In defence of McMindfulness

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.

g9510.20_mindful.inddPurser’s critique begins with the 2014 Time cover proclaiming “the mindful revolution”. Purser retorts:

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.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

14 Replies to “In defence of McMindfulness”

  1. The defense of McMindfulness post leads to further questions about whether a Buddhist kind of mindset to the world is, in fact, compatible with efforts to advance social justice. If I may self-promote a bit, in my just published chapter “Gandhi, Epictetus, and Political Resistance” (in Civility, Nonviolent, Resistance, and the New Struggle for Social Justice, Brill 2019) I explore ideas that are quite relevant to this matter. Anyone interested is encouraged to get in touch.

  2. Wonderful post, Amod! On a parallel line of thought, I wonder if ‘mindfulness’ can be seen as very Buddhist in the sense that Buddhism has adapted to changing cultures and political structures over time and in doing so it has changed, sometimes in rather surprising and divergent ways. In that sense, ‘mindfulness’ might be the most modern/American form of Buddhism there is (various sociological and rhetorical aspects aside, including the mindfulness folks who explicitly say it’s not Buddhism…).

    • Thanks, Justin. I think modern mindfulness is indeed a “modern/American” form of Buddhism – but I think Engaged Buddhism itself is, if anything, even more so. The followup post will explore that parallel further.

  3. You have expressed my feelings about Purser’s argument. I would also say that if we can learn to be less influenced by, as Steve Hayes calls it, the dictator within, then that freedom ensuing from it, frees us to engage more in helping society, as we are not spending so much time fused with our often negative thoughts about self. Win win as far as I can see and found personally to a large extent.
    Thank you for your article.

    • You’re welcome! So far I’ve been avoiding a direct answer to the question of whether Buddhists actually should be engaged – because I think that depends on foundational ethical questions that require deeper exploration. I’m hoping to make those questions a core of my research and writing over the next couple years.

    • I agree with you in the sense that only when we can respond from a non-reactive place can we hope to effect change in the apparent ‘outer world’. As the Buddha said, “thoughts are things”. “What we think about grows”. With our thoughts (guiding our actions) we change the world (for good or otherwise).

  4. Thanks, Amod! I haven’t followed the debates about mindfulness as mindfully as you have, but I was thinking about the last quote from Purser. Do you think he’s making an assumption about the relationship between anger and political action? Why could political action not come from compassion? Even though dukkha’s more immediate cause is always some mental disposition, aren’t there some social contexts in which dukkha is more more likely to arise? Do certain types of consumer capitalism, for instance, make greed more likely to arise, human psychology being what it is? So couldn’t political action be about creating better contexts in which to practice Buddhism? Isn’t the creation of the sangha itself a type of political action? For Buddhists who take non-dualism seriously, what sense does it even make to separate “internal” and “external” sources of dukkha? Maybe I’m getting too much into Engaged Buddhism territory here (and I remember you’re pretty critical of that movement), but I was wondering if you had any thoughts. Maybe you’re getting into some of this in the next post?

    • I think Purser’s last quote does allow for the possibility of a non-angry politics – and I very much admire people like Thich Nhat Hanh for working so diligently at that goal. I also think that the goal is much harder to achieve than it looks – borne out both by classical Buddhist thinkers and my own experience. The tension between political action and non-anger is very real. Purser assumes that when we do have to make a choice between them, we should choose the political action, and I (like Aśvaghoṣa) am not ready to follow him there.

      Your followup questions are really interesting and powerful, and there’s more to be said about them beyond this series of posts. I think there is a real potential for a Buddhist politics that identifies social sources of craving, anger and delusion and tries to quench them. I think such a politics would be in tension, though, with one that orients itself toward fighting “injustice” (a concern which I think is considerably more alien to classical Buddhism). Generally speaking, I suspect the thing that is most likely to provoke our anger is a perception of injustice, and a politics that stokes such perceptions is likely to stoke the anger with it.

      None of that is sufficient to say that we shouldn’t try to fight injustice. But I do think that classical Buddhism offers us some wise cautions about that fight.

      • An additional follow-up question clearly worth exploring is whether eschewal of social engagement (in the way some interpret Buddhism to advocate) is ultimately just a reflection of one’s priviledged place in society. It seems that for so many in the world, given their dire situation, political involvement is more of a necessity than a luxury they can opt out of. On this point, it is not irrelevant to note that the societies in which Buddhism first prospered in were structured in ways that made opting out of politics more of a viable option.

        • Sanjay, I disagree entirely with this view. There is a long tradition of privileged people telling marginalized people they are not activist enough. Every study I am aware of indicates that those with high levels of income and education are more politically active, in multiple ways, than those with low. This should not be surprising: the genuinely marginalized are often too focused on immediate needs of survival to worry about changing the system. It is activism, not quietism, that is a luxury of the privileged.

          • Understood. However, it seems like one could argue (if it is indeed activism that is more of the luxury) that that is part of the problem since such a situation would all but ensure non-representative leadership. Perhaps it is worth exploring then whether one who has reached an ideal Buddhist kind of quietism can ever really be impacted by the world of politics (thus making it irrelevant whether the government such a person lives under is all that representative).

          • Re: “It is activism, not quietism, that is a luxury of the privileged.”

            One point of contention here: it seems that political participation (the Pew research you sited) should not be equated with political activism. At least my understanding of activism is something more like “organizing, publicly advocating, rallying, protesting, etc around certain political causes, candidates, or parties.”

            One can be very politically active (membership in civic orgs, reaching out to officials as/when needed); but not be an activist.

            It seems that people who are comfortable in society will have more time and access to political activity, whereas those who are disadvantaged *might* be the ones more likely to take up activism (as opposed to political activity more broadly construed).

            My anecdotal sense of people involved with *activism* is that most are younger, un (or under) employed, sometimes living communally, etc. Certainly not a privileged bunch of people in the economic sense at least. But I’d be interested in data on this.

          • I don’t use “activism” in the narrow sense of street protest, and I don’t see much reason to limit it that way. (Sanjay’s original post used the terms “social engagement” and “political involvement”, for which I was using “activism” as a rough synonym.)

            Regarding the demographics of street protest specifically, a bit of Googling finds an article making this claim:

            “Studies have emphasized that the greater inclination of the well-educated to take part in street protest should be related to the fact that this group in general tends to be overrepresented in all forms of political participation, both ‘conventional’ and ‘unconventional’ (Verba, Schlozman & Brady 1995). This US study from the 1990s however shows that the inclination
            to take part in a street protest is less affected by individuals’ level of education, compared to other forms of political participation (ibid.). In the follow-up study made in the US during the 2000s, these differences between street protests and other forms of political participation have even widened—while ‘political inequality’ in general has increased, demonstrations have come to engage equal shares of all socio-economic groups (Schlozman, Verba & Brady 2012:

            So it would seem that street protests, at most, draw equally from all groups; to the extent that isn’t the case, they draw more from the privileged, just like other forms of political participation. It remains false that “eschewal of social engagement… is ultimately just a reflection of one’s privileged place in society” or that “for so many in the world, given their dire situation, political involvement is more of a necessity than a luxury they can opt out of”, even if we are talking about street protests; it is doubly so if we are talking about any other form of political activity.

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