Barry Boyce on Bridging our Differences
Stephanie Domet: Hello and welcome to Real Mindful. This is where we speak mindfully about things that matter. We meet here twice a month to introduce you to some of the teachers, thinkers, writers and researchers who are engaged in the mindfulness movement. You’ll hear all kinds of conversations here about the science of mindfulness, the practice of mindfulness and the heart of it. And if you’ve been a listener of point of view with Barry Boyce, you have come to the right place, those conversations will be part of this podcast as well. And in fact, Barry is our guest today. I’m Stephanie Domet, I’m the managing editor at Mindful magazine and mindful.org and this is Real Mindful.
Barry Boyce: You know, just the other day I was having a small hang out with people and I was griping about something and my friend completely changed my perspective just by basically kind of calling into question like, “Really?!” And it was a nice hang.
SD: That’s Barry Boyce, he is the founding editor of Mindful and Mindful.org, and in every issue of the magazine, he writes the back page column, Point Of View. Barry, himself, has a deep mindfulness practice developed over decades and is the author of the book The Mindfulness Revolution.
Barry dropped by my place on a warm summer day recently. The windows were open as we recorded our conversation. So you may hear some chirping birds and the odd emergency vehicle siren, keep that in mind if you’re listening to this podcast while driving.
Amid the birdsong and the sirens, Barry and I talked about how and why we sort ourselves into groups. How mindful awareness can help us navigate the habits and patterns that arise in our in-groups, the refreshing value of encountering other perspectives, the benefits of mindful teasing and the beauty of encouragement, among many other topics.
You may be wondering, as I was when our conversation began, whether Barry’s alter ego, the mindful vulgarian, would make an appearance. And not to destroy the suspense but I am here to tell you—yes, yes, he would. And I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.
Barry Boyce, hello.
BB: Hello, Steph,
SD: Welcome to Real Mindful,
BB: Nice to be doing this.
SD: Great to have you here. Really nice to see you in person.
BB: Yes, the pandemic has prevented this three-dimensional interchange, so it’s nice to be back, tentatively…
SD: Tentatively back, back for now. We’ll see what happens next.
In the August issue of Mindful, you write about the ups and downs of community, of being part of the group hanging out. And here you and I are hanging out in person at my house for the first time in a really long time, more than a year for sure, for us. And as hangouts slowly come back into our lives, what do you value most about them?
BB: Yeah, I think I am someone who likes isolation and being alone and so that wasn’t horrible. I enjoy solitude, at the same time the echo chamber and the thought loops not getting interrupted is not so great.
You’d like to be around other people and hear what’s going on with them and their vibe and, you know, there’s something that gets created when more than one person is together, particularly a group of people, kind of a hubbub and, where there’s—at least in some cultures I come out of—a little bit of interrupting and but not rudely so. And, you know, it extends your world when you hear what’s going on with other people and how they’re perceiving things. And, you know, it also—when you bring stuff to your crowd or your friends you’re hanging out with—it gets processed externally rather than just internally.
And, you know, just the other day I was having this morning out with people and I was griping about something and my friend completely changed my perspective just by basically kind of calling it into question like, “Really?!” And it was a nice hang out for that reason and others.
SD: It’s hard to do that, if not impossible to do that, on your own. No matter how acute your critical thinking is, it can be really hard to change your own mind, bring some fresh perspective.
BB: Yeah, it’s really hard to do it for yourself because it turns into this little…like, you have to put the devil’s advocate on your shoulder and have him or her talking back to you and just have a little ridiculous tennis match in your mind.
And, yeah, it’s hard for the person who’s holding the perspective to undercut that perspective. And then there’s just the joy of, you know, just being with other people and they’re different from you.
SD: The surprise and delight of another personality in the room.
BB: Yeah. Yeah.
SD: Thankfully, you touch on two things in your Point Of View column in the August issue that I’ve been thinking about a lot.
One, we can’t help but organize ourselves into groups. And two, we can’t help but sort everyone else into groups and the reasons for that are probably evolutionary. You know, there’s probably some advantage to knowing who’s in your group and who’s not in your group, but the implications of that reverberate in real ways for us now that it’s no longer necessarily a matter of life and death to know who’s in and who’s out.
And I’m curious about the ways that you see this impulse to group and to label playing out right now in society and in culture.
