What Is Social Mindfulness?

Does being mindful lead to becoming social engagement? This article explores the links between mindfulness and altruistic behavior.
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
social mindfulness
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

In this article, we discuss the emergence of social mindfulness and include perspectives from activism, science and spiritual philosophy. We have also put together a playlist with guided meditations for a deeper human connection.

Social Mindfulness: Reforming The Mindfulness Education?

We are living in troubled times.

If we were to boil down the problems facing humanity at this pivotal moment, one key issue would have to be that people simply want more than they need. Even those with the best intentions either aren’t prepared or don’t have the psychological tools to make genuine sacrifices for the collective good.

In theory, the massive surge in popularity that mindfulness and other meditative practices have undergone in the last decade is a welcome antidote to improving the collective good.

The principal task of mindfulness practice is to simply be with what is, without judgment. Without grasping for the way things could be. Without clinging to the way things once were.

However, a growing number of voices both within and outside of the mindfulness community have begun to level a number of critiques on an apparent lack of ethical conscience and social responsibility in the way mindfulness has been taught, used, and marketed in popular culture. This has led some to advocate for a more community-oriented, politically conscious form of mindfulness education, often called “Social Mindfulness”.

Read more: In an interview with Tricycle, Ronald Purser discusses the good and bad of the mindfulness movement. He also reflects upon “McMindfulness”, a term coined by Miles Neale.

Mindfulness And Community Engagement

Luke Wreford and Paula Haddock are the founders of the Mindfulness and Social Change Network, a global online community of social activists and mindfulness practitioners meant to encourage dialogue and collaboration between the two camps.

One of the community’s members, human rights advocate Gemma Houdey, speaks of the benefits that her mindfulness practice has had on her work:

“My mindfulness practice has helped me see the human in who I’m dealing with. I feel my own vulnerabilities and from there I see that ‘the other’ has those vulnerabilities too. Taking this approach helps me to interact with them from a different place that is healthier for me and, I believe, more effective for meaningful dialogue.”

However, not everyone in the community feels so positive about the newfound popularity of mindfulness education. On their blog, Luke and Paula speak of the criticisms that many in the activist community have towards the way these practices have been co-opted and transformed by psychological and medical institutions.

“…many change makers are skeptical of practising mindfulness. Some feel it focuses too heavily on individual well-being, which seems self-indulgent. A solely psychological and medicalized view of stress doesn’t resonate with those who view suffering primarily through a social and political lens… Some argue that a focus on the ‘inner’ causes of stress may reinforce neoliberalism, which places excessive emphasis on individual responsibility and resilience.”

The Lack Of Scientific Research

Unfortunately, although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence, there hasn’t been a great deal of scientific research of the effects that mindfulness practice has either on fostering social engagement in general, or, in improving the outcomes of social engagement.

However, there is plenty of evidence of both the physical and mental health benefits of social engagement. In other words, whether or not mindfulness makes you more socially engaged, it does seem clear that social engagement makes you more mindful.

Before reading more about the effects of generosity and the Buddhist approach of social mindfulness, you might want to pause here and practice with these popular guided meditations for a deep, compassionate human connection:

  1. Awaken Care for Yourself, Others & The World Alison Serour 16:55
  2. Fostering a Sense of Community: Loving-Kindness Meditation The Serendipitous Soul 10:05
  3. Recognising Human Connection Vidyamala Burch 12:12
  4. Embrace the Entire World with Loving-Kindness - Meditation Ajahn Achalo 37:02
  5. Seeing And Being Seen With Compassion (Loving-Kindness) Al Jeffery 14:44
  6. Cultivating Graciousness Padma Gordon 9:41
  7. Just Like Me Meditation Sean Fargo 9:44

Browse through thousands of free guided mindfulness meditation practices and bring awareness to the present with openness and curiosity and without judgment.

