What is Mindful Communication?

The phrase mindfulness is thrown about a lot these days, particularly as it relates to the practice of personal attention to wellbeing, social engagement and anxiety alleviation. Mindfulness is said to be able to help us to manage the tensions and the stresses of modern life as we learn to appropriate coping mechanisms and techniques of self-monitoring for wellbeing. With roots in religious and spiritual practice, mindfulness has now been packaged and resold to Western consumers as a lifestyle practice for self-improvement.

It’s been said that the popular forms of consumer mindfulness have many forms of practice that lead to enlightenment, or in marketing terms, a ‘better you’. This includes yoga, meditation, breathing exercises and mandala colouring-in books. None of these, however, in the way that they are packaged and sold are associated with the ethical and spiritual demands of the practitioners of the faiths from which they originate would otherwise demand. If we are looking for a deep and lasting transformation of society, we are unlikely to find it from what we see being shared on YouTube, sold in airport and railway station bookshops, or quoted by inspirational influences on Instagram.

That said, it is probably better to start with these mindfulness practices than nothing, and if the alternative is that people are self-medicating because of the high levels of stress that they have in their lives, then its better to encourage some form of engagement with self-development practices than none at all. Either we can support and encourage one another to seek solace in some form of self-reflection, or we can watch as the noose of nihilism and thrill-seeking tightens around our necks. Imitation in the ways of finding the path of self-discovery is not as good as initiation, but given the chokehold that mass consumerism and media have over us, perhaps it is all that we can expect?

Revelation might be offered to us pre-packaged and free of the work that is needed to gain lasting insight, but the chances are that these convenient forms of reflexive practice, the apps and the self-help plans, might just trigger something in enough people to warrant change. They might just prompt moments of self-examination of the differences of our outer and inner lives, that allows us to make better choices, refrain from destructive behaviour and form stronger social ties.

My limited take on mindfulness is not particularly profound or prophetic. I take mindfulness to be a calming and cantering of my psyche and soul in a world that is dysfunctional and destabilising. Like many people I live adjacent to I struggle to bring about positive change and I continually feel that my contributions go unacknowledged and unappreciated. They get lost in the sea of self-interested social actions, and they run against the tide of modern society, which is goal oriented and outcome focussed, to use the management jargon that typifies the sterile culture of self-assertion. There are a number of factors that shape my feelings, which are formed through a combination of my psychological type, my cultural experience and my social background. Not that these are to blame, but I find it difficult sometimes to assess my social contribution objectively, and so I am often dissatisfied with my efforts, and have a low sense of esteem about the contribution that I do make.

I once explained my life as a process of repeatedly missing the bus. I recall that as a schoolchild I was once waiting for a bus to get to school after it had snowed particularly hard in Liverpool. This would have been 1978. Each bus that went past was full and sailed past the bus stop leaving me waiting for the next bus, in the hope that I could get on. I was getting colder and there was no sign that any bus was going to stop for me, as each bus was already full of people going to work or school themselves. Eventually I walked back home, frozen, and explained to my mum that I had to give up, and that the journey had defeated me that day. So I have a hint of stubbornness and find giving up on projects and causes to be difficult, even if the circumstances are clearly conspiring against me.

Mindfulness for me, however, doesn’t just mean understanding our successes and our failures. It means having the ability to step back from ourselves and the process that we are engaged in on that occasion in our lives, and asking why we might believe that they are important? Why am I drawn to sticking with situations long after they might have been abandoned by others, I’m not sure, but I’ve always been taught that if I don’t try, I won’t be able to take part. Perhaps this was a fallacy of my working-class upbringing, and that I should have been taught that it is better to fail early and fail often as many in software and business development now countenance?

Mindfulness is the process of discovering why and how these things are meaningful to us. In being mindful we have to grasp what the value is and how we can piece together a story that brings about news and long-lasting insight. That gives us fresh perspectives on old problems, and allows us to revise our concerns and see them in new lights with new possibilities and solutions. If we are simply following instructions, or are dogmatically regurgitating a pre-selected code of practice, then we will not find or discover our own individual and unique recipes for our role that we must enact and the path that we might follow.

We can obey religious instruction, we can follow an ideological mandate, we can respond to an algorithm, but none of these external frameworks will spark an inner transformation by and of themselves. Mindfulness, for me, is that thing that enables us to grow, especially in an indeterminate and unclear set of life situations. What sparks the acorn to proceed on its journey to become an oak tree? Each seed is defined by its genetic code and instructions, but the circumstances in which they grow are sometimes vastly different. The soil is different, the climate is different, the ecology is different, and yet each seed must become something through its own process of transformation.

