More tips and research on emotional mastery - how it can help us to resist political manipulation, and be better activists
We have a strong archive on A/UK examining the relationship between practices of emotional and internal self-mastery (or at least awareness), and a better politics. This means both a politics we can create and see ourselves in, and a politics from the big operators that seeks to press our reactive buttons.
…Psychological studies do seem to indicate that mindfulness reduces the negative impact of stress on all manner of human cognitive, emotional and behavioural capacities. It’s clear that stress can make us say things we wish we hadn't. By contrast, when we feel ourselves, we have more time for others and are better able to understand what is going on for them. Helping others makes us feel better. Reducing stress improves mood; improving mood will make it easier for us to be kind and caring; and being kind and caring makes us feel good.
Since mindfulness does have these effects, it would not be unreasonable to expect that mindfulness could have a collective impact if it were practiced en masse. Empirical evidence already suggests that when mindfulness is taught in the workplace there are positive effects on organisational culture.
For example, around 10% of staff at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham (UK) had improved ‘Basic Psychological Needs at Work Scale’ scores after mindfulness training, a measure that includes autonomy, competence and crucially, relatedness.
If such programmes can work at this level then they should be able to operate at a larger scale too, though this is more difficult because pro-social behaviour is more obviously advantageous in a contained social group. But logically, the more personal and interpersonal skills people have, the more likely they are to value collective good above short-term self-interest.
Letting go of the need to account for cost and benefits is a liberating experience that gives us a sense of limitless possibilities in a universe built out of the substance of love – a much more powerful frame for mindfulness than mere therapy.
…Mindfulness can never be value-free. It always comes in a package of values and beliefs that are either explicit or implicit. The most powerful potential of mindfulness is not that it may help us to cope with the stress of modern living, but that it may help us to wake up to the implicit beliefs and values that shape our identity and drive our behaviour.
Every human capacity exists in a social context. As therapy, mindfulness is taught within a set of ideas that are defined by therapeutic practice. There is an implicit assumption that each of us as individuals can manage our mental wellbeing, if we choose to do so, and that we are psychological beings whose experience is an individualised subjective process.
Any group then becomes a cost-effective means of delivering instructions. When a mindfulness course finishes, people go back to their separate lives with their new coping skills to carry on with a little less distress.
In the context of the contemporary challenges we face this is obviously unsatisfactory, so how can mindfulness be applied in ways that facilitate collective action? The answer is to teach it in ways that help people to understand, not only themselves but also how others think and feel. We need to apply mindfulness to a model of a socially-constructed self to understand how the self we construct changes and behaves in different social contexts.
When we feel socially threatened, we become obsessed with self-definition, self-preservation and self-improvement. We struggle to question our assumptions and define others by their differences so that they become a source of threat, making it easier for sociopathic leaders to divide and rule.
So we need to apply mindfulness to become consciously aware of these tendencies, and choose to invest our sense of identity in more inclusive values. That will help us to build cooperative alliances that enable us to act together in the public interest.
In this way, we can apply social mindfulness to transform the stress of the powerlessness we experience as individuals into the energy and resilience that come from building collaborative relationships defined by a collective identity – an identity that enables us to work together in the service of our planet’s survival.
Probably “staying calm”, in the face of overt provocations and covert triggering, is one of the best mental outcomes you might have from a “social mindfulness”. The ever-curious George Monbiot, in his Guardian column, outlines what we have to do as we face a range of psychologically-literate populists, who calculate on controversy and polarisation shutting our brains down.
Security is what psychologists call a classic “deficit value”: one whose importance to us escalates when we feel it is deficient, shutting out other values. This allows the very people who made us insecure to present themselves as the “strongmen” to whom we can turn for refuge from the chaos they created.
Disturbingly, a survey by the Hansard Society in April revealed that 54% of respondents now agree with the statement “Britain needs a strong ruler willing to break the rules”, while only 23% disagree.
I suspect the demagogues – or their advisers – know what they’re doing. Either instinctively or explicitly, they understand the irrational ways in which we react to threat, and know that, to win, they must stop us from thinking.
Why does Johnson appear to want a no-deal Brexit so badly? Perhaps because it generates the stress and threat responses on which his success depends. If we don’t break this spiral, it could drag us down to a very dark place indeed.
So what can we do? How, in particular, do we discuss genuinely alarming situations, such as Brexit or climate breakdown, without triggering threat reactions? The first thing the science tells us is this: treat everyone with respect. The stupidest thing you can possibly do, if you want to save democracy, is to call your opponent gammon.
Never get drawn into a shouting match, however offensive the other person might be. Don’t be distracted by attempts to manufacture outrage: bring the conversation back to the topics you want to discuss.
We should emulate the calm strength with which Greta Thunberg responds to the tidal wave of nastiness she faces: “As you may have noticed, the haters are as active as ever – going after me, my looks, my clothes, my behaviour and my differences ... But don’t waste your time giving them any more attention.”
After studying the success or failure of other political movements, Extinction Rebellion has developed a protocol for activism that looks like a model of good political psychology.
It uses humour to deflect aggression, distributes leaflets explaining the action and apologising for the disruption, trains activists to resist provocation, and runs de-escalation workshops, teaching people to translate potential confrontations into reasoned conversation.
It urges “active respect” towards everyone, including the police. By setting up people’s assemblies, it seeks to create a civic space in which other voices can be heard.
As another paper by Stephen Porges, the neuroscientist whose work has done so much to explain our reflexes, points out, our brains don’t allow us to experience compassion for others until we feel safe. Creating calm spaces in which to explore our differences is an essential step towards rebuilding democratic life.
All this might sound like common sense. It is. But understanding how our minds function helps us to see when they are unconsciously working for the demagogues. Breaking the spiral means restoring the mental state that allows us to think.
All that we would add to the bolded line above - based on our collaboratory experiments and experiences - is that those “calm spaces” can also be convivial, interactive, artistic spaces too. This can be a complement to the “calm” that a citizens assembly process can initiate. We mean some extra or parallel event, which might allow for safe collective dreaming and fantasy, a permission to imagine something bigger and better for the community at hand.