Mindfulness is a powerful resource for radical transformation and dismantling oppressive structures.
By Gee and Paula Haddock.
First published in openDemocracy’s Transformation section.
A lot has been written recently about how mindfulness can serve the social reproduction of capitalism. CEO’s list meditation as a daily practice that helps them stay mentally agile in their pursuit of profit maximisation. Commentators like Slavok Zizek, tell us that, “by allowing us to uncouple and retain some inner peace,” such practices actually function “as the perfect ideological supplement [to capitalism].”
In his recent article for Transformation, The Future of Mindfulness, Ron Purser reiterates the fact that “mindfulness can be used for nefarious purposes when divorced from a larger ethical framework.” If used purely as a method to relieve individualized stress or enhance personal performance, it can compound individualistic self-preoccupation, distract us from the structural causes of injustice, and deflect our efforts away from projects aimed at building collective agency for systemic change. Like most things, mindfulness is susceptible to co-option in a world where “capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizon of the thinkable,” as Mark Fisher once put it.
And yet, that’s not the whole story. Purser finishes his article by saying that “we need a new language and praxis of spiritual and political liberation that isn’t muted by the weak balm of self-improvement.” Many of us who are integrating mindfulness into activist training couldn’t agree more, but for us this isn’t the future of mindfulness, because the language and praxis we need are already here. In our work at the Ulex Project with people committed to struggles of solidarity, mindfulness has proven itself a powerful resource for radical transformation and a vital tool for dismantling oppressive structures, both within and around us.
We’ve been developing programmes that embed mindfulness in activist education for the last decade, helping activists to become more sustainable and effective. Our journey started amidst the failure and repression that surrounded the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009. The burnout, frustration, and disintegration of grassroots groups afterwards seriously undermined our movements through the hemorrhaging of talent and experience. This highlighted the importance of integrating practices that strengthen self-awareness, emotional literacy and resilience within activist cultures. Seeing burnout as a political issue, we began to develop sustainable activism trainings with mindfulness and related approaches as their cornerstone from 2010.
Hundreds of activists have attended these trainings and the majority report that mindfulness and meditation have been key in helping them to address burnout, feel more equipped to face challenging circumstances, collaborate better, and balance action with reflection in ways that enhance organizational learning. We added a specific course dedicated to training secular and social mindfulness in 2015. By helping activists to stay in the struggle for the long haul, mindfulness becomes anything but an “ideological supplement” to capitalism.
For example, Melanie Strickland, one of the Stansted 15 campaigners who grounded a charter flight in 2017 to confront the UK deportation system, drew on these skills to navigate difficult times and a long legal battle. “Becoming aware of how my own mental processes weren’t always helpful, especially when I’m already stressed and burnt out, was vital,” she told us. “Mindfulness also helped me start to learn how to work better with really big, overwhelming feelings like grief – which are healthy and necessary responses to the crisis of these times.”
However, we’ve also found that the benefits of mindfulness practices are determined by the key motivations and framing that are brought to them. Working with people who are already committed to action for social change or ecological defence and who are engaged in collaborative projects or organisations helps to mitigate the risks of mindfulness becoming co-opted.
At the same time, to avoid individualisation, we place it in a framework that shows how effective strategies for transformation need to pay attention to three mutually interdependent spheres: the personal and psychological, the interpersonal and organisational, and the widersocial movement and socio-political. Neglecting any one of these spheres, or failing to recognise their interplay, can undermine our struggles.
Unfortunately, for many activists, recognising the structural nature of oppression and the pitfalls of individualism all too often leads to the feeling that any attention to the personal or psychological sphere is inherently narcissistic. This often guilt-driven simplification props up behaviours and group cultures that are ultimately self-sabotaging.
In reality, acknowledging the strategic and political importance of practices for increased self-awareness and care is a crucial source of collective empowerment. As the civil rights activist and writer Audre Lorde once pointed out, from the position of someone subject to oppression, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” To support this change, shifting the balance of activist cultures to include personal contemplation and psychological inquiry is essential.
