As mindfulness becomes more prevalent in western societies, it’s understandable that its popularity as a practice for reducing stress and improving mental health is attracting greater scrutiny. In a recent article on Transformation, Ron Purser argues that mainstream mindfulness needs to move beyond a focus on individual wellbeing towards more collective and systemic responses to the personal, social and ecological challenges we face.
As founding members of a community of practice called the Mindfulness and Social Change Network, we’ve been engaging with these debates for some time. Before training as mindfulness teachers, we spent our careers working in the development, humanitarian and sustainability sectors and found our mindfulness practice to be invaluable in our personal and working lives. With a foot in both camps, we were excited about the contribution that mindfulness could make to bring about positive social change, but also how social and environmental perspectives on suffering and wellbeing could inform mindfulness teaching and practice.
It turned out we weren’t the only ones thinking along these lines. In 2014, we started making connections with other mindfulness practitioners, trainers, change makers and researchers and have since grown organically into a thriving community of practice with over 200 members in more than 20 countries. Through online discussions, webinars and events, we provide an accessible forum for inquiry, debate and collaboration that addresses both the opportunities and the risks at the intersection of mindfulness and social change. While there’s a range of views in the network on the validity of current critiques of mainstream mindfulness, we share a commitment to developing approaches that appreciate the interdependence of individual and social change.
One key question we’ve been exploring is how mindfulness can benefit efforts to promote social justice and sustainability. Network member Richard Reoch, who has worked for many years on human rights and conflict resolution, finds that mindfulness provides the stability to stay present in the midst of strong feelings of despair and doubt which would otherwise derail his efforts and lead to burnout. Mindfulness also helps him to see more clearly how his own and others’ views and prejudices result from different life experiences, which opens the door to constructive dialogue. Gemma Houldey, who has a 15-year background in human rights advocacy initiatives, makes a similar point about moving beyond polarising ‘us and them’ attitudes that are common in social change work:
“My mindfulness practice has helped me see the human in who I'm dealing with. I feel my own vulnerabilities and from there I see that 'the other' has those vulnerabilities too. Taking this approach helps me to interact with them from a different place that is healthier for me and, I believe, more effective for meaningful dialogue.”
Despite these benefits, many change makers are sceptical of practising mindfulness. Some feel it focuses too heavily on individual wellbeing, which seems self-indulgent. A solely psychological and medicalised view of stress doesn’t resonate with those who view suffering primarily through a social and political lens.
Several network members have been developing approaches that address these issues. One of us (Paula Haddock) has been working with the Ulex Project in Catalunya to design and deliver a Mindfulness for Social Change course as part of their European activist education programme. Over five years, we have explored ways in which conventional approaches to both mindfulness and activism can reflect and reproduce problematic aspects of ‘business as usual.’ By integrating socially-engaged mindfulness with anti-oppression pedagogy, the course builds attentional capacity, empathy and compassion and flexibility of views, alongside vital skills such as working through conflict, collaboration and creating healthy group cultures.
Meanwhile in Oakland, California, the East Bay Meditation Centre has developed a year-long programme for change makers called Practice in Transformative Action. Now in its seventh year, the programme supports individuals ‘to foster transformative inner and outer change by bringing mindfulness awareness practices into their work with progressive social change organizations, coalitions and social movements’.
As a network, we’ve also explored the wider opportunities and risks of mainstreaming mindfulness in western societies. Some argue that a focus on the ‘inner’ causes of stress may reinforce neoliberalism, which places excessive emphasis on individual responsibility and resilience. But mindfulness can be practised in ways that reveal how our perceptions, thoughts and reactions are conditioned by the world we live in, and enable us to break free from limiting beliefs and narratives we’ve internalised from prevailing ideologies.
In their Social Mindfulness zine, Meg-John Barker unpacks the ways in which our individual struggles are embedded within wider culture, communities, workplaces and interpersonal relationships. The zine helps us to explore how we're encouraged to individualise problems which are actually the result of social injustice across these levels, and suggests adaptations to mindfulness practice that enable us to reflect on our inner experience in this context.
A similar approach is proposed by David Forbes in his recent book, Mindfulness and its Discontents. In response to his own critique of mindfulness in schools, he suggests how students and teachers could instead relate their personal experiences of anxiety and stress to broader interpersonal and social concerns, and bring into question unhealthy aspects of the school system.
