Mindfulness and first person action research: Context matters

Ron Purser, who originally shared his provocative views on corporate mindfulness – enticingly titled “Corporate mindfulness is bullsh*t – has now produced a new book. Catchy title too: McMindfulness.

This is a provocative and important book if we care about self inquiry, especially the kind we practice around AR+ such as MICA which brings  mindful meditation and creative practices together. 

Purser argues that mindfulness – which a particularly powerful form of self inquiry – is being co-opted by executives who want their stressed employees to meditate simply because it benefits the bottom line. By reducing stress, corporations simply seek to get more work out of their employees without having to pay them more.

Truth is, the transformative self inquiry component has been stripped out of corporate McMindfulness which reduces meditation to  relaxation. Not that relaxation is bad; it turns out to be very helpful in creating conditions that allow us to address the deep concerns that otherwise scare us. However, in the practice of McMindfulness, the transformative potential of mindful inquiry, whereby people to feel more connected to larger issues of social justice, is disappeared. McMindfulness debases meditation to an individualistic pursuit of relaxation.  It becomes yet another over-simpliction (OK, colonial rip off) of a two millennia old emancipatory, wisdom tradition.

Confession. I both practice, teach and encourage mindfulness practice.  I’m  an action researcher who believes that first person action research — the effort to become more aware of, and choice-ful about, how we live/work — is enriched by mindfulness practice. I have also put that view to the test. 

A study I led – in which I was embedded with a team of palliative care providers  – concerned mindfulness meditation in the context of participative action research, JABSCollaborativeSelf-2013-Bradbury.  What really intrigued me was that only 12 weeks in, participants were reporting feeling quite empowered both at work and outside work, and better able to serve their dying patients. (Palliative care is for those who know they are dying and have chosen pain reduction over life lengthening “heroic’ procedures; so we did our project in the context of working with the dying.)  It is surely a different context from McMindfulness. I think it was important that we included dialogue groups in the midst of the mindfulness practice.

So mindfulness can really enrich life and the quality of our action research.  But is it too close to McMindfulness? I don’t doubt that the global capitalism we experience today is predatory, living as a vampire off human creativity. But I can’t agree that ALL mindfulness practice is bullsh*t. Quite the contrary.

If we are not mindful we may end up living someone else’s life. The one we are conditioned to in our competitive school systems, our ubiquitous advertising.  That’s the life that global capitalism wants us to live – the life of the individual competitor out for her/himself, using up our store of resources to gift our bosses’ agendas.  But I have the sinking feeling that the boss (and our old professor!) is probably also on the same hamster wheel. In fact a very potent, if counterintuitive, way for change to happen is to just say “no” to all that and, instead,  just sit there.  

“Don’t just do something, sit there” is a clever phrase you hear around mindfulness circles. It comes with a twist.  It’s not sit there and ruminate, or space out, or even just relax (though that is a necessary prereq). Instead sit there and become aware of the thoughts and sensations that pour through. That “just sitting there” may be the very minutes you need – drip after drip – to allow something different from the corporate messaging come in to land in us. It comes entirely out of the blue and can hint that there is another way to live.

And indeed maybe you can’t make huge choices to change the material circumstances of your life today (as illustrated best by any palliative care patient) or the social circumstances that drive inequality and climate change. But you can still begin to heal/thrive in spite of the circumstances.  Change comes. Different perspectives and actions arise. 

I happen to think that taking on mindfulness in a supportive group context helps positive change to arrive much quicker than the approaches being taught in the corporate context.  A little check in and conversation can go a long way when accompanied by some meditation.  And slowly but surely our life surprises us by incorporating that positive change.  Change is really all there is.  

So I am left thinking that mindfulness is not bullsh*t.  But let’s not go alone. Instead, like good action researchers, let’s go mindfully together. With concern for social justice and social inclusion.  That makes all the difference.

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