Transformation

The future of mindfulness

We need a new praxis of spiritual and political liberation that isn’t muted by the weak balm of self-improvement.

Ronald Purser
15 December 2019
An endangered man at the exhibition 'The Weight of the Ashes' by Anna Malagrida at the Valencian Museum of Modern Art, 2018.
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Flickr/Ralf Steinberger. CC BY 2.0.

“True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” Martin Luther King.

In an episode of the TV series Black Mirror, Chris, a rideshare driver, clicks on a mindfulness app on his smart-phone. A soothing voice guides him as he closes his eyes: “Now once more, return your attention to the breath. Your mind may wander; simply watch it go, calmly and without judgment.”

After driving a short distance, Chris abruptly stops the car, grabs a gun and points it at his passenger who’s an employee of Smithereen, a major social media company who he blames for the death of his fiancé - since he had taken his eyes off the road while compulsively checking its social media platform, which led to a fatal crash.

This is fiction, but the facts aren’t far away. Consider Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who used meditation to dull his emotions before he went on a shooting spree; or Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, whose latest vanity project was a ten-day silent meditation retreat and digital detox on a remote island off the coast of Myanmar. Of course, he tweeted out his accomplishment to the world, complete with photos of his 117 mosquito bites. For the Silicon Valley elite, such retreats have become status symbols of techno-martyrdom, minus any real action to curb the addictive and distracting effects of the social media they control.

These examples illustrate how mindfulness can be used for nefarious purposes when divorced from a larger ethical framework and deployed as a self-help technique that reinforces the atomization of individuals – relaying an implicit ideological message that the stresses and anxieties we experience are due to our poor lifestyle choices and mental ruminations, as opposed to the structures and environments in which we live and work. How can this trap be avoided?

Over the past few months Transformation has published a number of articles that help to answer that question, kicked off by my critique of “The faux revolution of mindfulness.” A number of common themes have emerged from this series. The first is the need to see, teach and experience mindfulness within a broader social context if its potential as a force for change is to be realized. In “Moving mindfulness from ‘me’ to ‘we’” I call this a shift towards ‘civic’ mindfulness that enables individuals to see more clearly how their everyday experiences and personal troubles are entangled with public issues.

As the Jesuit priest and social activist Father Daniel Berrigan once put it, this form of mindfulness seeks to “challenge the tyranny implicit in things as they are,” by developing a new praxis which can build stronger bonds of solidarity to overcome the loneliness and isolation of individuals in contemporary societies. In this sense, mindfulness is ultimately an act of re-membering, not only in terms of memory, but also of putting our broken lives back together again collectively.

Putting this vision into practice requires pedagogies that take into account the stark realities of suffering individuals, while at the same reorienting contemplative practices towards the promotion of social justice and ecological sustainability. In their contribution to the series, Luke Wreford and Paula Haddock do just this, describing a variety of programs that members of their network are enacting, while David Forbes provides a concrete blueprint for evolving a more critical framework for mindfulness in schools.

In his essay, Forbes shows how mindfulness can facilitate the evolution of more democratic forms of education by contextualizing students’ thoughts, feelings, beliefs and behaviors in relation to the issues that surround them. This form of mindfulness would engage students in dialogue, helping them to investigate, challenge and resist “unjust social structures, policies, power inequities and other barriers in schools and society that are the sources of stress, anger, sadness and disaffection.” These pragmatic examples illustrate how critical, anti-oppressive pedagogies can be integrated into more socially-engaged mindfulness programs.

The second common theme concerns the relationship between individual mindfulness and collective action. Mark Leonard, in “Social mindfulness as a force for change,” explains why conventional mindfulness training finds it difficult to tie these two things together because it views the self as a separate psychological entity. By placing the self, rather than the whole, at the center, mindfulness can function as a higher, therapeutic octave of neoliberalism, reverberating and transmitting dominant cultural assumptions about individual responsibility for stress and anxiety. The atomized self is positioned as the fulcrum of its own success and failure, while the causes of suffering are localized - contained within our own minds regardless of the broader context, which only collective action can transform.

