Mindfulness and Social Identity

by Varun Gauri

These days, fights about social identity are coming to the boil. Could mindfulness practice lower the temperature of those disputes? I want to suggest that it could. To understand why, it’s useful to start by describing the psychological components of social identity. There are a variety of ways of thinking about the topic; many have addressed it. I want to highlight three dimensions.

First, identity enters the body and the imagination. You can tell what groups people belong to from their languages, accents, clothing, symbols, habits, and ways of carrying themselves. Some Sikhs wear turbans on their heads; some Catholics wear crosses around their necks. Most Brazilians and Portuguese speak the same language, but with different accents. Women tend to carry handbags and men wallets. People have strong emotions about the way their bodies and words disclose their affiliations — sometimes pride, sometimes shame. They love their country’s rivers and mountains; they relish the food and drink of their neighborhoods; there are songs that bring them to tears, smells and gestures that evoke the sense of being at home in the world. Even when people reject their identities of origin, the disavowals often have the effect of acknowledging the relevance of those identities to their self-understanding. Let’s call this the expressive aspect of identity.

One could try to argue that Christianity is a more imaginative and beautiful religion than Buddhism, or vice versa, and it might be fun to waste some time on that debate, but it really doesn’t make sense to say that one group’s languages or symbols are superior to another’s. Some expressions of identity are morally contestable (consider headscarf bans or statues of Confederate soldiers), but as a general rule, people are, and should be, free to express their identities.

Second, identity entails a distinctive set of attributes thought to be necessary and sufficient to identify a human type. It is believed, mistakenly, that Blacks are distinct from Whites, cisgender from trans, Jews from Muslims, and Brahmins from Vaishyas in the way that the number one is distinct from the number two. “Essentialism” of this type begins in early childhood and is pervasive. Forms of it continue into adulthood and infect political discourse, sometimes in virulently racist, nationalistic, or exploitative ways.

People react when they are labeled or sorted into baskets, especially the less desirable or disadvantaged bins. They understandably demand to be given more accurate and less pejorative labels, included in socially influential or powerful organizations, and given requisite support or reparations for the suffering or disadvantage their group has experienced. Research backs up the idea that providing individuals from disadvantaged groups with adequate role models can lift aspirations and long-term well-being. At the same time, representation on the basis of identity, relabeling, and compensation can reinforce essentialism.

Third, people prefer their own groups. People are more altruistic, trusting, and cooperative with individuals in their own social circles than they are with outsiders. The circles range from family, tribe, and profession to political party, nation, and race. However, meaningful in-groups can be as minor as football team fan clubs or affinity groups in the taste for wine. We can’t choose our families or our first languages, but we can choose our friends and our political coalitions. Some in-groups, such as the “republic of letters,” only exist in the imagination. In other words, the good news is that we can, to a significant degree, choose some of our important in-groups, and therefore the people we love, assist, cooperate with, and trust.

Although essentialism is rightly criticized for its historical role in justifying war and exploitation, in-group preference is strangely tolerated, even honored (consider a saying like “charity begins at home”). But the consequences for human welfare of in-group preferences are vast. International in-group preferences are major obstacles to addressing climate change, pandemics, and global disparities in economic well-being. Domestically, in-group preferences affect support for social redistribution as well as immigration.

The essentialist and in-group preference dimensions of social identity tend to strengthen when individuals are under threat. The threat can be to the group or to the self, and can involve economic well-being or personal security. Perhaps the most straightforward way to reduce essentialism and in-group preference is to promote inclusive economic growth, equality, and well-being. Economic justice serves social justice.

But because recognition and dignity are not reducible to the material, we may also need new discourses and new forms of spiritual revival. Theistic religion can motivate charity and love for out-groups, often with the idea that everyone is a “child of God.” Unfortunately, religions can also divide people when they distinguish between the community of believers and those outside the faith.

The principal ethical counterweight to essentialism and in-group preference in the modern era has been the norm of human rights. The belief that every human being is equal in dignity functions a normative limit to the scope and content of in-group preferences and to the exploitation that can arise from, or be justified by, essentialism. However, for whatever reason — perhaps the memories of World War II have faded, or perhaps the limitations and hypocrisies of global human rights ideology became too much to bear — the liberal project of global human rights is at its weakest point in seventy years, as are its attendant norms. Support for international cooperation is declining, tolerance for torture increasing, and populist nationalism is on the march on every continent.

Other counterweights to essentialism and in-group preference are experience and exposure. Diversity training, travel, reading, and inter-group contact can lead to an appreciation of the ways people express their differing identities, knowledge that people are not essentially different from one another, and a desire to help and work with people who appear foreign. At least in theory. Research suggests that inter-group contact works only under certain conditions, and the evidence on diversity training is mixed at best. Moreover, not everyone shares the cosmopolitan impulse; they may not have the interest or resources to travel or read widely.

Mindfulness practice, rooted in Buddhist psychology, is now taught in American schools, prisons, hospitals, corporations, sports teams, and psychotherapy practices. Studies from psychology and neurobiology, including hundreds of randomized controlled trials, demonstrate that mindfulness meditation can lower stress, reduce rumination and associated anxieties, boost working memory, mitigate emotional reactivity, improve relationship satisfaction, and enhance cognitive flexibility.

Mindfulness builds a meditator’s ability to sustain moment-to-moment awareness over longer and longer periods of time. In the process, one learns to appreciate that things are less substantial, solid, and essential than they appear. The sound of an air conditioner is not a drone but a bedlam of high- and low-pitched bursts. A shower is not a stream of water but undulating rivulets and tributaries cascading over various parts of the body. Pain vibrates, rises, and falls.

Crucially, the self, when one pays attention, diffuses into memory fragments, disconnected chunks of planning and plot, and threads of emotion and desire. That disintegration of the self can be frightening, but it can also be liberating not to have to defend something that might not exist.

From the perspective of social identity, a crucial question for Buddhist psychology is this: The mindfulness tradition provides sophisticated answers to the question: Who am I? But what light can it shed on the broader question: Who are we?

Mindfulness, an activity in which people can experience dignity without social identity, may have the potential to make cosmopolitanism palpable and approachable. It might be able to reduce the tendency to think in essentialist ways and restrict support and cooperation to in-groups, without necessarily erasing expressive identities. (Monks, however, with their simple clothing and lifestyles, do try to eliminate or replace their expressive identities.)

Research shows that mindfulness meditation practice can lead people to treat others more equally and with more respect, reduce implicit racial bias among blacks and whites, encourage individuals to bargain more equitably in economic games, and increase pro-social behavior among preschool children. Individuals who have engaged in mindfulness meditation express less anger, inflict less punishment, and give more compensation when people are treated unfairly. Mindfulness practice, along with similar resources in other spiritual traditions, may be among the more accessible and democratic means to open ourselves to human difference.

Techniques to experience our own groups, and those of others, as less essential than we imagine could be valuable resources for these times. Perhaps we can learn to wear our social identities lightly, to take off our costumes now and again, the way we undress before going to bed.

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