When meditation meets deep, collective human values
Joe Flanders investigates whether we can automatically cultivate positive values through mindfulness practice or if they need to be explicitly explored and developed.
People want to cultivate positive values and go deeper with mindfulness training. But does mindfulness automatically produce these values, or must we explore and cultivate them explicitly? This is a fundamental question because, in these dangerous times, we need strong core values shared by all.
I am still amazed by the power of mindfulness to help people from all walks of life with different personalities and backgrounds.
The Mindfulness-Based Reduction of Stress (MBSR) is a highly effective way to train greater awareness about how we can entangle ourselves with suffering through such habits as being on autopilot, attached to the “doing” mode, overreacting when stressed, etc. The psychological costs of these patterns can be revealed through daily meditation. This greater awareness empowers us to stop automatic reactions, step back from complicated feelings and thoughts, and respond to challenges more intelligently and with intention. These skills are refined and integrated over time, and we become more capable of changing how we respond to challenging situations. The disruption of habitual responses is destabilizing for many people but ultimately productive. A supportive group and a skilled teacher provide participants with a safe environment to rebuild a sense of stability and belonging. This method is robust for cultivating well-being.
We develop the ability to respond to challenging situations more reliably as we refine and integrate these skills.
My experience teaching mindfulness and working with mental health has made me more aware of some limitations. The fact that Mindfulness-Based Programs are designed to be “value-neutral” and do not equip participants with the tools they need to clarify and develop their values and find a purpose in their lives is my biggest concern. Participants may not realize the importance of “values work” as they are more concerned about reducing suffering. However, it can still have a profound and lasting effect on your well-being, even if you don’t address the root causes of suffering.
Guide to Skillful Reactions in Difficult Situations
The MBSR curriculum does not commit to any ideals or principles that we can use to guide us to more skilled responses. We are shackled as teachers. We may have strong moral convictions, hard-won insight from our practice, or even a feeling of caring for our participants. All of this must be done with reasonable awareness, as it is not the role of facilitators to impose psychological compasses on participants.
Instead, they are encouraged to look within themselves for the wisdom they already possess. An assumption is made about how mindful observation of experiences will reveal the importance of particular values, such as gratitude and compassion.
But we can cultivate our well-being more effectively in the long term if we invest time in defining what’s important and meaningful to us, personally and collectively. Moreover, this “values-work” can extend beyond our preoccupation with health and happiness to reflect the larger context of our lives and relationships. Such reflections would eventually lead to a sense of purpose, an inner guide that aligns our ideals with our actions.
Mindfulness with Values Incorporated
Some mindfulness-based groups address values directly. For example, in the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program, self-compassion explicitly guides action and intention. MSC has a broad audience, and there is increasing evidence of its effectiveness in promoting mental health. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy is a therapy that focuses on preventing relapses of depression. It has a proven track record (for instance, Kuyken et al., 2015).
These programs have more defined but circumscribed goals that help participants understand the material better and improve their ability to deal with certain difficult emotions.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a mindfulness-based therapy that maintains a broader concept of values as the core of its model. While mindfulness is essential, it’s not enough to achieve well-being. You may be able to separate yourself from your thoughts and emotions but still struggle without a sense of direction. While ACT is value-neutral, it encourages participants to clarify and explore what they find important and commit to actions aligned with those values. We developed an ACT program, Mindfulness Tools for valued living at Mindspace, to answer a common question posed by MBSR graduates:
Now that I am aware, what next?
Much evidence backs up this ACT principle: having well-articulated values enhances eudaimonic well-being and gives a person a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Further, progress towards a values-congruent goal is correlated with subjective well-being ratings (Bedford Peterson et al., 2018). 2018).
What are the most valuable values?
All of these approaches have limitations. MSC & MBCT programs do not explicitly encourage reflecting on the interconnectedness between self and a broader social context. While the ACT process of defining our personal values system supports greater autonomy, it also leaves us in a vacuum when we reflect on values: How do you know what values will bring the most well-being to whom and for whom?
The process of ACT to derive our personal values system supports greater autonomy. However, it leaves us in a void when we reflect on values: How do you know what values will bring the most well-being for whom and which ones?
In mindfulness-based programs, the effort to limit values work to health-related concerns makes these approaches more accessible and politically correct. This trade-off could be better. This approach needs to inspire the kind of engagement we need with ethics and collective well-being. Climate change, economic inequality, and technological changes are among humanity’s unprecedented moral challenges. The near-total collapse of public discourse is making matters worse. We are deprived of critical corrective mechanisms.
If these concerns are not motivating enough, then consider that specific values lead to greater well-being. For example, research conducted by Kasser and others has shown that “self-transcendent” or intrinsic values are more closely associated with well-being than “self-enhancing,” materialistic values. Adopting values that are centered on the collective well-being of others is the best way to improve an individual’s well-being.
In addition to mindfulness, it is essential to cultivate a sense of purpose.
Explore Values: Contemplative Practice
This practice is adapted from Three-Minute Breathing Space in the MBCT Curriculum. It can help cultivate a sense of purpose and align our actions with our values.
- Sit comfortably and dignifiedly on a cushion, chair, or meditation bench. Close your eyes if you’re comfortable doing so.
- Open your awareness for a few minutes to everything that’s already there in your inner experience. This includes thoughts, feelings, and sensations of the body. You don’t need to react to these mental experiences. Take stock and accept what is there as it is.
- On an out-breath, gather your attention and observe the sensations in the abdomen. (The soles of your feet or fingertips can be used as alternative anchors if the abdomen feels unstable). As you breathe in and out, notice the sensations of contraction and expansion in your belly. It’s okay if other content, such as a sound, body sensation, thought, or distraction, diverts your attention. Acknowledge the content and bring it back to your breath. Continue this practice for a further 2-3 minutes.
- When you exhale, you can expand your awareness by focusing on other body parts. You may feel your breath in other places, such as the chest, shoulders, or back. Slowly expand awareness by including the legs, arms, and head until you know your entire body. Keep this spacious awareness going for a few minutes.
- During an exhalation, pay attention to your body’s boundaries. This includes the points of contact you have with your clothing, the surface of whatever you are sitting on, or the ground. The air around you will be in contact with your skin. Listen to the sounds in your environment. Keep your attention on these sensations for about a minute.
- Consider what you’ll be doing after this practice. Ask yourself these questions over a two-three minute period, and note any answers that come up. Do not elaborate or suppress any one answer.
- What am I doing?
- Do I do what’s important? Spending time with those who are important is essential.
- What values do these actions serve?
- What changes do I need to make to my day-to-day plans?
- What is the best mindset to adopt as I prepare for what lies ahead?
- Consider articulating a daily intention incorporating the insights you gained from the reflection. Repeat your intention to yourself several times.
- Open your eyes and slowly stand up. Do some light stretching. Then, continue with your day.