Making mindfulness more mindful

I first explored the link between mindfulness and behaviour change through a research project that Rachel Lilley and Mark Whitehead (with other colleagues) ran while I worked at Global Action PlanMindfulness, Behaviour Change and Engagement in Environmental Policy. I thought the topic was fascinating and enjoyed being challenged about how mindfulness linked to how I behave, and also how we can work in a mindful way with others to help them to make changes. It was fascinating to be part of a study looking at how mindfulness could be used by behaviour change practitioners in three very different organisations – GAP, Welsh Government and Ogilvy & Mather.

So, it was great to catch up again and explore things further, in a webcall that I felt sure would result in a set of circles something like this:

  • Mindfulness
  • Behaviour change
  • Environment

I’m glad that things didn’t develop along these predictable lines, although it was a good starting point.

The first theme to jump out was that of definition – what do we mean by mindfulness? It’s a term that has become increasingly frequent in the media and we can have long conversations with people without realising that we mean quite different things. I’m certainly guilty of this – I have a keen interest, but have dabbled, rather than committing to a specific form of practice. My interest came initially through taking part in a Christian silent prayer retreat.

Rachel asked a few pertinent questions – does mindfulness mean calming our overactive nervous systems – hugely beneficial, but not all that mindfulness is about. Does it mean becoming more embodied, i.e. present in our own bodies, with the feelings that we have and in the situations where we find ourselves. Or even, does mindfulness mean being ‘in flow’, dancing, journaling, going for a walk? Or is it about specific practices, about a 10-day silent retreat?

Much of this depends on the route that we have approached mindfulness from, whether this is secular Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, religious mindfulness or just through a newspaper article or bestselling colouring book.

Which brings us to depth. There are so many physical and emotional benefits to being more mindful – to taking more time to be still, to stop, to notice our feelings and what is happening right now. But there is the potential for greater change and transformation for those who engage more deeply with mindfulness, and in particular with a specific and ongoing contemplative practice.

This led directly to the theme of enquiry. As Rachel expressed it,

“Buddhist mindfulness is about self-enquiry, it’s about seeing through deluded states. I would question whether people see through deluded states through dancing or even walking, although they might feel calmer and a bit more settled… It’s that real cutting through, which is why I believe it’s linked to behaviour change, but only if people see it as that.”

In a Buddhist sense (as I understand it) this is about recognising the world for what it is, and what it is not. And Mark’s view is that

“as an academic the definition of your job is enquiry. We’re never really told how to enquire.  We’re told how to research, but that’s not really enquiry. … The one word I’d add to that is critical enquiry and that’s one thing that mindfulness has enabled me to do a lot more effectively.”

Mindfulness - definition, depth, enquiry

So, while being more mindful may improve my stress levels, enable me to be more present and help me engage more meaningfully with others it won’t necessarily change the way I do things, or see things, or challenge my preconceptions or unconscious biases. This doesn’t mean it is worthless, but does indicate that the impact is limited, that I miss the opportunity to be changed.

From our conversation I do feel that enquiry is a powerful concept to consider. It overcomes some of the criticisms that have been levelled at mindfulness, summarised well in the BBC Radio 4 programme Mindfulness Panacea or Fad? – that mindfulness programmes can be seen as a way to make people more passive, or simply to improve business productivity and efficiency. But what if mindful employees and citizens enquire more, ask more questions and challenge the accepted norms and preconceptions more critically?

There is a lot more to explore from our conversation, and I will be returning to other themes in a later article.

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