With the realization that the current socio-political paradigm cannot solve many of the issues it has created, many educators and scholars have begun to emphasize the application of inner development and contemplative practices in public life. Policy expert, Jamie Bristow joined this month’s deep dive session with Nurturing the Fields of Change, Alef Trust’s community of practice for holistic change facilitation, to specifically discuss how mindfulness and compassion training could play an important role in building a more sustainable and equitable world.

Westerners are increasingly adopting regular mindfulness practices, with overwhelming scientific evidence of improved mental well-being, including reduced stress and enhanced focus. While the effects of on the individual are impressive, the most far-reaching implication of mindfulness practices lie in its potential to transform society, given that so often our initial intentions for “self-regulation turn into self-exploration”, as Jamie explained. The practice of mindfulness takes a ‘deliberate paying closer-than-usual’ attention to the mundane details of everyday life. As the practice deepens, the benefits of mindfulness begin to unveil the quality of our thoughts, feelings and habitual reactions. This type of self-observation is the first step towards waking up from our ‘automatic nature’. We become more able to say no to stimuli of unconscious triggers instead of allowing reactivity to take hold. In the heat of the moment this is, of course, easier said than done, however, by practicing mindfulness we can begin to identify the root cause of our perceptions and responses, thus cultivating more skilful life choices.

While sharing some of his life’s journey, Jamie was fully aware of the enormous task to challenge our own conformity, as well as attempting to break out of a system that is founded on power, accumulation and productivity. He admits that he began meditation “in order to concentrate better and work longer hours in advertising making adverts for Nissan, filming cars driving across the tundra to sell more SUVs”. Lack of awareness of our unconscious patterns doesn’t just become an obstacle that prevents us from achieving personal goals, but it also continues to create political dysfunction through tacit acceptance of “official” rules and constructs. Having played an instrumental role in the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness, Jamie could clearly identify a narrowly fixated political process, leaving individuals unaware of what else was possible or achievable in various situations. He emphasised that developing a more intimate and clear knowledge of himself through mindfulness training enabled him to discover our shared humanity and a deeper capacity to empathize and support others, noting, however, that the word ´compassion´ is still not usually received well within the political arena.

While the notion of compassion may be perceived as a hazard by many, it is in fact not acting on such critical matters with sufficient conviction that is evidently a lot more hazardous. So much of our current suffering is rooted in the habit of relating to our thoughts, identities and judgements that instinctively run through our minds and make us feel separate and justified. It’s often easier to condemn the behaviour of others than look beyond it to see the inner conditions that have led to perpetual conflict. So many of our fundamental assumptions, our cultural moralism and surfaces-based criteria are so deeply ingrained in our everyday language that it’s virtually impossible to shed them and we can only remind ourselves to take them into account. The practice of mindfulness challenges our usual narrow identification towards a more expanded and inclusive experience and through this deep involvement it reveals the non-ethical habits of the mind that are connected to individual behaviours and which reinforce the systems of oppression.

Once we recognise that our individual experience has made us who we are, we can begin to learn about inequalities that have been constructed and institutionalised based on these identities. We can then begin to transcend the constricted form of selfhood by becoming more mindful of the ways we interact in the world, moving closer to transcendent values within, and greater lessons in compassion. Tapping into such values and motives expressed through these experiences and reflections could be pivotal to any serious attempt in solving the problems of our world.

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