- Published: 29 November 2016 29 November 2016
Mindfulness meditation helps us to manage emotions better but we need to understand what binds people together if we are going to survive.
Humanlike creatures evolved from rainforest dwelling social apes adapting to a changing environment caused by climate change around three million years ago. Walking on two feet, thumbs fire and naked: adaptations that made our ancient ancestors nomadic hunter-gatherers of the savanna.
Around seventy thousand years ago, modern man spread across the earth out of Africa, finding ways of surviving in all kinds of different environments, from the Arctic to arid deserts. In the blink of an eye of geological time we have changed the face of the earth; wiping out ancient megafauna and outcompeting Neanderthals, then clearing forests for farming and more recently burning fossil fuels, triggering a wave of extinctions and a new geological age.
How did we do this? Neanderthals left Africa a quarter of a million years before us. Our ancestors who displaced them were very similar in many ways. In fact, Neanderthals were better evolved to cope with the cold of winter. They were stockier, which enabled them to conserve body heat better than humans and they were physically stronger.
The singular characteristic that distinguishes humans from all other living species is our advanced ability to imagine a different world, create symbols to represent it and language to describe it. This may be just the thought and language we use to make complex plans but it also gives us the magical power of art and with art comes culture. With culture, we not only have a place in an extended family and the ability to plan a hunt, as did Neanderthals, we can become members of a clan, a clan part of a tribe and a tribe part of a nation – small family groups of Neanderthals living sedentary lives in caves were no match for mobile war parties and hunting teams from early tribal peoples.
With each new technological development, we have changed the world around us. Culture, ideas and language have adapted to each new age of mankind. We have built empires with armies and gold and silver to pay men at arms. Now, we pay for economic growth by issuing government bonds to borrow from the future and burn energy stores laid down millions of years ago as coal and oil.
Social and economic forces have undermined the importance of community and family life. We are driven by self-interest and interest from capital skims off wealth creating ever-greater degrees of inequality. With inequality comes stratification in society between the have and the have-nots and social isolation, loneliness and injustice result.
Social conditions drive us to achieve more, to earn more and acquire more. Self-improvement comes with self-evaluation and comparison with an idea of what we want to be. We are never good enough and we are anxious about what others may think of us.
We create organisations that build systems to allocate resources on the basis of cost effectiveness and performance. Everything needs to be measured to monitor inputs and outputs. We are being observed, assessed and subject to external systems of control. We are socially disconnected, disempowered and stressed.
Mindfulness has become a household word since it was found to prevent depression. Mindfulness meditation helps people to reduce self-critical thinking and become more self-accepting. In effect, mindfulness meditation artificially creates an experience of social acceptance and a sense of social safety in a fractured society. It enables people to compensate for the effects of the social disconnection and stress caused by modern living.
In so doing, mindfulness meditation reduces the sense of lack that drives so much of our behaviour today. There is less need to compete and achieve on an individual basis. Mindfulness meditation goes some way to fill the existential void caused social disconnection and so reduces the need for distraction from an imaginary world of social media or the temporary rewards gained from spending and consuming.
As mindfulness meditation becomes more and more part of modern life, how might this effect society? If we learn to feel more satisfied by the simple things in life, this could affect our insatiable desire for things. As we reconnect with ourselves we begin to appreciate the pleasure of human connection. We place greater value on the quality of relationships and so build organisations and communities that are more likely to place compassionate and cooperative human values centre stage.
We become more engaged as we feel we are part of a meaningful community that provides our needs and a service to others. The conditions for fostering intrinsic motivation replace external incentives. Top down, monitor-and-control management systems become redundant and organisational structures become more horizontal. Vision and values become aligned and lip service to corporate social responsibility is replaced by ethical corporate behaviour. A more sustainable future becomes possible.
Today we are witnessing a reactionary backlash from the broken dream of a neoliberal system. The politics of emotion is disrupting bureaucratic systems managed by experts and the educationally privileged. Passion is being expressed but forces unleashed threaten to run amuck like an angry beast. Never before has there been a time where there is so much at stake for so many. Never has there been a time where we need to realign our imagination and the problem-solving mind with our ability to work together for the common good.
We need to understand the way we work: Wave after wave of our ancestors have enacted heroic journeys in search of new lands. Each wave of pioneers discovering virgin territory and establishing new colonies. Each new culture, better organized, with more advanced technology, displacing, enslaving and dehumanizing, or just out-competing peoples and cultures, that preceded it.
Now, for the first time in our short history we have come to a point where a single technologically based culture has become globalised but there are winners and losers. Those who have lost out in the industrial heartlands fall prey to the natural human instinct to indentify the enemy. Aspirations for a better life in developing economies is frustrated. Nationalism and idealism clash on the international stage and carbon dioxide levels rise. The prospect of war, resource destruction and migration threaten us all.
Our instincts are to project our fears onto others different to us and rally around a tribal sense of identity but the problems we face today are global in nature. It is the fabric of our economic system and the social structures that have co-evolved with it that is the enemy. It is within us all.
For the first time in history we have the technology to connect with people across the planet, however, the glue that holds a people together is more than information or entertainment. For humans, art has always been more than information or decoration. It was a window into a deeper realm of meaning. It had magical power. The first temples were caves. Culture and identity were bound together with artifact, place, land, season and fertility enacted in rite and ritual.
The internet enables people with similar interests to connect. It can feed mindlessness with distraction but it can also bring people together. In bringing people together it fosters groups with shared interests whose views are confirmed by others but there is little human connection going on via social media. This drives meaning more and more into groupthink imaginary worlds of threats enemies and reaction.
If we can avoid a future dystopia we will have to find ways of building social structures that can manage the challenges of this age, where religion and science has so far failed. Communications technology may cultivate a sense of group identity and action around a social cause and this may even blossom like the Occupy Movement or the Arab Spring but something more is needed to become a force for lasting change.
Mindfulness meditation may offer us some hope. At present it helps individuals feel better and this may well have a positive impact on relationships at work and in people’s private lives, however, what society needs is more than this. We need to find a way of establishing a cultural identity that can create a cohesive socially engaged movement that can address the challenges of our times. To step up from a self-help tool, mindfulness meditation needs to inhabit a social space, and to do this it needs to shift its context.
We need to understand mindfulness practice as more than a means to reduce psychological stress. We need to recognise the potential of mindfulness meditation to become a means to understand what it is to be a psycho-social, spiritual being. Then mindfulness meditation needs place where people can meet, learn, build deeper social connection and sense of identity around compassionate action within a community to become a real force for social change.
Mark Leonard played a key role in establishing the Oxford Mindfulness Centre (OMC) in 2008 and acted as OMC Mindfulness in the Workplace Project Champion, and worked as Development Manager until 2012. He set up OMC spin-out, The MindfulnessExchange (TME), with Marina Grazier, teaching the first workplace courses based on Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, by Professor Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman, and was architect of the TME trainer training study week. He then went on to develop a new approach to workplace mindfulness programmes designed for professional and organisational development with Mindfulness Connected www.mindfulnessconnected.com