Waking up to suffering and the possibility of change

I had been reflecting for several days on how to bring this series of responses to the ‘The Mindfulness Conspiracy’ to a close when I randomly opened a booked of poetry on ‘Singapore’ by Mary Oliver. I will let you read it before I explain why I thought it relevant.

Singapore
Mary Oliver

In Singapore, in the airport,
A darkness was ripped from my eyes.
In the women’s restroom, one compartment stood open.
A woman knelt there, washing something in the white bowl.

Disgust argued in my stomach
and I felt, in my pocket, for my ticket.

A poem should always have birds in it.
Kingfishers, say, with their bold eyes and gaudy wings.
Rivers are pleasant, and of course trees.
A waterfall, or if that’s not possible, a fountain rising and falling.
A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.

When the woman turned I could not answer her face.
Her beauty and her embarrassment struggled together,
and neither could win.
She smiled and I smiled. What kind of nonsense is this?
Everybody needs a job.

Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labor,
which is dull enough.
She is washing the tops of the airport ashtrays, as big as hubcaps,
with a blue rag.
Her small hands turn the metal, scrubbing and rinsing.
She does not work slowly, nor quickly, like a river.
Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.

I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves her life.
And I want her to rise up from the crust and the slop and
fly down to the river.
This probably won’t happen.
But maybe it will.
If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it?

Of course, it isn’t.
Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only
the light that can shine out of a life. I mean
the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth,
The way her smile was only for my sake; I mean
the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.

First featured in Poetry July 1988, freely available through Poetry Foundation

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This poem captures for me something fundamental about the social and critical aspects of mindfulness practice – that mindfulness practice can wake us up to suffering, our own and others. It can ‘rip darkness’ from our eyes. It also points to our preference for poems which help us ‘stand in a happy place’ which unknowingly, yet beautifully captures the tension between a mindfulness which connects us to a ‘happy place’ yet fails to develop real awareness.

My own practice has helped me to become aware of the discomfort I feel in situations like those described so poignantly above. It is through the very personal and painful exploration that deep mindfulness practice encourages that I have come to see my own prejudice, privilege and self-absorption. I have come to see how heavily edited by version of ‘reality’ was (is!?), how the strong sense of self-determination in my understanding of my life course led to complacency, disconnection and a undervaluing of others.

Purser notes that mindfulness has been promoted in such a way that personal stress has been disconnected from societal causes. This is not without foundation in some contexts, but I have found that mindfulness practice has provided me with a way to see societal causes of suffering more clearly, as well as acknowledge my own role in perpetuating those stresses for others and the planet. For me mindfulness has collapsed the distinction between the personal and social so that work to create change ‘out there’ is not distinct from creating change ‘in here’. For me this has simultaneously led to greater activity and engagement in the world to acknowledge and address the challenges we face as well as a more sincere commitment to personal practice.

Later in the article Purser describes how ‘proponents of mindfulness believe that the practice is apolitical’ and that this underlies many of the issues he raises. I admit that it has taken me some time (and a little help from my friends!) to come to understand just how political it is and how it is intertwined with concerns about the weaponisation of resilience and the responsibilisation of wellbeing.

I have confidence from the responses to the article that there are growing numbers of individuals within the mindfulness movement, as well as those interested in contemplative pedagogy, who do consider it to be political. However, it is important that we are not complacent; that we are open to the valuable critique offered by Purser so that we stay awake, aware of different challenges and view points so that opportunities for meaningful change are not lost.

Thanks to everyone for your contributions in this important debate.

Caroline

Mindfulness as a prosocial movement

A response to ‘The Mindfulness Conspiracy’ from Joey Weber at the University of Bolton Manchester

Mindfulness should be taught through a social and critical lens, because there is no other authentic way of doing it. Ron’s article raised important questions of how mindfulness is manipulated in contemporary society. The underlying factor when considering whether mindfulness has become a new age neo-liberal weapon, or an expansive form of person-centred social activism, is the way in which it is used. Ron’s article I hope improves current practice, rather than putting people off. The questions raised by Purser, place emphasis on both the teachers and participants intrinsic motivations. If it is solely translated as a stress reduction technique it will yield those benefits, or if it is used unwisely to indirectly increase workloads and shift onus onto the individual, rather than look towards wider society then it may unfortunately do that too. I teach mindfulness to various health care professionals in higher education and find that it cuts across socio-economic boundaries and inequalities

