Anyone interested in mindfulness is likely to understand the deep connection between thoughts and actions. The stories we tell ourselves about the world and our own lives often dictate, sometimes without our conscious awareness, the actions we take or don’t take. Given this, many people would intuitively agree that inner work, including reflection and healing, can lead to transformation on the personal and ultimately societal level.
This is the theory which underlies The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness by Rhonda V. Magee, a law professor and world-renowned mindfulness teacher. In the book, Magee posits that the history of white supremacy in the United States and across the world requires personal and interpersonal healing. Building on her own personal experience of healing through mindfulness and compassion, Magee’s book shares stories, reflections, and practices to help all of us do the inner work needed to build a more just society.
Undoubtedly some of you reading this may be frustrated by this idea. You might see the state of the world and think that we don’t have time for inner work; we need action instead. I won’t argue with that perspective, and I think that is Magee’s ultimate objective. But Magee, like many thinkers and leaders before her, understands that wise action often requires self-reflection.
As Magee explores in her book, some of us may not see or fully understand the need for action due to privilege. Some of us may not feel the need for courage because we may have ignored the impact of race in our own lives or overlooked how it has impacted people in our own community. It is in this space that Magee’s book tries to create an opening, a space for reflection, and ultimately a bridge outside of ourselves.
If we think about it, most of us can understand how doing inner work can lead to a lasting and meaningful change in conduct. I’ve seen how examining my own inner stories and embracing the pain, hurt, and confusion there has helped me lead a more courageous life. But even though our news feeds are filled with stories of the lasting effects of racism many of us have not had the opportunity to look inside to see how these stories have affected us or identify what we can do about them.
Even if mindfulness and compassion may seem like a strange fit for this undertaking, since Western mindfulness remains predominantly white, this idea has deep roots in Buddhist philosophy. The path of the Bodhisattva instructs us to work to end suffering for all beings once we have attained peace for ourselves. Likewise, the Buddhist concepts that may help individuals address personal suffering—rooting out greed, hate, and delusion, wariness of judgment, and embracing common humanity—have obvious connections to the work of building a racially just society.
Given my prior understanding of these concepts and experience with them, I enjoyed reading Magee’s book. Like the best law professors (and teachers of mindfulness) do, she combined scholarly analysis, deep thought, and steady coaching to help the reader not just learn but also hear and internalize what she had to say.
She offered stories, both personal and from her teaching experience, to explain concepts and practices (journal prompts and guided meditations) to help the reader apply the concepts to their own lives. As a result, reading the book didn’t feel like a law school lecture. It felt more like talking over hard truths, but doing so in a circle with friends.
Even those new to mindfulness and compassion practices, however, may learn a lot from the book. One thing many new meditators struggle with is the notion that thoughts, emotions, or bodily sensations are somehow bad or off limits when it comes to mindfulness. In the book, Magee shares how mindfulness helped her allow her emotions and heal as a result. She also shared several stories and practices about making space for the feelings and experiences of others which can lead to transformation in groups.
With that said, Magee’s book may be a frustrating read for some. For one thing, it is not a book that should be read straight through. A chapter or two at a time, allowing for pauses and reflection, is ideal. In addition, Magee’s emphasis on nonjudgment (though consistent with mindfulness practice and supported by research) may alienate readers currently experiencing anger and frustration about issues of race and inequity. Though Magee’s book is clearly intended to ultimately encourage conduct change, the book emphasizes inner reflection far more than direct action.
Overall, however, The Inner Work of Racial Justice is a worthwhile read and especially important for lawyers. It is ideal for those interested in exploring how they can support racial justice or curious about the ways that mindfulness and compassion practices can help us build a better world. Though the book does not offer many strategies for direct action, it offers instruction, reflections, and practices that may empower readers to see more clearly and act more courageously to make a more just world.
Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available now.
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