Mindfulness: more than a fad, less than a revolution - RSA

Mindfulness: more than a fad, less than a revolution.

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  • Mindfulness
  • Social brain
  • Spirituality

Meditation is simply about being yourself, and knowing something about who that is. - Jon Kabat-Zinn.

(The following post is a selection of ideas and links to add some texture and critical apparatus to help people better engage with the growing mindfulness phenomenon. It is by no means an exhaustive account, and was written mostly to make sense of how mindfulness connects with RSA's work, past and present, which I refer to at the end. While one can and should distinguish between mindfulness meditation and meditation in general, Kabat Zinn's statement captures why RSA's Social Brain centre is interested - mindfulness is a form of practice that helps to cultivate self-knowledge.)

A colleague recently remarked that mindfulness was 'on the way out'. This statement struck me as absurd, but it was also interesting. Mindfulness is no passing fad. It has deep historical roots going back at least as far as Buddha, it is grounded in a deep appreciation for the complexity of human experience, and is supported by a growing body of evidence, so it's not going away!

And yet, people are right to react to the tendency to see mindfulness as a panacea before really knowing it deeply from a first, second or third person perspective. For instance, Time magazine recently wrote of 'The mindful revolution', implying that mindfulness was a form of emergent cultural immunity to digital distraction, which was reaching a tipping point, and that doesn't ring true; the powerful socio-economic logics underlying smart phone addiction are so much 'smarter' than we tend to be in building our immunities.

Mindfulness is a thing you feel, a thing you do, and a thing you learn to feel and do.

My strong impression is that mindfulness is growing, important, and well worth the attention it receives, but I also suspect that it's not quite as 'big' in terms of regular committed practitioners or political relevance as recent media hype might suggest.  There is also something a little 'worthy' in the idea that mindfulness might be our collective saviour - as if it's somehow too nice and inoffensive an intervention - but I strongly suspect that attitude might just be part of our immunity to change; we tend not to want solutions that implicate ourselves in the problem.

Another minor irritation is that there are so many other forms of personal or spiritual practice one can undertake and it is beginning to feel like mindfulness is to meditation what Google is to search engines; we risk conflating important differences when the most salient example of something becomes the defining example to the exclusion of others.

Asking what exactly mindfulness is is a bit like asking how chocolate tastes - you can have it described to you, but it's so much more effective to taste it directly. In so far as words can help explain the phenomena, mindfulness involves paying attention to our experience of the present moment without judgment. This might seem passive, but it is anything but, and it turns out that actively noticing what is happening inside yourself and in the world has extraordinary benefits for those who learn how to do it dilgently and regularly - some have called it 'bodyness' or 'heartfulness' to get away from the idea that it's a very cognitive practice, but 'mindfulness' has a good ring to it, and has stuck.

More to the point, since the benefits include greater awareness of the relationship between our minds and the world, this naturally has signficant social, economic, ecological and political implications as well, which we are just beginning to grapple with (resistance to advertisments and the impact on consumption is an obvious starting point).

Mindfulness is to meditation what Google is to search engines; we risk conflating important differences when the most salient example of something becomes the defining example to the exclusion of others.

The term 'mindfulness', however, is somewhat slippery because it is used to refer to a receptive and inquiring quality of your bodymind ('Be mindful') that can arise at any time, but also to a range of traditional meditative practices ('meditation') relating to perception and breathing. Moreover, the abundant evidence base that shows the value of mindfulness in health and (to a lesser extent) education stems mostly from standardised eight week courses.

So when people say 'mindfulness' they can mean 1. A quality of experience, 2. A type(s) of meditation 3. A standardised 'mental training' course. In most cases these three things directly inform each other, so it doesn't really matter, but it's worth knowing that the mindfulness phenomenon and movement comprises all three aspects - it's a thing you feel, a thing you do, and a thing you learn to feel and do.

As somebody familiar with the practice who sees no significant threat from mindfulness, I view the growing scrutiny and questioning of mindfulness as an encouraging sign of progress. What was it Gandhi said again? "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." On this account, the mindfulness movement (nascent and patient though it is) is well into the third quarter, but in order to know what it might mean to 'win', it's a good moment to take stock.

Mindfulness in Parliament

"People speak about one world. My party speaks about one nation. I think we need to be one person." - Chris Ruane, Labour MP

Mindfulness has already been discussed in parliament several times, including as part of the All Party Parliamentary group inqury into wellbeing. Soon this interest will deepen, with a dedicated APPG group on mindfulness starting in May. Such interest is a direct outcome of many parliamentarians (c 70 MPs and Lords across parties) learning the practice of mindfulness in parliament to cope with the stresses of their jobs and lives. The most impressive succinct account of mindfulness in political life I have seen is by Labour MP Chris Ruane:

The Mindfulness Initiative

These important political developments stem from the network building and elegant cajoling efforts of the Guardian's Madeleine Bunting, who has worked with Chris Cullen of Mindfulness in Schools and others to try to make the case for mindfulness-based practices being a much bigger part of public life. This initiative has support of the three main academic centres for mindfulness research in the UK - in Oxford, Bangor and Exeter.

