This article is based on a talk by Dr Steven Stanley – “Contemplative Experiments in Social Mindfulness” – at a conference called: The Mindfulness Turn in Martial, Healing and Performance Arts at the University of Huddersfield on Saturday 19 November 2016. This free event was jointly hosted by the AHRC-funded Martial Arts Studies Research Network and by the Centre for Psychophysical Performance Research and the Mindfulness and Performance project at University of Huddersfield.
“Mindfulness” is such a popular word nowadays, and it’s easy to feel we have a good understanding of what it means. But the concept is actually bursting with complexity and different angles.
In this fascinating talk, Dr Steven Stanley (Cardiff University) opened up some new ways of seeing “mindfulness”, in terms of the past, present – and future . . .
Steven talked about Thomas and Caroline Rhys Davids, who were instrumental in introducing Buddhism to the West in the early twentieth century. Thomas predicted that Buddhism would become very popular in Europe, but wrongly believed that it would mainly influence us on social issues.
In fact, Buddhism has become popularised here as “mindfulness”, which is often associated with improving mental health and the so-called “science of happiness”.
Steven explained that Buddhism has a magnificent history which is all too often forgotten or disregarded these days. Buddhism as we know it is more of a Western invention, with many fundamental elements stripped out, or reshaped to fit with Western values and culture.
The word “mindfulness” is a very crude translation of the Pali word sati, which has a meaning of “to remember” or ” to bear in mind”. Sati connotes remembering the sacred texts and the dharma, to help us understand the true nature of reality. The English word “mindfulness” loses this rich meaning, and ties the practice to the field of Psychology.
Steven said thoughtfully that he would like us – and the mindfulness community in general – to remember and bear in mind the past – the rich, beautiful scholarship and cultural / religious depth of Buddhism . . .
Steven summarised current developments in academic work on mindfulness, both within and outside a Buddhist context. This includes increasing interest from social scientists and political and/or cultural theorists – perhaps Thomas Rhys Davids was not so far off the mark after all.
He also talked about how the current popular obsession with mindfulness is influencing our own culture and lifestyles. Kristin Barker argues that the practice is making us obsessed with health/illness in literally all areas of life, and teaching us that normal emotions are unhealthy.
James Reveley argues that teaching mindfulness to children to protect their mental health seems like it must be a good thing. But in fact it tightens the “neoliberal noose”. By this, Reveley means that it trains young people to be good, docile capitalists, who value autonomy, self-reliance and responsibility for their own wellbeing.
(Steven doesn’t quite agree with this though, as he thinks the focus on bodily experience in mindfulness conflicts in some ways with the intellectual nature of neoliberalism.)
We also heard about Jon Kabat-Zinn (JKZ), who has done immense work to popularise mindfulness and apply it to the mental health field. Steven showed us video clips of Mark Williams and JKZ teaching mindfulness. The students were feeding back on their individual experiences of their practice.
On the surface, we were watching a free-flowing, progressive style of student-centred experiential learning.
- The students who spoke up were helpfully giving “good” answers, which fitted easily into the theoretical framework.
- The teacher was reforming their answers through his responses and leading questions, to create a shared group feeling and understanding of the theory.
- In both cases the teacher was male and the students were mostly female – Steven said this is quite usual.
- The teacher’s position was ambiguous in both clips – Steven called it unequal egalitarianism. They both seemed gentle, warm and inviting – but at the same time they were highly regulating and controlling the discussion.
Steven was not really criticising either teacher though; indeed he thinks highly of JKZ’s work in particular. He explained that the learning of these groups would never be very open-ended anyway, as mindfulness practice is about encountering universal human experiences.
Steven likes to imagine the future of mindfulness / Buddhism in the West as breaking away from its current strong association with psychology, and becoming more contemplative and sociological in nature.
His vision is inspired by Francisco Varela’s idea that every person is a “portable laboratory” where you can experiment on and even change yourself through meditation. Best of all, you can carry this laboratory wherever you go!
Steven ended his lecture by inviting us to sit in silence and meditate on ourselves as “portable laboratories”. He said:
- How does it feel to think of yourself in this way?
- What do you notice?
- Notice your anticipations and expectations and let them go.
It was a strange and intriguing end to the talk; not least because we didn’t feed back, and so everyone’s experience remained private.
I think this was appropriate though. Firstly it could have been difficult to feed back into the group just after Steven had made us conscious of the uneasy tensions at work beneath an apparently open-ended “Inquiry”.
Secondly, another participant later said that the “group-sharing” approach to learning “mindfulness” is very different to the original Buddhist tradition, where the learning is processed more privately.
In any case, it was a moving experience to leave the lecture theatre a little changed, with new ideas about the past, present and future of mindfulness – and a quiet sense of our own potentialities in relation to it all . . .
Dr Steven Stanley has been a Lecturer in Social Sciences at Cardiff University since 2003. He holds an Honours degree in Psychology (The Nottingham Trent University, 2000) and a doctorate in Philosophy titled ‘Doctoral Dilemmas: Towards a Discursive Psychology of Postgraduate Education’ (Department of Social Sciences, Loughborough University, 2005).
He is a critical social psychologist who teaches and supervises undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral students in the School of Social Sciences. His current research involves discourse analysis of mindfulness-based interventions in healthcare, criminal justice, and social work; and the development of mindfulness meditation as an embodied social research methodology.