How Companies Can Instil Mindfulness In The Workplace

Mindfulness and meditation have made deep inroads into the corporate world. The benefits of mindfulness in the workplace are proving out, notes this opinion piece by Christian Greiser and Jan-Philipp Martini of the Boston Consulting Group. Greiser is a senior partner, managing director and the global leader of the firm’s operations practice who works with senior leaders around the globe. Martini is an associate who supports clients around the world on enterprise-wide agile transformations.

Volatile markets, challenging consumer demands, and the technological disruptions resulting from digitization and Industry 4.0 are producing unprecedented rates of change. In response, companies have worked to increase organizational agility, hoping to foster innovation and shorten go-to-market cycles. Yet organizational experiences and sociological conditioning often impede true agility. As a result, many of these efforts fall short of their objective to manage the uncertainty generated by change. But another movement — mindfulness — will help companies overcome these challenges.

Mindfulness is a centuries-old idea that has been reinvented to address the challenges of our digital age. In essence, mindfulness describes a state of being present in the moment and leaving behind one’s tendency to judge. It allows one to pause amid the constant inflow of stimuli and consciously decide how to act, rather than react reflexively with ingrained behavior patterns. Mindfulness, therefore, is perfectly suited to counterbalance the digital-age challenges of information overload and constant distraction.

The benefits of mindfulness are both clear and proven. Mindfulness in the workplace helps leaders and employees reflect effectively, focus sharply on the task at hand, master peak levels of stress, and recharge quickly. On an organizational level, mindfulness reduces sick days, increases trust in leadership, and boosts employee engagement. What’s more, mindfulness helps to unlock the full potential of digital and agile transformations. New processes and structures are just the starting points for these transformations.

Not surprisingly, interest in mindfulness in the workplace is growing, especially among digital natives: In the past decade, the rate of increase in Google searches for mindfulness has outpaced that of all Google searches by a factor of four. Furthermore, years of scientific research and modern forms of teaching have fueled its popularity. Now, mindfulness apps even come pre-installed on smartphones and tablets

Yet integrating mindfulness in the corporate context can be challenging. Some companies encounter vocal skeptics; others struggle with entrenched ways of working. Even leaders and employees who are eager to try out mindfulness find it hard to get started. To unleash the power of mindfulness in the workplace, companies will have to embrace a holistic approach to corporate agility.

Agility Requires Coping with Uncertainty

To support their agility efforts, many companies have applied “cosmetic” digital-age solutions, such as hackathons, agile meetings (for example, short daily standup meetings to discuss progress and obstacles), and new visualization techniques and creativity tools.

However, most companies have not yet created an environment that truly prepares them to reap the rewards of agility. Often, their ways of working have been shaped by a tradition of emphasizing functional excellence over agility, as well as systems that favor expertise over open-mindedness. Two inhibitors stand out:

  • Resistance to Change. As the pace of change increases, employees will have to continuously adapt to evolving circumstances. In most organizations, however, the existing ways of working leave employees unprepared to do so. They may therefore respond with reflexive resistance, a defense mechanism to avoid the discomfort of psychological uncertainty. Organizational politics and poor communication about the purpose of making changes only strengthen this resistance.
  • Overvaluing Expertise. Many employees think and interact at work by applying expertise that they gained before the digital age, when efficiency, not agility, was the overarching objective. Such an approach encourages closed-mindedness.

Mindfulness Facilitates Navigation Through Uncertainty

Mindfulness enables people to radically strengthen their ability to adapt quickly to evolving circumstances and ambiguous situations and to increase the speed with which they learn new things. It creates mental agility and helps people look inward to find answers.

