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No-Self and Mindfulness as Tools for Liberatory Activism

November 28, 2020
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In this paper analyzes the conceptual value of the Buddhist teachings of no-self and mindfulness for contemporary activism. First it explores how the doctrine of no-self promotes extended empathy, self-awareness, self-love, and self-care. Second, it explores how the doctrine of mindfulness both resolves some of the organization-related tensions between no-self and activism and provides additional tools for effective activism, as mindfulness promotes embodied care and right action.

The main purpose of this paper was to propose a new philosophical approach to contemporary activism that would address its central problems on personal, interpersonal, and organizational levels.

    Keywords-component; Buddhism; Zen; No-Self; Mindfulness; Activism

I. Introduction  

It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that the Zen Buddhist doctrines of no-self and mindfulness might be effective tools for activism, considering that no-self completely undermines the Western conception of moral agency, and mindfulness promotes an awareness and acceptance of the present and detachment from desire for change. If activism is an organized effort to help others and ourselves in the face of injustice, can that really be achieved without a robust notion of the self and a powerful desire for change?

This paper argues that together, mindfulness and no-self can create a basis for better activism by addressing its central problems on personal, interpersonal, and organizational levels. First, it will be argued that the doctrine of no-self, far from limiting agency, promotes extended empathy, self-awareness, self-love, and self-care. Second, it will be argued that the doctrine of mindfulness both resolves some of the organization-related tensions between no-self and activism and provides additional tools for effective activism, as mindfulness promotes embodied care and right action. In this way, the incorporation of no-self and mindfulness into activism creates a comprehensive new approach to activism that is equipped to combat its main issues.

II. No-Self

Zen Buddhism is based upon a radical doctrine of no-self. Because no single part of what makes up the self can individually be considered the seat of the ego that “selfhood” is a term that, rather than actually defining a real entity, simply acts as a reference to an unfounded conception of ego. [5](Warren 133) In this way, no-self is a valuable conceptual tool for activism.

A. Extended Empathy

First, no-self promotes extended empathy because the practitioner of no-self is unable to make an ontological distinction between the suffering of others and their own suffering, which in turn becomes a trigger for advocacy and cooperation among activists.

One could argue that no-self will not adequately extend empathy to distant others, as being informed of suffering at the other end of the world will not have the same effect as seeing someone suffering in front of you. However, it logically follows from the doctrine of no-self that we are not a self experiencing others but rather a being experiencing itself. [3](Tanahashi 69) In this way, no-self cannot favor empathy for the suffering of “near others” over “distant others”, as according to this doctrine there is no “other” at all.

B. Self-Knowledge

Second, no-self entails a detachment that not only allows individuals to engage with the world with the same care with which they engage with themselves, but also to engage with themselves with the same honest with which they engage with the world. no-self leads to self-awareness which is actualized through a recognition of privilege and an intersectional approach to activism. Introspection becomes outwardly inclusive when the “potential of inner-subjective diversity” - that is to say, the power of acknowledging the “multiplicity” of individual experiences creates an inclusive activism. [2](Kalmanson 817)

It could be argued that such an intersectional approach will not necessarily strengthen an activist movement, because giving equal weight to all experiences might undermine the purpose of a movement by shifting the focus, or accidentally promoting contradictory goals. However, intersectionality is the only way to effectively achieve any goal. For instance, if the goal of the feminist movement is gender equality, then it logically follows that it should work to dismantle oppressive norms and systems that subjugate women. Not all women experience the oppressive norms and systems in the same way, based on individual circumstances, and so will present a multiplicity of experience. If we are to reject an intersectional approach, it follows that there must be one accepted form of womanhood, and so resistance will only happen along those lines – and almost always, the standard is set by the most powerful within that group and excludes many other experiences. As such, the doctrine of no-self may be a critical tool to facilitating an intersectional approach to activism – an approach that is not only helpful, but also arguably necessary.

C. Self-Love

Third, the doctrine of no-self facilitates radical self-love, which in turn becomes a tool to counter internalized disvalues. Though it may seem ironic that no-self would promote self-love, acceptance of the multiplicity and change of identity, and so leads to greater self-love as there is no longer a need to fit a self- or societally-imposed narrative of identity. Kalmanson has identified the aesthetic value of rejecting a fixed self, and argues that recognizing of the value of multiplicity and change is potentially liberatory. [2](Kalmanson 818) Not only does this rejection of a single self be beautiful in itself, but it allows one to see the beauty in oneself in one’s particularity, and as a constantly shifting and infinitely faceted becoming. This self-acceptance is key to activism because a greater acceptance of oneself dismantles internalized oppression on a micro scale and validates a struggle for justice.

One possible objection to the utility of self-love in activism is that self-love may blind people to their faults, making them inefficient and potentially even counterproductive activists. If self-love is not conditional upon doing good, but rather naturally follows from no-self, then it seems that there is no mechanism to revoke this love, and so there is no emotional consequence to doing something wrong. However, if paired with self-awareness, which requires constant contextual evaluation of experience, self-love can nonetheless be a valuable tool. Promoting self-love does not imply that one should have a preference for oneself; it is simply another way to be able to see the beauty and faults in all perspectives, especially those that are in constant flux.  

