Compassion must care for suffering as suffering-with, so mindfulness must pay appropriate attention to the contingencies of vulnerability and harm.
This is a response (narrated as both a kind of prequel and sequel) to Zack Walsh’s article “#makingrefuge at Mind & Life’s 2016 International Symposium: Opportunities for Decolonizing Contemplative Studies”. The purpose is to clarify the connections of his observations with the objectives and motivations of a MLI think tank project we’re developing (with Ron Purser as another co-organizer/lead researcher), which will involve researchers and educators and secular or dharma teacher-activists of mindfulness with profiles in the areas of critical pedagogy and liberal arts education, ecological activism and sustainability, and minority rights and struggles.
The think tank will be organized under the title, “Socially Engaged Mindfulness Interventions (SEMI) and the Promise of #MakingRefuge”. It will explore two reciprocal objectives. First, to explore fresh ways of researching/teaching/practicing mindfulness from the intersections of Buddhist, feminist, and posthumanist concerns about cultivating non-binary caring ways of relating the human to the nonhuman and vulnerability to resistance in social, ecological, or yet unimagined ties of entanglement for living and dying well together, across the manifold lifeworlds of a precarious planet. Second, to bring into mindfulness research and commentaries the ongoing task of intellectual humility and ideological-political circumspection—an ethos of response-ability—for the un/intended effects of harm engendered by (unacknowledged) systemic and casual habits of white supremacy/privilege and cultural erasure/appropriation, in the adaptation of mindfulness practice across the diverse domains of contemporary life.
Walsh reflects carefully on the observations at the symposium which suggest general consensus emerging amongst the affiliates of the Mind & Life Institute, to more actively steer research-practice to better understand, and operationalize in fresh ways, the potential impact of mindfulness on the capacity for compassionate action. This development signals a praiseworthy and important collective profession of a shared aspiration to arouse ardency, heedfulness, and clear comprehension of the affordances/hindrances for compassion—or at least, this sounds like a stating of intention, for the diverse parties engaging with mindfulness discourse to start to take responsibility for the task of commoning-in-difference, amidst the plurality of views and approaches on cultivating mindfulness.
To this end, it is important to cultivate critical mindfulness of the entanglement of knowledge-production with the ideological-political imperatives accompanying a history of Western imperialism. This is also a story of Buddhism’s migration to the West and of the unprecedented emergence in Buddhism’s long history of a mass lay meditation movement in Burma, which helped to galvanize anti-colonial ethno-nationalist sentiments and continued to support the decolonization of societal mindset post-independence. Along with these, un/intended effects of harm are playing out today as acts of potential genocide, excused with claims of sovereignty entangling Buddhism with ethno-nationalism
The conditioning effects of this history on how we relate (with humility or response-ability or care or not) to the limits of the present—why shouldn’t this be a task for mindfulness if the practice involves the observational investigation of the force of conditioning in reproducing unacknowledged habits, that would impact on how we are responsibly responsive or responsively responsible or not, for the entanglement of un/intentional past and present actions with human and nonhuman agential forces beyond the self’s direct influence, but without which there would be no impetus for self-care, or any chance for action to welcome or mourn a change arriving too soon or not soon enough?
How might we remap the connections of researching/teaching/practicing mindfulness as part of a larger praxis-ideal of “making refuge”, by comprehending more clearly the nonduality of vulnerability and resistance in compassionate action? How might we reinvigorate the principle of nonduality in mindfulness practice to embody and enact complicity and response-ability as non-binary and mutualizing?
This fact of unavoidable failure and limitation is at once an opening and obstacle for any professed decision or intention to become a promising hope, because without the forgone conclusion of exposure to failure or the fallibility of intention, there would be no movement to reconsider decision or steer action, in new directions if necessary, to fulfil any promise of acting on change. This is why a common practical advice in formal meditation practice is to just start again and again, by being responsive anew each time we are distracted, without taking repeated distraction/failure to stay with the discomfort as a sign of personal shortcoming, but as the impersonal force of habitual conditioning accumulated through un/intentional repetition.
The tactical responsibility for paying appropriate attention in the formal meditational dimension of #makingrefuge, for cultivating collected-calmness and insight with an object of contemplation like the breath or bodily sensation, is to embody the nonduality of receptivity and responsiveness. This ethos of response-ability as a capacity to be receptively responsive is not unique to meditation practice as such, even though sustained formal practice should have a spillover effect in everyday interactions, especially in unwelcomed and unexpected encounters provoking discomfort, because they present opportunities for mindfulness to consider situationally and momentarily, the conditions and consequences of how un/intentional patterns of thought and action may engender un/intended harm.
The conditioning effects of colonial violence is complicit with dominant ways of thinking and communication that have become habituated to narcissistic objectification, with cheap proclamations of universalism and inclusivity and equality and progress. This un/intentionally effaces the ongoing un/intended effects of harm engendered by systemic or ahistorical ignorance, of how the paradigms of Western modernity inherited today, arrived by way of the ordering of the differing genealogies of the ethico-onto-epistemology of the diverse heritages of the world, under the hierarchizing imperatives of colonial relations. As Walsh observed, the proliferation of claims of expertise or authenticity and promises about the future of mindfulness, has yet to vouch responsibly in their discourse for epistemic justice. I like to describe this problem as #epistemicbordercontrol.
Because why don’t you observe it for yourself with the work of mindfulness, which really shouldn’t be reduced to nonjudgmental awareness because it also requires ardency, discerning heedfulness, and clear comprehension of ethico-onto-epistemological contingency. Maybe you have expressed such sentiments before or maybe you’ve encountered it from others
The operations of imperialist power through #epistemicbordercontrol (which can function formally as the disciplinary norms of academia or informally in everyday habits of speech) has made it so easy and common to hear careless, callous remarks about the “religious” or “cultural” baggage of others, because of the demand they face in border control of all sorts in life, to declare or surrender their perceived contraband of religious or cultural inheritance in order to participate in so-called civic space and discourse. #epistemicbordercontrol functions effectively to encourage self-policing, self-erasing behavior.