In their recent book, Altered Traits, Daniel Goleman, a Harvard psychologist, and Richard J. Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, provide a scientific view of personal mindfulness benefits. They synthesize three proven benefits of mindfulness that, in combination, allow people to act more effectively in unpredictable environments:

  • Staying Calm and Open-Minded. Mindfulness practices, such as breathing meditation, are associated with decreased volumes of gray matter in the amygdala, the region of the brain that initiates a response to stress. This reduces the inclination to interpret an uncertain environment as a threat and thus react defensively. In this way, mindfulness improves mental agility, allowing attitudes to shift from “but we have always done it like that” to “let’s see what happens if we try a new approach.”
  • Cognitive Ability. Mindfulness improves short-term memory and the ability to perform complex cognitive tasks. It also frees people to think outside the box, which helps them cut through complexity. In the context of workplace performance, proven results include a higher quality of strategic decision making and more effective collaboration.
  • Focus and Clarity of Thinking. As Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon observed, “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” This insight, first articulated in 1971, is more accurate today than ever before. Maintaining a strong focus in this time of digital information overload, therefore, is essential. The regular practice of mindfulness routines can reduce mental wandering and distractibility. Mindfulness strengthens the awareness of both one’s activities in the present moment and one’s mental processes and behaviors (known as meta-awareness).

By delivering these individual benefits, mindfulness boosts the potential of corporate agility initiatives and agile transformations. It helps people to inspect and adapt their behaviors in short cycles, relax so that they can rewire established attitudes, and think clearly in the midst of overwhelming digital stimuli. In short, mindfulness facilitates navigation in the context of uncertainty and ambiguity.

The Corporate World Has Taken Notice

A leading pioneer of corporate mindfulness is Jon Kabat-Zinn, who facilitated its democratization by designing a program called Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction. The course provides a simple and structured introduction to scientifically proven meditation practices. Similarly, Chade-Meng Tan has developed Search Inside Yourself, a course that combines meditation practices with emotional intelligence training — an approach he pioneered at Google.

More recently, companies in the West have turned to mindfulness in the workplace to promote employee well-being and productivity. The movement began among startups in Silicon Valley and has been implemented by long-established companies across the U.S. and Europe as well as by government bodies. These include Aetna, Beiersdorf, Bosch, General Mills, Goldman Sachs, Intel, Royal Dutch Shell, SAP, Target, the UK’s Parliament, and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Many of these organizations embrace agility and aspire to cultivate a new form of leadership. Among the top executives who meditate and encourage their employees to follow their example, for instance, are Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and Google cofounder Sergey Brin. In fact, attending a meditation class is a popular way to begin the workday at many Silicon Valley companies, including Apple, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Over the course of many years, Bosch, a multinational engineering company that focuses on automotive components and consumer goods, has increased its agility through a variety of initiatives. These include creating flexible organizational structures, introducing agile development methods, and experimenting with new business models and technologies. In order to promote the success of these initiatives, the company realized that it needed to fundamentally change its approach to leadership. According to Petra Martin, who is responsible for leadership development at Bosch Automotive Electronics, “Mindfulness is an essential lever to shift from a culture of control to a culture of trust. Communication has fundamentally changed since we introduced our mindfulness training to more than 1,000 leaders in the organization.”

At software company SAP, mindfulness has become a key ingredient of corporate life for employees and executives alike. More than 6,000 employees have taken two-day mindfulness courses that focus on meditations complemented by the practice of self-mastery and compassion. In addition, internal mindfulness trainers offer guided meditations during working hours and a multi-week mindfulness challenge, including meditation “micropractices,” such as tuning out of a busy workday for a few minutes to focus on one’s breathing.

“For many managers, it has become the new normal to open meetings with short meditations,” says Peter Bostelmann, the director of SAP’s global mindfulness practice. Participants in the mindfulness program report increased well-being and higher creativity. What’s more, mindfulness has promoted significant measurable improvements in employee engagement and leadership trust indices. Bostelmann has seen a significant shift in how corporate mindfulness programs are perceived. A few years ago, some leaders ridiculed the concept of mindfulness at work. Recently, however, executives of other companies — including Deutsche Telekom and Siemens — have sought Bostelmann’s advice about how to adopt mindfulness concepts at their companies.

Aetna, a U.S. health insurer, has trained 13,000 employees on mindfulness practices, resulting in a reported reduction in stress levels of 28%. Annual productivity improvements, a secondary effect, are estimated at $3,000 per employee. Aetna launched the mindfulness initiatives gradually, starting with brief meditations in executive-team meetings and then continuing with yoga and meditation classes for all employees. “We have demonstrated that mindfulness-based programs can reduce stress and improve people’s health,” says Mark Bertolini, Aetna’s chairman and CEO.

