Point of View Podcast Episode 7:
When Mindfulness and Racism Intersect
A conversation with Rhonda Magee exploring how mindfulness can help us dismantle the subtle patterns and habits that separate us from each other.
Barry Boyce: Welcome everyone to Mindful’s podcast, Point of View. I’m Barry Boyce, editor-in-chief of Mindful and mindful.org. And today I have the pleasure of talking with my good friend and colleague Rhonda Magee. Rhonda is a Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco and she’s a mindfulness teacher who’s been focused for some years on issues having to do with mindfulness and the law, mindfulness for lawyers in their everyday work, justice, public policy, and in particular focusing increasingly on issues of inclusively, ingroup/outgroup, bias, and she is pioneering something she calls Color Insight, which we’ll talk about later on. So, welcome Rhonda.
Rhonda Magee: Thank you very much Barry, it’s good to be with you.
Barry Boyce: You and I met for the first time, quite a few years ago now, it must be, at a retreat in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in a beautiful forest. I recall we had an opportunity to take a couple of walks around there and get to know each other, and I got a good chance to begin to know you. If you don’t mind, if you could tell a little bit of your background for our listeners, you know how you grew up and where you grew up and then work your way towards how you ended up practicing mindfulness.
Rhonda Magee: So I grew up in the south. I was born in 1967, right, so 50 years on the planet—50 good years, I would say, although the last few have been more challenging than many in the past. So, born in South, born actually in the last year of Martin Luther King’s time on earth. A very poignant time in American history where we were bringing the civil rights movement, in a certain sense, to a kind of peak in terms of articulating the promises of a movement for inclusivity that would be supported by law and public policy and might change the culture. And so, I think my own journey here was influenced, in some not insignificant way, by the fact that I was born then and there, raised in a family that was Christian, and particularly influenced by a grandmother and others in the family who were deeply committed to religious practice and to a kind of a discipline of daily, what they would call prayer and study, but look very much like a kind of daily meditation, and discipline, if you will.
So, witnessing as a little girl, seeing my grandmother practice every day, get up in the morning before dawn, commit herself to a kind of centering, and then going out in the world and working very hard. She didn’t have a glamorous job, she cleaned houses for other people and took care of the family and on the weekends helped to support community—She had become a lay minister in a particular Christian tradition. So, I grew up then in a family that was already kind of deeply engaged in the idea of practice and daily practice for one’s own sustenance, in a world that wasn’t necessarily created for our thriving. But also to support us in the work of trying to make the world as livable and kind as possible for ourselves and for our communities.
There are ways we can call people into conversations about white supremacy with compassion for the fact that we all are in this together. We’ve all been trained away from this conversation.
I moved from North Carolina to Virginia, did most of my schooling in Virginia, went to the University of Virginia, studied law and sociology at the graduate level, and then ended up teaching at the University of San Francisco. For me, mindfulness came, first of all, in an organic way. I was always very drawn to solitude and drawn to my own developing inner work and found mindfulness in particular or meditation, I should say, first in 1993, the year I came out from the south to San Francisco. And at this moment of new opportunity—I was starting a new job as a lawyer having trained and focused and done all these different things, but also was in this brand new place with everything around me sort of new and different, and starting this fancy job at a law firm where I was the only African-American, only young woman of color at the time in an office of about 70 or so lawyers—I just already knew there were going to be some additional challenges that would come with that beyond the everyday challenges of being a young lawyer.
So, I felt at that time a need to be more consistent and committed to my own personal practice regimen, and so started exploring ways of deepening my own ground, my own sources of inner support, that were more aligned with who I had become by then. I’m still very inspired by Christ’s message and teachings, and yet, at the same time, for me I needed a way of entering into a spiritual journey that was a little more informed by practices that specifically would assist me in working with my own mind, knowing my own kind of conditioning and habits, and specifically putting myself in a position to deal with stress and to deal with my own reactivity and ways of being in the world that might make for more suffering than I needed to endure.
So, I was drawn to meditation, I was drawn to mindfulness, and from there just developed a regular practice that led me to teaching and training through a variety of wonderful teachers, including Norman Fischer, a former abbot of The San Francisco Zen Center who has been a teacher of mine for years, and then actually, more recently, 10 or 12 years ago, met Jon Kabat-Zinn along the way, and through his inspiration prepared myself for mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention-type teaching by going to the teacher training program at the Center for Mindfulness. So that’s in a nutshell.
Barry Boyce: Yeah, that’s a beautiful nutshell. And, you know, it seems to me that you grew up in what we might call today, in the jargon, an intentional community. Your grandmother, you say, who was a lay minister, is it fair to say that you derived a lot of strength from that community growing up?
Rhonda Magee: Yeah, I mean, it is fair. And it’s also fair to say the community had its back up against the wall, in many ways, right? So, it was still very segregated. My kindergarten school, despite the fact that it was by then 1972 when I was entering kindergarten, it was still officially segregated in the South, nothing had changed, despite Brown versus Board.
Barry Boyce: Yeah, you hear: “well, during the Jim Crow period” as if that ended.
Rhonda Magee: Right, it still continues. And yet, it had a certain kind of flavor when it was completely, and in very intensive ways, supported and endorsed by our legal system and by our police and by our churches. Right? So, while segregation continues, actually, in a way that I do think is important to really be clear about, the difference between the kind of very official commitments and explicit endorsements of white supremacy that were in place throughout, even starting my lifetime, between what was in place then and what’s in place now, which is not as much. We’re re-entering, I would say, a period where people are re-embracing white supremacy in a way that actually is quite meaningful and it’s important, and we need to talk about that, it’s part of why I do the work that I do.
