Mindfulness: empty minds for an empty society?

Saturday 17 October, 10.00 until 11.30, Cinema 3, Barbican Therapeutic Times

Mindfulness, a form of meditation that encourages people to focus on the present moment, has become increasingly visible in everyday society. Not just a celebrity fad, many see mindfulness as useful to help cope with a stressful modern world. In medicine, mindfulness is seen as useful in tackling depression and is recommended by the NHS. An Oxford University study conducted in 2014 found that it can reduce relapses into depression by 44 per cent. It has given rise to new books and training courses used in businesses and even prisons; the popular Headspace app, launched by a former monk from Bristol, is now worth £25million. And in the arts, too, the Barbican recently hosted the world premiere of Lost in Thought, a ‘mindfulness opera’ incorporating meditation and yoga. 

The cultural heritage of mindfulness in Buddhism lends it religious and cultural authenticity, allowing for the embrace of spiritual elements without fundamentalist or evangelical beliefs, while its accepting and non-judgemental ethos appeal to many.

Yet mindfulness has its detractors. Psychologists Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm suggest meditation can have dangerous side-effects such as twitching and raised levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Oxford University academic Theodore Zeldin argues that encouraging individuals to escape into a state of ‘blank mental oblivion’ is nothing to celebrate. Others worry that ‘living in the moment’ avoids taking responsibility and actively engaging with the world. Some even suggest that mindfulness is little more than a pseudo-religion for the mildly hypochondriac and self-obsessed people of the contemporary West.

How should we explain the rise of ‘mindfulness’ in the twenty-first century? Does it fulfil a spiritual need for a secular age? How can we make sense of its spiritual dimension? Is mindfulness a lucrative scam or just another self-help technique that works in particular circumstances?

Listen to the debate


Jamie Bristow
director, The Mindfulness Initiative

Dr Miguel Farias
reader in cognitive and biological psychology, Coventry University

Professor Dennis Hayes
professor of education, University of Derby

Dr Tamara Russell
clinical psychologist; director, Mindfulness Centre of Excellence, London; visiting lecturer, King’s College London

Rosamund Cuckston
organiser, Birmingham Salon; lead singer, Pram

Produced by
Professor Dennis Hayes professor of education, University of Derby
Recommended readings
Mindfulness: Lobotomisation by proxy

This latest therapeutic fad encourages us to retreat from life.

Patrick West, spiked, 21 August 2015

Meditation obsession: This mindfulness craze is madness

The new obsession with meditation is a sign of exactly how mindless our places of work have become.

Andre Spicer, City AM, 22 December 2014

What’s wrong with Mindfulness – more than you might think

Separating meditation from faith is a dubious business, morally and sometimes in its effects

Melanie McDonagh, Spectator, 1 November 2014

Mindfulness: What is most personal is most universal

This totemic ‘we have arrived’ moment is a small but significant step forward for the diverse and growing movement of people who broadly adhere to a radically sane idea, namely that some experiential awareness of the functioning of our own minds, and greater skill in directing our attention, might be important.

Jonathan Rowson, RSA Blogs, 7 May 2014

Why we will come to see mindfulness as mandatory

This increasingly popular tool for calming the mind, once seen as a New Age fad, could play a role in hospitals and schools

Madeleine Bunting, Guardian, 6 May 2014

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