One of the criticisms which I increasingly come across with regards to mindfulness is that through helping people to deal with stress by engaging differently with their thoughts, rather than addressing the external cause of the stress, mindfulness further individualises suffering. The blame for suffering is placed on the person – ‘if only you could be more mindful you would not be stressed’. In so doing mindfulness detracts from the economic, social and environmental factors that are contributing to the suffering of many people.
I have felt this tension in my own work when teaching mindfulness and self-compassion to a group of health professionals over the summer. Given the very difficult and stressful circumstances that they are currently working in in the NHS, I did at times experience some internal conflict around asking them to become more mindful and compassionate in the inherently stressful environments where they experience very little compassion and ever greater demands. They were very open to the relevance of what I was teaching which was reassuring but I do remain slightly conflicted.
This article prompted me to write this blog by reminding me of these issues. It is about the potential for mindfulness in schools to turn children into robots – by equipping them with tools that will create ‘compliant students who can manage their own behavior, focus on their assignments, and calm themselves when angry or frustrated with school’ (Forbes 2015). Forbes goes on to describe how mindfulness may reinforce the concept of the ‘neoliberal self’, the idea that we should be able to live completely independently, the danger being that stress might come to be seen as a personal failure, playing down or ignoring the economic, social and institutional factors which may contribute.
Initially I felt that the author (who I knew nothing about at the time) clearly had a very narrow concept of what mindfulness was however the article goes on to develop more nuanced arguments about how mindfulness is taught. He draws attention to the danger of mindfulness being taught in such a way as to emphasise personal and academic ‘success’ at the expense of a creativity, exploration, reflection and personal development. In order to avoid this he goes on to describe how mindfulness education needs to feature as part of a critical pedagogy which raises challenging questions about social inequalities and injustice. Furthermore he emphasises the importance of compassion, reflecting the ethical basis which underpinned mindfulness in its traditional context:
‘For all of us mindfulness should be a fiercely compassionate practice in which we uncover, challenge, and transcend how our thoughts, feelings, and actions are conditioned and colonized by unhealthy cultural practices and social institutions that (re)produce greed, meanness, and delusion.‘ (Forbes 2016)
I highly recommend reading the actual article.
Overall I think he touches on issues which speak directly to the importance of aspects of contemplative pedagogy that cultivate meaningful reflection and the development of community, explore interconnectivity and compassion, and provide a space for the development of our internal lives – through mindfulness and other means.
In my own experience though, I have actually found that mindfulness has been very helpful in giving me the courage and equanimity to work for change and to speak out and take action. I am willing to acknowledge the extent of inequality and injustice more clearly than I have before as well as facing up to my own role in it. By developing wisdom about my own mental states and insight into my own delusion, I am now willing to be more vulnerable and risk criticism and as such I am much freer to take action than I have been in the past. As I have not been able to run a randomised control trial on different versions of my life I am unable to attribute this only to meditation but I am confident that it has played a large part. I think mindfulness can help to open the door to more critical engagement with the world – it is not about a numb, compliant acceptance but a deep recognition and openness to how things are. It is from this space that real change can come.
I’d love to know your thoughts on this issue as it is very pertinent to what we are doing. Please comment below.
Warm wishes Caroline