“The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
– Toni Morrison, “Black Studies Center public dialogue,” Portland State University, May 30, 1975
Contemplative practices, especially those which emphasize the development of concentration, have been shown to reduce distraction and increase focus. This instrumental benefit can make contemplative practices seem especially appealing in the classroom as means of increasing engagement with subject matter, supporting greater recall of course material, and promoting emotion regulation. (See, for example, Shapiro, Brown and Astin,”Toward the Integration of Meditation into Higher Education: A Review of Research Evidence,” Teachers College Record, Vol. 113, No. 3, 2011, pp. 493-528.)
But these outcomes do not encompass the extent of why we value contemplative approaches in higher education. Contemplative methods support deeper levels of understanding of ourselves, our social identities, our relationships, and our situation amidst the complex and difficult contexts we traverse every day. They allow us the space to examine carefully where and why we are focusing our attention, and how the views that we carry have often been inherited by us.
Our attempts to realize the Center’s mission—to “create active learning and research environments that look deeply into experience and meaning for all in service of a more just and compassionate society”—require a focused awareness on what matters most to us, and, as much as possible, a clear sense of what we bring along with us: our biases and beliefs.
With recent media attention on the city of Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, the public conversation on racial justice issues has intensified. Yet, said Toni Morrison, “The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction.” As we create liberatory, anti-racist contemplative pedagogies, classrooms, and institutions, our efforts must be rooted in a focused commitment to understanding our individual experiences, the experiences of others, and how our experiences relate to the political, social/cultural, and economic systems in which we participate.
In classes on Race Law at the University of San Francisco, Professor Rhonda V. Magee, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, uses awareness, dialogue, and listening practices to help students bear witness to their own and each other’s experiences, sufferings, and challenges. In “Breathing Together Through ‘I Can’t Breathe,’” her keynote address at the 2015 conference of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, she says, we must “[turn] toward the difficult and bear witness to the suffering” to expand our capacity to receive it. Magee challenges us to use our practices to look directly at suffering so that we might understand better the ways in which our intrapersonal, interpersonal, and systemic awareness can help us foster ethically engaged action: providing greater clarity regarding what we should focus on in order to create the world in which we want to live.
And as we develop contemplative practices with our students and academic colleagues—practices that support both intrapersonal and interpersonal connection—the more we understand our shared history and how we are all are affected by inherently racist policies, the better we can foster the changes we seek. For example, in “From Ferguson to Baltimore,” Richard Rothstein describes government policies which have supported housing segregation, making it clear that, in response to incidents of police violence, we can not only focus on strategies for changing policing. We must scrutinize and address our own experiences within the systems from which these events have arisen, and make changes that address the underlying issues.
This is a demanding commitment, requiring sustained strength to bear witness to great suffering and persevere in work for change in the face of such a challenging history. With the support of contemplative practices—diverse methods for remembering, feeling, connecting to, and expressing what is most deeply meaningful to us—we can sustain our commitment to creating a more just and vibrant world for us all.
How have you been using contemplative practices to support personal and social transformation in higher education? What resources have been especially helpful to you and your students? Please let us know in the comments below, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you!
We also invite you to submit a proposal to share your work at “Building Just Communities,” the 2015 conference of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, to be held at Howard University in Washington, D.C., this October 8th through 11th. The ACMHE conference will explore contemplative approaches to creating and sustaining just communities: approaches that foster connection while recognizing and honoring difference, with a commitment to the common flourishing of all. Learn more at www.acmheconference.org; proposals are due May 15th.