Is Mindfulness Inherently Contextualizing?

Context matters. Yet we live in a culture that can be relentlessly decontextualizing. Could mindfulness be the antidote?

By Dan Nixon

Vishvapani Blomfield has taught meditation, in secular and Buddhist contexts, for over eighteen years. He also writes and broadcasts on mindfulness, meditation and Buddhism, and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’.

Dan Nixon: Vishvapani, we’re here to talk about the wide range of contexts that we find ourselves in as human beings – and how this links to contemplative practice. In recent decades, we’ve witnessed an explosion of interest in secular mindfulness training programmes across a pretty remarkable breadth of contexts – from healthcare to schools, workplaces, the military and prisons.

Vishvapani: Yes, I think it’s interesting that mindfulness is being applied in so many settings – that it’s had the capacity to become mainstream, to move beyond alternative therapies, spirituality, and that sort of thing. This “mainstreaming”, and its relevance to such a range of different populations and needs tells us that mindfulness touches on something universal.

That’s not to say you can just bring in a particular modality of mindfulness, like the popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, and just apply it willy-nilly, without any adaptation. Sensitivity to context is really important when you go into different settings.

As a mindfulness teacher, I go in to workplaces, to prisons, to people on probation, to schools, as well as working with the general public. The differences across those contexts are very marked. When I teach mindfulness to the general public, for example, people are generally there because they are suffering – experiencing stress, anxiety, or something like that, and want to address it by understanding themselves better. That brings a certain type of energy to the sessions.

By contrast, when I walk into a prison, I feel I’m entering a different realm, a different mental space. To call it the “threat realm” is quite accurate: no-one feels safe, and in many ways they genuinely aren’t safe. Psychology helps me understand that kind of context. For instance, Paul Gilbert calls the “threat system”, which is activated by a sense of being unsafe, and can lock people into “fight-or-flight” mode. As a mindfulness teacher in that setting, you firstly need to help people feel safe and then help them access their capacity to calm down, which Gilbert calls the “soothing system”. That helps them get a different perspective on things.

Dan Nixon: That’s interesting: clearly, then, introducing contemplative practices like mindfulness into new settings calls on us to take account of the context that we’re operating within. At the same time, though, we can also note that with mindfulness, we are dealing with something that serves precisely to help individuals to “meet themselves where they are”: wherever they are, whatever they’re doing. If I practice mindfulness – intentionally bringing an open awareness to what’s going on in my mind, body and external environment – there is a sense, then, that this activity puts me in touch with my immediate context. That practice of mindfulness is inherently contextualizing – a point I heard you make at a recent discussion on mindfulness in society.

Vishvapani: I would add to that a distinction between meditation and mindfulness. Meditation is something that you do for a certain length of time, you generally have your eyes closed, and so on. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is ultimately a capacity of the mind. You can be mindful in any situation. Practicing mindfulness helps connect us to the current situation, to the context, to the culture that we find ourselves set within.

Our consumer culture decontextualizes things, or rather it recontextualises our experience so we’re encouraged to compare our current state to a fantasized idealized state. Advertising plays on the gap between my unsatisfactory state now and a more satisfactory state, which it associates with a product. I’ll be happier if I buy the product. Those messages about not being good enough are so pervasive, and they’re amplified by the media, especially social media.

Some of the things that we talk about in relation to mindfulness aren’t really problems in a more traditional – and less decontextualizing – societies. Today, our attention is relentlessly seized by the forces of the “attention economy” in ways that more traditional societies simply did not have to contend with, fueling mental health issues. Mindfulness training offers something particularly valuable because it speaks to a holistic kind of awareness – one that encompasses the head, the heart and the body without regarding them separately – and an awareness that connects us to our immediate contexts.

Dan Nixon: And, importantly, most of our situations – most of our contexts – involve other people. This suggests an important social dimension to the practice of mindfulness?

Vishvapani: Precisely. One of the criticisms that’s made of the secular mindfulness movement, if we can call it that, is that it plays in to our individualistic culture. That mindfulness prompts concern with me, with my mind, with my well-being. I think the reality is a bit subtler: I would say that in secular frameworks, the locus where change occurs is me as an individual. Still, it’s fair to say that our culture is individualistic and that secular mindfulness programmes do play into this, insofar as they’re packaged as a healthcare intervention or a well-being course or some other product that we access in the same ways that we access other products in our consumer culture.

This, unmistakably, does frame how mindfulness is perceived and understood.

But what happens when people start to actually practice mindfulness is they find that their experience is not purely individualistic or decontextualized at all. They open up to the reality of their experience, and this “opening up”, which could be another term for mindfulness, serves as a kind of connecting factor. True, it helps us connect with ourselves, most immediately; but when we connect with ourselves, most of us discover that actually, we’re really connected with other people. If you meditate and say to yourself quietly, “what are the thoughts that are going through my mind?”, a lot of them have to do with other people. Whether it’s affection, or irritation, or worrying about people, what inhabits my mind is a host of characters.

