Mindfulness can give you personal sovereignty - and also direct your attention to the social and political challenges that matter
Since the beginning of A/UK, we have been interested in mindfulness - the practice of mental self-awareness - as a possible new resource for a better public life and politics.
We live in an age of technologically-enhanced and psychologically-literate populisms. Operators and outfits claim to be able to hit our deep emotional buttons, and get us to react they way they want, before we’re even really aware that we have reacted.
Our argument has been: if we can find some extra mental strengths to resist these manipulations, and not be as easily triggerable, then we have a change of being able to decide what we really want to do with our personal and collective lives.
As you’ll know, at A/UK we think reinvigorated and active localities—aware of the planetary climate and automation crisis—wlll present the kind of reality and challenge that can turn us away from being just “mindshare” for corporate or state “psychographics”. That’s the “We” and “World” of our “I - We - World” framework.
But the “I”—individuals possessing themselves strongly enough so that they can even see the possibility of a shift—is where mindfulness (but also the arts, and other self-work) comes in.
We’ve featured the work of the Mindfulness Institute’s Jamie Bristow a few times here - his work with Westminster’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness (MAPPG) has really begin to bring it into the heart of policy-making in the UK government.
But there have been some interesting push-backs recently on whether mindfulness is as much of a contribution to social and economic justice as its advocates claim. We’ve run blogs on Ronald Purser’s McMindfulness book, which worries that mindfulness has to be social and civic, not just about “destressing” and “being in the moment”.
Jamie’s current piece in Open Democracy quite brilliantly takes on all of these points. Best to read the whole item, but here’s his main responses to the challenges:
Is positive psychology and therapeutic approaches to distress on one side, and social and system change on the other?
At this crisis point where 20th Century solutions no longer serve us, we can’t afford false binaries like this. Now is the time for ‘both/and’ thinking that can hold systemic and psychological lenses in creative tension with one another.
The profound entanglement of individual and collective forces entails, not only that structural conditions shape our personal motivations, but also that personal development is required for cultural development towards a more emotionally-intelligent, compassionate and just society.
Any hope of generating effective, appropriate and collective responses to the radical interconnectivity of life with all its volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous implications, requires that we grow up.
Growing up doesn’t stop at the age of 18. We develop continuously, and certain conditions and behaviours can accelerate, slow or limit that process.
Attempts to map and measure how adults develop psychological maturity and complexity show that those at later ‘stages’ are, for example, more able to hold nuance, synthesise ideas, interrogate their values and understand themselves.
The more that people are helped to heal widespread barriers to growth such as inter-generational trauma, and the more support that is given to them to learn from life’s trials, the better equipped we will be to meet the challenges we face.
This is vital if we are to resist polarising political rhetoric and manipulation, and ensure that any action we take is likely to be effective. If we haven’t matured to the point where we can acknowledge the influence of our unconscious human drives, emotions and mechanisms of self-deceit, then our attempts to help others or solve problems can be radically counter-productive.
Inner actions might be invisible, but they are nonetheless real actions with real effects. Neglecting this arena has consequences that are every bit as serious as neglecting to organise, protest and campaign.
What more can mindfulness bring than just “destressing” and “being in the moment”?
The ability to choose where and how to pay attention grounds our agency. Far from galvanizing mass action, distress in the digital age is more frequently manipulated by ‘attention merchants’ who sell us myriad ways to distract and numb ourselves.
Developing a greater awareness of these patterns through mindfulness, and strengthening the mental power to resist being pulled in all directions by corporations, isn’t just self-defence - it’s an act of emancipation.
Thus liberated, more attention is available to analyse new or discordant information and stay alive to opportunities for more positive engagement.
As humanity’s ability to make an impact on the world gallops ahead of our capacity to make sense of it, mindfulness enables us to reorient attention towards our object of choice, and also to recruit more and different ways of perceiving.
By fighting less with our present moment experience and cultivating openness, we are more able to tune in to what is really going on, resist bias and respond appropriately.
As practitioners connect more deeply with the body as a source of insight, for example, non-conceptual ways of knowing offer a basis for discerning action that may be more aligned with what they value most.
Whilst reactivity has always been a feature in the exchange of ideas, the contemporary pressure to respond quickly and publicly to everything means that discourse is increasingly antagonistic and distorted.
We need the development of ‘meta-cognitive awareness’ (the ability to recognise and be aware of one's own mental processes) through mindfulness practice, and the emphasis on responding creatively rather than reacting impulsively. For these have important consequences for political polarisation and the productivity of public debate.
Taken together, these capacities of directing attention, making sense and relating constructively correlate strongly with what the polymath thought-leader Jordan Hall calls ‘sovereignty’ - our ability to “respond to the world rather than to be overwhelmed.” [Editor: the idea of self-sovereign identity is being deeply explore by blockchainers - see this A/UK blog].
More here. Jamie’s perspective that mindfulness helps direct attention to what really matters, for an individual’s politics or ethics, is useful. But it’s a big, wide and ancient field - and cultural context can mean everything.
This Aeon piece from Sahanika Ratnayake worries that mindful practice itself - which encourages that thoughts and feelings should be “detached” from, and has roots in Buddhist “no-self” philosophy - can estrange your from your emotional life, underplaying the signals and indicators it gives you about yourself in the world.
Again, Jamie responds that the either/or here is inappropriate - and perhaps even time-wasting:
We may choose to respond to the world by attempting to shape it justly and compassionately. And we may seek to manage our distress and increase our agency, discernment and self-understanding. To set these complementary actions at odds with each other is a waste of time we do not have.
After seven years of studying mindfulness training across many different sectors of society, I know that creating change is a whole lot messier than getting people onto the meditation cushion. But it’s also more complicated than insisting that social structures change above or before anything else.
We must consider both our context and our healing, our embeddedness and our sovereignty. Despite wearyingly frequent reports to the contrary, the field of mindfulness does not suffer from the delusion that training is a panacea.
But it is an indispensable tool among the many we need to be equal to the extraordinary challenges of our time.