Has our mental health during the pandemic taken a huge hit… or has it actually changed us for the better?
Over the past 12 months Transformation has been running a special series on “Mindfulness and social change,” designed to explore the relationships between contemplative practices like meditation, individual experiences of stress and strength, and structural issues in society like racism, sexism and inequality.
One would think that these links could be especially important in times like the present, when the Coronavirus pandemic places exceptional pressures on individuals and reveals that these pressures are unequally distributed according to social and economic position. But is that true?
To find out, I asked four leading thinkers and practitioners in the mindfulness movement to give me their views. First up is Rachel Lilley, a researcher-practitioner at Aberystwyth University who works on mindfulness training to improve decision making and collaboration among civil servants in the Welsh government. Here’s what she told me:
“A crisis creates a particular decision making environment where short-term, fast, high-risk and creative interventions are needed. How do you lead and make good decisions during Covid-19 with no previous experience or training to inform you? A senior manager dealing directly with key health services noted that, in over 35 years, “I have never faced anything like this in my whole career; I have nothing to draw on” – a sobering thought.
But according to him and the other civil servants I have spoken to, insights from the mindfulness programme, combined with theories of cognitive bias and recent science on emotion, also meant that they felt more prepared and able to deal with the uncertainty they are experiencing, and with feelings of being overwhelmed. One said that previously he would have been paralysed, or more likely to push problems onto other people rather than dealing with them personally. Mindfulness helps him to step back and see his thought processes for what they are – often dominated by, or reacting to, fear and doubt.
Another described a member of his team who was being overly negative in a meeting when a critical decision had to be made urgently. ‘Previously I might have shut them down, particularly as we needed to act quickly,’ he told me, but this time he became curious about the negativity, noticing the valuable insights contained in the person’s critique. By understanding emotions as intimately connected to our thinking and not as human flaws which need suppressing – or are only welcome when they are positive – civil servants are using them to work more effectively with others.
Attention creates the world, since what we attend to becomes our lives, our decisions and our behaviours. In that sense mindfulness, when taught through a social and systems frame, is not just about individuals who can understand and regulate themselves, but also about improving how groups, organisations and systems can work more effectively in a complex crisis. We attend and think together, not alone, and are influenced by our relationships, our environment and our own internal states.”
Mark Leonard, who helped to establish the Oxford Mindfulness Center, calls this broader perspective “social mindfulness.”
“Mindfulness works in two main ways: it increases awareness of feelings in the body and regulates emotions, helping people to be aware of feelings that come in response to a sense of threat…and then stop before reacting mindlessly. Taking a breath allows the urge to pass and gives us a chance to think more clearly and act more skilfully. This can help us to take effective action to avoid exposure to infection in pandemics and reduce the load on the health services.
A sense of threat to our sense of self drives our problem-solving mind to work out what to do to make us feel ok. We rely on these skills to give us the ‘right’ to have whatever we want with little concern for the impact this may have on others. So if we want toilet rolls, it is up to us to go and buy them for ourselves – it’s not our job to worry about nurses finding nothing left on supermarket shelves when they come off their shift.
The social challenges of lockdown, and the fears we have about the future, drive us to look for ways of managing anxiety and boredom. We may distract ourselves by feasting on our private spaghetti mountains or binge-watching box sets on Netflix. COVID-19, however, is giving us an opportunity to take good look at ourselves and wonder if a better world is possible. If we are prepared to do this, mindfulness meditation can take on a very different role, since it is purpose-built to help us face uncomfortable truths.
Mindfulness helps us to understand how our sense of self is shaped by our experience in society, and how our social programming is fostering behaviour that is causing horrifying levels of human suffering and destroying the biosphere. As a contemplative practice it can be a means to achieve a greater sense of self that frees us from a mirage of mindless and self-serving motivations.”
