Seeing Each Other, Finding Ourselves
It might sound naïve to claim that meditation has much to offer in solving the great divides of contemporary American life. Our problems seem too immense, too serious—the deadly pandemic, the worst political polarization since perhaps the Civil War, the surge of white nationalism and conspiracies, the global protests for racial justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, who had cried, “I can’t breathe.” In such an era, one wonders whether the suggestion of meditation, a practice often characterized by its prompt to return to the breath, is merely an exercise in bourgeois self-soothing, privilege, or perhaps even callousness? I’d venture to say, oftentimes, yes.
Might we see ourselves as part of a larger organism of existence, and shouldn’t we help it flourish? If that is not the lesson of this past year, I’m uncertain what is. We are intertwined.
As commonly practiced in the modern West since gaining popularity in the 1970s, mindfulness meditation derives from ancient Buddhist traditions. Definitions of the practice vary but typically center around bringing one’s attention to the present moment, without judgment of it. Common iterations include yoga, walking meditation, and formal “sitting” meditation. Attention may focus on the quality and nature of breath, or sound, or feeling the sensation of one’s feet on the ground, to a name some examples. These anchors to sensation are meant to allow a person, if only momentarily, to free the mind of thoughts or worries of the future or past, and live with what is in the now. Scientific literature, relatively new to the field, has shown several mental health benefits for those who practice. These include reducing stress, promoting resilience and creativity, increasing attentional focus, and strengthening compassionate responses toward others and oneself.
I certainly do not begrudge anyone using these techniques to seek those benefits (and I hope more people will find them useful!) Yet in the last several years an alarming development has arisen in the mindfulness movement: an increasing commercialization of the practices, which some critics are calling McMindfulness. More and more corporations offer meditation workshops to overwhelmed employees as a means of reducing burnout, only to insist upon continued inhumane working hours. Schools encourage mindfulness as a tool for coping with students’ reported anxiety and depression, all the while refusing to ease the historic financial burdens of massive loan debt that render the life opportunities for those students significantly reduced. Further examples of these self-contradictions abound.
But what’s the good of mindfulness if it is used merely for self-soothing and distraction from hard truths? Quite removed from its noble intentions to promote heightened insight, this corporatized, hyper-individualistic mindfulness seems structured to conceal it. The practitioners may feel better, but at the price of a willful, blissful ignorance. If this were the only sort of meditation practice that existed, or could exist, I would recommend that the reader promptly delete their Calm app and unregister from any upcoming workshops or retreats in their calendar. Thankfully, though, it is not.
Getting Over Yourself
On the contrary, the mindfulness movement includes a history of promoting a more engaged humanity, with a focus significantly on two fundamentals of the practice: 1) a curiosity about clear-seeing and 2) an understanding of the Self as intricately intertwined with the Other. The flourishing of all living beings in co-existence with one another depends upon a harmonious total ecosystem of persons, nature, and social networks.
The fundamental of clear-sight is perhaps the more obvious of these two. Because mindfulness meditation is a practice of bringing attention to the present and a focus on what I notice directly before me, free of the distraction of wandering thoughts or judgments, it is a tool for cultivating insight into our environment and conditions as they truly are.
The second of these fundamentals, I believe, is essential to overcoming the inadequacies of the hyper-individual cooptation of mindfulness that threatens to defeat the first fundamental of insight. Without a principle of interdependent well-being, the pursuit of personal good feeling elicits only a false positivity—a claim that all is well when it may not be. Surely if we are to notice the present moment, it must include both the beautiful and the disturbing. In our haste to feel mindfulness’s positive psychological effects, we needn’t lie to ourselves to get there.
The temperance and self-restraint of interdependence abates that threat. After all, if I understand my being to encompass more than merely myself as traditionally conceived in the West—that is, if my being depends on the expansive well-being of my neighbors, community, nation, and even world—then I open myself to recognizing both the harmonies and dissonances of what I can sense. Certainly, there’s plenty of room for positive feeling in that practice. Indeed, gratitude is rightly given for beauty where it is found. But there is also room for a discerning critical eye and impetus for change for the better.
What Waits Beyond
There is data to back this assertion. One commonly cited 2013 psychological experiment studied the impact of mindfulness meditation on eliciting compassionate responses in participants. Analysis was based on the number of participants willing to offer a seat to passersby who were visibly struggling or uncomfortably standing. They found that participants who had practiced mindfulness for eight weeks were five times more likely to notice the suffering individuals and offer their seats than were those who did not engage in mindfulness. This indicates that mindfulness can, in fact, prompt compassionate action. However, that action is dependent upon noticing more than one’s own present interior feeling. It means opening to the sensation of what lies beyond oneself.
Imagine if the same principle could apply more broadly to our society. What if we understood our own senses, our own present moment, to necessarily include and depend upon the experience of that which we often imagine as Other? Might we move toward greater charity, attempt deeper understanding and care? Might we see ourselves as part of a larger organism of existence, for which insofar as we are capable we have a responsibility to tend to its flourishing? If that is not the lesson this past year has taught us, if there is one, I’m uncertain what is. We are intertwined. The air I breathe out is the air you breathe in.
This isn’t to sound pollyannaish or to suggest we ought to disregard truths, including difficult truths, about others and ourselves. Rather it is to see hard truths as they are, while also holding love in hand to balance the scale and guide upright action and a life well lived. I can’t in good faith claim that this sort of meditation will provide the answers to the great social problems of our times. They are immense. They are serious. And I doubt meditating in a room by yourself will do much to change that. It might, however, change your orientation toward them when you leave that room. And therein lies the hope.
John Christian White ’18 M.A.R. is the Coordinator of the Columbia Law School Mindfulness Program. In this role he manages the operations of the program, organizing a weekly meditation series for faculty, staff, and students, as well as yoga sessions, guest lectures, and meditation retreats. At Columbia Law School he also serves as Coordinator of the Reuben Mark Initiative for Organizational Character and Leadership and the Ira M. Millstein Center for Global Markets and Corporate Ownership.
 Philippe Goldin and James Gross, “Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) on Emotion Regulation in Social Anxiety Disorder,” Emotion, Vol. 10, No. 1 (2016), pp. 83-91.
 Badri Bajaj and Neerja Pande, “Mediating role of resilience in the impact of mindfulness on life satisfaction and affect as indices of subjective well-being,” Personality and Individual Difference Vol. 93 (April 2016), pp. 63-67.
 Goldin and Gross, 2016.
 Paul Condon et al., “Meditation Increases Compassionate Responses to Suffering,” Psychological Science (August 2013), pp.1-3.
 Ronald Purser„ McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality (Repeater Press, 2019).
 Condon et al., 2013.
 To learn more about the form of meditation I’m discussing I encourage readers to explore resources on the practice called Loving-Kindness Meditation. One starting point I recommend is Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (Shambhala, 2002) by Sharon Salzberg.