What Does Meditation Have to Do with Systems Change?

When I created One Thousand Arms, my idea was to use meditation to improve systems – organizational systems, societal systems, and mental systems. But how does that work?

Meditation and Systems Change

I have been meditating for over 15 years now, and I can state with a reasonable degree of certainty that meditation works to stabilize our minds and examine our thought processes. But I learned something else pretty early on – meditation can help us develop the compassion we need if we are going to actually take on the societal systems that cause suffering, such as racism, sexism, wealth inequality, and environmental degradation.

Meditation is fundamentally about examining our thought patterns. It is extremely practical. Meditation is not, as is often believed, about escaping our lives or eliminating our thoughts. It is, rather, developing the ability to learn more about our thoughts. When we meditate, we first slow down our minds and bodies – something many of us rarely get a chance to do in this speedy world. We sit, either on a cushion or in a chair, in a way that is relaxed but also upright; we make our bodies balanced – neither too tight nor too loose. We bring our attention to our breath. Because we have human minds, we often find ourselves distracted from our breath (often referred to as the “object” of meditation). So when we find that we have become distracted, we return our attention to our breath. It’s very simple and very practical.

Having our attention on an object, such as breath, is referred to as mindfulness.

When we do this, we begin to realize that two things are happening simultaneously – on the one hand, our attention is on our breathing, but on the other hand, there is an aspect of our minds that knows our attention is on our breathing. Having our attention on an object, such as breath, is referred to as mindfulness. It does not have to be breath. For example, when we wash dishes, we often have our attention on the process of washing dishes – the dish, some soap, warm water. But there is another aspect of mind that knows we are washing dishes. This aspect of mind is called awareness.

Sometimes mindfulness and awareness are treated as synonyms, but they are really two different, and equally important, mental phenomena.

Sometimes mindfulness and awareness are treated as synonyms, but they are really two different, and equally important, mental phenomena. We can’t get much done if we are constantly distracted (which is why mindfulness is important). And it’s a good idea if we are simultaneously aware of what we are doing and why (hence the importance of awareness). This is the first key to using meditation to change systems – we learn to keep our attention on what we are doing (mindfulness) while simultaneously recalling the bigger picture (awareness).

Things don’t happen in isolation from one another.

Another phenomenon we realize during meditation is that everything has a cause and an effect. Things don’t happen in isolation from one another. If I have a thought that reminds me of a fight I had with a friend, I am likely to feel uncomfortable, maybe angry. And emotions can have effects on our bodies too – if I get angry, I might feel hot, or I might feel my heart start to beat a little faster. If I am not careful, I might say something harsh to my friend, fueling the cycle. Nothing just arises out of nowhere, and nothing can happen that does not affect something, somehow. This is the second key to using meditation to change systems – systems of all kinds have causes that can be identified and addressed. And the actions we take have effects – we can learn which actions will have the most beneficial effects and take them.

This is not to say that any of this is easy. Meditation can be hard, and systems change can be overwhelming. When we first learn how to meditate, we often become frustrated because it is very hard to hold our attention on our breathing. Also, sometimes unpleasant thoughts arise – thoughts we would prefer not to deal with. This is partly because we are confused about the nature of our thoughts – we tend to think of them as very solid things, and we tend to be very attached to them. We have all spent years building up the thoughts in our brains, and we can easily get stuck in them. Similarly, with systems change, we can be easily overwhelmed and confused. We’ve been living within some very oppressive systems all our lives, and they can seem permanent. Tackling what feel like rock-hard societal systems can be daunting.

But we don’t have to let those hurdles stop us. During meditation, we can learn to allow our thoughts and emotions to simply be, instead of struggling with them. In Tibetan there is the concept of “ziji,” which is often translated as “brilliance” and other times as “confidence.” Both translations have to do with the practice of using meditation to become familiar with our own inner wisdom. By doing so, we learn that we can work together toward a shared goal. We can have confidence in our ability to move forward. Meditation is the key to unlocking that confidence.

We can have confidence in our ability to move forward. Meditation is the key to unlocking that confidence.

One Thousand Arms provides workshops on all of this. In these workshops, people learn the fundamentals of meditation practice, the concepts of mindfulness and awareness, the reality of cause and effect, the challenges that can arise, and ways to develop confidence in the path forward. I also offer workshops on specifically how we can use meditation to let go of racist and sexist conditioning. If you are interested in taking one of these workshops, please let me know!

We are facing many challenges today, from systemic racism to violence against women, to environmental degradation. We need to face these challenges if we are going to have a sane and just world, but sometimes it is hard to know where to start. Meditation gives us a great starting point - by grounding us, it can help us get off the ground.

If you're ready to get started using meditation to make lasting, positive changes in your life, check out our workshop on Using Meditation to Deconstruct Race and Racism, and get signed up for the February 20 session at MNDFL in New York City!