Mind & body

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Mind & Body -

How be­ing in the right mind can change the world By Martin Ste­pek

OVER re­cent years there have been sug­ges­tions by some com­men­ta­tors that those en­gaged in mind­ful­ness are not crit­i­cal of, or avoid any at­tempt to change the de­struc­tive as­pects of the cor­po­rate world. Ev­ery sin­gle one of the peo­ple I know di­rectly or in­di­rectly who bring mind­ful­ness to the big cor­po­rates do so in the hope and be­lief that it will help to change the cul­ture of those or­gan­i­sa­tions to be fairer, more hu­mane and less in­her­ently de­struc­tive. It seems to me that it is only those on the out­side who as­sume that this is not the case.

Some will rightly ar­gue that chang­ing the cul­ture of a few com­pa­nies might be fine for their em­ploy­ees but doesn’t change the per­ceived cancer at the heart of the ne­olib­eral mind­set un­der which we all have to live.

That’s right. But to be fair and bal­anced we should ask our­selves, what else has changed or does change the ne­olib­eral cul­ture? Com­mu­nism tried. Look at the re­sults. My grand­mother dead in a grave some 1800 miles away from her home as the crow flies, one of just over a hun­dred mil­lion ci­ti­zens known to have been killed by that ex­per­i­ment in cre­at­ing a bet­ter so­ci­ety. Or how about demo­cratic so­cial­ism un­der Labour in Bri­tain? Why did peo­ple not buy into it enough to re-elect them af­ter the seis­mic 1945 govern­ment, or the Wil­son pe­ri­ods in the 1960s and 1970s? Look at the most highly re­garded coun­tries in the world with re­gards to so­cial se­cu­rity and equal­ity, the Nordic coun­tries. The lands of IKEA, Nokia, Lego, mass oil and gas ex­ploita­tion. Have they or any­one else found the al­ter­na­tive? Why then do some de­mand that mind­ful­ness does what no other way of do­ing or be­ing or gov­ern­ing has man­aged? We are not mea­sur­ing the right thing when judg­ing mind­ful­ness.

What can change life, cul­tures and coun­tries are hu­man minds. We have lim­ited con­trol over ex­ter­nal nat­u­ral fac­tors such as weather, sea­sons, and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, but we do have the po­ten­tial to bet­ter man­age and di­rect our minds. The ne­olib­eral world which we all con­demn but we all lit­er­ally buy into, the con­sumer so­ci­ety which we know is the cause of so much that is de­struc­tive, both glob­ally and men­tally, is some­thing ev­ery­one I know par­tic­i­pates in to a greater or lesser ex­tent, and mostly to a greater ex­tent, all the while con­demn­ing it.

If hu­man minds got us into this mess, it can only be hu­man minds that can get us out. Our thoughts be­come our words and our ac­tions. Wrong-minded thoughts can be­come wrong-minded words and wrong-minded ac­tions. Re­sult? Suf­fer­ing, in­equal­ity, greed, in­dif­fer­ence, ha­tred, con­sumerism, cli­mate change. Right-minded thoughts be­come right-minded words and right­minded ac­tions. Re­sult? Re­duced suf­fer­ing, greater equal­ity, al­tru­ism, com­pas­sion, ac­tivism, re­straint of con­sump­tion, hope­fully an end to in­creased cli­mate change.

Note that if there are no thoughts there are no hu­man-cre­ated prob­lems. All our man-made prob­lems orig­i­nate in thoughts. So it’s thoughts we have to sort. Mind­ful­ness is a dis­ci­pline that asks us to no­tice what’s go­ing on, and in do­ing so asks us to ques­tion our mind­sets and thoughts. It al­lows us to pause the com­mu­ni­ca­tions and ac­tions we do, and as­sess how these might af­fect other peo­ple, the world, in­clud­ing how we vote and how we ac­cept or seek to change how life is struc­tured right now. This is be­cause mind­ful­ness is not directive; it is not so­cial­ist or an­ar­chist or lib­er­tar­ian or au­thor­i­tar­ian or neo­con­ser­va­tive or lib­eral.

It is ob­ser­va­tional, and from ob­ser­va­tion, es­pe­cially ob­ser­va­tion of our ge­netic and life-ex­pe­ri­en­tial skews and bi­ases, we can re­think more clearly and more ob­jec­tively and more deeply how things are, how we think things might be­come bet­ter, and how to make the most ef­fec­tive steps in those di­rec­tions. That doesn’t mean our con­clu­sions are al­ways right but it helps us move in that di­rec­tion.

As for the Bud­dha in all this? He cre­ated mind­ful­ness in an at­tempt to bring peace and con­trol over his own thoughts. He then started to teach it to help re­duce peo­ple’s suf­fer­ing, so it was an al­tru­is­tic and com­pas­sion­ate mo­tive from the start. Ac­cord­ing to the sto­ries he me­di­ated be­tween war­ring tribes and nations, help­ing to end wars. He linked two things to­gether – how in­di­vid­u­als could stop suf­fer­ing, and how so­ci­eties could be­come bet­ter. He taught 10 du­ties for rulers, even ad­vice for em­ploy­ers, in­clud­ing giv­ing away their wealth, not cheat­ing or harm­ing, giv­ing up per­sonal com­fort, be­ing hon­est and kind, liv­ing a sim­ple, fru­gal life, pro­mot­ing peace and non-harm­ing. How can such a phi­los­o­phy be viewed as com­pat­i­ble with con­sumerism and the ne­olib­eral way we live?

So when peo­ple say mind­ful­ness is a lackey of the cor­po­rate world they’re not talk­ing about mind­ful­ness, but some­thing else. Call it McMind­ful­ness or any la­bel you want to give it but it is not mind­ful­ness.

And when peo­ple say Bud­dhism is the new opium of the peo­ple or helps the cor­po­rate world we live in, they are not speak­ing of Bud­dhism as the Bud­dha taught it. They can call it what­ever they like but it is not Bud­dhism. I write this as some­one who is not at­tached to mind­ful­ness even though I prac­tise and teach it. I tell my classes al­most ev­ery time I speak that if some­one would in­vent a pill that al­lowed me to ef­fec­tively man­age the be­wil­der­ing cre­ations of my mind, with no side-ef­fects, leav­ing me free to think clearly and com­pas­sion­ately, I’d take it straight away and dump all the chal­leng­ing things I have to do to be as mind­ful as pos­si­ble. And I am not Bud­dhist, so have no at­tach­ment to it ei­ther.

Martin Ste­pek is founder of Ten­forZen, of­fer­ing guided mind­ful­ness ses­sions in handy, 10 min­utes a day, au­dio cour­ses. Au­thor of four books, he is fre­quently asked to speak on mind­ful­ness, his re­mark­able fam­ily her­itage, and on busi­ness. See ten­forzen.co.uk and www.mar­tin­ste­pek.co.uk or email martin@ten­forzen.co.uk

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