One of the strengths of mainstream mindfulness can also be a weakness. By addressing, through a group process, the universal ways in which we all suffer, mindfulness courses can engender an egalitarian sense of common humanity. Participants can connect to aspects of themselves and others that transcend social identities. But this universalism risks overlooking the ways in which people suffer differently because of social inequalities and systemic discrimination.
In the western world, mindfulness teachers and students are disproportionately white and middle class. This raises important questions around access and inclusivity. To what extent do the orientations, language, economics and delivery methods of mindfulness reflect privileged worldviews, values and needs? These are also challenges for us as a network, since we reflect the demographics of the wider movement.
A range of approaches are being developed to respond to these issues. For example, in the UK, the Urban Mindfulness Foundation offers courses to diverse communities in London and also runs inclusivity trainings for mindfulness teachers to explore “how elements of mindfulness including stability, curiosity, empathy and insight can facilitate wise discernment and ethical behaviour in relation to various forms of bias, prejudice and discrimination.”
The Ulex Project in Catalunya has developed a course on ‘Thinking Diversity Radically’ which incorporates contemplative practice into the work of deconditioning oppression from our mindsets and bodies as well as from the social system. In the US, Rhonda Magee has developed an approach called ColorInsight which employs mindfulness to address racial bias and internalised oppression, informed by research that suggests that an emphasis on being ‘colourblind’ can hinder understanding of race and its impact on our lives.
Another area of both opportunity and challenge is the growth of mindfulness training in workplaces. Critics warn of the risk of displacing responsibility for workplace stress onto individual employees while unreasonable working conditions remain in place. Mindfulness training should be part of a wider strategy to address systemic issues and promote a healthy organisational culture. When people learn mindfulness in groups, organisations and communities, it can become a collective as well as an individual change process that supports the establishment of new mindsets, norms, practices and processes that promote wellbeing and creativity.
When mindfulness is introduced strategically in the context of government policy-making there can be wider social impacts. Over the past few years, Rachel Lilley from Aberystwyth University has been working with Senior Directors in the Welsh Civil Service with responsibilities including health, poverty and finance. Rather than focusing on wellbeing and stress reduction, Rachel developed a three-month programme on mindfulness, behavioural insights and decision making. According to a recent evaluation, the programme “changed management styles and understandings of decision-making processes and bias, enabling more collaborative working and a better understanding of behavioural insights in the policy process” which in turn helps them work far more effectively on social and environmental issues.
One of the most important impacts of mindfulness could be in promoting sustainable lifestyles, cultures and economic systems in the face of the accelerating climate emergency and loss of species. These are obviously complex challenges which require multi-faceted responses. Yet the subjective dimension of human consciousness, mindsets, values and habit patterns has been neglected thus far in mainstream approaches to sustainability.
The systems theorist Donella Meadows identified the most powerful leverage point for change as “the mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, power structure, rules, and culture — arises”. How could mindfulness help us break free from a dominant mindset which over-emphasises individualism, materialism and competition? By promoting self-acceptance, and reconnecting us to ourselves, others and nature, mindfulness can address the deep psychological insecurities that lie at the root of the fear, conflict, status anxiety and unsustainable consumption that threaten our personal and collective wellbeing.
Christine Wamsler from Lund University in Sweden runs a research and education programme on sustainability and inner transformation and has carried out and collated a wealth of pioneering studies in this area. Similarly, an innovative research programme called A Mindset for the Anthropocene has been developed by the Institute of Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany that includes an exploration of the role that mindfulness and other contemplative practices might play in promoting the wider cultural shifts that are required if humanity is to survive and thrive.
We don’t view mindfulness as a panacea that will cure the world’s ills. But socially-engaged mindfulness and mindful social action can contribute to addressing our individual and collective challenges. Whether or not this potential is realised depends on how well we build on the innovative work that is already going on, and continue to acknowledge and address the blind spots, limitations and risks. What is clear is that now more than ever, we need responses that understand how our minds are shaped by the world, and how the world is shaped by our minds.
For more information on some of the people, programmes and ideas explored in this article see this website created by researchers at Cardiff University, and the Mindfulness and Social Change Network website.