THE MOST BRILLIANT, lastingly fine ideas have both endured and flourished because they solve perennial problems in the purist of ways. They’re the sort of things most of us can’t imagine living without. The sort of inventions we take for granted; that feel almost like they were “discovered”, rather than dreamed-up. As if the dots were already there in the ether — and it just took the right minds and circumstances to join them up.
Imagine a world without representative government, glass, electricity, indoor plumbing, the minimum wage or universal healthcare (okay we still have a fair way to go).
All great ways to solve fundamental problems and that have spread to ever more people on the planet over the years. Ideas that have been re-worked, re-imagined and re-packaged; that have been continuously nuanced and improved.
In the digital era meanwhile we tend to think of “the new” having to do with technology rather than anything else. We’ve come to think that advances necessarily come from our minds rather than to do with the very thing that has dreamed the advances up — the mind itself.
And then along comes mindfulness training to tell us that that not only is the mind workable but that neurological changes can be affected by some fundamentally straightforward techniques available to us all.
It’s an enormously powerful and alluring idea and no wonder there’s so much positive momentum behind it, not the least because, on face value, it seems so deceptively simple and effective.
But so too are the inevitable complexities and possible pitfalls with something suddenly so popular — like the possibilities of exploitation or blind acceptance — so it’s important that mindfulness be seen through open eyes, rather than rose-coloured glasses.
Not that mindfulness is anything new of course, it being an essentialised set of meditative techniques practiced and taught in any number of philosophical and religious traditions, that have been around in various forms for millenia.
“Mindfulness” in its present incarnation is a technique that comes to us from Buddhism and was distilled as Mindful Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) by Jon Kabat Zinn.
The training has had spectacular success in recent years — and for good reason — studies have shown it to be effective for stress reduction, focus, pain management, improved sleep and working with difficult emotions.
But that isn’t to say it’s a panacea — that can be taught by anyone — that can salve all of our individual, societal and organisational ills.
In fact it has, like anything, a shadow side. And indeed many of the potential problems come as a consequence of over-simplification and commodification of this ancient technique.
I touched briefly on the dangers of commodification last week, with perhaps the most pertinent comment coming from author and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard who said that learning mindfulness is no guarantee of ethical behaviour: “there can be mindful snipers and mindful psychopaths who maintain a calm and stable mind”.
Mindfulness might have sprung from teachings designed to help individuals awaken from self-centredness and delusion but mindfulness as a bare technique is sometimes targeted at different means entirely — particularly in a corporate context.
“Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion,” Ron Purser and David Loy have written, “it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.”
Of all its benefits it is stress relief and attention-enhancement that have been the ones picked up and promoted by the media and modern corporations. It’s the staff performance benefits that make it attractive in a landscape driven by the profit motive.
This is a long way divorced from its origins. Meanwhile when it comes to questions of stress it has been argued that corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because “it conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employee: stress is framed as a personal problem,” say Purser and Loy, “and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments.”
Stress relief and the nature of self
The other point that’s not always underlined about mindfulness is that it springs from a spiritual and ethical tradition — Buddhism — that isn’t directed at an egoic or therapeutic search for calm, tranquillity and stress relief but a search for meaning via a radical investigation into the nature of reality and self.
The positive effects of stress reduction, focus, pain management, improved sleep and the ability to work with emotions can be the results of mindfulness practice but, as some point out, the possible side effects for the few are sometimes glossed over.
“After all, sitting in silence, focusing on your breathing or being aware of the flow of thoughts and feelings would seem like a fairly innocuous activity with little potential for harm,” write the authors of The Buddha Pill, Miguel Farlas and Catherine Wilkholm
“But considering that many of us rarely sit alone with our thoughts, it isn’t hard to see how this might lead to difficult thoughts and emotions rising to the surface for some people – which we may, or may not, be equipped to deal with.”
The mindfulness revolution has great benefits for individuals and for society at large, but if divorced from an ethical framework or taught with questionable motives or by those ill-equipped to cope with the risings that can sometimes come then it is, perhaps, more mindless than the altruistically mindful training, we might optimistically hope it to be.
“To protect the practice of mindfulness from any deviations, a clear component of altruism needs to be embedded from the start,” he says. “We need to systematically refer to ‘caring mindfulness’.”
“Doing so offers a very potent, secular way to cultivate benevolence and promote a more altruistic society, while cultivating mindfulness at all times. To be fully transformative, the mindfulness revolution has to go hand and hand with the altruism revolution.”
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Image by Jared Rodriguez from Flickr.com and reproduced under a Creative Commons license.