But yeah, I had this period in my life where the dominant message was to respond to and redress white supremacy, to make a society that was fair. And I wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t gone through that period, where we had a civil rights movement that led to changes in public policy, that led to opening up educational opportunities for people like me, opportunities that literally weren’t there before—Actually dismantling, to a degree, the patterns of segregation that had been in place that are resurfacing today. So, I think part of what needs to be understood is we actually did make a lot of change—change that lead to me be literally being here in this conversation with you, that lead to electing Barack Obama as president, and many other things. And we are now at a moment societally where all of that change is facing probably the most intense backlash that I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.
And so, mindfulness, for me, increasingly became a support for looking clearly at what needs to be seen with regard to those issues. I was already teaching a class dealing with race and law—I have taught such a class at the University of San Francisco and other places, William and Mary College in Virginia. But my main place has been at USF, with very diverse groups of students—from new immigrant families, first-generation students from all over the world, African-American, white students—all coming together to try to learn American legal history and the way in which race and bias has been a feature of our history since the founding.
Barry Boyce: I’d like to return to that topic a little later on in a deeper way. But first I want to talk a little bit about community. You said you were in a community that had its back up against the wall and yet managed to derive some strength in the middle of that struggle, and even including, in the face of a real hate. I think for a lot of people, mindfulness is something that would be strengthened by community. We (at Mindful) are now in our fifth anniversary, in fact this podcast is our fifth-anniversary celebration podcast, so you’ve been chosen to lead that off. We’re using the slogan of “mindfulness for all” and yet in many ways, mindfulness practice seems to be a phenomenon of the mainstream privilege culture, even though there are a number of good programs that are breaking down some barriers. But, there are a lot more barriers to be broken down, obviously, before we can say that mindfulness feels like something that is truly accessible to all. Could you say something about what you think the barriers are to greater inclusion in a bigger spectrum of mindfulness practitioners?
Rhonda Magee: Yeah, and it links, I do think, in important ways to this notion of community. I do think that the kind of experience that I shared about growing up in a world where I was very aware of suffering. It wasn’t an abstraction. And the idea of finding support for dealing with suffering and then realizing that this is not a personal project, that indeed, we do what we do for ourselves but we do it in community always. We’re always embedded in community. That was something that was always very apparent to me. And so for me, when I look at the western mindfulness scene, I do think a barrier to allowing its rich potential to infuse and enrich the lives of a broader and broader swath of our human population is the way that it’s taught in the midst of a society that hasn’t reckoned with racism, sexism, and all the other isms, very well. Right? So, a part of the way in which we haven’t reckoned with those things is the hyper-focus on individualism. To disconnect, denude our experience from its embeddedness in community and culture. Right? So, that is kind of hand and glove with racism, sexism, homophobia, all of that, is to deny the relevance of culture, of community, of history. Deep in the cultural structures of this society, of western societies, and many societies in the world right now, are hidden ways of perpetuating the status quo, including perpetuating racism, sexism, et cetera. And one of those sort of subtle ways is to hyper-focus on the individual. It’s not about sex or race. It’s really about you as an individual and whether or not you can overcome. And, through no intentional fault of its own, I think mindfulness has been taken up in the midst of that culture.
When I look at the western mindfulness scene, I do think a barrier to allowing its rich potential to infuse and enrich the lives of a broader and broader swath of our human population is the way that it’s taught in the midst of a society that hasn’t reckoned with racism, sexism, and all the other isms, very well.
Barry Boyce: So, what you’re really saying, the first thing you bring up here, in terms of barriers, it’s very interesting, it’s kind of a very deep and subtle barrier of making it a personal improvement project. Is that really what you’re saying? That doesn’t begin with you as a social being who embodies a culture, as part of a culture. Is that really what you’re driving at?
Rhonda Magee: Yeah, absolutely. You know, it begins with the personal improvement project. And the difficulty is, that there is a very important role for the personal improvement project. The difficulty is that focusing on individual efforts, practice, and so on, is really essential to mindfulness to the liberatory potential of mindfulness, the freedom that can come from that. It’s essential for us to have personal commitments. The problem is that in our society it’s sort of either or, it’s either about the personal or it’s about the social. And yet, if we can open to our own experience we know we’re always already both individuals and a world. And I think, again, the challenge is to convey mindfulness as about a practice for individuals in a world, in communities, in systems. So it’s more nuanced in a profound way, bringing mindfulness forward as it is, which is a support for individuals embedded in communities and systems that are constantly a part of what it is that we struggle with, what sets us up for the particular kinds of suffering that we endure. So, it’s to deepen and move us away from this tendency to only focus on the individual and to infuse it: it’s individual and community, it’s “both and.” And mindfulness, I think, because it opens up our capacity to see things through multiple lenses at once, has a profound ability to help us, and in that sense lead Western culture forward. Because I think our entire culture suffers from these false dichotomies, the inability to see the world through multiple lenses at once, to deal with that kind of complexity, in a world beset with more and more complex problems.
Barry Boyce: So, that is a very fundamental barrier that we could contemplate for quite a while, and I’d like to see if there are any other discreet barriers that you could mention, or that come to mind, and then I’d like to talk about some practical first steps that might help to loosen those things up. In addition to just what you already said about contemplating that dichotomy and the unavoidable fact of being an individual and communal person at the same time. So, what are some other barriers that come to mind for you?
Rhonda Magee: Yeah, so relatedly, we largely continued to live in very segregated communities and cultures and systems. And that’s a fact that is one that we struggle to keep coming back to. You know, we know that part of the way we’ve been taught to look at these issues is that we were segregated officially, and now we’re not. And now if communities are racially identifiable or culturally distinct, it’s all a matter of choice. It’s all, you know, a matter of the market. It’s not, about patterns or conditioned habits and also structures, the way we do schooling, public and private, the way we continue to structure our religious communities. We tend not to really see how we are very, very, very deeply still embedded in and committed to, actually, we have a taste for, it seems like, segregation.
