Mindfulness on my mind

I attended an interesting research seminar yesterday on mindfulness in the workplace. I have to admit, I was skeptical. I don’t really believe in the mindfulness and positive psychology hype we’re seeing pretty much everywhere (see The search for happiness or Help that just isn’t helpful). And although mindfulness can be good in many ways, I just don’t believe that it is the answer to everything.

It’s on everyone’s lips everywhere. Workshops get organized; consultancy companies specialized in mindfulness seem to pop up right and left. And although I sort of automatically get put off if everyone is doing or talking about something (I know it’s silly, but it’s true…), curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to know what exactly we’re dealing with here. And, in addition, since I research contemporary society and social change, I figured I really need to find out what this mindfulness craze is all about. Why exactly does it appeal to people so much? And why now?

Well, I have to say, I’m glad I went because I really enjoyed the talk. And the fact that the speaker had us meditate in our seats in the middle of an otherwise busy day was an extra bonus. But what struck me was how many parallels there are between my research on opting out and the speaker’s research on meditation and mindfulness. There are three things in particular: choice, control, and crisis.

He talked about being able to break our automatic behavior and choose our responses. He talked about the ability to control our attention, our reactions, our thoughts, and our feelings. And then he talked about crisis; about his own crisis that lead him to start practicing meditation, and the crises of the people he interviewed for his study. They had all experienced a personal crisis that led them to start meditating.

Now, this isn’t rocket science and you may find it obvious, but for me it was extremely interesting because these are exactly the things that keep coming up in my research on opting out: choice, control, and crisis.

The rhetoric of choice is very strong in our society. In a reality that often feels chaotic and overwhelming, the idea of free choice is an attractive one. It provides us with a sense of agency – a sense of control in a world that feels like it’s spinning out of control. And in a society where individual choice is key, where we believe that we are what we make of ourselves, and where we alone are responsible for that, the idea of choice has become a part of the very fabric of who we are.

But crisis is also interesting. Yes, a crisis will often lead to a re-evaluation of one’s lifestyle, and maybe push someone to opt out or start meditating, but there’s more. Contemporary life is defined by constant crisis. According to Anthony Giddens (author of Runaway World: How Globalization is Reshaping Our Lives) crisis today is no longer simply an interruption, but an on-going state. We live in a risk society, where we are painfully aware of all the risks we face globally, in part due to media broadcasting every catastrophe and every act of violence in full color to all corners of the globe. This is despite the fact that contemporary life in many ways is less risky that it was before, but that is not how we perceive it.

So if mindfulness promises choice and control, maybe it is not so surprising that more and more people are becoming interested in it.

And I have to say, I did enjoy the seminar. I do admit that mindfulness or meditation can be good in some situations. It is just that in this day and age, we sort of go overboard with everything – moderation isn’t exactly our strong suit – and we do this with the idea of mindfulness too. All of a sudden it has become the answer to everything. But it’s not.

So to finish I will just say, too much of the good is just that: too much. Even when it comes to chocolate.

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Help that just isn’t helpful

I’m not a big shopper, except when it comes to books, and when I travel I really like browsing through local bookstores. I’ll often buy a book, and this might seem strange, but I remember where I bought which book and what the bookstore was like. Like my used copy of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (I loved that) that I bought in a tiny store with a wonderful ambience in Greenwich Village in New York. This was right after enjoying some divine cupcakes at The Magnolia Bakery. Or Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter (I haven’t read that yet) that I bought in the combined coffee/bookshop on campus at the University of Keele. Needless to say, the shop smelled wonderful. A couple of months ago I was in Stockholm and bought a copy of Psychobabble: Exploding the Myths of the Self-Help Generation by Dr Stephen Briers, which I’m reading at the moment and really enjoying. (This visit unfortunately included neither coffee nor cupcakes.)

I was interested in this book because through my research I have spent a lot of time contemplating what exactly it is about contemporary society that tends to make people feel overwhelmed. Because that is what many people seem to be – overwhelmed. There is something about life today that seems to make people feel generally less secure than they did in previous times. It is not necessarily more dangerous today than before, and if I’m not mistaken, research has in fact shown that it isn’t, but people are more aware of the risks, partly due to the incredibly fast and efficient global sharing of news and information (and disasters) through media and technology. Then there is of course the insecurity of working in financially precarious times, but there is something else as well.

