When Meditation Meets Deep, Collective Human Values

Joe Flanders explores whether positive values emerge automatically from mindfulness practice, or if we need to explicitly explore and cultivate them.

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Mindfulness training can make a big difference in basic mental health, but at a certain point, people want to go deeper, and cultivate positive values. Do these values emerge automatically from mindfulness practice, or do we need to explicitly explore them and cultivate them? It’s an important question, because in these perilous times, humankind needs strong, shared core values.

After ten years of teaching Mindfulness-Based Programs, I continue to be blown away by the potential of mindfulness training to help people with a wide range of backgrounds, personalities, and life challenges.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), for example, is highly effective at training greater awareness of how we entangle ourselves in suffering through such habits as operating in auto-pilot, being attached to “doing mode,” overreacting to stressors, and so on. Through daily meditation practice, the psychological cost of these problematic patterns can become clear. Empowered by this greater awareness, we learn to interrupt automatic reactions, step back from difficult thoughts and feelings, and respond to challenges with greater insight and intention. As these skills become refined and integrated, we develop a reliable capacity to change how we relate to difficult moments. For many, the disruption of habitual reactions is deeply destabilizing, but ultimately constructive. In my experience, a skillful teacher and supportive group provide a safe context for participants to do the work of rebuilding a healthy sense of stability and connection. At least three decades of research indicates that this is a powerful method for cultivating well-being.

As these skills become refined and integrated, we develop a reliable capacity to change how we relate to difficult moments.

As my experience teaching mindfulness and working in mental health deepens, though, I am increasingly sensitive to some limitations of our contemporary approach to the practice. My biggest concern stems from the fact that Mindfulness-Based Programs are “value-neutral” by design and therefore do not necessarily equip participants to develop and clarify their values and cultivate a sense of purpose for their lives. The importance of this “values work” may not be obvious to participants, who are primarily concerned with reducing suffering. Yet, it can have a deep and lasting impact on well-being – even if it doesn’t explicitly address the roots of suffering itself.

Guiding Skillful Responses to Difficult Situations

The MBSR curriculum is fairly clear about what constitutes unskillful reactions to difficulty but remains non-committal on what ideals or principles we should invoke to guide more skillful responses. As teachers, we are hand-cuffed here. We may have strong moral convictions, hard-won insights from our own practices, or a sense of care for our participants. But all of that must be held judiciously in awareness because it is not our role to impose a psychological compass on participants.

Rather, they are encouraged to search their own cognitive and emotional resources for the wisdom they ostensibly already have. There appears to be an assumption that mindful observation of experience will inevitably reveal the importance of particular values such as compassion and gratitude.

Yet, I would suggest that well-being may be more effectively cultivated in the long run if we invest in formulating a more explicit sense of what is meaningful and important to us, personally and collectively. This “values work” has the potential to extend beyond our own preoccupation with greater health and happiness, to a reflection on the broader context of our lives, our relationships, and the world around us. In time, such reflection would yield a coherent sense of purpose: an inner guide that aligns ideals and actions.

Mindfulness with Values Incorporated

Some mindfulness-based group programs address values more directly. For example, the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) curriculum makes self-compassion an explicit guide for intention and action. MSC is widely appreciated and there is mounting evidence for its effectiveness in promoting mental health. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) focuses almost exclusively on preventing preventing relapse of depression and has a strong track record in this regard (for example,  Kuyken et. al, 2015).

The more circumscribed but well-defined aims of these programs facilitate participants’ conceptual understanding of the material and their capacity to cope with specific types of difficult emotions.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a mindfulness-based psychotherapy, maintains a broader conception of values at the center of its model. Mindfulness is necessary but not sufficient for well-being: you may have the capacity to decenter from entangling thoughts and feelings, but may nonetheless continue to struggle without a clear sense of direction for your actions. While ACT remains value-neutral, it encourages us to explore and clarify what is subjectively important to us and commit to actions aligned with those values. At Mindspace, we ended up developing an ACT program called Mindfulness Tools for Valued Living specifically to respond to a question commonly posed by MBSR graduates:

“OK, I’m mindful, now what?”

