The mainstreaming of mindfulness meditation continues at a rapid clip. According to the Center for Disease Control, in the years 2012 to 2017 the percentage of adults meditating in the United States more than tripled, to 17%. The American market for provision of meditation-related services is now worth $1 billion and growing.
With any phenomenon this mainstream, one expects a backlash. Sure enough, there have been a number of pieces appearing recently that chastise programs like BU’s under the name “corporate mindfulness”, or more pithily, “McMindfulness”. Ron Purser, a management professor whose understanding of mindfulness already informed mine, has now written a very interesting book with that title.
There is a great deal in Purser’s book, most of which I cannot discuss here. Purser is certainly right to raise questions about the mindfulness movement – most notably the continual tension between its Buddhist roots and supposed secularity, to which I don’t think there are easy answers. But there is one theme running through nearly every chapter where – I might say “as a Buddhist” – I found Purser’s approach quite troubling. For while Purser often takes himself to be chiding modern mindfulness for being insufficiently Buddhist, I think overall he is unwittingly criticizing it for being too Buddhist.
I am skeptical. Anything that offers success in our unjust society without trying to change it is not revolutionary — it just helps people cope. However, it could also be making things worse. Instead of encouraging radical action, it says the causes of suffering are disproportionately inside us, not in the political and economic frameworks that shape how we live. (7-8)
Purser is entirely right that the rhetoric of revolution, applied to modern mindfulness practices, is overblown, perhaps even a little ridiculous. So are many other claims made for the rise of mindfulness practice, like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s claim that it constitutes
a tremendous opportunity for addressing… the Orwellian distortions of truth we are now seeing on a daily basis in the news, and the perpetuation of dystopian “governance” by seemingly elevating greed, hatred, and delusion to new heights, with all its attendant consequences for the fragility of democratic institutions. (quoted on Purser 238)
All this is hype that is scarcely believable, and Purser is right to call it out. But I am not ready to follow Purser’s further step that it is “making things worse” to say “the causes of suffering are disproportionately inside us”. I agree with Purser that the “fundamental message of the mindfulness movement is that the underlying cause of dissatisfaction and distress is in our heads.” (9) But are we so sure that that message is a bad thing?
That message, after all, is impeccably and fundamentally Buddhist. It is right there in the Second Noble Truth, which states the cause of dukkha (which I’ve seen translated as dissatisfaction and distress, as well as the more usual “suffering”) is craving. Śāntideva, too, tells us that all fears and immeasurable sufferings come from the mind alone. Neither Śāntideva nor the Pali suttas have any interest whatsoever in “radical action”; if anything, they discourage it.
Purser laments that modern mindfulness’s emphasis on results “prevents it being offered as a tool of resistance, restricting it instead to a technique for ‘selfcare.'” (20) But why would we have ever thought it was a “tool of resistance”? To think that it would or could be that, seems like exactly the kind of hype that Kabat-Zinn engages in: making mindfulness something it is not. It was not such a tool, after all, in the hands of the Buddha of the suttas. His monks did in important respects opt out of the prevailing social order, and indeed occasionally criticized it – but they did not fight it, they did not try to change it. Rather, they created a separate (monastic) social order within the existing one – an order that one could even call “privatized”.
Through the book Purser seems to keep pursuing the hope that mindfulness could actually be a revolution, even in the face of people who rightly agree that it isn’t. New York Times reporter David Gelles notes, rightly I think, that ““We live in a capitalist economy, and mindfulness can’t change that.” Purser replies: “Well, it certainly won’t if sold in those terms.” (26) In which case I await the explanation of how a proper mindfulness, tied to a Buddhism as engaged as possible, will change the fact that we live in a capitalist economy – given that nothing else ever has, with the possible but highly questionable exception of a murderous set of barbarous régimes that killed more people than Hitler did. Purser was doing well to critique the overblown portrayal of mindfulness as revolutionary – why does he then still seem to hold up such faith that it could or should be revolutionary?
After rightfully critiquing the overblown rhetoric of revolution attached to modern mindfulness, Purser says “There is no radical blueprint in paying attention. If the aim is to effect social change, then methods of pursuing it need to be taught.” (246) And that’s true. But I think Purser is too ready to take up rhetoric that makes mindfulness into something it isn’t. In classical Buddhism the aim isn’t to effect social change, and maybe that shouldn’t be the aim of modern mindfulness either.
Purser notes that Buddhist mindfulness seeks to eradicate the three poisons of rāga, dveṣa/dosa and moha, which he translates “greed, ill will and delusion” (20). I could dispute a couple of these translations, but the basic point is correct. The thing to notice about it is: Purser objects to “a fundamental tenet of neoliberal mindfulness, that the source of people’s problems is found in their heads.” (38) But “in our heads” is exactly where we find rāga, dveṣa and moha! If you are telling us that the source of our problems is not in our heads, then you are telling us that that source does not consist of any of these problems. But that does seem to be exactly what Purser is saying. If he accepts the Buddhist critique of dveṣa, it is grudgingly at best:
According to mindfulness science, certain emotions — such as anger, disgust, sadness, contempt, frustration and aggression — are “destructive,” negative affects requiring emotional self-regulation. But what if one is angry, even enraged, about injustice? Just let it go. Focus on your breath. Bring your attention back to the present moment. Of course, mindfulness practitioners still have thoughts outside of practice, but they are conditioned to see these as problems if strong emotions get involved. This has a disempowering impact on political thinking. Even if it helps not to act with anger, we still need to act if we want things to change outside our heads. (42)
Many do follow such a project, which prioritizes fighting injustice and pays incidental attention at best to fighting our own anger. But it seems to me that such a project is quite far from traditional Buddhism – in a way that “neoliberal mindfulness” might not be. Which then raises the question: should we be far from traditional Buddhism? I’d like to explore that question a bit more next time.