Maverick Life


Just find a quiet spot: Making sense and being mindful in a time of Covid-19

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 20: NYC commuters get some Headspace during a Meditation Moment at Radio City Music Hall in celebration of the Westin Well-being Movement launch on March 20, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Westin Hotels & Resorts)

Historian Howard Phillips describes how, following the devastation of the Spanish flu in South Africa in 1918, churches were overrun by newly converted believers, while some more entrepreneurial devotees started up independent spiritual movements.

In his account of the impact of epidemics on South Africa since the 1700s – a troublesome timeline beginning with the European colonisation project – Phillips draws attention to how each epidemic was accompanied by a hive of religious and spiritual activity. Traditional African religion, Islam and Christianity offered multiple and evolving interpretations of why diseases erupted (e.g., “white people bewitched local tribes”), who was to blame (e.g., “dirty Africans living in slums”) and how these pestilences could be cured (e.g., “prayer and moral repentance”).

During those epidemics, society was confronted with what Karl Weick calls a “cosmology episode,” an event that causes people to suddenly feel that the universe is no longer a rational, orderly system. Put simply, a cosmology episode is when your world is turned upside down and you have no idea how to turn it back on its feet. These types of events trigger sensemaking, a process that Maitlis & Christianson said, “cause individuals or groups to ask what is going on, and what they should do next”.

How sensemaking helps

Sensemaking helps us to come up with stories that give meaning to unfolding events, even as we respond to them. The way humans make sense has enormous potential to initiate societal change and even disruption. Or, on the other hand, humans also have a tendency to normalise discrepant events through explaining them away, squeezing confusing signals back into existing templates of how the world is supposed to work. When smallpox decimated people in earlier centuries, some worked tirelessly to find a vaccine, while others blamed the virus on the devil’s dark designs. Clearly, some made better sense than others of the changing world around them.

Religion and spiritual practices offered a psychological balm that a traumatised people needed after a prolonged and intimate encounter with death. They helped them make sense of the world anew, mobilising groups into action. Towards folly or triumph, transcendental beliefs made life meaningful and manageable, and moved people forward. Perhaps the modern reader of this piece feels a pang of sentimental pity towards our irrational ancestors, those who believed in Jesus, Allah or animistic spirits. Many modern urbanites have abandoned the beliefs and rituals, and disciplinary codes, of mainstream or traditional religions. Instead, some prefer the label secular, or, the increasingly popular, spiritual label. Some do yoga. Some meditate. Some “do” mindfulness. And never have more people been more mindful than since the outbreak of Covid-19 and the lockdowns that followed in its wake.

What is mindfulness?

On global newscasts or social media platforms, on Ivy League University or hotel chain websites, all of us are encouraged to be mindful during lockdown. Mindful in the face of an unpredictable, frightening, fast-moving pandemic.

From Deepak Chopra on CNN and Oprah Winfrey on Apple TV Plus, the global middle class is called upon to reach for mindfulness meditation as “an offering of assurance when you are in challenging times”. Even the world’s dullest bureaucracy, the United Nations, on its Covid-19 response page, proselytises with uncharacteristic glee: “Mindfulness meditation is a great option to incorporate into your regular routine to reduce anxiety and stress, and if you’ve never tried it before, now’s your chance! Find a comfortable yet alert seated position, keep your back straight, and just click play…” Google the words “mindfulness” and “Covid-19” (which we did on 19 April 2020), and prepare to be overwhelmed by 47,800,000 results.

The growth of the mindfulness meditation movement can be likened to the metaphor of the drop-out hippy you knew at varsity who turned into the world’s richest CEO. Everybody is doing mindfulness, including some of the world’s most powerful and influential organisations. Stanford University, Microsoft, Apple, Deutsche Bank, the Mayo Clinic, the UK government and yes, the US military, to name but a few.

Not unlike epidemics and pandemics of the past, Covid-19 is a cosmology episode. It has shaken, or rather, sickened, the world to a halt. Everything we thought we knew suddenly feels uncertain. Scores of people in the global North have died, lost their jobs overnight and found governments incapable of dealing with the scale and complexity of the problem. Many people in the South are much worse off, having no semblance of an official social security net, even as those nets begin to unravel in the North.

Enter mindfulness.

Like in the age of our ancestors, society turns to spiritual ideologies and techniques en masse to get through this crisis, to feel less stressed, less anxious, less lonely. Only thing is sure, the popular contemporary form of mindfulness is neither spiritual nor ideological.

According to scholars like Ronald Purser, Miles Neale, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, it has evolved into a non-spiritual form of spirituality. “McMindfulness” has efficiently appropriated the Buddhist spiritual practice so that it no longer makes any ethical or disciplinary demands on its users. Purser explains how it is individualised and a-political, a lifestyle accessory instead of a normative way of life.

In our Covid-19 reality, it is rapidly dispensed as soothing medication rather than transformational meditation, encouraging practitioners to treat the unpleasant mental symptoms of their disgruntlement, rather than interrogating the political and economic choices that now cause us to feel abandoned by governments and global institutions who are supposed to keep us safe.

