The Meditation Police

How can Buddhist centers manage gatekeeping volunteers that treat BIPOC practitioners with suspicion? John Mifsud offers some solutions.

John Mifsud
21 May 2024
A hand extends in the "stop" gesture on a grey background
Photo by Roslav Danylchenko.

“Whenever domination is present, love is lacking.”  —bell hooks

One of my former students, a mixed-race woman, was a talented volunteer at a renown retreat center. Her administrative skill set earned her free access to events. After working all day in the office, she decided to attend an evening sit. She smiled and bowed to the two elder white women volunteers managing the front door of the meditation hall, claimed her seat and began her practice. Soon after, one volunteer interrupted her silence. “Excuse me,” she said, “I’ve never seen you before and you didn’t pay when you came in.” My student was justifiably alarmed by the abrupt interruption. She was forced to quickly transition from developing mindfulness to defending herself. This rude behavior stood in sharp contrast to the center’s signs stating, “All are welcome!” and “No one is turned away because of inability to pay.”

Another student, a tall Black gentleman, was on a seven-day silent retreat practicing walking meditation. A white woman drove close by, stopped, and got out of her car. She asked, belligerently, “What are you doing here? Are you supposed to be here? Who are you?” Forced to break his vow of noble silence, he asked, “Who are you?” She refused to identify herself and quickly changed her tone. “I’m just trying to help.” He quietly asked, “Do I look like I need your help?” As he returned to his mindfulness practice, he knew if he had been white, this likely would never have happened. It certainly didn’t need to.

“All practitioners must let go of our attachment to being right. Forgiveness practice benefits everyone, including ourselves.”

I was six weeks into a silent, two-month retreat, meditating between 10-12 hours a day. I connected deeply with two white senior teachers and my meditation deepened, bringing new and unexpected benefits I’d never experienced. In the final two weeks, a new manager started her first day on the job. I was waiting to speak with one of my beloved mentors when this white woman asked, “Why aren’t you meditating?” As an elder, gay, Arab-American, I wondered why she singled me out when there were many others about. She knew I had taken a vow of silence, but her tone demanded response. I carefully asked, “Are you the meditation police?” She huffed and scurried away.

Another time, I was teaching at a meditation center that prides itself on inclusivity: there is a meticulously worded mission statement and rules about wise speech hanging on the wall in large, bold print. I ended the evening with a guided 30-minute meditation. Oddly enough, that evening, the two, white female volunteer coordinators chose not to practice with the sangha. Instead, they spent the 30 minutes conversing in the lunchroom. This had never happened before.

Before the sit, I noticed the time and asked the community for permission to run a little over to ensure our full, half-hour practice. Everyone agreed. I rang the bell and we sat in noble silence. After 25 minutes, I was deep in concentration, eyes closed, enjoying stillness. Suddenly, one of the coordinators nudged me firmly on the shoulder. I was startled. I’d never had anyone interrupt my meditation before. She was close to my lavalier mic which was still on. It broadcast her saying, “John, you’re running overtime.”

Immediately, over forty meditators were disrupted. Since she had chosen to be in the lunchroom instead of practicing, she did not know we had come to an agreement about the extension. What did she find so important that our practice couldn’t take an extra five? Why would anyone volunteer at a meditation center, avoid the practice itself and exert control that disrupted everyone’s meditation, all because it did not end exactly as scheduled?

These examples of white volunteers challenging the presence of BIPOC practitioners in spiritual communities or claiming dominance is not new and rarely addressed. Though such microaggressions are often forgiven as isolated incidents, BIPOC know it is a recurring pattern. Since the murder of George Floyd, many communities have tried to increase inclusivity. BIPOC are told we are needed, welcomed, and appreciated for our diverse experiences and skills. We come to the dharma to find sanctuary in spiritual community. However, what we sometimes find is the same hurtful prejudice we experience in society at large. When this happens, BIPOC practitioners understandably walk away and never return. Why would we subject ourselves to recurring harm when, typically, no one is held accountable? It is not our responsibility to educate people, especially those who, subtly and obviously, hold us suspect. When this happens, both centers and all practitioners lose.

