According to the Pali Canon, the Buddha exhorted his most accomplished disciples to go forth and make his teachings known to anyone who genuinely wanted to put an end to suffering, and whose karma had turned them toward the path. But what happens when a large proportion of seekers never connect with the teachings, because the barriers of poverty and structural racism in their society are so high that the path remains obscured? Do we chalk it up to karma and attend only to those with the means and wherewithal to show up on their own?
For Harrison Blum, the director of religious and spiritual life at Emerson College in Boston, the answer is emphatically “no.” In 2014, as part of his studies at Harvard Divinity School, Blum launched the Mindfulness Allies Project (MAP) to begin tackling what he calls our “mindfulness equity” problem. With MAP, he has led pilot meditation and mindfulness workshops for low-income Bostonians, many of them people of color. Participants learn about the classes through community centers where they access social services where Blum had established enduring relationships. The classes include onsite childcare and a meal afterward, all at no cost—requisites that make six weeks of meditation instruction a workable undertaking for people who struggle to make ends meet, rather than an impossible luxury.
This fall, Blum is also launching eMINDFUL, a mindfulness training and outreach initiative that will prepare Emerson students to work with residents of a nearby homeless shelter.
What inspired you to form the Mindfulness Allies Project?
In 2010, I participated in the fourth iteration of Spirit Rock’s Community Dharma Leader training. That year, 38 percent of the class self-identified as a person of color. In previous programs, they’d had had an average of six percent. That group was specifically designed to have more racial diversity and the instruction incorporated anti-racism and cultural sensitivity training. Then, in 2014, I attended the Symposium for Contemplative Studies and was struck that just five percent of the 300 talks mentioned race and class as subjects in the application or training of mindfulness practices.
So I started feeling like we have this problem of mindfulness equity. Maybe it’s not as dire as water equity or healthcare equity. But when you look at the fact that 60 to 90 percent of all physician visits are for stress-related disorders, then it is actually a healthcare issue, a life expectancy issue. It’s also, of course, a happiness issue.
It’s no secret that most American dharma centers are mostly white and upper-middle class.
Absolutely. And we are also seeing an increase in attendance at retreats specifically for people of color, and of people of color within mixed racial groups. Recently, the Insight Meditation Society celebrated the first time they surpassed 30 percent registration of people of color in their three-month retreat. Still, the fact remains that if you’re poor, a person of color, or both, chances are you have less access to mindfulness teachings.
I used to go to the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center’s Wednesday night talks and hear announcements about the Friday night people of color group. I’d think, “Oh, that’s nice.” But it took my own education to make me start asking questions like “if there’s a people of color group, why isn’t there also a white awareness group? Where is the ally group?”
You’ve talked about how most centers embrace an approach of “inviting in” rather than “going out” to engage people of various backgrounds. Is that what you set out to do with Mindfulness Allies?
Exactly. Diversity efforts have largely been focused on bringing in rather than going out to create real relationships. To the extent that dharma centers leave their walls to engage in outreach service, the majority of that service is material aid. And that’s very good. I’m not saying that mindfulness cures homelessness. But if we have this practice, with good data showing it supports psychological and physical wellness, let’s share it. Let’s leave our shoes on, go out, and share what we specialize in.
What’s the resistance to doing this work?
I think inertia is a big hurdle. I mailed letters of introduction and the invitation to participate in MAP, including documentation of the positive findings of my first MAP pilot, to two meditation retreat centers and six major urban meditation centers. Out of those eight, only two responded, and none expressed interest in learning more or collaborating. At least one of these urban centers has an annual budget of over $100,000, and a MAP 6-week pilot costs just $400 and 45 hours of volunteered time.
What do you attribute that disinterest to?
In some ways, Western Buddhism, particularly the Insight Meditation tradition, came into its own as part of a deliberate retreat from activism. Some of the spiritual movements and centers that were forming in the 1970s and 80s were stepping away from civic or social engagement. I’m not saying that’s true down to a person, but I believe it was a theme. Happily, I think we’re seeing that pendulum swinging back now.
The Buddha did not condone proselytizing. How does creating access differ from that?
As the suttas tell it, the Buddha was concerned with people who were sick. He told his disciples, “you need to take care of each other.” People suffering from stress and stress-related disease surround our dharma centers. That’s why people seek them out.
But the structures that make it possible for people to come and learn and practice are not in place. The fact that there was childcare available, and a free meal afterward, during the pilot classes I taught was in response to the very things that people listed as obstacles preventing them from going to the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, which was half a mile from where I was teaching these classes. One of the students, a single mother earning less than $15,000 a year, knew for years that there was meditation taught in her neighborhood, but was never able to do it because of various structural obstacles.
You’ve connected dance with mindfulness practice, and you’ve edited a book about the relationship between dance and dharma. How have you used dance as a teaching tool?
Movement and dance are fun, they’re somewhat universal, and they’re very good at breaking the ice and building community. Someone might not sign up for a meditation class, but they might try a mindfulness-based hip hop class I’ve taught at the YMCA.
Every single intro to mindfulness class I’ve taught—and I’ve taught hundreds—I begin by teaching Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk. The Moonwalk and mindfulness are quite similar: they both ask us to re-pattern relationships, the Moonwalk with movement and mindfulness with perception. The Moonwalk asks you to balance with less surface area—to balance on a foot with the heel lifted. Mindfulness helps you to grasp less at what you want and push less against what you don’t want. Another similarity is that they’re both easy to talk about and hard to do.
How do you square extracting the teachings on mindfulness from the larger whole of Buddhist practice?
For me, it’s not an issue to take the teachings from the Satipatthana Sutta out of a Buddhist context. The basic idea is how we can relate intimately to the truth of our experience and how can we reduce resistance to the way things are—that is a lot of what Buddhism is about.
We don’t need to proselytize. At the end of my courses, I give students The Power of Now [by Eckhart Tolle], which is not a Buddhist book. I give people resources on local centers that include an Insight Meditation center, but also a local Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher, as well as a local centering prayer organization.
The responses you collected from students in the pilot were very poignant. What do you think was the most significant impact of the courses?
In the first class, I asked people to share their names and what brought them, and several broke down crying, saying how hard their daily life was. That’s a tremendous amount of suffering that people are walking around with, with no supportive container to hold it. But if taking the class could shift that even a little bit for someone, then that’s significant.
Obviously, we’re not going to change structural racism in this course. But one of the very low-income women of color who participated said she was able to change her relationship to chronic pain and better attend doctor visits as a result of the class. For her, leaving the apartment and following through on a doctor’s appointment was a huge victory. I’m not going to dissect the many ways being a poor woman of color is a challenge, but if our class can actually support her in going to a doctor’s visit, that’s an important outcome to an issue that’s racially based.
How do you hope to move forward with the Mindfulness Allies Project?
I basically really need collaborators. I have a detailed guideline on my website for how to set up a MAP pilot, and I think it’s a model that can be adapted to different cities and organizations. If just five meditation centers were to sign on, we’d have a great amount of information that could be published and shared and we could build from there. But we need buy-in to see if it’s a good enough model, and if it is, what it looks like when it’s actually enacted on a broader scale.
You have written that dharma centers have a moral imperative to do this kind of work. Do you think that everyone who gets involved with Buddhist practice or meditation has the same imperative?
In a word, yes. For example, it’s not a requirement that everyone be vegetarian, but maybe there are certain things, like being a vegetarian, that are good to try to do if you care about alleviating suffering. I’m a fan of dharma teachers supporting vegetarian choices. I’m a fan of dharma teachers saying it’s important to help other people, not just yourself, in practice. Aren’t we about getting beyond the circumference of our ego’s needs?