Mindfulness in Health

Naturally, the biggest impact is on mental and physical health and most of the evidence base is in this domain. There is so much material here and I have nothing distinctive to add, but this resource at the Mental Health Foundation is a good place to start if you want to learn about the most obvious and direct practical benefit of mindfulness. The key point is that mindfulness not only helps deal with mental illness (especially depression) but can pro-actively nurture mental health and wellbeing. As Dr Danny Penman put it while speaking in a workshop at the RSA, people tend to have 'a dose response relationship'  with mindfulness- the more you do it, the more resilience you have for mental health challenges.

Mindfulness in Schools

The theoretical and anecdotal case for mindfulness in schools is very strong, at the very least at the level of wellbeing and behaviour, and also very likely at the level of attainment and creativity. There is some evidence to this effect, but not of gold stanard RCT quality yet (although that may be forthcoming). To those who know mindfulness, it is obviously something that will help with learning and wellbeing, but what it is harder to show without strong evidence are the relative benefits compared to other interventions. That said, going back to Gandhi's 4-fold stages of evelopment, you can see the mixture of 'laugh at you' and 'fight you in Frank Furedi's recent piece in the TES which, if you'll forgive my intermperate language, reads to me like a comically groundless rant masquerading as an argument (ht Georgina Chatfield).

Mindfulness and the Core Economy

The mindfulness initiative is about making mindfulness a bigger part of public policy. This works most tangibly in health and education, but it potentially has broader reach too. For instance, if you are interested in how we use and value our time and how we look after each other informally - ideas captured for instance in 'the core economy' or 'hidden wealth' or 'the relational state' - you are probably keen to know if there are any cost-efficient ways to significantly improve not just the intrinsic quality but also the 'social productivity' of human relationships. There is no real evidence here yet, but if it's true that mindfulness helps people be more available to themselves and for each other, and if the quality of relationships has a direct bearing on social productivity, and if social productivity is the key to public services for the foreseeable future, you can make the case for mindfulness as a way to improve wellbeing not just directly through the practice, but indirectly by supporting the core economy. (That sounds like a multi-million pound ESRC bid which I would be happy to be part of!)

Mindfulness in Business

There is a really excellent piece in Guardian Sustainable Business about the growing business interest in mindfulness e.g. Arianna Huffington wrote: "There's nothing touchy-feely about increased profits. This is a tough economy. ... Stress-reduction and mindfulness don't just make us happier and healthier, they're a proven competitive advantage for any business that wants one."

But is this is a step too far? In the same article Thich Nhat Hanh makes it clear that while mindfulness is for everybody, if it is used purely instrumentally it won't 'work', or as he put it so beautifully: "If you're happy, you cannot be a victim of your happiness. But if you're successful, you can be a victim of your success." This begs the larger and complex question about a practice stripped of its roots and ethos, which is one of the many questions highlighted in:

Ed Haliwell's Reflection

This short piece by Ed Halliwell(who spoke at the RSA-see below) on '7 questions about mindfulness that still need an answer' is an excellent resource for people wondering what the key unresolved issues are, including the following critical question:

"With all the focus on quick gains to health and happiness, there may be something deeper to these practices that our positive-results focused scienceand culture is missing. If so, could it be spoken of, perhaps not in the language of data, but with the language of the heart? ‘Turning towards difficulty’ is at the very core of a mindfulness course, but with our habits of avoidance, it’s also perhaps the aspect that gets talked of the least, at least in mainstream media reports. How can courage (and airspace) be found for the uncertainties, the anxieties, the suffering, the losses that can come into awareness when we pay attention, as well as the material benefits that we get so excited about? Indeed, could it be that the receiving of these benefits actually depend on our willingness to turn towards unpalatable truths? By neglecting them, might we receive a lesser version of the wellbeing we crave, and miss out on a deeper sense of meaning and value—one that can’t easily be summarized in a newspaper headline, or a scientific study abstract?"

RSA Past involvement

I was delighted to chair an event on mindfulness back in September 2010:

There are some great moments in this video, which is a mixture of scientific exposition and personal testimony; and at about 44.15 minutes in I ask the panel about 'the elephant in the room' - whether mindfulness is 'spiritual' and whether that matters. I particularly liked Tim Parks's response which I might write about in more detail later as part of our current project on reconceiving spirituality.

This event led to a range of blog posts by yours truly and some incipient interest among some RSA fellows to 'do something' on mindfulness; a good but unsuccesful RSA Catalyst application to the build the group followed. I also wrote a larger funding application for a Social Brain project relating to how we can support the continued practice of mindfulness beyond the first eight week course, which remains an interesting behaviour change/commitment/social norm challenge that I am keen to explore.