Barry Boyce: We reinvest invest in boundaries that we think we’ve gone beyond, mentally, in our media, we reinvest in those boundaries.
Rhonda Magee: We really do.
Barry Boyce: …that you are more different from me than is really the case.
Rhonda Magee: Yes, and we reinvest meaning, we send our kids to schools that are still very isolated. We move around the country. I live in San Francisco. I hear people find various and sundry different ways to explain why they leave a very diverse region. And often my white friends, for example, find themselves in much more white spaces after the “stresses of the city.” And, you know, sometimes this racial piece of it is mentioned, often not widely, but maybe in these quiet conversations. I had a young woman come and talk to me about a friend of hers; it’s often, you know, speaking about a friend, not myself. This young woman was an immigrant from Eastern Europe and she had another friend, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, who came to San Francisco and said she wanted to move away because she wanted to be around more Americans, and by that, she actually meant more whites.
There still is a way that part of the legacy of white supremacy in America is that we define what it means to be American, still and in the eyes of many both domestically and internationally, as white. And that is what we are still up against, is what we have been seeing emerge in the political culture and the discourse around making America great again. So there’s a deeply embedded desire, or kind of a way in which we keep moving into segregation and reinforcing it, reinvesting in it, as you say. We’re all in that world. So, even mindfulness organizations are built up in networks that are already very segregated. All of our networks for reaching out, finding potential teachers, finding people to come to our organizations, our events, they’re already very segregated. And so, we are up against that challenge of, again, living in a society that’s already structured to push us apart. And those dynamics are coming from so many different institutions that it’s actually very hard for any institution to start reaching out to adults, adult learners or adult practitioners, and saying let’s come together from these very different places of relative segregation and isolation.
And so a concrete way to address that is, I mean, there are short-term steps, but I actually think a longer-term cultural change is what has to happen. This effort must outlive our own lifetimes. It will. Another problem we deal with in the West is very short-term focus. If we can’t imagine our efforts realizing some gain tomorrow, or at the outside six months from now, we’re not sure it’s worth our time. We are not going to change these patterns in this country that took hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years to embed without a commitment to changing them that is at least as farsighted.
We are not going to change these patterns in this country that took hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years to embed without a commitment to changing them that is at least as farsighted.
Barry Boyce: Are you suggesting that if you have too much of a hunger for immediate results, you won’t really commit? That you really have to take on that notion that we’re planting seeds in a garden that we will not see flower? I haven’t really thought of it that way: If silently in your mind you think you want to see a short-term gain, you just give up…
Rhonda Magee: It’s very easy to get frustrated.
Barry Boyce: You think… this neighborhood isn’t going to change.
Rhonda Magee: Yes, the community isn’t going to change, this meditation group isn’t going to change.
Barry Boyce: Yeah. So yeah that’s very helpful. Keep going.
Rhonda Magee: So, we need both a very long-term commitment and a lot of patience, both of which, I think, are gifts from me of my own mindfulness practice. And not that I’ve gotten there, right, I’m a work in progress just like everybody else. But to be able to sit with the frustration that comes with, oh, here we are again trying to address this same issue of the denial of white supremacy in our history with people who, once again, don’t want to talk about. It’s frustrating.
Barry Boyce: How does patience square with the possibility of falling into apathy or not being willing to call somebody on something?
Rhonda Magee: So it’s “both and” again. You know, realizing there’s time for, and a place in our own being in the world, for patience. And there are times for, and a place for, being in action. And it’s again, it’s not either or. It really is both. So there are ways we can call people into conversations about white supremacy with compassion for the fact that we all are in this together. We’ve all been trained away from this conversation. So, it’s going to be hard. It’s going to have to go by fits and starts and be interrupted, maybe even for years in a single organization because we’re not ready for it yet. To really deal with these issues is high pay-grade level mindfulness work. It isn’t for people who have not really come to see the depth of what it means to see clearly, what it means to work with our own conditionings, to sit in the fire of the painful recognition that, oh my mind actually does orient me to people who look like me. Oh, I do feel safer. Honestly, I wish I didn’t, but in fact I do feel safer when I’m in these places. Mindfulness can help us with a lot of the really subtle difficulties of doing the work that must be done to dismantle these patterns and habits that draw us to reinvest in segregation. Mindfulness compassion practices, these actually can help.
Mindfulness can help us with a lot of the really subtle difficulties of doing the work that must be done to dismantle these patterns and habits that draw us to reinvest in segregation.
So, it’s actually, it’s both that kind of patience that comes with a mindful holding of a multi-generational looking back and forward at the same time type of project. Because we are both, looking at a particular history is how we got here and trying to imagine a future for our children and our children’s children that will be much different. And then trying to work towards that future, in part by trying to redeem our past, looking at the role our particular communities, our particular families, our cultures have had in setting us on this journey that we’re on that keeps pushing us in corners and polarizing us. What’s been the role of our family, our culture, my neighborhood, my own conditioning in those tendencies? How can I address those and at the same time realize that we’re not going to address them overnight? We can’t. It will not happen overnight. We didn’t get here overnight. But we can take steps, we can take steps.
Barry Boyce: You know, as you’re talking about how we feel more comfortable in certain spaces, it reminds me of what some of the fabric of culture is made of: cultures are made of ways of being together, they’re made of language. And there’s a principle called high context communication, that, say, within your family and in North Carolina you have a particular way of talking and being, and communicating that everyone understands together. And if you bring somebody else into that they feel awkward.
Rhonda Magee: Right.
Barry Boyce: How do we deal with the power of cultures and yet try to do something that’s transcultural? Do we need to create some embryonic mindfulness communities that we are at first, maybe, artificially structuring so that there are more types of people involved? Do you understand I’m driving at?
