Seeking inner peace in a violent, unequal world is not a selfish act

Late in 2018, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey felt the wrath of his own social media platform when he posted a series of fulsome tweets about his experience of a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat in Myanmar, a country that has recently been plagued by brutal ethnic violence.

After Dorsey admiringly celebrated Myanmar as an “absolutely beautiful country” where “people are full of joy”, numerous critics were quick to point out that Dorsey failed to even mention the military-led campaign of mass killings, rape and torture of the Muslim Rohingya population. It was, to say the very least, insensitive.

I was not aware of this story when it first broke, however, because I was on a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat of my own at the time (albeit in the less controversial setting of rural Herefordshire). During the retreat, meditators are not allowed to use the internet or electronic devices, and cannot read books or newspapers, write, exercise, talk or even make eye contact. When I emerged from my retreat, reading about the Dorsey controversy forced me to confront a question many of us must wrestle with: what does it mean to find personal inner peace and harmony in an inhumane, capitalist world plagued by gross inequalities of wealth and power?

This is not a question with any easy answers. But it is perhaps worth explaining why I personally decided to attempt to master the particularly disciplined and austere style of Vipassana meditation. In common with one in four people in the UK today, I have struggled to manage my mental health for most of my adult life. I’ve tried every type of therapy going, and spend a large part of my less-than-princely teaching salary on yoga, mindfulness classes and massages whenever I can afford to do so.

Vipassana’s core teachings therefore seemed attractive; my retreat emphasised that human experience will always be a series of pleasurable and painful episodes, and that learning to respond to these with equanimity can develop one’s sense of inner peace and harmony. Vipassana is based on ancient Buddhist teachings and philosophy, but the technique can be practised by those with any religion or none. The idea is that you learn to accept the reality of the present moment, however painful, without trying to change it. The teachings argue that this desire to change is the cause of your suffering.

A variation on this teaching is now being disseminated in mindfulness training programmes in workplaces across the west, from corporations to the multi-academy trust chain I used to work for. But this is where the potential problems begin to emerge in the translation from east to west. By encouraging employees to “accept the reality of the present moment”, there is a danger that toxic work environments and unmanageable workloads will be allowed to persist, and any failure to manage them will be judged to lie with the individual, not the institution. As a secondary school teacher, I don’t need a mindfulness course to help me “manage” my workload – I just need less work.

Not only that, but Vipassana courses emphasise that all human beings suffer, whether they are tech billionaires or children living in abject poverty in austerity-addled Britain today. Oliver James’s Affluenza may have argued that excessive wealth makes the rich miserable too, but Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s new book, The Inner Level, shows that the suffering generated by poor mental health is significantly exacerbated by issues of class, gender, disability and race. That should never be forgotten.

This is why Dorsey’s tweets were so distasteful; he neither acknowledged the suffering of the Rohingya, nor made any suggestion that action must be taken to address this grotesque injustice. But it could be argued that Dorsey is not properly following the Vipassana teachings; at least not the ones I was exposed to. Buddhist philosophy emphasises that seeking inner peace through meditation should allow practitioners to more deeply understand the suffering of others, and strengthen one’s resolve to take strong action to intervene where injustice has occurred.

We live in a complicated, troubled world. As a trade unionist and Labour party activist, I believe that taking part in the struggle to transform society for the better is the fundamental collective task that faces us today. Self-care can never be a substitute for political struggle. Helping to create a more equal society is the best way to address the suffering that results from chronically poor mental health. But my experience of Vipassana was that such practices can fortify us for the many challenges that lie ahead.

As ever more political and economic chaos unfurls around us, developing fragments of inner peace can strengthen our capacity to effect change out there in the world. Jack Dorsey deserved the criticism he got. But it won’t stop me meditating.