Economic systems are faltering, climate change will displace billions, social inequity and migration threaten political stability across the world. In spite of increasing understanding of the threat we face, we are failing to control the forces that are driving humanity over a cliff to collective disaster.
Humans have survived as a species because they cooperated with each other. Cycles of birth, life and death took place within community. Individual survival was dependent on the group. Individuals that contributed to the collective interest gained status but individuals who placed self-interest before the group risked rejection.
Today our behaviour is the enemy but we don’t seem to be able to work together to protect ourselves. Instead we bury our heads in the sand and continue striving for personal success.
Hunters shared the kill. Matriarchal networks shared forage to survive from day to day, supporting mothers and rearing children. Leaders gained respect because they made sure that resources were distributed fairly and daily needs were satisfied. Young warriors protected the tribe from attack.
Today, self-interest and social inequity fuel unsustainable levels of consumption. Fear of disadvantage is driving behaviour based on self-interest, threatening our collective survival. Today our behaviour is the enemy but we don’t seem to be able to work together to protect ourselves. Instead we bury our heads in the sand and continue striving for personal success.
We need to find ways that encourage sharing what we have, rather than accumulating wealth for personal security and status.
If we are to survive as a species we need to find ways of changing our behaviour that will create greater reliance on community and reduce the threat of social disadvantage. We need to find ways that encourage sharing what we have, rather than accumulating wealth for personal security and status.
Since the development of Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy for depression, there has been an explosion of interest in mindfulness as a therapy for psychological distress. Mindfulness also improves wellbeing, relationships and cognitive function. Now it’s increasingly seen as a means to reduce stress and improve performance at work.
The cost of mental illness is unsustainable economically, not to mention the human suffering it causes. It can’t be denied that reducing mental illness is a good thing but could mass access to mindfulness courses foster behaviour that would reduce social injustice and resource consumption to sustainable levels?
Chronic stress negatively affects well being as well as the way we relate to others and our capacity to think clearly. To the extent that mindfulness training reduces stress, it improves well being, relationships and our capacity to think clearly. If mindfulness training was accessible across society, could stress reduction bring about change or would it just help people to carry on doing what they are already doing, more effectively, driving the economic forces behind ever increasing social injustice and destroying the planet?
Historically Buddhist meditation was a method of training the heart, mind and body to escape from endless cycles of rebirth. In Buddhism, mindfulness fits into a mosaic of teachings, which have quite different intentions to those in which mindfulness is now being taught. In Buddhism, mindfulness is a factor of enlightenment. Mindfulness meditation, as we know it today, is a modern idea.
Modern mindfulness meditation combines a new approach developed in Burma around the turn of the twentieth century with Zen, which evolved in China in the first millennium CE. The new Burmese form of meditation was taught to lay Buddhists to safeguard Burmese Buddhist identity when Burmese institutions of state were crumbling in the colonial period. Zen emerged when Buddhism migrated to China. Both these forms simplified teaching to make them more accessible in a new social context.
This new Burmese system of meditation was claimed to give insight into the nature of the mind by observing experience. This approach then became a method for understanding psychological processes, which then could be used as a therapeutic intervention.
Zen is less analytical in its approach but is similar in a number of ways. Zen claims to produce realisation that naturally arises when the mind is absorbed in present moment experience. In the modern Burmese style and in Zen, attention is directed to body based sensations reducing mental activity. Modern approaches to mindfulness reduce patterns of destructive emotions by redirecting attention from thinking to physical sensations, interrupting thinking and diffusing feedback between thinking and emotions. This is helpful when thoughts and emotions create stress, worry and depression, however, emotions and thinking are not always a bad thing!
Directing attention to sensations can be used to diffuse emotions in any context. Zen meditation has been closely connected with the development of martial arts. In the Second World War, mindfulness in the act of war was used to encourage self-sacrifice in service of the collective vision of Japanese imperialism and the deified person of the Emperor.
Today the vision of society is based on an ideal of individual freedom prosperity. In reality we have created a society built on an economic system that is dependent on ever increasing levels of debt, consumption and social inequality yet we are experiencing ever increasing mental ill-health. Thomas S. Szasz, Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus at State University of New York Health Science Center in Syracuse, believes “we have, in our day, witnessed the birth of the Therapeutic State. This is perhaps the major implication of psychiatry as an institution of social control.” As in Japan in the Second World War, there is a risk that mindfulness as a self-help therapy will be nothing more than a tool of social control if we don’t tackle the social and economic conditions that cause the problem in the first place.
We need to make judgements about how to act and we need to act with intention. We need to think for ourselves. How do we make sure that mindfulness is not divorced from ethics in society?
Mindfulness does makes us more aware of our feelings and those of others around us, which makes us act in more caring ways. If mindfulness training is really going to have a significant effect across society, people have to engage with it in new ways. How many people will be motivated to meditate to reduce stress and enhance performance? Will this make a better world?
Inequality in society drives fear of disadvantage and fear drives self-interest. Fear and self-interest place profit before people.
While mindfulness as a therapy is no bad thing, the promise of significant benefits to society that mass access to mindfulness training could provide are by no means certain. If mindfulness is going to change people’s behaviour on a scale that will make a difference, people will need a deeper sense of meaning.
Inequality in society drives fear of disadvantage and fear drives self-interest. Fear and self-interest place profit before people. People compete for material rewards that give them status defined by material wealth. Conditions in modern society create pressure to acquire and consume more than we need. As a result, people are not only unhappy, unhealthy and socially disconnected, they are less adaptable, less creative and less productive. If we do not change, change will be forced on us by economic collapse, political instability and climate change.
If mindfulness is going to change people’s behaviour on a scale that will make a difference, people will need a deeper sense of meaning.
There is a vision of hope. On an individual basis, mindfulness reduces stress, improves relationships and enhances performance but to change society, mindfulness not only needs to be more accessible, better explained and better taught, it needs to be part of a vision for a better world. This will help people engage in positive ways but this vision will have much more impact if people in communities and organisations make mindfulness part of their collective activity. Collectively, this vision will create a culture where quality of life based on human values is given priority over profit and self-interest. This will create the conditions that will encourage collaboration, resource sharing and social cohesion, which will enable us to adapt and thrive.
The M4C vision is to open a cafe space with a workshop to run mindfulness training courses, events and meditation classes to give people a physical presence where they can meet. The idea is that this will create a space where people can network to support each other and then take this vision of change out into wider society. To get the ball rolling, we’re building an online community and putting on courses and events on a pop-up basis. You too can be part of this vision. Sign up and join in.
If you share our vision, you could become part of the M4C collective and/or you could help with PR, admin, financial management or arranging a course near you or at your workplace. If you would like to get involved in any way, please email hello(at)mindfulness4change.com.