Meet the teacher: Kate Johnson

Talking mindfulness, activism, and community with Kate Johnson, contributor to buddhify


By Dana Jaffe

In this series, our editor Dana Jaffe sat down with each of the buddhify teachers to find out what they’re all about. Here she talks with Kate about her upcoming book, mindfulness and activism, and the overlap of meditation and yoga.

What got you into meditation practice in the first place?

When I was younger, I was a sensitive child and somewhat of an introvert — I loved to sit and stare out the window at a tree, so I’ve always had a meditative temperament in some ways. I dabbled with meditation throughout my teens and 20s and read a lot of Buddhist philosophy.

When I started dedicating myself to a formal meditation practice, I was living in New York City. I started meditating as a way to better tolerate the sometimes uncomfortable circumstances of life, which included a mixture of my own personal pain and also just the trauma of everyday life. I was really stressed and had started to feel overwhelmed. So I began looking for places in New York to meditate, and I stumbled onto the Interdependence Project, which was where I had my first formal meditation training.

You’re currently writing a book called "Friendship is Freedom: Mindful Practices For Resisting Oppression and Building Community." Tell us what it is about and what inspired you to write it.

It’s about the Buddhist teachings on spiritual friendship, which are a set of teachings that were originally intended to help monks know how to treat each other. Living in close community in the forest of Asia, these monks were people who had left their families to be together in spiritual practice, and Buddha offered these teachings as a guide for how to be in community. He famously said that the practice of spiritual friendship is the whole of the holy life.

The entire practice of meditation can and should be practiced not just individually, but also relationally. So the book is a contemplation of those principles of spiritual friendship applied to relationships across differences in identity or in lived experience. It’s really about how can we cultivate our inner capacities and relational capacities to help us bridge differences and build stronger communities.

What this book is exploring is, is it possible for us, in all of our different experiences of empowerment and oppression, to be able to show up for each other across differences and build this multidimensional, multifaceted, multiracial, multigender, and multiethnic community that is strong enough and broad enough to stand up to the status quo, the power structures that are actually oppressing us all but in different ways.

If you could change anything about the meditation world, what would it be?

I would make it so that we don’t privilege the experience of going away over the experience of staying connected. At least in my meditation tradition, there’s a real reverence for deep, long retreat practice in seclusion, and not everyone can do that. People who have families, who are caretakers for elders, or who have dedicated their lives to eliminating the suffering of hungry people or being educators, they can’t always go off to a retreat. So I wish that we had equal value for people who stay connected and whose practice is one of relationships, rather than the individual practice.

We live in a moment where so many of us find politics and the day-to-day news difficult to bear. Any personal tips on how mindfulness can help us consume media more wisely?

Watching the news is hard. I think that one of the things that mindfulness can do is help us to track how we’re receiving the news and when it’s time to turn off the TV or close the laptop. While things change every day, and I feel like it’s important for me to remain connected to what’s happening throughout the world, I also notice that sometimes it’s almost like being intoxicated. I’ll go down an Internet rabbit hole with news, where I’m clicking article after article after article, I’m dehydrated, I need to go to the bathroom, I haven’t picked up the phone.

Mindfulness can be that moment of perspective like, hey, I’ve had enough, and I’m not learning anything new. I’m just spiraling. The awareness that mindfulness helps us cultivate teaches us to notice what’s happening and choose to get up, take a shower, or ask for a hug, instead of continuing to spiral into fear.

What is the role of mindfulness in social political action?

Mindfulness practice can help us get clarity about what the real issue is and continue to work toward shifting it. The sense of patience that we develop on the cushion can then really help us when we’re working toward change. There’s a way that the calm that we cultivate in meditation practice can be used to de-escalate tense situations between people who have different views. This meditative superpower, as I like to call it, allows us to engage in difficult conversations without losing it and to actually be able to listen to someone with a different perspective than us, as long as they’re not hateful and trying to harm us. In doing that, there’s a possibility that somebody could shift.

You’re as much of a yoga teacher as a mindfulness teacher. How, in your experience, do you think they can work best together?

I think that a lot of the instructions that we give in meditation can also be applied in yoga practice like the way that we direct our minds to notice sensations, to notice whether we like or dislike something or don’t care about it, and then to notice grasping, to notice aversion, and to send kindness. All of these things are things that we can practice on the yoga mat too. Without that mind training, yoga practice is a form of exercise, and it’s a very effective form of exercise, but it can be so much more. I think that bringing the mind of meditation into yoga really opens up the practice, and it becomes something much deeper than just a physical activity.

Can you share a story of a moment that was really satisfying as a meditation teacher?

When I was teaching at the Interdependence Project in New York, I put together a panel discussion with different spiritual activists following a big march that was planned as a part of the response to the police violence against black communities. Afterward, people came to the meditation center to have tea, to meditate, and to hear from different people about how they integrate their spirituality and their activism.

I was really proud that, as a meditation teacher, I could provide a soft landing for people and a way to connect with community after a political rally. Sometimes after a day of action like that, you go home and there’s this real empty feeling, or a sense of wondering if what we just did had any impact. To be able to use the meditation center to bring folks together in a way that really supported them was really special.

About Kate

We consider Kate one of the brightest talents in the next generation of mindfulness teachers. Now based in Philadelphia, Kate has taught extensively across New York and her first book on social activism and mindfulness “Friendship as Freedom” is scheduled to be published in 2018. She previously worked on buddhify’s sister project Kara for people affected by cancer.

You can experience Kate’s contributions to buddhify through meditations under the Stress & Difficult Emotion I, Specific Emotions, and Meditation 101 categories.