When I teach mindfulness, I highlight the usefulness of mindfulness for participants personal and professional lives but also promote it as a transformative tool to improve self. Mindfulness without compassion can be merely attentional training. Mindfulness, with self-compassion, compassion, and taught with equanimity can be transformational. This is the mindfulness I am akin too and it is worth reminding that Kabat-Zinn himself says there is no ‘mindfulness’ without ‘heartfulness’.  There is a mindfulness found in all the major religions, and without debating how much or which translation the ‘right’ and one true ‘mindfulness’ is found, one must remember that contemporary mindfulness is not without nuances. It is noteworthy then to also consider how religion or ‘ordered thought’ also relies on other extensive teachings such as compassion. Thus, I argue mindfulness is not an authentic ‘package’ without the purposeful cultivation of compassion and other such virtuous qualities. In terms of social and critical mindfulness, the cultivation of such qualities and extensive self-awareness becomes a platform to mediate between self and other – the individual and the social.

The significant quandary is how efficacious mindfulness is in kicking back against socio-economic inequalities rather than being a commodified product of neoliberalism. The answer to this becomes dependant on the participants’ intrinsic motivation but also the context in which it is taught. Like a ‘dot to dot’ – teaching the basics of meditation, the theoretical concept and prosocial qualities, it is up to the students to join the dots and take from it what they want. In my experience, when teaching mindfulness, participants become free to examine the nature of their own experience, and to question their realities but only if directed to by themselves.

 There is liberation in quieting the mind; an individual may experience a potential reordering of priorities and an ethical shift in awareness towards one’s own thoughts and subsequent actions. Stepping outside of the regular stream of consciousness is beyond concept. Neoliberalism is essentially just a solidified concept; it holds no intrinsic power over anyone other than what the individual enables. However, due to the oppressive power structures it manifests, perhaps mindfulness true role mediates between individual acceptance and prosocial activism. With heightened awareness, a person may begin to question the nature of their reality and in turn integrate mindfulness with social activism. Thus, in this light, mindfulness can move from the personal to the political.

In Buddhism, (and I use Buddhism because Kabat-Zinn openly confirms how mindfulness was inspired by Zen) the root meaning of mindfulness in Pali must be remembered – to enhance the minds attention on an object in working memory. However, one must not forget that in Buddhism, mindfulness is only a segment of a much larger psychological process that includes the development of compassion and altruism and ultimately to evolve self. Often, this onus, is often overlooked by contemporary mindfulness’s attentional counterpart and perhaps it is up to deeper teachings of equanimity to link focussed attention to the cultivation of compassion. Equanimity explores how individual discrimination faculties solidify judgements and teaching around this enables an individual to lessen their cognitive rigidity and in turn find unanimous compassion. Teaching in this way, suggests mindfulness is a prosocial activity. Yet, contemporary mindfulness must be open enough to recognise its shortcomings. More psychologically informed clinical and operational definitions to discuss consciousness must be brought to attention and be rigorously scientifically tested.

By Joey Weber at the University of Bolton

Nurturing change through mindfulness ‘one person at a time’

A response to ‘The Mindfulness Conspiracy’ from Roberta Pughe Clinical Director at  The Center for Relationship, LLC.

I have been teaching mindfulness and contemplative practice since 1996 integrating techniques from psychology, theology, shamanism and mindfulness.  Let me begin by stating first that mindfulness is designed to create awareness that actually mobilizes activism and offers a basis for “talking back” to socio/cultural norms that are not serving the evolutionary advancement of a just society.  My education is rooted in both Theology and Psychology and interestingly enough, all cultures, cross culturally, have a mindfulness and contemplative practice fundamentally rooted in their understanding of the world. 

Mindfulness is absolutely not rooted in Buddhism alone.  That belief is a western misnomer.  Most cultures agree that mindfulness and contemplative practice support the emergence of the Soul and thereby elevates and inspires humans to embody “soulful characteristics” which are ironically both generically and cross-culturally similar.  According to Sri Aurobindo & The Mother’s teachings these characteristics are specifically named as:  Sincerity.  Humility.  Gratitude.  Perseverance.  Aspiration.  Receptivity.  Progress.  Courage.  Goodness.  Generosity.  Equality.  Peace. 

An individual mindful/contemplative practice supports the emergence of these characteristics within the individual which according to psychology’s Systems Theory has the potential to foster and nurture the actualization of these characteristics within the local community and the larger world – one person at a time.  This is not magical thinking.   This is, in fact, how psychology’s Systems Theory and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (and its subset, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) describe a cognitive shift of paradigm which effects constructive behavioral change.  American Psychiatrist Murray Bowen and others, within the field of Marriage and Family Therapy’s contribution to Psychology, focused on the interdependence of individuals within the larger system to help understand, actualize and optimize the larger group as a whole.  This model suggests that improving relationships and working more efficiently toward a common goal, such as peace, harmony, morality, health, etc., are possible results.  The Huichol Shamans teach their practice through the “3 legged drum” to remind us that we do this work for ourselves, for the community (both local and global) and for Mother Earth, hence the three legs.

