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Mindfulness practices are spreading across western societies, prompting widespread interest as well as challenges from Buddhists and critics. Behind these discussions is the question: can mindfulness be a force for change in society, and if so, what are the risks for Buddhism and for society?
Vishvapani is very involved in these discussions in the UK. He teaches mindfulness in Cardiff, is the Wales Director of The Mindfulness Initiative (an advocacy group that promotes mindfulness to policy makers) and is a leader in taking mindfulness into the Criminal Justice system. Over the last year he’s been engaging in these debates across the UK. He writes of his recent endeavours in this area:-
“How The Light Gets In is a ‘Festival of Philosophy and Ideas’ that runs concurrently with the Literary Festival in Hay-on-Wye in the Welsh Borders. For two days in May 2018 I mingled with the thinkers and participated in several events themed around mindfulness.
The debate, At One With Ourselves, pitted me as an advocate of mindfulness practice against Miguel Farias, a psychologist and author of The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? who thinks its benefits have been overstated, while Sociology Professor Linda Woodhead commented on the discussion from a non-aligned perspective.
Miguel challenges the claim that mindfulness and meditation are a risk-free panacea (not claims I would make) and believes it shortchanges Buddhism. My own view is that, while there’s much more to mindfulness than the popular version, and more to the Dharma than mindfulness, the mindfulness practice I see in the UK is effective, helpful, and usually taught with care and integrity. For many people it opens a doorway to a different seeing their lives in a new way, in the light of the Dharma.
Watch the debate here
In my talk, Morality and Mindfulness, I connected mindfulness practices with Buddhist ethics, especially the notion of skilful and unskilful - familiar territory for most Buddhists, but language that is lacking from popular versions of mindfulness. I said that in a Buddhist context values derive from understanding the mind itself in a certain way, and seeing how skilfulness and unskillfulness work in our experience.
I was very struck by the level of interest in mindfulness at the Festival. 150 people attended the debate and more were turned away, while my talk and a ‘Philosophical Dinner with Vishvapani’ were full to capacity. It seems that many people who are interested in philosophy are also meditators and the Festival was a rare opportunity to talk Dharma in a non-Buddhist setting.
Mindfulness and Interfaith at Winchester Cathedral
There is growing interest in mindfulness among Christians and in November I gave the annual Winchester Cathedral Lovell Interfaith lecture, which this year was hosted by Winchester University. I was asked to speak about mindfulness again, and my theme was ‘Mindfulness and Spirituality’. I suggested that mindfulness is never wholly ‘secular’ if that implies being an opposite to not just ‘religious’ but also ‘sacred’ and ‘spiritual’. I think that mindfulness is potentially an important meeting ground between Christians and Buddhists and, after I spoke, Brian Draper (a Christian contributor to BBC’s ‘Thought for the Day’ radio programme) responded.
Listen to ‘Mindfulness and Spirituality’ on Free Buddhist Audio
Mindfulness and Public Discourse at School of Oriental and African Studies
I’ve been involved in The Mindfulness Initiative since 2015, when I worked with others to produce Mindful Nation UK, a report by the Mindfulness All Party Parliamentary Group. Since then work has continued, exploring what it means to bring mindfulness practice into society on a large scale and with the support of policymakers.
Over 100 people attended a seminar on Mindfulness in Public Discourse at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in Central London. There were talks by a range of speakers from The Mindfulness Initiative and I chaired a Panel Discussion at the end of the day. Until now the strongest element of the UK mindfulness world has been Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and this has prompted a ‘therapeutic’ view of mindfulness as something that can be offered to individuals who are stressed, depressed or anxious. What’s emerging is a more ‘social’ perspective that’s concerned with bringing these practices into communities, taking account of issues such as race and poverty. “
Video of all the sessions, including the panel discussion
Follow Vishvapani’s writing and broadcasts on his ‘Wise Attention’ blog.