I have been reading Ron Purser’s new book, McMindfulness: How mindfulness became the new capitalist spirituality, published by Repeater, London, an imprint of Watkins Media and distributed in the USA by Random House, New York.
Mindfulness, in its modern guise, has been over sold and now comes the recoil. There are three main lines of criticism: firstly, that mindfulness as now branded, is not real mindfulness as originally put forward in Buddhist texts or even in traditional English character training; secondly, that it plays into the individualised, consumerist, capitalist ideology that is the bane of modern society, and, thirdly, especially in its training to inhibit emotional reactivity and its promotion of non-judgementalism, it can serve unethical purposes, most notably increasing the killing efficiency of soldiers and even of terrorists.
Purser’s book covers all three and gives most space to the second - he is, after all, a management teacher - arguing that mindfulness, especially corporate mindfulness programmes, are a form of humanised coercion. It also, however, attacks its philosophical basis, its marketing methods, its apparent alliance with conservative capitalist values, calls into question the dubious rationale of teaching mindfulness to school children, highlights the irrelevance of mindfulness to the real social and ecological problems facing humanity, and points out how mindfulness has become a lucrative industry in its own right by exploiting claims to scientific solutions for contemporary anxieties, claims that have only very weak support from genuine science.
“Under the prevailing neoliberal consensus, economic policy serves the interests of capital. Individuals bear the brunt of the consequences, and are told to treat their wounds with the practice of mindfulness. The practice also teaches self-discipline, so they mindfully learn to compete for opportunities. This is presented as freedom” (p.227)
“the mindfulness movement’s reinforcement of Western individualism seems more like an entitled, self-centered, and myopic path to happiness. A stress-free life is ours for the taking, within a protective bubble that screens out the cries of the world. The products are marketed as providing more fulfilling and sensual experiences, not the development of virtue, ethical behavior, moral courage, and compassion.” (p.76)
Ron Pursers book is a trenchant critique of the current vogue for mindfulness as personal enhancement and as a means to coping with the stress of living in the presently dominant capitalist system. As a kind of capitalist pseudo-religion that individualises distress in such a way as to lead people to ignore its social causes, mindfulness is powerfully counter-revolutionary. As a technique stripped of all ethical foundation and categorically non-judgemental it not only leads to acceptance of the status quo, but also betrays its Buddhist roots. In Buddhism, mindfulness was an essential element in the rejection of the greed, hate and delusion system, whereas in the modern rendition it is a distraction that facilitates the participation of individuals in that system.
It is a highly readable, fast-moving book castigating the market-friendly palliative now called mindfulness and pointing out its relationship to the ubiquitous delusions of the current age where corporate greed, societal animosities and oppression, and capitalist and nationalist delusions can pass as normal and not be upsetting so long as one non-judgementally pay attention only to the present moment or eat a grape with full attention.
It asks the awkward questions: Why are conservative institutions, governments and even the military so interested? Does the sudden promotion of mindfulness have anything to do with the economic flat-lining of the last more than a decade? Is mindfulness rewiring us to serve the requirements of neoliberalism? Is it a program for destroying any collective consciousness that could impede pure market logic? Is it an anaesthetic that helps individuals sleep better while society goes from bad to worse? Is it, as Žižek says, part of the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism?
Actually, you do not need to be an anti-capitalist to see the disadvantages of the current form of mindfulness. It could just as well be used to lull individuals into apathy about international socialism, the gulag and operation of the secret police. The main point is that it leads the individual to see the source of all stress as within oneself and thus to ignore socio-political and economic factors. This is true even at an individual level - mindfulness will not pay your gas bill nor save you from eviction; just help you to accept it more meekly and, worse, do less to prevent it in the first place.
In all political systems there is the problem of how to render the population governable. Mindfulness is presented as personal liberation but, Purser suggests, is more accurately seen as part of the system of establishing in people a governable mentality, rendering them more biddable, less troublesome and easier to control. It enables the exploiters of the world to have a free hand while their victims blame themselves for their own lack of happiness.
A variant of this same problem is how to keep people working and exerting themselves for enterprises in which they only receive a tiny proportion of the profit. This problem has become more acute since the economic downturn of 2008 since when ever-increasing incomes and living standards seem no longer guaranteed. If employees are losing heart, can mindfulness persuade them that this is their fault? Can it give them a supposed self-help distraction so that the spread of work alienation can be contained? Can the problem be medicalised?
