Creating Safe(r) Spaces for Mindfulness of Breath: Non-White Western Practitioners’ Experiences of Race, Racism and Whiteness in American Mindfulness


In Vipassana meditation practice, the first common object is the breath. By allowing the breath to be the focus of your awareness, one lets the social world full of discursive thought, self-reflexivity and judgement move into the background. Yet, we know that as intimate and solitary as this breath practice is, many individuals turn to communities of solitary practice such as sitting groups and retreat spaces, as safe grounds or anchors to turn their gaze inward and attend to the tacit, embodied dimension of their being. This presentation critically evaluates how for non-white people of color in North America who practice in institutional spaces that are predominantly white, such silence and safety is interrupted by race. By drawing on fieldwork conducted in California among mindfulness communities, I explore key assumptions about mindfulness that North American black and non-black people of color expose and problematize through their engagement with mindfulness. The presentation asks, how in the context of racialized history of the United States and institutional whiteness, how we might more fully appreciate the “noble” breath of meditation, not as simply empty and neutral, but rather as supersaturated with history and power.

Questions for reflection

For practitioners of color participating in Insight and mindfulness spaces, in what ways does race and history shape their experiences in such spaces?

What role do others play in the self-cultivation practices of meditation practitioners? Do you have any personal practices in your own life in which others in the environment impact your personal experience?

Related to the idea of the comfort and discomfort of space that this article refers to, what spaces do you find yourself “sinking into” or “not sinking into” (Ahmed 2014)? What shapes this comfort and discomfort?

Further reading

Adams, Sheridan, Mushim Patricia Ikeda, Jeff Kitzes, Margarita Loinaz, Choyin Rangdrol, Jessica Tan, and Larry Yang, eds 2000. Making the Invisible Visible: Healing Racism in Our Buddhist Communities. 3rd ed. Woodacre, CA: Spirit Rock.

Ahmed, Sara. 2014. “A Sinking Feeling.” Feministkilljoys. Accessed August 28, 2019.

Suh, Sharon. 2019. ‘“We Interrupt Your Regular Scheduled Programming to Bring You This Very Important Public Service Announcement…’ aka Buddhism as Usual in the Academy.” In Buddhism and Whiteness: Critical Reflections, edited by George Yancy and Emily McRae, 1–22. United States: Rowman & Littlefield. 

Pagis, Michal. 2019. Inward: Vipassana Meditation and the Embodiment of the Self. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Nalika Gajaweera is a research anthropologist at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. Her specializations are in the anthropology of religion, with a specific interest in the intersections of Buddhism, race, ethno-nationalism and gender. She has studied these issues most in-depth in the context of Sri Lanka and the United States.

Her current project focuses on documenting the struggles, experiences and practices of ethnic and racial minority leadership within North-American meditation-based insight institutions, and their efforts to confront issues of race, racism and whiteness within these institutions. Transforming the America Sangha, or TAS, is a three-year research initiative supported by a $500,000 grant from the Kataly Foundation.