Can “Contemplative Practices” Lessen Hatred in Social and Political Activism in the U.S.?

can contemplative practices lessen hatred

Social and political activism to change some aspect of the status quo has a long history in our world. The form it takes in most societies has been relatively predictable because people within them learn to live by and function within social norms and customs meant to facilitate harmonious interactions, and this often applies to methods for disagreement as well. From time to time, however, situations occur that lead to a significant level of disagreement between people. When a large enough number of individuals align with dissenters, social and political movements are born. 

In contemporary America, issues regarding race, gender, climate change, and politics are among those that generate the most attention, intensity, and division. Individuals group together with the goals of “correcting” the problems they perceive. Some find peaceful ways of attempting solutions, but increasingly prevalent and visible are those with feelings of such intense animosity of the “other,” i.e. the people or entities holding opposing points of view, that hatred and violence can become likely tools. This paper looks at some of the people and situations that lead to activism, what forms and methods are taken, and how and if mind focusing practices can help alleviate some of the more volatile situations that arise and inspire instead a sense of dialogue and harmony in place of hatred and violence.

Activist groups traditionally organize around the ideas of a few who speak out about issues they want to change. One can view individuals and groups as being on a spectrum that spans from peace-oriented idealists at one end to fundamentalist ideologues (both religious and secular) at the other, with most finding a place somewhere in between. Idealists or idealistic movements have typically been grounded in non-violence, compassion, and recognition that self-awareness must be a part of all their actions. Common to many who have inspired and led past movements have been a belief in the ultimate goodness of humanity and commitment to a spiritual and/or moral foundation to guide them and their followers. Personal insight and spiritual wisdom have often been a part of their goals. Consequently, many of these have led to positive outcomes, if not in accomplishing goals set forth, but at least in the effects they have had on people involved and those touched by the leaders. Notable examples of past idealistic leaders include Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. A few current examples are the Dalai Lama, the environmentalist Vandana Shiva, and the Hawaiian elders (kūpuna) who in 2019 inspired thousands to spend months camped on Mauna Kea, a sacred mountain, in an attempt to protect it from being desecrated with yet another telescope. All these leaders have taught that positive change happens when idealistic beliefs and actions go hand in hand with ethical commitments for the purpose of improving the lives of all people, not just those who agree with them. They have sought rational approaches to address their grievances as opposed to hatred and emotional outrage. However, such individuals have been rare and many have been relatively unknown because they have not sought personal fame or acclaim as they strive to help make the world a better place for all its residents. 

More common, conspicuous, and vocal today are leaders at the other end of the spectrum who demand change at all costs, irrespective of negative consequences on others. They are more monolithic, exclusivist, fundamentalist, and Machiavellian in their actions and goals. They promote a view of reality in which only their own beliefs have validity, while all opposing views and their adherents (collectively, the “other”) are condemned. Because they rarely allow moral or ethical restrictions to limit their chosen methods of action, they tend to attract those who are susceptible to fanaticism, hatred, and violence. In his True Believers (1951), Eric Hoffer discusses common elements of the latter type of movements and the role that a predefined evil “other” plays in their formation and functioning: “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil. Usually the strength of a mass movement is proportionate to the vividness and tangibility of its devil” (Hoffer, 89-90). In this way, the stated goals of a group ultimately matter less than the actual values, motives, and methods that activists align with. A commitment to winning at all costs, irrespective of the consequences, will lead to a far more violent and destructive outcome than a commitment to seeking justice and a positive resolution for all those involved. 