More recently, Ruby Wax and Alastair Cambell also spoke about mindfulness in the context of mental health here, and Ruby Wax has become one of the main public figures of the value of mindfulness- which is useful given the unfounded stereotypes about mindfulness being a kind of retreat from the world.

RSA Present

"(We need) an idea of individual aspiration linked to self-discipline and self-knowledge as well as self-expression." - Matthew Taylor

From an RSA perspective, during a recent meeeting on our emerging 'Power to Create' world view (which finds its most complex and coherent expression in Matthew Taylor's recent post) I was struck by everybody agreeing that no matter what we thought about political economy, public services, creativity or human relationships, the ultimate 'so what' touchstone was the quality of experience in individual human consciousnesses. Whether it is fulfiment, wellbeing, self-actualisation, or another descriptive term for a positive inner life, such experiences are about our minds, where they are, and what we do with them.

This is not a reductive claim. The point is not that we can learn to be happy and poor and forget about politics because our minds are all that matters. The point is that our embodied minds are where everything is experienced, and the quality of human experience should be the touchstone for judging the efficacy of our actions in the world.

Moreover, one of the ideas underlying power to create is the development of 'mass creativity' and there is some evidence suggesting that mindfulness makes us more creative. Given that mindfulness is relatively cheap, egalitarian and accessible, one obvious strategy to encourage mass creativity would be to support the spread of mindfulness-based practices (featuring aspects of self-discipline and self-knowledge). Perhaps the best way to become the most creative country in the world is to become the most mindful country first.

So, after all that, where are we with mindfulness?

In an ever-shifting present of course.

Where else?

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  • Thanks, Jonathan, this is a great summary and particularly good for people coming early to this topic. As someone fairly new to it myself, I appreciate the straightforward presentation.

    Reading the concluding paragraph I thought you would like to know there is a new Facebook group, Mindful Together, to explore and encourage collective practice: https://www.facebook.com/group...

    Another opportunity for you and others to learn more about mindfulness practice and mind-fitness is when Dr Joel and Michelle Levey visit the UK in June. They have been pioneering techniques for practice individually and in groups and organisations for over 30 years, operating mainly in the US. So, this is a rare chance to work with them here and to find out their thoughts on inspiring wider uptake. http://bit.ly/1tymgzT

  • Thankyou for that Jonathan, great overview and some interesting stuff I hadn't seen before. Just to let you know, we are just starting to deliver the pilot Mindfulness Based Behaviour Change Inquiry (MBBCI) with Welsh Government Officers as part of an Aberystwyth University ESRC Behaviour Change Research project. The course is orientated less toward stress management and more towards inquiry into our mindstuff (based on vipassana and other buddhist paths). The 'automatic mind' becomes less something which is just an accepted part of who we are, as in the MBSR and MBCT courses, instead it is part of the inquiry, developing skills in meta awareness and a mind more able to pay attention to its own processes. The aim is that policy makers, who are working to change behaviours, are better informed to do so through an inquiry into their own motivations and actions. It is taking place over the next 8 weeks in Cardiff and has started well. We hope to evaluate it, develop it further and deliver it once more as part of this project. Look forward to sharing the outcomes and contributing to the conversation as part of the RSA network.

  • Many thanks Chris.
    You remind me of an expression I heard via Peter Reason (Management Professor at Bath Uni) "mythic deprivation" - the idea that many organisations(groups, people, families) suffer from the lack of a shared narrative; and I particularly like the (implicit) idea above that what makes something a myth rather than a story is that it is something with so many layers of meaning and interpretation that is 'inexhaustible'.
    The challenge is somehow to allow people to make stories there own, but in a way that also allows them to be shared and co-constructed.

  • A wonderful state-of-the-field post, thank you.

    If the mindfulness boom does end up being followed by a bust - or a simple waning of interest - I wonder whether the reason will be not just because of its instrumentalizing as a health/anti-stress activity but because it lacks something many of us feel we need: (grand) narrative; 'myth' in the sense of utterly inexhaustible stories.

    Passing through a process of secularization hasn't just been a matter of mindfulness shedding the hocus-pocus that secular humanists might be pleased to see the back of; it has lost this larger context.

    In some ways this is quite brave, because it throws the practitioner back on his or her own practice in a profound way. Meaning and understanding can no longer be had 'cheaply', as it were: they either emerge from dedicated practice, in the form of new ways of relating to self and other, or they don't emerge at all.

    But on the other hand I find a context-free, narrative-less practice to be at risk of becoming quite barren and lonely - and perilously self-focused. Regular group practice really helps, but it helps all the more if there is a sense of a shared story about how the world is - even if it is impressionistic rather than clearly defined and substantiated.

    This is not necessarily a move to reinstate religious contexts for such practices, but more an awareness - perhaps no more than a personal feeling - of what a practice like mindfulness (or indeed any form of meditation) might require as a cultural accompaniment if it is to be transformative for relatively large numbers of people.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking post. Well worth your day of graft!


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