Module 6: Integrating Non-Western Approaches
Mindfulness in Real Life
It is critical that before you start applying mindfulness techniques in working with clients, you have some grounding in mindfulness yourself. It can be easy to perceive mindfulness meditation and its action-based applications – e.g. mindful walking, mindful eating – as an escape from anxious thoughts. Certainly, by living in the present one can take a break from preoccupation with the past and the future. However, the true power of mindfulness lies in getting to know one’s thought patterns by observing them impartially. Otherwise, one is using present-focused awareness as an avoidance strategy and perpetuating one’s habitual ways of thinking that contributes to existing problems. This is not to say that there is no value in teaching clients how to shift their attention to the beauty of the moment. It’s just important to recognize that mindfulness goes deeper.
If we are going to reach this deeper level of mindfulness with our clients, we need to be able to speak from experience. This is qualitatively different from most of our training. While our own mental health is of course essential to being able to help others, there are rarely explicit guidelines for improving it. We are encouraged to engage in self-care, including therapy when we recognize self-defeating patterns or see that anxiety or depression is interfering in our ability to learn and work effectively. But with mindfulness, the more we practice and experience what it’s like to sit with our experience, both comfortable and uncomfortable, the more we can accomplish three important goals.
Goal #1 – Mental Health
Goal #1 is your own mental health. Experiential avoidance has been theorized to lie at the root of many mental health disorders (Hayes, 1999). When we flee from pain, we create suffering. How? On the anxiety side, we stoke that anxiety by teaching ourselves that we should be afraid of our own internal experiences – our guilt, our worry, our anger, our shame, our sadness. We learn to live in fear of ourselves, and by avoiding through distraction, addiction, intellectualization, and other defenses, we only escape that anxiety momentarily. Wherever we go, there we are.
On the depression side, we can’t be selective about which internal experiences we try to escape from. When we lose our capacity to feel emotions we label as negative, we also lose our ability to feel joy, love, compassion, and excitement. This is partly because emotional numbing becomes a familiar place for our minds, a default state. The loss of feeling also comes because so many of our meaningful experiences have duality built into them. If we are attached to someone and enjoy feelings of love and affection, we are bound to feel sad when they suffer or when they go away.
Goal #2 – Courage
Goal #2 is courage. When we learn to be okay with not being okay, we can be courageous as social workers. We can talk about difficult topics with our clients and colleagues, we can receive feedback without becoming defensive, we can confront injustice without fearing for our egos. Being grounded in a mindful approach to life allows us to be aware of what is happening inside us, even when this doesn’t fit with our image of ourselves.
Goal #3 – Let Go of Attachments
Goal #3 is letting go of attachment to goals. This does not mean we stop making efforts on behalf of our clients and their communities. It means that we come to accept that we can’t impose our ideals, our agendas, or our timetables on life. We remain steadfast in our values and accepting of the process. By understanding the vast web of interconnectedness through meditation we become humbler in seeing our part in that web, which gives us patience. This also applies to our own progress in living a mindful life. We know that like our clients, we are on an endless journey and can never say with honesty that we have “arrived.”
If we do treat mindfulness as a way of life rather than a tool to be used, we gradually embody that accepting, peaceful presence that does more to convince clients of the value of mindfulness than any explanation. We provide a real example of how to be in the world, and we also benefit by becoming more closely attuned to our clients’ experience and the flow of the helping relationship. In so many ways, mindfulness becomes infused into our practice no matter what specific methods we are using.
Loving Kindness Meditation
The other, more recent application of Buddhist philosophy and practice is compassion-based, also known as loving kindness or by the Pali word metta. The core idea here is that we can teach clients to go beyond the confines of their preoccupation with self and show them how to allow in the suffering of others. By learning to connect their own suffering with universal suffering, they both reduce the sense of isolation they feel, and experience freedom from that suffering by placing the happiness of others at the center of their values.
Practice on your own until you feel confident that you can share this practice with others. The same caveats apply to both mindfulness and loving kindness: these were methods that used to be taught exclusively by Buddhist lamas who had attained come degree of Buddha-like qualities. Now that we are integrating these perspectives and methods into Western psychotherapy, there is a distinc0t danger that in the wrong hands they will do more harm than good. For example, a victim of intimate partner violence may use loving kindness to forgive her abuser and continue to expose herself to escalating attacks. Be sure too that you have your field instructor’s blessing and that they are familiar enough with mindfulness or compassion-based meditation to provide supervision on how to integrate these methods into your work with clients.
As a social work student committed to social justice, you may be wondering: By embracing the idea that all suffering comes, ultimately, from our own minds, aren’t we in danger of minimizing the social and economic inequalities that create real burdens for people from oppressed and marginalized communities? How in fact do we reconcile these seemingly contradictory explanations for human problems? In truth, there is no contradiction between cultivating equanimity and acting for social change. When we see more clearly, we act more clearly. In fact, one of our jobs as social workers is to help our clients stay with their compassion and desire to reduce suffering in their lives and the lives of people they care about. When we are not used to feeling, letting in what is really happening to us and to others can be overwhelming. Many oppressed people have become emotionally frozen as a defense mechanism, and mindfulness and compassion are ways we can help them thaw.
Still, clients may question what mindfulness or loving kindness meditation have to do with everyday problems like feeding the family or reintegrating into society after prison. You can often build a bridge by encouraging present awareness in the process of conversation, without labeling it as a meditation practice. “As you picture yourself in this job interview, being asked what you’ve been doing for the past five years, what thoughts and feelings come up? As you observe these thoughts and feelings coming and going, and don’t react, what happens?” When the connections between internal awareness and effective action are clear to us, we can help make them clear to those we serve.