The Power of Hatred and Fear

Hatred is an extremely powerful emotion and is far easier to incite in followers than compassionate understanding, kindness, or caring. Among the tools individuals and groups use to engender hatred against the “other” are constant negative and derogatory rhetoric about them or anyone associated with them, along with fabrication of alleged atrocities and other wrongdoings. These methods are not only used by social and political activists but by various forms of media as well, where biased presentations on both sides of issues have become standard fare. Their purpose is to incite emotions that can be used to justify animosity and hatred against whatever devil they have defined. The U.S. government and organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan have also been doing this against their chosen devils for more than a century, in rhetoric and in film. Two film examples of how visual media can help promote ideologies of fear and hatred are “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) and “Reefer Madness” (1936). In the 1950s, the House Un-American Activities Committee, headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy, used fear and hatred of Communists as an excuse to destroy the lives of countless people, including hundreds of creative writers and actors in Hollywood. Internationally, the terrorist group ISIS found similar tools convincing enough to be used in enticing countless people from all over the globe to join them in the slaughter of innocent people. Once an evil has been defined and hatred has been engendered, followers can easily ignore truth and reason in seeking to destroy it and all those connected with it. In discussing the role of hatred, Hoffer acknowledges that it is a great unifier that can bring diverse peoples together. At the same time, he warns that although “hatred is a convenient instrument for mobilizing a community for defense, it does not, in the long run, come cheap. We pay for it by losing all or many of the values we have set out to defend” (Hoffer, 65,95). Hatred is powerful precisely because it frees individuals from moral concerns so they can justify almost any action undertaken to defeat their enemy.

Another tool that can be easily used to amass an ideological following of hate and exclusion is fear, since it is a hard-wired emotion in most humans and animals. In its presence, normal responses to thoughts, external stimuli, etc. are altered and can cause depression and distress and, in humans, lead to irrational and reactive behavior, including violence. Many social and political leaders and activists with an ideological agenda utilize it to incite their following. As with hatred, once dire warnings of the catastrophes the existence of the enemy will surely cause, followers are more likely to resort to any action they can justify to remove the threat. While sometimes the issues are legitimate, such as warnings about proven forms of environmental pollution, a pending attack on one’s home or country, etc., far more often ideological groups fabricate or radically exaggerate the dangers, trusting their loyal followers to consider whatever they are told as truth. For leaders then, the more fear they can generate in the minds of their followers, the more control they have over their flock. 

Mind focusing practices: what they are and what they can do

Today in the west, a wide range of mind focusing practices is being taught. They usually exist as part of a set of practices that utilize breath control and body relaxation methods to enhance concentration. People from all walks of life find these beneficial to their physical health and energy, stress reduction, and mental centering as they pursue their chosen goals. The corpus of practices are generally referred to as “contemplative practices,” “mindfulness practices,” or “meditation practices.” Other than some of the organizations that teach yoga-style “meditation” practices or Buddhist-style “mindfulness” practices, the three labels are not typically accurate categorizations of teachings but instead simply terms teachers or organizations have chosen to label the practices they promote.

As we speculate whether any of these practices can bring about a lessening of animosity, hatred, and violence in contemporary activist movements, we need to first understand something of the history of the practices, how and why they evolved and differentiated into current forms, and what effect they can have on practitioners. Additional factors that need to be considered as well are the intentions of the individuals who practice and teach them.

The roots of mind focusing and centering practices can be traced back more than four millennia in the northwestern portion of the subcontinent of South Asia in what is now northern India, Tibet, and Pakistan. Archaeological excavations have revealed objects suggesting the existence of forest dwelling ascetics who undertook forms of asceticism and concentration and whose efforts and experiments likely led to the eventual development of mind focusing practices and the yoga system. The Vedas, ancient Hindu sacred chants, mention those who performed austerity practices such as keeping silence and other vows, living in the forests and jungles, wearing no clothing, having long matted hair and superhuman powers, etc. Subsequent textual evidence in the Upanishads express a philosophical wisdom that likely came from those who practiced deep interiorization and introspection. Gradually, renunciant lineages developed that utilized ascetic practices, but most such groups either disappeared or merged with other groups. Of those that survived, the earliest were the Jaina and the Buddhists ascetics, with the former focused heavily on non-violence and extreme renunciant practices while the latter emphasized compassion, mental centering, and inner awareness practices.