BB: Well, yeah, this is a huge question, obviously. Lately…and I’m sixty-five now and I take every opportunity to mention that these days. For some reason, it’s a shocking number to me. I mean, when I was growing up, sixty-five was like…that’s really old. You are one old dude when you’re sixty-five.
SD: Like the alter kakers that you mentioned in your piece.
BB: Exactly, I’m an alter kaker now
SD: How did that happen so fast?
BB: Yeah, I just need to get myself a lawn chair or a park bench and spend my day there.
But as I start to get older and have practiced mindfulness for quite a little while now, it’s the aspect of mindfulness that grows into awareness that tends to interest me a lot these days. You know, that mindfulness is about having that immediate focus so that you come to be present where you are in the moment, and when you become more comfortable with that, you start to notice more things, perhaps without an immediate judgment and more dispassionately and kind of look at the whole picture. It would be so much easier if everything were one thing or the other. If things were divided into the side of the bad and the side of the good or the side of the light and the side of the dark. That competition is bad, and co-operation is good. That individualism is bad and community is good.
Everything comes as a whole picture, really. So, for example, we want to join with and be with other people, it’s necessary for life. It’s extremely hard, basically impossible to survive on one’s own…
SD: No man is an island.
BB: Yeah, absolutely. And so you would think, Ok, that’s a universal good. But when we look at the habits and patterns of being together with other people. Like, you know, the feeling with somebody when they know the same slang as you. And you just feel this immediate…like, the thought travels so fast from across the gap.
SD: That’s right, you both know what you’re talking about.
BB: Exactly. Or if you have a shared perspective about movies you’ve seen or a particular music
SD: …Or a relationship with your siblings where you had roughly the same childhood, for instance, if you’re close in age, right?
BB: Yeah. And those create literal bonds. So then, over on the other side of town, somebody else is creating those bonds and those bonds have a certain kind of shared experience and a certain kind of shared language. And by definition, you’re not that and by definition, they’re not what you are. So the othering happens as a natural outgrowth of this bonding, before any toxicity enters into it at all.
So, for a very long time, we’ve ended up with ourselves walled off a lot from other groups and so our neighborhoods are very often very homogeneous and despite whatever efforts there are to craft that, they remain.
So, in so many cases, it’s very hard to find ways to cross that boundary. So it feels like, to me, we’re at a point in—you know, to say society with American society in mind since it is what we know—the society that I’m part of and understand, where all our ideas about togetherness, and crossing boundaries and allowing people to be who they are running up against the fact that we still don’t spend enough time, in person, with people who are different from us and have some kind of cultural sharing that can cross those boundaries. It’s very hard. You know, you’re not going to learn the vernacular of another group. You’re not instantly going to become a part of that group, so you’re going to have fear and trepidation.
We need to find places where we’re coming together across those [differences] and in person. Not on Twitter, not over media.
SD: Yeah. And it’s the kind of thing—as you’re saying this, it’s occurring to me that—you know, that if we want that, we need to be intentional about it. It needs to be actually a practice as any other kind of mindfulness practice, because, as you say, the kind of organic opportunities for it are fewer and further between, it seems.
BB: Yeah, they are. And, you know, I don’t have specific prescriptions. We wrote about something called, The Welcome Table years ago which was an intentional effort—and still goes on—to have different groups of people, people from different parts of town and segments of society, etc., hanging out together and regularly break bread. And, you know, it’s very hard to be inclusive at a distance because, in order to be inclusive, I have to signal inclusivity and signaling is so much different from being able to arrive at it and demonstrate it in person.
When you see that, “OK, this person has very different views, a very different background but we’re hanging out together, we’re breathing the same air together,” that doesn’t come across. when you’re at a distance and I mean, we do our best, but it’s incomplete.
SD: And so when we do find ourselves with that opportunity, you know, to be in community with someone who we think is on the other side, plays for the other team, or however we conceptualize it, what is a mindful approach, I guess? How can we listen to each other?
BB: Well, you know there are people who are different from you. That’s one thing. You know they have a different kind of culture and different music, different frames of reference, different background, and jumping those divides can often be easier than when you have a strong ideological difference
SD: Yeah, that’s where things get complicated
BB: You know there’s apparently been some studies about filter bubbles. If people just got out of our filter bubbles and absorbed more media with viewpoints different from our own, then how rigidly we hold our views would dissolve and or at least lessen. Apparently, research is showing that’s not really the case. There’s a tendency when we read and consume media outside of our filter bubble, it increases our feeling about the need to strengthen our side.
