Why Mindfulness is Essential for Racial Healing

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Poonam Desai, Ph.D., LSSP, Mental Health Trainer
By Poonam Desai, Ph.D., LSSP, Mental Health Trainer Feb 12, 2018

Over the last few months and years, divisions between groups of people seem to have grown more pronounced. When we’re not attacking or defending a minority group, we’re protesting or defending monuments, signing petitions, and marching. 

This is a time in our nation’s history when it seems like many voices are rising all at once. It’s also a time of great emotion. Generations of trauma can manifest as rage – a rage that can no longer wait for bureaucracy but demands the immediate toppling of systems of oppression. 

Yet, in such a time of immediacy and large-scale movements, there is a place for introspection. With great external work in society comes great work within ourselves, too. As we are confronted with emotions that seem too large to hold, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and to let rage drive us. 

Confronting the Rage

When we hold onto our rage toward others, it does not affect the other people. It cannot touch them if they do not accept it or are not able to understand it. It is the poison we hold in our throats that slowly kills us.

I am not asking anyone to suppress their rage. There is a place for rage. Yet, when we cloak ourselves in rage and are constantly ready for war, we have already lost the fight. The rage now owns us and does not serve us. Rather, can we open ourselves to understand the rage as a visitor, a teacher to learn from? What can my rage teach me? And when I have learned from it, can I let it go? 

Soothing the Exhaustion

The work of dismantling systems of oppression is endless. We have many discussions ahead of us, many battles to fight, many streets to march. In this work, there is a strong possibility of reaching exhaustion- both mental and physical. How do we honor our life if we are unable to take a few moments to rest, to enjoy the sunshine on our faces, to be grateful for our communities? Burnout is a constant threat that looms above us all. A little bit of self-preservation is not selfish when it enables you to walk further and lift the burden from a fellow traveler. Notice when you have become weary. Listen to your body. Take this breath and let it go. Take this breath and let it go. Feel your vitality, be grateful, and rest. The work will be there when you are ready to come back to it. 

Healing the Grief

Grief and Rage often walk into our homes hand-in-hand, but Grief stays for much longer, sometimes even calling back her companion. Grief is the powerful matriarch of the emotion family, arriving in a time of despair and leaving only when she feels ready. Grief hurts, but Grief also heals. She needs acknowledgment, respect, and space to regrow new skin in the place of the wound. Let her be, and continue your work. 

Mindfulness 

Mindfulness has a critical role to play. We must first understand that our brains are wired to protect us. When the amygdala detects threat, it shuts off the parts of the brain that are able to think clearly. The amygdala is all about sending us into battle, helping us hide, or getting us out of there as fast as possible. We have developed associations to interpret even neutral stimuli as threatening (that’s why we might jump at a shadow in the road – we assume it’s something harmful). People of color are often portrayed negatively in the media, sometimes in very subtle ways; the more this happens, the more consumers of media view persons of color in a negative light, sometimes even as a threat. This happens at a very subtle level, without our recognizing it. And yes, you can be a person of color and have a negativity bias against other persons of color. But just as our brains learned and strengthened associations over time, we can undo these associations and help our brain rewire. 

Fear is a common response our brains have to keep us safe. Patricia Devine, a researcher of implicit bias from University of Wisconsin- Madison, teaches about how we can potentially override the biased concepts in our heads through a series of exercises. By using a technique called stereotype replacement, we can counter bias we might hold deep within, without even realizing it. The first step is to detect when the thought occurs. In order to detect this, our minds must be quiet enough. We must be able to tune in and notice the thought passing in our mind without immediately acting on it. The next step is to reflect nonjudgmentally on the thought. Give it the space of awareness and curiosity to inspect the context and the nature of the thought. What are the circumstances in which the thought arose? Is it true? If you were to practice empathy and put yourself in this other person’s shoes, what might that be like? It is critical that you are not judgmental of the thought. As soon as you layer judgment onto it, you panic and the thought gains power. Finally, once you are able to recognize the thought concept and reflect on where it comes from, replace it with an alternative response. What is another explanation? What is another way of responding? What are you being drawn to do, almost without thinking, and could you do something else instead? 

We not only experience fear in physical situations, but also in verbal interactions or even with just the thought of something frightening. Our fears also might get in the way of engaging in conversations around race, racism, and socio-political systems of privilege, power, and oppression. We might experience a fear of appearing ignorant, racist, uninformed, or, on the other side, pushy, angry, or “too far left.” Yet, here is another opportunity for us to practice mindfulness. Before allowing our emotions to get the better of us, we can ask ourselves a few questions: Is this an important conversation to have? Am I trying to talk more or to listen? Do I truly understand the other person’s perspective or am I talking over him/her? There are many conversations to be had; in this light, would this conversation be helpful? Do I have the energy to engage in a respectful and compassionate way? This is not a decision flowchart; a yes- yes- yes- no won’t lead you to the right answer of whether or not to take on a certain discussion. The idea is that whatever emotion is coming up for you, whether anger, disgust, or particularly fear, be sure to dialogue with your emotion. Is it holding you back from having an important conversation? Is it throwing you headfirst into a discussion you are not mentally prepared for? Engaging in dialogue on these deeply rooted beliefs and biases our society holds means that we must engage in this dialogue internally first. When we have clarity of beliefs and clarity of path, it becomes easier to walk forward and lead others. 

Give yourself time to practice meditation, awareness, equanimity, and compassion. Ultimately, that is what we want to engender in our society, but we must first grow it in ourselves. Remember, the first revolution is always internal. 

©2018 Momentous Institute
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