By Paula Haddock.

In an article in The Guardian recently, mindfulness was argued to emphasise detachment, undermine social and emotional literacy and prioritise personal self-actualisation before all else. The writer argued that, “with a food bank in every town, a Big Issue seller on every street and strangers clamouring at the gates, it is just plain wrong to seek a life of mindful calm”. I agree entirely that our culture does not need any further movements that encourage individualism to the detriment of the collective, nor calm leading to detachment. But is that really what mindfulness is about? To what extent is inner work, vital and integral to recognising our connectivity with others, and working collectively to bring about social change? In a new course on Mindfulness and Social Change, INTRAC is teaming up with Guhyapati, the founder ofEcodharma, a training centre dedicated to incorporating inner work, with outer social and environmental engagement, to explore these and further questions.

Given the size and scale of many of the social, environmental and economic problems that we face, it is crucial that we build core skills, and gain deeper insights into the causes of the problems we face, in order to make significant systemic change. Having a strong vision to drive our work is key, as are values to drive the way we work towards those visions. Being able to make decisions, review and learn from our work, communicate well with others and collaborate and network across organisations are all core skills which are vital for our work.

These skills call on us to be open to ideas that are different from ours, to be able to acknowledge and manage our emotions, and to maintain a strong intention to work through differences towards common goals. Developing mindfulness – an innate human quality – can help us build the motivation, qualities and skills necessary and help avoid precisely the concerns raised such as detachment, lack of empathy, and complacency. Rather than deterring us from being part of the change needed, it encourages us to see our roles clearly, recognising that the potential for change starts with us and starts now. Being the change is, however, no easy feat – particularly in a complex, stress laden, pressurised context and a culture which often challenge us to favour other values and norms – even in the development sector.

At Ecodharma in mid-October, we delivered a new pilot course, designed to make the importance of inner resourcing explicit for building on skills for personal and collective effectiveness. The course incorporated skill building on the core social change skills mentioned above, combined with being resourced, resilient and empowered to continue our work. We explored core aspects of building a mindfulness practice including how to cultivate ‘mindful attention’ and become more aware and in control of the mind’s tendency to shift to ‘automatic pilot’ since attention and awareness are key to seeing our interconnectedness with one another and with our environment. We explored ‘skilful emotion’ and being able to respond rather than react mindlessly to the social change issues that we face in a way that is sustaining and impactful. Finally we considered how our views, perspectives, beliefs and biases shape the way we live – and how to see through them and not be limited by them.

Thirteen participants from around Europe came on this pilot course, and the result was very encouraging:

“A brilliant course, superbly facilitated, that explores how to apply the inner benefits of mindfulness to external change. I think you have identified a gap – I see this as an important next stage in the current wave of mindfulness practice.”

“I thoroughly enjoyed this course – mind shifting and life changing and resourcing for my life and work. Gave me a fresh look at what I’m doing and why I’m passionate about social change.”

“…the course exceeded my expectations… the fact that it is mindfulness for a greater cause, for action – super important”.

As the attention on mindfulness grows, so does the need to identify how mindfulness can support lasting social and environmental justice. This course is one of many attempts to explore this and given the positive response to the first pilot, we will be running this course again with INTRAC in early 2016near Oxford UK. I have also worked with a collective to set up The Mindfulness and Social Change Network to explore, research and debate this theme. Members of the network include mindfulness teachers and practitioners, who work(ed) with or for a range of social change organisations from various European countries including Oxfam GB, WWF, Amnesty International, and the Open Society Foundation. The Network is hosting a one-day workshop in London on 24 November to provide a space for sharing, debating and exploring the potential for collaboration.

Please get in touch with Paula Haddock and Luke for further information about the network or the workshop on 24 November 2015.