As humans we have a built-in disadvantage to the process. The seed does not have to put up with a knowing sense of self-doubt. As humans, we are able to reflect on the process of our growth. We can anticipate what happens in the journey of transformation, though given the narrow constrictions that have been placed around the discussion in modern times, many of us are disassociated from the natural rhythms of these processes. They have been given over to technical management and design models, such as neuropsychology and cognitive behaviourism, which has resulted in the relegation of models and attitudes to social growth that are more contemplative. Schools, for example, are now full of technical performance managers and not teachers. Witness the crisis that hit the country when A-Level results had to be revised because the algorithm was set to compensate for supposed grade inflation, and not achievement.

This is made worse because modern society is focussed on maximising efficiency. We spend lots of time thinking about the process and stages of becoming, but we give very little consideration to what we become. The process of growth has been operationalised and instrumentalised to achieve places in the school and university league tables, rather than considering what the value is of what we become by those changes. Socially we are regarded as failures if we have not achieved a certain level of material wealth by a certain age. The ownership of a car, a mortgage, and so on, are primary indicators of social wellbeing in our world, at least here in the UK. We have become expert at measuring our material accumulation, but we have missed our opportunity to consider what we might otherwise have become.

Mindfulness, then, has many dimensions, and I am at the start of my journey in describing and explaining them in the context of contemporary media practices. Mindfulness is informed by many traditions and forms into many different frameworks of explanation that help to account for our sense of individual and collective self. No wonder many of us are sceptical of the adoption of the term mindfulness, it is a morass of competing and incompatible terms, many of which have been stripped of their context and roots, and repackaged as a wonder-elixir. Mindfulness is being pushed around free of any grounding in contemplative or critical processes, and should be approached cautiously.

With these caveats in mind, its is still worth, I believe, exploring and attempting to define what a mindfulness approach to social communication might consist of. What are the associated multi-dimensional elements that a more mindful approach to communication might consist of? What’s missing from the large-scale mass-media approach to communications that a mindful approach might add? What are the weak spots that we need to address and fix, and what is the starting point that we need to go back to in order to address these shortcomings? Is there a point we can reach from which we can transform our expectations about communication overall? I’m guessing that mindfulness might have an important role in facilitating this change, but we won’t find out if we don’t try to understand what might be done differently.

What would I include in the mix of mindful communication priorities? First, I would focus on a holistic approach that would be capable of moving from the general to the specific, and back again as required. With Western models of communication a linear and cause-and-effect set-up tends to dominate our thinking models. These are very powerful techniques for developing systems and processes that have an impact on our physical world, but they are less useful when we try to understand the unconscious world and the collective psyche.

An information model would suggest that the system can be structured and mapped in order to understand efficiency and logic. If one wants to improve social communication, in this view, then one only has to sift and sort data at a more refined and granulated level, cross reference it with other datasets, and then map the pathways in the circuits that generate the greatest feedback response that is desired. Modern systems communications is therefore focussed on improving the quality of the message so that it can be aligned with ever finer network filaments, reaching individuals and activating specific and defined sub-components and responses.

The modern communication process is no longer one of broadcasting, it has been personalised down to the level of micro gestures, mostly on our smartphones at the moment, but soon to be ubiquitously placed in our living environments. Messages can now be delivered en-masse to individuals who receive or view these messages unaware that no one else in the network is seeing what they are seeing. With broadcasting we used to be able to assume that media was a shared experience, with the datafication of communications this collective experience goes out of the window entirely. The data corporations are in the business, not of providing us with things to use or watch, but of providing us things we can interact with in different ways, so that they can sweep up data on our behavioural responses, our preferences, our likes and dislikes, and our associations.

Media engagement has shifted from the broadcasting principle to the aggregation principle, with the feedback loop of responses being the prize which will make corporations wealthy. The next step is the predictive capacity to learn what we are likely to want before we have consciously expressed a preference for it, based on probabilities, patterns of lifestyle, and available resources. Finetuning our mindfulness so that other people make profit from it. This sounds like a good reason to learn some measure of control over our own engagement processes.

This is still a model of communication, however, that determines human agency within a transactional process, as stimulus and response. Show people messages that they like or which they are indignant of, and they will demand more of it. This is probably why my Netflix feed is full of horror and zombie movies and series, because it is assumed that everyone else is watching these things, so more keep getting commissioned. The media companies that are doing well at the moment are those that get ahead of this process. If you can anticipate what your audience will like, then you can give them more of it, until they are sated or tastes change.

