Blog, Blogs & Essays
comment 1

#makingrefuge at Mind & Life’s 2016 International Symposium: Opportunities for Decolonizing Contemplative Studies

In November, more than a thousand scholars, practitioners, and activists met in San Diego to discuss the future of their work at the 2016 International Symposium for Contemplative Studies (ISCS). In the opening address, the new president of Mind and Life, Susan Bauer-Wu, outlined her vision for the community, explaining that her goal is to build bridges and break down silos—disciplinary, methodological, institutional, and geographic. Compared to prior meetings, ISCS 2016 was indeed more diverse, gathering members of the community from 33 different fields, a fourth of whom came from outside the U.S. and a half of whom were newcomers. This diversity was bolstered by the fact that Mind and Life had recently created an advisory committee and taken concrete steps to support diversity through newly created research grants and funding opportunities.

Over the last few years, I have been a critic of mainstream mindfulness, so I was grateful to witness a conscious shift at ISCS 2016 toward situating mindfulness in social, political, and ethical contexts. The symposium was unusually self-reflexive and self-critical, exhorting its members to alleviate suffering in particular socio-historical contexts. In the opening address, planning committee co-chair Harold Roth said that contemplative studies must address the philosophical and religious milieu, the political and social context, and ethical and moral questions. Bauer-Wu added that the community needs to look beyond individual benefits—like happiness and productivity—to foster an awareness of contemplative practices’ prosocial facets. In line with her new vision, she said that Mind and Life is transitioning from pure awareness practices to heart-opening and action-based practices, thus shifting our understanding of the mind away from a reductive individualistic account toward a more encompassing understanding of the heart-mind.

By the end of the symposium, I walked away feeling that Mind and Life’s grand vision and new directions were encouraging, but that much of the work has yet to be done.  The fact that Mind and Life is expanding beyond its traditional base might mark an important opportunity for marginalized peoples and discourses to articulate different perspectives. One important question, however, is on whose terms will these new opportunities be created?

ISCS 2016 did in fact present a more balanced program compared to prior meetings, but as Amisha Jha admitted in her opening remarks, scholars from the medical sciences and education were vastly overrepresented. The psych-medical complex continues to provide the primary means of institutional funding, and as Roth admitted, there continue to be “few opportunities… to develop new paradigms.” It is encouraging that Mind and Life is providing its own funding opportunities using new grant categories like PEACE to focus on social justice and social change, and that the organization is seeking to enhance the diversity of its members and their perspectives. Nevertheless, Mind and Life needs to acknowledge its own social location and disciplinary bias in the production of contemplative knowledge.

First, this requires recognizing who attends ISCS. By and large, the Mind and Life community is a privileged group, and in their capacity as researchers, community members exhibit that privilege by producing contemplative knowledge from their particular social locations—typically centered on white, male, STEM, euro-American, and middle class perspectives. As Bauer-Wu mentioned in her opening address, most current research focuses on a sliver of known contemplative practices like mindfulness-based interventions, which are framed around individual benefits and which speak to the interests of privileged populations. Individualized, therapeutic forms of mindfulness don’t speak to the experience of marginalized people who traditionally work in communities for justice as the precondition for their safety and wellbeing.

Fortunately, many members of Mind and Life are critically aware that the mindfulness revolution speaks primarily to privileged individuals and not people of color, the working class, or the Global South. Thus, many sessions on social justice attempted to reframe mindfulness around community organizing, ethics of care, and mutual vulnerability, rather than individual happiness. In many cases, Trump’s electoral victory (which happened days before the meeting) provided a context for discussing mindfulness in terms of community activism and resilience.

For example, Jason Thompson challenged universal notions of suffering, recognizing instead how multiple layers of trauma—whether personal, communal, structural, or historical—are generated by political and economic structures, pedagogies of oppression, mass incarceration, wealth inequality, and the biological embedding of toxic stress. Rhonda Magee alternatively framed mindfulness around institutional colorblindness, and asked researchers to consider how their blind spots influenced their scientific practice. Similarly, Evan Thompson’s closing keynote emphasized that minds exist in the social world and mental processes require internalizing social cognition. He argued that contemplative science needs to reorient itself around models from cognitive ecology and 4E (embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended) approaches to cognition to understand how minds function as coupled brain-body-world systems. This would help to acknowledge the neuro-centric, individualizing, and internalizing biases that have historically shaped mindfulness and help to integrate individual and socio-ecological transformation.