In developing these skills with activists we explore mindfulness-like practices across three dimensions: Mindful Awareness, Skilful Emotion, and Ways of Seeing. Skills in mindful awareness help activists to make choices about where they direct their attention. This builds up defences against the onslaught of the ‘attention hijacking economy’ which seeks to steal and dissipate our focus across surveillance capitalism’s digital drag nets. It helps us nurture continuity of experience, cultivate greater mental clarity, and break free of debilitating habits. ‘When it’s all going arse up around me,’ as a common refrain puts it among the activists we work with, ‘these skills really help me to stay grounded and open.’
Mindful awareness can help us to push back against the tendency to react to constant demands for urgent action, and to see the strategic value of opening up spaces for deeper reflection and learning. Fire-fighting is sometimes inevitable, but, as Adrienne Maree Brown puts it, the author of Pleasure Activism, “there is such urgency in the multitude of crises we face, it can make it hard to remember that in fact it is urgencythinking (urgent constant unsustainable growth) that got us to this point, and that our potential success lies in doing deep, slow, intentional work.”
Skilful emotion rests on building greater emotional literacy, which helps us to channel difficult feelings like rage and grief in ways that bring vitality and passion to our struggles. Without these skills, powerful emotions can play havoc on our bodies, wearing us down and slowly leading us into despondency or cynicism. Skilful emotion enables us to nourish our capacity for empathy and solidarity, as well as being a necessary foundation for more effective communication and the ability to work creatively with inevitable conflicts. These emotional skills are crucial to the relationship- and trust-building that healthy activist organisations need to cultivate.
Exploring ways of seeing helps us to acknowledge the provisional and partial nature of our views and to recognise how they can empower or undermine our struggles. Complemented by anti-oppression perspectives that direct mindful attention towards deeply-rooted mental paradigms of competition and productivity, as well as patriarchy, racism, sexism and classism, this enables activists to gain the depth, humility and compassion they need to create transformative change, and it can help us to collectively embody the liberatory social relations we are fighting for.
Developing the ability to recognize the constructed nature of our views enables us to recognize when our political identities are truly empowering – and where they can imprison us. This can help us to work with diversity within our groups and movements more effectively, replacing unproductive and entrenched antagonisms with open-minded inquiry and recognition of the creative potential in our differences.
All three facets of mindfulness work require both personal practice and a supportive interpersonal context. Deep self-awareness doesn’t just come from introverted contemplation; it also needs the feedback, challenge and support that working with others provides. Emotional literacy can be enhanced by training in techniques like somatic awareness, but it also needs spaces where we can express and honour the whole range of our emotional experiences with each other.
Uncovering our assumptions and mindsets, and learning to hold our views less rigidly, does require inner reflection, but equally it depends on dialogue and collective inquiry. With this in mind, our trainings integrate tools and skills that are both individual and collective. Change in people goes hand in hand with transformation in the activist and organisational cultures we create together.
The methods we share aren’t intended to provide a universal set of practices. Diverse socio-economic conditions require diverse methods. Neuro-diversity makes some practices more or less useful to different people. Historical and cultural differences will make some approaches a better fit than others. Consequently we take a very ‘open source’ approach, honouring some basic principles but assuming specific practices will always be adapted.
Echoing Purser’s call for the future of mindfulness, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, in his book The Religion of the Future, conjures a vision for a new religio-political praxis which “should convince us to exchange serenity for searching.” In much the same way, our integration of mindfulness within activist training is not so much about developing calm and serene minds as it is about effectively empowering our struggles.
And yet, unless activists are prepared to turn their attention inwards as well as outwards our struggles will continue to be undermined by our own mental habits. If so, the potential we have for truly liberatory collective action is unlikely to be realized.
Gee has been involved in activist training and strategy work for several decades. He is a founding member of the collective behind the Ulex Project and as Programme Director currently designs and curates Ulex’s training work.
Paula Haddock co-designs and delivers the Mindfulness for Social Change training. She is the co-organiser of the Mindfulness for Social Change Network and has worked in capacity building across a range of civil society organisations for 15 years.