Modern mindfulness promotion goes hand in hand with the invention of a range of new pseudo-pathologies. Far from making people happier, this makes them feel more anxious and guilty. Mind wandering, (i.e. free floating imagination), failing to live in the present moment (i.e. reminiscing, planning, ruminating, speculating), being preoccupied when something worrying is happening, letting one’s emotions get the better of one, and so on, are not pathological, even if they do not fit the contemporary strictures of mindful living; they are natural, useful functions provided by nature, like sleep and dreaming. Under the influence of the mindfulness movement, however, these are all starting to become illnesses - or, as they used to say in the old days, sins, - about which one should feel guilty because one has not been mindful enough to prevent them.
Above all, in modern society we see the pathologizing and medicalization of stress, which then requires a remedy and expert treatment. Stress, however, is the natural and proper response of the organism to external forces and should be used to identify and do something about those forces. Medicalising it simply leads to ignorance of its true function and inappropriate passivity.
Mindfulness is the latest twist in the positive thinking and self-help movement with all its serious dangers of cultivating self-delusion, social irresponsibility, and failure to see things in their true perspective. It has taken this movement to a higher level of popularity by building upon now widely propagated ideas about stress. The stressed person is seen as a victim: weak, vulnerable, and biologically ill-equipped for the daily pressures of modern life, yet not in a position to do anything about them. The modern person can readily feel him or herself to be a victim, but a disempowered one. Mindfulness appeals to this mentality, seeming to provide a survival method for people in such a plight.
The original mindfulness (Pali: sati, Sanskrit: smriti) as found in Buddhism refers to good heartedness informed by received wisdom. It is a function of well-cultivated memory and sound experience. It never was “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Such awareness has a place in Buddhism, but it is a secondary one, only safe to use when real mindfulness is already established. Without good heartedness, such awareness could serve any number of evil purposes. Real mindfulness serves to prepare one for and protect one against what might befall in the present moment, and it provides a foundation for thought, feelings and actions that serve the common good. This is a long way distant from what has been made of it in the contemporary consumerist market place. The original was a foundation for a courageous rejection of the values of acquisitiveness, selfishness and domination, designed to release the person from any sense of victimhood and transform him or her into a spiritual warrior striving for a more noble set of values.
The conversion of the original Buddhist mindfulness into the so-called mindfulness of today is an adaptation to a world that feels out of control. Many will criticise capitalism and/or socialism, but none seem to have a solution to the problems of over population, eco-crisis, social and economic inequality and the increasing vulnerability of an overly interconnected world to whatever shock may arrive next. Mindfulness seems to say, “Since you cannot solve these problems, just live for today, concentrate on the present moment, forget and don’t look ahead.” It advocates dwelling in a “non-discursive state”, which really means “don’t think about it.” Is this not a recipe for lemmings?
Mindfulness in its modern guise began as an aid for patients suffering conditions for which there was no Westerner medical solution. Now it has escaped from its medical beginnings and spread like wildfire through society. However, what remains of the original Buddhist concept is now so heavily laden with Western cultural accretions (individualism consumerism, competitive advantage, me-ism, comercialisation, advertising hype, etc.) and baggage (pseudo-science, marketing, medicalisation, materialism, reductionism, co-option by corporate interests) as to be hardly recognisable. Will this non-religious religion really be what enables humanity to survive the next two centuries, or is it a fad that will soon be overtaken by the next supposed panacea? Time will tell.
Purser would like to see mindfulness reformed into a social consciousness - “bearing witness to shared vulnerabilities, actively acknowledging social suffering, collective trauma and other cultural experiences of oppression” - that recaptures some of its original meaning of remembrance and, in particular, remembering of the causes and origins of our discontents leading to collective action to do something about them.
The author clearly has a leftist political agenda in mind. Even this may well prove inadequate given the difficulties that the human race currently faces, but his critique of mindfulness as currently retailed certainly gives one pause and invites serious thought.
An attention grabbing and forceful critique of the over-blown claims of the mindfulness movement, especially in its corporately sponsored form.