The personal and political benefits of practices like meditation have been a staple of Transformation’s coverage since the site was launched eight years ago. These practices can help us to confront the fear, mental confusion and other limitations that weaken our potential to be agents of change on the broader stage of politics, economics and social struggle. But it’s clear that these effects aren’t automatic or uncomplicated.
Over the past few years there’s been increasing interest in exploring one particular kind of practice called ‘mindfulness’ - “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” It seems clear that strengthening these capacities is a useful thing to do for individuals, but can mindfulness also play a role in promoting broader social change? What can the articles we’ve published tell us about the answers to that question?
A good place to start is Ron Purser’s book “McMindfulness,” which exploded onto the scene in 2019 and sharpened the conversation enormously. In his piece about the book for Transformation, Purser argued that the mindfulness movement has degenerated into “the new capitalist spirituality,” a form of individualized stress relief that encourages practitioners to accommodate themselves more comfortably to the world as it is, packaged and sold by increasingly commercially-minded providers and gutted of any broader social utility.
Elements of this argument had already been circulating for a number of years - in critiques of the ‘happiness industry’ and ‘positive psychology,’ for example, and in exposés of corporations, consultants and entrepreneurs who were selling yoga and meditation as a cure-all. As one piece on mindfulness training in Silicon Valley put it as long ago as 2014, “Take an ancient practice, remove it from its context, strip away its ethical imperatives and sell it for a profit. Is the goal of the corporate mindfulness movement to comfort the already comfortable?”
The faux revolution of mindfulness, by Ronald Purser
The selective awareness of Wisdom 2.0, by Darrin Drda
The corruption of happiness, by William Davies
Why I choose Samuel Beckett over positive thinking any day, by Dionne Lew
The dangers of radical self-love, by Chloe King
Purser’s book was harder-hitting and much more widely-circulated than these earlier critiques, and it stimulated a large number of responses on the site. By and large, these responses accepted the risks of commercial appropriation, but rejected the conclusion that this was inevitable, or that it applied to all forms of mindfulness. Once Purser’s ‘faux revolution’ has been exposed and rejected, these authors argued, the debate becomes much more interesting and fruitful, because we’re freed to get on with the task of promoting the ‘real thing’ and learning as we go.
Purser himself contributed two of these pieces, arguing for a socially-engaged or “civic mindfulness” that moves the focus of training and practice “from me to we…When mindfulness is taught and practiced in ways that help people connect the dots between their personal troubles and public issues, it becomes potentially transformative.”
Moving mindfulness from ‘me’ to ‘we,’ by Ronald Purser
The future of mindfulness, by Ronald Purser
Others used similar frames to show how this kind of mindfulness can generate concrete results in schools, local governments, political processes, the training of activists, the fight against climate justice, and responses to the coronavirus pandemic. For example, Welsh civil servants reported more openness to conflicting perspectives that had to be synthesized into an action plan very quickly as COVID-19 was spreading in the Spring of 2020, while counselors at a Brooklyn High School have introduced mindfulness into ninth grade English classes, not just to reduce stress but also to help students question the social conditions under which they feel pressured and get angry - conditions like under-resourcing of the school system and the effects of racial injustice.
Does mindfulness in politics make any difference? By Rachel Lilley and Mark Whitehead
The need for critical social mindfulness in schools, by David Forbes
Climate change and the attention economy, by Peter Doran
Can mindfulness help us in the midst of COVID-19 - and beyond? By Beth Berila, David Forbes, Mark Leonard, Rachel Lilley and Michael Edwards
Purposeful solitude: reading Thoreau in a lockdown, by Andreas Hess
These examples suggest that there are at least three factors which differentiate ‘mindfulness as stress relief’ from ‘mindfulness for social change.’ First, framing mindfulness in social or collective terms has to be a conscious choice - it doesn’t happen automatically or by accident, and it takes careful preparation and particular kinds of training. That may seem like an obvious conclusion, but it’s extremely important in a world where meditation and other techniques are sometimes seen to have social consequences simply by virtue of their effects on the mind. They don’t.
Instead, such broader and deeper effects depend on deliberate attempts to link the cultivation of personal and political awareness together - what the German activist-theologian Dorothee Soelle called “the mysticism of wide-open eyes.” This doesn’t mean that every student of mindfulness has to vote for the Labour Party or the Democrats; just that they be mindful of everything around them, as well what’s happening inside of them and the interplay between the two, since all aspects of reality are connected. In these circumstances there need be no conflict or contradiction between systems change and inner development (though mindfulness doesn’t necessarily bring agreement on the details of what that change should be).
Time for new thinking about mindfulness and social change, by Jamie Bristow
No, you can’t ‘be the change’ alone, by Alessandra Pigni
Why positive thinking isn’t neoliberal, by Sonja Aviljas
The mysticism of wide-open eyes, by Michael Edwards
Second, mindfulness alone isn’t enough to make these links effectively. In successful cases, trainers and teachers use other tools to bring in the social and political dimensions of human experience. The Ulex Project in Spain, for example, adds ‘anti-oppression pedagogy’ to its mindfulness programs for activists, while insights from a wide range of other behavioral and cognitive theories are used among local government workers in Wales.
Traditionally, calming the mind and developing greater self-awareness have been the building blocks of mindfulness practice, and a quick glance at what’s unfolding in the US and the UK should be enough to convince the skeptics that these things provide a better foundation for decision-making than narcissism and personal insecurity: if you think mindfulness is suspect, then try ‘mindless’ politics and economics instead. But adding other tools enriches the mix enormously, and makes it easier to see how our individual struggles are embedded in wider social structures.
Mindfulness and social change, by Paula Haddock and Luke Wreford
Don’t wait for the future of mindfulness – it’s already here, by Paul Haddock and Gee
Social mindfulness as a force for change, by Mark Leonard
Waking up in the time of Corona: four insights from psychology, by Willem Kuyken
The third distinguishing feature is that socially-engaged mindfulness doesn’t shy away from the sharpest forms of injustice and our own role in perpetuating them, as some meditation training tends to do because this is seen as potentially ‘divisive,’ upsetting or destabilizing. Instead, it embraces them and makes them part of the journey, encouraging us to be mindful of the social realities around us and how we internalize them.
Beth Berila contributed two pieces in this vein which show how mindfulness can help us to “discern, interrupt and transform power differentials and biases,” by asking how anxiety and stress are shaped by the wider world for people who occupy different positions in society. The ultimate goals of mindfulness may be peace, harmony, unity or oneness, but “oneness” isn’t “sameness” as she puts it. Our own wellbeing is connected to that of everyone else, so we can never be at peace in a world where others suffer so much violence and oppression, however long we meditate.
Mindful social justice, by Beth Berila
White urgency to end racism: why now? By Beth Berila
All the articles in the series agree on one point: counterposing mindfulness against social action doesn’t get us very far, even if it’s an accurate description of some mainstream or commercial training programs. The really interesting questions lie between these two supposed poles, in exploring how different facets of mindfulness connect with different elements of social change in different settings. That’s a hugely-creative process in which no-one has a monopoly of wisdom and we’re all learning as we go.
As Gee and Paula Haddock from the Ulex Project put it, “unless activists are prepared to turn their attention inwards as well as outwards our struggles will continue to be undermined by our own mental habits,” but if mindfulness isn’t mindful of the realities in which it’s practiced then it won't fulfill its potential as a wellspring of social transformation.