Today, the future of humanity and the biosphere lie in the balance. If you are reading this article, you are likely to be one of many who believe that collectively, we must find answers to the challenges we face if a better world is to emerge out of this time of great change. But how will collective action on the necessary scale be fashioned and sustained at a time when individualism and tribalism are rampant? Mindfulness provides one part of the answer to that question.
In the past, human beings evolved in small, closely-knit groups. We survived by collaborating, caring and sharing resources from day to day. The need to maintain trusting, intimate relationships often overrode the social advantages to be gained from acquiring power and status. Threats were sporadic, acute and potentially deadly.
Today, the sense of threat we face is very different. We have come to believe that our sense of self-worth depends on our ability to achieve our goals and adorn ourselves with the signs of success, so we are under a constant low-level threat to perform and gain approval. We exchange the emotional rewards of social connection with yet more distractions. We worry what others think of us, and fill the gaping hole that’s left in our emotional lives by striving to do better and buy more stuff.
Against this background, as the author David Smail argues, individual therapy acts as a form of social control because it places responsibility for mental wellbeing on the individual, whereas the causes of distress are social and material. Ron Purser develops this argument further in his book McMindfulness with reference to the ways in which a secularised form of Buddhist meditation has become a panacea for the social ills of our time.
Purser's criticism is not leveled at the effectiveness of mindfulness as means to reduce distress. Rather, he argues that it is offered over-enthusiastically as the answer to almost every ill, and that this is a potentially dangerous form of mass delusion. Mindfulness comes with a quasi-spiritual flavour which feeds the zeal of its devotees.
Yet psychological studies do seem to indicate that mindfulness reduces the negative impact of stress on all manner of human cognitive, emotional and behavioural capacities. It’s clear that stress can make us say things we wish we hadn't. By contrast, when we feel ourselves, we have more time for others and are better able to understand what is going on for them. Helping others makes us feel better. Reducing stress improves mood; improving mood will make it easier for us to be kind and caring; and being kind and caring makes us feel good.
Since mindfulness does have these effects, it would not be unreasonable to expect that mindfulness could have a collective impact if it were practiced en masse. Empirical evidence already suggests that when mindfulness is taught in the workplace there are positive effects on organisational culture. For example, around 10% of staff at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham (UK) had improved ‘Basic Psychological Needs at Work Scale’ scores after mindfulness training, a measure that includes autonomy, competence and crucially, relatedness.
If such programmes can work at this level then they should be able to operate at a larger scale too, though this is more difficult because pro-social behaviour is more obviously advantageous in a contained social group. But logically, the more personal and interpersonal skills people have, the more likely they are to value collective good above short-term self-interest. Letting go of the need to account for cost and benefits is a liberating experience that gives us a sense of limitless possibilities in a universe built out of the substance of love – a much more powerful frame for mindfulness than mere therapy.
As therapy, mindfulness is a value-neutral intervention in the same way that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a value-neutral intervention. Both these psychological therapies are about as effective as each other in preventing depression, and equally effective as the use of anti-depressants. Different options suit different people. Getting people who are vulnerable to depression to go to a regular pottery class might also be just as effective, but no-one has done a comparison trial to find that out. In any case, pottery classes, even if they do improve mood are not likely to change society. Pottery classes may result in happy potters and lots of unwanted ceramic gifts but they are not going to prevent global warming, war and migration.
So the effects of mindfulness on individuals, even if learned in a group, may have little influence on broader processes of social change. Mindfulness may just enable people to carry on doing what they are doing for longer and more effectively, feeding the underlying causes of the stress that mindfulness helps to manage. To address the social, environmental and economic problems of our times, we have to face up to the facts beyond our individual distress, however uncomfortable and depressing they may be, and collectively, we have to do something about them. The problem is that we feel disempowered as individuals, and this is the very root of the problem: the notion of the individual as a separate psychological self. This is where a different form of ‘social’ mindfulness could be crucial.
Smail believes “that we are as profoundly misled by the perspective from self-as-centre as our ancestors were by their geocentric view of the universe.” We have created a social order based on this notion and now we apply mindfulness, but to what effect? To live in the present moment and avoid thinking about problems we cannot solve, or to develop our ability and willingness to undertake the necessary collective action? This is particularly ironic because the purpose of Buddhist practice is to develop liberating insights into the illusion of self and so free us from self-serving behaviours to inhabit the Divine Abodes of loving-kindness, universal compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity.
So in this respect, mindfulness can never be value-free. It always comes in a package of values and beliefs that are either explicit or implicit. The most powerful potential of mindfulness is not that it may help us to cope with the stress of modern living, but that it may help us to wake up to the implicit beliefs and values that shape our identity and drive our behaviour.
Every human capacity exists in a social context. As therapy, mindfulness is taught within a set of ideas that are defined by therapeutic practice. There is an implicit assumption that each of us as individuals can manage our mental wellbeing, if we choose to do so, and that we are psychological beings whose experience is an individualised subjective process. Any group then becomes a cost-effective means of delivering instructions. When a mindfulness course finishes, people go back to their separate lives with their new coping skills to carry on with a little less distress.
In the context of the contemporary challenges we face this is obviously unsatisfactory, so how can mindfulness be applied in ways that facilitate collective action? The answer is to teach it in ways that help people to understand, not only themselves but also how others think and feel. We need to apply mindfulness to a model of a socially-constructed self to understand how the self we construct changes and behaves in different social contexts.
When we feel socially threatened, we become obsessed with self-definition, self-preservation and self-improvement. We struggle to question our assumptions and define others by their differences so that they become a source of threat, making it easier for sociopathic leaders to divide and rule. So we need to apply mindfulness to become consciously aware of these tendencies, and choose to invest our sense of identity in more inclusive values.
That will help us to build cooperative alliances that enable us to act together in the public interest. In this way, we can apply social mindfulness to transform the stress of the powerlessness we experience as individuals into the energy and resilience that come from building collaborative relationships defined by a collective identity – an identity that enables us to work together in the service of our planet’s survival.
By objectifying the material universe, the Enlightenment has brought many material benefits. It has also enabled us to dehumanise native peoples, commit genocide and over-exploit natural resources to the point at which the biosphere itself may collapse. We need to find a new context for mindfulness to fulfill any potential it may have to help us make a better world.
We need to use mindfulness to understand that, while the notion of a separate psychological individual has an important function in democracy, it is dangerous to over-extend its use to justify unregulated self-interest as a force for social good through unfettered economic growth. We need mindfulness to build organisations, groups and communities that understand how to come together to become a force for change.