Rhonda Magee: I do.
Barry Boyce: And I know that you’ve been a longtime board member of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, and it has some very big aims in terms of helping to transform all sorts of systems with mindful awareness. So how would you respond to what I’m talking about there?
Rhonda Magee: So, I thank you for this question. I think that it is getting at really the deep challenge that we’re talking about. You know, I’m a teacher in many different senses. As one example, I get to have 14 weeks with one group of students. But I’ve developed a course that I teach, for example, over 14 weeks, one called Contemplative Lawyering, one called Race and Law, Race in American Legal History. And in both I’ve been allowed by the institution that I work in—not everybody’s gotten this kind of permission wherever they might be—to actually bring mindfulness and compassion practices together r with looking at the legal structures that support both oppression and may support fighting for a more just world. So, what I do in those classes for 14 weeks is help the students develop a kind of community, a kind of new way of being with the suffering that they have seen, naming it, having the language to speak—so, emotional intelligence—having the language to talk about what suffering looks like from their high context and to try to translate that into something that others in that room, a very diverse group, can understand and find their way into from their own high context position, their position of difference. So, what we do in those 14 weeks is really try to practice this. But, I do think something along the lines of those kinds of intentional engaged communities, where we say, “We, this group of people, is gonna meet on a regular basis.” And so I, like others, you know, John Paul Lederach, who’s an internationally known peacemaker, a practitioner of peace and writer about peace studies. You know, he’s talked about how we have to have these conversations with each other that we’re willing to stay in for a lifetime. Like, meet somebody for coffee that will start a conversation that will last for the rest of our lives. And that’s ultimately what I think we need to do. So, they’re going to be many small ways of doing that—an eight week course that’s focused on coming together regularly, a 14-week course, a yearlong course, a community gathering space, where we drop in and we drop out, but we know we’re building the capacity to do this together and to come together.
So, I don’t think there’s one way to do it, but I do think, once we start having this kind of conversation where start seeing there’s a need for both a kind of intentional commitment to community that is about trying to open the doorways into our different ways of being based on our particular context, our particular cultures, and connect across them. There are so many ways to do that once we decide that’s what we want to do. So, I think the first step is to see the imperative. We live in the 21st century, a radically diverse world and country right now, our own America, but interconnected with a world whose cultural and other differences are very, very profound. And yet we have never developed the intentional kinds of technologies, if you will, that address in deep ways what it means to bring people together across those cultures. I think mindfulness and compassion can help with that.
We live in the 21st century, a radically diverse world … and yet we have never developed the intentional kinds of technologies, if you will, that address in deep ways what it means to bring people together across those cultures. I think mindfulness and compassion can help with that.
Barry Boyce: Well I think, one of the things I hear you recommending here is that, in addition to long-term patience and short-term persistence, is that maybe there are possibilities for the kind of embryos I was talking about, in the sense that your semester is a time and a place in a container where we can’t hide. And with mindfulness, we have an opportunity to engage, with some kindness and compassion, the ways in which we invest in separateness.
Rhonda Magee: And also just learn from each other and live with the experience of togetherness. We don’t have that. We don’t have a lot of experience to draw on.
Barry Boyce: Yeah, actually, that’s interesting. Because in that if you’re living that experience you actually can get some reward from it, that begins to taste and feel good to you, you want more of that, and that I hadn’t really appreciated until you just said that.
Rhonda Magee: This is very true. This, I think, is the heart of it. I mean this is why desegregation and integration when it worked, and I will say I think it worked in my own experience in many ways. Policies of bringing people together, you know, I was thrown into a school that was affirmatively trying to be bussed for desegregation, and all that. But it was at a time when the community had stopped resisting, publicly. So there weren’t people out on the streets, parents saying no. We were going to school together. That meant we went to band class together. Meaning whites, African-Americans, and the 10 or 12 percent of “other” in the south—it was mostly black and white and a small percentage of so-called “other” so people from a variety of different backgrounds. But we were in that, in those close spaces working together, and learning from each other, in a way that actually was joyful. And, I do think, that is what my students experience in those classrooms. I know. I mean, I’ve had students marry people, who find themselves move from: “I couldn’t imagine dating outside my group,” to “I’ve now married a person from a totally different culture and it was because of what happened in that class that made it possible for me to do that.” So, I do know that the heart of this is Joy. I do think that we don’t understand how we’re all missing out on the joy of rich human community.
We think that, you know, the greatest benefit is what we’ve been told it is, right: How to make the pie bigger for our own. How to make sure my children, you know, have one step ahead of other people. These are the things that we’ve been taught to fight for, to strive for. We haven’t had enough experience with another kind of powerful means for success—which is, what it means to be a rich, diverse, culturally nuanced community. We just don’t know that, most of us, and therefore we are afraid of it.
Barry Boyce: So I think that’s an excellent jumping off point for talking about color blindness. And you firmly reject that idea of colorblindness in favor of what you call, a term we’ve coined, color insight. Can you describe the difference between those two?
Rhonda Magee: Yeah. So color blindness, is this idea that, and it comes from a beautiful place, I think, but the idea is that the way to get beyond bias is to just not see it, not talk about it, not recognize ever, as much as possible, in our public discourse—not to recognize that these differences exist. In fact, our brains don’t operate that way. Of course, we know differences exist. We’ve been raised in a world that has taught us a lot about what these differences mean. So, whether we’re talking about race or gender, We are we notice these things.
Barry Boyce: I think you may have used a practical example with me before, at one point. You could say that law is colorblind, but then, when you’re in a courtroom your brain and your mind can perceive that there is, in that young black defendant, there is a palpable weakness against the system represented by the bench.