The Benefits Of Generosity

Dr. Richard Davidson is a neuroscientist who founded the Centre For Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He was one of the earlier members of the mainstream scientific community to engage seriously with the Buddhist community, including ongoing dialogue with the Dalai Lama.

Much of his research has focused on the process of cultivating well-being and happiness. His findings have shown that, as he puts it, “well being is a skill.”

He divides well-being into four key constituents, each of which corresponds to a neural pathway that exhibits strong neural plasticity. In other words, we can learn how to change it consciously. It’s no surprise that he strongly recommends various types of meditation training to develop each of these skills. The first three constituents will likely be no surprise to anyone in the mindfulness space. They are: resilience, outlook and attention. The fourth? Generosity.

In an article published by the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley, Dr. Davidson explains:

There are now a plethora of data showing that when individuals engage in generous and altruistic behavior, they actually activate circuits in the brain that are key to fostering well-being. These circuits get activated in a way that is more enduring than the way we respond to other positive incentives, such as winning a game or earning a prize.“

In 2007, the Corporation for National and Community Service published a research review on the health benefits of volunteering. They found a significant correlation between volunteering and various markers of both physical and mental health, especially among older adults. Populations with higher rates of volunteerism even tend to have significantly lower mortality rates, lower incidence of chronic pain and lower incidence of heart disease. They concluded:

“While these studies may differ in terms of their specific findings, they consistently demonstrate that there is a significant relationship between volunteering and good health; when individuals volunteer, they not only help their community but also experience better health in later years, whether in terms of greater longevity, higher functional ability, or lower rates of depression.”

It seems clear that an altruistic life is not simply an ethical imperative, it is also one of the keys to a healthy, peaceful and connected life. In other words, mindfulness without social engagement is incomplete.

Read more: When we understand what others are feeling and share in those feelings without being carried away, we’re able to react appropriately to these feelings. Explore more about the importance of empathy and three practices to increase it.

Buddhism And Selflessness

Many of the organizations that are promoting social mindfulness are doing so within a secular framework. However, there is a growing voice within the Buddhist community that is expressing a similar dissatisfaction with the state of modern mindfulness education. To them, social mindfulness is simply a basic Buddhist philosophy.

Robert Thurman is one of the foremost scholars of Buddhism in the west. He has long been a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University. In the 1960’s he became the first American to be ordained as a monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

Professor Thurman has long been active in political and activist causes and states firmly that “Buddhism is political.” In an article published in Tricycle, he discusses the relationship between the Buddhist concept of Nirvana and the ethics of social responsibility:

“The Buddha did not teach escape from responsibility or society. He taught escape from ignorance and evil thoughts and actions. He founded not merely a religion or a therapy, he founded a quiet revolution, a total reorientation of the habits of individuals and societies that has continued to this day.”

He makes clear the importance of compassion, the selfless commitment to the well-being of others, in Buddhist practice:

“Wisdom and compassion are ultimately inseparable, wisdom being the complete knowledge of ultimate selflessness and compassion being the selfless commitment to the happiness of others.”

It is a common misconception that the Buddhist path to enlightenment requires complete renunciation from the world and devotion only to one’s own personal salvation. The concept of the bodhisattva, one who strives to attain wisdom for the benefit of all beings, is central to most forms of Buddhist philosophy.

The roots of social mindfulness run deep.

Discover hundreds of free guided meditations for compassion that can increase empathy, respon­sive­ness and moti­va­tion to relieve the suffering of others.

The World Is Changing Rapidly

For many, it is no longer historically appropriate for people on a spiritual path to withdraw from society to work on themselves. The emerging paradigm requires us to be connected to one another and responsive to the needs of the collective, rather than simply focusing on our own desires.

Luckily, mindfulness can bolster our capacity to deal with change, to maintain compassion for others and to behave in a way that is skillful and non-reactive. Social mindfulness might just be the wave of the future.

Read more: International yoga teacher Annemaree Rowley explains how to be kind everyday by bringing the Yogic wisdom of Ahimso into our lives.

Meditation. Free.