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Happy Martin Luther King Day with Mindfulness


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


The United State celebrates the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a national holiday. This is unusual as Dr. King was not a president or a general or a founding father. What he was a leader who changed the country and the lives of countless people with love, forgiveness, morality, and non-violence. There are few leaders in modern world history who had a greater impact using  only the power of moral authority and non-violent leadership. Perhaps Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela qualify. I can think of no better reason to have a national holiday than to celebrate this remarkable life.


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was no Pollyanna. He understood completely the dangers of confronting hate directly. In fact, he said “If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.” What is remarkable about this statement is that he saw the struggle against hate not as a way to gain benefit for himself or his followers, but as a means to help the perpetrators of hate to become better people. He didn’t vilify, be saw the redemptive opportunity to change hearts and minds.


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. confronted hate not with force, violence, or more hate, but with love and understanding. As he said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Like mindfulness, he promulgated loving kindness and compassion as means to change the individual and thereby change the society. “I have decided to stick to love…Hate is too great a burden to bear.” Hate feeds on hate and when it is confronted with love it has nothing to feed on and can starve the beast. When an angry and hateful person is confronted with non-violence and compassion it can negate it and have a remarkable transformative effect on the person, making it much harder to hate. This Dr. King understood.


With mindfulness we can, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did, see each individual, regardless of whether their actions are good or bad, regardless of their race, faith, or national origin, and regardless of their sexual orientation as human beings deserving of love and understanding. Mindfulness reveals that humans in their essence are all alike. It is the lack of mindfulness that has led to varying beliefs and actions. It is mindlessness that fuels anger and hate.


With mindfulness we can fully experience and appreciate our own anger and hate and its effects upon our bodies and minds. We all experience these states during our lives. They can take over and result in hurtful behavior. But by being mindfully aware of how we feel in our bodies and the thoughts that arise when we become angry and hateful, we can better recognize these states when they first arise. This allows us to accept them as they are and respond to them in a more appropriate, constructive, and loving manner. This requires mindfulness practice with sensitivity and attention to the feelings in the present moment. But if it is practiced, then over time we become better and better at recognizing anger and hate and transforming them into insight and understanding.


One of the ways that mindfulness can transform anger and hate is by replacing it with peacefulness. Mindfulness practices teach how to find inner peace and equanimity. It shows us that peacefulness is always there and can be produced when needed. This inner peacefulness can be used as a refuge from emotional turmoil. We can learn to use this training to confront anger, fear, and hatred by recognizing when these states arise and using our ability to find inner peace to replace these feelings with calm and equanimity. This is not something that can be accomplished without practice. But it can be learned through mindfulness practices.


The more mindful we become the better and better able we become at recognizing when anger and hate are arising and responding by replacing them with peacefulness. An important process involved in this is what is called mindful non-reactivity. This allows us to respond to anger and hate with non-violence. With practice, the events of the present moment do not necessarily produce reflexive negative behaviors. The reflexes can be interrupted and prevented from emerging and producing harm. Hence, practicing mindfulness can help us to become like Dr. King practicing non-violence.


Within each of us are the seeds of racism. Some believe that evolution imbedded these seeds in the DNA. For many of us in the older generations we were trained in racism by the structure of society that promoted distance, a sense of other, strangeness and fear. Mindfulness can help each of us uproot the seeds of this racism. By becoming more aware of our inner life we become better able to recognize when racist thoughts and feeling begin to arise and not only not respond to them but to transform them into their opposites, feelings of acceptance, understanding, and love. Looking deeply into our inner life in the present moment is essential to overcoming our own racism.


The dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr for a just and loving society can be produced by mindfulness practices. What better way to honor this remarkable man than to practice mindfulness on his holiday and to make a commitment to continue this practice throughout the year and to become non-violent and tolerant and to confront anger and hate with loving kindness and compassion.


So, celebrate Martin Luther King day with Mindfulness.


Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr


In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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