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Mindfulness in Portugal: Leveraging Social Labs to Catalyze Grassroots Change

Updated: Aug 6, 2021

By Vien Nguyen, CEI Intern

Educational fads can be frustrating for teachers, because once the hype dies down, good programs are often abandoned. Despite explosive growth over the past 20 years, the mindfulness movement risks becoming a fad if local communities don’t sustain their buy-in over the long run. Policy makers may need to consider different ways of empowering their districts to co-create mindfulness programs and to embed them into their everyday lives. Ivan Sellers, a social entrepreneur based in Portugal, is specifically using a new “Social Lab” platform to involve his country in discovering mindfulness organically.

The Problem of Sustainability

According to Sellers, the largest barrier facing the mindfulness movement worldwide is the problem of sustainability. Many mindfulness programs fizzle out after a few years for several common reasons. First, many teachers don’t sustain their own personal mindfulness practices once the certified mindfulness instructors leave (Bristow, 2018). Principals also discontinue mindfulness programs if they don’t see enough buy-in from parents and students. To make mindfulness sustainable in Portuguese educational environments, Sellers needed a different approach than the status quo of top-down programming. So, he worked with the Presencing Institute at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. The institute encouraged Sellers to set up a Social Lab to generate new perspectives on the sustainability problem.

Social Labs in Portugal

What is a Social Lab? It’s a group of stakeholders from a community getting together to generate innovative solutions to a complex social issue. Like all Social Labs, Sellers’s lab includes the following three key characteristics (Hassan, 2014, p. 3):

  1. Social. The stakeholders represent social diversity within educational environments – investors, school leaders, teachers, parents, mindfulness instructors, and even students, who are usually not represented in brainstorming ideas for schools. The group acts together, rather than having one individual impose top-down decisions.

  2. Experimental. Instead of a single “expert” prescribing a rigid plan, Sellers’s stakeholders are developing a portfolio of experiments to test and present to the community. Based on frequent feedback cycles, they will tweak their experiments according to the community’s needs.

  3. Systemic. The lab aims to look beyond symptoms, towards the root causes plaguing mindfulness education programs in Portugal.

Once formed, the Social Lab interviewed the Portuguese community to identify areas of need in their education system related to mindfulness. Lab participants listened deeply, without a set of a priori assumptions. Then the lab came back together and organized their findings. During their discussions, they used a technique called Dragon Dreaming. At any time in the meeting, any participant could ask the group to pause for 30 seconds of silent mindful awareness. This allowed lab participants to reconnect with their bodies and make wiser decisions. In this way, Dragon-Dreaming is a tool for fostering collaboration. Through their discussions, the Social Lab came up with a series of common observations.

Implementing Mindfulness Education in Portugal

The lab’s first set of observations has to do with effectively implementing mindfulness programs in Portugal:

  1. School leaders need to first embody the awareness that their mindfulness programs teach. For example, the Presencing Institute’s ULab trains leaders through a process involving mindful awareness.

  2. When engaging the community in conversations around mindfulness, start with questions that interrupt old, reflexive patterns of thought. For example, the question “What is wrong with education in Portugal?” only prompted reflexive responses from the lab’s interviewees. A better question was “What are three things you received from your education that you value?” Unusual questions are more likely to prompt new thought patterns and momentum towards change.

  3. Create connection with community members by sharing pain. This creates a sense of vulnerability and togetherness. For more on vulnerability, see CEI intern Daniela Rueda’s previous blog post on vulnerability. Sellers sums up his approach to creating connections with new communities with the phrase “I hear you… how can I help?” His approach takes into account the importance of deep listening, a topic of the ULab course from the Presencing Institute (Threefold Consulting, 2015).

Overcoming Systemic Barriers to Mindfulness Education

The lab also noticed systemic barriers to mindfulness education beyond sustainability. These include:

  1. Religious connotations. In a country with a high Catholic population like Portugal, “meditation” is charged with religious and cultural connotations. Parents are thus less likely to sign their children up for mindfulness programs that they view as religious. Thus, programs should explain the secularity of mindfulness practices.

  2. Lack of transfer. Some mindfulness programs spend so much time focusing on the basics of practice (e.g. focusing the breath to enhance attention) that they neglect transferring mindfulness from the yoga mat or cushion to real life. Listening actively, being patient, acting compassionately, and being reflective are all long-term benefits of mindfulness practice.

  3. Theory vs. embodiment. Many individuals think they have mastered mindfulness after taking an Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course. However, long-time practitioners agree that mindfulness truly only bears its fruits when it’s embodied and infused into everyday life.

Overall, the lab senses that a grassroots approach is appropriate for mindfulness in Portugal at this time. “The last thing we want is people resisting. What we are trying to create, more than anything else, is connection,” says Sellers. The lab will now collaborate with Portuguese schools and communities to design a series of research studies to enhance mindfulness’s efficacy there. One study might involve spending more time before the official start of the mindfulness program to diagnose what teachers currently know about mindfulness. This would allow mindfulness instructors to tailor their approach to better meet teachers where they are. The goal would be to help teachers plant seeds that would later blossom into well-developed, individualized reasons why mindfulness is important to them in their own lives. The next step will be to determine if some of the findings from their lab setting can be replicated in Portuguese schools and communities.


Bristow, J. (2018, June 05). How to avoid a poorly designed school mindfulness program. Mindful website.

Dam, N. T., Vugt, M. K., Vago, D. R., Schmalzl, L., Saron, C. D., Olendzki, A., . . . Meyer, D. E. (2017). Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation. Perspectives on Psychological Science,13(1), 36-61. DOI:10.1177/1745691617709589

Hassan Z. (2014). The social labs revolution: A new approach to solving our most complex challenges. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Threefold Consulting. (2015, November 23). Otto Scharmer on the four levels of listening .

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