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Making policy out of mindfulness

Does the attempt to rationalize mindfulness and make a tool for better performance and efficiency undermine its core concept?      

Damaris Critchlow
26 March 2015
Europe, the Very Idea

Europe, the very idea is a series on the philosophical notion of Europe and what reflection upon it can lend to the sphere of concrete politics.

Symbolical head.

Symbolical head.There are many similarities between the contemporary practice of “mindfulness”, encouraged by the NHS and explored for its benefits by the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group, and the ancient philosophical practice of “care for the soul”, one of the ideas that we are focusing on this week.

But does the attempt to rationalize mindfulness and make a tool for better performance and efficiency undermine its core concept?     

To improve our mental well-being the NHS, since 2004, has suggested that we try ‘mindfulness’, the practice of paying attention to the present moment that should allow us to see that instant with more clarity. It is stated that this practice will enable us to ‘experience afresh many things in the world around us that we have been taking for granted’ and seems to be the process of noticing our thought patterns in order that we can improve our mood or think more clearly. 

Involving a change in the relationship the practitioner has with their thoughts, rather than a change in thought, this psychical practice has gained recognition as a way to improve the quality of our mental lives.

More than this, in its focus on individual moment-by-moment experience it seems to enact a retreat from a culture where there is a focus on output and activity. The Mental Health Foundation found in a survey of 2,000 British that 80% feel that 'the fast pace of life and the number of things we have to do and worry about these days is a major cause of stress, unhappiness and illness in UK society', and so it is unsurprising that meditation apps like Headspace, which sells itself on benefits that include a healthier and happier life, claim a million users and growing.

However, mindfulness is not the novelty to the western world that we may think (there are of course also many non-western mindfulness traditions). Though it is practiced as a remedial response to the pressures of contemporary European life, it can perhaps be seen as a return to the very foundations of our thinking traditions and the basis of our western knowledge.

Know yourself

Mindfulness shares similarities with the notion of ‘care for the soul’ which was a feature of Ancient philosophical thought. In his lectures on The Hermeneutics of the Subject, the French philosopher Michel Foucault begins by tracing the history of the idea, care of the soul, a practice of subjectivity that contrasts with the history of representations or theories. Foucault asks ‘why did Western thought and philosophy neglect the notion, care of the self in its reconstruction of its own history? How did it come about that we accorded so much privilege, value and intensity to the ‘know yourself’’? Instead of reason having priority, there are places in the philosophical tradition where the emphasis is placed squarely on  ‘attending to,’ not forgetting, and taking care of oneself. The rule of ‘knowing yourself’ is formulated within the context of care for the soul. In fact, the two concepts appear together throughout the history of western civilisation, in texts from Aristotle, Plato, to Seneca and the Stoics. According to the Stoic account, care for the soul is the principle behind all rational conduct. It is a philosophical attitude whereby, in order to have knowledge at all, one must first cultivate a certain spiritual life implying an attention to our ways of thinking that exercises them, transforms them or meditates upon them.

By contrast, contemporary government is required to provide economic, rational and substantiated backing for all of its policy decisions. The rational has priority in decision-making. But in this rational and scientific world-view, there appears to be little space for decisions that do not come from the space of objectivity and reason.

So perhaps it is not surprising that the idea of mindfulness is gaining government support within the All-Party Parliamentary Group, who are making wellbeing through mindfulness yet another policy objective.  In their report 'Wellbeing in Four Policy Areas', the APPG state that 'far from being an unaffordable luxury, prioritising wellbeing can improve the effectiveness of public spending, and in some cases save public money'. Mindfulness does appear to be finding rational justification, and is gaining support from the government as a preventative measure against ill-health. Yet in justifying mindfulness through the economy, the APPG are instrumentalising a practice that is not goal oriented. In turning mindfulness into a policy that requires application there is a risk that problems of stress among the workforce could be exacerbated; mindfulness turned into another task to be completed, or a way for the government to say that they have taught staff mindfulness in order that they can handle workplace pressure, rather than relieving the pressure itself. Perhaps mindfulness can only come from within society as an attitude to be fostered, not as something that can be legislated.

Individual flourishing

So how could a government that has no choice but to act with rationality make space for individual flourishing? The personal and independent nature of mindfulness resists objective study and application, particularly given the nature of mindfulness as an idea open to individual and unique interpretations.

In our rational society, we measure ourselves against the backdrop of the general population, but as individuals we need to carve out some space for ourselves in order to become happy and well-adjusted. Making mindfulness a policy would turn it into an exercise of the population, not of individuals, and undermine the intimately personal nature of mindfulness. Although the goal of society must be the happiness of the overall population, society is made up of individuals, and so it is crucial that we care for our souls independently if government and the population as a whole are to act positively.

Foucault discusses the notion of care for the soul in relation to the figure of Socrates, who considered the role of philosophy as caring for the soul through living a life not based on material needs. In Plato's Phaedo, Socrates encourages his listeners to have more concern with things in themselves, as they really are, and to gain wisdom. Care for the soul is not an egoistic activity, but is a way to gain knowledge.

Socrates says that philosophers are 'lovers of knowledge' and 'are conscious that their souls, when philosophy receives them, are simply fastened and glued to their bodies: the soul is only able to view existence through the bars of a prison, and not in her own nature; she is wallowing in the mire of all ignorance; (...) what she sees in her own nature is intellectual and invisible (...) when a man has great joys or sorrows or fears or desires he suffers from them, not the sort of evil which might be anticipated-as, for example, the loss of his health or property.'

