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The ongoing impact of the systemic racism that has plagued our country since 1619 (long before we were even the “United States”) can be reduced through new laws, policies, and changes at every level of government. It can be lessened through criminal justice reforms, and the reversal of mass incarceration along with the cessation of excessive use of police force. It can gradually be mitigated by the thoroughly researched and fair payment of reparations to Black individuals, to compensate for what our nation has withheld from 20 generations of Black families.

Committed, ongoing activism, including the indispensable participation of people like me who enjoy white privilege and power, makes policy change happen, even when years go by with only small victories coupled with backward stumbles.

However, activism can only run so far and fast on knowledge, skill, resources, networking, and sheer adrenaline and passion. The sinewy, sinister roots of racism, which are embedded and twisted within the human consciousness and sub-consciousness of ally and racist alike, and from which sprout new generations of “good people” who “don’t see color,” can only be fully eradicated, in my opinion, through continuous mindfulness practice.

Activism and mindfulness can and should go hand-in-hand, inseparable from one another. Please allow me to elaborate.

Mindfulness 101

Mindfulness is the continuous observation of moment by moment internal and external experience, culminating in awakening to one’s true nature of pure awareness and happiness (also known as “Nirvana”) and elimination of dissatisfaction or suffering. It is the unifying thread of Buddhist teachings, which are a set of pragmatic, proven practices and not a specific “religion.” It can be practiced, however, within the confines of any religion or lack thereof.

Most critically, mindfulness looks through the lens of the impermanence of all created phenomena (body, feelings, thoughts, mind states, circumstances, and so forth). Everything is in flux, in a constant process of arising, changing, and passing away. Nothing created remains the same, not even for a second.

Because all things are impermanent, they are also—as mindfulness observes—inherently dissatisfying, with suffering as the result of unskillfully insisting that they be permanent or change in a certain manner.

Furthermore, nothing lasts long enough to have a permanent state of being—including any of us having, or being, a permanent “self.” Selflessness is the condition of all created things. Clinging to this illusion of a permanent, separate identity also creates ongoing dissatisfaction or suffering.

Antiracism and Selflessness

This notion of “selflessness” is especially critical for delivering, beneath the surface of activism, the gradual dissolution of racist thoughts, instincts, and assumptions. Because:

  1. If there is no permanent “self,” then there is no permanent “skin color”
  2. If there is no permanent “skin color,” then there is no permanent “race”
  3. If there is no permanent “race,” than there is no basis for the arising or sustaining of “racism”

Warning: It’s naive and dangerous to claim “race doesn’t exist” while racism continues its ugly forward march. This mindful approach to understanding and embracing reality is rarely grasped and never implemented “overnight.” It’s radical and revolutionary. Why?

Mindfulness is no less than retraining one’s mind, which is much harder than simply educating one’s mind. Deliberate mindfulness practice gradually transforms moment by moment reactions and choices, as one learns to understand and accept the impermanence, dissatisfaction, and selflessness of all conditioned existence.

Here’s the punch line: This mindfulness training, when fully embraced and implemented, does not lead to indifference or nihilism or arrogance, but instead unveils the loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity that characterize who we really are beneath the clutter of our dissatisfying habits. In the face of the qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity, racism–or any other systemic evils such as sexism, nationalism, or oppression–doesn’t stand a chance.

These are the four qualities that will inform and sustain the most impactful, long-term activism that destroys systemic racism. For in the absence of loving-kindness, there will be the distracting, counter-productive quality of hatred toward those who overtly, covertly, or inadvertently advance racist socio-economics. Without compassion, an activist can neither be fully helpful to the historically underrepresented groups that continue to suffer, nor skillful in helping racists think and act differently. Lacking empathetic joy, an activist will seldom feel happiness for others’ success without it being tinged with jealousy, and such duality will undermine their efforts.

And without equanimity, an activist is defeated long before they begin, for insisting that things be anything other than what they are is a poison that kills.

First Steps

Imagine a country of increasingly mindful human beings, each beautiful in their fragile impermanence, waking up to the reality of who they really are, while, simultaneously, those aforementioned levels of government enact and enforce the laws, processes, and policies that must change in order for every person to be free, equal, included, and safe.

It begins with each of us, this journey into activism, mindfulness, and the subsequent reduction and extinction of embedded racism. The first step is the willingness to think, feel, speak, and act differently, to see other people with fresh eyes.

This can be facilitated through getting to know people of color, reading their books and articles, reflecting, looking deep inside, recognizing one’s existing privilege and being willing to face what is racist and ugly or simply aloof, with the determination to do something different. All of this can be supported by mindfulness practices, which you can read about here on my website or thousands of others, as well as in some great books.

That first step of willingness leads to the second, then several more, followed by dozens and dozens, until new habits are holistically ingrained and the instinct to be an active, inclusive, kind ally is second nature rather than something you have to be reminded to do. Or shocked into doing the next time a George Floyd cannot breathe.

Some steps will be more fruitful than others. Each of us will stumble and screw up along the way, but the journey itself is non-negotiable.

For more specifics on first steps, read this post.

For more on this topic, read this powerful article, Where Buddhist Mindfulness and Black Activism Meet.