Harnessing Mindfulness to Heal & Transform Racial Injustice

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Professor Rhonda Magee is a teacher of mindfulness-based stress reduction interventions for lawyers, law students, and for minimizing social-identity-based bias at the University of San Francisco. Her forthcoming book The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness, served as the perfect excuse to connect with this brilliant woman, so please read on for an invaluable conversation.

Professor Magee is not precisely new to the subjects of mindfulness and justice. In fact, this book is the product of years of innovative studies. "I came to law with a background in sociology, and I was very interested in the social function of law, and critiques of law that would take seriously the obvious and non-obvious ways that the law is impacting all of us," she began.

Justice was a subject Professor Magee began exploring thoroughly as an academic, but quickly realized needed a broader approach. "I wanted to have that whole body experience out of the traditional academic headspace, engaging with all of this in a way that might actually feel like justice and healing, so I started relying on yoga and my own mindfulness practices…I thought 'I need to bring this embodied approach more to the fore, it cannot just be intellectual, than in it of itself can do real harm and get us nowhere.'"

Soon, her uncommon interests began to translate into an extraordinary career intertwining mindfulness and the law. Aside from writing extensively on these subjects, she recently served on the board of advisors to the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine's Center for Mindfulness and the Steering Committee of the Mind and Life Institute, wrote one of the first law review notes on reparations, and is a founder of Transforming Justice, a project that uses mindfulness and compassion to transform the criminal justice system.

Our discussion moved towards the impact of mindfulness on our communities as opposed to just our individual experiences, something Professor Magee has significantly focused on.

"The way people think of mindfulness as a personal practice is it's own kind of neo-liberal aberration because it's not how mindfulness traditionally was conceived…something has been lost in translation…because our culture is so hyper-individualized, legacies –by the way- of slavery, this is just part and parcel of a culture of commoditization, and so it shouldn't surprise that the way this has been presented in the West has been really focused on the individual practice," she explained. 

It’s not about accepting what’s arising forever and not changing anything, but it’s about deepening our ability to simply be with what is, long enough to understand it, to more purposefully work to alleviate whatever suffering might be coming up in that moment of awareness.

"If you deepen your study and appreciation for where these mindfulness practices come from, and the deeper teachings underlying them, it becomes very clear that central to these traditions is an awareness of the embedded nature of the self in culture, time, and place and with other human beings…this entire project for me is about radically reconsidering what it means to be a thriving human being and realizing the embeddedness of notions of health and wellbeing in context, community, place, and time." 

Justice is a subject that illustrates well Professor Magee's thoughts on mindfulness as a beneficial practice in our communities. "For me, one can't really experience justice as a purely individual thing…it's important to see the inter-relational nature of reality, and certainly to see that if we're going to heal, we gotta be bringing some people along with us, or else we're never gonna get really far…the healing that we do that we otherwise might narrate as personal is profoundly important for what might happen with ourselves in community and in relationship with others."

The issue of combating social bias arose as a meaningful example of how using mindfulness can affect our communities positively.

Professor Magee began unraveling her thoughts by highlighting the working definition she uses when referring to mindfulness: "The practices of mindfulness support us in being present, paying attention, on purpose, with intention, in a way that allows us acceptance now. It's not about accepting what's arising forever and not changing anything, but it's about deepening our ability to simply be with what is, long enough to understand it, to more purposefully work to alleviate whatever suffering might be coming up in that moment of awareness."

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Understanding that mindfulness is a practice of paying attention with intention is fundamental to combat bias in a society addicted to mindless automatic classifications. Professor Magee went into the details of this process of categorization, highlighting the fact that our brain uses "schemas" to categorize "as short cuts to understanding our world." Of course, that makes sense daily where it would be a drag to re-comprehend everything our eyes see over and over again, but using these short cuts to categorizing humans is a different story.

"We're in a white supremacist culture. Therefore, we've all been trained to in some ways certainly recognize white or something like whiteness, and value that more than other kinds of groups that this culture has trained us to treat with less value and respect," Professor Magee explained. "Mindfulness can raise our awareness of our own tendencies to categorize and rank order…it can help us at least be aware of those things and be more actively engaged in disrupting the habits and patterns that our brains might be trying to play out."

Compassion, roughly defined by Professor Magee as “the will to alleviate suffering,” is a crucial element in this process of becoming aware, that unfortunately is often left out of conversations concerning social justice.

"Whenever you're talking about something that's involving human beings, it would seem that if you don't talk about compassion, you risk doing harm along the way to yourself and to others. If you don't talk about the fact that this thing we call justice is really just a kind of human experience, then you're going to miss realizing that as we try to do justice in the world, we gotta do it in a way that in the doing manifests something like justice, in the actual experience of it. This is about healing as we go, as opposed to just doing what's been done to us."

Unpacking the many elements of Professor Magee's scholarship in a short article is no easy feat, so I hope you're intrigued enough to go buy her book (officially out September 2019, but available for pre-order now!) because we certainly all have some healing and transforming to do.

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.  

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