Mindfulness, Wisdom and Compassion as Social Change

by Mark Leonard

“…to become free you have to become acutely aware of being a slave.”

Assata Shakur, civil rights activist.

I’ve been teaching a series of “Mindfulness+Community” courses where I live, as a pilot to create a sense of community with mindfulness meditation at its heart. This programme is adapted from Mindfulness-Based Organisational Eduction (MBOE), which was originally developed for hospital staff. (The study carried out on the outcomes of MBOE is currently with the review panel of an academic journal.) This is a short film about the programme.

Mindfulness at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital

What follows are the notes for the guided mindfulness meditation, Week 5 of the Mindfulness+Community programme. The notes for each of the six weeks will be available on the new Mindfulness4Change.com website when it goes live. I’m sharing these notes here because they make the connection between secular approaches to mindfulness, wisdom and compassion AND explain how mindfulness practice can be applied to social (and organisational) change.

Guided Mindfulness Meditation for Week 5.

Reconnecting with feelings mindfulness meditation:

  1. visualising situations with different people
  2. exploring thoughts and feelings that arise in different situations
  3. becoming more familiar with thoughts and feelings
  4. accepting thoughts and feelings as they are.

Supporting Notes

Mindfulness meditation helps us to regulate our emotions and gives us a window to see the mind creating the imaginary world of our experience. The mindfulness of feelings meditation gives us the opportunity to see what is going on in the mind and body as we imagine relationships with others.

Feelings are automatic reactions to the way we experience different situations. Becoming more aware of how we feel is the first step, but nothing much changes until we are able to accept how we feel. It’s only when we can accept ourselves as we are that we can begin to loosen patterns of self-criticism and blame that feed our reactions.

By acknowledging our feelings, we create a sense of safety that would otherwise be produced by being acknowledged and heard by others. The change in our behaviour that results, triggers different responses from others and so changes the whole emotional and behavioural dynamics of situations. In effect, mindfulness meditation recreates the social conditions we would have experienced in a small close-knit community, before radical changes to our sense of self and ideas about what we need to do to be accepted by others took place in modern society.

Bringing mindfulness to what is going on in the body and the mind when we imagine someone we care for helps us to be more aware of how good relationships feel. Remembering them may trigger feelings of joy or sadness. Remembering them may bring a deep sense of gratitude or even the warmth of love itself. Whatever comes, this helps us to be more aware of the kind of feelings that are the lifeblood of our being and how important they are in our lives.

When we imagine someone we don’t know, we start to create a story about them. We begin to relate to them through the story we create in our minds. This gives a window to see how we piece together fragments of information to create an idea of a person and what is going on in their lives. We may even see how our ideas about this person are shaped by our preconceptions, stereotypes and prejudices.

We become author and audience of a story in the mind in which we play a cameo role. As we imagine these characters, we create relationships with them. How do we feel about the characters in our play? Do these feelings change as they begin to come alive in the story we create in the mind?

When we bring to mind someone who causes us to feel upset, annoyed or hurt, we can see how these feelings arise with the patterns of thinking that go with them. Another option is to think of a situation where we may feel nervous, embarrassed or anxious.

Imagining situations that produce difficult feelings in the controlled environment of meditation gives us the opportunity to become more aware of the feelings themselves and how they can make us react. Being curious about what is going on in the lives of those who trigger our emotional reactions gives us an opportunity to see things from different perspectives and may help us to be more understanding.

Becoming more aware of patterns of thoughts and feelings helps us to navigating difficult relationships better and think more carefully about what the best thing to do might be. Often the best thing to do is nothing¬–at least until we can speak or act with a clear head and less emotion. In other situations, however, we can choose to express our feelings and if we can express passion in a way that can be understood by others, it can have a powerful positive effect.

Paying attention to sensations in the body disengages attention from what it is that concerns us. This may help us cope better but it will have little power to help us grow or change the situations that causes such feelings. With fear, nervousness and anxiety, we need to use mindfulness to develop the courage to face what we wish to avoid.

The individual mind functions very much like the mind of a group. If we avoid difficult feelings, we end up repressing them. We cut ourselves off from our feelings and get trapped in reactive patterns of thinking and acting. Over time, these patterns lead to stress, depression and/or anxiety. If we only listen to the voices of those who confirm our sense of identity and ignore messengers who come with uncomfortable news, then we will miss information that we need to grow and adapt to the changes that make life rich with experience.

We need to feel we are part of community that gives us the security to build the close and stable relationships that are the bedrock of our intimate lives. Few workplaces or communities today function as an engaged collective working for the common good because modern society is based on an illusion that we are separate individuals who are rewarded for what they achieve. Those who fail to achieve feel a sense of unfairness. This not only undermines motivation, it is psychologically damaging and has a cost to the whole of society.

To contribute, people need to be able to express themselves without threat of rejection. If a group isn’t able to listen to a challenging voice, individuals will repress their feelings and suffer as a result. They are likely to disengage, and this will undermine their ability to contribute to the group. Individuals may even get stuck in destructive roles or they may just move on. As a result, the group loses the diversity of voice that enables it to adapt to change.

The most powerful and sustainable form of motivation is the intrinsic reward felt from making a meaningful contribution to others. With a sense of individual autonomy and an inclusive culture, the stress of striving to maintain status can be transformed into a source of resilience and energy. Each works to their strengths and can adapt to different roles. The group then can achieve much more than the sum of individualistic efforts.

When people feel their identity is under threat, it’s very hard to process factual information, emotions drive behaviour and people rely on fixed ideas about who they are. When collective identity is under threat, these fixed ideas create hierarchies that need strong leaders. By contrast, change is only possible when emotions settle, trust builds and dialogue, that can examine the facts objectively and impersonally, begins.

Becoming aware of how the mind works not only helps us to understand ourselves and others better, it also enables us to see the way group–mind works. If we can maintain a baseline of low emotional reactivity, we can create a safe space in which others feel they can speak and be heard. Maintaining a low level of emotional reactivity then sets up a similar response in others, allowing the group to process patterns of frustration, anger and fear. As this group behaviour becomes established, discussions become a creative exercise instead of a game of winning an argument. Those who are less confident feel safe and more able to contribute. Then the group-mind functions as an integrated process with an intelligence and power that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

When a stick falls out of a tree and hits you on the head, it would be senseless to get angry with the tree because the tree and the stick doesn’t intend to cause you harm. It’s just a random event. If our emotional reactions are automatic processes, why then do we get angry when someone throws a stick at us? The reason we do get angry is because we imagine a person who intends to cause us harm but if the processes that result in a person intending to cause us harm are automatic, what sense is there in reacting automatically, especially as that is just most likely to result in more trouble in the long run?

We can only really develop the capacity for intention when we have a choice. We can only choose not to react when we become consciously aware of how our thoughts, sense of self and our feelings are automatically constructed. This is the power of mindfulness: It gives us the agency we thought we had by seeing that we never had it in the first place. It helps us to gain wisdom that comes from understand the blameless nature of human reactions. It helps us to feel the wounds of sorrow and gain the resilience that comes from compassion.

N.B. The Reconnecting with feelings mindfulness meditation is derived from the standard loving-kindness meditation but does not attempt to override feelings or create feelings of loving-kindness artificially. It simply applies mindfulness to become more familiar with feelings that arise while visualising different situations. In effect, this combines the structure of the loving-kindness meditation with the “approaching the difficult” meditation in MBCT but gives feelings and patterns of thinking which arise in different situations a social/relational context.

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