How Companies Can Instill Mindfulness

To fully capture the benefits of mindfulness, companies should customize their mindfulness programs. While it is valuable to begin by determining the objective of mindfulness interventions, many organizations have also achieved good results by starting with a small pilot program, such as providing a mindfulness course to senior leadership.

For some companies, mindfulness will become a paradigm for organization design and employee well-being. In terms of adopting mindfulness generally, organizations can start by experimenting with four types of interventions: leadership training, meditation training, mindfulness micropractices and mindfulness coaching.

Leadership Training. As management guru Peter F. Drucker observed, leaders need trained perception fully as much as analysis. Well-designed leadership courses address this need by combining actionable mindfulness and emotional intelligence practices.

Even customized mindfulness leadership courses share common elements. Leaders should learn how to integrate formal and informal mindfulness practices into everyday life. Formal practices are often guided meditations, while informal practices include mindful listening exercises and simply paying attention to the task at hand.

By instilling self-awareness, self-regulation and compassion, mindfulness courses address the psychological root causes of multiple leadership problems. And because these courses also encourage the natural development of skills for managing time, change and conflict, training programs dedicated to establishing these skills might become obsolete.

At Bosch, a one-year agile leadership-training curriculum involves three modules: leading oneself, leading teams and leading the organization. The self-leadership training focuses on mindfulness and involves regular guided meditations, conscious-communication exercises and courses to help leaders avoid the pitfalls of multitasking.

At a multinational engineering company, some leaders openly expressed skepticism about the value of mindfulness in the workplace. The company converted these skeptics into believers by explaining the concept in layman’s terms, sharing scientific research about its effectiveness and inspiring senior leaders to become change agents. Today, mindfulness is the new normal for the company, and leaders pause for meditation in the designated silent room before making major decisions or having difficult discussions.

Meditation Training. In addition to training executives, organizations should evaluate whether to offer training opportunities to all employees. Many individuals are willing to try out meditation but struggle to understand where to start. A half-day to full-day course can introduce basic practices, such as breathing or body scan meditations, so that employees can subsequently continue on their own.

To reinforce their training courses, some organizations — including Google, LinkedIn and Twitter — offer guided meditations during working hours. Google has also established silent lunches and silent rooms, where employees can go to readjust their mindsets in the midst of an intense working day.

Mindfulness Micropractices. Repetitive practice of basic skills is essential to promote mastery: think of pianists playing scales throughout their careers or baseball players taking batting practice before every game. Similarly, employees who complete a meditation program need to continue practicing, through micropractices, to truly master mindfulness. Seasoned meditators report transformative mindfulness benefits once they have mastered the seamless integration of mindfulness practices into everyday life.

Organizations should invest in creating a culture in which meditation micropractices are not just tolerated but are actively disseminated by mindfulness change agents. Small workshops can also help to integrate mindfulness in a nonintrusive way. These workshops can teach approaches such as Elisha Goldstein’s STOP practice, in which participants learn to stop, take a breath, observe (thoughts, feelings, and emotions), and proceed. Beyond promoting mastery for mindfulness practitioners, micropractices can serve as an easy starting point for skeptics, who often experience surprising benefits after a few sessions.

Mindfulness Coaching. The principles of mindfulness can also help teams collaborate more effectively. For example, if team members master the ability to listen to one another with undivided attention and without interruption, they promote freer and more creative thinking. And a team culture that values appreciation over criticism helps to build transparency and openness. In her 2015 book, More Time to Think: The Power of Independent Thinking, Nancy Kline proposes that people offer appreciative comments five times as often as they do critical remarks.

Facilitation by a coach is essential to capture the benefits of mindfulness in teamwork. Agile teams typically already have scrum masters or agile coaches, and these individuals can become mindfulness coaches as well. Similarly, executive teams could benefit from mindfulness coaches to enable authentic communication and effective teamwork.

