Does mindfulness make you stop caring about the world?

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Last week a Guardian article by Suzanne Moore issued a fierce critique of the ‘mindless mindfulness cult’. The central argument was that mindfulness encourages people to switch off from the world’s problems and just focus on yourself. She doesn’t reference any evidence or even personal experience in her argument, but she does make some points which I think are worth considering.

A mindful way to respond to someone else’s criticism is to start by saying what you agree with. Moore rightly states that mindfulness has gone mainstream, with everyone from schools, City bankers and US Marines taking it up. Given that it is an ancient philosophy, it is interesting to reflect on why this is happening now and that tells us about modern life. I agree that in large part it’s a reaction to our smartphone, email and social media addicted world and that people are using to be able to ‘function better’

Where I disagree, is the contention that mindfulness ‘lets go of the idea that we can change the world’. I believe, as do a lot of people who practice mindfulness, that if you want world peace then inner peace is good place to start. What kind of a person is more likely to make positive change in the world, someone stressed, anxious and lacking self-awareness, or someone who is calm, compassionate, and comfortable in their own skin?

My friend told me that in the Jewish tradition there is a principle called Tikkun Olam – improving the world, which a lot of people forget is the outer of three concentric circles. In the centre is Tikkun Atzmi – perfecting oneself, followed by Tikkun Am – perfecting one’s community. Only when you’ve worked on the first two can you move to the outer ring and try to help the wider world. This seems a wise approach.

Turning inwards and developing your self-awareness is meant to increase you capacity for having a positive effect on the world around you and to help you realise how interconnected you are to everything else. Even monks who go to live alone in caves only do so as part of their journey towards better serving the people around them.

My own experience is that mindfulness has made me focus more on understanding myself, and being good to my friends, family and co-workers, than on global problems. I listen to the news less and the people around me more. As a result I feel more connected to the people in my daily life and more empowered and motivated to change the world than ever before.

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