Mindfulness practice is sometimes presented as a way of coping better with what society throws at us. But the implicit message is more radical and more political. What does mindfulness tell us about our society and how we might change it?
The recent cover of Time Magazine encapsulated the image that mindfulness is acquiring in our society: an attractive, blonde young woman, seemingly turns her attention inwards to find peace. The strap line reads ‘The Mindful Revolution: the science of finding focus in a stress, multi-tasking society.’ The implied message is, if you want to be part of this culture and be happy, you need to take control of what’s going on in your mind.
I have no argument with that message, nor with putting attractive faces on magazine covers – that’s just what magazines do. But the apolitical message bleaches out another, more radical, message that mindfulness practice can deliver. ‘When you start to notice what is going on in your mind, you are discovering the effect your environment and culture are having on you. If what you discover is tension and distress, you might consider changing your lifestyle, perhaps fundamentally. And you might reflect on what this tells us about our society. Something is wrong in a society that leaves people feeling like this. How can we change it?’
As a mindfulness trainer I hear the thoughts and feelings of many people from all walks of life, from serious criminals to senior executives. I hear a chorus of stress, distress and the struggle to cope. I hear many expressions of anxiety and self blame. Something is telling us that we aren’t good enough human beings and we need to struggle to be better. We feel we must work harder and cram in more stimulation if we are to keep up and be happy.
The more I hear, the more I sense the depth of our society’s problems. Poverty and inequality show up the limits of our economy; environmental degradation and climate change suggest the limits of a culture based on consuming resources. The problems in our mental economy and psychological ecology suggest that something is out of kilter in our culture as a whole and it’s messing up our minds.
The outward sign of this problem is the rising tide of mental illness. According to a report published by the Mental Health Foundation, ‘In any one year 1 in 4 British adults experience at least one mental disorder, and 1 in 6 experiences this at any given time’; while ‘among teenagers, rates of depression and anxiety have increased by 70% in the past 25 years’ (up to 2007). Some experts now speak of an epidemic of mental problems in young people.
It is hardly novel to identify these trends and we’ve seen initiatives to address them, including the work of the Happiness Movement and the government’s wellbeing agenda. I welcome these, but I want to add some reflections from my perspective as a mindfulness trainer.
- Mindfulness can help people cope better with modern living. In the UK, the NHS offers it in limited ways, but we need much wider provision in healthcare, education, skills training and the workplace. British politicians are starting to take this agenda seriously and I’m interested to see what will emerge.
- I hope mindfulness trainers take on this challenge. At present, mindfulness courses are mainly private and relatively expensive, but what we offer is needed throughout society.
- Unless we’re asking people to look at the whole of their lives, all we’re offering is a technique. It may help, but without addressing the causes of stress little will change. If lifestyle or a workplace is the problem, the mindful response may be to change or leave.
- This also suggests that, as I’ve argued before, that an eight-week course is not enough. We need to create a culture that supports mindfulness practice and even foster a more mindful culture.
- There’s a real danger that employers and organisations will use mindfulness as a palliative to help people manage conditions that would otherwise be intolerable. If the problem is systemic, the solution needs to be a change in the character of the system: the workplace itself. It’s tough to be a mindful employee when you are treated like a cog in a machine. We need to explore what a mindful organisation looks like.
- Increasing mental health problems reflect the changing nature of our society and should prompt us to ask fundamental questions about how that society operates. For example, we are exposed to millions of adverts and commercial messages in our lives. We need to ask what they doing to our minds, and if it turns out that advertising causes mental problems (and there’s evidence to suggest this), we need to treat it as a health risk, just as we treat tobacco.
What we discover when we observe our minds is the consequence of the conditions that have formed them. The immediate shift encouraged by mindfulness practice lies in the realm of subjective experience: responding with awareness rather than an automatic, emotional reaction. But mindfulness also implies changing more fundamentally the conditions that have led us to suffer, either by withdrawing from them or changing them.
In the 1970s the slogan of a wave of radical thinking declared ‘The Personal is Political’. We came to understand that matters previously considered private, like sexuality and gender relations, had a social dimension and were affected by economics, cultural debate and public policy. Forty years on, I believe we are identifying a new arena of comparable concern: our mental states. As for slogans we could say: ‘Mindfulness is political.’ ‘The mental is political.’ Or, as Sangharakshita puts it, ‘Awareness is Revolutionary.’