Unleashing the Power

Companies that undergo a transformation through mindfulness in the workplace are seeing positive returns both on an individual level and on an organizational level. As leaders and employees develop the open-mindedness and clarity required to navigate through unpredictable environments, the organization becomes well positioned to unlock the full potential of agility. For companies that have not yet successfully embraced mindfulness, the imperative is clear: Follow a well-designed, holistic approach to implement this centuries-old solution to digital-age challenges.

You can reach Christian Greiser at and Jan-Philipp Martini

Being Mindful trained with the Oxford Mindfulness Centre’s pioneering Teaching in the Workplace course. For more information about how we can instil mindfulness in your organisation click here.

Treat every moment as your last

A friend of mine recently mentioned he’d re-watched the movie Groundhog Day, and it felt incredibly familiar to life now, at least for him. But I totally got what he meant, each day is so similar to the next at the moment!

This is what he said, how does it land with you?

Not much happens differently in the external dimension. 

But there is also the internal dimension. In Zen, they talk about a beginner’s mind, seeing the ordinary in a new way. Even if what we see is the same, the way we see can change. 

The Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi liked to say,“Treat every moment as your last. It is not preparation for something else.”

It made me think, “If we live this time as if it was our last, not as preparation for something else, what might we learn?” 

In the movie Groundhog Day, the main character eventually learns from the monotony to be increasingly open-hearted and selfless. He takes a new approach to his ordinary days. 

Maybe this is what we can do in this time. We can bring a beginner’s mind to each day, and see beyond our limited self orientation.

Brother David Steindl-Rast may have done this the best in the exquisite video called A Good Day. If you have not seen it, it is worth a watch. He suggests gratefulness is the key to fully living each day. 

As we continue to quarantine and be as safe as possible, may we each find a way to engage, freshly. 

As Thich Nhat Hanh liked to remind us, The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.”

May this day in your life, today, not just be another day.

May your day be well lived. 

I love Soren’s thinking here, and Brother David’s video. They both remind us that life offers our attention a truly amazing experience every single minute. We just have to remember to calm the busy mind, pause, and reconnect with it – our life unfolding in this moment.

Soren and the Wisdom 2.0 team have some wonderful meetup’s planned which you might be interested in. Click here.

If you’d like to bring more mindfulness into your life you might like to join our next MBSR course. Arrange a free discovery session to find out what the course involves. If it appeals, we’ll book you on. If not, no worries. Click here for more info.

The Power of Mindfulness

Whenever I introduce myself to a new mindfulness course I include a little background about the journey that led me to become a teacher. There’s one point in time that stands out as a catalyst – 5th May 1984.

This is the day I sustained a spinal cord injury and was paralysed from the waist down. It was an unlucky fall and in the blink of an eye I was in hospital in a haze of sedation with a doctor telling me “I’m sorry Mr Barnes but you’ve broken your back and you’re never going to walk again!”

This is a traumatic, life changing event and naturally I was devastated, but I soon noticed people with injuries more serious than mine. A guy in the bed next to me, Laurence, broke his neck in a motorcycle accident and couldn’t move a muscle. Rather than thinking about what I didn’t have, I started to appreciate what I did have!

During rehabilitation my aim was to do the best I could, and even though difficulties were rife, I didn’t get caught up on them. I looked for a way around obstacles and kept moving. Essentially, this is how I managed the transition. Without realising it I was being mindful. I acknowledged problems when they arose, but didn’t get caught up in them. I embraced what I did have and lived life.

This is the power of mindfulness, and it’s something we all do at times. We just don’t necessarily realise it. This is why it’s important to develop a regular practice and incorporate it into our daily lives. To be mindful intentionally.

Like all worthwhile activities, if we want the rewards we have to put in the effort. No one becomes a guitarist, for example, without a lot of practice, and it’s the same with mindfulness. Dedicating just 30 minutes of your day to mindful meditation will help you to slow down the mind and be in control of the choices you make, rather than unconsciously reacting on autopilot.

