Waking up to suffering and the possibility of change

I had been reflecting for several days on how to bring this series of responses to the ‘The Mindfulness Conspiracy’ to a close when I randomly opened a booked of poetry on ‘Singapore’ by Mary Oliver. I will let you read it before I explain why I thought it relevant.

Mary Oliver

In Singapore, in the airport,
A darkness was ripped from my eyes.
In the women’s restroom, one compartment stood open.
A woman knelt there, washing something in the white bowl.

Disgust argued in my stomach
and I felt, in my pocket, for my ticket.

A poem should always have birds in it.
Kingfishers, say, with their bold eyes and gaudy wings.
Rivers are pleasant, and of course trees.
A waterfall, or if that’s not possible, a fountain rising and falling.
A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.

When the woman turned I could not answer her face.
Her beauty and her embarrassment struggled together,
and neither could win.
She smiled and I smiled. What kind of nonsense is this?
Everybody needs a job.

Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labor,
which is dull enough.
She is washing the tops of the airport ashtrays, as big as hubcaps,
with a blue rag.
Her small hands turn the metal, scrubbing and rinsing.
She does not work slowly, nor quickly, like a river.
Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.

I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves her life.
And I want her to rise up from the crust and the slop and
fly down to the river.
This probably won’t happen.
But maybe it will.
If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it?

Of course, it isn’t.
Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only
the light that can shine out of a life. I mean
the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth,
The way her smile was only for my sake; I mean
the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.

First featured in Poetry July 1988, freely available through Poetry Foundation


This poem captures for me something fundamental about the social and critical aspects of mindfulness practice – that mindfulness practice can wake us up to suffering, our own and others. It can ‘rip darkness’ from our eyes. It also points to our preference for poems which help us ‘stand in a happy place’ which unknowingly, yet beautifully captures the tension between a mindfulness which connects us to a ‘happy place’ yet fails to develop real awareness.

My own practice has helped me to become aware of the discomfort I feel in situations like those described so poignantly above. It is through the very personal and painful exploration that deep mindfulness practice encourages that I have come to see my own prejudice, privilege and self-absorption. I have come to see how heavily edited by version of ‘reality’ was (is!?), how the strong sense of self-determination in my understanding of my life course led to complacency, disconnection and a undervaluing of others.

Purser notes that mindfulness has been promoted in such a way that personal stress has been disconnected from societal causes. This is not without foundation in some contexts, but I have found that mindfulness practice has provided me with a way to see societal causes of suffering more clearly, as well as acknowledge my own role in perpetuating those stresses for others and the planet. For me mindfulness has collapsed the distinction between the personal and social so that work to create change ‘out there’ is not distinct from creating change ‘in here’. For me this has simultaneously led to greater activity and engagement in the world to acknowledge and address the challenges we face as well as a more sincere commitment to personal practice.

Later in the article Purser describes how ‘proponents of mindfulness believe that the practice is apolitical’ and that this underlies many of the issues he raises. I admit that it has taken me some time (and a little help from my friends!) to come to understand just how political it is and how it is intertwined with concerns about the weaponisation of resilience and the responsibilisation of wellbeing.

I have confidence from the responses to the article that there are growing numbers of individuals within the mindfulness movement, as well as those interested in contemplative pedagogy, who do consider it to be political. However, it is important that we are not complacent; that we are open to the valuable critique offered by Purser so that we stay awake, aware of different challenges and view points so that opportunities for meaningful change are not lost.

Thanks to everyone for your contributions in this important debate.


3 thoughts on “Waking up to suffering and the possibility of change

  1. Beautiful. Couldn’t agree more, the merging of inside and outside is exactly the point. We remember the whole that our little selves are part of. I think it’s what I was touching on in my comment to the other response to the article. Thanks for sharing this poem too, I’ll use it at my troubled teen reading group.


  2. Thanks Heather – there were very strong resonances with your comment. I’d love to know how you get on sharing the poem. I was very struck by it. Thanks for your contributions.


  3. Enjoyed your reflections on Purseser’s writings. I am constantly reminded when it come to mindfulness and action of these words by Pablo d’Ors in his book “A Bibliography of Silence”: “Effort requires both conscious will and reasoning to act; surrender, on the other hand, is intuitive and free from effort. Naturally, we could ask the question how anyone could surrender themselves without involving effort. The Chinese have a concept for this: wu wei, which translates as doing without doing. Wu wei implies making yourself available so that something can happen through you, but without you having to make it happen, without an impulse to initiate, to develop, and to achieve. The only thing that is necessary for your surrender is that you be present in the moment so that you can capture naturally what is emerging, whatever it is. Meditation is, in this sense, a way to equip yourself for this surrender…in the sense that you do not need to invent anything, but rather to receive that which the universe is already creating for you to receive” (translated text)


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