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Mindfulness and Social Justice

Nov 1, 2018

Let’s talk about the intersection between mindfulness and social justice. The concept of social justice is based on the concepts of human rights and equality. Wikipedia offers this helpful definition: “the way in which human rights are manifested in the everyday lives of people at every level of society”

Why social justice?

We live today in what I believe to be a threshold historical moment.  Not unlike other such moments in the past, our world seems to be falling apart – economically, ecologically, politically, socially.  However confusing these times may seem, they can also be clarifying.  The disruptions, like those we’re seeing today, can illuminate the core issues that degrade our planet and divide our society – issues that generate debate, overcome inertia, and galvanize action.  So it’s not surprising then that we’re also seeing a coming together of new ideas and experiments that try to address the systemic and structural problems underlying these divisions.  We are seeing counter-movements to obviously oppressive systems – for example, Occupy Wall Street against corporate greed; Black Lives Matter against racism; MeToo against sexism; and post-capitalism against unbridled capitalism.  We are also seeing numerous experiments looking for ways to re-engage communities in civic dialogue and action.

Why Mindfulness?

Here’s a quote from an article in the New York Times by Jason Barker, marking the birth date of Karl Marx:

“We have become used to the go-getting mantra that to effect social change we first have to change ourselves. But enlightened or rational thinking is not enough, since the norms of thinking are already skewed by the structures of male/white privilege and social hierarchy, even down to the language we use. Changing those norms entails changing the very foundations of society. “

What struck me about this quote was the blending of several concepts:

  • the need to change ourselves
  • the need to go beyond entrenched biases in our thinking processes and our language
  • the premise that we need to change the very foundations of our society

While the changes being sought seem daunting, the possibility of profound personal, societal, and global renewal has never been more real than it is today.  However, to effect change constructively and sustainably will require three critical capacities: listening and curiosity (an open mind), empathy and compassion (an open heart), and confidence and courage (an open will)”  Lacking these capacities, the change endeavour  can easily be thrown, as Otto Scharmer says, “into a self-reinforcing dynamic of separation and destruction”, the very forces that we must seek to correct.

It is possible through a committed mindfulness practice to cultivate and nurture these three capacities.  Mindfulness lays out a proven path for self-transformation that goes beyond the confines of rational thinking and invokes the transformational power of embodied wisdom.  This path, outlined 2,500 years ago by the Buddha, is finding resonance today in studies across a range of scientific disciplines, e.g., biology, psychology, and neuroscience.

Alternatively, engaging in social justice work offers a unique practice opportunity, one that can dramatically deepen the benefits of practice.

Mindfulness and Mental Health

Why mental health?  Because it’s a HUGE problem.  According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 4 people will have a mental health condition at least once in their life-time.  Depression alone is ranked third in the global burden of disease, and is projected to rank first by 2030. 

There is a huge service gap in our mental health system, as there is in most developed countries.  The gap in low- to mid-resource countries is even greater.  So access to mental health services has become a global health problem. 

Most mental illness is difficult to see.  The mental health landscape is like an iceberg.  What we see mostly are the serious conditions, like schizophrenia, that represent just the tip of the iceberg. The great majority of these illnesses are below the water line. 

We can address the conditions beneath the water line by shifting the lens from which we view mental illness from a clinical to a public health lens.  It goes something like this:

At the moment we deal with mental illness like any other illness: wait till it happens; treat it with a limited number of medical interventions; in a medical setting

But the roots of mental illness are often societal: poverty, dysfunctional families, job insecurity; precarious housing.

And mental illness is usually chronic: prevention is better than treatment; early treatment is better than waiting till it’s too late

The community — schools, workplace, social service agencies, etc. — is the right place for prevention, early detection, and cost-effective intervention

This is a shift in perspective from viewing the problem as treating an illness to one of improving people’s resilience and ability to cope, individually and collectively.  This re-framing opens up opportunities for anyone and everyone in the community to become mental health champions. It also benefits from a ‘no labels’ approach that emphasizes improving mental health as opposed to treating mental illness

I will give you specific examples from our work.

In Toronto we work with marginalized populations in Parkdale and Regent Park.  We also have a mental health initiative in the Philippines.

In Parkdale we started out simply delivering mindfulness-based interventions to an underserved population, working through its front-line social service agencies. But over the years the context for our work has shifted. Our key engagement in Parkdale today is part of a grassroots initiative – the Parkdale People’s Economy project that brings together more than thirty local public and private agencies committed to a common mission.  This is: to protect diversity, affordability and inclusivity in changing Parkdale, while at the same time promoting equitable development for shared wealth-building and decent work. In other words, social justice.  Seven intersecting action streams comprise our over-all strategy:

  • Affordable Housing and Land Use
  • Community Health
  • Community Finance
  • Cultural Development
  • Decent Work and Inclusive Local Economies
  • Food Security
  • Participatory Local Democracy

Our Centre leads the community health stream. Its first project is targeted at integrating mental health principles and practices across all agencies and services, using mindfulness as a foundational program. This is a far cry from where we started in simple treatment, but a vitally-important re-framing, through the lens of social justice.

