There is increasing interest in the potential of practising mindfulness to improve individual and collective wellbeing. Leadership expert, Julia Fell explores some of the concerns this has raised and concludes that if we are to accelerate the adoption of more humane ways of organising work, mindfulness has a significant part to play.
While amongst practitioners there is a general agreement that mindfulness really has to be experienced to understand what it is, the Oxford Mindfulness Centre uses the following definition: "The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, with compassion, and open-hearted curiosity". With the RSA’s central aim of developing and promoting new ways of thinking about human fulfilment and social progress in mind, the RSA’s Social Brain team has been promoting mindfulness as part of this.
A recent Guardian article by Madeleine Bunting argued that soon we would all come to see that mindfulness is a necessity to life. On first reading I thought this was a masterful piece, covering the history, practice and application of mindfulness in every aspect of our lives. Then I read through the comments from readers; there were some supportive responses and a fair few negative and cynical ones. Making an effort to suspend my knee-jerk reactions to be a) dismissive of and irritated by the anti-mindfulness lobby, and b) to start questioning whether mindfulness is really of value in the modern world and will be a passing fad, I pondered on some of the objections.
So, the first assertion from critics is that mindfulness does not work or it would have been widely adopted already. But no one seems to be claiming that mindfulness is a ‘quick fix’; it takes practice and willpower to stick with it. For a start, our systems and procedures are not designed for it. In the case of health services, courses of treatment may be limited to six weeks, for instance, seeing one practitioner and nothing in between appointments. In the case of business, our industrial models of command and control, strength valued as a leadership style, and people organised in machine-like functions, are still in evidence.
Humanity is starting to be valued in organisations. We are seeing the digital, social media, and hi-tech companies leading and embracing new ways of working that value self-awareness (for example, Google has a 'Head of Mindfulness'), collective working and more democratic ways of organising. Mindfulness practice can be immensely flexible and adaptable to suit the context and the people; what is most important is that it is taught by experienced and well-qualified people. This is not a bandwagon to be jumped on. The Google 'Head of Mindfulness' says that teachers should have 2000 hours of practice under their belts. On this note, I am full of anticipation about working with Dr Joel and Michelle Levey (who were the creators of Google’s global Mindfulness and Meditation Laboratory) at their Mind-fitness workshops in June.
The second complaint is that mindfulness would be a bad thing if the Government made it mandatory; here critics fear brain washing and shades of Orwell’s 1984. Making mindfulness mandatory certainly goes against the grain for me. Making it available and accessible to everyone in a way that helps them find the techniques that suit their circumstances and preferences seems sensible. And, of course, Bunting’s article is not advocating that the government should make it mandatory, but that cross-party consideration signified progress in understanding the potential benefits if enhanced understanding and use. Through practising and realising the benefits individually and, just as importantly, collectively, we will make our own decisions for ourselves.
The third concern is around profit; with critics pointing out that the Buddhist tradition – from which mindfulness sprung – is to teach for little or no cost. While I understand the objection to profit-making organisations trying to cash in on something that is popularly trending, I think I am with Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the most admired and respected practitioners alive today, on this. When asked about the motives of people teaching mindfulness he responded: “As long as business leaders practice ‘true’ mindfulness, it does not matter if the original intention is triggered by wanting to be more effective at work or to make bigger profits. That is because the practice will fundamentally change their perspective on life as it naturally opens hearts to greater compassion and develops the desire to end the suffering of others.”
It is strange but seemingly true that people will often value something more because it comes with a price tag. When I did some sales training recently, the trainers were encouraging us to put up our fees and prices because, in their view, if we under-valued ourselves and our services, we would not attract clients who value us and our offers. So we may, in fact, be able to spread the practice to some people who would otherwise not see its value. As with most things in life, giving informed choices is what is important.
Julia is a leadership development designer and facilitator at Future Considerations.