Blogs & Essays

Healing Justice for a World on Fire

Leaf on water, book cover
Cover Image for Healing Justice: Holistic Self-Care for Change Makers

In the Adittapariyaya Sutta, known as the Fire Sermon, the Buddha says that everything is burning—burning with the fire of greed, hatred, delusion, sorrows, griefs, lamentations, pains, and despair.1 But what does it mean not only to survive this burning but to live a more liberated life in a world that is on fire? While dutifully cultivating mind and spirit through practice and retreats has seemed like what would be most fruitful in “my” awakening, this approach has in fact left too many stones unturned. My personal blind spots, as well as the suffering I witness and am co-conspirator in creating on this planet, need more careful attention and action. My liberation is tied up with yours, hers, his, theirs, and ours. Some have identified a tendency to repress the emotional, somatic, environmental, and collective dimensions of the self through spiritual practice, calling it “spiritual bypassing.”2 This issue could not be more salient at a moment when spiritual leaders, including those in Buddhist and yogic communities, such as Shambhala International, have been accused of egregious betrayals, sexual assault, gross intoxication, and misuse of power.3

There is healing work to be done as we try to understand and transform suffering in multiple spheres, including our families, interpersonal relationships, communities, social systems, politics, and culture. Waking up is a process of the whole self, a course of healing the disconnected and wounded parts of the body, mind, heart, spirit, environment, and community. For me, healing has necessitated time in therapy and self-help groups, therapeutic writing, developing more understanding and compassion for my embodied self through gentle yoga and other somatic practices, working with others to decolonize the spaces I move in, and continually renewing my commitment to activism. If anyone ever gives the impression that meditation practice will solve all our problems, they have misunderstood the meaning of liberation. Liberation can be thought of instead as an engaged and skillful dynamic practice of stillness, reflection, and action that is performed in relationship with self and others. As Buddhist teacher Rev. angel Kyodo williams has said, “Love and justice are not two. Without inner change, there can be no outer change; without collective change, no change matters.”4

The importance of this healing work is clear and urgent, as we see everywhere the effects of environmental devastation, systemic oppression, and intergenerational trauma. Activists and practitioners have come to use the term healing justice to describe a pathway of personal and collective liberation and well-being. Healing justice work has multiple points of entry. One is a form of transformative self-care for activists, social workers, humanitarians, caregivers, and people who may identify as “wounded healers.” Black Lives Matter activists, for example, have articulated a list of 10 reasons why healing justice is necessary to heal historical trauma and oppression and to sustain their movement.5 Activist and author adrienne maree brown has said, “I think it is healing behavior, to look at something so broken and see the possibility and wholeness in it.”6

Another entry point is for contemplative practitioners to expand their practice of compassionate attention to include their whole, interconnected selves and to realize that awakening and social change are not separate. Still another entry point can be to discover ways that resources, including mind-body healing modalities, can be made available to low-income people, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others who bear the brunt of oppressive social systems. Many people find that they resonate with multiple entry points into healing justice.

Healing justice looks different for everyone, depending on their life history, personality, and social location. It may mean attending to and working with the systemic roots of psycho-social issues such as addiction, anxiety, and depression, or it may mean learning about and taking action on issues of social justice and inclusivity in the workplace or in spiritual communities. It may mean practicing nonviolent communication as one grows in understanding of the workings of white supremacy and patriarchy in organizations one is a part of, or disentangling and resisting the greed and attachment that manifest in our economic systems and the natural world. Healing justice may mean practicing compassionate self-care in one’s own life, seeking restoration and connection in a world caught in a maelstrom of digital capitalism, speed, and overwork. For people whose bodies do not conform to the status quo or have been targeted with violence, compassionate self-care and “radical self-love” become acts of resistance.7 As Audre Lorde famously said, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”8

