How to Get Your Mind Right: Mindfulness for Social Change Agents

At my organization, we’re doing some “self” work exploring how our inner thoughts and beliefs impact our leadership and how we show up for the people around us. Now you may wonder why an organization would waste valuable time navel gazing when we’ve got “real” jobs to do. Sharon Salzberg, a mindfulness teacher, claims, “We learn and grow and are transformed not so much by what we do but by why and how we do it.” I would argue that for any leader working to affect social change, carving out time to reflect on why and how we do our “work” matters just as much as our outcomes.

As part of this personal leadership exploration, our team participated in an exercise to identify our “inner committee” where we explored the voices in our head who dominate our inner monologue. Immediately I thought to myself, ‘So there is a name for all those voices upstairs who run my life!’

When I was 10, I enrolled in a new school. Picture buildings made of brick, perfectly landscaped grounds, and white kid after white kid tumbling out of luxury SUVs parked in an orderly carpool line. Now enter scene, me, a middle-class brown girl approaching adolescence at a pace faster than my classmates. My little coconut self rolled into my new school without a care in the world and right into a perfect storm of hormones, race relations, class privilege, and gender roles.

My protective mother gave me a long list of “do’s and don’ts” to cope. She hoped knowing this secret rulebook would let me integrate seamlessly into the new world I had entered. I learned not to wear too much makeup, to avoid hoop earrings, to have good manners. Shoot, I even learned how to play tennis. The people around me added to the rulebook. A boy I was crushing on told me not to wear my hair a certain way because it made me look like his housekeeper. One teacher advised that I only opt into AP Spanish because taking any more advanced classes would just be too much. Pretty soon, I couldn’t tell the difference between their voices and my own. “Be the best. Prove you belong here. Earn your keep.” In a talk at Brown University, Junot Diaz addresses this concept, the absence of self-compassion amongst students of color in elite institutions telling his audience, “As young people of color, we drive ourselves to superhuman limits to get to these schools. But when you are here, you cannot survive like that. You have to put the whip down. The self-talk will kill you.”

My prep school experience was the breeding ground for many of my present day inner committee members, particularly the ones I’m hoping to demote. Folks like Ichabod Crane, victim of his own fear and superstition, the Giving Tree, a female apple tree with limitless selflessness, or the drill sergeant who pushes me to my limits, demands I pull myself up by own bootstraps, and accepts no excuses.

While my early schooling was foundational, I know my inner committee formation was not limited to this experience alone. Many of my characters also bear some resemblance to family members making me wonder if inner committees could be inherited, even genetic? There is research that shows that traumas experienced by our ancestors can make their way into our historical memory. So on top of battling our own demons, we now have to unpack all the colonial baggage we’ve inherited?!

I would venture to say yes. So I’ve pulled together a list of questions for us to ask our inner committee members to determine if we still have space for them in the new year.

1. What is their motive?

2. What stories are they telling you about who you are, your value, and capabilities?

3. What part of white supremist culture are they upholding? In what ways are they encouraging you to replicate the oppression you experienced?

4. How does each committee member impact what you fear and what you face?

5. Is this committee member helping you move towards who you aspire to be as change maker?

While my old inner committee members have some redeeming qualities, I’m making more room for new characters like Xena (the Princess Warrior) who is relentless about her pursuit of justice and unapologetic about wielding a sword to do it or Ixchel, the ancient Mayan goddess known for healing and her powerful intuition.

I know this journey won’t be short or easy but I’m looking forward to channeling more Xena and less Ichabod in 2017. So this year, let’s commit to freeing ourselves from our inner committee members who egg us on to doubt, to lose hope, to blame, to dominate. Instead, let’s choose to create a new leadership paradigm to bring about the change our world so desperately needs.