Believe me, it’s really helpful to be consciously aware of all the options available to you in challenging and stressful situations. Which is not about making stress go away, it’s more a question of choosing not to freak out about thoughts of the past or the future. Instead, we consider what’s real, what’s happening in the present moment, and to the best of our ability, choose the best way forward. Isn’t this the only way?

Here’s a great Ted Talk which explains this wonderfully. It’s entitled The Power of Mindfulness: What You Practice Grows Stronger with Shauna Shapiro.

The Spirit of Activism

Common Sense for the 21st Century

I recently attended a 5-day Spirit of Activism retreat at Embercombe, Devon, because I felt a need to connect more deeply with the climate crisis. Wow! did I connect!

Embercombe is an amazing place, situated on a hill in lush, wooded countryside, not far from Exeter. It has a pretty amazing story behind it too, focused very much around the founder, Mac Macartney, and his passion for Mother Nature. In fact, it was Mac’s inspiring talk at Shambala this year that tuned me and Suzi into the wonderful work being done at Embercombe. Have a look on their website, you might just find something that calls you.

The reason this particular retreat called out to me is that for some time I’ve felt confusion about what’s going on in the world today, and how I’m responding to it. Or more to the point, what I’m not doing!

Sure, I’m mindful of recycling household waste, turning off lights when not needed etc. but there was a nagging feeling that, while important, these actions were superficial. In my heartmind I know there’s more serious work to be done. But what? And how do I engage?

It didn’t take long for the retreat to start revealing the answers for me. Throughout the retreat we were blessed to have two amazing teachers guide us through some deep, personal, exploration. Space was made for us all to step into vulnerability and release our truth.

It was overwhelming to witness fellow retreatants express themselves in the truth circle. I sobbed readily at the sight and sound of another’s grief, sorrow, helplessness, and anger. Before I knew it I found myself in the circle connecting with my inner truth, hardly able to get the words out through the tears.

There were many tears, but also a lot of positive work on moving forward, much of which is based on the wonderful Joanna Macy’s books Coming Back to Life and The Great Turning.

All in all, it was a great retreat, emotionally exhausting, but uplifting and motivating too. One of the first things I did on my return home was to read Roget Hallam’s booklet Common Sense for the 21st Century. If you want to understand the big plan and vision behind XR’s actions to stop climate breakdown and social collapse then read this. It’s really important.

I see now know it’s my moral duty to join the climate fight. I will do whatever I can, whenever I can.

From this moment the despair ends!

See you on the streets.

Letting Go

I’ve noticed a lot of angst and frustration lurking around recently. May be it’s the failure of modern politics, austerity, or the climate crisis. It could just be the stress of holding ourselves together in modern times. Whatever’s going on, a lot of us are struggling under the pressure.

We experience numerous disappointments each and every day. Our expectations go unmet, our plans are blocked by circumstance, our wishes go unfulfilled, and we discover that our lives are subject to a myriad of forces beyond our conscious control. In some cases, our response is powerful because we must invest ourselves and our resources to overcome genuine hardship. In others, our reactions are far more passionate than our circumstances likely warrant. The tension that permeates our bodies and minds when we are late for an event, interrupted at work, or sitting in traffic is not inappropriate, but it can interfere with our well-being in profound ways. When we stop worrying about relatively unimportant matters, we can be at peace and devote so much more of ourselves to what is truly important. 

The small frustrations and irritations wield such power over us because they rob us of the illusion of control. But every problem is a potential teacher – a confusing situation is an opportunity to practice mindfulness, and difficult people provide us with opportunities to display compassion. There is a natural human tendency to invest copious amounts of emotional energy in dilemmas and frustrations because that’s how the brain is wired, it analyses everything to find a route out of the perceived danger. The problem is that often the issue is emotion-based and there isn’t an escape route. We just have to accept that sometimes we feel upset, angry, or stressed, and trust that these moments will pass, just like all the other times in our lives that we’ve been in a similar situation. When we let go we discover that it’s not really so devastating after all. 