With regard to the ethicopolitical dangers of #epistemicbordercontrol in the cultural translation of mindfulness—this is spoken of in the necessary adaptations (we are not taking issue with this) of secularising, scientific discourses with more than a little willful ignorance and immodesty (we are taking issue with the violence of this bad habit), when they use a two-faced rhetoric of flaunting Buddhist symbolic cachet while also asserting as if the scientific interpretation has captured the essence of mindfulness more authentically than Buddhism—because, you know, look at the generations upon generations of Asian Buddhists, who only know how to use devotional merit-making practices to provide monastics with the basic existential-material support of food/clothing/shelter/medicine for the survival of Buddhism for millennia; but they are actually failing to practice dharma deeply and authentically because of outmoded “cultural baggage”, forgetting that “the Buddha wasn’t Buddhist” and that the stress reduction approach to mindfulness is merely a take on “the universal dharma without labels”, while the incessant critique of mindfulness only complicates what should be a neutral practice that remains apolitical to be “authentic”, blah, blah, blah.
So much talking to oneself of oneself about oneself, even when, especially when, professing concern about (the perceived failings of) others.
Let’s be honest, because we all grapple with honesty about self-serving excuses for bad habits. There is pleasure and profit in narcissistic objectification. But the pleasure and profit of narcissism should also remind us that bad habits are exposing us—because how many times have you caught yourself exclaiming defensively “I never!” or other excuses, when others point out our obliviousness to the repeating of certain un/intentional (re)actions, especially with the familiarity and intimacy, and thus the complacency, of longterm relationships?
Why is the legacy of Western imperialism and all the shameful effects of symbolic-material violence—allowing those with easy access to the affordances of privilege secured by way of this violence, to flaunt easy claims of dharma authenticity in the selling of mindfulness, whilst disavowing obligation to Buddhist heritages by asserting hubristic (neocolonialist/white supremacist) intellectual or ideological one-upmanship over the customs and practices of others—these effects still persist unjustly and harmfully in the ways we relate to non-Western and/or non-white heritages; so why is this not a cultural baggage to own up to? Do you have anything to declare?
The addressing of the dangers of these habits in mindfulness discourse, has taken on renewed urgency under present heightened conditions especially in the US, where familiar tactics of oppression and persecution targeting the symbolic-material insecurities of non-white intersections of race and religion should remind us of the stories of Japanese American Buddhists. Despite being one of the migratory sources for Buddhism to make refuge with new relationships and livelihoods in America, they had to hide or remove traces of ties of kinship and indebtedness to the dharma inheritance of their ancestry, to avoid the violence of white supremacy that routinely scapegoats others for its own failings of greed, hatred, and delusion, by marking and policing them with the intersections of race and religion as inherently suspicious and perpetually foreign.
This violence plays out in differing degrees of multi-scalar suffering, in casual everyday heartbreak and orchestrated institutional action—from the humiliating effects of being asked repeatedly “Where are you originally from?”; to the ideological subversion of non-Western heritages in academic and entertainment discourses with Orientalizing or whitewashing depictions of their ancestral/cultural archive; to the physical threat of internment, deportation, or a travel ban.
All of which is a longwinded way to say that, by speaking of a promise of #makingrefuge, we are not just alluding to the vows of the Triple Gem for our own convenience. Because we trust that you would agree that the growing dangers of the current geopolitical climate/planetary crisis, makes the task of sharing conditions of trust and safety urgent for a multitude of bodies, more vulnerably exposed across differing lines of affliction and affiliation. Buddhist or non-Buddhist, “believer” or “unbeliever”, the world today needs to inquire honestly into questions concerning refuge. We are doing this by participating in the move to cultivate greater capacities for compassion in the manifold domains of mindfulness practice. But we are uninterested in doing this with self-serving, false universalizing branding claims of dharma authenticity or by claiming Buddhist ownership of mindfulness—we’re not even attempting to justify compassion as a latent subjective disposition.
We are trying to be mindful of the teachings of nonduality and the constitutive role of ethicopolitical (karmic) agency, as deriving from the affective and relational capacities arising intra-actively, with the interdependence of mutualizing relational forces of spacetimemattering, which are not-self. Instead of speaking of compassion we are redirecting conceptual-analytical attention to neglected considerations of the differing degrees of exposure to vulnerability shared-in-difference, as unavoidable complicities with existential-material inequality and injustice.
I don’t think it’s helpful for the scholarly-spiritual-activist task to regard compassion as a subjective disposition, even though it is typically communicated as an inner quality or virtue to be cultivated by individuals. Rather, compassion arises co-dependently in moments of encounter in relation to a field of forces, passions, bodies, objects, and structures impacting on the capacity to be responsive or not, to the ontological precariousness of the existential fact of mortality, that is also reproduced by the workings of power in uneven material conditions of living and dying. A more affirmative way to express nondualism of the chance at living arriving without choice also as a threat, is to speak of it as a promise of #makingrefuge we are given over to choicelessly as a duty of dutifulness, but exposed with differing affordances of ease or difficulty or recognition of dignity, as a task of sharing the conditions of trust and safety necessary for living and dying well together.
So we are primarily concerned with cultivating mindfulness of (response-ability for) the choiceless exposure to vulnerability entangling human and nonhuman lives and objects in a precarious planet-as-a-flicker of a universe-in-un-becoming—as if awakening to the morning star. Com-passion must begin by caring for suffering as suffering-with to be worth its salt.