Near the end of the first millennium BCE or not long thereafter, Patanjali composed his Yogasūtra, the earliest extant writing that provides an organized collection of ascetic practices that had likely become commonplace for many of renunciants of the day. The text mentions goals of its eight-limbed (aṣṭāṅga) yoga system in two early verses. They include “calming the waves of the mind” and “surrender of the self to the divine.” The first two limbs consist of one set of five restrictions (yama) and another set of five observances (niyama). Together, they have been called the yoga system’s moral foundation. The next two deal with physical practices (āsana and prāṇāyāma), which are followed by two that have mental practices (pratyāhāra and dhāraṇā). The final two are essentially mental attainments or states more than practices (dhyāna and samādhi). Traditionally, the system was seen as a holistic process, with the first two limbs providing ethical and spiritual guidelines that were understood to serve as a foundation necessary for success on the path to the stated goals. This emphasis on a moral foundation was adopted by both Jaina and Buddhist practitioners and is pivotal in traditional teachings of both groups. Like other early Indian ascetics, the practices were undertaken primarily by renunciants in the two traditions. Commoners and householders were expected to adhere to certain of the teachings, but not all. Over the millennia, various Hindu ascetic and monastic orders undertook and elaborated upon elements of the yoga system, while creating their own combination of ascetic undertakings. However, moral and ethical foundations along the lines that Patanjali established were essentially maintained. As Buddhism spread throughout Asia, Buddhist renunciant orders drew on mind focusing practices of early Buddhism in developing their own forms. They, too, emphasized the importance of compassion and a strong moral/ethical foundation for the renunciant life, while lessening it somewhat for householders.

Mind focusing practices in the west

In the late nineteenth century, various Hindu and Buddhist practices from Asian countries arrived in the west, initially being taught by teachers from those lands and later by western students of the traditions as well. Gradually, there has been a proliferation of such practices here. For this discussion, current types of mind focusing programs are divided below into four groups, with some general similarities and differences briefly explained below.

Practices Drawn Extensively from Traditional Methods

The first group is based largely on traditional practices from Hindu yoga and Buddhist meditation lineages. Yoga centers teach about the entire aṣṭāṅga system, emphasizing the foundational role of the yama and niyama limbs. Buddhist mindfulness teachers include the foundational tenets of the Buddha, including the Four Noble Truths and other pivotal teachings. The experiences, knowledge, and self-realization of teachers in their respective lineages are significant. Consequently, a body of experiences and wisdom that has been handed down is an important source for the students. Teachers of both traditions emphasize compassion, kindness, non-violence and the development of self-awareness, self-realization, and a more peace-filled world as their goals. The inclusion of monastics is often an important element. Any costs involved to receive teachings are typically limited to reimbursement of expenses accrued in the instruction process. Teachers are often supported by the organization and/or by donations. 

Among the early Hindu and Buddhist monastics to start centers in U.S. were Swami Vivekananda (1894), Soyen Shaku (1905), and Paramahansa Yogananda (1920). Although begun by lay teachers, The Insight Meditation Society (1976) is similar in its approach to the others just mentioned, grounding its teachings and practices in traditional Buddhist methods. All these organizations use traditional teachings and emphasize values and moral living, but in ways that allow westerners to adapt them to their existing lives.

Traditional Methods and Academic Approaches Blended for Western Needs and Interests

The latter half of last century saw the introduction of various university programs and scholarly approaches to both study and teach mind focusing practices. They have usually sought to maintain foundational values and methods while interpreting teachings to meet academic needs and expectations. One of the first that came into being is the Tibetan Buddhist oriented Naropa University (1974). Others include the Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota (1995), the Yoga Studies Program at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles (2004), and the Mira and Ajay Shingal Center for Dharma Studies at GTU, Berkeley (2015). Online programs such as Embodied Philosophy also serve as important resources for several of the contemplative traditions. All such programs teach about traditional contemplative practices, including emphasis on the spirituality of the various traditions and the importance of a moral foundation. In this way, they exist in the spirit of the traditions whose teachings they provide.

The programs in the next two groups have several elements in common:

Most replace discussion of traditional ethical foundations with emphases on physical and emotional self-fulfillment for students.

Teachers become certified through standardized programs, not personal experiences or “self-realization.” In many programs, the amount of hours spent and courses taken typically determine qualification.

Most teachings have a cost. The more “advanced,” the greater the cost. Prices can range from several hundred up to thousands of dollars, which can limit who can take them.

Practices with Some Traditional Elements, Many Westernized Teachings

In the 1960s and 70s, there was a reaction by some conservative Christians to aspects of yoga and the Hindu tradition being taught in the U.S. at the time, including in public schools. They successfully pushed various local officials to ban the practice. Consequently, programs like Transcendental Meditation and some hatha yoga centers removed any mention of the Hindu tradition from their material, which also led to a de-emphasizing of the moral foundations of yoga. When B.K.S. Iyengar’s first U.S. center opened (1976), emphasis from the outset was on the physical with next to no mention of the moral components of yoga. Most subsequent yoga centers followed suit. Even Yoga Journal has long ignored any mention of “Hindu” as a source of yoga.

