For me, mindfulness and all meditation practice is not primarily about calm – though it might start there – but about awareness. Some therapeutic forms of meditation may emphasise the calm for good reason but even these will move towards awareness as being the real source of healing and growth.
But this awareness is not to do with knowing more stuff – having more information – but more about an experiential shift in perspective. Last month I reflected on this theme in relation to attitudes to mental health. In this blog I want to say something about how such a shift in perspective might be key for the anti-racism work which seems to be so vital for us to engage with in these days.
But first a little reminder of what a ‘shift in perspective’ might be about from the world of neuroscience. As Lisa Feldman Barrett reminds us in her book ‘How emotions are made’ (see review in ‘Resources’), each of us has a current view of the world which is very largely already constructed within our own minds based on past experiences together with predictions based on those experiences. Although we think we see the world as an actual reality unfolding as it happens, the truth seems to be more that we see the world more or less as we expect to see it and only take in small amounts of information about what is actually happening – merely fine-tuning what we already feel we ‘know’ to be the case. As it happens this system works pretty well and uses far less energy than the alternative of seeing every situation as if it was an entirely new experience every time we open our eyes.
But the problem with this is that we tend to be extremely locked into and dependent on our existing internal preconceptions and not, on the whole, very open to new perspectives.
And the bigger problem is that we do not even see that this is the case. So we tend to be very inclined to think that our own perspective is entirely true because, well, that’s just the way I see it – and it seems fairly self-evident to me!
But what if what I am ‘seeing’ is not actually reality as it is but my own internally constructed version of reality – close enough to enable me to negotiate the world reasonably ably but, crucially, inaccurate in occasionally life-affecting ways?
Well, first, that feels quite a lot to take in and may even feel a bit spooky. But secondly, what can I do about it?
My sense is that by far the biggest step I can take is to ‘wake up’ to this simple fact as described above and recognise the truth of it. This is what all the great spiritual masters were saying to us: ‘Wake up! You are not seeing right – not seeing things as they actually are’. But now science is telling us much the same thing.
As I suggested in last month’s blog, this ‘wake up’ is desperately needed if we are to shift to a better way of engaging with mental health. But it will also be desperately needed if we are to properly engage with the work of anti-racism.
In other words we so need to approach the subject with the sort of deep humility that what I have just said will bring. I.e. even if I feel fairly ‘right-on’ with my attitude to race I need to accept that many of my attitudes may well be internally constructed and that consequently there may well need to be a number of wake up calls as I begin to engage with the heart of the matter.
Having been brought up by rather blatantly racist colonialist parents, for most of my adult life I have felt fairly pleased with myself about having critiqued their views and moved to what I thought was a non-racist position. So, this became my own internally constructed view of the world and of race. I certainly didn’t feel the need to do any particular work in this area.
But lock-down has given me the chance to look at things more deeply. And alongside my meditation practice I started reading books and engaging more fully with others – on the basis that it just might be that I did not yet see what I did not yet see in this area.
And … goodness! Wow! Oh dear! And even, shit!
Yes, how smug my little world was (is?). How internally coherent and logical but how much it was misaligned with the world that people of colour were actually describing through their own experiences.
Some of my reading and talking was tough going. But in the end the new perspectives that have been emerging have felt life-enhancing and liberating. As many writers of colour will say, white people’s true liberation is entirely caught up with the liberation of people of all colours especially those whose ancestors we enslaved or colonised.
But what has this got to do with mindfulness? Well, mindfulness practice is strongly geared towards helping us to become aware of our own internal mental constructs. Every time you notice your mind wandering you will add to the picture of where your mind goes when ‘on auto’ – your default way of thinking and seeing things. And as we remind ourselves over and over that these default ways of thinking are just that, mental constructs and not necessarily precise representations of reality, we will gradually help ourselves to be more and more open to what really is true – which may sometimes be sharply different to what we had assumed. And this is what we mean by a ‘waking up’ moment.
So the more we practice mindfulness the more we will be ready to be open to new perspectives and the more our view of the world will actually accord with reality. In anti-racism work this will be vital.