A consistent theme has emerged in many such critiques: an apparent discrepancy between the settings in which much mindfulness training takes place, and the professed attitudes and intentions of the practices themselves.
So, the conference at Google Headquarters in Dublin seemed suspect to some, because Google’s sponsoring of mindfulness looks at odds with its place as an immensely wealthy corporate tech giant. Doesn’t it perpetuate a spewing of information which leads to frazzling brains rather than training them in steady, discerning attention? Mindfulness in the military similarly appears strange because there’s an assumed culture of aggression at the core of life in the forces—where is the gentleness of mindfulness here? Even in healthcare, the apparent placing of responsibility on the sick individual to ‘become more mindful’ may seem to encourage a sense of over-responsibility for their condition, when there are biological, familial, environmental, and systemic stressors which may contribute towards symptoms, and which may need a wider kind of treatment.
As I’ve suggested before, there may be a kernel of insight to some of these observations, if mindfulness is practised purely as a form of self-help, or stress reduction. If our motivations remain small, then so will be the outcomes, limited to a form of personal, pragmatic accommodation to a world in which greed, aggression, and delusion continue to run riot. With all good intentions, a bit of mindfulness in institutions whose main activities and attitudes contribute to the world’s pain may not amount to much, although, I would argue, it is a good start.
Meditation can ease the stress of daily life. But awareness takes mindfulness practice beyond self-help and self-enhancement.
As mindfulness becomes a less radical concept and more widespread, I think we’re reaching a point of great opportunity, and some risk. With the rapid adoption of mindfulness, there is the amazing possibility that as we practise becoming more aware of our patterns as individuals, we may also become more aware of the patterns around us that reinforce not just our stress, but that of the wider world. Awareness is the first step to change, because with awareness we can become inspired and empowered to make lifestyle shifts, and these can ripple out into social systems.
But even with meditation practice, it is difficult to really see the cultures in which we’re embedded. As has been said, “We don’t know who discovered water, but it probably wasn’t a fish.” Even, we might add, a mindful fish. So while it’s true that with nothing being said about ethics and morals, mindfulness training can start to connect us to a deeper sense of heartfelt values, and a realisation that materialism doesn’t lead to lasting happiness, it might also be helpful if we’re explicit about the environmental conditions and systems that are conducive to collective well-being. This is, after all, is how we might define a mindful culture—a world in which everyone’s happiness is paramount.
Mindfulness practitioners need to take the conversation beyond the individual benefits of mindfulness.
Without compromising a basic commitment to allowing space for compassionate awareness to arise, through the practice of curiosity and gentleness, perhaps mindfulness practitioners could be less shy of pointing out the implications of fully embracing this way of being on the structures of society—the creation and sustaining of businesses, governments, local communities, and other institutions whose genuine purpose (and actual activity) focuses on the good of all. And might it not also be helpful to highlight systems and institutions where that may not currently be the case, (and how bringing mindfulness to that culture, not just to individuals within that culture, might be beneficial). This isn’t finger-wagging or an imposition of values, simply a recognition that there is good scientific evidence that certain practices, attitudes and behaviours (such as compassion, connection, generosity, and mindful awareness) lead to greater contentment, and that there are known methods for cultivating and opening up to these wise ways of being.
What would a mindful culture look like?
Having a conversation about what a culture of mindfulness might mean (leaving, of course, plenty of room for discussion, disagreement and revision), might be a sensible and honest way to respond to the repeatedly arising objections to mindfulness in public and private institutions, as well as outlining a path which can facilitate not just the spread of mindfulness widely, but deeply. Maybe you could help this conversation get started –my intention is to return to this theme in future blogs, and I’d value your reflections. What constitutes a mindful culture? And how does it get created? Please post comments below.