[Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from the book “Integrating Mindfulness Into Anti-Oppression Pedagogy” by Beth Berila. Reprinted here with permission.]
by Beth Berila
Courses that deal with oppression and diversity can greatly benefit from contemplative practices because they can help us unlearn the conditioned responses that uphold systems of oppression. Diversity classes are not just objective studies of content. They also teach self-reflective processes that invite students to examine how systems of oppression affect them and what their roles might be within those systems. Feminist and other diversity classrooms counter a one-dimensional privileging of cognition to highlight an “embodied reflexivity” in which participants learn to reflect on their own ideologies and experiences, question their ways of thinking, and imagine alternatives.
Contemplative practices enable students to cultivate emotional intelligence, learn to sit with difficult emotions, recognize deeply entrenched narratives they use to interpret the world, cultivate compassion for other people, and become more intentional about how they respond in any given moment. All of these abilities can transform dialogues about power, oppression, and privilege from intense reactionary debates into more relational, empathic, and reflective experiences. By integrating mindfulness into our social justice courses, we can help students learn how to navigate fraught situations in intentional, more compassionate ways. This ability is crucial not only in the academic social justice classroom, but also in our broader society.
One central component to mindfulness is a nonjudgmental acceptance of what is. Practitioners learn to accept their reactions, whatever they may be, as a first step towards befriending ourselves. In the context of anti-oppression pedagogy, it is important to note that accepting our responses is not the same thing as accepting oppression. Instead, it is a way of validating our own experiences and feelings, rather than perpetuating the violence of oppression by condemning our own reactions. Mindfulness enables us to gradually understand and befriend our experiences, which can actually serve as a tool to counter oppression. We can learn to meet ourselves with compassion, which can help heal the deep wounds of oppression. When we can meet ourselves with deep kindness and compassion, we can also more fully empathize with others, which counters the separation and Othering that uphold oppressive systems.
Tips for Integrating Mindfulness into Social Justice Courses
Since this book is focused on the praxis of integrating mindfulness into anti-oppression pedagogy, each chapter will include practical tips for doing so. In this chapter, I will address some of the responses one can expect when beginning this process of integration.
1. Colleagues and students may meet these steps with skepticism.
Our colleagues in more traditional disciplines will likely scoff at mindfulness as a pedagogical tool. Its growing popularity in the West, with the scientific evidence that attests to its benefits, is certainly granting it increasing credibility. Still, we may find we need to “justify” or validate our use of it in our classroom.
Similar doubts may come from social justice colleagues and students, who see it as detracting from the “real” social justice work. They may squirm impatiently as we lead a meditation or a breath exercise, wishing we would get to the “more important” social analysis. Be prepared to sit with these reactions, explain what mindfulness offers social justice work, and invite them to give it a try.
2. Social justice colleagues may dismiss mindfulness practices as a way of “protecting” students from doing the hard work of facing their own racism, sexism, classism, or homophobia.
As self-reflective teachers and mindfulness practitioners, it is important to carefully consider these concerns. Ask ourselves honestly if mindfulness practices are deflecting or deepening this work. Like any pedagogical tool, they can be used in a variety of ways, some of which are counter-productive to social justice goals.
However, as we will see throughout this book, when used in particular ways, mindfulness techniques can help students and teachers do the work of unlearning oppression in deeper, more embodied, ways. They also enhance emotional intelligence and resilience for our students, which are critical benefits for supporting them in continuing the work of unlearning oppression long after the end of a semester’s class or even a four-year-degree.
3. The language of acceptance and compassion that informs mindfulness will be seen by some social justice colleagues as “watering down” the importance of “fighting” against systematic violence.
I have had more than one colleague express hesitance that mindfulness will simply “coddle” privileged students and dismiss the pain and anger of marginalized students. These are legitimate concerns that anyone utilizing contemplative practices in the classroom needs to consider. However, I would argue that, when done properly, it does precisely the opposite. As Musial notes, “caring is not about coddling students, it is about being completely present with individuals” and meeting them where they are (2012, 221). I was initially disheartened when I heard that response from my social justice colleagues, but I have come to accept that we may simply disagree about the best ways to reach a common goal. I believe that mindfulness provides a deeply needed seed for sustainability in our efforts toward social change. Mindfulness offers the tools for students to learn to support themselves and one another in the experience of any emotion—anger, frustration, sadness, guilt, fear—and can help them stay present together as they work through those complex discussions in the classroom.
Emphasizing compassion and peace does not preclude battling oppression or dismantling systems. The language of compassion and peace I use here comes from socially engaged mindfulness activists from a variety of traditions, including the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Tibetan leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the nonviolent philosophy of Mohatma Ghandi, the feminism of bell hooks and Audre Lorde, along with centuries of yogi and meditation scholars, many of whom addressed the inequalities of society. Drawing on both feminist pedagogy scholars and yoga philosophy, Jennifer Musial calls it a “heart-centered” pedagogy (2012, 215). Indeed, I arrived at this approach because it was a more sustainable for me. After years of teaching Women’s Studies courses in the academy, I found the approach of “fighting” oppression without the complementary ingredient of compassion and healing left me feeling like I was doing more violence to myself and others—constantly challenging without having the capacity to rebuild more equitable and socially just alternatives. I see social justice, mindfulness, and anti-oppression pedagogy as supporting each other as we seek to create empowering alternatives and support our students in doing this work for the rest of their lives.
