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Autumn in mind at Henley

Autumn in mind at Henley

Yesterday I was pleased to take up an invitation, facilitated by Will Moore (one of our Exec MBAs) to attend the official launch of a report by The Mindfulness Initiative called Mindful Nation UK. So came my first ever visit to the Houses of Parliament, albeit not the Palace of Westminster, as the launch was actually in the adjacent Portcullis House.

The report is the product of an all-party group and it has drawn much from the work of a number of practitioners of secular meditation as it is used in mental health care in the US and the UK (in particular professors Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mark Williams). There are conclusions and proposals for further work in four areas:

  • Health
  • Education
  • Workplace
  • Criminal Justice System

Overall, it was an interesting experience. Aside from the novelty of slipping inside the architecture of government and power for an hour or so, and getting to meet some of the many interesting people from all four areas listed above who were in attendance, there was also the chance to see at close range some prominent politicians (three government ministers were in attendance, which is apparently quite a feat for a launch event – even more so on a day when the Chinese Premier is in town).

Here are four fairly random impressions that I’ve been reflecting on since:

  1. It was great to meet that community. These are people with (richly) varied interests in the subject of mindfulness. Within about five seconds of taking to the microphone, Mark Williams had managed to tune a room of about 70 people into a half-minute of awareness. It’s the voice….
  2. The fact that mindfulness, or awareness (my preferred word) is making inroads to a level of policy formation, dissemination and implementation is actually quite exciting. Having got this far, there may now be a place to begin to advocate for some subtle changes to how we think about how we think. Maybe.
  3. Those who spoke about their experience with mindfulness courses (including those held for the Parliamentarians) had a visibly and audibly more grounded feel to their words. I was struck by the integrity shown by the Sports Minister, Tracey Crouch, as she addressed the room, having first removed her shoes to get in touch with the floor beneath her feet to do so. She spoke plainly and without notes of her personal reasons for getting involved as well as the benefits accrued from practicing mindfulness.
  4. As a lay-person, it was fascinating to contrast the three ministers. As mentioned, the Minister of Sport and the Olympics, Tracey Crouch, clearly had an inside view of, and belief in, mindfulness. Next, the Minister of State for Community and Social CareAlistair Burt, showed a solid appreciation of the benefits of the use of mindfulness techniques in the treatment of mental health, and since most of the evidence so far gathered about its benefits relates to clinical treatments such as MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy), which everyone likes the sound of, and since all parties agree that the NHS is a splendid thing, he was on quite safe ground. He had quite a few statistics to hand, too. Finally, Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education showed a solid appreciation for, well, Nicky Morgan, frankly. I’m sure it must be hectic being the secretary of State (of STATE!) for anything, and she was ushered in late, so this is merely an observation of what I observed, but her speech stood out from the others for the wrong reasons. It was 1) all about her and her achievements, and 2) it assumed that even in education mindfulness is about mental health provision – that it’s just  matter of correction of the pathology of not focusing properly on one’s exams (honestly, she did sound a lot like the Head Girl in a posh school).

Perhaps I’m being unkind, but if anyone needed to develop their awareness skills, it was our Secretary of State for Education. I think when kids start school, they’re in a natural state of mindfulness, which the constant testing crushes out of them…

So, now I’m really looking forward to taking part in the next meeting – which will focus on Mindfulness in the Workplace. There are so many great initiatives already out there, and it will be great if we can bring some of this to Henley.

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William Blake: Illustrations to Milton's "Paradise Lost"

William Blake: Illustrations to Milton’s “Paradise Lost”

“Harmless”.

This was the original entry for planet Earth in Douglas Adams’ the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was later expanded by the book’s sub-editors in a subsequent edition to… “Mostly harmless”.

It’s great to revise a definition, and a nice way to begin a meandering blog entry.

Every now and again I like to try to rekindle my thoughts regarding the aim of education. I have rather got into the habit of saying only that ‘the aim of education is emancipation’. I’m not sure this is enough. After all, emancipation implies someone else (or someone else’s ideas) from which one has been given freedom. Though I know in many parts of the world that is a real issue, this wasn’t quite what I meant. I had in mind an internally generated aim, not a “release by” but a “release in”, achieved without external reference to anyone (or any thing) else.

So far, the best I’ve managed to come up with is: ‘the aim of education is freedom from comparison’.

This expresses more what I want for the Henley MBAs; that they should make informed choices not restrained by alignment to the notions defined by past experience or by prediction of future event alone (or, perhaps, at all). For personal development, the aim is freedom from validation, and from uncritical judgement of the opinion of others. It is an act of becoming completely at ease and at one with the world as it actually is. In its unspoken assumption of control over the world, our current pedagogy is very poor at this. For me, “freedom from comparison” is significant because it demands that you know under what system of restraints (i.e. being governed by what you cannot do) your awareness level is being limited. Awareness, actually, is the word I’m looking for.

In fact, I think “awareness” could stand as the real aim of education. Awareness subsumes comparison.

How do you get to awareness? (Easy when you know how, huh?) I think awareness is, in some way, being in tune with all forms of living system that demonstrate mental process in their function (Bateson, 1979), but explaining it is not easy with our current mental maps. The greatest barrier to awareness in education is whether or not we are aware of what a context is. Without context, education has no meaning, but meaning is not a thing, it is a pattern (i.e. it has no physical properties or dimensions, so is not to be quantified, objectified or reified in the manner that modern science has envisaged). Meaning carries weight (metaphorically) when it contains coded forms of information of what we can exclude (not what we must include) as alternative possibilities in each case. A red stop-light “tells us” nothing in and of itself. Its meaning is a very complex systemic property of interconnected levels of information (knowledge and structure of the legal system, social conventions on behaviours that align with the legal system, regulated processes of driver instruction and licensing, moral imperatives on behaviours that do not endanger others, etc.). The more such information it carries, the higher the probability of it not occurring just by chance.

All the possible restraints exist for us in nested levels of categories that each contain redundancies (i.e. information of the whole from a part) that mean we can navigate this complex social world without needing to exhaust ourselves with mental processing of every alternative. Systems of restraints are what keep dynamic systems stable over time. Including ‘you’ (as a circuit).  Your breathing, for example, works in a comparable way because your ability (for short periods only) to make this process a conscious one is merely an illustration of this whole nesting principle.

Managers carry with them maps of how their organisations work, and these maps contain many taken-for-granteds. We don’t understand this ‘gut feeling’ very well, but it is redundancy that allows educated guesswork on the part of the manager. Redundancy gives that person a better than random chance of ‘filling in the gaps’. The freedom inherent in management education is observed in how leaders conduct themselves and their work, and I think uncovering how these systems of restraints are universal could free their thinking and learning potential. To do this, education must seek news of difference (i.e. where are the limits?). The internal territory contains homogeneity or redundancy of information and there is nothing to be learned here. The individual is involved in the task of locating the boundaries where mistakes may be made in order to learn.

Reference

Bateson, G (1979), Mind and Nature: a necessary unity, E P Dutton

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