Can Mindfulness Make Us More Socially Engaged?

There’s a fair amount of criticism about how practicing mindfulness is a selfish endeavor. The assumption is that by taking time for classes or retreats, quietly reflecting on my inner state, and choosing to minimize distractions or “noise”, that I will become overly focused on myself at the expense of the very real local and world issues surrounding me. To that I say: Perhaps, but there’s much, much more to the story.

Harmful vs. Noble Selfishness

For most of my life, I have strived to be considered a success; to be “enough”. This meant being hyper-fixated on my outward appearance, my education and grades, my career choices, my personal accomplishments, and how I “looked” to the outside world. My perceived value was reduced to how well I conformed to the expectations of the more adulty-adults around me. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. Studies suggest that as a country grows socioeconomically, individualism as a cultural value tends to increase with it. A natural result of an achievement-focused culture where material wealth is the primary indicator of success is that everything becomes all about my, me, and mine—and if you have more, that means there’s less for me.

Doesn’t that sound selfish?

When I first started practicing yoga, it made me feel alive for the first time in a long time. It gave me the opportunity to be temporarily released from my prison of thoughts and come into the felt experience of my body. That connection felt electric and interesting, albeit foreign and unsettling. It wasn’t long into my practice that I started butting up against some long-ignored emotional wounds that I had been covering over for years with food, alcohol, work, and a perpetual state of busyness. 

Over time, I realized the importance of working through my uncomfortable emotions and trauma triggers instead of avoiding them. I started the difficult process of setting boundaries and learning to say “no” to events and people who drained me, and I began to engage with my mindfulness practices more. For me, that looked like sitting for 5 minutes in my backyard while I connected to my breath, reading inspiring books by myself on Saturday or Sunday morning instead of watching Netflix with the family, taking baths, taking hikes, having lunch with like-minded friends… Eventually I even signed up for a 200- then a 300-hour Yoga Teacher Training program, an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, and several other workshops, as well as a weeklong retreat. This might seem selfish too, although perhaps a more “noble” selfishness. But there’s something deeper that might not be immediately obvious.

The Transformative Power of Presence

Doing my practices—meditation, mini-mindfulness exercises, breathwork, yoga, reading and journaling, time in nature—these have sparked an inner transformation. They have created some space in me for increased attention span, emotional resilience, insight, and self-compassion. And because of these skills (that I continue to practice and strengthen daily), I have been able to widen my view from just focusing on my success, happiness, and well-being to noticing and caring about everyone’s success, happiness, and well-being. 

Increased mindfulness, while requiring a certain amount of “selfishness” as far as how I spend my time and energy, has opened me to recognize the interconnection of all living beings. I can more clearly see the symbiotic relationships between the water, plants, animals, and human beings who inhabit the earth. I see what meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg means when she says, “What happens ‘over there’ doesn’t nicely stay ‘over there.’” And because I am now seeing everyone around me more as family and less as “other,” when they are hurting, I hurt, too. 

It matters to me what Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are going through. It matters to me what LGBTQ-identifying folks are going through. It matters to me what people and animals displaced from the catastrophic fires in the Western US are going through. It matters to me what the detained refugees are going through. It matters to me what our impoverished communities are going through. It matters to me what the trafficked children are going through. It matters to me what war-torn countries are going through. But if I don’t have a deep sense of inner strength, some kind of inner refuge where I can rest when the going gets tough, I can’t maintain the grit needed in the fight for justice, safety, happiness, and well-being for my very extended family.

Inner evolution leads to outer revolution

So, while I would agree that engaging earnestly and consistently in any kind of mindfulness practice requires a certain amount of self-focus, I would hardly call it selfishness. I would call it a starting point on the path of healing and liberation for us all. I would call it a necessary prerequisite to the heavy lifting and profound political engagement we are all being called to champion. I would even go so far as to call it the only chance we have to make something exquisite out of all the heartache and destruction around and within us. 

One person, one breath at a time—this is how we start a Love Revolution. 


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