In the stress of a tense incident, differentiating between an inconsequential annoyance and a legitimate challenge can seem a monumental task. Ask yourself whether the emotions you are feeling will be as vivid in a year, a day, or even an hour. As focused as you are on this moment in time, your reward for letting go of your emotional investment may be the very happiness and harmony of being whose loss you are lamenting. Needless aggravation is seldom worth the cost it exacts. You cannot distance yourself from life’s inconsistencies, irritations, and upheavals, but you can relinquish your desire for perfect order and gain peace of mind in the process.

Breaking Bread Together

I’ve just shared a beautiful weekend with family in a medieval barn in Brecon and it reminded me how much of the important things we miss if we don’t remember to slow the mind down and pay attention to what’s happening around us. It was an amazing few days and I’m still glowing inside.

This lovely piece by Madison Taylor captures it very well…

As we rush to keep up with the speed of our busy lives, one of the first activities we tend to sacrifice is the sharing of a meal with other people. We may find ourselves eating alone at the kitchen counter or hurriedly drinking a cup of soup while driving in our cars. Yet taking the time to share a meal with family or a close friend not only feeds your body, but also it can nourish your soul. Companionship can fill the heart the way warm stew can satisfy your belly. Eating a meal with others allows you to slow down, while nurturing your relationships. 

Breaking bread with others can be treated like a ritual where the gestures of sharing and togetherness are just as important as the food you eat. Planning, preparing, and consuming a meal are all stepping off points toward good conversation, bonding, and learning about someone else. Inviting a new acquaintance to share a meal can be the start of a wonderful friendship. A shared breakfast can be a brainstorming session between coworkers, or it can set the tone for a positive day for family members. Lunch with a friend can be a welcome break from the day’s stress, as well as a chance to unwind. Dinner with loved ones can be a chance to talk about the day’s events with people who truly care. Sometimes, there may even be no need for conversation, and you may want to share a meal with someone while sitting in comfortable silence. 

The breaking of bread can be a fulfilling experience, especially when done among people you love and trust. So the next time you find yourself rushing through a meal in front of your computer, you may want to pause and reconsider. The warm feelings, sense of security, and enjoyment you experience from sharing a meal with others may be the kind of break that you really need.

Time for new thinking about mindfulness and social change

Why paint inner development as a barrier to better systems? Amid crisis and complexity we need both.

I was annoyed by Ronald Purser’s article in the Guardian recently which I think gave a rather contracted view of mindfulness and the benefits people take away from the MBSR course. Among other things he points out that poorly qualified teachers do more harm than good, which I wholeheartedly agree with, but he also suggests that participants are not encouraged to see more clearly their authentic self and what’s worth fighting for to make life better for us all.

This isn’t my experience of teaching and practicing mindfulness so it was a great relief to read the following article by Jamie Bristow, Director of The Mindfulness Initiative. It has inspired me to develop a retreat or short course to focus mindfulness practice on knowing more clearly what we feel strongly about in these uncertain and challenging times, and more importantly, to know what we can actually get involved with. It’s no good feeling fired up about everything and winging about it to anyone who’ll listen, we have to be realistic and focus our energy carefully and mindfully. If this course interests you let me know and I’ll be in touch when things are finalised.

I hope you enjoy Jamie’s article too.

I was working for the climate change campaign 10:10 around the time that NGOs in the environmental field were abandoning the “information deficit hypothesis” – the idea that giving people enough facts about the worsening ecological crisis would elicit action. Reflecting on what had driven my own shift from a career in advertising to full-time dedication to this cause, I felt sure that the greater stillness and sensitivity I’d developed through mindfulness practice had been instrumental in allowing the data I’d heard many times before to ‘land’ very differently. Faced with the confusion that existed in the climate movement at the time, I left to focus on sharing trainable qualities of awareness like mindfulness, and investigating the ways in which they shape our behaviour, and therefore, our world.

