What is mindfulness, and why should you make time for it in your life? LSA spoke with Professor Ram Mahalingam, a cultural psychologist, researcher, artist, and director of the Barger Leadership Institute. He teaches courses on gender psychology, the cultural psychology of immigrants, the psychology of mindfulness, and the psychology of films. And he thinks that small actions can have a profound impact.


LSA: What is mindfulness to you?

Ram Mahalingam: Mainstream mindfulness focuses on the growth of the individual—it’s seen as a self-enhancement tool. Whereas from the Buddhist or Eastern perspective, mindfulness is about realizing interconnectedness: my wellbeing depends on so many people's contributions to make me where I am now. Mindfulness practices [you have] should help us to recognize the dignity of other human beings.

So mindfulness is not just about how long you can meditate. Those things are important. But can you treat the other person with dignity? And treat yourself with dignity and treat Mother Nature with dignity?


LSA: How has your view of mindfulness evolved?

RM: Dr. B. R. Ambedkar [iconoclastic thinker and social justice leader] is my role model in many ways. He influenced my work [in the way that I think] about Buddhism and social change, how to think about the unity of other people, to see who they are as 3-D people.

My mindfulness framework is a very social justice-focused work, and I draw something from what the U.S. taught me. I’ve been teaching [topics] from multiculturalism to AI. The whole evolution of my approach to mindfulness happened over 30 years. While borrowing from my roots, I’m also embellishing what I get from here. My holistic framework combines Eastern ideas and Western approaches to social justice. I developed a sense of what works, and what I can do as a teacher.


LSA: How do you teach mindfulness in your classes?

RM: I use what I call the banyan tree mindset [to show] how rooted and connected you are. It has seven features; I use metaphors to talk about them—what I call the seven minds.

  1. The janitor’s mind: to be compassionate. If you really care for other people, think of the janitors who take care of the mess we make every day. Nobody wants to do the job, right?

  2. The cook’s mind: how to rejoice with other people’s happiness? It’s a sympathetic joy.

  3. The actor’s mind: how do you deal with negative capability, the idea that something is imperfect? How do I stay with it so that I can transform myself with compassion and so I can actually cultivate a deeper understanding?

  4. The weaver’s mind: situated intellectual awareness. My identities are situated and multilayered. The more you know that, the more you are likely to connect.

  5. The potter’s mind: also known as cultural humility, or what I can learn from you. Every potter will tell you whenever they’re firing [a vessel], they don’t know how it will look until it comes out. Every firing is a new learning experience.

  6. The artist’s mind: wonder, or how do you think about things in a new light? Such realization should lead to personal and social transformation. If I get to a position where I can make a change, I should work towards the change.

  7. The gardener’s mind: generosity. People always focus only on the material aspect of generosity. But I’m also looking at emotional generosity. Generosity is always about giving; it’s also about receiving.


LSA: How do you implement mindfulness?

RM: It’s always nice to see in movies or Zen stories about enlightenment. The real challenge starts only after that. I think everyday mindfulness is stimulating and challenging. I meditate every day for 30 to 40 minutes. I also do contemporary art and writing. I also teach different techniques in my mindful leadership course: how to reduce precarity, how to really commit yourself. These tools help me to really re-evaluate me, so that if I’m making a mistake, I don’t have to suppress or shy away from that. These practices helped me to see that, with some self-compassion, with some reflections, I can work towards improving my self-cultivation. That’s going to be helpful to other people, hopefully.


LSA: How do your students put mindfulness into practice?

RM: I teach a course called “Mindfulness and Engaged Living.” The first part is to learn what the major debates are. They really get a much more theoretical and methodological understanding of how [mindfulness] is studied. In the second part, I push them to practice. For seven weeks they practice every day: they do journaling, I give them prompts, and they write a reflection paper on what they learned. That’s a difficult part for them because I have to make them accountable. The last part is about how to develop a vision for dignity and make a mission statement about how I’m going to lead my life.

Take small steps. I’m not asking for grand: like solving the world’s hunger problem or global warming. So I ask students to start with a simple thing, like just saying hello to a janitor the next time you see them, because I worked as a janitor in this country as a grad student. I remind them how these people are invisible in our lives. They also make a commitment to apply what they learned in the class to an organization they like—a sorority, a company they work for, or some volunteer organization. So they really develop a vision to lead a life with dignity.



Illustration by Becky Sehenuk Waite