SD: So that’s just the exact opposite of what you’d hope would happen.
BB: Yeah, exactly. This research was written about in a book called, The Sum of Us, which I’m reading right now.
So you have to find a way to do it in person as much as possible. You know, maybe there are ways to work with video technologies and whatnot. I’m hopeful about that. Right now, I’m not that hopeful about it because I think I’ve seen a lot of weaknesses in having groups of people bond over, you know, video technology.
But I think there’s also certain kinds of habits that would work on Zoom as well but the so-called “council principles” like, you know, the talking stick; Where you let somebody have their moment and really listen and absorb. As my improvisational jazz drummer friend, Jerry Granelli likes to say, when you’re listening to another player play, you’re not rehearsing what you are going to do when they’re freaking done.
And that’s a habit we have and that’s one that mindfulness and, particularly, awareness can help with. In the moment you can notice: Oh, my mind is spinning away from this person so why don’t I look at them and look at their whole visage and who they are and how they are and really deeply listen and take it in.
You don’t even necessarily need to respond. You don’t have to have a prepared response because if things are going to shift, you have to take it in a little bit. So…I don’t know what kind of a response that was to the question that happened a while back.
SD: But I’ve been taking it in.
BB: That’s what I’m thinking about right now.
SD: You know, it’s making me think about one of the experiences that really kind of opened me up and helped me encounter other points of view that are diametrically opposed to the points of view that I hold was being a public radio host live three hours a day, five days a week for eight years. Talking to a lot of people who had stories that were different from mine and points of view that were different from mine. And the job was to actively listen and to ask them questions that would allow them to share their point of view and also to offer questions that would challenge their point of view because my role was to be a proxy for any listener. So any listener would want to hear this point of view and could potentially be shouting some challenging questions at the radio. So it was my job to kind of try to channel that energy.
And one of the things that I learned through that experience was something that I know is reflected in a certain kind of mindfulness practice, that this person is a person just like me, and they want to be happy just like me, and they want to be safe just like me. And that was an amazing experience.
That was hundreds of hours of being in contact with people who, most times, I didn’t know yet. Many times they were quite different from me, coming from a different perspective than I was coming from. That is not a replicable assignment for most people; that kind of one-to-one conversation. But our lives do offer us these opportunities.
BB: No, but it does provide a bit of a counterexample to what I was saying about the drawbacks of trying to do things with the media at a distance.
If people are having a real dialogue and that dialogue is what gets shared on the airwaves, people can feel like they’re in the middle of that; I think it can be helpful.
Some of my favorite movies have been movies that have been conversations. My Dinner with Andre is a great example. It’s just one long conversation, but you feel like you’re hanging out. And in the best kind of radio, you feel like you’re hanging out with those folks who are talking with each other rather than somebody who’s just blaring their point of view.
I think the thing about doing it in person, too, as I’m thinking about this, is the challenge of different viewpoints is that we have to share a world.
SD: Yeah, right.
BB: Right. You know, we have…
SD: …that’s a really practical challenge.
BB: Yeah. We have to figure out how to get food, clothing and shelter together and, you know, avoid war and needless death and take care of people’s health and…
SD: …try not to burn the place down if possible
BB: Yeah. And do it in a, you know, communal way. So when you are sharing a meal, it’s a literal embodiment of that principle that you’re sharing a world, and that’s the big challenge of getting isolated and separated and segregated as much as we are. It’s easy to think I don’t share a world with those folks. I need to get them out of my world or change the world in such a way that they become irrelevant. And that’s not a good place to start.
SD: I think of that sarcastic question that kind of comes in and out of fashion—kids said it to me the other day—”What color is the sky in your world?”
It’s just up there and the idea that it might be a different color in my world than it is in your world is hilarious and ridiculous and I get what that phrase means but as you’re talking about this world that we have to share, it’s like, it is the same sky that’s over us.
BB: No, that’s a beautiful thing, actually. You know, the sky is a wonderful metaphor and one that’s often used in meditation because, you know, when you look up and around or you’re standing on a mountain, you see the shared world. You see that bigger whole that I was talking about where you have to deal with all the sides and how those sides can work together.
