The Buddha’s new clothes.

13 08 2014

I’ll start by stating an interest. I practice mindfulness and meditation. I have done so for over 15 years. While mine is a personal practice, I do lead mindfulness meditation at yoga workshops. I make meditation stools for friends and family. I have become accustomed to the accusation that this is hippy shit.

However, over the past few months my inbox has become a magnet for newsletters promoting courses in mindfulness courses for businesses.

My first question is why? What is mindfulness for?
Mindfulness is a practice that encourages compassion and loving kindness, as distilled in metta bhavana meditation. Mindfulness is practiced in order to become more mindful. Full stop.

Compare and contrast. Adriana Huffington, one of several senior executives who have embraced mindfulness says, “”there’s nothing touchy-feely about increased profits. This is a tough economy. … Stress-reduction and mindfulness don’t just make us happier and healthier, they’re a proven competitive advantage for any business that wants one.”

Mindfulness, in that it instills contemplation and calm, may reduce stress. But that isn’t what it is for. In reducing stress and improving focus it may help people to become more effective at work. But that isn’t what it is for.

But if the outcome of practicing mindfulness is a more compassionate person does the reason the person started to study really matter. Does the ends justify the faulty intent?

Thich Nhat Hanh, considered by many to be the father of mindfulness in the west, is typically generous and feels that as long as business leaders practice “true” mindfulness, it does not matter if the original intention is triggered by the drive for bigger profits. I’m less confident. Can it really be OK to teach mindfulness to US Marines before they are deployed overseas in order to make them more focussed killers? Is this true mindfulness. Surely if they had learned fully the concepts of compassion they would leave the army rather than simply head off in a more relaxed state?

In true mindfulness the question is irrelevant as the means and the end are the same thing. The key is in the word “true” and in true mindfulness. If the original intent is solely for personal or corporate gain are the practitioners really practicing mindfulness or just subscribing to the latest business fad?

Which leads me to my second question is, who’s doing the teaching. Becoming a Buddhist meditation teacher takes many years of dedication, commitment to practice and study. Notice that I said earlier that I lead meditation practice at workshops. I do not teach mindfulness. I introduce people to the concept of meditation and encourage further reading and study. I myself was originally taught by Buddhist monks, practiced regularly with the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, read ancient and modern works and have a dedicated personal practice yet I do not feel that I can teach mindfulness. Yet it would appear that anyone can, and does, set themselves up as a mindfulness trainer and charge handsomely in the process.

Corporate mindfulness training is tailored to meet the needs of an organisation. Training is not offered as a movement towards personal compassion but as a way of accessing some of its possible by-products, such as dealing with stress or meeting increased productivity goals. In doing so it has become a corporate tool, along with other methods of increasing profits and far removed from the Buddhist concept of ‘right livelihood’.

View from across the border

12 08 2014

One of the strangest experiences of my life was standing next to my son before the start of a rugby international and hearing him belt out “Flower of Scotland”. Why strange?

Well, I’m English, in that I was born and educated in England.

As far as I can remember I have never sung “God Save The Queen”. Being brought up in a socialist household in the north of England, why would I? I’m not at all nationalistic, or patriotic as it is often euphemistically termed. While living in England it was common to support any “home nation” team at a sporting event when England weren’t playing.

I moved to Scotland and have lived here for 25 years; half my life. While I have never encountered any personal animosity I was shocked by the ‘anyone but England’ mentality north of the border. My feeling is that this has changed over the past few years, though it may be that I have grown used to it and so notice it less after all this time, but the warm support given to all athletes at the recent Commonwealth Games and the respect shown whenever the English national anthem was played suggests that the zeitgeist has changed.

However I do regularly encounter nationalism. My parents live in Cheshire; politically and geographically you don’t get much more middle England than that. Reading the English press and watching the local news and listening to people in coffee shops and bars it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that English nationalism is on the rise. This is not only expressed in support for right-wing parties such as UKIP and a more euro-sceptic Tory party, but in an increase in anti-Scottish sentiment. The referendum is seen, at best, as a colossal waste of time and money.

My own parents, fuelled as they are by the Dailies, Mail and Telegraph, believe that they are paying for free prescriptions and a lavish welfare state in Scotland through their taxes. There is little enthusiasm for using the decisions made by Holyrood to lobby for more generous provision for citizens throughout the rest of the UK but rather the feeling is that Scotland is benefitting at the expense of English taxpayers. With the press moving further to the right in supporting the ConDem’s attacks on the welfare state and privatization of healthcare and education, I can’t see this perception changing any time soon.

Since this is the case, what happens if Scotland votes to stay in the union?
My fear is that anti-Scots attitudes will be re-enforced.

There’s a good chance that the feeling will be. ‘you had your chance, you voted no, now shut up’. Any attempt to create a different type of state in Scotland, to have a society based more firmly on equality, inclusion and social justice, will foster further resentment.

English voters are already tending towards the view that Scottish spending should come solely from taxes raised in Scotland. In the event of a No vote it is unlikely that changes in devolved powers will go this far, as Alistair Darling recently conceded, but rather some sort of formula will remain in place to allocate monies to Scotland based upon UK Treasury spend. Therefore the amount that the UK treasury decides to spend will still impact Scotland.

I read a good explanation of how this works; lets pretend that Holyrood is responsible for just three things and the treasury decides to cut funding for all three of these areas in England by 10%. In this instance the block grant to Scotland for provision of these services will be cut by 10%. If the treasury decides to cut just one of the areas by 10%, leaving the others unaltered, the block grant falls by 3.3%. The Holyrood parliament is free to decide whether to cut the service in that area by an amount equal to the reduction in the block grant, to spread the deficit across several service areas or to make up the shortfall from elsewhere. So it is clear to see that spending decisions made in Westminster do affect services in Scotland. To put names to services, imagine they are NHS, education and policing. All devolved services. The treasury may put forward proposals for spending in these areas for England. Westminster MPs will debate the issue but exactly which MPs will be able to vote?

Earlier this year the McKay Committee report concluded that MPs from Scottish constituencies should not be allowed to vote in the Westminster Parliament on issues that affect only England and Wales. For example, Scottish MPs should not be allowed to vote on matters affecting English Schools as the education systems are separate; control over education in Scotland is already in powers devolved to Holyrood. On the face of it, fair enough. MPs representing rUK constituencies cannot vote in Holyrood and, therefore, cannot have a say in how Scottish Schools are run so why should Scottish MPs have an influence in matters concerning the education system in England and Wales?

But these rUK matters DO affect Scotland as they affect the size and allocation of block grant. Do you see the problem here? The relationship between England and Scotland will change from one where all MPs decide how the spending is allocated to one where only English MPs decide on these key issues. And there is also the question of who decides which pieces of legislation have impact in rUK only? Not every issue will be as clear-cut as education or the NHS.

In practice, the ConDems are suggesting that any Bill that affects only England and Wales will have an extra reading. All MPs will be able to engage in the first three stages but in the final vote Scottish MPs will be excluded. Again, this seems reasonable and fair at first glance but it will have the effect of creating two different types of MP. Since Scottish MPs would not have the right to vote on all Bills passing through Westminster they would become a second-class member and, since they would be unable to vote on all key issues, it would be unlikely that they could sit at the political top table, the Cabinet.

And surely it wouldn’t be too long before the parliament in Westminster started to wonder just what use these second-class Scottish MPs really were? Westminster will be acting as an English Parliament with Scotland having representation but vastly reduced voting rights.

Perhaps at that point England, and particularly considering the rise of English nationalism, would be looking to sever relations?