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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

Asking new questions with Mindfulness

By Rachel Lilley

Why is there suffering?

Was the question asked by Gottama the Buddha over 2500 years ago.  His subject of inquiry? His own mind.  His methodology?  Using his mind to pay attention – to itself.

The Buddha’s greatest discovery, as one of the early brain scientists, was that he could liberate himself from suffering by seeing a mismatch between the minds interpretation of reality (expressed through thoughts) – and reality itself.

His conclusion? Put simply,  we are deluded.  Our mind pumps out thoughts ten to the dozen, 24/7 and we believe them. We are caught in them like a fly trapped in a web. We suffer largely because we cannot see that we are not our thoughts. The web is just a web, the thought is just a thought. The stickiness of our thoughts, compelling as they are, spiral us into reactivity and behaviours which ultimately cause difficulties. Understand this and we start to understand the roots of suffering.

How can I relieve the suffering of chronic physical pain?

In the 1970s Jon Kabat Zin, an American Medic, asked a question very related to the Buddha’s.  Like Gottama, his hunch was that the mind could play a significant role in relieving physical suffering.  He understood that pain can be made worse by how our minds relate to it.   As a meditator he saw that by developing their skills in paying attention, a “compassionate awareness”,  people could reduce their felt sense of pain. He tried it and it worked, it worked so well 40 years on it has been embedded in an evidence based 8 week course called mindfulness based stress relief.

How can I relieve the suffering of chronic mental pain?

Winding forward a few years Oxford University Professor, Dr Mark Williams,  questioned how the relief of chronic mental pain could be improved.  By then scientists had discovered that the mind played a big role in increasing the effects of depression.  The tendency of people to get stuck in negative thinking, to replay painful events, increases the impacts, power and damage of those events. When we are depressed the fact we tend to believe in our thoughts is particularly damaging.  Mindfulness allows depressed people to see the mental downward spiralling and in seeing it, they can make a choice not to get caught.  Again, this intervention has worked, it has been combined with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and has become an evidenced based approach to effectively working with depression.

20 years later a small group of people are emerging and asking how can we support the shift that is required to face some of our biggest 21st century challenges such as climate change, globalisation and more progressive economic systems.

Increasingly we understand that the outcomes of our thoughts, our choices and decisions, are at best flawed and at worst completely deluded. If they weren’t we would all save for our pensions, cease smoking, regularly exercise, cycle often and fly as rarely as we could.

So, like Gottama, Mark and Jon before us, those of us who have worked in campaigning, communications and policy in relation to climate change and sustainability have understood better our problem and strongly suspect mindfulness could help. By developing our capacity to see our thoughts and relate to them differently could we contribute significantly to the seismic shift needed to alter our course?

Climate change and creating social change on sustainability has a particular pathology all of its own.  Our choices do not reflect rational decision making processes. For example, we make decisions on the basis of previous experience not on current facts, we choose on the basis of present gain and by doing so expose ourselves to potential long term loss. We believe what someone is telling us because we like them or they look credible rather than because we know them to be right. We are understanding more and more how tricky the mind is and how the short cuts it makes to making the hundreds of decisions it makes every day, and the way it creates meaning in the world, can start to cause problems, big problems.  So how do we improve societies decision making capacity? How do we improve our ability to behave in a way that supports our individual, group and societal well being and helps us mould a future we want to be living in.

Social sciences have a lot to say about why we behave as we do. Behavioural economics, psychology and sociology give us interesting insights as to how our mind might “really work”, individually, in groups and how elements come together to create behaviour. There is emerging an interesting conversation between experts in this field who also have experience of meditation and mindfulness.  People who, like Jon and Mark and others before them, see the potential of bringing the two together.  It is an exciting new area of discussion, a small seedling with potential, an emergent response in difficult times.  We hope through this project to give it a platform, to nurture its growth and to create space for its evolution.  We invite all those with an interest to join us to journey a new road on the map of applied mindfulness and behaviour change.



  1. Mindfulness and Buddhism | Aberystwyth Buddhist Group - January 11, 2014

    […] University, Mindfulness is being investigated for its potential to support whole populations to change their behaviour in response to climate […]

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