Things are nuts right now.
And this stuff has been going on for a long time. It’s great that, for example, the NYC catcalling video raised so much awareness about catcalling—and yet most women I know were only surprised that seemingly “aware” men were so unaware of the problem (full disclosure: I was definitely a little shocked).
Policemen were killing unarmed black men, women, and children long before cell phones allowed a handful of such attacks to be caught on camera. Capitalism has been shaming the poor, exploiting people and the planet, and stressing the hell out of all of us for a very, very long time.
And yet, things seem to have reached a fevered pitch since the election of the current U.S. president.
Most of us are up in arms, shell-shocked, and curled up in a ball on the couch watching the news, or some combination of the two (maybe even in the same day).
Everyone knows our problems are systemic. Technology has us increasingly distracted and addicted to the next hit of digital stimulation or social approval. Our global economy is leaving more and more people behind, despite the seeming wealth and abundance of our society. Our governments and political systems seem to have gone off the rails, increasingly unable to fix or even identify the problems plaguing our world.
What’s worse is that the ways our culture tells us to deal with all of this only exacerbates our problems: If anything is wrong, just buy something and you’ll feel better. If you don’t have enough money, it’s your fault. If you’re stressed out, here’s some mindless television and anxiety-inducing social media apps.
I’m here to suggest a perhaps surprising form of resistance: meditation.
Not meditation in the way modern popular culture has appropriated it—as a form of escapism and stress relief—but as an actual mindfulness practice that brings us more completely into the moments of our lives: the fires and chaos, the peace and tranquility, and everything in between.
This full understanding of what meditation is includes techniques you might have heard of, like breath or sound meditation, but also points to a range of practices that cultivate our ability to see the full picture of what’s going on in our minds and lives. To see, for example, how something we might think is a random preference for a certain kind of food or activity or person is actually the result of how we’ve been socialized within our broader culture and specific life experience.
When we meditate, we’re rejecting the need for constant stimulation, detaching from consumerism, and cultivating a healthy, loving relationship with ourselves—one that doesn’t rely on what we have or how we look but is rooted in the simplicity of who we are, our inherent, and fundamental goodness as human beings.
As our practice deepens, we gain insight into how our minds and hearts actually work. If we’re serious about ending racism and sexism, we must embrace meditation: Without the skill of mindfulness—without actually seeing what’s happening in our minds, moment to moment—we can’t even fully define the terms or come close to understanding the internal, psychological phenomenon they’re pointing toward.
Skeptical? Let me tell a quick story.
Last year, I joined about 45 other men in a workshop at the Brooklyn Zen Center entitled “Undoing Patriarchy and Unveiling the Sacred Masculine.” I know what you’re thinking: 45 men in a room for one weekend—aaaand patriarchy is solved.
Stick with me.
Led by Lama Rod Owens and Zen teacher Greg Snyder, the weekend started with each of us getting in touch with what the suffering patriarchy has created within our own lives. Using a combination of mindfulness practice and facilitated conversation, we explored how the perverted, culturally propped up definition of masculinity was actually causing us pain, stifling our growth and exploration of gender, and keeping us from a more liberated expression of our beings.
This might seem counterintuitive or even like a sort of basking in privilege, but it was a crucial step: By getting in touch with our own suffering, we’re able to deepen our empathy for others—that is, we’re metaphorically strengthening our empathy muscle, making it easier to see things from someone else’s perspective because we are more familiar with how a flavor of their suffering manifests in our own experience.
And so, as we turned our attention outward—to the women in our lives and society around us—we were able to see more clearly where in our own lives we were still perpetuating patriarchy in all sorts of subtle and often overlooked ways.
Whether it’s who we’re giving attention to in group conversations or how we split up chores with partners in our homes, mindfully examining our behavior and getting more intimate with our mental patterns is key to changing our actions. Finally, we ended the weekend by brainstorming what the ideals, values, and behaviors of a healthy and even sacred masculinity might look like in our lives.*
For nearly every person in the room, the weekend was truly transformative. All of us cared deeply about undoing patriarchy in our lives and in our world, but caring and even learning on our own is usually not enough. The workshop gave us a safe space to collectively explore how patriarchy manifested in our own lives and an opportunity to meditate and bring mindfulness to how we might show up in the world differently.
And if we’re serious about undoing systems of oppression, the workshop was a blueprint of a solution: Men engaging men (or white folks engaging white folks, or anything else), calling each other in (not out) to deepen our understanding, awareness, and empathy, using mindfulness and meditation as a basis for introspection, conversation, and exploration.
This is what love trumping hate looks like. And this is but one example of the potential meditation has. Meditation in its non-appropriated form is a social practice, not just a solo one. It’s about coming into the world, not escaping from it. It’s transformation, not stress relief.
If practicing mindfulness like this is something you’re interested in, I’ve been working on a meditation app called Awaken with some amazing teachers and authors on the forefront of the intersection of Buddhism and social change: Lama Rod Owens, Rev. angel Kyodo williams, and Shastri Ethan Nichtern.
*There was a lot more to the workshop, and I totally understand if the idea of 45 men gathering in a room leaves you feeling a little squirrely. My partner felt the same way. I’m happy to answer questions in the comments, maybe write up something further, and point you at people far more articulate than me who could better explain the value of this approach.