As the booming interest in mindfulness begins to peak and attract criticism from various quarters, ecodharma is staying ahead of the curve. Looking to combine both social and personal transformation in a training that has secular credibility, Paula Haddock spent six months at ecodharma developing and piloting a new Mindfulness for Social Change course. She writes:
A Guardian article recently argued that mindfulness emphasises detachment, undermines social and emotional literacy, and prioritise personal self-actualisation before all else. “With a food bank in every town, a Big Issue seller on every street and strangers clamouring at the gates,” claimed the writer, “it is just plain wrong to seek a life of mindful calm”.
I agree that our culture doesn’t need more movements that encourage individualism at the expense of the collective. Nor does it need calm that leads to detachment. But that is not how I understand mindfulness.
I’ve spent ten years in the development and humanitarian sector, six of those managing the training department for INTRAC, providing trainings for international NGO’s. During that time I’ve witnessed many of the challenges facing those sectors. From what I’ve seen, it has become increasingly clear to me that people and organisations often fail to appreciate the importance of inner work. Consequently they struggle with the effect that this dimension has – often stalling the progress being made in their outer work.
In my experience, inner work, such as mindfulness training, can provide vital resources for social engagement. Sustaining commitment to positive change isn’t easy, nor is working with others – especially across diverse groups, organisations, or even sectors that might have different value bases. A mindfulness practice can support us to meet these challenges. It helps us to build awareness of ourselves, of others, and of the systems in place around us; it is a valuable basis for navigating through the challenging emotions which arise as we open up to the state of our world; it offers us practices for dealing usefully with strong emotions and learning to harness their energy in our work; it illuminates the ways our views and biases affect the way we are in the world. Mindfulness practice also teaches us about compassion, kindness and patience – supporting our sense of connection with others.
With all this in mind I left my job at INTRAC to dedicate myself to bringing attention to and supporting people with the inner work of social change. In August 2014 I attended ecodharma’s Engaged Buddhist Training. I immediately recognised the coincidence of interests between their approach and what I wanted to explore. I could also see the potential for designing a more introductory and secular course, and was delighted to discover that they were also interested in developing a course along those lines.
I am studying Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Cognitive Therapy at Bangor University. My interest was developing the teaching they have developed and harnessing it to support people involved in social change. This sat so well with the approach ecodharma have been applying at their residential centre in the Catalan Pyrenees that we decided to combine ideas and run a pilot course.
I took up temporary residency in the ecodharma community earlier this year and I set to work, in collaboration with Guhyapati, the centre director. Through spring and summer 2015, I worked through the range of skills which, based on our experience of working with development practitioners and activists, we felt presented people with the biggest struggles in social change work. We choose to focus on communication, collaboration, team work, and decision making. We structured the course with plenty of space for personal reflection, mindfulness meditation, and skills for collaboration, as well as creating a temporary community.
The pilot took place in October, with thirteen participants attending from around Europe. 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”.
Given the success of the pilot, we will be including two courses of this kind in the programme each year, and joining forces with INTRAC to run the course in the UK in April.
Thankfully we are not the only ones exploring this area, and over the past year, a small group of us initiated an informal network to help us to share, learn and collaborate together. On November 24th, 2015, we held our first Mindfulness for Social Change gathering, bringing 30 people together in London, to explore our big questions, share ideas, showcase our work, and ask ourselves ‘what next?’.
We explored a range of topics in small groups including: How can mindfulness support people working to promote sustainability, social justice and wellbeing in society? How can mindfulness training and practice in mainstream settings help or hinder efforts to address the systemic causes of social, economic and environmental problems? We also opened up a space to explore how we might move forward together including building a network, co-designing materials, building an evidence base, and supporting each other to sustain our work.
As the year draws to an end, I have more appetite and energy for this work than ever! My experience at ecodharma and with the network, has shown me that as a collective, we are much stronger, and more effective than we are on our own. When we have the courage and support to let go of – or at least loosen our hold on – our organisational or personal ‘egos’ then we can be more honest about what is needed, and build more resilience for the long road ahead. There is much work to do, and clearly many people who can benefit from mindfulness practice – and the whole range of inner practices. Without it, we may never learn that change starts with us and happens through us. And we can do anything once we realise the power we have within to make change happen.