When I was talking about earlier, you know, with community versus individualism. Part of awareness can be that at the very moment that you’re bonding, you can have a little sense of the danger of it, as well. It’s a subtle thing, but keeping a bigger perspective.
When people give meditation talks if they’re thinking too much about the group that they’ve always been within, all of their references will be about that. The examples will be drawn from that world. The worst example is, you know, talking about stress as not being able to get your brand of corn chips at Whole Foods. It’s a stressor that may not translate for a whole f-load of people in the world
SD: Can be a bit of a rarefied air that you’re breathing on the way to Whole Foods to get your corn chips. Yeah, I really like that train of thought that you’re on there about the, you know, at the very moment that you’re bonding, having that awareness that there is some danger there because the risk to this sorting, besides the othering of the us and them of it, is that we might fall into some kind of groupthink with no one around to say, “Wait a minute, what?” You call it what’s needed—a kind of gentle accountability—in the column that you wrote, can you give me an example of what you’re thinking of there.
BB: Yeah, well, I made reference in the column to a term we used to have back in the day, I don’t know whether it’s still used anymore. You would say, “Somebody is going to call your trip.”
SD: And we don’t say that.
BB: And I know that. I love the expression, “You’re tripping,” which means you’re making stuff up. You’re living in a fantasy world. You’re tripping but when somebody called your trip, and when we do the equivalent today, it can often be very aggressive. That somebody does something or holds a viewpoint that irritates you.
BB: So you are going to do some truth-telling.
SD: You’re going to call them out on it.
BB: You’re going to take a strip off of them in the meantime because they deserve some punishment
SD: Because you’re right and they’re wrong, obviously.
BB: And so the gentle part of the accountability there is trying to bring some truth into the equation but it’s just shy of truth, really. You’re holding up a little bit of a mirror where you’re making a little interruption.
You know there was a group formed in Chicago that I wrote about years ago called The Interrupters. And there they were trying to reduce gun violence by interrupting the momentum of somebodies’ escalating way of thinking that got them to the point that they would be willing to use a gun, not really knowing the consequences of that.
So this idea of interrupting. You don’t know whether you’re right or you’re wrong but if you can just interrupt the momentum of somebody else’s thinking.
Are you sure about that? Yeah. Are you sure? Hey, come on. Are you really sure about that?
SD: Is that what you mean? Do you want to say that?
BB: So tell me more. Why do you think that? Or it could be as simple as, hey, come on.
SD: We’ve all said that to a friend or a spouse, perhaps.
BB: Exactly. I have a tendency to be lazy and I have a friend who has a tendency to be hard-driving, the exact opposite. We call each other on that all the time—with a lot of jocularity. And it could be that we’re just kind of razzing and joking with each other, at the same time, it’s nice to have that little bit of governor in your habitual way of being. Because getting out of your rut is enjoyable, you know, having your trip called is actually more enjoyable than tripping.
SD: Say more about that! How do you figure?
BB: Well, we think that playing out our version of the world in our mind is what’s going to make us happy
SD: Yeah, right. I have it my way.
BB: Yeah, but what it’s doing, while you’re doing that, is it’s retarding spontaneity.
SD: Ah-ha, a surprise and delight
BB: Yes, a surprise and delight noticing that sky and because you’re caught up in perpetuating your thing so that general accountability is just interrupting that a little bit. And Dacher Keltner, the evolutionary psychologist to the Greater Good Science Center who writes about awe and has a book coming up, finally, about awe sometime in the next year. He talks about teasing as being an adaptive thing that we do for each other, is that so?
SD: Is that so?!
SD: I love that that is my main way of relating to people is just by constant, gentle ribbing.
BB: Yeah. And if it’s not aggressive, if it’s genuine teasing, and not of the bullying type, it works as teasing if there’s an atmosphere of trust. So, for example, in the welcome table example; This is the first time you’re hanging out with somebody who has a completely different background from you, completely different ethnic and socioeconomic situation and maybe different viewpoints.
You’re not going to be teasing each other on day one but you know that when there’s enough of a bond that’s traveled across that gap, you can start to tease each other and have that kind of gentle accountability. It is actual mindfulness because it brings you into the open moment and not your trip that you’re constructing in your mind.