This is the opposite of a mindful communications approach, as it lacks any critical or developmental self-awareness on the part of the viewer. There may well be a bliss-point that programme and content producers can reach, but this does not mean that they are creating anything that is satisfying, nutritious or sustaining. It is mor likely that media producers will be turning out copies of things that have worked in the past, in different packages, and more convenient delivery systems, but they are still producing crap that is disposable and will lead to a decline in our wellbeing. Like convenience food, convenience media is defined by the level of the con.

The question, then, is how can be define a different model of media engagement that is ethical and not structured in these exploitative ways, but which still pay. How can we break the cycle of dependency on media as a linear transaction, and instead seek to promote media as a creative process of co-production and expression? Mindfulness can only work if it is generative and creative. How, then, do we locate and activate the creative engagement process more generally? How do we ensure that creative engagement is widespread and not restricted?

Communication in a mindful approach would recognise a holistic and cyclical view. It would encourage a contemplation of the role of the individual as part of the wider social processes in which they are embedded. As Robert Kegan calls us, we are embeduals, not simply individuals. How can we ensure that this process retains its developmental aspects, and avoids the trap of thinking of people in the mass communications world as a static, delineated and atomised? Is it possible to operate at a level of engagement that is ecological, creative and symbolic? If the communications mindset is dominated by a mechanistic cause-and-effect framework, then we will only ever see simplistic forms of communication that are linked to discreate events and occurrences.

In the mass communications mindset there is little opportunity to step back and identify the systemic and global fields of social interaction that result in these individual local events. Rather than seeking to understand phenomenon as they occur, we should, instead, seek to understand the wider field of reciprocal relationships and forces that give structure to communication in the field of socialmeaning in which we are immersed.

Perspective shifts, from the local to the global, however, are not easy to realise. They take time to master and carry out, but such shifts are necessary if we are to understand the dynamics of the field in which we are situated. Transient crossovers between locally delineated events need to be seen in the context of globally significant patterns. Climate change, for example, is an issue of immediate concern. We might prepare for inclement weather by purchasing an umbrella, but this will not protect us from global warming and biosphere collapse. A society that can only focus on one element of these interlinked processes, and is unable to shift perspective, is doomed.

The dominant focus on behaviourism, for example, says nothing about the collective need to mitigate the collective consequences of our destructive actions. In addition to ecological holism, mindful communication must also be aware and responsive to the cyclical and developmental nature of human consciousness. What is often referred to as enlightenment is only one way of describing the conscious expansion of mental capacity that have periodically occurred through human history. We have moved from primitivism to postmodernism, and now need to define our metamodern priorities. We do this as alternations in the symbolic expression found in our culture. We demonstrate our grasp of a greater range of options that open up to us as we move towards this expanded form of consciousness, some individually, some collectively.

A reflexive and mindful approach to communication, then, has to have a high degree of self-awareness based on a clear-sighted understanding of our limitations and our faults. We need to be able to better anticipate what damage we are causing and what the costs are that are associated with our freedom to act. There are always consequences and we should exercise wisdom in anticipating them. The politics of mindfulness are therefore going to be centre stage, if we like it or not. The symbolic framework that we are part of, and which shapes our potential for engagement, is only as good as the service that we want to put it towards. If patriarchy and colonial thinking retain their dominance as polar fields in this weltanschauung, then we are likely to see more conflict and less resolution of our ills.

We are shifting from a world that is defined in clear binary polarities, to one that is multi-polar and integrated. Our culture is no longer singular, but is the amalgam of multiple interlocking cultures. Our ethics is no longer monotheistic, but is multidimensional. Out lived experiences are no longer marginal and delegitimated, but are increasingly necessary to the decentralisation of social organisation, civic engagement and life-politics.

We can no longer assume that we all operate with the same set of cognitive tools and mechanisms, but increasingly we have to recognise that we all see and engage with the world in markedly different ways. To assume that humans are all the same on the inside, and operate according to a singular and mechanistic apparatus is mistaken. We each carry a form of consciousness that is both individual and collectively defined. Some of the characteristics of our consciousness we can follow the grain of, some we can reshape. Mindfulness is knowing when, which and in what way we can reshape our consciousness.

Mindful communication, therefore, has to be practiced as an art of inter-personal and inter-cultural learning. Mass communications seeks to delineate people into audiences by demographic characteristics, mindful communication rejects this premise and seeks to work with people on the basis of what they value and what they might contribute. A mindful approach to communications therefore has to find ways to express diversity through creative engagement. Mindful communication should also be focussed on how we learn and generate reciprocal understanding between one another. Empathetic understanding is at the heart of the process of mindful communication, which is defined by listening, observing and learning about people, rather than assuming and projecting what we think we know about people.

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