Like many evangelists before me, however, I had a very naive theory of change. I confess, back in 2010 I thought that people simply needed to meditate for socially-conscious behaviour to follow. In his recent critique, Ron Purser admonishes the mindfulness teaching community for assuming that ethical behaviour naturally arises from personal practice, inhibiting the radical action required to address the systemic causes of distress. The qualities of mindful awareness – open, empathic and caring – are not ethically neutral, and there is some evidence that they influence consumption and sustainable and prosocial behaviour, but it’s far from certain that developing an internal climate of friendliness will lead to collective action or resistance.

It’s also true that the route mindfulness training has taken into mainstream culture – via clinical settings and academic studies that measure individual pathology much more easily than social good – has produced a tendency to frame distress and the benefits of mindfulness within a bio-medical paradigm. This likely limits the range of options that participants consider when using the greater sensitivity and discernment that come through practice to make changes in their lives. Mindfulness courses already explore the implications of practice in relational contexts, and as a result of these conversations they continue to evolve in ways that include wider questions about society and the environment. A recent Transformation article by the founders of the Mindfulness and Social Change Network details some of the ways in which this is already happening.

Recent years have shown us however, that people are deeply divided in their conceptions of the good society and how to get there. This makes it tricky to deliver training programmes with a fixed or singular vision of social change. After all, how might it feel if your government rolled-out a new psychological programme that explicitly nudged participants towards a stance opposite to your own on some sensitive issue?

In his paper on mindfulness, public health ethics researcher Andreas T. Schmidt reminds us that in a liberal democracy, personally transformative interventions “should not aim to promote particular conceptions of the good.” Instead, they must support us to “pursue [our own] conceptions of the good – more or less – whatever those conceptions are,” unless there is consensus that other values take precedence over neutrality (like promoting non-smoking, for example).

What is considered ‘neutral’ or ‘common-sense’ by the majority does of course change, and there is strong reason to hope that mindfulness facilitates the kind of collective sense-making that’s required to steer this shift in a positive direction. But even if mindfulness courses were more explicit in how they equipped and supported people to ask big questions about themselves and their place in the world, they can’t supply all the answers.

The vast majority of those working in the mindfulness training sector, at least in Europe, already have a bigger vision than helping participants to ‘de-stress.’ Many have been discussing a shift from ‘me’ to ‘we’ for years, but the need for neutrality makes that evolution a more complex process, whilst exposing mindfulness to criticism from those who would take a more strident approach to embedding a particular agenda of social change.

In addition, while Purser’s critique helpfully reminds us that individual wellbeing is entangled with culture and social structures, it casts systemic change in an ‘either/or’ relationship with positive psychology and therapeutic approaches to distress. At this crisis point where 20th Century solutions no longer serve us, we can’t afford false binaries like this. Now is the time for ‘both/and’ thinking that can hold systemic and psychological lenses in creative tension with one another.

The profound entanglement of individual and collective forces entails, not only that structural conditions shape our personal motivations, but also that personal development is required for cultural development towards a more emotionally-intelligent, compassionate and just society. Any hope of generating effective, appropriate and collective responses to the radical interconnectivity of life with all its volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous implications, requires that we grow up.

Growing up doesn’t stop at the age of 18. We develop continuously, and certain conditions and behaviours can accelerate, slow or limit that process. Attempts to map and measure how adults develop psychological maturity and complexity show that those at later ‘stages’ are, for example, more able to hold nuance, synthesise ideas, interrogate their values and understand themselves. The more that people are helped to heal widespread barriers to growth such as inter-generational trauma, and the more support that is given to them to learn from life’s trials, the better equipped we will be to meet the challenges we face.

This is vital if we are to resist polarising political rhetoric and manipulation, and ensure that any action we take is likely to be effective. If we haven’t matured to the point where we can acknowledge the influence of our unconscious human drives, emotions and mechanisms of self-deceit, then our attempts to help others or solve problems can be radically counter-productive. Inner actions might be invisible, but they are nonetheless real actions with real effects. Neglecting this arena has consequences that are every bit as serious as neglecting to organise, protest and campaign.

Although there is undoubtedly scope to make mindfulness training more transformative, it is likely that existing high-quality training programmes are already a strong net-positive for society. That’s an easy case to make if you value wellbeing, compassion and the quality of relationships as ends in and of themselves. But beyond these intrinsic arguments we can also build a compelling case that mindfulness is critical in meeting some of our most urgent problems.

