Obstacles to Mindfulness as a Key to a Healthier Society - RSA

Obstacles to Mindfulness as a Key to a Healthier Society

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  • Mindfulness
  • Social brain

Before I launch my series on how, in my view, mindfulness is a very powerful tool for closing what the RSA calls the ‘social aspiration gap’, I want to bring some perspective. I want to list the main reasons why mindfulness – if it is actually as great as I will argue it is – is not so popular yet:

It can be difficult, especially initially. It draws you out of your comfort zone.

It is terribly boring. – Again initially, and especially for people who are accustomed to constant stimulation.

It requires discipline, which eventually will be attained through getting established in the practice, so it’s a bit of a ‘catch 22’ situation.

It can be quite frustrating to find out how little one is in control of one’s attention. The mind will wonder off again and again. This is particularly frustrating if one has incorrect expectations, such as relaxing or eliminating all thought. Such expectations are likely to engender the opposite result, since frustration with the inevitability of thinking will kick in.

It can be a disorienting experience. In his Divided Brain speech at the RSA Iain McGilchrist described how in the Western world people commonly base their sense of identity on the ‘voice’ in the brain’s left hemisphere, the ‘speaker’ of thoughts. During meditation this voice will keep chattering. – Yet meditation invites us to cease identifying ourselves with this voice and its thoughts. So naturally, the question “If am not my thoughts, who am I?” will arise, and this can be an unsettling experience.

Also, uncomfortable thoughts which are normally buried under our day to day ‘busy-ness’ will rise to the surface and this can be quite unsettling too.

It will not work if one aims to get somewhere, to achieve some special state. It is a very paradoxical thing. With mindfulness, you can only get somewhere by not striving to get somewhere, so the usual framework of ‘doing’ and ‘striving’ must be dropped. It feels unnatural and like a really ‘productive’ waste of time for the ‘doers’ among us.

We generally do not have a culture that supports or reinforces it. To the contrary, following our usual reactions, 'moaning' and lack of acceptance of the inevitable provides so much to share with other fellow beings. We also tend to be less comfortable with practices of religious origins. There is no easy way around it. Yes, mindfulness – even though it is secular in nature – was ‘invented’ within Buddhism, and possibly by Buddha himself.

With mindfulness, you can’t measure your progress in numbers. It is quite a problem in a culture that seeks to measure almost everything. There is some real truth in the saying ‘what gets measured, gets done.’

It’s not a quick fix. For substantial results to start appearing, it may take 8 weeks of around 30 minutes a day.

It requires slowing down. The busier and the more frantic we are, the more we react out of habit in the same automatic ways and not out of choice. This franticness is the opposite of mindfulness.

It does not really work if you use just ‘a bit’ of mindfulness. We like to put things into our schedules moving from one thing to another. Mindfulness is a way of being in the world, not a way of spending a 30 minute slot reserved in your busy schedule.

I have struggled with all of the above myself and still do to a certain extent after two years of practice. Probably most of us will in similar ways.

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  • Excellent description of what stands in the way. I see many of these used as excuses for not persevering, mostly amongst the 'younger' generation who are used to the stimulated world - teenagers finding 20 minutes of silent mindfulness, even after a period of breathing and relaxation exercises,  a real shock to the system. 

  • Very interesting article. I've been practicing Mindfulness for several months, and while challenging, it is very effective. It would be good to see NICE investigate it further as they have already done with CBT.

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