Just over a year ago, a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd. Like so many individuals and organizations, Mindfulness Northwest heard this wake-up call. Instead of an immediate public response, we’ve turned inward, toward self-examination. We wanted to share what we’re working on and invite you into the conversation.

I spoke with Executive Director Tim Burnett about what we’re up to, where we’re headed, and why we’re committed to this work.

–Carolyn McCarthy

Diversity & Inclusion Coordinator, Mindfulness Instructor

Carolyn: What excites you about justice work at MNW?

Tim: I’m a privileged person: white, male, middle class, hetero, cis-gendered. As I learn about social justice, I understand more and more fully the huge leg up I and my family have received from the way our inequitable society functions. This engenders a deep sense of responsibility.

I founded Mindfulness Northwest from a sense of good fortune at having encountered mindfulness at a young age. I wanted to share the life-changing benefits with as many others as possible.

Our mission is a lot about accessibility. We wanted to provide access in many locations, and to make the programs as affordable as we could – financially accessible. We look for physically accessible locations, too. Our online programs provide a whole new level of access.

What I didn’t understand was the many barriers that weren’t visible to me. These barriers are starting to come into my view (and I know we have a long way to go in even understanding them). I want to keep learning. I’m glad that we’ve begun this journey with education and reflection among our staff. And I know these are just the first steps on a very long road.

Carolyn: Totally. It’s an ongoing process. It’s generational work. Never complete. And yet we must do what we can. I’m pleased with some of the progress we’ve made: adding a land acknowledgement and an acknowledgement of the Buddhist roots of mindfulness to our courses, completing Intercultural Development Inventories for all teachers and staff with 828 flow, forming small groups to work together on social justice issues. And creating my job!

Tim: Right! It’s good to remember the progress. A big goal that we’re still working toward is to increase the diversity of our staff. We understand that it’s easier to approach something new like mindfulness if the instructor looks and sounds more like your home culture. I look forward to finding ways to include mindfulness teachers and ambassadors from BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities, among others.

Carolyn: Agreed. Educating our teachers is helping us better serve all communities; a shift in hiring will take that to the next level.

That said, I’ve been moved and inspired by the teachers at MNW. This group is willing to take a long, hard look at our own sh*t. Our mindfulness practice provides a solid foundation for turning toward the difficult. It’s clear that as students of consciousness and compassion, we can’t turn away from social justice.

Tim: Right. And yet it can be deeply uncomfortable. The challenge for me in doing this work feels like a mix of shame and avoidance.

I feel shame around the huge privilege I enjoy, especially the economic privilege that’s accumulated in my family from rising home values. For example, I now understand about redlining and how American home ownership, since the 1930’s, was supported for white families ONLY. My great-grand uncle was a chicken farmer and was able to buy his ranch back then, and the rising value of that property was like a bucket brigade of wealth that led to my grandmother giving my mom help with the down payment on her first house. Mom’s house appreciated wildly creating a lot of wealth for my family and on to me. What did we do to “deserve” this influx of wealth exactly? And what about similar hard-working Black families that weren’t allowed onto this wealth escalator? I feel shame for my family’s resulting wealth and privilege.

The avoidance feels “slipperier”: I have a long habit of being very productive and keeping very busy in my life. This has allowed me to accomplish a lot – helping to nurture a Buddhist practice center and creating Mindfulness Northwest for instance – but I find it generally hard for me to pause and open out to new areas of life and learning. I intend to, but I simply don’t “get around to it.” People recommend great books and videos on DEI [Diversity, Equity & Inclusion] and I find myself simply not making it a priority to engage. I’m trying to give myself more permission to be a little less constantly productive and make room for more engagement with social justice.

Carolyn: I appreciate the honesty and humility there. It can be so tough to face this work, especially if it’s bringing up shame and other challenging emotions. Why are you committed to coming back to this work?

Tim: Mindfulness has helped me learn how to feel more deeply; compassion training opens my heart to the suffering in our wonderful but deeply unjust world. I’d love for Mindfulness Northwest to make a deeper contribution than helping people like me who’ve been so fortunate. I’d love for us to serve all of the communities of the Pacific Northwest.

In the Buddhist roots of mindfulness we work with huge, aspirational goals, and these are always in my heart. I carry a vow to deeply support all beings without exception.

Carolyn: What do you want our students and clients to know?

Tim: I’d like people to know that we’re working on it. We’re working on social justice, diversity in our own ranks, and increasing accessibility to mindfulness practice. And that we are humble about it all, too. We know that there is much we don’t know. We’re just getting started.

And I want the folks we’ve been able to work with, hundreds of people over the last decade, to know how much we appreciate them. It’s been an amazing journey so far and I’m sure it’s just going to get richer and more interesting as we engage more fully with all of our communities.

Carolyn: Thanks for the conversation. In closing, let’s shine a light on other voices. What are some resources that have had an impact on you?

Tim: A few that have been transformative and eye opening:

  • Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article in The Atlantic Monthly: “The Case for Reparations”
  • Ruth Ozeki’s novels My Year of Meats and A Tale for the Time Being
  • Duncan Ryūken Williams’ American Sutra
  • Louise Erdrich’s latest novel The Night Watchman

Carolyn: Thank you. I look forward to hearing from our readers, too. Let’s continue to learn together as a community and grow in justice for all.