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

2 thoughts on “Mindfulness as a prosocial movement

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