A somewhat similar situation occurred with respect to Buddhist meditation teachings that were being popularized in the 1970s. The first few sought to maintain Buddhist elements but not use that label. Then, in 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a medical professor at University of Massachusetts, started the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Center. He taught a secularized version of Buddhist meditation practice he had learned from Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh, and called it “mindfulness.” Kabat-Zinn has referred to his technique as “Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism.” He replaced ethical and other similar teachings with an exclusive focus on physical health and stress reduction. Those who have followed him have done likewise. Emphasis is only on mental and psychological benefits. Today, both western yoga and mindfulness practices, including those of Iyengar and Kabat-Zinn, are regularly taught almost exclusively for physical health and relaxation, a lowering of stress levels, and mental and emotional states of calmness. Morality and ethics are, with rare exception, ignored.

Limited Practices Taught, Specific Material Purposes

In addition to the three similarities with Group 2 mentioned above, programs in this group use only one or a few the currently popular mind focusing or associated practices, while essentially ignoring mention of their sources and traditional elements. They are advertised to help one attain physical and/or inner strength to accomplish material, sensual, social, or political goals. Without ethical guidelines, practitioners can just as easily be athletes or snipers, stock brokers or bank robbers, or almost any other lifestyle that can gain from an ability to slow the wandering mind, attain a more concentrated and clearer form of thinking to plan and carry out whatever is sought.


Once ethical foundations of both yoga and mindfulness were removed in the U.S., much of the deeper and more meaningful value of the practices disappeared as well. During the last several decades, more traditional practitioners have criticized what has occurred, especially dealing with the teaching of mindfulness. Their critiques can equally apply to the commodification of yoga. Some Buddhist teachers have been quite outspoken in their criticisms. Roman Krznaric refers to several in his book, Carpe Diem, two of which express well what happens when morality is removed from a practice meant to improve humans and humanity. The first is from a long time Buddhist monk and teacher, Matthieu Ricard, and the second is from an article written by Ronald Purser and Andrew Cooper, who are also Buddhist teachers and practitioners.

There are a lot of people speaking about mindfulness, but the risk is that it’s taken too literally – to just ‘be mindful’. Well, you could have a very mindful sniper and a mindful psychopath. It’s true! A sniper needs to be so focused, never distracted, very calm, always bringing back his attention to the present moment. And non-judgmental – just kill people with no judgment.

The rapid mainstreaming of mindfulness has provided a domesticated and tame set of meditation techniques for mainly upper-middle-class and corporate elites so they may become more ‘self-accepting’ of their anxieties, helping them to ‘thrive,’ to have it all – money, power and well-being, continuing business-as-usual more efficiently and, of course, more ‘mindfully’ – while conveniently side-stepping any serious soul searching into the causes of widespread social suffering. 

Once again, when considering if mind focusing practices can help lessen the hatred and violence of today, it should be clear that what one chooses to practice and why ultimately determines the answer. If practices and goals are solely within the realm of seeking physical health, mental strength, and emotional focus, they can clearly help those who seek to direct their hatred in order to hamper or harm someone. Many have noted the dedication, commitment, focus, and religious fervor of members of terrorist group, ISIS, and that prayer was an integral part of their lives. At the same time, they followed a fundamentalist ideology that used hate and violence as vehicles to accomplish their goals.

If, on the other hand, one’s practices provide a moral/ethical foundation meant to help one attain self-awareness and insight into one’s true nature, then such efforts are more likely to engender compassion, kindness, concern for others. These are the social and political activists who can help the world while also growing as individuals. We all want goodness for those we love and care about. Hatred and violence, on the other hand, only beget more of the same. If we want our activism to lessen tension and increase compassion, we must stop following ideologues who preach hatred of “the other” and should instead look to the thoughts and actions of idealists like those mentioned earlier. Adopting their approaches to life and the methods they have shown us can lessen, and hopefully, end much of the violence.