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Mindfulness: A strategy for social engagement?

Mindfulness: A strategy for social engagement?

People who read my blogs and other writing will know that one of the things I’m heavily into is  mindfulness. This is, broadly speaking, the practice of cultivating awareness, often through meditation where you gently focus on your breath going in and out, or on the sounds around you, or on your bodily sensations as you walk very slowly back and forth.

My excitement about mindfulness may seem a bit peculiar to those who know that the other areas which I’m passionately engaged in are all very social: issues around relationship structures, discrimination of marginalised groups in society, and power and conflict. Mindfulness seems such an internal, individual thing, how can it possibly be relevant to these matters. As somebody asked in an Open University seminar on the topic: ‘where is the social?’

Such questions were the motivation behind a weekend workshop/retreat which I attended earlier this month. Steven Stanley and I put together the weekend with a group of colleagues to address the question of social mindfulness. The weekend consisted of a combination of periods of meditation and other mindful-type practices (such as Qigong), together with presentations and discussions linking mindfulness to various social issues including sustainability, interpersonal and intergroup conflict, prejudice and discrimination, mental health and communication.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the weekend was the way in which the kinds of challenges we were discussing were so live within the group itself. Perhaps – particularly as a relationship therapist – I should have expected that these psychosocial issues would come up in the process of our interactions as well as in the contentof them. But I really didn’t anticipate it, and I found it tough indeed to notice how much my thoughts, when meditating, kept returning to niggles about my exchanges with other people, and how many of our group discussions themselves became conflictual or manifested some of the very power dynamics which we were trying so hard to address.

Mindfulness retreats, in my experience, are often humbling experiences in this way: in the silence and stillness we are forced to confront the kinds of petty judging and competitiveness that we fall into a lot of the time, and it is not a comfortable experience. At times I found it frustrating. Perhaps on some level I wanted us to prove to everyone how socially beneficial mindfulness could be by having some wonderfully experience of perfect connection, simply because we were all being so mindful! But perhaps what really happened was a lot more useful because it reminded us that what we really were was just a group of human beings, with all the messiness that entails. The inevitable tensions, scratchiness, miscommunications and disengagements – if we are courageous enough to face them – provide a perfect arena for thinking about how all our mindful ideas and practices could usefully be brought to bear on other social situations.

In my next two blogs I want to focus on two tensions, which emerged for me, from the weekend, which I think are key to this question of how mindfulness ways of understanding the world, and living our lives, might be useful in terms of wider social issues. The first is about whether we focus inwards on ourselves or outwards on the world around us. The second is about a tension between kindness and honesty. In both cases, of course, these are not mutually exclusive things, and perhaps the important shift is from an either/or way of seeing them (either I can focus inwards or outwards, either I can be kind or I can be honest) to a both/and way of embracing each ‘side’, or perhaps bringing them into dialogue with each other, or seeing what it is like to oscillate between them like a pendulum rather than prioritising one ‘side’ over the other.

Focus inwards / focus outwards

Perhaps the most interesting discussion of the weekend, for me, was one about internal or external focus.

Some of us found ourselves arguing for the social benefits of very internal mindfulness practices because – if we do not look into ourselves in this way – we may well find ourselves intervening with others in ways that are harmful to them. One way in which we are all social is that our exchanges and interactions over the years (with close friends, wider groups and society at large), leave us with painful feelings, fears about ourselves, and uncomfortable habits. For example, we may have grown up in a family where it was expected that everyone be tough, or we may have been bullied at school for being a misfit, or we may have taken on board a wider societal habit of judging people by their appearances. If we are not aware of these things we may find ourselves just acting on them when we interact with others (e.g. trying to be the tough guy all the time). Or we might try to suppress them and keep them hidden, but find that they blurt out, or that we project them onto other people (e.g. using an appearance word like ‘fat’ as an insult without meaning to, or viewing somebody else as a misfit because we’re trying not to be one ourselves).

The extreme ‘internal’ position might be that putting our ‘stuff’ onto other people like this is so inevitable that the best thing we can do is to focus inwardly a lot, and just endeavour not to cause harm in these ways. Trying to intervene with others is just too dangerous and will likely involve us imposing ourselves, or our society, onto them in ways that are deeply problematic because we can’t ever know enough about their situation.

Perhaps the opposite view to this is to see the social benefits only of external practices where we do actually go out into the world and intervene. This view might look at internal practices, such as meditation, and ask what good they are doing. In a world where there is so much suffering, meditation, therapy and the like seem like incredibly privileged activities, only available to a few who have the necessary time and resources. They can also appear like a kind of self-indulgent naval-gazing which encourage us to focus inwards on self-improvement or on beating ourselves up, instead of outwards on activities which might actually diminish suffering or help other people. Wouldn’t it be better if all the time, energy and resources spent on such internal-focused practices was put into activism or directed towards those with greater needs?

The extreme ‘external’ position might be to focus entirely on intervention: to get out into the world and find out what the most pressing issues are (the threat to the environment perhaps, or poverty, or war), to develop our skills and knowledge in these areas, and to do something which might be of help. External mindfulness practices might take the form of encouraging people into mindful dialogue to resolve conflict (for example, by teaching listening practices), or they might be ways of increasing sustainability through encouraging awareness of ‘conditioned arising’ (e.g. where the pair of jeans we see in the supermarket came from, and what the impact is of buying them).

The well known mindfulness teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, was presented with just this challenge of inner or outer focus. In the 1970s a monk asked him what the best response was to the crisis of refugees in Vietnam after the war: should the monks stay in their monastery and meditate, or should they get out there and try to feed and house the refugees. Thich Nhat Hanh responded that they should do both, and his book The Miracle of Mindfulnesswas written as a fuller response to this social issue. This is why the book focuses on bringing mindfulness into all our daily activities, rather than it just being something that we do sitting on a cushion.

Steven Batchelor, in Buddhism Without Beliefs, also emphasises a kind of oscillation between retreat and engagement. He says that our practice cannot be abstracted from the way in which we interact with the world, which needs to be with integrity, but perhaps we cannot know what the ethical way to act is if we do not take time to tune into ourselves and to consider others with empathy. However, we can never reach a certainty of the impact our actions will have, so we have to act, to be open to learning from our mistakes, to notice when our habits kick in when we are acting on self-interest, and then to act again, attempting to avoid this.

‘At times we may concentrate on the specifics of material existence: creating a livelihood that is in accord with our deepest values and aspirations. At times we may retreat: disentangling ourselves from social and psychological pressures in order to reconsider our life in a quiet and supportive setting. At times we may engage with the world: responding empathetically and creatively to the anguish of others’ (Batchelor, 1997, p.42).

Perhaps it is useful, also, to be aware of the risk of meditation – and other more ‘inner’ focused practices – to become a mode of self-monitoring, done with the aim of self-improvement, which takes us away from engagement with others, as well as of the risk that externally focused activities may be done in a way that hurts others if we do not attempt to be aware of what we bring to those situations in terms of our personal hopes and fears.

My next post will focus on another tension from the weekend – that around kindness and honesty. I’ll also conclude with a summary of social mindfulness and some places to read more.


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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