Rhonda Magee: Right. So that is the question: How do you deal with the fact that we do notice these things and yet our culture has been telling us: “Don’t mention it. Don’t talk about it. In fact, if you raise it you might be called racist. If you if you turn us toward that you might be part of the problem, that might be divisive.” So yeah, it’s a very interesting thing that we did over the last generation. I will say it happened over the last generation, although, that’s a kind of an oversimplification of it. But, we’ve got this beautiful language from Martin Luther King, his “I have a dream” speech. He wants a world in which his children will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. And there has been a, sort of a, cynical way that that beautiful aspiration, which, for King was always embedded in a knowing of the depth of the way in which we do see each other through race and through those lenses. That was taken as a kind of a clarion call to simply put these issues in a box and not talk about them, not ever recognize them, not gather data around race anymore.
So, there are many different ways that this idea of colorblindness has shown up in public policy. The reality, though, is when you go into a criminal courtroom in San Francisco, I’ve had a friend of mine who teaches juvenile justice and has a clinic for helping law students go in and represent young juveniles who are threatened with conviction. She’s relayed to me how her students have come to her with these sad stories of young black or brown juvenile who’s entering into those courtrooms in San Francisco. And there’s one story, in particular, stands out for me where the young juvenile entering the system leans over to their student representative, law student, who’s trying to develop a way of dealing with the system trying to support this young person. The juvenile leans over and says: where’s the court for white kids? Because all the kids in the system around them are brown or black. And they know white kids are getting in trouble and doing the same kind of stuff, but they’re not in here.
So, that’s the way in which we’ve tended to mute our conversation. It’s not that we don’t see or understand or perceive the world around race, we’ve just silenced ourselves around it. And that is what colorblindness is really meant, color inability, that kind of awkwardness, inability to talk about it, not that we don’t see it. So, there’s that. There is a way in which that term doesn’t actually track reality. And there is also a bit of a kind of a critical response to the use of colorblind because, the disability rights community, for example, has pointed out that there’s a way in which there is already an ignorance, if you will, around the capacities of people who are not sighted, and we don’t want to use blindness to associate it with this other kind of ignorance.
There are many ways that people have said, let’s really look at this language colorblind. In fact, what we’re talking about is color evasion, denial of the reality of these aspects of our lives. An enforced awkwardness, an enforced silencing. And, for me, the alternative really is to develop our capacities to actually effectively address these issues. I have used the word, the phrase color insight to point to the way in which, again our groundedness in mindfulness and compassion practices, and in the capacity to just sit in silence for some periods of our lives, moments of the day, moments of an interaction, and try and really develop a sense of insight: what is going on here? The metaphor of insight, if you will, is something that I think is important to be brought to bear as a counterpoint to blindness, if you will, that we have been you know raised up within the last generation.
In fact, what we’re talking about is color evasion, denial of the reality of these aspects of our lives. An enforced awkwardness, an enforced silencing. And, for me, the alternative is to develop our capacities to actually effectively address these issues.
Barry Boyce: So, how does that tie into mindfulness? How can mindfulness practices help cultivate this kind of insight—The ability to see difference and yet begin to transcend, in some sense.
Rhonda Magee: Well, again go back to my own way of thinking from mindfulness, which is not just as short-term very personal self-improvement intervention. It is it is about having a regular daily commitment to a kind of practice that is about awakening and awareness, in a very deep way, that is ongoing for one’s life.
If mindfulness is about really cultivating the capacity to be present to reality, to this moment, but to see it as embedded in a kind of context, then mindfulness is, I think, a way of being with this part of reality in a more profound way. And so it’s seeing mindfulness, first of all, in this richer deeper way. It’s not limited to these personal daily practices for clarifying the mind for productivity. It is those things, and then deepening our capacity to see the interconnectedness of all. The way in which my being able to sit for five 10 20 30 minutes a day is tied to a certain kind of structure of convenience that is not open to everybody. So, in other words, there are ways that our practices can really enhance and open up our capacity to see interconnection everywhere and our capacity to be with suffering on a long-term basis. And these are the kinds of insights and skills that are essential to this work of dismantling, on a long-term basis, the patterns that lead to bias and oppression.
Barry Boyce: So to the extent that the somewhat over popularized view of mindfulness, and it’s great that mindfulness is becoming popular, but there is a kind of a dominant mainstream cultural vibe that’s developing that associates it with kind of escaping, it’s just time out. But you’re suggesting that it very much also needs to be time in, where you really now, you know, you have the capacity to look with less fear and more openness. And I think that does tie back to, you know, your semester where, if you do that in community you get a little bit of a bravery from peers to doing it. Don McCown, who teaches mindfulness in Philadelphia, is very much of the mind that mindfulness is a group practice, and mindfulness-based interventions are done in groups and people have opportunities in those structures to reveal themselves in very important ways. You and I both know Cheryl Petty, we’ve been to a conference together with Cheryl down in Virginia, and, I’m paraphrasing something that Sheryl said, folks who know equity work deeply, who know about the deep historically embedded sources of systemic bias and racism, such you’ve been talking about, they don’t tend to know much about mindfulness.
Rhonda Magee: It’s true.
Barry Boyce: It hasn’t infiltrated that academic community all that much, or the activist community all that much. And by the same token, people who know mindfulness deeply don’t know much about deep historical ingrained tendencies and might have a tendency to overlook those kinds of things and think that, well you’re just aware and kind then everything is going to be fine—I’m doing anything racist right now I’m just meditating.
Rhonda Magee: Right.
Barry Boyce: Cheryl was suggesting these two need to get together somehow.