This conceptualization is rooted foundationally in the philosophical notion of Soul Loss, this is not something as the author states that “is in our heads”.  For most humans, soul loss is a real experience.  Individualization and neo-liberalization of personhood is a symptom of soul loss which mindful/contemplative practice seeks to talk back to, thereby, fostering soul retrieval which includes above stated characteristics that can help to foster a soulful society.  The retrieval of soul characteristics and the cultivation of an open heart  (my training/teaching comes through the traditions of Thomas Merton/Christian Mysticism, Sri Aurobindo & The Mother, Kundalini Yogic Philosophy, the Sufis, the Huichol Shamans & Celtic Shamanism) can actually interrupt destructive cognition/affect/behaviors rooted in thinking “only about the self as the priority”.   The phenomenology of subjective experience is essential in this case, supporting a daily devotional practice, having the potential to alter perception as to the meaning and understanding of this practice of mindfulness — from the inside-out.

Humbly and respectfully submitted,

Roberta Pughe (PhD student in Higher Education), EdS, MA, LMFT

Founder:  The School of Embodied Enlightenment

Clinical Director:  The Center for Relationship, LLC, Princeton, New Jersey, USA 

‘We are all implicated’: the need for deep critical reflection in the mindfulness movement

A response to ‘The Mindfulness Conspiracy’ from Dr Patricia Morgan at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.

For me there are two central points I think Ron Purser makes in his article “The mindfulness conspiracy” recently published in the Guardian. Firstly, that stripping the practice of mindfulness from Buddhism means it has been removed from, as Purser says: “the teachings on ethics that accompanied it, as well as the liberating aim of dissolving attachment to a false sense of self while enacting compassion for all other beings.”  To some extent, new movements now associated with applications of Mindfulness in education such as: Social and Emotional Learning, Compassion Cultivation Training, and Social Justice concepts and practices, aim to ameliorate this though often they too have been quickly codified, commodified and commercialized.  

Secondly, Purser raises concerns about the commercialization of mindfulness, known by some as McMindfulness, where mindfulness is presented as a “tool” to be applied by individuals to themselves when they struggle or burn out, so they can quickly return to full productivity.  The fact that this struggle can be an outcome of pressures applied by the economic structures and institutions of Capitalism is ignored.  Mindfulness therefore becomes, according to Purser, “a tool of self-discipline, disguised as self-help. Instead of setting practitioners free, it helps them adjust to the very conditions that caused their problems.” 

Importantly, for those working in Contemplative Education and Inquiry, Purser continues: “A truly revolutionary movement would seek to overturn this dysfunctional system, but mindfulness only serves to reinforce its destructive logic.”  He rightly points to the way we are all implicated in the very system producing the problems we are attempting to solve through our work in contemplative inquiry and education.  This is core to the critical mindfulness movement that Purser is a part of and something I believe we need to urgently address.  For me this means moving into critical deep reflection, asking questions such as is my work in Contemplative Education and Inquiry adding to, maintaining or ameliorating the negative impacts of economic rationalism in education?

By Dr Patrica Morgan, University of New South Wales, Sydney

Mindfulness, personal integrity and overcoming self-interest

A response to ‘The Mindfulness Conspiracy’ from Dr Karen Blakely at the University of Wincester

In 1992 Fukayama wrote about the end of history.  There was no more to say – the debate had been won by capitalism, hands down.  From the vantage point of post 2008, we may laugh at this hubris but when we do this, we forget something very important: we are teaching Thatcher’s kids and their kids and their grandkids.  For these generations, the market, competition, survival of the fittest is not a paradigm, it is the truth.  It is, using Schein ’s phrase to describe culture, ‘how things work around here’.  For baby boomers, this is often difficult to acknowledge and we complain about how lacking in criticality students are today.

One way of cultivating critique is to use the spirituality lens.   For example, when I help my students study business ethics, we typically look at classical models of utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, human rights theory and the ethics of care. Then we study behavioural ethics that tells us that, whatever beliefs human beings espouse, they will act in their self-interest as long as they don’t have to sacrifice their views of themselves as ultimately ‘good’ people (this leaves a lot of leeway). Basically, we know what the right thing to do is, but because we are human beings we don’t do it – so if everyone’s pursuing their self-interest why should anyone care about social justice, planetary extinction and climate change?