There is plenty of evidence for the importance of this ACT principle: having well-articulated values enhances eudaimonic well-being, a sense of meaning and direction through life’s ups and downs. Furthermore, progress toward values-congruent goals is correlated with subjective ratings of well-being (Bedford-Peterson et al. 2018). Values also promote resilience insofar as they help us tolerate and accept the pain and difficulty that inevitably arise in a meaningful life (Wilson & Murrell, 2011).

Which Values are Most Valuable?

Nonetheless, all of these approaches to values work have important limitations. Programs such as MSC & MBCT do not explicitly encourage reflection on the interconnectedness of self and the broader social context. Also, while the process of deriving our own personal values system in ACT supports greater autonomy, it also leaves us stuck reflecting on values in a vacuum: how do you know which values will provide the greatest well-being and for whom?

While the process of deriving our own personal values system in ACT supports greater autonomy, it also leaves us stuck reflecting on values in a vacuum: how do you know which values will provide the greatest well-being and for whom?

The effort to restrict values work to health-related concerns in mindfulness-based programs makes these approaches accessible and politically correct. But this tradeoff leaves something to be desired. For one, this approach comes up short on inspiring head-on engagement with ethics and collective well-being, which we urgently need. Humanity is facing unprecedented moral challenges including climate change, economic inequality, and technological transformation. To make matters worse, the near-total breakdown of public discourse has robbed us of important corrective mechanisms.

But if those concerns are too abstract to move the motivational needle for you, consider the evidence that some values actually lead to greater personal well-being than others. For example, research by Kasser among others has shown that intrinsic and “self-transcendent” values are associated with greater well-being than materialistic or “self-enhancing” values. This raises the intriguing possibility that adopting and acting on values that focus on collective well-being may ultimately be the most direct means to enhance an individual’s own well-being.

So whether we are motivated to enhance our own well-being or make the world a better place—or both—a clear sense of purpose and alignment of actions are worth cultivating, in addition to mindful awareness.

Exploring Values: A Contemplative Practice

Here is a practice adapted from the three-minute breathing space from the MBCT curriculum that can help in cultivating a sense of purpose and aligning our actions with clear values.

  1. Settle into a comfortable, but dignified sitting posture on a chair, cushion, or meditation bench. Close your eyes if you’re comfortable doing so.
  2. For a minute or two, open your awareness to all that is already present in your interior experience, including thoughts, emotions, and body sensations. There is no need to do anything about these mental events. Simply take stock of and be with whatever is present, just as it is.
  3. On an outbreath, gather and focus attention at the abdomen, observing the sensations of breathing (the soles of the feet and the fingertips are excellent alternative anchors, if attending to the abdomen is destabilizing in any way). Notice the sensations of expansion and contraction in the belly as you breath in and out. If attention is pulled away by some other content such as a thought, sound, body sensation, etc., that’s OK, simply acknowledge that content and redirect attention back to the breath. Continue this practice for 2-3 minutes.
  4. On an outbreath, begin expanding awareness to other parts of the body. Notice where else you feel the breath; for example, in the chest, shoulders, back, or ribs. Continue slowly expanding awareness, including the arms, legs, and head, until the entire body is in awareness. Stay with this spacious awareness for a minute or two.
  5. On an outbreath, begin to notice the limits of the body, including points of contact with clothing, whatever you’re sitting on, and the ground. Notice where your skin is contact with the air in the room. Notice if there are any sounds around you. Stay with these sensations for a minute or two.
  6. Now begin to consider what you will be transitioning to after this practice. Over a period of two-three minutes, ask yourself the following questions, noting whatever answers arise, without elaborating on or suppressing any particular one:
    • What am I doing today?
    • Am I doing what is important? Am I spending time with who is important?
    • What values are these actions in the service of?
    • Do I need to make any changes to my plans for the day
    • What mindset would be best to cultivate as I approach what is coming up?
    • Once the answers to these questions have clarified, consider articulating an intention for the day that integrates what came up during the reflection. Repeat the intention to yourself a few times.
  7. When you’re ready, open your eyes, slowly stand up, engage in some light stretching and move on with your day.

Like many mind-training practices, this exercise will get easier and more accessible with time. It may take some repetition to achieve clarity of purpose with this practice. When this is achieved, it often contributes to feeling calm, concentrated, and also energized and engaged. But it’s also totally OK if you don’t achieve this state of clarity. Feeling clouded, distracted, or confused may actually be helpful in identifying where mindful inquiry or additional reflection may be called for.