Guest BlogsBe The Change You Wish to See

The mindfulness conspiracy. It condemns all mindfulness practitioners/teachers as being obsessed with happiness and acquiescence to the causes of inequality, environmental degradation and oppression. In essence the article is all conjecture – it is based on opinion and without evidence. So, I invite you to consider a few points that I think may cause more celebration of mindfulness practice and application than this article gives credit.

As a Mindfulness Association trained teacher meeting the conditions for the UK Listing of Mindfulness Teachers, I adhere to the good practice guidelines that ensure the integrity of the mindfulness I teach. As such, the mindfulness I am qualified to teach (MBLC & CBLC) guides actions towards that which creates kindness to the self and other. It does not direct anyone towards acquiesce of anything – especially the destructive self or an oppressive political-economic system. For me both change and choice are only possible through shifts of consciousness. Throughout my many years of teaching I have witnessed many people experience the space to see beyond the auto-pilot or accepted norms. And it is here that many are able to see the potential for choice and change in their lives. More objectively, the existing evidence base for alleviating different forms of suffering via teaching mindfulness is compelling.

I agree that we live in a world of massive inequality and suffering, but mindfulness does not ask anyone to blindly accept any of these. It is worth remembering that mindfulness-based teachings grew out of a growing need to work skilfully with stress and pain (Jon-Kabit Zinn 2003). And many mindfulness-based teachings continue to do so. Research over the last thirty years has asserted that human history has both legitimised and normalised violence and socio-economic inequalities, such that trauma is widespread in western society (90% of the population exposed to traumatic events and between 8% – 20% of this resulting in PTSD) (see Van der Klock 2014 and Treleaven 2018, Gabor Mate 2019). For many the above has been caused and perpetuated by a culture that depicts unhealthy forms of masculinity (Lomas 2016) and the hyper-sexualisation of women and children (UNICEF 2019, McCall 2012). It is often argued that we live in a culture where individualism, competition, materialism and power over others are the acceptable norms.

Our political elites appear intoxicated by these norms and stressed as they work within a system of government supporting these very norms. Through advertising and working practices the British population is encouraged to remain compliant with these norms, and intoxicated by alcohol (a global drug survey suggests Omally 2019). The ‘conspiracy’ article appears to come for the supporters of traditional left activism – unions – regard anything outside of their activities as a threat to their ebbing/dying importance. Yet, without a shift in consciousness, activism or collective mobilisation becomes angry intoxicated people shouting at angry intoxicated people. It could be argued we have witnessed this with debates about Scottish Independence, Brexit, Trump and Jordan Peterson etc without any potential for meaningful change.

It is little wonder there is so much ill-health in our society, and practicing mindfulness has been identified as an important intervention for addiction, anxiety, depression, trauma to name a few (see Van der Klock 2014 and Treleaven 2018). It is also little wonder people are seeking an alternative purpose and meaning, culture and collective that embraces life and love – some turning to mindfulness to find these. This echoes the work of Erich Fromm (1964), when he described western culture as exhibiting the politics of necrophilia (love of death): he called for the promotions of the politics of biophilia (love of life) to alleviate suffering and the realisation of human potential.

I see mindfulness practices promoting a shift in consciousness to question destructive and harmful norms and practices. The mindfulness I know focuses on kindness and compassion, which links to the definition of biophilia.  Importantly these activities belong neither to a campaign of the left or right. It is merely a more humane and enlightened view of relating to the self and all sentient beings.

This is not just wishful thinking with a focus on happiness. At the Mindfulness Association every mindfulness practice begins by considering our intention and motivation for practising: the motivation is linked to the deepest well-being of ourselves and others. Similarly, the participants of the Level 2: Compassion course are encouraged to consider what can grow out of their personal practice into their world and describe this in a Compassion in Action pledge.  Participants can develop this further on a CPD weekend on Engaged Mindfulness. During the MSc Mindfulness at Aberdeen University, students are encouraged in the final year project to focus on evaluating workplace applications of mindfulness. The Mindfulness Association’s Everyone Project has funded mindfulness teaching for those section of society least able to afford or easily access such training.

We have seen over 45 parliaments throughout the world welcome mindfulness classes for parliamentarians and staff (Mindful Initiative 2019). And Joannna Macy’ (2012) Active Hope‘ has generated activism for a better world based on principles we often associate with a mindfulness perspective.

So, my reply is that the Mindfulness Association’s mindfulness is not premised on wishful thinking, preoccupied with happiness and delivering acquiescence to inequality, environmental degradation and oppression. Rather I see this mindfulness as a practice that has the potential to enable someone to feel the space for choice and change in their own lives, and in their world if they choose. This mindfulness invites us to relate to ourselves and others with kindness and compassion. For me that is a revolutionary act in itself. As a great man once said ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’, and then maybe, just maybe, another world is possible. What do you think?

A special thanks to Dr Bill Paterson for writing this post.


  1. The article in The Guardian, which is referred to here as ‘The Mindfulness Conspiracy’, makes for very interesting but slightly unsubstantiated reading, I’d argue.
    There are sweeping statements in it, such as modern mindfulness practice is devoid of any moral compass.
    It claims that mindfulness is all about the individual, and not the wider community or society in which that individual lives.
    It says that mindfulness creates a kind of bubble of ‘wellbeing’ for this individual, who is then not so inclined to protest against social injustice, inequality, etc., almost as if they are anaesthetised or blinded to what happens around them.
    It doesn’t seem to give any credit to the huge part played by compassion within the practice of mindfulness.

    Yes, mindfulness does begin with the individual, so the article is correct as far as that, but the practice of mindfulness doesn’t end there. There’s a rippling effect as we learn and grow and respond to those around us with greater calm and attentiveness. And that in turn affects how they respond to others around them. It may start small – one’s spouse, children, parents, colleagues – but that doesn’t mean it won’t be effective in the long term.

    So I don’t think that Ron Purser and his researchers have fully grasped the extent of mindfulness practice, apparently selling it short as the latest self-help fad. Perhaps I ought to read the article again to make sure I didn’t miss something.

  2. Ok, step back and take a calm look: Ronald Purser is a very respected academic and a very respected Buddhist practitioner of mindfulness, so I for one read his words with interest and an open mind. If you read his article properly, it’s clear that he doesn’t actually condemn ALL mindfulness practitioners and neither is his article ALL conjecture, as Dr Paterson has stated. There is actually a lot of interesting and well-informed perspective in there if one can manage to read it without taking it too personally.

    Obviously the Mindfulness Association has a clearly stated commitment to compassion but this is not so explicitly included in many MBIs internationally, which can (and are) being tailored to meet the individual needs of whichever organisations commission them. So we should be reading Dr Purser’s article with a clear conscience – he’s not accusing the Mindfulness Association directly of the unethical or unhelpful secularisation of mindfulness, but he is simply pointing out that this is happening elsewhere, and I believe this is a valid concern. One of his particular areas of interest is the US military’s use of mindfulness training, and that is just one example of a situation where concentration training and awareness training (under the umbrella of “mindfulness training”) are being used to give a cutting edge to soliders in situations of conflict rather than to step towards compassionate clarity. It’s a fair example, I’d say, and Purser has certainly done the research to back up his claims.

    Part of the problem here is an apparent “them and us” mentality. Dr Paterson’s response is very defensive and, I’d say, unnecessarily so given the excellent record of the MA. Purser’s message is one worth hearing. It’s a warning which is worth really listening to and worthy of some real contemplation. Purser is a Buddhist, a mindfulness practitioner himself, and, I’d say, a man who seems to be trying to make positive social change in the world, whether or not you agree with his political stance or his perspective. His message is hard to hear but it’s worth making the effort.

    Open hearts and open minds are required. We can all sing in harmony without having to sing exactly the same song. Purser is not wrong. The MA is not wrong. World Peace arises from us doing our best to understand how things seem from the perspective of others, and it seems to me that Dr Purser’s perspective is well-educated, well-meant and carefully thought through – definitely worth a careful re-read with heartfelt kindness rather than uncomfortable and unhelpful animosity. Xxx

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