Rachel Lilley’s work with Mark Whitehead is a rare exception to this trend. In their essay, “Does mindfulness in politics make any difference?” Lilley describes how she developed and applied a new program called “Mindfulness-Based Behavioral Insights” in the Welsh government. This program, unlike conventional mindfulness-based approaches, is based on a theory of mind that is inherently “social, relational, cultural and historical.” The aim is not merely to make government policy-makers calmer and less reactive, but to effect deep changes in the political culture in which policy decisions are made. The program helps policymakers to discover their own cognitive biases and deeply entrenched assumptions which limit the quality of their decision-making.

Nevertheless, some question whether mindfulness is the right ‘tool’ for social and political change, and whether it should even be engaged in such matters. For example, Jamie Bristow (who serves as the Executive Director of the UK Mindful Nation initiative) believes that mindfulness programs need to maintain value neutrality, and that those who take a more ‘strident’ approach open up the field to injurious criticism. In his contribution, “Time for new thinking about mindfulness and social change,” Bristow asks, “After all, how might it feel if your government rolled-out a new psychological programme that explicitly nudged participants towards a stance opposite to your own on some sensitive issue?”

The UK government is doing exactly that by advocating the widespread diffusion of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) - a supposedly-neutral intervention not unlike the same government’s sponsorship of happiness economics and positive psychology. But it isn’t neutral at all, because it posits individualized solutions to social problems. Both in the media and in formal government briefings, the rise of depression, anxiety and mental illness is emphasized in order to position mindfulness interventions as a public policy cure.

As Guardian reporter Madeline Bunting concludes (who also serves as an advisor to the UK Mindful Nation initiative), “mindfulness has unlimited applicability to almost every healthcare issue we now face - and it's cheap.” In the midst of austerity measures and cuts to the NHS and other public services, mindfulness is both politically attractive and the recipient of significant public investment.

However, the assumption that the causes of suffering are all inside our heads is itself deeply value-laden. What about the disaffected white males who have turned to a politics of hate in many parts of Europe and the USA because their livelihoods have been decimated through de-industrialization: is their fear and insecurity purely internally caused? Can you imagine a civil rights movement being generated by telling African-Americans that they can find peace and happiness within an oppressive system by practicing mindfulness as therapy?

That question encapsulates the third common conclusion of Transformation’s series to date: that it is possible to re-imagine and reconfigure mindfulness as a force for social change, but only by abandoning the view that it is a non-ideological part of our common humanity, and therefore a ‘natural’ positive net good - in other words, the belief that mindfulness is self-evidently beneficial, so we must let it do its magic, and all will be well.

The problem with such magical thinking is precisely that - it is ‘magical,’ as opposed to being grounded in reality. It is part of the cultural trend towards turning inwards in order to cope with the onslaught of uncertainty and precariousness that are generated by unfettered capitalism in post-crash societies – not part of a movement to confront these issues directly using the skills and capacities that mindfulness helps to create.

This unbalanced tilt towards inner development not only reinforces a neo-liberal view of the world, but it is deeply disempowering. As Edgar Cabanas and Eva Illouz state in their book Manufacturing Happy Citizens, it “has important social consequences: not only does it entail the danger of emptying the self from its communal and political content by replacing this content with narcissistic self-concern, but insofar as it convinces people that the way out of their problems is chiefly a matter of personal effort and resilience, the possibilities for a collective construction of socio-political change will remain limited.”

Faced by multiple and interlinked crises of injustice, inequality and environmental degradation, this simply isn’t good enough. We can no longer afford to hide behind the cloak of value neutrality. The world is literally and symbolically on fire, and in that context, the insularity and quiescence that many apolitical mindfulness programs promote no longer serves us. We need a new language and praxis of spiritual and political liberation that isn’t muted by the weak balm of self-improvement. That, I hope, will be the future of mindfulness.

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