Overall, it was heartening to see that critiques of mindfulness had impacted the field productively and raised concern about social justice, but it was also clear that the impact was felt very differently by different people. Throughout the symposium, there remained an underlying tension between sessions presenting clinical research focused primarily on providing symptomatic relief and an emergent dialogue on social justice that challenged the psych-medical complex and its entire framing of mindfulness. If left unresolved, this tension will inevitably create polarization and conflict. In her closing address, Bauer-Wu said that Mind and Life’s commitment to diversity implies a diversity of perspectives. Yet despite claiming that Mind and Life’s goal was planetary flourishing, none of the presentations addressed climate change, and despite recognizing how oppression is generated by economic structures, none of the presentations addressed capitalism. There seemed to be a decidedly narrow focus on traditional concerns. Even more importantly, despite Roth’s statement that contemplative studies must be multi-disciplinary and multi-epistemological, there was a narrow range of disciplinary and epistemological perspectives. On the one hand, it was encouraging to witness Mind and Life revalorizing social-historical Others, including people of color, women, and non-Buddhist traditions, but it was also discouraging to witness the continued colonization of traditions and peoples through dominant modes of scientific inquiry shaped by neuro-centric, individualizing, and internalizing biases.

If Mind and Life is going to fulfill its commitment toward social justice, it must also practice epistemic justice. Therefore, I propose that the work of transforming mindfulness begins with transforming Mind and Life and its knowledge practices. Presenters who reframed mindfulness around social justice but who remained wedded to clinical and therapeutic interventions often ignored alternatives that would allow them to escape the discursive limits currently shaping mindfulness. The prevailing regimes of knowledge production reflect the privilege of individuals at the center, while denying the human dignity of those at the margins. A preference for evidence-based research privileges science at the expense of non-scientific knowledge practices, especially in the humanities and in non-Western traditions. Indigenous wisdom traditions have long exhibited contemplative practices intrinsically connected to social justice, but they are only now being recognized as contemplative practices through methods of scientific validation. Using science as a form of endorsement is a continuation of colonization.

Though they were among the most progressive presenters at ISCS, Jason Thompson and Rhonda Magee both asked how contemplative science can further the work of social justice, even though ISCS explicitly refers to contemplative studies. In another panel on social justice, Brad Grant recommended increasing the population of minority students in STEM fields. Of course this is important, but it also doesn’t challenge the perpetual reframing of social justice in terms of dominant knowledge practices. Even many of the humanities presentations, which were less well attended, framed themselves around the sciences to enhance their credibility. By doing so, they failed to break from the dominant logics of current research. Despite numerous reframings of contemplative studies, most were redefined in terms of prevailing disciplinary regimes, locating social justice work within clinical, scientific, and therapeutic approaches to mindfulness, trauma, and recovery. Although Mind and Life is now committed to inviting marginalized researchers to present on social justice issues, it is unclear whether their commitments will fundamentally reorient research practices. It may instead welcome seemingly progressive perspectives, but only within established rules of scientific respectability.

For example, in their session on “Reversing Institutional Spiritual Bypassing,” Carla Sherrell and Judith Simmer-Brown provided compassion-based practices as alternatives to individualized, therapeutic forms of mindfulness. Similarly, Matthieu Ricard responded to popular critiques of mindfulness by emphasizing the need for a Compassion Revolution to overtake the Mindfulness Revolution. Ricard even went so far as to claim that practitioners can be mindful without being compassionate, but that they cannot be compassionate without being mindful. It was encouraging to witness this conscious shift toward compassion—one that highlights the centrality of ethics in mindfulness practice. Compassion-based practices can help alleviate racial bias and symptoms of systemic racism. However, there is still a danger: If research continues to be conducted without accounting for its historic biases, then even compassion-based research may fail to explore the intersectionality of social and epistemic injustice. Instead, it could bypass structural and systemic problems regarding how contemplative knowledge is produced, by whom, and for whom.

Thus, it is not yet clear whether or how Bauer-Wu’s admirable new vision for Mind and Life can challenge the institutional structures which incentivize business as usual and which continue to disassociate social justice work from its more radical implications. We should therefore consider several key challenges for genuinely incorporating social justice into Mind and Life. First, it is hard to envision that large foundations currently funding brain science on MBSR are going to reorient their research practices to account for color blindness. Also, Mind and Life has not yet indicated how it plans to de-center its traditional base of neuroscientists, medical students, and educators to accommodate others. Many researchers may feel threatened and react defensively against reorienting themselves toward social justice, arguing that it is not right to demand that they form ethical commitments to socially informed and responsible scholarship. This is a frequent pattern of behavior expressed whenever diversity and inclusion become organizational goals. Researchers may admit social justice into the discussion as a separate issue—something added on the side—while denying their own responsibility to change research protocols so that they account for the social location of the researcher and the social impacts of the research. If this is the outcome of Mind and Life’s new vision, then it may increase its representation of minorities without fundamentally reorienting research practices, and thus structurally transforming injustice. As such, social justice would just be a value added to the margins of an unjust system of producing contemplative scholarship, and the critique of mindfulness would just produce its own antithesis.

Of course, there are other potential outcomes. Mainstream Mind and Life community members may rise to the occasion by making conversations about social and epistemic justice more central. Given the benefit of the doubt, it is also possible that the marginalized voices admitted into Mind and Life will use this opportunity to expose its blind spots, while dismantling current knowledge production practices that privilege white, male, rational, scientific, and euro-American perspectives. However, it is important to understand that it is not incumbent on marginalized people to educate others; on the contrary, bearing the costs of using their bodies, time, money, and emotional capacity to expose injustice often does more harm than good.

