Soma Stout, Radical Compassion, and Next Steps for the Mindfulness Movement

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A few months ago, the Dalai Lama came to town. I live in Madison, Wisconsin, home to Richie Davidson and the Center for Healthy Minds, so – lucky for me – the Dalai Lama comes to town pretty often.

But this time, interesting things happened.

First, the event was huge. Thousands of people. Dan Harris, the news anchor turned mindfulness advocate, paneled a discussion with Richie, researcher Sona Dimidjian, the Dalai Lama, and Soma Stout, a Harvard MD and public health advocate who runs 100 Million Healthier Lives, a “collaboration of change agents” that’s seeking to improve health, well-being, and equity for 100 million people by 2020.

Soma stole the show with a single question: “Can we really be well when everyone is not well?”

This question strikes to the heart of a host of interlocking issues that we, as mindfulness advocates, should seriously consider.

Like: who is mindfulness for?

We know that mindfulness is a profoundly effective progenitor of wellness (for examples, click here and here). But we also know that this most popular of health interventions is mostly utilized by white, middle class, educated urbanites.

The popular press isn’t helping. Time, for instance, published two cover stories on mindfulness over the last few years. Both featured skinny white women looking aggressively beatific.

Mindful has done a better job. They recently featured JusTme, an African American hip-hop artist and mindfulness advocate on their cover. The HuffPo has published a couple interesting articles on race in mindfulness communities. But, as I’ve mentionedelsewhere, for the most part our communities aren’t talking much about diversity and equity. And we need to be.

A second, related question comes down to what I call radical compassion. In our highly individualistic society we tend to think in terms of “me.” My car, my house, my friends, my happiness. But as mindfulness practice deepens, this bubble begins to bend and shake. We start to notice that our happiness is bound to the happiness of others. Conversely, when others suffer, we suffer.

This can be as simple as recognizing the quiver in our chest as we walk by a homeless person. Or noticing the joy that arises when we witness children playing.

Out of this can spring a very basic secular ethics – a desire to do no harm, and to promote well-being for all.

That’s why I work on a psych ward. I want to be with people at their lowest point, and help. It’s also why I’m writing a dissertation on racial bias in mindfulness communities. And it’s why I think Soma Stout ruled the day when she came to Madison. Because she asked us all to look at what Martin Luther King Jr. called our “inescapable network of mutuality.”

“Yes,” she seemed to say, “Mindfulness is good. Well-being is good. Now let’s take this whole thing to the next level.”

Craig Hase