David Forbes, who teaches a course on ‘critical mindfulness in education’ at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, takes the argument one stage further by asking ‘what are we mindful of?’ As he says:
“The potential for a more evolved post-pandemic society is already here. The crisis has forced political and societal changes in government, the workplace, education and healthcare, and in people’s unexamined assumptions and habits. Still, greed-driven corporations, anti-democratic and immoral politicians, and right wing and corporatized media remain powerful forces that favor profit over the public good. Whether these forces will win out in part depends on those of us who organize, resist, and fight for a better world. Can mindfulness play a part in this struggle? The answer is yes, if we connect our contemplative practices with social realities.
Mindfulness towards our own historical patterns helps us to examine and confront the past, and choose to interpret and change how we live. A social mindfulness can help us uncover and to reflect on how the past has conditioned our implicit beliefs, opinions, values, and personal experiences, including traumas. We can trace stressful individualist, competitive and materialist thoughts, attitudes and experiences to their socially-conditioned origins. We can witness, hold and let go of these things as one way to heal and transform ourselves, our relationships, and our institutions.
From an imagined future, we can plan and create the kind of society we want, one that provides connection, care, and personal meaning and fulfilment for all. At the same time, we can engage in the mindfulness practice of not knowing, of being open to what arises in unpredictable ways. As a period of uncertainty, the post-pandemic world will generate both anxiety and creativity. There may be extended, unsettling times in which routines dissolve and rituals lose their meaning as people form new norms and practices. Those with depression could have a harder time re-engaging in meaningful social activity.
A social mindfulness could help us to meet these challenges by healing personal pain and creating new connections that alleviate isolation and suffering, supporting us to cope with the stress of living through the COVID-19 pandemic and preparing us for what comes next. But it must be more than that. In a post-pandemic world, mindfulness can help us transition to more evolved personal relationships, better institutions, and new structures of society.”
Nevertheless, as Beth Berila points out – a mindfulness teacher and Director of Gender and Women’s Studies at St. Cloud State University – placing mindfulness in a social context like this means acknowledging why people have different experiences of discomfort.
“Many of us are feeling waves of intense reactions to the current state of the world: anxiety, grief, fear, sadness, frustration, anger, loneliness…all heightened by structural realities of job loss, economic instability, isolation, lack of health care, lack of safety.
We have been conditioned to avoid discomfort at all costs. We shop, Netflix binge, do anything to avoid sitting with that feeling of groundlessness and lack of control. This state reveals the defensive reactions that emerge when our paradigms about the world are shaken. When we feel fear and uncertainty – which understandably are in high doses now – we are confronted with our ‘go-to’ coping/avoiding mechanisms.
The rise of Anti-Asian and Asian-American racism is a manifestation this pattern (one with a deep history). One very common defence to unravelling paradigms is to create an Us/Them and find someone to blame. That someone usually has lesser power and a history of being Othered. Instead of sitting with the deep fear of the unknown, too many people have lashed out at someone to blame in ways that perpetuate racism, violence and division.
This example reveals the difference between discomfort and trauma. As a middle class white person, I may be uncomfortable with the stay at home mandate but I am not unsafe. I may feel afraid of exposure to the virus when I go for a walk and joggers run too close to me. Those are real fears, but they are not trauma.
But Asian and Asian Americans are viscerally unsafe right now, and that both produces trauma and perpetuates historical trauma. Aaron Thomas describes why he is hesitant to wear a homemade mask because “fear of being mistaken for an armed robber is greater than my fear of COVID-19.” Many people of color are forced into this no-win situation because of racialized violence.
Both the trauma and the discomfort – and the relationship between them – require accounting for in these times. When trauma goes unhealed, it often causes more harm, to the individual experiencing it and to others as it lashes out. There is also deep learning to be had in the discomfort I’ve described. Instead of reacting in habitual ways that perpetuate the cycle, we could heal, shift the power dynamics, and allow the uncertainty to open liberatory ways of connecting.
As a society, we could ask: what are we ready to release so that something new might emerge? Transformation requires that we go through that discomfort and heal from the trauma. On the other side lie new possibilities.”