If the world is indeed on fire, then we are responsible for doing the work of cooling the fires and suffering of greed, anger, and ignorance within our own spheres of influence. Investigation of the Pali term nibbana (nirvana) reveals that it connotes the extinguishing of a flame. By understanding the impermanent nature of experience, we can let go of attachments and come to understand that such experience is actually available to us in any given moment. We can think of healing justice as a kind of balm for the inflammation caused by our egoic self-centeredness, the violence we perpetrate against ourselves and others, and the residue of domination and victimization. It is a framework and set of practices that can help us to uproot what bell hooks calls “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”9

The Healing Justice Framework and the Six Capabilities

While there are many paths for healing justice—for example, ones grounded in Indigenous frameworks10—I propose a pathway grounded in Buddhist and yogic wisdom, integrating the guidance of liberation-oriented social movements and a growing base of scientific evidence. In this context, the Sanskrit word samskara, which classically means the mental impressions or psychological imprints in the mind-heart, can be a useful term. In a modern neuroscience sense, samskaras might be thought of as neural pathways in the brain. This patterning is a result of individual and socially constructed actions and habits. Some of these habits serve us well, i.e., are skillful, and some do not. A transformative path of awakening and healing can be thought of as: 1) deepening skillfulness, 2) healing unskillfulness, and 3) creating new liberatory pathways. Neuroscience research seems to point to this view, identifying the brain’s neuroplasticity and capacity for change (as well as its limits).11

What I call the  six capabilities are practices, behaviors, and traits that we can cultivate and employ in service to healing and liberation. They are: mindfulness, compassion, effort, equanimity, curiosity, and critical inquiry. These capabilities serve as guideposts for each of the dimensions of the self that are deserving of our attention—body, emotions, thoughts, community, nature, and spirit. The Healing Justice Framework pictured in Figure 1 offers a visual way to understand these capabilities and dimensions. Below I discuss each of the capabilities in more detail and briefly describe what healing work might look like in each dimension of the whole self.

Healing Justice Framework

Figure 1: Healing Justice Framework. Reprinted with permission from Loretta Pyles, Healing Justice: Holistic Self-Care for Change Makers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

These six capabilities are traits that we already possess. But the path of healing justice invites us to activate and deepen them in proactive and skillful ways in order to bring more wholeness into our lives and communities.

Mindfulness is vital for healing justice as it is a practice of bringing attention to a range of human experiences in order to learn, transform, and act skillfully. I find apt Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness as  “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”12 To practice mindfulness is to utilize the tool of basic awareness to help one be present to what is. The Pali term samatha (peaceful abiding) is helpful here as we consider the importance of stillness and calming the mind in today’s culture of busyness. We can take this further by using awareness to gain insight (vipassanā) into ourselves and the world we are part of, allowing us to learn and grow.

Because of the brain’s tendency toward negativity,13 we need to strengthen our basic capacity for kindness and compassion. For many of us, it is easier to have compassion and empathy for others than to have it for ourselves. Karuna, the Pali word for compassion, means literally the trembling or quivering of the heart in response to pain and suffering. Moreover, karuna is not just a feeling but contains the potential for action. We can consciously cultivate a field of compassion as we engage in the healing-justice journey, bringing a basic kindness to our bodily sensations, myriad states of mind, relationships to other humans and nonhumans, systems, and events. Specific practices such as metta (lovingkindness practice), can facilitate this cultivation. As Octavia Butler has said, “kindness eases change.”14

Effort, or abhyasa in Sanskrit, means that we try—that we do the footwork of liberation, whether that is the discipline of maintaining a regular personal practice or the exertion required  to make it to community actions and  difficult organizational meetings. Effort is a reminder that healing and transformation are embodied activities, not just something we can think about. It is interesting to note that sometimes we are capable of making immense efforts in certain parts of our lives, such as work and/or family, but can come up short when it comes to the disciplines of contemplative practice and self-care. Or sometimes we can run into the problem of over-doing our healing work. The Buddha likened proper practice to the way the musician tunes a stringed instrument—not too tight, not too loose. If we try too hard, it’s too sharp, and if we don’t try hard enough, it’s too flat.