That’s because the ability to choose where and how to pay attention grounds our agency. Far from galvanizing mass action, distress in the digital age is more frequently manipulated by ‘attention merchants’ who sell us myriad ways to distract and numb ourselves. Developing a greater awareness of these patterns through mindfulness, and strengthening the mental power to resist being pulled in all directions by corporations, isn’t just self-defence – it’s an act of emancipation. Thus liberated, more attention is available to analyse new or discordant information and stay alive to opportunities for more positive engagement.

As humanity’s ability to make an impact on the world gallops ahead of our capacity to make sense of it, mindfulness enables us to reorient attention towards our object of choice, and also to recruit more and different ways of perceiving. By fighting less with our present moment experience and cultivating openness, we are more able to tune in to what is really going on, resist bias and respond appropriately. As practitioners connect more deeply with the body as a source of insight, for example, non-conceptual ways of knowing offer a basis for discerning action that may be more aligned with what they value most.

Whilst reactivity has always been a feature in the exchange of ideas, the contemporary pressure to respond quickly and publicly to everything means that discourse is increasingly antagonistic and distorted. The development of ‘meta-cognitive awareness’ (the ability to recognise and be aware of one’s own mental processes) through mindfulness practice, and the emphasis on responding creatively rather than reacting impulsively, have important consequences for political polarisation and the productivity of public debate.

Taken together, these capacities of directing attention, making sense and relating constructively correlate strongly with what the polymath thought-leader Jordan Hall calls ‘sovereignty’ – our ability to “respond to the world rather than to be overwhelmed.”

We may choose to respond to the world by attempting to shape it justly and compassionately. And we may seek to manage our distress and increase our agency, discernment and self-understanding. To set these complementary actions at odds with each-other is a waste of time we do not have. After seven years of studying mindfulness training across many different sectors of society, I know that creating change is a whole lot messier than getting people onto the meditation cushion. But it’s also more complicated than insisting that social structures change above or before anything else.

We must consider both our context and our healing, our embeddedness and our sovereignty. Despite wearyingly frequent reports to the contrary, the field of mindfulness does not suffer from the delusion that training is a panacea. But it is an indispensable tool among the many we need to be equal to the extraordinary challenges of our time.

Make space for enjoying your life

I just listened to an amazing podcast on This American Life about an elderly lady who’s family didn’t tell her that the results of her latest health check noticed a tumour on the lung and gave her only three months to live.

The family decided not to tell her and opted instead to protect her from the stress and worry, and carried on as usual.

That was in 2015 and amazingly the old lady is still alive and well today.

When I heard this podcast it reminded me of wise words from great masters, such as Thích Nhất Hạnh and the Dali Lama, that speak of the power of equanimity, or a balanced mind, and the destructive affect of negative thinking. Is it possible that the old lady has survived 4 years because she has been protected from the stress of a terminal diagnosis? We may never know for sure but the idea certainly resonates with me and what I understand about mindfulness.

The whole idea of being mindful is to be aware of how we feel at any given moment – how we really feel I mean. Knowing the attitude of the mind, and feeling the energy in the body is the direct line to our authentic self.

Being connected to our inner landscape enables us to ‘see’ unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and emotions in motion, and only when we are aware can we work with them and be in control. If we remain unconscious of them they will spin out of control and affect everything we do, in turn, this influences our character and our health.

I feel very privileged to be a mindfulness teacher because it encourages me to practice all the time. As well as sitting meditations, I practice opening to the joy of life at any given moment, even when pain or discomfort is present. For example, I recently had a UTI flareup and felt pretty grotty, but even in this state there were plenty of enjoyable things to focus on, and while this didn’t make the pain go away it made space for other experiences. I let in some joy and research shows how positive this little adjustment can be.

Research is confident about the health benefits of mindfulness, but proving that reducing stress can prolong life, even with a terminal diagnosis, might take more time. Meanwhile, it clearly hasn’t done the lady in the story any harm, and long may that continue.