Rhonda Magee: Absolutely. Cheryl and I are very much on the same page about this. I think Cheryl’s insight there is right on. It is absolutely true. Again, part and parcel of the way our society isolates, silos, we kind of get into our line of discourse and we often fail to see some of the ways that we need to connect with others. Our mindfulness discourse over here does need to find its way into a conversation with social justice activists, people who are trying to change the world, and vice versa—That social justice discourse actually needs to kind of infuse, get connected up, be a part of the mindfulness movement. This is, again, where patience is essential, even though we want this change to happen right now. It’s not easy. I speak from the position of one who has been seeking to bring these two discourses and communities of practice together for 20 years— maybe 10 years explicitly, 20 years implicitly. But I’ve been doing this work for long enough to see, it’s really hard. And it’s hard for reasons that are totally predictable.
I completely understand why, if you’ve been raised in a world of social justice activism, you may not have come across mindfulness and these other ways of being with our conditioned habits and practice in reactivity. That might not have been a part of how you got into social justice activism. And similarly, I completely understand how being brought into Western mindfulness may not have come through the door of social justice activism and awareness around those things. I get it. But when you really get it you start to see, with some compassion, that if we’re going to make a difference around these things we have to refine what we’re doing, deepen our capacity to reach out even in the most difficult places, and stay in connection despite the frustration that will inevitably arise when we feel like we’re not moving fast enough.
So, I think Cheryl’s comment is really spot on. And I can imagine a world where, a generation or two from now, we are teaching social justice, as has begun to be the case not only in my class but in other classes. Beth Barilla is teaching anti-oppression work around gender, and so on, through the lens of mindfulness and compassion. Others around the country are starting to do this. I can imagine our children might be invited into classes that both heighten their awareness of social injustice and what it means to fight against oppression. But also are supported with some kind of practices, whether we call them mindfulness or otherwise. And similarly, I can see training for mindfulness teachers, in fact I know that’s also starting to happen, but I can imagine a generation from now that we when we train teachers in mindfulness, part of that training is a rich deep look at who that teacher is in terms of their own conditionings around these social identity issues, of race, of gender, of immigration status, of disability, of class. The way in which mindfulness teachers are trained right, ultimately, I think, needs to be infused with this understanding as well.
If we’re going to make a difference around these things we have to refine what we’re doing, deepen our capacity to reach out even in the most difficult places, and stay in connection despite the frustration that will inevitably arise when we feel like we’re not moving fast enough.
Barry Boyce: You know, I think, in this conversation that the three of us were having, I’m remembering a practical example that came up, and this reminds me of something you said earlier about people having the time and luxury to meditate. Somebody was talking about a program for social activism where there was a mindfulness-based program and there was total silence at all the meals. And it was an artificial imposition of a structure that was not inviting. And we have to examine all the assumptions about what we think is absolutely required to make a certain kind of mindfulness space or retreat.
Rhonda Magee: I think that’s absolutely true. And that, again, we don’t do overnight and we don’t accomplish with a workshop. These are deep patterns of change. This is what structural change looks like, to start to say: what are the assumptions about what we need to do for this to be about mindfulness that might actually be off-putting to many of the people we would want to feel at home here. And, you know, so there are people like Ed Ng who’s a cultural heritage Buddhist who has been actually criticizing some of what the Western mindfulness movement has brought to bear. And one of the lines of critique that he’s made that I think is worthy of amplification is, how it is that we have tended not to look at closely enough that how some of the traditions from which mindfulness emerged, Buddhism as its practiced, include not just sitting meditation and sitting in silence and those kinds of trainings that we associate with preparation for being a monk or of the kind of deep immersion that has been identified in western mindfulness as what mindfulness means, the sitting practice. It’s very important, but, if you listen to heritage Buddhists, people who have come from cultures which have been infused with these practices for a very long time, they talk about the work of coming together, shelling peas together, cutting and preparing the food for a meal together, sitting together in a way that is infused with the fact that we are in a human community together. So, it can be partly in silence, of course, but also infused with loving connection.
So that again would take me back to the kind of community I grew up in, where it wasn’t about what we called mindfulness, or it wasn’t from a Buddhist tradition certainly, but we really were embedded in a sense that we were, we held hands, for example, when we got together. It was very common that when we would come together at some point there would be actual physical contact, which, again, for people whose backs are up against wall, which, I would say in a certain sense, all humankind is feeling this sense of bereftness of what it means to be embedded in loving community. Being able to actually, you know, in appropriate ways, reach out and connect, and again, we need social psychology and neurobiology to affirm this, it’s doing so, right, the research is confirming the importance of just human touch. And so, there is a lot of different ways that we could, as you say, examine the assumptions we bring and then it could show up in different things that we do come here in mindfulness gatherings.
Barry Boyce: You know, it’s interesting, in terms of Buddhism and mindfulness, you know there’s a way in which, in it coming to the west, lots of parts of the bigger spectrum of Buddhism have been stripped away. At the same time there’s also a way in which Buddhists can also be kind of reactionary almost, in feeling that Buddhism possesses mindfulness. But mindfulness is actually a basic human trait and there are many traditions that have cultivated mindfulness. I think we need to work at that from both ends. Speaking from the point of view of a magazine and a website that’s committed to cultivating mindfulness and mind training and in public context where we know religion, per se, needs to be, let’s say, left at the door. But you know what doesn’t need to be left at the door is sacredness, community, and the fundamental values—and I think that any pushing away of that, either for religious or secular reasons, is problematic.
