On ISIS and Mindfulness

We are practicing a self-compassion exercise in which we repeat, “may you be happy,” “may you be healthy,” “may you be safe,” and “may you be at ease”. We begin by saying these things to ourselves, and then progress outward, practicing this well-wishing to increasingly distant people, to a friend, a benefactor, a stranger, a difficult person. The leader of the group tells us, “then, try expanding this compassionate stance to all of humanity.”

“Even ISIS?” a young man asks, laughing incredulously, breaking the serious and somber tone of the group. His comment brings a certain intrusion into the spiritual space; a demarcation from the “real” world is now placed within our universal practice. A process of acceptance is now one of rejection. Yet, his comment is reflected by others in the group, as a small caucus of members voice their support for “drawing the line” at a group of “terrorists”. Even though it was explained that compassion does not mean that you condone their actions, or even think they are “good people,” there has become a line that some just won’t cross. ISIS is, apparently, the limit of humanity, the borderline between us and other.

The class on mindfulness is designed with a utilitarian approach: to teach basic mindfulness and self-compassion techniques to lay people. I have felt a little out of place since the beginning, as I am there not as a “lay person,” but as a graduate student in mental health counseling in order to fulfill a credit requirement. Still, I have been quietly observing, trying to absorb what practical information and techniques I can from the class without allowing my “inner critic” (to use the language of the class) to overtake my consciousness with its cynicism. Yet, my efforts to absorb information are often jolted by the collision of two languages used by the teachers: that of Buddhist mindfulness and that of capitalist utility.

The class offers evidence based mindfulness. It is not designed to heal old wounds, reorient relations to the world, or to teach universal values. Rather, the class is designed to teach remedial techniques that can help us to deal with a world that stresses our souls and stretches our bodies. There is a constant tension here where the values of slowing down, expanding, erasing the difference between ourselves and others come up against a logic of consumption, that requires the efficient use of time, tight and controlled concepts that can be applied, empirical evidence, and a critical, competitive environment. The instructors often talk about how these practices “have been shown in studies to increase happiness and productivity and reduce anxiety”. It is scheduled during lunch, so that people can rush from their offices to the the one-hour group for their lunch break. But there is no real calm to be found in this attempt to reify mindfulness, a practice that, at its core, is about eliminating our cognitive obsession with creating controllable, containable objects.

This tension is exactly what is at play as the group members try, and fail, to extend their compassion for self, friend and personal enemy out into a larger world defined for them by borders and “terrorist” others. Their ability to adopt the compassionate, mindful approach is limited to a certain realm of the familiar. The lines along which this familiarity are structured are telling. As much as the self-compassion group is liberally minded, I’m sure they would not have such a difficult time finding some compassion for Donald Trump. They could follow the steps of understanding, trying to isolate the ways in which he is feeling pain and acting from a place of fear and insecurity. One of them said as much, explaining that she can feel great compassion for people with other political ideas, even if she really disagrees with them. It was not Trump, nor some personal enemy that was announced as the limit for compassion. Such a border is drawn not with ideologies, but with brown bodies, “other” religion, and a sensationalized brutality.

If the criteria for extending compassion is the ability to understand someone else’s suffering, and therefore to empathize with them and see their actions as coming from a place of pain and striving for a more safe, happy life, then ISIS should be easier to be compassionate to than Donald Trump. Anyone with a basic knowledge of the rise of the Islamic State knows that it arose in the midst of an incredibly brutal civil war in Syria, after decades of US led war in the region had killed and displaced millions. How many of these young ISIS militants have lost a brother to a bullet, a child to a drone strike, a livable life to the collapse of a nation? Is it really so hard to see the pain of someone who feels that they have no other option than to join an extremely violent, hateful army to fight against some of the biggest military powers in the world? Unfortunately, it seems that such a basic investigation into some of the conditions of these fighters is an impossibility. The borders have already been constructed, ISIS are terrorists and terrorists are off limits, the other, the evil ones, the unforgivable.

If we choose any border for our compassion, then we are accepting a bordered spirituality, a divided universality. Of course, this is no universality at all, much like a compartmentalized, “15-minute” mindfulness is no mindfulness at all. Unfortunately, this is what is so often passing for a sort of spiritual revolution in this country: a practice that dares to challenge all conventions, so long as such challenges don’t disrupt the mechanisms of white-supremacy, capitalist production, patriarchy or other power-maintaining systems. A spiritual “revolution” that fits neatly and tightly into the few spaces in our lives that are not already colonized by our jobs and media-technology. It’s a convenient, efficient revolution, which is no revolution at all.

Is it so bad to practice yoga in the breakroom so that you can stay de-stress enough from your morning to get through the afternoon? Is it so bad to practice a limited form of compassion, even if you can’t expand it to the “terrorists”? Perhaps these remedial, and sometimes offensively appropriated, forms of spiritual practice can be helpful in a limited context, even if they don’t challenge the oppressions of society. I have nothing against the people who use them, and I myself have certainly used some breath work when I am stressed out in traffic, late for work. I am fine with strategies of survival, pending revolutionary change. I only hope to grow upon the “revolutionary change” part of things. I only hope that we can be a bit more committed to investigating the roots of these practices, and paying serious respect and, perhaps, resources to the cultures and people who actually developed them. I only hope that we can take the radical potentiality of these practices seriously, and expand their logic and life-force into our lives in a way threatens rather than facilitates our complicity in oppression and world-destruction.

As I sat in the class, ready to burst with expletives in the direction of ISIS-guy, we were told that the time was up. Everyone started futzing around. I had no time to explain to everyone my thoughts, to proselytize for a more complete compassion. I felt my hand shaking a bit. I brought my awareness to that hand, up my shoulder, to my flushed face, and into a place right at the top of my head. I closed my eyes. I thought sincerely of the pain that ISIS-guy must feel, living in a world where there are people so bad, so evil, that they are no longer human. I thought of his pain, and I wished for him to be happy, healthy, safe, and at ease.