Personally, I was selected to represent critical perspectives on a panel at ISCS that was later canceled because my colleagues decided they were unwilling to incur such costs. Marginalized groups must always think strategically about where they invest their limited resources and which audiences they address. It is often better for them to develop alternatives in separate contexts, rather than to struggle for recognition and visibility in dominant communities. People at the margins make themselves ever more vulnerable when protesting power inequities because the system typically reproduces itself with ever greater effectiveness when facing outside threats. Rather than being the responsibility of minorities, it is the responsibility of those at the center to educate themselves and change the dominant culture to be more hospitable.

One could say that the fact that Mind and Life had to respond publicly to criticism is a victory in itself. It would have been better, however, had critics represented themselves. Unfortunately, ISCS is not a hospitable environment for Mind and Life’s critics. As Ron Purser and Ed Ng explain, “secular mindfulness advocates… have largely sidestepped, misrepresented, or summarily dismissed the issues raised in recent critiques.” The symposium’s conversation on “The Promises and Perils of Mainstreaming Mindfulness” was proof of continued inhospitality. The panel, composed of leaders in Mind and Life, was billed as a critical dialogue, but in fact instantiated many of the critiques that my colleagues and I have made over the last several years. For instance, one presenter argued that ensuring the quality of mindfulness instruction should be critics’ primary focus, despite concerns that such an attitude continues to make individuals primarily responsible for structural problems. Meanwhile another speaker repeated tropes about how the Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist and how secular mindfulness was universally available to everyone, despite critics’ repeated concerns that such beliefs empower tacit privilege and authority. Presenting such views as representative of critics’ concerns demonstrates a continued attitude of inhospitality and indifference.

So, what can those at the center of Mind and Life do? As Magee said in her keynote, it is the ethical responsibility of contemplative researchers to circulate and produce more research addressing social justice and to make sure the responsibility for producing such scholarship does not fall on people of color and women, which is currently the case. In addition, it is the responsibility of researchers to produce scholarship that expands beyond traditional perspectives. In his master lecture, John Dunne advocated for more transdisciplinary research. Transdisciplinarity is undoubtedly helpful in collecting and translating diverse knowledge practices, but it also creates emergent discussion between disciplines, rather than contesting the internal integrity of disciplinary practices. This is why undisciplining contemplative studies is also important. Doing mindfulness research using alternate epistemologies can help develop the resources that Mind and Life will need if it is genuinely interested in expanding the field beyond its historic biases. And as Evan Thompson said, using the models of cognitive ecology and 4E cognitive science can help remove neuro-centric, individualizing, and internalizing biases in contemplative science research.

I witnessed three standing ovations during ISCS 2016—one for Rhonda Magee, one for Evan Thompson, and one for Beth Berila during a panel on “Contemplative Practice and Social Justice.” Evidently, there is a significant minority within Mind and Life who share a genuine enthusiasm for decolonizing contemplative studies and who want to work together despite the difficulties. Members of this minority should channel their anger with the system by transmuting it into compassionate action for those excluded by the system. One way is to restate the practice of mindfulness as part of a new discourse. My colleagues and I are currently developing such an alternative under the banner of #makingrefuge. We hope it will expand our understanding of mindfulness beyond its individualized, therapeutic, and scientific forms. We are interested in engaging different modes of inquiry from non-Western lineages, feminism, critical race theory, speculative realism, the posthumanities, the commons, and political ecology, just to name a few. We are also interested in engaging people beyond the academy, like community organizers, activists, and members of diverse sanghas who understand the intersectionality of race, gender, and class oppression in the context of ongoing social-ecological crises. We are curious what contemplation looks like in conversation with radical knowledge practices, and we want to make space for both social and epistemic justice.

Just weeks before this publication, we received an award from Mind and Life to conduct some of this research as part of a project called Socially-Engaged Mindfulness Interventions (SEMI) and the Promise of Making Refuge. We receive this news as a sign of hope. Though much work needs to be done, we are cautiously optimistic about the emergent opportunities for decolonizing contemplative studies and we would like to invite anyone who shares our interests and concerns to join us. May we help Mind and Life realize its new vision together by including social and epistemic justice at the heart of contemplative studies.


Zack Walsh is a Ph.D. student of Religion at Claremont School of Theology. He is also a steering committee member and research specialist at Toward Ecological Civilization, a scientific committee member of Wise and Smart Cities, and a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies and the Institute for the Postmodern Development of China. Currently, his work focuses on engaged Buddhism, contemplative studies, process philosophy, cultural studies, sustainability, political economy, and China. In addition to his scholarly work, Zack has received lay precepts from Fo Guang Shan, an engaged Buddhist organization based in Taiwan.

For further information and publications, see: https://cst.academia.edu/ZackWalsh, https://www.facebook.com/walsh.zack, http://ecociv.org/, http://www.iass-potsdam.de/en, http://wiseandsmartcities.eu/en/, http://postmodernchina.org/


Illustration by Alicia Brown

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *