What role does mindfulness play in politics and public policy today? Does mindfulness make a difference to how we think about society and engage with its challenges? What are the social contexts in which mindfulness is being taught? Are we listening to the needs and values of people in the communities where mindfulness is being introduced? Is there a valid analogy between the individual and societal suffering? 


These questions and more were explored at the Mindfulness in Public Discourse event at the Centre of Buddhist Studies, SOAS, University of London, on 8th December 2018. Some of the UK's leading thinkers and practitioners in the mindfulness field gathered for this afternoon round table event, and the audience was treated to three presentations followed by a panel and open discussion.


Dan Nixon and Jamie Bristow from the Mindfulness Initiative gave the opening presentation Why should we think of mindfulness as a 'foundational capacity' for a flourishing society? Dan presented findings from their upcoming discussion paper which asks whether we can think of mindfulness as a foundational capacity for individuals and for society. Can mindfulness underpin wiser choices, reconnect us to our values and help us to see the 'bigger picture' at a time when information overload makes each of these harder than ever?


Dan's talk was followed by talks from Dr Joanna Cook, UCL and Rachel Lilley, Aberystwyth University.


In her presentation, If mindfulness is the answer, what is the question?, Dr Cook stated that 'The present moment is having its moment', arguing that mindfulness is being interpreted as a positive intervention for societal problems as wide-ranging as depressive relapse, criminal recidivism, children’s academic performance, and worker burn out. She asked, given the diversity of the challenges to which mindfulness is now seen as an answer, what is the question? And traced the popularity of mindfulness back to broader transformations in our ideas about self and human flourishing. Watch Dr Joanna Cook's talk here.


In her presentation, Mindful blinkers and biases: how and why we fail to optimise this transformative practice, Rachel Lilley argued that although many mindfulness advocates believe teaching attention, acceptance and compassion practices will change the world, improve politics, solve climate change and address inequalities and other contemporary challenges, this view is naïve. She argued that we need a paradigm shift to address the biases and blind-spots of ourselves as trainers, our participants, and the research fields we work in. She added that it is only through seeing what we are missing, and challenging our ways of working, that we can truly support deep and transformative change at organisational, social, political and global levels. Watch Rachel Lilley's talk here.


The day closed with a panel and open discussion, chaired by Vishvapani Blomfield (Mindfulness Initiative Wales), and with panellists: Dr Alison Armstrong (Present Minds), mindfulness teacher Byron Lee, and Dr Steven Stanley (Cardiff University). The discussion was broad-ranging and included such questions as whether mindfulness is a movement, and if so, what kind? What most matters to mindfulness teachers and why? What are the pitfalls of thinking of mindfulness independently of the cultures in which it is practiced? Do we make too many assumptions that we know what different communities need? Given the growing sense of urgency in tackling ecological issues, can mindfulness change our habits soon enough? You can watch the panel and discussion here. 


This event was organised by SOAS Centre of Buddhist Studies and sponsored by the Khyentse Foundation.