Mindfulness(1): Teach us to Sit Still - RSA

Mindfulness(1): Teach us to Sit Still


  • Education
  • Behaviour change
  • Mindfulness
  • Social brain

The Great Room was packed last night for Mindfulness: The Key to a Healthier Society. The speakers were Ed Haliwell and Dr Jonty Heaversedge, authors of The Mindful Manifesto, and Tim Parks, an author once shortlisted for the booker prize, who recently wrote 'Teach us to Sit Still'- a darkly humorous and profound examination of an embarrassing medical condition, and an improbable journey back to health through meditation.

I enjoyed chairing the event, and although I think we had a sympathetic 'home crowd', I hope we managed to critically engage with the theory and practice of mindfulness as well as possible within the time and format constraints. I was particularly pleased that we managed to do a two minute guided meditation at the end of Ed's speech, because the main message of the evening was 'just do it', and it's important to walk the talk.

For those who have never heard of mindfulness, I would encourage you not to settle for the first verbal definition that comes your way because the heart of the approach is to loosen the hold of concepts and try to make our perception as concept free as we can. If that seems too evasive, mindfulness is broadly concerned with paying attention, in particular paying attention in a gentle but systematic way to things we normally take for granted, including our bodies, our minds and our breathing.

I will come back to highlights of the event when we can link to the recording, but for now I offer a couple of choice quotes from the books:

"The faster we go, the more we tend to react impulsively, following our unconscious, habitual patterns. It is a nasty vicious circle. And in order to release ourselves from it, we need help. We need a powerful antidote to speed. We need a method." (The Mindful Manifesto, p9)

"The more we threaten thought and language with silence, or simply seek to demote them in our lives from the ludicrous pedestal on which our culture and background have placed them, then the more fertile, in their need to justify and assert themselves, they become. Reflection is never more exciting than when reflecting on the damage reflection does, language never more seductive than when acknowledging its own unreality." (Teach us to Sit Still, p244)

I want to write a few different posts on Mindfulness, to clarify in my own mind how we might best make it a part of our Social Brain project, including thoughts on the discomfort around the word 'spirituality', the role of  science in making the case for mindfulness, and the relationship between mindfulness and other forms of meditation. For now I want to simply state what I think is the heart of the matter.

You can talk about 'behaviour change' until you are blue in the face, without changing your own behaviour in any meaningful way. You can also craft elegant words about 21st century enlightenment, and lay out a roadmap to a better future by describing the kinds of people we need to become. For instance you can argue, as Matthew Taylor does, that we need to become more empathetic, more autonomous and more other-regarding. But the burning question is how? 

Intelligent discourse is important, as far as it goes, but it remains at the level of theory, aspiration and proto-policy. In this sense it is as much a part of the problem as it is part of the solution. What we need are methods, ongoing practices that are tested and inclusive, and which will allow us to change ourselves for the better in deep and enduring ways.

No less than Albert Einstein said: "We cannot solve a problem from the same level of consciousness that created it. We must learn to see the world anew." Alas, this rarely happens, because as no less than Tolstoy said: "Everybody thinks about changing the world, but nobody thinks about changing themselves."

The RSA believes in collaboration, a message embodied in our fellowship. We rarely make social progress without people working together. In this respect we like to 'do stuff', and the point of mindfulness is that we 'do stuff' a lot more effectively when we invest some time in just being. We find it incredibly, surprisingly, revealingly hard to 'just be'. Hence the apposite title of Tim Park's wonderful book: 'Teach us to Sit Still'.

If we are serious about transformative social change, we need to at least be open to the idea that transformation begins at the level of consciousness. Perhaps our first step should simply be to understand ourselves at a more fundamental level, not just from the perspective of science and reason, but experientially and viscerally. We problematize institutions, people, social systems and structures, policies and places, but we rarely problematize our own wayward minds, and typically take them for granted. We see, think and act through our minds, but rarely look at them directly with deep curiosity and discernment.

The injunction to 'know thyself' needs to be taken seriously, even though it is not 'cool', or mainstream. We typically resist this kind of self-knowledge because we think it is too difficult, or we are too busy being busy. Even if we periodically glimpse what Tim Parks calls 'the clamour' inside our minds- something that meditation shows you- we are usually too scared to look more closely, and keep the disquieting insight at bay through denial and distraction.

I am not advocating casual introspection, navel gazing or self-indulgence. Progress often does require 'doers' who communicate and collaborate well, and people need to get together to discover and serve their common good. This much all remains true, but first such 'doers' would benefit from sitting still, sometimes alone, and watching their minds at work. If we don't do this sort of work on ourselves, we remain strangers to our true influences, motivations and potential. Without some form of practice or method to know our own minds, we carry on acting habitually, reactively and busily. We may think we are helping the world through our acts, but often we are merely acting out conditioned behaviour, driven by vexed desires, restlessness, and various forms of denial, not least the denial of our own mortality.

I don't think mindfulness is a panacea. Indeed, Ed Haliwell indicates that to think this is just to create another unhelpful attachment. What is clear to me however, is that unless we learn to look more deeply and honestly at ourselves, in ways that are not always easy, comfortable or socially sanctioned, we will not fulfil our potential, either individually or collectively.

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