The pandemic’s non-religion

Why is McMindfulness the official non-religious religion of the Covid-19 pandemic?  Whose interests are best served by using the machinations of McMindfulness to encourage hundreds of millions of people to respond to the disaster by finding a quiet spot, to ignore distractions and to focus on their breathing? Is McMindfulness being strategically deployed by powerful global elites to preserve the status quo through encouraging individualistic retreat (that is simple and feels good) rather than collective political action (which is complex and arduous)?

Sensemaking in response to novel or crisis-ridden events requires constant effort, which can be a potentially unpleasant process, and so individuals must be energised to engage in it. Sensemaking is triggered by, and stems from, emotion. Weick found that a disorienting phenomenon, like Covid-19, generates arousal in the autonomic nervous system “which fuels the sensemaking process by putting an individual in a state of preparedness”. Such a triggering emotion could be sadness, anger, excitement or love. Change happens when people are fed up with the conditions of their lives without being overwhelmed by them, when they collectively engage in creative acts of resistance and invention. They don’t simply “focus on the breath and accept what is” – they make sense, they get restless, they get busy, they organise.

How will McMindfulness help us be the best sensemakers we can be in a time of Covid-19? And post-Covid-19, how will McMindfulness support a new era of activism to rein in the neo-liberal juggernaut that has turned humanity into a non-sentient, monetised cluster of data points?

Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Rather, shall we ask this: How do we situate the obvious benefits of a meditative practice so that it might help us feel better amid tumultuous change, and also do better? We don’t argue that the well-researched benefits of McMindfulness are intrinsically bad. Who can argue with having an alert, open and focused mind?

During cosmology episodes, we need to understand all social mechanisms within a broader social-political context. McMindfulness is as good as the brief satisfaction you get after eating a McDonald’s beef burger while choosing to ignore the effects of that burger on the Amazon rainforests or the indigenous people of South America, not to mention the climate. McMindfulness is not enough.

All religious traditions have some form of meditative practice that has positive chemical effects on the brain and thus on the state of the whole human system. What we do with this enhanced focus can be the most important question we ask ourselves. In traditional meditation practices, the intention of training the mind is to find the truth. It is not done in pursuit of personal happiness, peacefulness, productivity or profit. It is done to fundamentally change the world for the benefit of all. This is the significant difference between a philosophy of the mind that is politically situated and McMindfulness, which is not. For example, Shatideva, an 8th century Buddhist monk, is attributed with saying, “All the suffering there is in this world arises from wishing our self to be happy. All the happiness there is in this world arises from wishing others to be happy.” This is a political statement.

The Buddhism example

Most forms of Buddhism (out of which the practice of secular mindfulness has emerged) seek to provide an end to suffering by analysing the conditions of suffering and removing its main causes through praxis. If those conditions of suffering are negative mind states that debilitate us from being a strong and powerful force of good in the world, then mindfulness has a very important role to play. If we find the suffering of the world so overwhelming that we no longer can function, compassion training as mindfulness is a vital force to assist us to authentically feel our own and others’ suffering, so that it calls us to action. Shouldn’t mindfulness be developing the same inquisitive skills as the critical mind, the questioning mind? Thus strengthening our inner resolve to dismantle the deeply entrenched structures of inequality that makes ours a world where some have never experienced enough freedom to be able to find a quiet spot on a cushion or in a comfortable chair to practice meditation.

The story of the Buddha is a good analogy for understanding the value of mindfulness as a political practice. The Buddha was born into a Royal family. His father forbade the young Prince from leaving the walls of the castle. But the Prince was curious and with the help of a faithful servant he snuck out of the castle and to his horror saw how most people lived surrounded by poverty, illness and death. He could not bear this and ran away from home, practicing for many years to understand why the world was like this. Why was there so much suffering and what could he do about it? Once he came up with his answers he dedicated his life to easing the suffering of others.

It can be argued that the Buddha had to free his mind from the blind state of privilege that he had been subjected to and which stopped him seeing the way the world is. Freeing himself from this and understanding the interconnectedness of all beings, including all social structures, he could then begin experimenting with a new form of society – one built on equality and compassion in which women began to be treated as equals and different castes were welcome.

Has McMindfulness become the Buddha’s father? Is our cultural fixation on our own happiness blinding us to the way in which our happiness is directly linked to that of others?

Phillips describes epidemics as “process-accelerating” and “scenario-inducing.” In the coming months and years, there will be much opportunity to fiddle with and alter our political, economic and social contexts. Can we do this with courage to orientate, not isolate, ourselves mindfully, in a manner that is kind to ourselves and to others?

Perhaps we can use mindfulness to help us make more expansive sense of the complex present so that we can invent and enact a more compassionate future. DM/ ML

Lindie Botha is a PhD student at the Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town. Jane Burt recently submitted her PhD at Rhodes University, Environmental Learning Research Center. Jane Burt has been a mindfulness practitioner for 15 years.