Mindfulness and social engagement: Communication

This blog follows the previous one where Meg Barker reflected on tensions emerging from a weekend retreat about the possibilities of social mindfulness.

Kindness / honesty

The second tension which emerged, for me, over the weekend was perhaps less explicit than the other one, and harder to capture. It is about whether we prioritise kindness or honesty in our interactions with others (and with ourselves).

Of course, again, these categories are not mutually exclusive. Indeed one understanding of mindfulness could be as a form of kind honesty, or honest kindness. It is not there in the early Buddhist definitions of mindfulness, which focus on open attention (which could, perhaps, be viewed as a form of honesty with ourselves), but recent western mindful therapies – for example – often bring together concepts of awareness with those of compassion or acceptance. And the kind of awareness which is advocated in mindful meditation, more broadly, is a gentle or kind one. For example, when we meditate we are encouraged to be aware of the thoughts and feelings that bubble up, but not to become too attached to them. However, we are also not meant to squash them or try to eradicate them. Rather the aim is to be compassionately aware of them, and to gently bring our attention back to our breath or other focus of meditation. This kind of practice reminds us of the sorts of stories and habits that we can get easily become caught up in.

When it comes to our interactions with others it seems that a prioritising of kindness can take us away from being honest, and a prioritising of honesty can take us away from being kind. For example, a mindfulness activity which I brought to the weekend (based on some writing I’ve been doing with Jamie Heckert) was about two different common strategies for dealing with situations of conflict where one person or group has more power than the other because of their social status. One of these strategies focuses more on kindness, where we try to compassionately understand where ourselves, and the other people, are coming from in the conflict and focus on reaching an understanding, being gentler with each other, and perhaps forgiving and accepting. The other strategy focuses more on honesty, where we look at what is going on in the conflict (perhaps explicitly and implicitly) and we name it publicly, drawing attention to the power dynamics which are at play and the privileges which one person or group has which means that their voice may be more heard than the others.

As I see it now, the dangers are that kindness-focused strategies may fall into ‘niceness’, whilst honesty-focused strategies may fall into ‘rudeness’.

When we are trying so hard to be kind that we prioritise compassion over honesty, we may find ourselves ignoring or avoiding tensions which are there in order that everybody gets along. We might fail to see the power dynamics and marginalisations that are happening because we do not want to have to face difficult conversations, or even irresolvable conflicts. We might lose our critical awareness of the complexities of the situation, and the differences between us, in a comforting sense of our shared humanity and connection which may well not be there for everybody. We might find ourselves accepting what we take for granted rather than questioning it in a critical way. In our attempts to be kind we might end up causing harm as we silence some voices and flatten the hierarchies that exist. If our aim is to increase kindness in the world, we may find ourselves doing the exact opposite as people feel even more hurt and raw and less inclined to engage with one another, or we ourselves behave passively-aggressively because we are suppressing any difficult feelings.

When we are trying so hard to be honest that we prioritise awareness over kindness, on a very practical level we may find that others are unable to hear what we have to say. The privileges, oppressions and power dynamics which we clearly see, and the problematic behaviours which we want to highlight, may well be so hard for others to own up to that they just respond defensively and shut down. This may particularly be the case if we communicate with them in an accusing or insistent way which doesn’t include listening to their perspective at all. If our aim is to improve awareness and to encourage honest exchange, we may do the exact opposite as people feel far too unsafe to speak openly, and put up their defences such that it becomes even harder for them to see the problematic things that they are doing. It may be much easier for them just to dismiss us as rude people, or over-the-top activists, and walk away from the exchange. We may, ourselves, become so aggressive in our manner that others are scared or hurt by the exchange, meaning that we are perpetuating the very violence which we were trying to address.

There is a danger, in mindfulness, that we prioritise compassion to such an extent that we close down debate and difference and – unwittingly perhaps – prevent ourselves from seeing some of the problems that we are so keen to address. There is a danger, for those of us who are critically socially engaged, that we fall into judgement of others and shoring up our own sense of ‘rightness’. Without compassion we may be unable to see our own potential for harming others (because it is too hard to face when we aren’t being kind), or the personal and painful reasons which may lie behind other people’s actions.

Perhaps this is social mindfulness: the attempt to be honestly kind, compassionately critical, and gently aware.

Where is the social?

I hope that these explorations may go some way to answering my colleague’s question about ‘where is the social’ in mindfulness. To summarise, I think it is (or can be) in there in the following ways, and probably many more:

  • In recognising the inherent socialness even of our very internal experiences: the ways our interactions with other people throughout our lives have shaped who and how we are, and how much of our internal life is devoted to our interactions with others and the wider world.
  • In employing meditation, and other practices, to ‘swim against the stream’ – noticing how wider assumptions and accepted behaviours operate through us, and committing to do otherwise.
  • In mindfulness as a methodology – individually and in group processes – for understanding the complexities of how social aspects such as power and privilege operate through us.
  • In mindfulness practices which are explicitly social. One example would be writing about how we, ourselves, experience being on two sides of an opposition (for example when we feel marginalised, or when we marginalise others), in order to understand the other perspective better. Another would be mindful dialogue, when we have conversations with the explicit intention of listening, hearing the other, and being aware of what we bring to the situation. A further example is in ways of making people’s stories available in ways which illuminate what their lives are like within the current social context (e.g. of healthcare systems, or global politics).
  • In ‘retreating’ in ways which leave us more able then to engage, rather than feeling too ragged ourselves to intervene in ways which may be useful to others.
  • In using mindfulness to bring an ethics to our work on social issues which might mean that we make more of a difference, because we understand better how to communicate what we are saying in ways which can be heard and acted upon by others.

Find out more:

  • Thich Nhat Hanh‘s community of interbeingrepresents one very social version of mindfulness.
  • Gregory Kramer’s ‘insight dialogue‘ is an example of a social mindfulness practice.
  • Steven and Martine Batchelor’s website is another interesting way into mindfulness which considers many of these issues.
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