We also have the capability to practice equanimity—letting go and accepting things as they are. Equanimity also means not being attached to outcomes, which is hard as we have so much skin in the game—despite all our efforts, things happen that are beyond our control. We think we know what kind of person we are supposed to be after putting years of effort into our practice, only to find out that change and healing can be infinitesimally slow, and that social change is equally as vexing. Tara Brach uses the term radical acceptance, calling it “the gateway to healing wounds and spiritual transformation. When we can meet our experience with Radical Acceptance, we discover the wholeness, wisdom and love that are our deepest nature.”15

The path of awakening requires as well a certain amount of curiosity, what meditation teacher Rodney Smith calls “a curiosity of the heart.”16 Without curiosity, we won’t be motivated to dive deep. It is curiosity that asks, “Just how many layers are there to this suffering? What am I attached to in this moment? What are my real capacities here?” The curious mind notices, “It’s interesting that I get defensive when certain people say x, y, or z” or “I’ve noticed that when I go to bed late, I’m less able to take care of myself and be present for others throughout the day.” Diving deeper, we can ask “What is it that compels me to stay up so late?” Curiosity is based on two paradoxical truths—on the one hand, we can know ourselves and the world more deeply, and on the other, there is a mystery to our lives that we can never fully know.

While many of us realize that we live in a culture that tends to over-emphasize the cognitive dimension of the self, we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Critical inquiry is a vital skill for healing justice. We want to preserve and develop our ability to question the way things are, to not take assumptions for granted, and to trace the socio-historical origins of oppression in our communities. LGBTQ activist Suzanne Pharr said, “critical thinking is the most important skill for the pursuit of freedom, equality and justice, and the greatest enemy of authoritarianism.”17 Not only is critical inquiry important for recognizing and interrogating oppressive ideas, policies, and practices of society at large, but it also becomes an important skill for questioning—and disrupting—authoritarian cultures in spiritual communities, the commodification of mindfulness, and the harmful practices that are their result.

The six capabilities are mutually reinforcing and interconnected. We can bring compassion to effort and critical inquiry, allowing us to soften a bit. We can bring equanimity to mindfulness and effort, helping us to give up control over experiences we do not like and to let go of outcomes. Curiosity and critical inquiry are close companions to equanimity and compassion as we explore our own psycho-social histories and the cultures we are embedded in. Whether we are sitting still in contemplation or engaged in action, cultivating these capabilities provides a rich environment for healing, growth, and transformation of our whole selves.

Healing the Whole Self

In the Western tradition, we tend to experience ourselves as minds completely identified with our thoughts and beliefs carrying around bodies that we often ignore or try to dominate. But this kind of individualism neglects the ways that the mind and body work in unison, how other people socially construct who we are (and vice versa), and our interdependence with other beings and the environment. Various scientific forms of inquiry, including physics, cognitive science, and systems theory, affirm that the boundary between “me” and another person, or between me and the natural world, is really quite permeable.18 Ayurvedic medicine teaches that everything is made up of the same elements—space, air, fire, water, and earth.19 We are much more than our bodies and minds. We are bodies, hearts, minds, spirits, communities, and Nature herself.

The path of healing begins with the body, which even some Buddhist traditions overlook in their focus on the mind. Taking care of the body turns out to be a puzzling thing for people in modern society. Some of us must learn again, or perhaps for the first time, how to eat well, how to move our bodies with ease, how to rest and sleep restoratively. We cannot achieve any kind of connection or awakening without a body. We can bring our compassionate attention to ourselves as we learn about the embedded suffering in and the unique needs of our own bodies. Unfortunately, many spiritual lineages have ignored, or even regarded with contempt, the needs of the body and instead emphasize transcendence of the body. To address our bodies’ needs, there are innumerable practices that we can do alone or with others, such as tai chi, transformative dance, generative somatics, acupuncture and massage, 12-step programs for addictions, and other forms of holistic healthcare. Having support from experts, mentors, and peers can be helpful, as sometimes when left to our own devices we fall into patterns of either judgmental scrutiny and domination of the body or neglectful disregard for it.

