We’re entering an interesting phase for mindfulness in the media. Until the last few months, nearly all the coverage has been focused on the great possibilities of meditation training—decreased stress, deeper awareness, and more skilful management of mental, physical and behavioural difficulties. The main story has been that an ancient practice, previously ignored or derided by the mainstream, has been scientifically shown to be helpful, and consequently embraced by a sceptical world. In short: “Surprise! Meditation really works!”
There’s only so long such a story can be news, and it’s interesting that recently we’ve started to see the appearance of a number of pieces offering a more critical view. This is—in my opinion—an excellent thing, partly because it suggests the known benefits of mindfulness are now sufficiently understood as to no longer be remarkable. But it’s also a good thing as it creates an opportunity for reflection on some of the challenges thrown up by the very rapid shift adoption of mindfulness practices in contemporary western culture.
Take for example, the piece by Suzanne Moore in the Guardian last week. Headlined: “Mindfulness is all about self-help. It does nothing to change an unjust world,” its central argument is that meditation as taught in mindfulness courses offers nothing more than ways to cope in an oppressive environment, and worse, that it does so by removing the capacity to think critically and respond to the ‘structural difficulties’ which are responsible for much of the stress we experience. Upset, angry, ill? A mindfulness course might help you feel better, it suggests, but at the cost of pacification, leaving you unaware of, disconnected from, or just plain not bothered enough to do anything about the institutional injustices and systemically generated suffering that might be a factor in your, and others’, misery.
This is mindfulness as opium of the people, and so it’s no wonder that institutions such as banks, the military, and governments are keen to get on board—a bit of meditation as Band Aid, and we can all carry on as before, nobody noticing the deeper, cultural causes of suffering, because all the responsibility to change is placed on the ”sick” individual (what family therapists might call the “identified patient”).
There are some important points here. We are not islands, and stress is not just internally generated. We are inextricably interconnected with our environments, and locating the responsibility for health and happiness solely in the individual is unfair, inaccurate, and unhelpful. A mindfulness that is just “a way to function better in an over-connected world” rather than also offering a means to change that world would indeed be a neutered version of the approach.
The thing is, I don’t recognize this neutered version of mindfulness, except in some media reports, and perhaps in some of the writings or trainings offered by those with little exposure to and experience with meditation. It’s not what I see modelled by most mindfulness teachers, most contemplative researchers, or indeed most practitioners as they develop and deepen a more aware and compassionate connection to themselves, others and the world. Dismissing mindfulness on this basis is a bit like saying Beethoven was talentless because you hear a neighbour who has never taken piano lessons loudly hashing Moonlight Sonata next door.
Far from propping up unfair structures, what I more often see in mindfulness courses are people waking up to areas in life where they have been tolerating or supporting dysfunctional structures, and deciding to make changes, or work for them. I have seen bankers start meditating and discover an inspiration to retrain as helping professionals. I’ve seen people leave or change the dynamics of unhealthy relationships. I regularly see people move from a place of feeling paralysed by anxiety and low mood to feeling empowered and confident enough to take on the challenge of not just living in an imperfect world but taking an active role in seeking to reconstruct it.
It’s true that mindfulness practice begins at home, but by cultivating the capacity to pay attention and observe with compassion what keeps us stuck and what liberates, people often report feeling more freed and empowered to effect change, not just internally but in the world around them. With greater awareness and sensitivity, we are more able to take action based on seeing the systems of automatic thought, emotion, and behaviour that keep people stressed. This is likely to be wise action that will (I believe) inevitably ripple out to, loosen, and potentially transform, albeit perhaps gradually, the unhelpfully constraining systems and structures that bind us (and which are of course made up of people).
What is likely to bring about more effective change? An activist with a mind enslaved by crowded, unquestioned thinking, or one able to meet a situation with practised awareness, presence, openness, and compassion? To paraphrase Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness isn’t about thinking less, it’s about not getting lost or caught up in the stream of automatic thought. Far from perpetuating the status quo, I’d suggest that this capacity to bring awareness to our thinking (and the rest of our experience) is revolutionary.
Actually, I’d go as far as to say that creating time and space to develop a meditation practice is one of the single, most radical acts you can take, because it opens the way to understanding and working effectively with the mind, and if you can understand and work effectively with the mind, which is what experiences everything in life, then you have tapped into a fundamental source of skilful living.
Of course, when an approach as unfamiliar as mindfulness meets the mainstream, it’s inevitable that there will be shallower renditions, misinterpretations and accommodations that may offer a lesser liberation. Sometimes taking a mindfulness course may simply enable someone to cope with the stress of their existing life, rather than leading them into social activism. If so, isn’t that still a good thing, a small contribution to reduced suffering in the world, even if—as I think unlikely—that measure of reduced suffering has no beneficial side effects on the people and places around that practitioner? Does something beneficial have to be delivered perfectly—and to bring about a perfect world—before we will accept it as worthwhile? If so, we might be stuck for a long time. Haven’t we been stuck long enough?