In the Philippines our project was originally funded by the Canadian federal government as part of a global mental health push to find innovative solutions to the provision of mental health services in poor countries.  Our job originally was to test mindfulness-based interventions in this environment, and to kickstart the delivery of successful interventions to the broad population. Today, three years later, we are more like animators:

  • bringing potential partners together
  • co-creating the strategic directions and plans
  • building local delivery capacity

We work with several local partners, including primary and tertiary care centres, universities, and NGOs (non governmental organizations).  FriendlyCare, a primary health care centre, is our main partner and program lead.  Their/our stated mission is to serve the unmet needs for mental health in the country via high quality, affordable, accessible mindfulness-based intervention (MBI) programs. We have the specific goals of delivering MBI programs to one million Filipinos by year 2022 or earlier, and to have one thousand high quality facilitators delivering services nationwide by year 2022 or earlier. We think they will get there.

The Canadian government recently cut off funding for global mental health, but we’re managing to keep this project alive through joint fund-raising efforts by the Centre and the Filipinos themselves. In fact we just finished training a new batch of 40 MBCT facilitators. Every day now we see fresh Facebook updates from the sangha, describing how they are delivering MBIs—to students, marginalized squatters from the famous Smokey Mountain, FriendlyCare’s patient population, and many others.  It’s wild.

These two projects represent our most ambitious attempts to challenge the system away from its usual hand-waving and towards fair and just solutions.  Our only path forward is through committed community action.  This is hard work.  It can also be immensely uncomfortable, for two reasons.

First, you get rapidly educated in how our system works to privilege some, and to oppress others.  To echo Otto Scharmer of the Presencing Institute, who I quoted earlier, “our civilization is built on an underlying mindset of maximum ‘me’ – maximum material consumption, bigger is better, and special interest group driven decision making that has led us into a state of organized irresponsibility”.

Second, you get exposed, at a visceral level, to the suffering of those who have been systematically excluded … putting your own sense of suffering in context. 

And here’s the interesting thing.  From a mindfulness perspective we are not apart from the systems that house us.  Our suffering is not separate from the suffering of others.

When you begin to investigate the truth of this reality, you are driven to confront your own sense of entitlement and privilege and the assumptions behind them, for example, assumptions around wealth and things that wealth can buy; assumptions around status, hierarchy, recognition, and reward; assumptions around power and control.  By investigating ourselves in this fashion, we begin to see our own contradictions – how we think and act as system enablers, for example, fighting for one group’s interest for a bigger and bigger share of a finite fund of dollars, and how we think and act as system change agents, e.g., lobbying for environmental protections.  We also begin to see how some of the things we value and want, such as inflated home values, are things that make it difficult for others to have what they value and need, that is, a home.

What makes social justice work so uncomfortable is that it forces us to see the inter-relations across seemingly separate issues, such as poverty, climate change, racism, capitalism.  It also shows us how closely interdependent we all are, and how important it is to work towards a system where relations among people, as opposed to capital, determine our worth.

Matthew Stewart, the American philosopher, in his  recent article in The Atlantic about the so-called “9.9 percent” says, “We need to peel our eyes away from the mirror of our own success and think about what we can do in our everyday lives for the people who aren’t our neighbours.  We should be fighting for opportunities for other people’s children as if the future of our own children depended on it. It probably does”

You may very well ask why do this work at all if it is so hard, so uncertain, and so disconcerting? Well, one reason is because ethically it’s the right thing to do. But there are rewards as well.   The experience can be magical.  In both of the projects I described earlier, we work with partners who have truly “drunk the Kool-aid” as a cynic would say.  Despite the fact that these two projects have many moving parts with a lot of people involved, the work happens with a rare sense of ease and lightness – it’s actually fun.  The camaraderie is palpable in how cheerful people are, in the way they listen, in their ready willingness to offer assistance, and finally, in how everyone takes responsibility for his/her part of the work.  Egos seem to fall away when everyone comes together with a deep and shared sense of purpose.  These moments are filled with a quiet joy and a marked sense of liberation from oneself. This joy and this freedom are to me the precious gifts of the work.

Let me point out though that to do this work, mindfulness is not enough.  While mindfulness can help develop greater sensitivity and responsiveness, it does not necessarily raise awareness of the suffering of others. Mindfulness can swing either way: toward or away from greater awareness of justice issues. 

But there are strong arguments for considering this path – from Maia Duerr, for example

“If mindfulness is indeed a movement, I want to be part of a movement that supports people to wake up to the connection between us, that helps us to see that personal stress reduction is not separate from fair wages and safe working conditions, that does not hide from questions of power and privilege.”

I believe that we all want our world to be better.  We all want everyone to have what they need to live sustainable lives.  We all want everyone to have the same access to resources and opportunities.  We all want to save our planet. 

I also believe that, given our mindfulness orientation, we have the will and inner resources to help make this happen.

One suggestion, if you’ll pardon my chutzpah, is to participate in Mindfulness Challenge 2018.

Maybe, just maybe, we are the ones we have been waiting for. (Sometimes attributed to Barack Obama, or Alice Walker… who knows?)

[This blog has been adapted from Tita’s plenary speech at A Mindful Society 2018 conference.]


Tita Angangco is the co-founder and Director of Community Services of The Centre for Mindfulness Studies. She worked with the Ontario Public sector for many years as a senior manager in several ministries, including the Health, Housing and Management Board. She has been an active volunteer in the area of social housing having organized the funding and development of two not-for-profit housing developments in the GTA. She was Chair of the Homes First Society from 1995 to 2001 where she stabilized the operational and financial standing of the organization and created the Homes First Foundation, a fund-raising agency arm of the Society. Since then, she has been involved in several volunteer start-up ventures. She has received extensive training in mindfulness, Buddhist psychology and yoga.

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