Dan Nixon: That’s an interesting point. Even when we simply focus on ourselves, we find that we’re thinking about other people.

Vishvapani: Yes, what I see time and time again is that an individual’s own suffering is often the reason he or she enrolls on a course in mindfulness. But connecting to experience in this way, people become aware not only of themselves their needs and their suffering, but of other people, with their needs and their suffering.

Dan Nixon: Does this mean, zooming out a little, that there is a role for mindfulness in situating ourselves within our wider social context? That going beyond the “host of characters” who we meet in our own experience, that mindful awareness puts us in touch with the pressing social challenges of our times?

Vishvapani: I think it can, but this is where we need to say that mindfulness has to go along with other things. Mindfulness directly connects us to the social nature of our immediate experience. But if you want to talk about the world as a whole – pressing social issues, and so on – then I would consider mindfulness more as an enabling faculty. It can certainly inform how you see these issues in the world at large. But other things, like our pre-existing beliefs, are also critical. If your belief system is racist, for example, and if those beliefs override whatever questioning voices your mindfulness practice opens you up to, then you will be a mindful racist. I’ve met people like that. Ultimately, then, practicing meditation cannot bypass the need for a properly developed ethical framework.

Still, it’s true that mindfulness can help us to reconsider our beliefs, and that can be healthy, especially if we’re holding on to some point strongly. It can also help us to be authentic and in touch with our values, and to reconcile these with certain realities about how the world is. To appreciate what we can and cannot change.

For instance, one strand of my work is with caring professionals like social workers, probation officers, prison officers and so on. What I see is that people want to contribute. There’s usually a genuine compassionate motivation there – you don’t need to come up with a new one. But those people are working within systems and often feel they’re compassionate in spite of those systems. In that case, what do we do?

One thing we can do is to say: we have to reform the system. But whatever we come up with, it’s still going to be a system, it’s still going to fall short of our ideals. Of course, this should not deter us from aiming for the best systems we can devise. But I think any attempt to create more compassionate systems, businesses, organizations, services and so on needs to start with individuals who find their own authenticity and the capacity to maintain that authenticity in the face of the imperfect reality in which we find ourselves.Cultivating mindfulness can help people accept – to really accept, which is harder than it sounds – the fact that things are difficult. That the world is, you could say, full of crap. To really accept the difficulties and then engage creatively with the world as we find it. That’s why, Tibetan Buddhism speaks of “making adversity my teacher”, since it’s either going to be a teacher or it’s going to be a source of intense irritation.

Dan Nixon: That’s very insightful. Is there anything else you would add, from a Buddhist perspective, on the subject of mindfulness and context?

Vishvapani: Well, within Buddhism mindfulness is one of a range of faculties that need to be developed. In the context of the Buddhist spiritual path, it is cultivated throughout one’s life, rather than for a short period of time, which can be suggested when we package it as an 8-week course, say.

One link to our discussion of the contextualizing character of mindfulness is Buddhism’s view of mindfulness as a balancing faculty. It balances other pairs of faculties that one develops in Buddhism. Balancing is not quite the same as contextualizing, but I think it ties in with it.

For example, Buddhists will seek to cultivate both tranquility, on the one hand, and energy-to-act, on the other. Both are important. But they need to be balanced, and mindfulness supports this balance. Or, another pair of faculties is faith and understanding. Faith, here, refers to opening up your heart to a different perspective on life – an expanded sense of what it is to be human, that includes your response to things like beauty, awe and inspiration. Understanding refers to insight into the nature of existence, or reality. Both faculties are needed. But without a balance of the two, the risk is that either one becomes overly absorbed in analyses of the nature of existence or, at the other extreme, overly faith-bound, or perhaps lost in a limited form of faith. Cultivating mindful awareness helps you to strike a balance between these two faculties.

Dan Nixon: Thank you, Vishvapani, that’s very enlightening. Cutting across the secular and Buddhist settings that we’ve considered here, then, it feels like “connecting” is a word that is central to what mindfulness is ultimately about. Connecting across mind and body, faith and understanding, tranquility and action. And connecting to our values, our immediate social context and our wider society.

Vishvapani: I think that’s right. There’s a famous quote from E.M. Forster: “Only connect.” But in fact it goes on: “Only connect the passion and the prose” – so , the head and the heart. I think mindfulness is a fundamental connecting faculty in the way that E.M. Forster intended.

Dan Nixon is a freelance writer and leads research initiatives on human capacities of mind and societal flourishing for Perspectiva and The Mindfulness Initiative.

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