Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in mindfulness meditation. What is it? If you reduce it to its most basic elements, mindfulness
meditation involves directing attention from thinking to sensory input while sitting, standing, lying down, moving or stretching. Why on earth would anyone want to do that you may
We are increasingly bombarded by information. Often this comes with some kind of attention grabbing sensational story. It could be just an email. It could be a hundred emails. Modern life keeps us busy. Lunch break spent checking social media. There’s a never ending list of things to do. The mind is constantly on the go. If there’s little going on we look for some kind of distraction.
When we do stop, the mind doesn’t stop. Sometimes even, when lights go out and head hits pillow, the mind does not rest. We plan ahead, daydream or
possibly worry about something that has happened or maybe is yet to happen.
We get caught up in constantly doing things and becoming more and more busy. The more we do the less time we give ourselves to relax. We don’t get a chance to wind down or if we do, we do it with drink or drugs. This affects the way we think. The more stressed we get the more problems we see: a deadline, a meeting with the boss, a critical comment.
The more we see things as threats, the harder we focus on what’s in our immediate line of sight. We act like it’s an attack. We react. We feel the buzz but we act with short-term objectives and easily loose sight of the bigger picture. We begin to go round and round in circles looking busy but actually doing things that need to be undone or redone. We become blinkered and stop listening to others. We snap at a colleague or loved one. Levels of stress become chronic and some way down this road, paved with mindless activity, burnout waits for us ready to pounce when we least expect it. When it does, it’s too late. There is no escape. The body gives in.
Recurrent depression is similar to chronic stress except people who suffer from it begin to see their own low mood as a problem. This triggers a spiral of self-critical thinking and negative expectations, social withdrawal, disconnection with pleasurable things, disturbed sleep and days filled with darkness.
With the development of Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) to prevent depression, mindfulness meditation became a scientifically validated treatment. Paying attention to sensations interrupts the problem-solving, ruminating over-thinking mind and changes the way people relate to feelings of low mood. People begin to reconnect with the pleasure of sensory experience and gain some perspective about the relative truth of their thoughts. They realise they can choose how to respond to difficult emotions. They can chose to act in ways that give them a sense of achievement or have a positive affect on mood: they understand that it is worth making the effort to exercise or get out the house and see friends.
An explosion of scientific work followed the development of MBCT and mindfulness meditation has now been adapted to treat a wide range of mental conditions. It’s now commonly available in organisations and has even been taught to improve cognitive function in the US Marines. A cost-benefit analysis of a recent study with Dow-Chemicals staff found that a mindfulness course could reduce the costs of burnout in staff by up to £22,580 per employee per year. The rest, as some might say, is history, but is this the end of the story? As I will argue in this article, I believe this is just the beginning. I believe mindfulness meditation not only changes the way people relate to thoughts and emotions on an individual basis, it has the potential to change the way we think about things in much more profound ways than this.
Criticism has been directed at mindfulness in the workplace programmes because they may be implemented simply as a cost cutting exercise but these criticisms fail to recognise that this is exactly what has already taken place in the therapy. If mindfulness meditation is a means for reducing costs in business, then, as a therapy, it is also a means of reducing costs across society. If mindfulness meditation is a means for maintaining inhumane working conditions, then if it's therapy it's also a means of social control.
Short-term decision-making based on quantifying inputs and outputs creates command and control systems whose objectives are minimising costs and maximising revenue both in organisations and the economy as a whole. Hierarchical structure, in organisations and government disempowers and disengages. People are reduced to economically defined units of labour, taxation, health care, education and pensions.
In this mindless world, everything is accounted for as an aggregation of sub-units whose action can be modeled and controlled. In therapy this view understands mental ill-health as psychological mechanism that can be treated with a value-free talking pill. Dose, delivery and outputs measured and defined. This way of thinking is blind to the complex because the complex is hard to measure. It is the same mindlessness that prevails in the way things are done causing so much stress, anxiety and depression in the first place.
This way of thinking fails to account for the fact that we are social beings. It fails to acknowledge what really motivates us. It fails to recognise that the most important thing in life is the sense of self-worth we gain from the contribution we make and the kindness we receive from others. The ability to give and receive with generosity, humility and compassion is what makes life worth living. These sound like high ideals but could the pursuit of virtue produce an ROI in an organisation and make a better world?
As mindfulness meditation develops our awareness, quality of experience becomes more important than abstract notions of value. The most important things in our experience are people: having positive relationships with family, community, in our private lives and in the workplace. As we come to understand ourselves and what really makes us feel good, we priorities our investment in social capital over and above a narrow sense of personal gain. Listening to the heart - present moment experience becomes our moral compass and wisdom guides long-term strategies of action.
Each one of us relates to others around us. This becomes the social environment and shapes the social norm. At some point in time culture change follows. If mindfulness meditation benefits individuals, it will benefit the social group in similar ways but our power to get things done on an individual basis is little compared to the power of a socially cohesive group. A group of people working together can achieve far more than a collection of high performing individuals.
When we begin to recognise the complex effects of the way mindfulness meditation acts on the way people organise themselves and work together, it begins to be possible to imagine how it will impact the bottom line in far more significant ways than reducing the cost of absenteeism or days lost to disability. Mindfulness meditation not only changes the way we relate to thoughts and emotions on an individual basis, it has the capacity to change the way we relate to abstract values on a spreadsheet and revolutionise the way things are done.
Mark Leonard helped to establish the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, where he trained to teach Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which he adapted to a workplace training before working with Mindfulness4Change.
His chapter, Making Mindfulness Meaningful and Accessible, is included in Mindfulness in the Workplace: An Evidence-based Approach to Improving Wellbeing and Maximising Performance, edited by Margaret Chapman-Clarke, Kogan Page, May 2016.
There is a free online “Make a Change” mindfulness course available on www.mindfulness4change.com
Visit www.heartfulmind.net for more articles by Mark Leonard.