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Mindful of Societal Relationships
Mindfulness and relationships covers a lot. One could even argue it covers all things, because we are always in relationship and while we might not always be mindful, there is no relationship to which mindfulness cannot be applied. But I don’t find that these terms are always held in such a broad way. Mindfulness is often reduced to some psychological ‘trick’ we can use to achieve maximum performance, while relationship brings to mind an intimate partnership between two individuals.
I know I held this limited idea of both for a long time. When I first began to meditate and walk on a path informed by the dharma, I saw mindfulness as a kind of “silver bullet” solution. If I could just be mindful all the time then I would be okay. I would stop messing up or getting things wrong. And I saw only my immediate relationships, rather than a full scope of our interconnected, interrelated, interdependent existence.
When I heard something like ‘You cannot wake up without being in relationship’, I would think this meant one requires a partner in order to practice. But this statement is not about partnership. It’s pointing out that we are always in relationship. We cannot think that disconnecting from the world around us will lead us to liberation. As long as we are living, relationship is inescapable. It’s just the way things are.
As I’ve walked this path of exploring what it is to be in relationship, I’ve also learned to understand mindfulness in a very different way. It’s not that I am striving to some hyper-intense level of awareness. It’s more that, in any given moment, I can become aware of the many moving parts and my place within them. When I encounter conflict it’s a reminder to pause and consider that conflict is an inevitable part of our profound, inescapable interdependent existence. When conflict arises, it is not a problem but an opportunity. It is an opportunity for me to see those connections more clearly, and possibly even see a blind spot that prevented me from connecting with someone’s humanity.
A recent example comes from the work I’ve been doing with an organization called Seattle Homeless Outreach. Once or twice a month (depending on the season) they organize outreach along four routes — bringing supplies like clean clothing, sleeping bags, gas canisters, menstrual products and food — as a way to support the growing number of unhoused neighbours we have throughout this city. Each time I go on one of these outreaches, I am challenging deeply ingrained messages I’ve been taught my entire life as a result of growing up in a Capitalist society.
On one such outing, a white woman approached us asking for socks. I was carrying the bag with clothing, which I brought over to her. As I set it down I noticed she had a deep wound on her hand, at the base of her thumb. It had been stitched at some point, but was infected and so swollen the stitches had ripped apart. Normally such a sight would render me woozy, but I snapped into action, gathering the med kit and pulling out alcohol wipes for her. As I handed them over, I began to explain how to clean the wound. She gave me a look, eyebrow raised, incredulous, and told me she knew how to clean a wound. I realised that I had just acted from a blind spot that taught me someone who was living on the street must be incapable of self-care. I didn’t consider that an inability to access adequate medical care is not the same as a lack of knowledge.
Now, as I connect with someone new, offering them a fresh cup of coffee and a bag of supplies, I look at the human before me, mindful of all the stereotypes my brain has learned. I am mindful of my intention and mindful of the relationship I have with the many unhoused neighbours I encounter. I see the power imbalance created by class and sometimes race. I am careful not to come into the work with a saviour attitude, but just as one human being relating to another, offering support but not trying to fix anyone. I offer whatever is asked for that we have to give, without judgement and also without arrogance or expecting some gold star.
I open my heart bigger and wider, and see the person as any other human being, worthy of care and love and consideration simply because they exist. I challenge myself, each time, to be fully present and show up in a way that communicates the values I hold about human dignity — that no one should be treated like a blemish or a mistake, that all beings are worthy of love, and that being unhoused is not a failing of the individual but a failing of our society.
And this, I have found, is the practice. This is what it is to engage in the work of waking on a regular basis. I do not have to ‘get’ anywhere or ‘achieve’ anything. I’m just practicing being present (mindful) so I can see the depth and breadth of a relationship that we are often taught to ignore. Learning to see power dynamics created by oppressive systems and inequality helps me recognise my relationship within these systems, and how to go about challenging and dismantling them.
So yes, mindfulness and relationships is a big topic, but it’s also very personal. Looking at the many ways in which we are in relationship, and what mindset we bring to that, is a choice we can make every day, with any connection. When we take time to really look at a relationship in our lives, and see the many points branching away from our relative view within it, we become more skilful at responding.
This blog was originally published on Medium on the Northwest Dharma blog.
Kaitlyn Hatch is a writer, artist, podcast producer, philosopher, and designer, and has been a dharma practitioner since 2008. She is queer, non-binary, and disabled, and has Métis and British ancestry. She has most often practiced with Shambhala and in the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, although she considers herself a ‘rogue practitioner.’ Her primary teacher is Pema Chödrön, and she is a graduate of the Upaya Zen Center’s Buddhist chaplaincy training program.