Over the past year, I have had the privilege of conversing with MSC teachers who are deeply committed to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). I have also had a series of painful experiences teaching MSC in large groups where a few courageous participants of color and other minority identities have spoken up, publicly and privately, about how uncomfortable they feel coming into a roomful of people who look different than they do. Similar experiences have led me and others at the Center for MSC to expand our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in every aspect of the organization. Kristin and I have also made efforts to weave cultural sensitivity and humility into the fabric of the MSC curriculum. This is an ongoing effort, personally and professionally, about which I would like to share some more here.
Whenever I have spoken with experts in the field of diversity, they have directed me again and again to an examination of my own whiteness and privilege as a prelude to understanding the experience of others. I thought this was rather annoying at first, as my mind was focused on organizational change rather than personal introspection, but when I decided to focus on my own experience as a white, educated, heterosexual, cisgender, middle-class, older guy, I began to see the wisdom of that approach. It became clear to me how each of my identities has made my life easier, relatively speaking, within the dominant culture of the United States. For example, as a white man, I am rarely pulled over by traffic cops, with an education I don’t worry so much about money, being straight and married means I can talk about my personal life without carefully assessing the prejudices of the listener, and being older, which does have its disadvantages, is empowering in my professional life as a therapist.
Furthermore, being aware of my old cultural experience, especially as it unfolds during the day, often feels as connected and grounding as anchoring attention in the body.
I think exploring diversity, equity, and inclusion is the most important thing I have done in the past year, besides self-compassion practice itself, to enhance my ability to feel compassion for others. Compassion is intensely personal. It includes recognizing and feeling the immediate experience of another person. Since so much of our self-worth is determined by cultural forces, being oblivious to this aspect of a person’s life (which is easy to do when we belong to the dominant culture) significantly narrows our ability to connect with those who have a different experience. Hence, I think that diversity, equity and inclusion work is an integral part of compassion work.
The heart can take only so much pain, and the pain that we cannot see is easier to block out as we go about our busy lives. But the pain of oppression is still absorbed in our bodies and if we don’t open to it, it comes with a cost, which is our capacity for compassion. Our humanity is subtly wounded without even knowing it.
DEI training may appear to be simply the latest American obsession, but, in my view, it will soon become a global imperative. Regardless of the culture, there are always vast numbers of people who are suffering due to systemic oppression (unconscious bias, marginalization, or discrimination) of individual and collective differences. For example, in just about every culture, this is currently the case for most girls and women.
When there is one person in the MSC classroom who feels they do not fit in because of their identity or identities, even if teachers cannot understand the person’s experience, they can still make a meaningful connection by honoring that their experience is different, by expressing genuine willingness to learn, and by appreciation of the person’s strengths and resilience. Toward that end, MSC teachers Sydney Spears and Catherine Crisp, both of whom are also social work professors who have spent many years teaching about DEI issues, are putting together an online DEI training for MSC teachers which starts by situating our own identities in our cultural context.
Honoring diversity is also included in the ethical guidelines for MSC teachers and is integrated throughout the latest MSC curriculum (found in the forthcoming MSC professional textbook). The impact of cultural bias or discrimination is also part of the updated MSC curriculum in the form of yang, or fierce compassion, when the most compassionate thing we can do for ourselves and others is to speak out against social injustice. Through these efforts, we want to create a “brave space” (Arao & Clemens, 2013) in the MSC course where everyone can feel safe and welcome just as we are.
Arao, B, & Clemens, K. (2013). “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces. A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice.” Lisa M. Landreman (Ed.), The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections From Social Justice Educators. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
Germer, C. & Neff, K. (2019) Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program: A Guide for Professionals. New York, NY: The Guilford Press