Rhonda Magee: I completely agree. And again, you’re touching on the challenge. I do know that some people believe that we solve this by bringing Buddhism back in to mindfulness. But, again, that would be, in my view, a kind of oversimplification of what the challenge is. So we can both recognize these various different streams of Buddhism, and the various different manifestations of it, the cultural heritage piece of it that needs to be honored, and the diversity within and amongst all those things, without then saying that the answer to the challenges that we face in mindfulness, and in bringing in a sense of community and connectedness, is to bring Buddhism fully back in. I don’t think that’s what we need. I do think though, it means, as you say, really looking at what’s the rich deep underlying set of values and ethical commitments that have been at the core of inner work, whether we call it Buddhism or Christianity, whatever it is, Islam. There are core ethical and, I would say, values-based commitments that have a certain set of things in common. I think when you and I met at that retreat so many years ago, I think, part of the purpose of that was to try to look at what is in common across all these different traditions. And so that is a conversation I am always up for. I do think, again, it’s another way into this conversation about dealing with difference while recognizing sameness all at once.
Barry Boyce: You know, I think that that relates a bit to the colorblindness thing in the sense that roots matter. There’s a good tradition that’s developing in Canada now that at most public gatherings of some kind, well certainly many, I don’t know if it’s most, there will be a statement at the beginning respecting that we are on Aboriginal land. There is a, you know, quality just that little bit of indication at the beginning that kind of transforms your thinking. If I think about your grandmother, her roots are a big part of who she is and if you just say, well everybody’s kind of basically the same. We all shop at the Piggly Wiggly. You know, you have to listen to somebody’s deep roots.
Rhonda Magee: Yes. I’ve certainly been mindful of some of the wisdom that’s coming out of the Canadian context. But just this idea, certainly, of honoring groups and honoring lineage and also, again, you know, being able to deal with the good, the bad, and the ugly that comes with looking at our lineage. Not sugar-coating it, but to really recognize that, first of all, we all have some lineage. As we deepen our capacity to honor where we have come from and how we end up here together, we enrich who we are from that. We strengthen our capacity to go forward with broken-heartedness and with joy. Right? All of that is going to come up when we really get more real about who we are. I honestly feel that is really a kind of a potential gift and benefit of mindfulness that we haven’t quite figured out how to talk about—quite figured out how to see or live our way into—but it’s this ability to be real.
As we deepen our capacity to honor where we have come from and how we end up here together, we enrich who we are from that. We strengthen our capacity to go forward with broken-heartedness and with joy.
Barry Boyce: I think that’s quite beautiful, you know, that if you look at roots and lineages you have to look at the really bad parts, too. Our roots are part of who we are, they are not all of who we are.
Rhonda Magee: Exactly.
Barry Boyce: You know, it reminds me of the fact that that you are a triple University of Virginia grad.
Rhonda Magee: Yes, I am.
Barry Boyce: A fine institution, that has a beautiful thing there called the Contemplative Science Center, founded by Thomas Jefferson, a very high-minded person who was also a very aggressive slaveholder.
Rhonda Magee: Yes. He did not found the Contemplative Sciences the Center, by the way, but the University of Virginia itself.
Barry Boyce: Yes that’s right. We should be clear on that. So, I’m wondering how you must have felt as somebody who spent so much time at the University of Virginia and got so much from it, I imagine, when you saw what happened in Charlottesville, I mean, how did that feel for you?
Rhonda Magee: Thank you for asking. It was devastating, really, because the images that were shown all around the world brought me right back to those physical locations. I spent eight years in Charlottesville undergraduate law and graduate sociology. But eight years in that community and so every step of the march that the tiki torch carriers did, that’s on ground I’ve walked probably much more than most of the people carrying those torches. The statues around which they were circled, I literally stood by one of those statues when I first started trying to practice public speaking and gave a little speech out there. And the place where Heather Heyer was murdered, that street is one walked many times. I had a really close friend, a partner for a time, who had a job right on that same street, so we would literally walk those streets. So, for me, to see this place, that I knew very viscerally and personally as a source of community, be taken over in service of division, and to be a site for the fomentation of that kind of very ugly underbelly that is in our culture, but to see coming up there was really, really difficult. At the same time, it wasn’t shocking, in the sense that, I have long known that this underbelly, this undercurrent of American culture has never gone away. So, despite the fact that I was trained like everybody else to sort of believe that we had moved into a world of colorblindness and post-racial this and that, you know, I grew up in a world which told me otherwise. Constantly being reminded of the different ways that race still mattered and that white supremacy and male supremacy were still desired in our country. I’ve lived knowing that. So seeing that was painful but not totally surprising to me.
Barry Boyce: So I just have a couple more questions. It’s been it’s been so wonderful, as it always is, to talk with you and I don’t want it to end. But, all good things must come to an end. I just have a couple more things, though. When you’re talking about white supremacy and male supremacy, I’m reminded of the term intersectionality, meaning that biases don’t come in singular packages, you can be at the intersection of several biases.
Rhonda Magee: Yes indeed.
Barry Boyce: But, intersectionality is also a complicated academic intellectual term. And part of the way that we make change is by examining and studying the world and coming up with new words and concepts and sharing those kinds of insights. And a lot of that happens in academia, but then, when it reaches beyond that, it’s difficult language. Even if you have academic training, you might not have academic training in that particular discipline, so it becomes very hard to follow. I mean, I find it a very interesting challenge because I’m not saying in any way at all that these disciplines and languages are not important and extremely helpful, but, how do you work with that? Because you are an academic, and you are an activist as well, and a teacher.
Rhonda Magee: Another great question. It’s a very present issue, this question of how to talk about what we’re talking about in ways that bring people into the conversation and don’t push them away. It’s a feature of life in academia that we do develop these terms that are what we are using in our little world. And then when we try to come out and communicate with others we can lose lots of people. This is a problem that all so-called elites are facing right now. That is to say, we haven’t figured out, well enough, just how to communicate what it is that we see in the world beyond our little circle of concerned other parties who speak the same language. So, yeah, I sometimes don’t use the word intersectionality—even though I completely understand it and completely live it—because I think it’s not as well understood even by people who use it. It’s a term that emerged to try and capture, as you pointed out, the reality that these patterns of othering—So that’s a word that I think people understand a little bit better—And the experience of it, right, of being an “other,” being a person who doesn’t really fit in and doesn’t belong, or being a person who represents a group who has tended to be on the margin, if you will.