In teaching we draw on ideas around mindfulness (but not ignoring their roots in Buddhism and Hinduism) and we ask students about a typical day. They describe getting up, looking at social media, washing, looking at social media, getting dressed, eating whilst looking at social media, travelling to work/uni whilst looking at social media, entering the classroom whilst looking at social media, looking at social media whilst partly paying attention to the class, and exiting the class with friends chatting about what was on social media. 

When asked to describe this state of mind, students invariably use the word ‘trance’. When asked how much of their day is spent in trance, they say up to 90%. When asked how they behave when in trance they acknowledge that they are reacting to conditioning – reacting, buying, comparing, judging, liking, buying, copying others, liking, buying.  What a perfect recipe for consumerism – create an all-embracing paradigm of ‘you are what you buy’, cultivate insecurity through the use of celebrity role models, drawing on the natural human tendency to compare, inculcate a trance-like state through social media, and then brainwash the young into buying stuff in order to meet the emptiness they feel inside. 

But how then do we come to know the right thing to do? Our society is telling us that the right thing to do is compare, judge and buy. This is where mindfulness can make a contribution.  The only way our young people can know is to look inward and connect with their inner selves – their conscience, their courage, their sense of justice and righteousness. But how do you connect with your inner sense when your inner world is being bombarded by capitalism. What chance do our young people have?  The only chance they have is to connect to their own sense of right and wrong, to talk about this with others, to listen to themselves, to value their inner voices and then to gain the confidence to act – not react. 

At the other end of the scale I see friends growing old, too scared to say what they think and what they feel, and continuing to suppress their rage at the way they have been manipulated to live their lives.  The one thing that Marx under-estimated was the power of the capitalist state to manipulate identity.  Mindfulness, in a critical framework, offers us a way to help the young to pursue personal integrity.  I don’t know of any other way of doing this.

By Dr Karen Blakely at the University of Winchester

Responses to ‘The Mindfulness Conspiracy’: exploring critical and social mindfulness in education

Some very rich and important discussion has been ignited within the mindfulness community by the publication of ‘The Mindfulness Conspiracy’ by Ronald Purser. Although we don’t focus on mindfulness specifically on this blog, it is an important component of contemplative pedagogy and some of the same issues are pertinent. When considering how to respond to the article I was struck by how people interested in contemplative pedagogy are often engaging in more critical and social explorations of mindfulness, which run counter to the individualized and commodified model described by Purser.

Given that the article has raised some very important points about mindfulness that should not be dismissed, and yet my experience of the movement has been much more mixed and nuanced than the article suggests, I asked people from the Contemplative Pedagogy Network to contribute blogs which touch upon how they go beyond the individualised, neo-liberal model of mindfulness, critiqued by Purser, in their teaching. I will be publishing these over the next week or so.

Please do get involved in the discussion using the comments below, showing respect and compassion for contributors at all times.

Thank you to all have contributed and if you haven’t yet there is still time! Just email me.

Best wishes

Caroline

PS Several of you have emailed to contribute social and critical mindfulness resources. I have added these to the bottom of the ‘Resources’ page.

Contemplative self-care for the bank holiday*

*Or anytime at all!

I am very aware that the concepts of individual resilience and self-care are receiving considerable critique at the moment. I think that this is important and timely because the way that they are being used usually overlooks the wider social and economic context in which our struggles arise, placing the responsibility for wellbeing solely on the shoulders of us as individuals.

Having said that however, I personally have benefited hugely from contemplative practices. They help provide perspective, they help me relax physically and mentally, they help me to see what I really value and provide spaciousness to develop more creative responses and appreciate other view points. I know am not alone in this.

Therefore it is important we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The rapidly growing mindfulness for social change movement is helping to highlight how our internal and external struggles are related to each other. If we want to fight for social justice we need to take care of ourselves in that process and do the inner work that is necessary to become aware of how we perpetuate justice or injustice in our own lives.

Inspired by the three day bank holiday this weekend (in the UK), I have put together this short course in contemplative self-care which consists of three short activities a day, for three days.

It includes short meditations, reading poetry and other contemplative resources that I hope you will find restorative or interesting in some way. There is no particular expected outcome, I just hope it might be a useful exploration, a welcome pause and a fresh source of inspiration. Feel free to experiment – if you want to only do one activity a day then great. If you find one you like and want to repeat it then do so.

I have put this together quite quickly so if you have any feedback or questions please do comment below. I’d like to know what you think.

To enter the course click here.

