john powell’s Affirmative Mindfulness

To counter our tendency to segregate, powell looks at how mindfulness can help us overcome fears of others and the anger and racism they generate. 

Photograph by Jim Block

At 6’3″, john a. powell (who spells his name without capitals) is a strong presence. He tells a story of waiting for an elevator in a Boston office building recently. A white woman in her 30s entered first, and he followed, but before the doors closed, she hastily exited.

“I had a rush of emotions,” he says. “And, obviously, I don’t know what was happening. Maybe she forgot something.” He pauses, then adds, “but I don’t think so.”

As a young man he would have been angry—at the situation and the woman. “But now, I was sad,” he says. “And, at the same time, I knew it was complicated—I could feel what she must be going through, to be afraid of a tall black man.”

Powerful fears can segregate us, separate us, powell believes. Mindfulness can help people overcome these fears and the anger and racism they generate. In fact, he sees being mindful as a way to connect people—even when some of us would prefer to stay distinctly apart.

Contemplative practices have allowed powell that perspective, and they inform his profession. He’s a lawyer and former national legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, teaches law at University…