4. Talking about oppression may be seen as disturbing the “peace” of mindfulness spaces.
Some mindfulness colleagues may express frustration that we are bringing critique and social issues into the supposedly “peaceful” realm of meditation and yoga. They might bristle at being challenged on their privilege. This accusation is nothing new for those of us who do this work. What is unique about this context is that too often these practices are seen as “escapes” from life that should remain removed from critical analysis. While I do believe that there are some ways of being that require modes of inquiry other than intellectual critique, I also believe that mindfulness spaces need to address social justice concerns if they are truly to live up to their potential. As Rendón writes, “When all we do is focus our self-awareness without a concomitant emphasis on social consciousness and action, what remains is a self-serving, individual blindness to world needs” (2014, 9). For instance, those of us who discuss racism, sexism, or homophobia in yoga studios, are often accused of being disruptive, as though these issues are not already in those spaces and too often are not named. The claim that the yoga studio is people’s “escape” from the harsh realities of life does not hold when U.S. yoga studios are so predominantly white, heteronormative, and middle to upper class. More and more activists, including the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, an organization in which I am a founding board member, are raising these conversations in order to make those spaces more inclusive and more informed. The integration of mindfulness and social justice is a dialectical and mutually transformative process.
5. Some students will dislike some of the practices.
No mindfulness practice is a silver bullet that will meet all the needs of every student. We should be skeptical of anything that claims otherwise. It is helpful to prepare students ahead of time that some practices will resonate with them more than others, and to create spaces to discuss what did and did not work for students after each practice. That also means integrating a range of practices so that hopefully something will resonate with each student. Alternatively, a class might focus on one or two particular practices so as to develop depth and consistency throughout the semester. In the latter case, students should be informed of that expectation at the very beginning of the semester, in time for them to drop the class if they are unable to participate in the practices for any reason. It is also incumbent on the professor to work with students to make the practices accessible for everyone if they are required for the class; that may mean offering alternatives for some students.
6. The pressure to place content over process in limited class time.
This is a tricky one, often informed by our own internalized paradigms as teachers that the content is actually more important than this “out-of-the-box” mindfulness practice. Our students and colleagues cannot be expected to accept the value of these practices if we doubt them ourselves (believing in their value is not the same thing as suggesting that they are silver-bullet, universal fixes). So we must try to resist the urge to cut mindfulness practices in favor of devoting more class time to content. (I myself have been guilty of doing this, but when I do, the mindfulness practices do not have their desired effect.)
The best way of countering the content-over-practice paradigm is to clearly articulate the value of the process itself. Explain why and how you are using mindfulness in the classroom and why it brings such valuable contributions to social justice work. Help students see that often, the “resistance” that arises in doing the practices is precisely the material we need to work with, just as the “resistance” that arises in working against power and privilege often highlights the exact power dynamics we are trying to dismantle. The teacher can facilitate reflective discussions about the process itself, thereby modeling the experiential process.
Mindful education is one valuable way to help students fully integrate and embody the lessons of anti-oppression pedagogy. In fact, the very practice of mindfulness is a fundamental catalyst for transformation. Like feminism, mindfulness is more about process than it is about product. If, as Audre Lorde said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” then we need to learn new ways of being in the world. Integrating mindful learning into anti-oppression pedagogy lets us do just that. Contemplative practices, when integrated into the college classroom, can help students develop the ability to critically self-reflect. They can also offer students the tools to remain present—and embodied—in the classroom.
Contemplative pedagogy uses practices that enable deep introspection into meaning, ethics, purpose, and values. They encourage reflection on our internal experience as well as our interdependence with others. Like much anti-oppression pedagogy, contemplative pedagogy challenges the objectivism and empiricism of traditional learning, suggesting that there is much more to learn than a privileging of rational knowledge and scientific methods allow. Without discounting the value of the former, contemplative pedagogy reveals the rich potential of introspection that helps cultivate the depth of our hearts with an eye towards greater sustainability. As Barbezat and Bush write, “[C]ontemplative pedagogy does not supplant or detract from rigorous analytical inquiry….rather, they can augment and enhance, and even transform, traditional modes of teaching and learning”. Just as traditional analytical education trains students how to question and perceive in nuanced ways, contemplative pedagogy helps students cultivate a nuanced discernment of their own experience. When it comes to learning about oppression, I argue, one without the other is ultimately ineffective to both understanding how oppression operates and to unlearning it.
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About Beth Berila
Beth Berila, Ph.D., 500-hr RYT is the Director of the Women’s Studies Program and Professor in the Ethnic and Women’s Studies Department at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota. She is also a 500-hr registered yoga teacher and an Ayurvedic Yoga Specialist who completed her 500-hour Yoga Teacher Training program at Devanadi School of Yoga and Wellness. She is the author of the book Integrating Mindfulness into Anti-Oppression Pedagogy: Social Justice in Higher Education (Routledge). As a member of the leadership team of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, she works to make yoga accessible to every body by challenging the lack of diversity in the mainstream Western yoga culture. Her current projects merge yoga and meditation practices with feminism and mindful education to create a form of socially engaged embodied learning.