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What Is Engaged Mindfulness?

By Fleet Maull, PhD

What is Engaged Mindfulness?

Engaged mindfulness is about offering the practices and values of mindfulness, including nonjudgmental awareness, self-acceptance, empathy and compassion, to all members and sectors of our society, especially the more underserved or marginalized. The more we practice mindfulness, the less we are able to turn away from suffering — our own and others. The more we practice, the more we become aware of and inspired to alleviate the suffering we see in the world around us.  Engaged mindfulness involves awakening our innate human capacities for goodness, compassion and caring to take care of all of life… all people, all species and our home, this earth. All people includes all of our fellow citizens and community members — young and old, of all genders, sexual orientations, political persuasions and backgrounds. It includes people of all races, ethnicities, faiths or beliefs, abilities and social and economic classes.  Given the overall level of prosperity in the United States, it is tragic and morally reprehensible that so many so many of our fellow citizens suffer from extreme poverty, grossly insufficient education and healthcare and little or no opportunities to better their situation. To paraphrase engaged Buddhist teacher and social activist Bernie Glassman, “people are falling through the cracks in our society and those cracks are getting wider.” Engaged Mindfulness, which has its roots in socially engaged Buddhism, other forms of socially engaged spirituality and the mainstream or secular mindfulness movement,  has naturally emerged in response to these social ills and inquities, to create a better world for all.

Justice System

My own engaged mindfulness practice began in the U.S. prison system while serving a 14-year sentence for drug trafficking, 1985 – 1999.  My personal meditation and Dharma practice were foundational to turning my life around during those years; but even more importantly my practice inspired me to show up and serve in this place of tremendous suffering.  I served my time in a maximum security federal prison hospital with approximately 600 medical and 400 psychiatric patients along with 300 work cadre inmates like myself employed in food service, housekeeping, maintenance, etc.  Since I had a graduate degree, I was able to get a job teaching in the prison school, helping other prisoners learn to read, earn their GED, learn English or complete college classes.  Having been trained to teach meditation before landing in prison, I led a twice weekly meditation group in the prison chapel for 14 years.  With another prisoner, I also started the first prison hospice program in 1987 and spent most of my free time for the next 11 years on the hospital wards taking care of men who were dying under terrible conditions, isolated from their family and friends.  This was the height of the AIDS crisis, so I worked with a lot of AIDS patients, but men were also dying of liver disease, cancer, heart ailments and other illnesses.  None of this was heroic; it was just showing up and doing what was needed.

I founded Prison Dharma Network (PDN), as a socially engaged Buddhist organization, from my prison cell in 1989 in an effort to support prisoners everywhere interested in Buddhism and meditation.  I initially conceived PDN as a Buddhist support network for prisoners and prison volunteers.  Overtime we expanded the mission to support prisoners interested in other contemplative traditions and practices like hatha yoga, Siddha Yoga, TM and Christian Centering Prayer.  While supporting faith-based contemplative programming which operates primarily prison chapels or religious services is still a major part of our mission; we eventually, we expanded our mission to include secular mindfulness-based approaches to prison work, since mainstream prison programming requires secular, evidence-based interventions and faith-based programs, though very important, only reach those prisoners willing to access chapel-based, religious programming.

Since 2010, we have also expanded our work to bring mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) initially to correctional officers and now to law enforcement and other first responders, as well as the courts, including judges, prosecutors and public defenders.  The emergence of a science-based mainstream mindfulness movement as well as an increased awareness of the health risks, extreme in many cases, faced by criminal justice professionals working in high stress jobs with frequent secondary and primary trauma exposure has opened minds and doors to new approaches.   Through our partnership with California-based Transforming Justice and other partners in our PMI Mindful Justice Initiative, we are beginning to seed mindfulness and mindfulness based programs throughout the criminal justice system in the U.S..

Mindfulness-Based Interventions

This emerging mindfulness movement goes beyond teaching mindfulness alone and has evolved into various programs offering a related set of skills and practices to enhance wellbeing and health. There are many of these mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs), which present or incorporate traditional mindfulness practices in a secular, non-sectarian, non-religious context. They all have their particular acronyms, the most well known being mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts (UMASS) Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare and Society (CFM)  Others include mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), dialectical-behavioral therapy (DBT), acceptance-commitment therapy (ACT), mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP), mindful self-compassion (MSC),  mindful yoga (MY), etc.. There is now a substantial body of research supporting these interventions as evidence-based practices (EBPs) that reduce the psychological distress associated with physical illnesses and mental disorders while enhancing overall wellness, wellbeing and resilience.

Widening the Field

In the natural course of things, the emerging secular mindfulness movement has focused largely on the mainstream components and the more privileged sectors of our society. Many of us, therefore, are concerned about the accessibility of this movement. This concern is not new.  Our colleague Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leading pioneer in the mainstream mindfulness world is a strong supporter of engaged mindfulness.   Although MBSR has mainly focused in the healthcare field, the organization Kabat-Zinn founded at UMASS, CFM, has worked to bring mindfulness to those most in need by designing prison programs and establishing mindfulness-based training centers in impoverished communities, among other things.

Nonetheless, with notable exceptions, both the traditional and current secular or mainstream mindfulness movements involve primarily white, highly educated Americans—doing wonderful work in many areas, but not so much focusing on underserved communities and members of our society falling through the cracks. In their current form, the various western mindfulness and other contemplative communities in the U.S. have appealed mostly to white, middle-class and upper-class, well educated people with access to mindfulness classes, programs and retreats.  We are striving to have a western mindfulness movement that is welcoming to everyone and looks and feels much more like our actual culture and population. A lot of people in many mindfulness communities are working very hard to make that happen… and we have a long way to go.

Engaged Mindfulness Institute

We established the Engaged Mindfulness Institute to train more facilitators and teachers who want to share the practice of mindfulness with those who are suffering in our society–with at-risk youth, with the people in our prisons, with the mentally ill, with people who are experiencing homelessness, with women who are in danger of being abused and in shelters and so forth—and to find ways to bring the benefits of mindfulness practice, and mindfulness-based interventions into the most un-resourced, underrepresented, marginalized and often oppressed communities in our society.

We asked ourselves who the people are that are already doing this kind of work in the criminal justice field and related human and social services agencies. Could we identify professionals and paraprofessionals working in these fields who have become mindfulness practitioners and train them to bring mindfulness to all these sectors of our society in which people don’t have as much access to the benefits of mindfulness practice? As an answer to that question we started a Mindfulness Teacher Training. We launched our 300-hour mindfulness facilitator and 500-hour mindfulness teacher training and certification programs in 2015 and have thus far certified approximately seventy-six mindfulness-facilitators and 14 mindfulness teachers training in trauma-informed approaches to sharing the practice of mindfulness with at-risk and suffering individuals and underserved and marginalized communities… a good start.

Engaged Mindfulness Institute (EMI) is a division of Prison Mindfulness Institute, founded in 1989, which develops and provides mindfulness-based programs to prisoners, correctional officers, law enforcement and other first responders, judges, prosecutors and public defenders, probation and parole officers, community corrections professionals and community treatment and reentry professionals.

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