore.
We were sharing about mutual health challenges and family challenges, as you get older, Pat and I are about the same age are both in our 60s, you have an increasing number of friends and family who have cancer, for example. And you’ve lost people. And in Pat’s case, she’s a cancer survivor. If you’re taking care of other people, you can get stretched. And Pat was recounting how she was getting real gripy, real snippy and it became a signal to her: “Oh. Something’s out of whack here, I’m overextended.” If you take the point of view that mindfulness is about becoming inert, then you don’t give yourself this opportunity to get gripy and grumpy, and take that message about what’s going on there. So mindfulness is about reveling in the full range of humanity, of your view of your humanness, including the part of you that says, “F you brother.” I came close.
Stephanie Domet: Yeah, you really did.
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: And there are other things we could mouth off about, but that’s just one example. So just the idea and the habit that can happen in the mindfulness realm of kind of being over-controlled, and also holding yourself above other people.
Stephanie Domet: Mindfuller-than-thou.
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Mindfuller-than-thou, beautiful, exactly. Yeah. Being mindfuller-than-thou than now. If you can’t be understood by somebody you’re standing next to in the bus shelter, then it’s time to check yourself.
Stephanie Domet: Before you wreck yourself.
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Yeah exactly, check yourself before you wreck yourself. Beautiful.
Stephanie Domet: Thanks for this.
Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce: Thank you, it was fun.