SD: OK, well, this is terrific news for me.
BB: Yeah, you’re confirmed now as a teaser.
SD: Right. And that can equate to mindfulness. That’s a huge leap forward in my own personal practice of mindfulness.
BB: It’s got to be mindful of teasing now. I hate attaching mindful to everything. Mindful carpentry, mindful dog walking, mindful nose-picking, mindful—
SD:…I wondered whether mindful vulgarian would arrive. And here he is,
BB: —mindful toenail clipping, but mindful ribbing and teasing because I mean, we do not want to be promoting bullying.
SD: Certainly. That would be the wrong thing.
BB: That’s the teasing that’s trying to hurt. And it’s interesting, it goes back to that original thing. Everything has this yin and yang quality to it. This beautiful thing. Teasing can be a horrible thing, right? If, first of all, there’s malicious intent, but also if there’s not that atmosphere of trust. If somebody can’t tell that it’s meant with love.
SD: That’s right. My whole family culture is teasing. That’s how we communicate our love to each other. And when my spouse and I first got together, that was not his experience at all. And so it caused a lot of conflict because he couldn’t understand what I was doing. And I didn’t know that he couldn’t understand what I was doing because it had always been the way I expressed myself.
And so, you know, there were many conversations where I would say, “One thing you have to know about me is that I am almost always kidding. You know, like this is not real feedback. This is…I’m loving you with this teasing.”
And he was like, “That is not how I hear it, I hear it as criticism.”
And it took us a long time. But just this morning, he set up this little recording studio for us. And we did a sound check and I did like a little mock, “Welcome to Real Mindful. My guest today is Kev Corbitt, who is a mindfulness master, always exactly in the moment he’s in, whether you want him to be or not”’ because that’s the other bone of contention. I’m always in the future and he is right in this moment. You know, we’ve come a long way with that teasing. But you’re right, it does require that relationship, that understanding, that trust and to be delivered with love and to not be delivered with love is criticism.
BB: Part of, you know, creating a bond with people is testing those boundaries a little bit and kind of repairing the damage when it happens because you can’t…you know, the alternative of walking on eggs and never trying things out.
Talking about teasing culture, you know, my family is from New York and there’s more than teasing, it’s sarcasm; “Hey! what what is your problem?! What’s the problem here?” And people think, Man, New Yorkers are so aggressive. But New Yorkers are showing love to each other. When you jam together with eight million other people and jostling and bumping, you know, this is the kind of lubricant. “So what’s your problem already?” OK. And that’s love.
You know, I don’t want to go down the whole path, I think we’ve talked about calling in versus calling out. You know, it relates to that too. You know, and often calling out and canceling happens at a distance, which creates a lot of the challenge around that because calling out and canceling can be around some really complex things that would take five or six dinners where you’re breaking bread together to slowly unpack that and to build trust. And sometimes we try to do it sometimes in one fell swoop and at a distance. And that just is hard to pull off. You know, think about trying to tease somebody at a distance, at a…
SD: By email, where there’s no inflection. You can’t see the love that I’m doing it with if I’m doing it by email.
BB: Yeah. I hated emojis when they first came out, but now I really get them because teasing and ribbing and sarcasm and those little bonding rituals don’t work.
SD: I will say as a writer, I used to be very sparing with my exclamation points, but my emails are littered with them so that you can know that I’m just loving you with my punctuation. That’s how we do it now.
BB: Well, I mean, in addition to teasing, I think—I’m not saying that’s the sole methodology here—encouragement is very important. You know, a big part of generosity is not just giving physical things or giving somebody help that they need, but encouragement and such a beautiful word en-courage. You give courage to somebody, confidence. OK, it’s good. You can do it. I love you.
SD: And also sometimes, as you say, “Here’s a mirror. Have a look. Is this how you want to be going forward?”
BB: And you don’t hit them over the head with the mirror. Because that would shatter and it’s unusable.
SD: Single-use mirrors are not what we’re about here.
BB: For one thing, it is not environmentally sound. You know what it takes a lot to make a mirror?
SD: It’s not pretty.
BB: Yeah. Sand and flame. I’ve seen a mirror being made. I literally have. It takes some work.
SD: You heard it here first, folks. You write that mindfulness can fall prey to this us and them thing. What makes you say that?