The heart, or emotional self, may be viewed as part of the mind-body continuum. Our emotional well-being, interpersonal relationships, and communication strategies are the canary in the coal mine on our path to liberation. Things may seem to go pretty well on the meditation cushion, but after many years we still find ourselves engaging in behaviors driven by anxiety, addictive tendencies, anger, or confusion. While meditation can certainly be powerful and supportive in emotional healing, we often need to seek help in other places as we learn to work with the patterns we developed in our families of origin, or find support for unresolved grief, co-dependency, or workaholism. The possibilities for growth here are endless and can take place over a lifetime.

Thinking, which is our mind’s principal activity, is a critical dimension of our healing justice journey as we reflect on our lives and world, tell stories, and together envision new ways forward. But, the mind is not always an ally. We produce innumerable thoughts throughout the day and many of them are addictive and troubling. Having a practice that allows us to observe, note, and learn about our thoughts and the very nature of thinking can be useful, whether that practice is meditation, journaling, or a mindfulness-based therapy such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Each mind is unique, and these practices can help us to learn about our attention span, the kinds of thoughts that tend to hook us in, and our mind’s great need to seek out new information and stimulation.

In the Healing Justice Framework, community, nature, and spirit are so central to who we are that they appear twice—both at the center of the mind-body self and surrounding it. While culturally we tend to think of ourselves as separate individuals, who we are is actually determined just as much by communities of people, known and unknown, who socially construct language, meaning, culture, and the self. Western beliefs in individualism, competition, and capitalism are tempered by a growing body of knowledge about the power of empathy and cooperation in human evolution.20 It is inarguable that the well-being of an individual is intricately connected to the community they are a part of, and depends on the availability and quality of resources, such as schools, businesses, and public services. Well-being is equally, and adversely, affected by liabilities like crime, violence, and pollution.21 It takes intentional action to unravel and transform the systemic oppression that manifests in our communities. Community organizing and participation in solidarity economies (e.g., cooperatives) are examples of ways that we can do community healing and social change work.

While human beings evolved in environments that were rich with sensations, including exposure to sunlight, water, plants, animals, and landscapes, our modern culture tends to dissociate us from the natural world. Many work environments produce a kind of sensory deprivation, as 47 percent of American workers have no natural light available to them and 58 percent have no plants.22 Climate change and species extinction are just two of myriad environmental problems that we face today. Reconnecting to the natural world can be a way to move toward a more liberatory place as persons of planet Earth. Biophilic building design is an approach to design that brings in aspects of the natural world such as texture, color, and light to enhance human well-being. Spending more time in nature and paying attention to the cycles of nature (e.g., moon phases, seasons change) can be excellent starting points as appreciation deepens and we receive nature’s healing benefits. Environmental activists have surmised that mindful time spent in nature may have synergistic effects on our compassion and activism for the Earth.23

Spirituality has negative connotations for some people, whether it is the belief that it’s just not cool to be spiritual, or disgust with religious intolerance and histories of violence and abuse in religious communities. But if we define spirituality a bit more broadly to include connection with something beyond the egoic self, something that gives humans a sense of existential meaning, then perhaps many could agree that we are spiritual beings. For some of us, healing the spiritual self may mean coming to terms with a fractured relationship with spirituality. Spiritual practices, done alone and with others, may include contemplative reading, prayer, meditation, singing, and other rituals. Besides the exquisite fruits that a spiritual life can provide, cultivating our spirits can bolster our resilience as well as our intentions and capabilities for doing the work of social change.

Compassionate Action in Troubling Times

How can we awaken to the fact that our fates are linked? How can we be kind in the face of cruelty and hatred? How can we help a world that is burning while also helping ourselves?  Healing justice offers a framework, pathway, and set of practices for liberation and transformative justice, ripe for a time marked by disconnection, division, and domination. Engaged Buddhists, service-oriented yogis, and a new generation of holistically inclined activists understand that healing the world and healing ourselves are not mutually exclusive endeavors.

Human attachment to greed, anger, and delusion is fuel for the fire of suffering. Working with the truth of impermanence along with the capabilities of mindfulness, compassion, effort, equanimity, curiosity, and critical inquiry can help us to cool the fires. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk and grandfather of Engaged Buddhism, has emphasized compassion as the way. He adds: “Compassion is not something soft. It takes a lot of courage.”24 May we all have the courage of compassionate action in these troubling times.


