Is Mindfulness bullsh*t? Is it necessary for the work of transformation?

Tools and Methods

What is the value of mindfulness for those engaged with the work of transformation? Provocative views e.g., “Corporate mindfulness is bullsh*t”  trouble any easy connection between the two. I recently appreciated the catchily titled McMindfulness, whose author, Ron Purser, argues that mindfulness is being co-opted by executives who want their stressed employees to meditate simply because it benefits the bottom line. By reducing stress, corporations simply seek to get more work out of their employees without having to pay them more.

Confession. I both practice, teach and encourage mindfulness practice.  I’m  an action researcher who believes that first person action research — the effort to become more aware of, and choice-ful about, how we live/work — is enriched by mindfulness practice. I have also put that view to the test. And now I confidently encourage my colleagues at AR+ – where we’re all about Action Research for Transformation (ART) – to try it on. Maybe I am too confident?

Mindfulness can offer a particularly powerful, transformative, process of self inquiry. So if we care about self inquiry and reflexivity in the work of transformation then it’s good to look a little closer. For the work of transformation (said simply: turning to the systemic and individual causes of suffering in order to make things better) we see developmental reflexivity as a necessary component. Transformation of self and community is interwoven. Our inquiry and practice explicitly brings mindful meditation and creative practices together e.g., in co-labs designed for agents of transformation such as MICA. Also in less explicit ways such as allowing for moments of silence in our meetings.

But yea, the transformative self inquiry component has been stripped out of corporate McMindfulness, thereby reducing meditation to  relaxation. Not that relaxation is bad; it turns out to be very helpful in creating conditions that allow us to address the deep concerns that otherwise scare us. The problem is that in the practice of McMindfulness, the transformative potential of mindful inquiry, whereby people feel their connection to larger issues of social justice, is disappeared. McMindfulness debases meditation to an individualistic pursuit of relaxation.  It becomes yet another over-simpliction (OK, colonial rip off) of a two millennia old emancipatory, wisdom tradition – the technical term is soteriological – (yay, those years of philosophy study sure pay off!) .

A study I led – in which I was embedded with a team of palliative care providers  – concerned mindfulness meditation in the context of participative action research, JABSCollaborativeSelf-2013-Bradbury.  What really intrigued me was that only 12 weeks in, participants were reporting feeling quite empowered both at work and outside work, and better able to serve their dying patients. (Palliative care is for those who know they are dying and have chosen pain reduction over life lengthening “heroic’ procedures; so we did our project in the context of working with the dying.)  It is surely a different context from McMindfulness. I think it was important that we included dialogue groups in the midst of the mindfulness practice and one on one reflection sessions.

The power of mindfulness has been documented by now in myriad settings and it seems it has the potential to really enrich life and the quality of our action research.  But is it too close to McMindfulness? I don’t doubt that the global capitalism we experience today is predatory, living as a vampire off human creativity, and thwarting the original spirit of mindfulness. But I can’t agree that ALL mindfulness practice is bullsh*t. Quite the contrary.

If we are not mindful we may end up living someone else’s life. The one we are conditioned to in our competitive school systems, our ubiquitous advertising.  That’s the life that global capitalism wants us to live – the life of the individual competitor out for her/himself, using up our store of resources to gift our bosses’ agendas.  But I have the sinking feeling that the boss (and our old professor!) is probably also on the same hamster wheel. In fact a very potent, if counterintuitive, way for change to happen is to just say “no” to all that and, instead,  just sit there.

“Don’t just do something, sit there” is a clever phrase you hear around mindfulness circles. It comes with a twist.  It’s not sit there and ruminate, or space out, or even just relax (though that is a necessary prereq). Instead sit there and become aware of the thoughts and sensations that pour through. That “just sitting there” may be the very minutes you need – drip after drip – to allow something different from the corporate messaging come in to land in us. It comes entirely out of the blue and can hint that there is another way to live.

And indeed maybe you can’t make huge choices to change the material circumstances of your life today (as illustrated best by any palliative care patient) or the social circumstances that drive inequality and climate change. But you can still begin to heal/thrive in spite of the circumstances.  Change comes. Different perspectives and actions arise.

I happen to think that taking on mindfulness in a supportive group context helps positive change to arrive much quicker than the approaches being taught in the corporate context.  A little check in and conversation can go a long way when accompanied by some meditation.  And slowly but surely our life surprises us by incorporating that positive change.  Change is really all there is.

So I am left thinking that mindfulness is not bullsh*t.  But let’s not go alone. Instead, like good action researchers, let’s go mindfully together. With concern for social justice and social inclusion.  That makes all the difference.

With that in mind I invite fellow-spirited agents of transformation to join an AR+ online co-lab. MICA –  Mindfulness Integrating Creativity and Activism  – starts in October.  Offered by AR+ Foundation, this MICA co-lab  offers a space for cultivating ourselves as ARTists, i.e., action oriented researchers in transformation. It’s a reflective learning space for those who support others as facilitators/educators, and who see value in being part of a nurturing space in which to inquire into redirecting our own disconnects toward more mindful listening and purposeful doing.

The emphasis is going deep/deeper into the self, meeting-up with our “shadow” self, accessing hurts and acknowledging difficult emotions that slow us down in our journey of becoming agents of transformation. We’ll combine the practices of meditation and artistic inquiry, returning to origins, and re-crossing thresholds in our transformative work.MICA creates space for reflection on the potential disconnects between our values and practices, and the alignments and the misdirects in our intentions and attentions.  


The co-lab takes place at 11AM California time, Thursdays monthly on:
Oct 10, Nov 14, Dec 12 Jan 9, 2020. The free invitational taster is Oct 3 – it’s open to all!

The knowledge capture feeds into the ARTists Academy.   More details on MICA at this link. Register your placeCo-lab registration   Free Invitational

Hilary Bradbury is Lead Steward of the Transforming Capacity Steward Team and CEO (Curating Excellent Offerings) of AR+.

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