Nonprofit centers cannot say no to free labor when they depend on it to keep their doors open. However, unpaid volunteers need vetting as much as salaried staff. Sadly, those who give their time and talent are rarely required to take diversity, equity, and inclusion training to make everyone feel welcome and to ensure potential macro and microaggressions do not occur. Often, training isn’t even required or offered to paid staff or board members. However, the problem of gatekeeping volunteers reacting to BIPOC practitioners with disrespect arises even at centers that pride themselves for their efforts on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

If sanghas are serious about preventing unconscious bias threatening BIPOC practitioners, they must use Right View, looking at themselves and their behaviors fearlessly and with clarity. The intention to not cause harm does not eradicate complicity to cause it. Offenders are regularly given the benefit of the doubt when they overstep their authority. Although teachers are regularly taken to task, volunteers are not. Even in places where offending volunteers have graduated from “How to be a White Ally” anti-racist programs, there is no resolution available given the centers’ inability to hold volunteers accountable for harmful behavior. It is as if the generosity of their time and effort trumps their offensive behavior. The dire lack of consequences for unskillful behavior targeting BIPOC becomes unspoken permission for unkind actions to recur.

If we are going to be in community, we need reassurance that harm will not continue. First, we must all investigate and heal our own greed, hatred, and delusion. In the Adittapariyaya Sutta, also known as the Fire Sermon, the Buddha announced, “Monks, all is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of greed, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion.” Teachings on greed, hatred, and delusion must be primary in everyone’s practice at our centersand in our personal spiritual growth, both for those new to the dharma as well as experienced practitioners.

If our centers are truly dedicated to the Buddha’s Third Noble Truth, the causes of the end of suffering, ongoing sensitivity training would be mandatory, and we would all be encouraged to take inventory of our personal prejudices. Knowing this, we’d learn how to prevent conscious and unconscious biases from causing potential harm in both subtle and obvious everyday dynamics. With that in mind, I humbly offer these invitations for white allies and BIPOC practitioners.

For white practitioners:

  • Refrain from interrupting meditation practices.
  • Do not let strong emotions justify immediate responses until you are certain of your intention and that it will be well received.
  • Commit to practicing Wise Speech. Is what you have to say true? Is your timing appropriate? Who will benefit from what you have to say? Can you speak with kindness? If you cannot, consider sitting still until you can.
  • Carefully consider the varied responses BIPOC may have to what you have to say before you speak. Anticipate potential harm you may cause. If you are unsure, try waiting.
  • Do not assume you are correct. Truth is always relative and never absolute.
  • Be accountable. When we do wrong, we need to apologize and assure whoever we have harmed we will strive to not cause further offense.
  • Work with aversion. Discomfort is a part of being alive and we need to own it. If you are uncomfortable, question why before you act on it. Do not make your discomfort someone else’s responsibility because you are accustomed to being accommodated.

For BIPOC practitioners:

  • Practice self-care by rallying support. Creating our own practice circles is a good first step. Find people who are safe and will have your back and develop your practice with them.
  • Address unwelcoming behavior. Demand accountability even when offenders have institutional support. We cannot normalize offense by allowing it to continue.
  • White fragility often responds with gaslighting. Try your best to see it, and, when possible, name it in the moment. As an immigrant, it took me a lifetime to feel I belonged and internalize that my voice had value. Although easier said than done, the invitation is to interrupt as best we can.
  • Don’t take things so personally. Although it certainly might feel like it in the moment, it is not about us. Most often, harm says more about the offender than it does about the offended. Let’s strive to, as much as possible, not be anyone’s victim.
  • Although we may feel that we have no choice but to give up on certain communities or centers, we must never give up on our practice.

Finally, all practitioners must let go of our attachment to being right. Forgiveness practice benefits everyone, including ourselves. Remember the greatest gift we can give ourselves, our friends, families, and communities is self-healing. Coupling mindfulness practice with therapy and other resonant modalities will contribute to our ongoing understanding of our intergenerational, historic, familial, and social trauma. While meditation helps increase our mindfulness, it is not meant to act as a bypass for our past or present pain. Instead, it is meant to increase our awareness of the work we have yet to do.

We must also realize Buddhist teachings and meditation practice are not meant to just make us feel better: they are meant to break us from our own delusion. The foremost teaching of the Buddha is the truth of suffering is to be known; the causes of suffering are to be abandoned; the end of suffering is to be actualized and the path to the end of suffering is to be followed. We can learn from the rough waters we have already navigated to end our suffering and the suffering of others. We can use lessons learned from our stormy past to douse the burning that may cause future harm. This is our practice.

John Mifsud

John Mifsud was born on the Island of Malta and identifies as Arab-American. He has practiced Insight Meditation since 2001 and graduated from the Community Dharma Leaders Training Program at Spirit Rock Meditation Center where he served on the Board of Directors for seven years. John has extensive retreat experience and has practiced throughout Asia. He is the founding member of the Deep Refuge Sangha for Alphabet Brothers of Color in Oakland. He has taught internationally with a special interest in delivering mindfulness tools to marginalized communities.