Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Mindfulness vs. Justice?

For a while now, two of the most important aspects of my Judaism (and of my rabbinate) have been Mindfulness and Social Justice. And, for just about as long, I’ve been struggling with a tension between the two. They certainly aren’t in direct conflict; in many ways they are complementary. But, in at least one major way, they are most most definitely in tension.

My mindfulness training is always coming back to lovingkindness, in one form or another. It pushes me to be calm and levelheaded, and to be open to others as much as possible. Mindfulness and meditation are supposed to lead us to peace and calm. Screaming in anger is most definitely not a mindful way to be.

But, screaming in anger is precisely what my Social Justice work often pushes me to want to do. When I read about injustice—racial*, economic, gender; it doesn’t really matter what kind—I get angry. No surprise there; anyone who can read about these kinds of injustices and not get angry should be concerned. And, when I read or hear from others who don’t seem to care about these things, from those who dismiss others’ cries of injustice, from those who deny that injustice is real—well, that doesn’t exactly create a groundswell of mindful serenity within me.

By the way, I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years In Power. I cannot recommend this book enough. It’s a difficult book (not the writing, which is beautiful, but the content), but so, so important in its subject matter. 

I sometimes feel pretty torn about all of this. On the one hand, I want to continue to explore what mindfulness can bring to me, and how it can change me. I admire the equanimity that truly mindful, spiritual people can bring to their lives. I admire the effect that peaceful equanimity can have on those around them. I want to be calm, and thoughtful, and respectful, and to be someone who engenders those qualities in others.

On the other hand, I want to scream, and rant, and rail. I want to stand on the corner and yell at people who, knowingly or not, abuse their privilege and, unwittingly or not, remain complicit in the oppression of others. Part of me wants to be monklike, and part of me wants to be a righteous prophet. And, while I hope (and kind of assume) that time will help me find some kind of a balance between those two poles, I currently have no real idea how to imagine, let alone achieve, that balance.

Maybe one piece of the puzzle is in an article I set aside a long time ago, but never got around to reading, “Hard on Systems; Soft on People” by Tim Wise. The basic idea? Wise suggests that we be unforgiving in our resiststance to unfair and unjust systems. That we fight, tooth and nail, against the larger forces of oppression. But, that we also remember that not every person who is connected to those systems is evil, or deserving of being screamed at.

Why? Well, in part it’s strategic. Screaming at people is often just an ineffective way to engage in advocacy, for so many reasons. But, more importantly (to me, and my current balancing act, at least) is that it acknowledges that people are complicated, and flawed, and somewhat conditioned by our circumstances. Sometimes good people think or say or do bad things. We don’t have to be kind or forgiving to those things that they think, say, or do. But, we can still be kind to the person who thought, said or did them.

Just to be clear--Wise says (and I wholeheartedly agree) that this isn't advice for every situation. Some people are so awful (or, if you prefer, behave so awfully) that a bit of vitriol is appropriate to send their way. But, at least some people deserve a bit more compassion. And, it might be easier to show it to them if we remember that we are often the ones who fall short and need that forgiveness.

Look, here's my reality. I'm racist. And sexist. And homophobic. Hell, I'm probably somewhat Antisemitic. I'm obviously not a mouth-breathing, White-Power-rally-attending fascist. But, I struggle with just about every -ism you could name. I have, in the past (probably more recently than I'd be willing to remember or admit) said terrible, hurtful things. I know I've spent most of my life not being aware of, or taking responsibility for, my privilege. And, I'm not done with any of that. I probably won't ever be.

Maybe if I remember that I've got my own demons to keep fighting, I'll be a bit more able to be kind to others who are doing the same. And, hopefully none of that will keep me from fighting to make sure that our darker inclinations are never allowed to go unchallenged. Maybe I'll find a way to keep fighting, while growing more mindfully loving. Maybe, God willing, one day they'll even feel like the same thing.

1 comment:

Michael Fessler said...

Shalom, Rav - Michael Fessler here. I saw your latest blog post on the tension between mindfulness vs. activism. As it happens, I’m producing a podcast for RRC whose most recent two episodes are on those very topics. Thought you might be interested. Our Activism episode was an interview with Sharon Kleinbaum from CBST in New York, and the Mindfulness interview was with Jordan Bendat-Appell at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

It’s called Hashivenu: Jewish Teachings on Resilience. It’s in iTunes, or you can check out the show and find subscription links for various podcast players at:


Best wishes,

Michael Fessler