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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

At the APPG

Mindfulness In Westminister

By Rachel Lilley


Is mindfulness an opiate or a system changer? That was one of the key discussions in the All Party Group on Mindfulness meeting in Westminster yesterday on Workplace Mindfulness. Our attempts to combine behaviour change theory and mindfulness are definitely attempting to apply it as a transformative game changer.

At the event Chris Ruane MP discussed some great work with the unemployed. He also pointed out that one in three people will suffer from mental illness in the coming years and mental health represent one of the greatest burdens on our society. Another speaker suggested that we needed to remove the stigma of mental health from our workplace and society and that mindfulness could help do this.

But, of course, the elephant in the room is that we need to address a system that many of our minds just cannot cope with – hence the problem. Not only does our current way of working and living create problems for individual minds, it also defaults us into soothing, high carbon behaviours and a planet that in its attempts to adapt to increased levels of CO2 seriously challenges the habitat of the human race.

I remember an osteopath telling me, and some of you may be interested to know, that our sacro iliac joints (where our spine meets our pelvis) have not yet fully adapted to standing fully upright. Similarly our brains have not developed the skills to deal with some of the complex problems of our time. Work on scarcity thinking intimates that we can only cope with so many decisions in one day (relief!) that we tend towards the status quo as well as possessing a confirmation bias – so I may want to go into the supermarket and buy less packaging in my weekly shop, but I am trying to do that on top of more than a full time job managing a team with uncertain funding, two teenagers, both in their GCSE years, an overdraft and constant underlying fatigue.

Too often I get a sense from the mindfulness community that the greatest value in the practice is that it gives people resources to cope. Of course, it does. I have spent many years using yoga and mindfulness to help me accommodate more work and more stress as well as dealing with a reasonable helping of childhood induced trauma and anxiety. As a result I have never presented in my doctor’s surgeries with mental health problems.

But this only serves to continue a system which we all know isn’t quite working.

I believe mindfulness can be used to help us challenge the systems we have created and creatively address them. But I also think it needs specific approaches. For us, our approach is to use mindfulness to support giving people an insight into their own brain processes – drawing from behaviour change theories from Kanemann, Sunstein and Thaler, Shove, Ariely, Dolan, Bazerman. All these thinkers who help expand our insight into our irrational decision making processes. Mindfulness is incredibly effective at really deepening people’s understanding so that it becomes much more than theory.

But my real hope for this work is that both mindfulness and behaviour change evidence help to take us to a place where we have to admit – we are not in control. We rarely really know what we are doing, our attempts to hold and fix on to ideas and beliefs in a transient world just limit and disconnect us from each other and our world. The wonderful and ironic thing is, an understanding of all of this potentially makes us happier, more in flow – less mental health problems.

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