BB: Well, I think what I’m talking about here is maybe what we call the mindfulness movement or one’s own version of mindfulness movement, which kind of works like this—I think many of us who have engaged with mindfulness practice because this has happened for us— so just my little arc. I came to the practice because I just wasn’t doing well handling my own mind, and so I was curious about it. When I first tried it I found it really hard and was like, this is impossible, maybe not even worthwhile. I mean, I can’t even stay within my own skin. I literally wanted to, as I’ve written about in other places, I want to climb out of my own damn skin. I can’t sit here and keep doing this, this is driving me nuts.
When I gave up trying so damn hard and I started to get a breath of fresh air in there, it was really exhilarating and I thought, wow. And it started to happen more. I started to be able to access that more. And it was a real simple kind of realization, just, oh, I don’t want to work so hard with my mind. I can just let it sort of flop down and be there and whatever comes up, all the weirdness and stuff, I don’t understand, whatever pain, fear. It’s not even lessened necessarily. At least it can be there and I don’t have to struggle with it so hard. Then I wanted to become a proselytizer for that. You know, You got to do this. This is amazing! This is amazing. Of course, I am the founding editor of a magazine about it.
SD: But you finally found your way to it?
BB: Yeah, but when you fall into a proselytizing mindset, you bond with your ingroup. You feel that you have the answer to everything that you need to, frankly, impose or inflict on other people.
So it’s starting with you rather than with them. And real generosity starts with them.
You know: Where are they at? What does somebody really need? What are they presenting to me? What are they saying to me? And these, you know, mindfulness practices have, you know, been reserved for more select groups of people historically, and it’s expanding and changing, but one needs to be on the lookout for any kind of ingroupness that just naturally arises from appreciating something.
So I’m talking about it as a circling all the way back as the outgrowth of a good thing. Watch out for those things that are the outgrowth of a good thing because you’re doing something good and it feels good and so it must be good when you start imposing it on somebody else. And the goodness of it all has kind of drugged you into missing that. And if you’ve ever been proselytized about anything, you know what I’m talking about. And it’s having the exact opposite effect on the proselytizing.
SD: Yeah. Yeah. Oh very. That’s amazing. That’s beautiful. That’s exactly where we needed to get to.
BB: Beautiful. And our work is done.
SD: Our work is done. Thank you so much for dropping by this episode of Real Mindful.
BB: Yeah. It’s been fun and nice to do this and I want to send out my appreciation to everyone listening there. I hope you find well-being in your life and your family and your friends and beyond. Thank you.
SD: The inimitable Barry Boyce and his alter ego, the mindful vulgarian. You can read Barry’s Point of View column in the August issue of Mindful or at Mindful.org. I should note that just a few weeks after Barry and I recorded that conversation, we got word that our friend Jerry Granelli, renowned musician and mindfulness teacher, had died at the age of 80. If you’ve never encountered Jerry’s music, you are in for a treat. And we will link to his website in our show notes. We love you, Jerry.
SD: In the meantime, if you enjoyed this episode of Real Mindful, perhaps you would leave us a review. You can find us on Spotify, Apple podcast, Google Play or well, wherever it is that you are listening from, when you leave a review or rate our podcast, it helps others decide whether Real Mindful is something they might like to listen to. We would love to listen to you. You can write to us and let us know what you thought of what you heard today on Real Mindful or suggest a topic or a guest for a future episode. Drop us a line at [email protected]. Also, did you know we have a weekly practice podcast called 12 Minute Meditation? Neuroscientific research reveals that 12 minutes of meditation a day can be enough to yield benefits like increased focus, clarity, calm, and compassion. And we want to help you with that. So each week we deliver a fresh mindfulness practice directly to your ears from a leading mindfulness expert. You can subscribe to 12 Minute Meditation wherever fine podcasts are found. We’ll return with another episode of Real Mindful in September. Until then, may all your teasing be mindful.
Even tight-knit, caring groups of people can be susceptible to cliquiness and even cruelty. Founding editor Barry Boyce considers what we can all do to hold each other accountable.
Teacher, author, and trained clinical psychologist Ruth King talks with Mindful managing editor Stephanie Domet about how her mindfulness practice helps her navigate rocky terrain, while looking toward the future.
Ghylian Bell takes us through a guided meditation that reminds us that we are connected to ourselves and those around us during these challenging times.