And so Socrates advocates a way of life that concerns itself with the soul as giving the ultimate truth. Truth is, for Socrates, not about physical distractions but about care for the soul. To care for the soul is to return to a more fundamental life, and it would be neglect to live only according to bodily needs and desires. Care for the soul creates a life concerned with the self and ones own identity, not based on the material world.

This hardly seems at odds with the Mental Health Foundation's account of mindfulness, where in a publication on research in mindfulness they state that by 'paying careful attention to how things are in a non-judgemental way, we can see what is happening more accurately and respond more effectively', thus improving our quality of life and problem solving skills. Indeed, their emphasis on looking at things in themselves in a non-judgemental way and their claim that this will enable us to live in the present moment, rather than focusing on past events and conditioning, seems to be using the same language as Socrates. Our inner being, by their account, looks to be a way of gaining better knowledge.

The theme of the soul holding the key to knowledge appeared throughout antiquity, and the notion of the soul was never separated from the quest to gain knowledge and lead a philosophical life.  So it appears that for ancient philosophy at least, knowing is synonymous with having an awareness, or some control over, the soul. Knowledge of the world and knowledge of the soul were supportive of one another and, according to Foucault, it was not until the seventeenth century in the work of Descartes that the two truly diverged. Foucault makes the argument that the Cartesian approach 'played a major part in discrediting the principle of care of the self and in excluding it from the field of modern philosophical thought'. Clear terms were established that distinguished the rational from the spiritual.

Reason and science

This shift in focus away from the self appears to reflect a more general change in attitudes in the politics of the seventeenth century, when, for example, the political system in England changed from an Absolute Monarchy to a Constitutional Monarchy plus the rule of Parliament. There occurred a fundamental challenge to the idea that the monarch derived his authority directly from God, which drew governance away from art and into the realm of reason and science.

This new government relied on the population for its power instead of the divine. Its interest in the population ensured that it could not act exclusively, infringing on principles of law, equity and humanity in the sole interests of the state. As Foucault claims: ‘the state, like nature, has its own proper form of rationality, albeit of a different sort. Conversely, the art of government, instead of seeking to found itself in transcendental rules, a cosmological model or a philosophico-moral ideal, must find the principles of its rationality in that which constitutes the specific reality of the state’. 

Foucault is making the assertion that the state has no choice but to act with rationality, and can have little to do with care for the soul as an underlying theme uniting all our knowledge.

Nevertheless, we require knowledge of ourselves to ascertain how we come to certain judgements, and so have to transform ourselves in order to arrive at any truth. This shift in perspective, Foucault calls a movement of love, a 'work of the self on the self, an elaboration of the self by the self, a progressive transformation of the self by the self for which one takes responsibility in a long labor of askesis (self-control)' This implies that there can be no governance without first having governance or knowledge of the self. Two questions then present themselves to Foucault, the first being 'what then, is this self with which we must be concerned when we are told that we must take care about the self?', and second, 'what is this self I must take care of in order to be able to take care of the others I must govern properly?'. These two questions are important because they demonstrate that even in modern life a notion of caring for the soul is still crucial. To care for the soul is to situate ourselves in our political, social and moral lives.

Back to mindfulness

Would Foucault consider this to be mindfulness? Mindfulness practices that urge us to live in the moment and concentrate on our inner being in order to manage external pressures certainly seem to share similarities with Socrates' argument that we ought to have awareness of the life of the soul in order to gain knowledge. The focus on the soul, or inner being, that runs a thread through much of ancient philosophy, looks to be comparable to a mindfulness that is not limited to improving our mental health. Indeed, the Mental Health Foundation makes the claim that being mindful actually leads to stronger academic performance, and that practising meditation improves people's attention, job performance, productivity, and personal and work relationships. The MHF state that 'there are correlations between Mindfulness and emotional intelligence, which itself has been associated with good social skills, ability to co-operate and ability to see another person’s perspective. People who are more mindful seem to be more compassionate towards themselves, and show greater empathy'.

Many of the studies that the MHF refers to in supporting their claims do however, encourage some hesitation over any bold assertions. For example, in a study published in a BMJ Open paper into the effectiveness of mindfulness, the report repeats many times that while mindfulness appears to improve mental well being, the study was perforce limited since it did not have a control group.

While this newfound enthusiasm about mindfulness is one that science is hesitant to endorse, the Mental Health Foundation makes the statement that 'some people are strongly attracted to mindfulness precisely because it appears to offer an ‘alternative’ approach to healing' by giving a clarity of thought that is necessary for personal and intellectual development. For Socrates, ignorance and struggle comes from not taking the time to take care of and learn about the self, and this appears to be the lesson that mindfulness wants to teach. It is care for the self that provides the bridge between rational philosophy, learning, life and spirituality.

Mindfulness then, while giving time to caring for the self, seems to have a relational effect. Being non-judgemental, it is equalizing, it improves relationships and cooperation. If it improves academic performance, then it seems to follow that the practice of focusing on your own experience of being ultimately has gains for society as a whole. It gives us the space to recognize our own value, and sense the power that we hold over ourselves. It is something that in its very nature resists legislation by government and the state. We are not merely subject to having power act upon us, we also have power as individuals to learn and act. Mindfulness, or care for the soul, appears to be immensely empowering. As such, it can only be considered a positive thing for society and for mental health.

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