Mindfulness — From Therapy to Social Change

By Mark Leonard

Mental health isn’t something we have or we haven’t got, we all have our breaking point and the pressures of modern life are taking a heavy toll. Mindfulness meditation is now an evidence-based therapy and possibly even a self-help fad but could it end up changing workplace culture and have a wider impact on society?

Mental ill-health is experienced as a terrible burden of suffering and distress, not just to those who experience mental illness themselves but to friends and family too. It is also a huge drain on business and the economy. It is estimated to cost the UK economy between £70-100 billion a year while In the US, the cost of serious mental illness is estimated to be in excess of $300 billion.

For much of the time we are thinking about something to solve some kind of problem in our minds. We could be thinking about a difficult meeting coming up. Maybe we’re planning a schedule to make a deadline. It could be something about our personal life. In fact, researchers, using a smart-phone app have found that we’re distracted 47 per cent of the time and, because a lot of the time we’re worrying about some problem or other, we’re not as happy when we’re distracted compared to when were focused on what we’re actually doing.

At some level in the mind, every time we imagine a problem we perceive a sense of threat. Our brain’s filing system selects memories of experiences that give us information about how to deal with the situation and this triggers an emotional reaction. Stress hormones are released into the blood stream to get the body ready for fight of flight. These stress hormones affect the way we think and even make us more likely to actually look for a threat and interpret what’s happening as a problem.

So much in modern living is pushing us in this direction; pushing us to our limit. We can end up going round and round in circles, doing things that don’t need to be done or doing things that need to be re-done or undone, making mistakes or snapping at people and harming important relationships. If we don’t spend enough time in our lives relaxing, in the company of friends or just generally focusing on the good and pleasurable things, we can get into a spiral of counterproductive busyness, living off adrenaline, becoming less and less aware of what’s actually happening, becoming increasingly stressed and end up burning out.

In recurrent depression the mind switches into a more destructive pattern of thinking that may have been shaped by difficult times early on in life. People with recurrent depression start to see their low mood as a problem and this just makes things worse. It triggers a whole pattern of spiraling low mood accompanied by self-critical and overgeneralised negative beliefs and social disengagement and lethargy.

In 1992, because depression is becoming more and more of a problem, the Wellcome Trust funded clinical psychologist, Jon Teasdale, then based in Cambridge, England, to research novel ways of preventing depression. With colleagues, Zindel Segal from Toronto, Canada and Mark Williams from Bangor, Wales, they decided to investigate the potential to teach meditation as a psychological intervention. They developed an 8-week program, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which combined elements of cognitive behavioural therapy and Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Jon Kabat-Zinn’s program for chronic pain and stress. This is how mindfulness meditation became a “talking pill” and following it’s success in clinical trials, mindfulness has been adapted to treat almost every kind of psychological and psychosomatic suffering.

What is mindfulness meditation? There are many definitions but what do you actually do and how does it affect your mind and your body? Reduced to its most simple elements, it involves directing attention to body-based sensations while sitting, lying down, stretching or moving slowly. This interrupts the tendency for the mind to be absorbed in thinking and diffuses the emotional fallout produced by ruminating, worrying, planning and endlessly problem solving. By practicing mindfulness meditation we gain some perspective on thoughts: fixed or limiting ways of defining who we think we are become just thoughts in the mind rather than facts. This frees us from their power over us and feeds a more relaxed self-accepting state of being.

Paying more attention to body-based sensations also reconnects our nervous system to what’s going on in the body. We become more aware of pleasurable sensations, notice new things, become more curious and engaged in what’s going on in our lives. Learning to let thoughts go enables us to be more at ease with uncomfortable emotions and react less to difficult situations. We become more aware of emotional states as they change. We learn to “listen” to what’s really going on for us rather than being caught up in stories running around the mind. This enables us to understand how we feel and manage our emotions better in our personal and professional lives.

In a therapeutic environment people are willing to just follow instructions that a therapist gives them to do things that can be quite uncomfortable. One aspect of meditation in MBSR teaches people to observe uncomfortable sensations that arise when sitting still for quite long periods of time or even sensations of discomfort experienced stretching, moving into a yoga posture. This helps people with chronic pain to start to open up to sensations in the body and just notice them, as they are, instead of tensing up anticipating the pain. As a result, pain becomes less of a threat and the nervous system adapts to physiological stimulation of nerve endings in damaged tissue. The experience of pain becomes more manageable and even less intense. Sometimes chronic pain is entirely maintained by the memories of pain; and tension and resistance to it. In these circumstances, chronic pain is entirely psychosomatic and so can be dramatically reduced or even disappear entirely by practicing mindfulness meditation.

In a similar way this helps people to just accept uncomfortable emotions and not get caught up in the spiral of problem solving thinking that feeds depression. In MBCT, explanations and discussion about the whys and wherefores of what people are being asked to do in a therapeutic group are also avoided because the whole strategy of the therapy is to get people to pay attention to body-based sensations and take a break from the problem-solving mind.

Signing up for an 8-week mindfulness course, with two or two and a half hour classes and listening to forty minute recordings of guided meditations each day is quite a commitment. These courses also include a whole day of silent mindfulness meditation practice some time during the course. People who are really desperate to find relief from chronic pain or the darkness of depression may be ready to engage with a course like this and do what a therapist asks of them without question, however, this approach isn’t so well suited to the workplace.

Shorter courses with more explanation seem to work better in organizations. What’s more, measurable benefits of these courses compare well with full-length therapeutic programs. These workplace courses also need to be contextualised to make them relevant. Sitting in a circle may feel like therapy and workplace courses are better structured as skills training with presentations and group exercises. Meditation bells can seem a little new age. The way mindfulness is taught in organizations needs to fit the workplace culture.

When mindfulness is taught in an organization, a whole new factor comes into play. People may be learning mindfulness meditation in a group but, unlike therapy, they maintain their connections with people everyday at work. It seems that when this happens, people say it begins to change the way things are done: There may be an increasing recognition in the workplace culture that people need to leave their work behind them when they leave the office. There may be an increasing recognition that a competitive attitude or macho attitude to stress doesn’t improve efficiency. The workplace begins to be an environment where positive human qualities that produce more collaborative working styles are more able to be expressed. Better relationships with colleagues improves teamworking and better relationships with customers improves customer loyalty. Mindfulness, not only reduces the cost of absenteeism due to chronic stress, it lays the foundations in which a resilient organization, created by the efforts of an engaged workforce, can grow. Over time, this has a positive benefit on the bottom line: productivity, profitability and shareholder’s dividends.

So mindfulness can have a positive impact on the social environment in the workplace. Organizations that foster the human spirit not only will prove to be more resilient in the long-term but a flourishing workforce will also be more engaged at home and in the community life. If mindfulness meditation can have this kind of effect in organizations and this effect can spill over into wider society, what effect could mindfulness have in communities themselves and how might this shift trends in happiness and well-being across the population? Perhaps we now need to start teaching mindfulness meditation courses as public health intervention or even with the explicit rationale of social change?

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