Mindfulness as a secular practice and way of being is becoming popular within educational institutions, corporations, and even the US army. There is sufficient evidence within neuroscience and other disciplines to uphold the potential that mindfulness has to bring transformative change in individuals and possibly organizations. It is no wonder that big businesses like Google, Apple, and General Mills are investing in in-house mindfulness training for their employees. Many CEOs and leaders of organizations are known to have a mindfulness practice. We are reading more articles and white papers on the benefits of mindfulness at work. Yet, how has mindfulness changed how these organizations operate? Has Apple stopped using child labor working in dangerous conditions to manufacture iphones? Is General Mills less inclined to use false advertising to sell foods with artificial ingredients as natural to health conscious consumers? And how is mindfulness impacting us as consumers, so we make more skillful choices in the marketplace?
I ask these questions not as a criticism of mindfulness or the organizations adopting mindfulness but because I believe the true potential of mindfulness to bring transformative change has not been fully explored. I believe that mindfulness offers benefits beyond focus and stress reduction to catalyze wisdom and creativity for enhancing well being of all beings on this planet. My belief is not a pie in the sky but based on personal experience and insight, the original texts on mindfulness in the Theravada tradition in Buddhism on which much of the secular mindfulness practices are based, and growing evidence in neuroscience.
Personal Experience & Insight
As a mindfulness practitioner, facilitator and researcher, I have experienced and studied many benefits of mindfulness. It has in many ways made me a better person. But I still find my mind and my life cluttered. I still see places I am stuck in unwholesome habits. I continue to make unskillful decisions. I commonly see this and hear this from other practitioners as well.
Upon contemplation I realized the situations I was living unskillfully involved enhanced awareness of the situation but lacked insight. What I mean by insight is an embodied experience of the true nature of reality, which is what frees one from addictive patterns and attachments in the mind. For example, it is in seeing for oneself – and not as a conceptual understanding – that everything in life is impermanent that one can ride the wave of desire instead of giving into it. In seeing that I am placing my happiness on impermanent phenomena which is going to cause suffering is when the hold of addictive behaviors naturally weakens. It struck me then,
Secular mindfulness practices focus on cultivating attention and awareness but not insight, which is what involves a seeing into the fundamental nature of life that transforms the being.
Upon gaining this insight I searched within original texts and academic journals for the connection between mindfulness, awareness and insight. This is when I discovered for the first time that there are several stages of insight that involve a predictable developmental process within mindfulness practitioners. Awareness or knowledge of our mind and body is only the first stage of insight. And yet, much of the focus of current secular practices has been on developing attention and awareness. Of course, cultivating awareness is foundational for transformation. It is awareness that creates choice and possibilities. In the absence of awareness we are stuck in autopilot behaviors.
However, awareness doesn’t always translate into change. What is additionally needed is cultivating the other stages of insight that free us from being hooked to attachments and mental proliferation. Dr. Andrea Grabovac (2014) strongly encourages all secular mindfulness-based teachers to have an awareness of the different stages of insight including, knowledge of cause and effect, three characteristics defining the true nature of worldly phenomena, arising and dissolving of sensations, dissolution of self as we know it, acceptance and wisdom.
Upon reading and reflecting on the stages of insight I realized I had experienced these stages during the ten-day Vipassana silence retreat, which created the conditions for me to experience this. I am now motivated to continue to create the spaciousness needed to experience insight. I am committed to creating the conditions in my life that support cultivation of insight through out my day and not only during practice (For example, longer meditations, less frequent checking of emails, less multitasking, and approaching all activities with spaciousness). I am inviting a quality of stillness in my life, especially during difficult or important decisions so I can make choices that are in alignment with my values, intentions and purpose of bringing mindfulness to ease suffering in the world and create conditions for all beings to flourish.
Interestingly, the stages of insight described in the original Buddhist texts are reflected in the findings in neuroscience. Broadly, the benefits of mindfulness are attributed to greater attention control, emotional regulation and self-awareness, which are seen to develop over different stages involving different levels of effort (Tang, Holzel & Posner 2015). In a review of the current state of research in mindfulness meditation Tang et al suggest that practitioners benefit from mindfulness in different ways which are accompanied by changes in associated neural correlates over time, starting with gaining attention control in the short term, to emotion regulation in the intermediate term and self awareness in the long term (see figure inspired by this paper below). As such people move along a continuum of development from effortful doing to effortless being. This development as suggested in traditional texts requires patience and diligent practice that is sustained in the long run.
1) Awareness is a necessary but not sufficient condition for transformative change.
2) Cultivate not only awareness but also insight.
3) Create conditions for cultivation of insight not only in your mindfulness practice but in all activities in life. If you are looking for change within your team or organization design processes that create conditions for people to experience awareness, deep listening, and insight.
4) Remind yourself to take important decisions by creating spaciousness to see the bigger reality and act from that place of stillness and clarity of emergent solutions. (Read more about mindful emergence and how we are cultivating the core mindfulness skills to create conditions for emergent solutions on our website for The Reminding Project).
5) Be kind and patient with yourself as this is a life long practice.
I believe in the transformative potential of mindfulness because I have experienced it in my own life, studied it, and seen it in others. But do not take my word for it. Try it and see for yourself (Look up Mindful Universe to find a teacher in your area). If you are a practitioner, please share your experience.
A brief primer on mindfulness
Mindfulness is the awareness of things as they are. It is a non-conceptual, non-judgmental experience of a situation. We all experience moments of mindfulness, this quality of bare attention, but often it is so fleeting that we don’t notice it. An ordinary example of mindfulness that you might have experienced in your life is the first moment when you see a beautiful sun set. Before you mind could have made sense of that sight being sun set and before you experienced the feeling of liking what you saw, there was a moment of pure seeing, devoid of any judgments and preferences. It is only later the mind steps in to recognize it and you have thoughts and preferences. Mindfulness practices cultivate the ability to sustain this quality of awareness, at will, which creates the conditions for insight.