It’s rare to have a sense in life that we're actually living in historic times. But, today, many share this sentiment. The challenges we’re facing are not simply difficult, or numerous, but in a lot of ways unprecedented. A global pandemic, economic crisis, social unrest, widespread racism, and the specter of climate disaster would each, on its own, constitute a major source of anxiety; together they can amount to an almost unbearable psychological and emotional burden.
Meditation is one approach many people are turning to in order to cope. And meditation is, of course, a helpful tool. Most of us tend to naturally think about the quiet, personal, inward relief it provides. Yet many techniques that spring from the Buddhist tradition — in particular, the practices of mindfulness and of lovingkindness — can and often should be used on a broader social scale to provide not just a way to find momentary peace but to create real change.
Mindfulness is the ability to more clearly see our experiences (internal and external) as they are, without the confusion of added projections, historical fears, and unvalidated assumptions. Lovingkindness, or “metta” in the original Pali, is often employed by practitioners to engender a sense of caring connection — first with ourselves on a deeper level, and with others. In fact, it’s this combination of a sharper, more clear awareness and a growing sense of caring and responsiveness that makes meditation so powerful a tool in working for change in the world.
If we pay attention without so many of the distorting add-ons we habitually tend to be swayed by —being ashamed of what we feel, holding our experience with harsh judgment instead of self-compassion, being so distracted we don’t actually know what we are thinking and feeling — we not only see ourselves more clearly, but underlying truths about life come into view.
A primary truth is how interconnected our lives are. In fact, economics shows us this, environmental consciousness shows us this, and epidemiology shows us this — what happens “over there” doesn’t nicely stay “over there” — it matters over here. And what we do, what we are dedicated to, where we put our energy, also ripples out along bands of connection. With mindfulness, we begin to appreciate this not just as a cognitive understanding, but as a kind of embodied knowing. With lovingkindness, we recognize the corollary truth that everybody matters, everybody counts.
That is not to say employing these qualities as a social force is easy or that the way is unmarked by obstacles. Not long ago, I coordinated a Metta Minute for families separated and held in detention centers at the U.S. border. My personal practice was simple enough — I focused my sense of lovingkindness on the frantic parents and terrified children held in these centers. Deeply, I coordinated a Metta Minute for victims of this destructive policy.
The response to the Metta Minute was mixed. Some people urged me to do something “practical,” like donate money to organizations supporting these families (I appreciated the good intentions of the suggestion, which I had already put into practice). Others chided me for what they saw as a self-soothing action that would do little to help the people in detention. Some responded angrily to what they saw as a misguided effort. And, countless others joined in the Metta Minute.
My response to the criticism was to say that I would never confuse meditation with action. But like for many people, it is easier for me to look at anything other than looking directly at such intense suffering without a sense of being overwhelmed. Using lovingkindness enables me to look right at it, fully acknowledge it, and feel empowered by my caring instead of devastated. Rather than focusing on errands, work, plans and worries, for one full minute we brought our collective attention to bear on a single issue, with caring. Then we can each act, in our own way.
The true potential of mindfulness and lovingkindness as forces for change lies in this: Any one of us can do it. Any one of us can organize our own Metta Minute to address the social, political, cultural, environmental or economic ills we are facing. We only need to be aware that there’s a choice to be made. We can continue to feel helpless, stoking our anger and deepening our sense of isolation. Or we can join together in the mutual, and undeniably true, belief that we can make a difference.
Politicians often observe that no crisis should ever be wasted. Though the cynicism inherent in the statement tends to lead these politicians astray, the adage nevertheless points to real wisdom. While we’re facing unprecedented challenges today, we have also been given an unprecedented opportunity to join together with awareness of our shared humanity and a stitch-work of lovingkindness to make the world a better place. That kind of change is real. The time for it is now.
As a pioneer who helped bring meditation and mindfulness into mainstream American culture over 45 years ago, Sharon Salzberg is renowned for her secular, modern approach to Buddhist teachings. She is co-founder of The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, and the author of 11 books, including the New York Times bestseller, "Real Happiness," now in its second edition; her seminal work, "Lovingkindness;" and her newest book, released this month, "Real Change: Mindfulness To Heal Ourselves and the World" (Flatiron Books).