Loretta Pyles, PhD, is Professor at the School of Social Welfare at the University at Albany, SUNY. She is also a yoga teacher, Vipassana practitioner, workshop leader, organizational consultant, and activist. Her most recent book is Healing Justice: Holistic Self-Care for Change Makers (Oxford University Press). Her research, writing, and community work has focused on the areas of disasters, violence against women, crisis/trauma, racial justice, economic justice, workplace justice, and body-mind-spirit practice. You can learn more by going to: www.lorettapyles.com.


Feature Image Credit: Book Cover, Loretta Pyles, Healing Justice: Holistic Self-Care for Change Makers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Figure 1: Healing Justice Framework. Reprinted with permission from Loretta Pyles, Healing Justice: Holistic Self-Care for Change Makers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).


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Notes

  1. “Adittapariyaya Sutta: The Fire Sermon” (SN 35.28), translated from the Pali by Ñanamoli Thera, Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), June 13, 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/sn35.028.nymo.html.
  2. Ingrid Mathieu, “Beware of Spiritual Bypass,” Psychology Today, October 2, 2011, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/emotional-sobriety/201110/beware-spiritual-bypass.
  3. Andy Newman, “The ‘King’ of Shambhala Buddhism is Undone by Abuse Report,” New York Times, July 11, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/11/nyregion/shambhala-sexual-misconduct.html.
  4. Rev. angel Kyodo williams, https://angelkyodowilliams.com/.
  5. “10 Reasons Why Healing Justice,” https://blacklivesmatter.com/healing-justice/.
  6. adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2017).
  7. Sonia Renee Taylor, The Body is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2018).
  8. Cited in Sarah Mirk, “Audre Lorde Thought of Self-Care as an ‘Act of Political Warfare,’” Bitch Media, February 28, 2016, https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/audre-lorde-thought-self-care-act-political-warfare.
  9. bell hooks, “Understanding Patriarchy,” https://imaginenoborders.org/pdf/zines/UnderstandingPatriarchy.pdf.
  10. Michael Yellowbird, “Decolonizing the Mind: Using Mindfulness Research and Traditional Indigenous Ceremonies to Delete the Neural Networks of Colonialism,” http://www.aihec.org/our-stories/docs/BehavioralHealth/2016/NeurodecolonizationMindfulness_YellowBird.pdf.
  11. Mei-Kei Leung et al., “Increased Gray Matter Volume in the Right Angular and Posterior Parahippocampal Gyri in Loving-Kindness Meditators.,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 8, no. 1 (2013): 34–39, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nss076.
  12. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2009).
  13. Rick Hanson, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence (New York: Crown Publishing, 2013).
  14. Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993), 153.
  15. Tara Brach, “The Power of Radical Acceptance: Healing Trauma through the Integration of Buddhist Meditation and Psychotherapy,” https://www.tarabrach.com/articles-interviews/trauma/.
  16. Rodney Smith, Awakening: A Paradigm Shift of the Heart (Boston: Shambhala, 2014).
  17. Suzanne Pharr, In the Time of the Right: Reflections on Liberation (Oakland, CA: Chardon Press, 1996), 17.
  18. See, for example: Rick Hanson, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger  Publications, 2009).
  19. David Frawley, Yoga and Ayurveda: Self-Healing and Self-Realization (Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press, 1999).
  20. Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis (Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 2009).
  21. Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
  22. Cary Cooper and Bill Browning, The Global Impact of Biophilic Design in the Workplace, Global Report: Human Spaces, http://humanspaces.com/global-report/.
  23. Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Economic Renewal (Berkeley, CA: Parallax, 2003).
  24. John Malkin (interview with Thich Nhat Hanh), “In Engaged Buddhism, Peace Begins with You,” Lion’s Roar, July 1, 2003, https://www.lionsroar.com/in-engaged-buddhism-peace-begins-with-you/.