People often have one of two responses to race issues: “What can I do about it?” or “It’s not my problem, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Mindfulness offers another way of approaching the situation.
The practice of mindfulness is a focus for the Martin Luther King Jr. events taking place on the Washington State University Pullman campus. The events begin today and end Jan. 23, and include a full day of events on Monday’s Mindfulness Takeover. All events are free.
Mindfulness is an ancient concept, but the term and its practice is somewhat unfamiliar for many in the U.S. Lydia Gerber, a professor at WSU who is coordinating the week’s events and has studied the concept of mindfulness describes it as the quality of paying attention without judgment.
“It’s the courage of being fully present in a given moment and accepting all that is in the moment,” Gerber said.
That includes noticing emotions, like anger or embarrassment, and physical sensations, like tensed shoulders or a clenched belly, that we instinctively try to push away or react against. Mindfulness also asks us to notice — again, without judgement — our thoughts. This includes biases, assumptions and things that we don’t like about ourselves.
That’s where mindfulness connects with race issues. Racially charged moments are filled with emotions, thoughts and physical sensations, most of which are uncomfortable and often reactionary. These moments are often rooted in biases and assumptions.
“We all have assumptions or biases about skin color,” said Trymaine Gaither. Gaither is a recruitment and career coordinator for the WSU Honors College and coordinates the Mindfulness Based Emotional & Social Intelligence Certificate for the Honors College.
Mindfulness, he said, allows us to notice these assumptions as they arise so that we can learn more about ourselves and our biases. Over time, we can learn to respond to the moment out of this increased awareness, potentially breaking patterns of response or behavior that perpetuate racism.
Mindfulness asks a person to step away from both the past — what has been, whether good or bad — and the future — our fears, agendas and ideas about what should be. It asks us to focus on the present.
“We can only act and change things in the present moment,” Gerber said. “If we pay attention to the moment, it allows us to step outside of established ways of doing things.”
She explained that many of us have a script that we bring into racially charged moments, based on past thoughts and experiences. But a person who is responding to what is and not what was can bring new possibilities and perspectives into a situation.
As awareness about mindful practices has grown, so has awareness about the value it adds — specifically to conversations about race. More and more, it has been discussed as one way to move forward in resolving tensions. These concepts are explored in Rhonda V. Magee teachings and book, “The Inner Work of Racial Justice,” which influenced the decision to make mindfulness a focus for this year’s MLK events at WSU.
The connection between mindfulness and race relations isn’t new, Gaither said. In 1959, King went to India for a month to learn from Ghandi’s teachings. Gaither explained that King adapted Ghandi’s practice of satyagraha, a refusal to commit violence because of a deep motivation by compassion and love. King also believed that when people are willing to suffer together and bear witness to the suffering of others, they lessen the pain or make it easier to endure. These ideas have roots in both Christian and Buddhist teachings, Gaither said.
Mindfulness is about changing yourself — the way you experience and respond in a situation — not about changing someone else. It’s about creating a space for conversation about race. What that looks like will vary depending on the situation and those involved.
“People are more likely to engage when they feel that they are in compassionate and safe environments,” said Gaither. “With mindfulness, we are training ourselves to feel our shared humanity and move away from fear and toward connection.”
One of the things mindfulness asks of us is to sit in discomfort. And race issues aren’t short on discomfort.
“There’s really no way around those awkward conversations,” Gaither said. “And anytime you talk about race it’s uncomfortable.”
A mindfulness practice can help a person grow their “window of tolerance,” Gaither said. When people begin to practice mindfulness, they might have a limited ability to tolerate emotions and situations they perceive to be negative or uncomfortable. But with practice, they tolerate a wider range of situations and emotions for a longer amount of time.
“We want to increase our capacity to sit in that discomfort,” Gaither said.
That’s a difficult ask. Not only is it unpleasant, but it goes against our instinct to take action in response to the problems we see around us.
“Some people will say ‘OK, I’m woke now, what can I do to fix this?’ ” Gaither said. “And the first step is to sit in it longer.”
It’s by sitting in it longer that a person gains deeper insight into the situation, he said. Bearing a deeper, albeit uncomfortable, witness to race-related suffering and sitting with others who are in it allows people to broaden their perspective and deepen their compassion.
Sometimes the cause for the discomfort is another person, but often it originates within ourselves. For example, you might see a man of color in street clothes at the bus stop in the middle of the day and assume he doesn’t have a job. Or when a young man of color wearing a hoodie jogs toward you, you might feel afraid. Or you might say something to a person based on an assumption about their perceived race.
In noticing your race-based assumption — whether negative or neutral — you might feel guilty or embarrassed. A mindful response would acknowledge the assumptions, notice and name the feelings and compassionately ask where those thoughts or feelings come from.
Say you’re on the receiving end of an offensive remark or behavior that seems racially motivated. Rather than react with anger based on your assumptions, mindfulness might lead you to check in with how you feel about what happened. Then you might move into curiosity and respond with a question like, “What do you mean by that?” Asked with curiosity, rather than criticism, questions have potential to disrupt a racial script.
Listening — really listening — helps us become open to another person, Gerber said — not just their experience, but also their beauty.
“Our goal is to see what connects us as human beings,” Gerber said.
That’s especially true when conflict and misunderstanding arise. In such situations, it’s easier to rely on assumptions and focus on what is different between us.
“Mindfulness is the ability to see beyond that, to go to the deeper connection, to what we share — we’re all suffering, we’re all imperfect,” Gaither said. “It means giving them the benefit of the doubt.”
Mindfulness shifts the conversation from what should be done about a race situation to what can I do about the situation right in front of me. It empowers individuals and offers opportunity to look outside of the box to new solutions.
“We’re not approaching mindfulness as a solution,” Gaither said. “But this is a path.”
Developing a lifestyle of mindfulness takes time and practice. Gerber describes it as both difficult and liberating, simple and complicated.
“It’s like potty-training a puppy,” Gerber said, laughing. “You need a certain amount of humor and patience to bring yourself into the moment.”
But that effort can bring reward.
“We spend so much time in the past and future, with regrets and plans. Mindfulness reminds us to be here now,” Gerber said. “This is the only moment we can act.”
Simple mindfulness practices
Just Like Me. One mindfulness practice that can increase a sense of shared humanity is finding something you have in common with strangers you encounter in your day, for example while you are walking downtown or at a store. You might notice shared features in your appearance: “That person also has a red coat,” for example, or “that person has brown hair.” Or you might name more general traits, like “that person also wants to be happy and loved” or “this person also needs food to live.” Gerber has found this method to be powerful for her students and easy to practice.
Notice the Moment. Take a moment to feel the connection your body has with its surroundings, whether its a chair or your feet on the floor. Notice your breath. Check in on the physical sensations in your body. Notice what emotions you feel, without trying to push them away. Notice your thoughts and accept them not as reality, but as thoughts.
Deep Listening. Take some time to listen to another person. As they speak, don’t agree, interrupt, talk or even ask questions. Simply listen and fully take in the other person.
2020 MLK Jr Mindfulness Takeover
Events take place Monday at the Elson S. Floyd Cultural Center on the WSU campus unless otherwise noted.
9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Mindfulness Retreat: Tools to Create a Beloved Community, Elmina White Honors Hall Lounge (pre-registration required).
1 p.m. Intro to Yoga & Meditation.
2 p.m. Interfaith Panel: Place of Mindfulness in World Religions.
3 p.m. Mindful Parenting: Raising Children in an Unjust World.
4 p.m. Tools When Having Difficult Conversation around Social Justice.
5 p.m. Community-wide Mindfulness Hour.
MLK Community Celebration
6:30 p.m. next Thursday.
WSU CUB Junior and Senior Ballroom.
In addition to awards and performances, this event will feature keynote speaker W. Kamau Bell, a sociopolitical comedian and author who hosts the Emmy award winning CNN series “United Shades of America.”
Information on these and additional MLK Week events can be found at mlk.wsu.edu