Mindful Acceptance Is Not Indifference

Image by Juan Manuel Cruz del Cueto. Flickr Creative Commons copyright

Image by Juan Manuel Cruz del Cueto. Flickr Creative Commons copyright

Ian Kershaw, a historian specializing in Nazi Germany, said, “The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference.” One of our interns at CAPS brought this quote up in a presentation he did last week. These words have haunted me over the last few days as I have listened to the news about continued police violence against Black men and heard politicians inciting fear as a method of advocating for intolerance.

“The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference.”–Ian Kershaw

Many Americans are like me, White people who may not immediately feel the pain caused  by institutionalized racism or laws that make it harder for our neighbors of color to feel safe and accepted in this country. I wonder: Will indifference to the struggles of others who seem different from us provide an opening for intolerance and hatred to become further institutionalized in our country?

Acceptance of the truth of the moment is one of the essential attitudes we cultivate with a mindfulness practice. When I teach mindfulness to college students, I like to make sure they don’t confuse acceptance with “passive resignation.” It’s hard to get excited about passive resignation, so it’s important to understand that acceptance is not at all about liking, agreeing with or passively resigning yourself to anything.

Acceptance is the opposite of passive; it is in fact quite active. Acceptance means that you willingly see what is true in this moment. Because acceptance allows a clear view of reality, it leads to wise action. Mindfulness–non-judgmental awareness of the present moment–is how you cultivate acceptance.

If you are stuck in the mud, passive resignation says, “Oh no, I’m stuck. I guess I have to stay here.” Acceptance says, “Oh no, I don’t like it, but I am stuck. What do I do now to get unstuck?”

Until now, I haven’t thought much about how acceptance might get confused with indifference. To me, it seems that indifference is much closer to passive resignation in that it doesn’t lead to wise action. Maybe indifference says, “I’m stuck. Nothing I can do about it. Who cares?”

The apparent inability of our country’s power brokers to cooperate in the service of progress can generate feelings of helplessness in all of us. Helplessness might lead to indifference. When you hear the politicans bickering, you might think, “I don’t like these things, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” or “This doesn’t really have anything to do with me.”

In my mind, a mindfulness practice may be the best antidote to this kind of indifference. Mindful awareness of the suffering of others feels uncomfortable, even intolerable. You can’t sit easily with your own safety when you have clear awareness of danger for others.

Clearly seeing and accepting the reality of the pain that comes from hatred and intolerance can lead to wise action, inviting you to consider, “What can I do to oppose the oppression and suffering of others?”

There are now more Millennials in this country than baby boomers. The Millennials are the least judgmental demographic. They are less likely to act on bias and be intolerant; they are more likely to have friends from different races, religions, ethnic groups, and sexual orientations. If they are not disempowered by hopeless indifference, they will ensure that our country moves towards tolerance, not away from it. Maybe the skill of mindfulness has a role to play in protecting our Millenials and the rest of us from indifference. It’s an experiment worth trying.

If you are or you know a Millenial interested in learning mindfulness, you can find a Koru Mindfulness teacher near you in the Koru Teacher Directory.