It’s as if with the makeover culture, the TV shows dedicated to self-improvement (some of which is quite extreme), and all the advice that is not only available to us but that we are constantly bombarded with on how to get better at various things, we are being told that there is still so much room for (needed) improvement. The message we’re getting is that we just aren’t good enough the way we are. If we just lost a bit of weight, managed to give up sugar altogether (which I admit is something I’m seriously contemplating but don’t think I’ll ever manage to do, and this is making me feel slightly guilty), became stronger, fitter, more positive, more patient, and more assertive, we would be happy because we would have finally reached our full potential. Not to mention all the instructions on how to dress, behave, network, and organize ourselves at work in order to have that rocket career. But that’s the thing. With all the help and encouragement out there on how to change our lives and live to our full potential, we are also being told that we really have a long way to go. As we are being fed unrealistic expectations, this full potential becomes something that continues to be just out of reach, or rather light years away, in other words simply unachievable.

Have you been to the self-help section in your local bookstore lately? If you have, you will have noticed that it is packed, with self-help books that is. Researchers often use the term ‘therapy culture’ to describe the reality in which we live. But as Christopher Lasch, author of a book called The Culture of Narcissism puts it, this therapy culture promotes a type of cultural hypochondria. Crisis becomes personal and permanent and people dig deeper and deeper to find their core authentic self in order to deal with the ambiguity and ambivalence of contemporary life.

The reason I like the book I’m reading right now so much, is that Briers goes through the main self-help myths, debunking them one at a time. With every chapter that I read, I feel increasingly relieved to be getting confirmation that I can ignore these social pressures to change my behavior while trying to achieve unrealistic and impossible goals. Although all self-help isn’t bad – there are good and insightful books out there – Briers still maintains that on a whole, self-help hasn’t helped. We’re not any better than before, we’re just unhappier with ourselves.

The people who really need help, don’t need self-help, they need professional help, and I sincerely hope they have access to what they need. For the rest of us, instead of asking ourselves why self-help doesn’t help, we should consider that maybe, just maybe, we don’t need help. Maybe we’re fine the way we are, all different, imperfect, and quirky in our own way. Maybe we just need to accept that and get on with it. Life, that is.

How do you decide to opt out?

Researching opting out has been incredibly inspirational for me in many ways. It’s been a very personal project – I opted out of my own business career in 2009. But it is also because of all the interesting and exciting discussions I’ve had on opting out over the past five or so years. I don’t think I’ve met a single person who didn’t have at least some thoughts or opinions on opting out. When people find out what I do, they often want to talk about it. They either know someone who has opted out, they might have done it themselves, or they just wish they could do it too.

However, even though they may want to or dream about it, most people don’t opt out. If so many people want to opt out, why aren’t more doing it? I don’t think the main answer here is money. Yes, money plays in, and quitting your job is a risk. But we have to remember, according to my definition of opting out, opting out means opting in to doing something else, to another way of working or living. One opting out myth is that it is only women with rich husbands who opt out. The truth is, most people who opt out need to be able to support themselves and continue to do so after having opted in to a new lifestyle. Many of the women I interviewed were married to husbands who could support them if needed, but I have also interviewed single moms, women who are single and don’t have children, and women who were the main breadwinners in their family before opting out.

No, there is another reason, and that is that opting out is a huge change, it is stepping out into the unknown and that is scary. It is hard to imagine anything other than the way of life you know. In my research I have found that people don’t opt out until they have some sort of defining moment – a crisis of some sort – that pushes them to take the step. It can be health problems, a conflict of interests at work, an identity crisis, a death, anything really, but it is a moment when they realize they can’t go on this way. There is a sense of urgency and they opt out without having any grand plan, and figure it out as they go.

People ever so often ask me for advice on how to opt out. Opting out is romanticized in the media, you often see stories of happy people who have changed their lives and started doing something completely different. There is no shortage of self-help books on how to change your life, how to find your authentic you, how to be happy, and there is a huge market for life coaching. But still, people don’t know how to opt out, and I can’t very well tell them to go and have a crisis and the rest will figure itself out…

A friend of mine posted a quotation on Facebook a while ago: “Never be afraid to fall apart because it is an opportunity to rebuild yourself in the way you wish you had been all along.” – Rae Smith.

I find this worrisome, how can you glorify falling apart? A lot of people who fall apart don’t manage to put themselves back together. How can it be that you need to have a crisis in order to create a life that you can live with?

What if we lived in a culture that didn’t make us want to opt out in the first place? What if working cultures allowed us to be ourselves and embrace who we are, and to combine work and other areas of life in a way that felt meaningful? What would that look like?