How can we use the practices of mindfulness and self-compassion to work with injustice in the world? When people do bad things to other people, to animals, to the environment, what role can a mindful self-compassion practice play?
When we practice mindful self-compassion, we continually tune in to what’s going on in our body and our mind. We use our practice of mindfulness to make ourselves available to our inner landscape so that when we ask the questions, “What do I need right now?” and, “How can I give that to myself?” there is a quiet place from which these questions can be answered. We remain open to our experience so that we can notice how we are feeling from moment to moment. Only when we are able to notice what’s going on for us can we do something about it. If I went to the doctor with a bleeding cut on my foot and the doctor couldn’t stand the sight of blood, there’s not much they’ll be able to do for me. If they can’t diagnose, they can’t treat or prescribe. It’s the same for me: if I can’t see what’s going on I can’t tend to myself.
Having worked in the arena of political activism, I know that some people who are willing to take the most radical steps – even illegal action – in the name of injustice, do so because they want an outlet for their old anger and hurt.
When we pay attention to ourselves, appreciating how we are feeling rather than rejecting and avoiding our experience or blaming someone else for how we feel, we can start to actively take care of our own needs. This means we don’t need to look to other people to take care of our needs and we are less likely to lash out with unbridled emotion pent up through a continual and ongoing lack of attention to our hurts. When we bring mindfulness to our experience over and over again, and tend to our emotional needs as they arise, we are more likely to see situations of injustice more clearly – with critical awareness – and to act from this place rather than from a place of fear, sadness or anger precipitated partly by unresolved hurts in our own lives.
Having worked in the arena of political activism, I know that some people who are willing to take the most radical steps – even illegal action – in the name of injustice, do so because they want an outlet for their old anger and hurt. They have been unable to tend to what has been ailing them, sometimes for a lifetime, so when they see a potential outlet for the confusing array of difficult emotions they feel, they focus their energies in that direction. Radical acts motivated by strong, misdirected emotions, however, can do damage to a campaign rather than raise awareness. Mindfulness can help us to act from a pure intention to alleviate the suffering that we witness, a place in which the actual issues are not muddied with our personal stories.
If I can’t be kind to myself because of the discomfort that the suffering hen evokes, I will never have the chance to practice compassion because I’ll be too busy just trying to survive psychologically.
Mindful self-compassion also help us to bear witness to injustice. If I cannot tend to myself in the face of terrible news or a distressing image, I will have to put up a barrier to acknowledging and connecting with the hurt I am exposed to. If I feel that I won’t be able to take care of myself while I’m letting myself have my response to something abhorrent, I’ll choose to turn away from my response and from the situation inciting it. I will have to abandon myself and the one whose pain I am seeing.
If I cannot look at that taxi cab advertisement condemning the battery hen industry, then I will never look into the eyes of that sweet little creature with her misshapen beak and naked neck; I will never have the opportunity to wish that her situation were different and to feel for her in her confusion and pain. If I can’t be kind to myself because of the discomfort that the suffering hen evokes, I will never have the chance to practice compassion because I’ll be too busy just trying to survive psychologically. Also, if I condemn myself for being a part of a culture that supports multinational monocultures and mega-sheds, then I’ll be blinded by my own sense of shame, and I’ll never be able to face taking the responsibility needed to effect a change in my shopping decisions. I need to be kind to myself in the face of any contributions I’m making to injustice, before I can make more informed decisions.
As the flight attendant tells us, we need to put our own oxygen mask on first before helping those around us with theirs. If we are going to survive in the face of any variety of pain and suffering, we need to be able to stand on the firm ground of our own compassionate and wise concern for ourselves, first.
Practicing self-compassion recognizes that everyone is in the same boat. We are all just doing the best we can to be happy. We are the pilot of some very complex human machines, and we all have different ways of seeking happiness, but in the end, it all boils down to the desire for happiness. I might seek happiness by planting trees on my property while someone else seeks happiness in the money they earn for cutting down trees. I might seek happiness through teaching mindfulness and compassion while others seek happiness through the power and status they achieve by exploiting and hurting other people. We can all be misguided in our attempts at happiness, to a greater or lesser degree. And we can all seek different forms of happiness at different times in our lives – that gun I enjoyed weilding as a child on the farm, I now view as an insidious tool of fear.
When you ask that man driving his gas-guzzling lane-dominator down the highway, “Why?” – he may simply answer “Because I want to take up a lot of road, and have a lot of cushion, so that I can keep my wife and child safe.”
When we recognize the constant pursuit of happiness that is the human condition and we can appreciate that we all think and behave differently, we can see that cutting down trees, mistreating animals and exploiting people are violent acts perpetrated in the process of this pursuit of happiness. We might recognize that the cost of one person’s happiness is terrifyingly high, but it’s still the same basic wish. As difficult as it might be to put ourselves in the shoes of those perpetrating injustice, when can view action from that place of understanding we’re in a much better position to address the underlying needs or fears, rather than attacking the violent expressions of those unmet needs*. The neighbor who wants to cut down all the mature trees on your boundary fence is much more likely to engage in a conversation with you if you recognize his fear of losing his house in a bushfire and you approach him with a willingness to learn more about what he needs to feel safe (including having neighbors he can communicate with). When you ask that man driving his gas-guzzling lane-dominator down the highway, “Why?” – he may simply answer “Because I want to take up a lot of road, and have a lot of cushion, so that I can keep my wife and child safe.”
And so, in the face of the many and varied injustices in the world, we can use mindfulness and self-compassion as valuable tools. Injustice should never be condoned, but through understanding, we can be in a better position to work with a terrible situation. When we can bring mindfulness, self-kindness and an understanding of common humanity to a situation, it can lead to a more integrated and balanced approach to the practice of addressing injustice.
*Marshall Rosenberg, Non-Violent Communication: “Every act of violence is the tragic expression of an unmet need.”