D. Self-Care

Fourth, no-self promotes self-care to prevent burnout and martyrdom in activists. Successful and ethical activism should protect those who engage in it, especially because often those who are engaged in fighting for justice are those who most affected by the injustice. To this end, no-self can be employed to promote self-care. Insofar as an activist’s goal is to rectify injustice and a practitioner of no-self should have no preference for self over other or, crucially, for other over self, then an activist should give themselves the same care they give to others.

It could be argued that activists practicing self-care may be a detriment to their cause as presumably activists are in a more powerful position than those they advocate for, and so any act of self-care maintains this power dynamic. However, regardless of whether or not activists are more powerful than those they aim to protect, self-care is still an important tool for activism. Firstly, because if an activist has more power than those they are defending, they will not necessarily be cared for in the same way they care for others. And secondly, because they are more likely to know what they need and address their needs accordingly, thus using their limited time and energy in a way that is more likely to be efficient. Therefore, self-care as facilitated by no-self is vital to sustainable activism.

Because it leads to extended empathy, self-awareness, self-love, and self-care, no-self is a valuable tool for rethinking activism to make it more efficient, inclusive, and sustainable. However, despite its many benefits, no-self is not sufficient on its own to radically improve activism because it cannot be used as a guide for action or as a tool for organization, both of which are essential parts of effective activism. At the very least, even if no-self does not impede agency, it is only helpful in addressing the more theoretical aspects of activism. In order to complement this discussion of no-self, one must turn to the potential role of mindfulness in efficient activism.

III. Mindfulness

   In order to achieve enlightenment, Buddha proposed the Eightfold Path, of which one of the steps is "right mindfulness", which entails being fully attentive to one's experience in every moment. In addition to the benefits of applying the no-self doctrine to activism, mindfulness is a useful tool for activism because it promotes the application of embodied care and the prioritization of right action, both of which are helpful to guiding action and organization in activist movements.

A. Embodied Care

Mindfulness can be a useful tool in facilitating responsible and effective activism by promoting embodied care. Embodied care consists in being fully mindful while engaging in care, so that we are more responsible in our actions, thus maximizing our impact while limiting unconscious repetition of damaging behaviors, such as microaggressions. [1](Butnor 422) A mindful approach to activism would therefore allow activists to do the most good and the least harm, and takes into account one’s behavior instead of just one’s goals, which encourages a much deeper and more purposeful engagement with one’s experience and values.

One serious objection to the relevance of embodied care in activism is that such a sensitive awareness of the world, and particularly of others, is not possible for everyone. For instance, embodied care may not be accessible to all individuals on the autism spectrum, which seriously limits its applicability in all areas of activism, but especially when it comes to activism with the goal of promoting the rights of neurodivergent individuals (i.e. those whose mental state is consistently divergent from the norm through mental illness, etc.). However, even if some individuals are less capable of engaging mindfully with all of their surroundings and so less capable of engaging in embodied care, it is still a valuable tool for activism. Embodied care does not require reciprocity to work, except insofar as it is easier to care for others that also care for you. Because of this, just because some people may be less capable of engaging in this way does not meant that it will be a less valuable tool for those that are willing and capable.

B. Right Action

Mindfulness is also a path towards consistently right action. For the mindful activist, the end cannot justify the means, as all actions must be both appropriate and effective. [4](Uebel & Shorkey 221) In this way, mindful activism holds its practitioners to a higher standard of awareness. Not only will this prevent the justification of morally questionable behavior, but it will also require that activists with the same goals act in compatible ways, because mindful activism values being concretely aware over being abstractly “better”.

Though one could argue that this approach to activism makes long-term planning and cohesive vision difficult, mindful activism is actually beneficial in the long-term and facilitates the creation of a cohesive vision across differences. First, mindfulness paired with no-self not only facilitates communication across differences but actually requires it, making activism more effective and inclusive as discussions will be ego-less. Second, long-term planning is not necessarily a problem for mindful activism because part of mindfulness includes a particular awareness of the present moment in which the present moment encompasses all of time. [3](Tanahasi 77 §4) As such, one is always aware of the future is always but one can never override situational appropriateness.


   The author gratefully acknowledges and thanks Dr. Ian Sullivan for his eye-opening perspective on the practical applications of Buddhist thought and for his support.


[1] Butnor, Ashby. 2014. “Dogen, Feminism, and the Embodied Practice of Care”. In Asian and Feminist Philosophies in Dialogue, ed. Jennifer McWeeny and Ashby Butnor.

[2] Kalmanson, Leah. “Buddhism and bell hooks: Liberatory Aesthetics and the Radical Subjectivity of No-Self.” Hypatia Vol. 27, No. 4 (2012): 810–827.

[3] Tanahashi Kazuaki, trans. 1985. Moon in a dewdrop: Writings of Zen master Dōgen. New York: North Point.

[4] Uebel, Michael, and Shorkey, Clayton. 2014. "Mindfulness and Engaged Buddhism: Implications for a Generalist Macro Social Work Practice". In Mindfulness and Acceptance in Social Work: Evidence-Based Interventions and Emerging Applications, ed. Matthew S. Boone: 215-234. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

[5] Warren, Henry Clarke. 2005. “There is no ego”. Buddhism in Translations: 129-146. New York: Cosimo Classics.