(Published - 30 April 2019)
What would the impact be on society if people were less stressed, more satisfied with their lives, more open to alternative perspectives and more empathetic towards others? Is there a relationship between mindfulness and social change? The University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) adult education researcher Dr Liza Hamman sought to answer these questions and more.
“Mindfulness is emerging as an important dimension of teaching and learning in a variety of educational contexts and settings in the Western world,” says Dr Hamman. “New theoretical perspectives suggest that mindfulness can facilitate emancipatory embodied learning, which has the potential to contribute to social change.”
Her thesis, Critical theory, transformative learning and mindfulness: A case study of a mindfulness training programme, focuses on a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programme offered in Cape Town – the first academic research study that investigates the MSBR programme in the field of adult education and learning in a South African context.
“In South Africa, a Western approach to learning – where the activities of the mind are considered far more important than those of the body – is dominant,” she says. “Knowledge that is available through the body and emotions is often ignored, resulting in an imbalanced approach to education and learning, especially to adult education.”
Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one's attention to experiences occurring in the present moment, which one can develop through the practice of meditation and through other training.
So does it work?
Well, yes and no.
The study found that mindfulness and participation in the MSBR programme did not enable adult learners to recognise the cultural and ideological forces that determine how they learn… but it did encourage them to learn in a new way, through embodied learning, which was not in line with the dominant cultural influences they were accustomed to. This finding suggests that mindfulness has the potential to support a more holistic approach towards emancipatory learning that does not confine emancipatory learning to cognitive rational processes.
Dr Hamman’s research highlighted mindfulness training as an process that could promote a more inclusive approach to adult learning both theoretically and in practice. Mindfulness has both immediate and long-term benefits for participants in mindfulness training programmes.
“Embodied learning through mindfulness has the potential to support transformative learning and critical approaches to learning aimed at social change,” Dr Hamman explains. “I propose that, in combination with cognitive knowledge related to social and ideological issues, mindfulness can promote and support a powerful and holistic process of emancipatory learning.”
She hopes her work will contribute to the academic body of knowledge – both locally and internationally – in respect of mindfulness and adult education and learning, and, more specifically, the relationships between mindfulness, emancipatory learning and social change. “It is my hope that this study will contribute towards the continued growth of mindfulness in South Africa, both as an academic field of research and as a community of practitioners.”
Mindfulness for the Masses: The Personal and the Public
Dr Hamman’s own journey with mindfulness started on a very personal note: with the need to address her own challenges when she began working as a lecturer at Boland College and discovered a passion for education and training. This led her to enrol for adult education studies at UWC’s Institute for Post-School Studies (IPSS).
“I read about mindfulness for the first time 10 years ago while I was doing my Master’s degree in adult education and learning,” she explains. “At the time, I was working full-time while studying part-time and I realised I needed to learn how to actively manage my stress levels and find a more constructive way to deal with the pressures of everyday life.”
In an attempt to enhance her own mindfulness, Dr Hamman has been meditating for more than eight years now. “I can report that although I did not experience any significant external change, I have experienced an inner change: I have found that my ability to handle stressful situations has improved, as has my capacity to consider situations from the perspective of another person.”
During her PhD journey, she progressed from a mindfulness practitioner with a strong academic interest in the practice to a qualified facilitator who offered courses and workshops, and interacted with (and learned from) several well-known international mindfulness researchers. She has even started a non-profit organisation (NPO) focused on providing mindfulness training to those who cannot afford it.
“This is a very small, localised project at the moment but my hope is that it will grow in the future,” she says. “Every time I offer a mindfulness training programme, I am humbled and encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive feedback on how mindfulness creates positive change.”
Mindfulness is not just something to help you learn better, though. Dr Hamman also employs it in her everyday life. “I have a horse called Cartoon who I spend many hours with and I have to be my best self when I get on her back,” she says. “If you want to build a good relationship with a horse, you have to be a strong leader, aware and present, kind but confident. When I am feeling stressed or anxious, Cartoon will mirror this to me, reminding me of what kind of person she needs me to be.”