Using the word othering and belonging, which is something that John Powell and others who do this work have been emphasizing, those are words that I think capture, as well, something about what it is that intersectionality is meant to capture, which is, the ways in which we are “othered,” or made to feel unwelcome, differ profoundly depending on our particular characteristics. So, it’s going to be different for me as a black woman who came from a kind of a relatively poor background in terms of access to resources including education prior to my own generation, and all of that. There is a way in which being a black woman from a poor background, sort of positions me—and I would say a poor background who’s now moved beyond that, so now I’ve seen the other side of the class divide in my own lifetime—All of those are very unique aspects of positioning on a very dynamic social landscape. And if we only are talking about race, we’re missing the way that gender is race or race is gender, right? So that, our experience of race has a gender dynamic to it that only others who are similarly situated really are kind of able to see in the same way. And even individuals who are all black and female, let’s say, we’re not experiencing the world exactly the same either.
So, what begins to happen is we start to push on the vast oversimplification that runs with identity conversation. There’s a lot of oversimplification that we’ve just gotten used to. The idea that when we say Black woman we kind of know what that means, or when we say white male. I mean, actually, these are just beginning, they’re just kind of surface, that might touch upon something that is an invitation, as far as I’m concerned, into, what does that mean in this person’s experience? What does it mean in mine? What does it mean in yours? But I think terms like intersectional are meant to try to push us in the direction of, not being so simplistic in the way that we think about these things, but we need better language because the language isn’t there.
Barry Boyce: Well, you make a very good point about how the intention behind having that word intersectionality is to undermine simplistic concepts that we assume have a solid meaning, a solid identity: Black women. White man. And, you can and you are finding ways to do that outside of the academic community, finding language, such as, simpler language like othering and belonging that can reach wider without, again, assuming that there’s something wrong with the academic language.
I want to end on one note because I would be remiss if before we left we didn’t talk about your role as an educator of lawyers. Day in day out in your life you’re educating lawyers who will go on and do things in the world. I’d just like to end by hearing you say something about how your mindfulness work, and you’ve already talked about your classes, but how your mindfulness work informs, could inform both how they practice Law, day in day out, and also the much larger notion of how justice is exercised in the world since, as Dr. King said, the arc of history is long but it inclines towards justice. So, what would you say about how mindfulness informs your role and in preparing our future lawyers?
Rhonda Magee: Well, I do agree with this idea that the moral arc is long, but it bends toward justice. And I would add, it bends because people bend it towards justice. There is no inevitability towards that. I mean, that’s just a fact. So, part of what I think mindfulness in law does is help prepare students for the work of bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice. It’s work. And being a lawyer gives one a particular position—which is another kind of identity, location in the world—it gives a person a particular role, potential role to play as an advocate, as a person who assists in bridging communities, right. There’s a lot of different leadership and other roles that lawyers are invited to play. A lot of that, frankly, historically, has been about maintaining these unfair systems. And so the real challenge is to be part of the system, but not fully of it. Be enough a part of it to understand it, but also be a kind of a place in their system, a voice, a spirit, if you will, for a different way.
I do agree with this idea that the moral arc is long, but it bends toward justice. And I would add, it bends because people bend it towards justice. There is no inevitability towards that.
And so that shows up in teaching students a little bit more about how to listen to clients well, how to meet their suffering, because most people who come to a lawyer are in some form of distress or trying to avoid being in it, right. So there are concrete ways that we help lawyers by helping them listen, by helping them have emotional intelligence and empathy, I could say more about those concrete things. But, at the same time, really, those of us bringing mindfulness to law are seeking to bring a different view to a law that recognizes nuance more effectively, all the things we’ve been talking about: sees paradoxic and can deal with “both and,” a little bit more effectively, is aware that adversarial modes of resolving conflict are just one set of tools in the toolbox of an effective lawyer, but there are many other ways to help people resolve conflict and come together around some sort of issue of disconnect. So, it’s a project that is about both helping expand the sense of what it means to be a knowledgeable and skillful and grounded person who can help others in the midst of conflict, and help us structure a world through law right. So, it’s about expanding the skill set. But it’s also about, really helping prepare a new generation of people in this profession who can help us bring about a world in which, to quote King again, right, he saw justice as what love looks like in public.
Okay, so that’s actually Cornel West, who’s taken King’s statement of justice as, justice for King was love, correcting that which stands against love. So, it’s all about realizing that there is a role to play in bringing a kind of compassionate, caring, meeting of our struggle through our systems. And that that public face of love is what justice is all about. And so, that is what I’m trying to do to, kind of, work with my law students. And what that looks like looks like one thing in my torts class, my personal injury class, one thing my race Law class, one thing and the retreat side for lawyers. But it is about creating a different way of being in this profession that I hope in a generation, in the years beyond my lifetime, will make it more of a source of loving public engagement with the challenges of life as opposed to just adversarialness.
Barry Boyce: Well that’s a beautiful point to end on, and it reminds me that we started earlier talking about mindfulness as being so much more than a personal improvement project, more than just relaxing and in what you have to say, and what you do, you really embody that. And this has been such an inspiring conversation and so great to spend this time with you and I’m glad we can celebrate Mindful’s fifth anniversary together like this.
Rhonda Magee: Thank you so much, Barry. This has been a joy for me, too. And I’m really grateful for the work that Mindful has been doing, that you’ve been doing in the world. So, with great respect and honor for what you do.
Barry Boyce: Thank you very much. Until next time.
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