Happy exploring

Caroline

Thoughts from last year’s Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium participants

Creating our Open Space agenda, Emerson College 2018

As you are probably aware, a few weeks ago we opened the booking for the 2019 Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium in September 2019 – ‘Contemplative pedagogy in higher education: building confidence and community

We know that committing to come to a four day symposium is a big ask. Many of us work in pressurised environments and we want to know what we are going to learn and get out of that time. The way that we organise the Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium may not help with this anxiety – no list of key note speakers is provided, no specific topics for exploration are identified or learning outcomes guaranteed.

In recognition of this Siobhan contacted last years participants and some of them have been kind enough, with the benefit of 10 months to reflect, to share some thoughts on why they were pleased they attended.

Please take the time to look through the Sway presentation she has put together if this is of interest to you. Thanks for your work on this Siobhan.

If you have any questions do comment below or get in touch.

Warm wishes Caroline

Feedback a year on
In 2018 the Contemplative Pedagogy Network ran a four-day symposium for educators, which focused on how contemplative pedagogy could be embedded in higher education.
Go to this Sway

Applying contemplative pedagogy at the University of Essex

I was pretty shocked to realise that the last blog was back in February. I hope you are all doing well.

This is going to be very brief but I wanted to share with you the resources I have generated during my recent ‘Applying Contemplative Pedagogy’ series here at Essex. The descriptions of each workshop are in the image below.

I have uploaded the four presentations that I put together for these sessions. These don’t include a detailed breakdown of what we did (these only existed in my mind!) but you may still find them useful. Please feel free to share and use as you see fit. If you have any questions please comment below and I will do my best to respond.

Best wishes, Caroline

Update – I realised it might be helpful to see the description of each session along with the learning outcomes. I have now uploaded the document with that information too.

University of Winchester Student Contemplative Community

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Many thanks to Dr Terry Biddington, University of Winchester, for contributing this really encouraging blog about the work they are doing in supporting students to explore their spiritual lives, whatever their beliefs. A brilliant example of contemplative community.

Some years ago a conversation began here about setting up an interfaith community of students and staff who would meet together, to think about what it might look and feel like, to live and work together and address some of the stereotypical thinking that exists between, and about, the great faiths of the world. Now, several years, later a new community has been launched: a Student Contemplative Community.

During Freshers’ week the university’s Dean of Spiritual Life sent out a call: “tell us about your spiritual self! With free pizza and the coolest jazz music!”

The result was 70 students – mostly Atheists and Humanists- who wanted to talk about what made them tick spiritually. While we were surprised by the take-up, and the sheer energy in the room, this needs to be set against the background of a student survey the previous year that indicated a significant number of students were choosing Winchester because of our stated interest in valuing spirituality: whatever form it took.

A large number of these students expressed interest in meeting together to share silence, contemplate, meditate – and be together. Without preconditions. A kind of contemplative community was imagined. So a second call went out:

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As of today we have a small but growing community of students – Pagan, Buddhist, Christian, Atheist, “Spiritual Seeker,” Agnostic, Kabbalist – who meet together twice a week. Monday mornings for breakfast together, followed by 30 minutes’ silence and Friday mid-morning for a further 30 minutes. The group is now usually student-led, though we have set up the community with staff involvement too. There are five mentors – Muslim, Atheist, Buddhist, Christian and Pagan – whose job is to ensure no one perspective dominates the group and also to share personal stories, practices and advice.

The students have now decided to add Wednesday afternoons into the life of the group, with volunteering with a local homeless project alternating with input from the mentors and other visitors. Everyone values the importance of connecting meditation with social justice.

Last weekend we enjoyed the gift of a free retreat in the New Forest: home-cooking, shared silence, deep conversation and long walks with fresh country air. We plan to visit a Buddhist monastery together in this coming autumn. We are immensely grateful to the generosity of a friend of the University who is funding our work.

The icing on the cake? Since ‘spirituality’ is one of the University’s values (along with ‘individuals matter’ and ‘compassion’) the senior management has offered the former Principal’s house as a base for a residential student contemplative community within the next few years.

This work is but part of the contemplative pedagogy work currently emerging –burgeoning!- at Winchester. Academics, professional support staff, and of course the students, are coming together in unexpected, creative and breath-taking ways to explore what spirituality means: for each other personally, as something for the classroom, and for shaping new approaches to teaching and learning and curriculum design.

We look forward to sharing with and learning from others in the Contemplative Pedagogy Network!

Dr Terry Biddington

Dean of Spiritual Life, University of Winchester, Terry.biddington@winchester.ac.uk

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