Indigenous Cultures and Healing
bringing healing traditions and their underlying worldviews into social work practice is complicated. We don’t want to appropriate cultural practices that should be protected from being misapplied or co-opted. We can’t easily embody the spirit of non-Western praxes without being grounded in those cultures. Yet it would also be a loss to ignore the perennial wisdom that provides important lessons for modern, Western disconnectedness from nature and each other.
Being a globally aware social worker includes experiencing other cultures, especially those that are most different from Western cultures, as deeply as possible. Many of us do not have the opportunity to travel to other countries and live there long enough to be influenced in our worldview. For example, the Peace Corps offer avenues for cultural immersion, but those of us who live in multicultural communities can also cross into other worlds. If you have clients who are first generation immigrants from Kenya, for example, can you ask them to invite you to some cultural experiences in their neighborhood? Can you discuss in depth what they learned as children and teens about core issues: parenting, partnership, community, responsibility, birth and death, the roles of women and men, the relationship between the living and the dead, the past and the present? Asking such questions may not only educate you and help you do a better job of integrating Western and non-Western modalities. Such questions may also heighten your clients’ cultural self-awareness and access to internal and community resources.
Let’s look at a hypothetical example to make this more real.
Cultural Research as Social Work Practice
Two Navajo 14-year-old girls, Carla and Theresa, are referred to you by their teacher because one is bullying the other, both online and in the classroom. Carla, the one doing the bullying, comes from a very difficult family situation. She lives with her grandparents after both of her parents were killed in a car accident. Her grandparents are not abusive, and they provide for her physical needs, but they are very traditional and have a hard time understanding what is bothering Carla. She has never dealt with the loss of her parents, in part because it is not considered appropriate to speak of the dead in traditional Navajo culture. She takes out her loss of control over her life and her unexpressed anger at her parents for leaving her by calling Theresa names, making fun of her looks, and stealing her belongings. Theresa comes from a slightly more prosperous and stable family. She is shy and socially awkward. By asking each girl to describe what motivates the bullying in the context of larger cultural issues, you can set the groundwork for culturally integrated work. It’s also important to go beyond a problem focus and ask about the relationships and strengths that can help them change their pattern.
individuality of our collective voice, further extending these teachings into a compassionate community and beyond.lessons of K’e, because I believe they are crucial to creating communities of resilience and hope, communities free from bullying in all its varied forms.”
Another model of indigenous healing is that of Afrocentrism. This model takes the concept of kinship described above and expands it into a call for social justice. The principles of Afrocentrism or Nguzo Saba as promulgated by Maulana Karenga are (Mayes, 2009):
The Principles of Afrocentrism
Umoja (unity)—To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
Kujichagulia (self-determination)—To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
Ujima (collective work and responsibility)—To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.
Ujamaa (cooperative economics)—To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
Nia (purpose)—To make our collective vocation the building and development of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
Kuumba (creativity)—To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
Imani (faith)—To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
In reviewing these principles, we can clearly see that they are designed to resist colonization, oppression and individualism, and to collectively create a strong community. As such Nguzo Saba is not that different from a mezzo-macro focus in social work. Yet many clients we see suffer from fragmented communities and internalized oppression. Often, we are just as susceptible as your clients to these influences. It follows that anti-oppressive practice rooted in non-Western values must begin with deconstructing our own Western biases where they are destructive. We can’t easily compartmentalize our social worker selves from the rest of our lives, because social work is not only a job or a career, it’s a calling. Part of living from global values is seeing ourselves and our lives as whole and as part of all the circles in which we function.
How can we do this? Begin by imagining a typical day in your life. Make a list of your activities for two days: a work or school day, and a weekend (or other day when you have fewer external obligations). Now, list what motivates each activity. Is it a personal goal, a family goal, a group goal, or a community goal?
Finally, try to think of one activity you could add or adapt so that its primary purpose was to strengthen your community. What if that activity were the rule rather than the exception? What if all members of your community acted in this way?
In this week’s lesson we’ve placed a strong emphasis on mindfulness as the most accepted and studied non-Western approach to mental health currently practiced. We’ve also touched on principles to use when bringing indigenous worldviews to bear on client problems and explored case examples to show two principles. First, by understanding ways that a cultural group has been colonized and oppressed, we can help clients recontextualize their problems and reclaim their sense of agency. Second, it may not be necessary to try to replicate traditional healing methods, especially among members of cultures straddling Western and indigenous worlds. Instead, we can humbly learn about the ways that non-Western communities are organized and help them repair rifts in the social fabric using their own sense of collective responsibility, as embodied in their own frameworks of meaning. This approach broadens our definition of empirically supported interventions to include more qualitative, grass-roots research into socially constructed realities, rather than the top-down Western mode of trying to generalize and standardize.
Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. Guilford Press.
Mayes, Keith A. (2009). Kwanzaa: Black Power and the making of the African-American holiday tradition. Routledge.
Slater, S., & Wright, J. (2016, October 25). The impact of community in Navajo life. https://www.stopbullying.gov/blog/2016/10/25/impact-community-navajo-life
Module 6: Integrating Non-Western Approaches Mindfulness in Real Life
It is critical that before you start applying mindfulness techniques in working with clients, you have some grounding in mindfulness yourself. It can be easy to perceive mindfulness meditation and its action-based applications – e.g. mindful walking, mindful eating – as an escape from anxious thoughts. Certainly, by living in the present one can take a break from preoccupation with the past and the future. However, the true power of mindfulness lies in getting to know one’s thought patterns by observing them impartially. Otherwise, one is using present-focused awareness as an avoidance strategy and perpetuating one’s habitual ways of thinking that contributes to existing problems. This is not to say that there is no value in teaching clients