In 2015 an All Party Parliamentary Group published a document “A Mindful Nation UK” . It focussed on ways mindfulness-based approaches could be introduced into society through health, education and criminal justice services, and through the workplace. The focus was on ways of benefiting individuals. The title, however, could be interpreted as in some way aiming at making the nation as a whole more mindful, not just as a collection of individuals but as a society. This leads to the question, what is a “Mindful Society”?
One could be forgiven for thinking that since that report the UK and USA have become significantly less mindful. Are there any indicators that we have not collectively lost the plot? And how might mindfulness help?
Mindfulness is about moving, where appropriate, from a reactive way of living to a responsive way of living. When we live in a state of constant reactivity, stress levels rise and physical and mental health starts to deteriorate. Mindfulness practices help individuals cultivate responsiveness, and can reverse the effects of stress. For long term practitioners of mindfulness, stress relief alone is not the only benefit of practice. The intention moves gradually towards a more measured emotional regulation, and ultimately towards freeing oneself from inappropriate reactivity.
Reactivity is important. If an immediate threat to an individual arises, then reactivity is often the best way to deal with the immediate crisis. It is when the immediate threat has subsided that reactivity does damage. When we react to imagined futures and unchangeable pasts, then we become locked in a cycle that can be very harmful.
Can we translate individual reactivity and responsiveness into a societal context? I think we can. Over decades and centuries we have created institutions and laws that are purposefully there to contain reactivity. In primitive times a murderer (or even a common thief) might have been lynched by the mob, but now we have ways of moderating the reactivity and coming to a measured response. The divine right of kings was slowly eroded over a millennium, starting with the Magna Carta, until we had a constitutional monarchy where the role of the monarch is conventional and carries no real power. Our institutions of government, fault-ridden though they may be, are there to temper reactivity and encourage responsiveness. Governments too are subject to law, and when they assume divine rights they too can be curtailed.
Unfortunately for individuals and society, reactivity is ingrained and responsiveness needs to be cultivated. At an individual level this can be cultivated through mindfulness practices (there are other ways of cultivating this too). At a societal level, this is inevitably more difficult, but it does require individual responsiveness rather than reactivity, and also cooperation and communication. Just as for an individual, increasing levels of reactivity at real and imagined threats harms the health of society.
So, with the newspapers full of reactivity, political leaders challenging established ethical principles, and people reasonably concerned about the threats to society as a whole, can we become more mindful as a society? Well, maybe if we all sat down for 20 minutes every morning and focused on the breath, many of the problems would go away, but frankly that is not going to happen. What can we do?
Firstly, we can acknowledge that these are difficult and frightening times. Then, if we are not immediately threatened by the situation, we can make reasoned responses. If there is one simple practice that can be more widely used today, it is to pause before speaking. As individuals we all go through crises, and the way out of those crises are usually slow and painstaking, building inner resilience. So, too, society takes time to respond, and needs to build its resilience. Despite the disturbing political situation today, we have institutions and laws we can use and build on, nationally and internationally.
We need emotional regulation for society as a whole, not just for individuals. Today’s headline is mostly just that, written in the main for effect by people who want attention about people who want attention. The pattern of events as a whole needs understanding, and a more measured response may emerge. It was reactivity that got us into the current situation, with votes to deal with imagined threats, and reactive policies to deal with them. Patience will help, and then building a coherent response.
We have to hope that our institutions and laws, in the long term, are strengthened by this.