Humanity is beset by so much disruption that naming it has almost become a cliché: ‘I could really go for some precedented times’ as a popular meme has it. More and more people are aware of the multiple and interconnected crises that we face, yet our collective capacity to respond to them appropriately has not kept pace.
Certainly we are powerful. Our ability to harm the environment, ourselves and each other is accelerating. From the transgression of planetary boundaries to the threat of runaway technology, this kind of power places even the near future in jeopardy for billions of people.
But the capacity to dominate and destroy is not the same as the capacity to act well and in our collective best interests. That sort of capacity is both underdeveloped and increasingly under threat. The good news is that it can be consciously cultivated through practices such as mindfulness.
Over the last six years, we’ve been helping politicians around the world to explore the role of mindfulness in conversations around public policy. Of course, mindfulness today is recommended for a suspiciously diverse range of ailments, so much so that critics decry it as a false panacea. Suffering from stress? Mindfulness can help. Struggling to give up smoking? Try a little mindfulness.
While the application of mindfulness to particular problems is supported by an increasingly robust body of evidence, it may also have produced an instrumental and fragmented picture of the field in popular understanding. So turning our attention upstream more recently we’ve been exploring a different narrative for mindfulness, not as a topical cure but as a foundational psychological capacity for producing good outcomes.
The common factor that has emerged from our discussions is the interaction between mindfulness and human agency – by which we mean the capacity for intentional action, both individual and collective. Released today, our new report offers a model of agency with three interdependent dimensions: perception, understanding and action – a triad which shares some features with the futurist Jordan Hall’s model of ‘sovereignty.’ Thanks to an array of confounding forces in our minds, bodies and the social and cultural environment that surrounds us, all three dimensions are frequently impoverished, so how can we strengthen and protect them?
The first area of concern is attention - a foundational condition for perception and thus for human agency. We typically underestimate the myriad distractions that can capture our attention, from outdated evolutionary drives such as dopamine-driven consuming to the booming attention economy that manipulates and amplifies these drives in ways that alienate and overwhelm us.
Former Google insiders turned whistle-blowers are lining up to warn us of the ‘downgrading’ effects of deliberately-addictive digital technology, while researchers describe an ‘evolutionary mismatch’ between the promises of social media and our real psycho-social needs.
Mindfulness alone can’t protect us from the seductions of Artificial Intelligence that knows us better than we know ourselves. However, it can certainly strengthen our capacity to attend to what matters by training the ‘muscle’ of the mind to notice when it has strayed, and then to return to its chosen object. Mindfulness has been shown to protect against proactively distracting stimuli and enhance ‘executive control,’ enabling us to choose the content of our minds and lives more freely.
Mindfulness training emphasises awareness that is open, curious and kind, cultivating an internal climate of friendliness towards experience. Practicing these qualities, grounded in a deepening relationship with the body, can radically broaden receptivity by supplying more and better information with which to make sense of the world. Likewise, aspects of practice such as acceptance and turning towards difficulty can help to maintain openness to novel information, including uncomfortable truths from which we might otherwise recoil.
For example, ‘cognitive dissonance’ - the discomfort we feel when two beliefs are incompatible with each other - commonly prevents us from acknowledging the many ways in which our current lifestyles are untenable. Closing down to problematic aspects of our culture leads to complicity. Openness to change requires tolerance for discomfort.
In an age of information overload, shutting down is an understandable form of self-defence, but this narrowing of focus has to be discerning. This is more difficult when the sheer volume of information we face in our rapidly changing, hyper-connected world overwhelms not only our attention, but also our control of it: we are increasingly unable to choose what is good for us.
The result is an impoverished and unhealthy digital and media diet, as James Williams warns, which can create a new dimension of social inequality in which those who are unable to be selective are disenfranchised. In this respect the benefits of mindfulness in terms of regulating attention and supporting focus could be vital.
The second dimension of agency is understanding - the ability to form knowledge and use it with discernment. At a moment when increasing complexity demands quantum leaps in understanding, this ability is undermined by factors such as information overload, declining trust in the media and public institutions, and a deteriorating ‘information ecology’ - the public commons in which ideas are exchanged and truth is negotiated. Meanwhile - and much-intensified by social media - cultural and political polarisation both radically oversimplifies complex issues and entrenches a politics of antagonism that is disastrous for collective problem-solving.
Mindfulness training can support understanding in a number of ways. It helps to integrate a ‘holistic-intuitive’ mode of mental processing with the ‘verbal-conceptual’ mode that is dominant in the Western mind. As a result, practitioners may entertain worldviews that are more open to complexity thinking and action.
As Iain McGlichrist and others have highlighted, an entrenched focus on abstract processing has contributed to an impasse in society in which goals are pursued in myopic silos. The world is currently receiving a crash course in the consequences of this atomised understanding courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic, discovering at warp speed that health, social trust, economics and the environment cannot usefully be treated as if they were separate.
By contrast, integrating rationality within holistic-intuitive processing cultivates a container for considering the whole - not a fixed or single worldview but a radical plurality which can underpin collective agency at the scale humanity requires. Here too, evidence links training with improvements in perspective-taking and cognitive flexibility. Mindfulness courses teach us to uncouple identity from particular ideas and understand all points of view as somewhat partial (‘thoughts aren’t facts’).
The third dimension of agency is action. Despite a common misconception of mindfulness as passive, such practices actually help to restore intention as a driver of action. The reduction of automatic behaviour and harmful reactivity is central to the efficacy of mindfulness training.
We know that mindfulness practice helps individuals to act consciously and creatively more of the time. In the context of human survival on a planetary scale however, effective action has to be collective: we will meet our many crises together or not at all. Research shows that such practices have much to offer the social fabric by amplifying innate prosocial qualities such as kindness, empathy and compassion; reducing reactivity, enhancing perspective-taking, deepening access to intrinsic values, and increasing our openness and availability to each-other’s views.
Finally, the reduction of anxiety and stress is among the most consistent findings across four decades of mindfulness research. This benefit is popularly associated with the realities of a busy workplace, and critics commonly perceive a displacement of responsibility for suffering from the organisation to the individual employee. But acquiring tools for mitigating distress does not preclude action to address its structural causes. Stress is neurologically harmful and imposes an insidious burden on all dimensions of human agency and in all areas of life - not least in activism and other forms of civic engagement. Its relief can only strengthen the cognitive foundation for effective and sustainable action.
While the mindfulness field attracts criticism that its offerings are merely a palliative and perhaps even actively prohibitive of social change, we want to repeat as many times as is necessary that inner transformation and social change are not only compatible but require one another. From all quarters we are called to a better understanding of ourselves, each other and our role in shaping the world. Developing mindfulness can mobilise a powerful foundational capacity for agency in urgent times.
“Mindfulness: developing agency in urgent times” is available to download here.