Elixir of Mindfulness
Posted by Glenn Wallis on July 3, 2011
The mighty “Mindfulness” juggernaut continues to roll joyously throughout the wounded world of late-capitalism. And why shouldn’t it? The Mindfulness Industry is claiming territory once held by the great occupying force of assorted self-help gurus, shrinks, health care workers, hypnotists, preachers, Theosophists, the church, the synagogue, actual gurus, yogis, meditation teachers, and even—gasp!— Buddhists themselves. Who, after all, can compete with an industry that claims to offer a veritable fountain of bounty, an elixir to life’s ills? According to the new website mindful.org (links provided at end of post) “a dose of mindfulness (or a very large helping) can enhance your joy and appreciation of everyday life—and help you to deal with some of life’s toughest challenges when they arise.”
“Mindfulness” can, apparently, be applied to virtually any activity whatsoever, thereby enhancing that activity’s compass of well-being. According to the site, mindfulness, for instance, significantly impacts activities as dissimilar as caregiving, dying and death, sex, parenting, healing and health, navigating intimate relationships, consumerism, finances, cooking, eating, entrepreneurship, creativity, sports, activism, education, protecting the environment, working with prisoners, and much, much more.
How, you ask, can mindfulness accomplish so much? After all, in everyday language “being mindful” is synonymous with quite ordinary cognitive functions, such as “being attentive,” “paying attention to,” “bringing to mind,” “exercising caution,” “being courteous.” The only time I have ever heard the term used in earnest (prior to the current “mindfulness revolution”) was when my grandmother would exhort me to “be mindful of the time!” when I went out to play. Mindful.org’s pervasive rhetoric tacitly claims that mindfulness constitutes no less than the basis of a modern-day utopia. Is it really possible that, in reminding me to “be mindful of the time,” my grandmother was asking me to apply the same mental quality that constitutes the first cause of a utopian new age?
It’s hard to say. A visit to mindful.org’s “Mindful Practice” pages reveals such a wide-ranging plethora of “techniques and practices,” that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the term “mindfulness” has become, in the hands of the Mindfulness Industry, a classic floating signifier. “Mindfulness,” that is to say, is an agreed-upon term that is, nonetheless, void of agreed-upon meaning; thus, its usage is run through with empty signification. Being thus empty of any determinate and demonstrable object of signification, “mindfulness” can be filled with any sense desired by the user. (Have a look at these book titles, below.*)
It seems fair, nonetheless, to press the question: of what does this life-enhancing “dose of mindfulness” consists—what is its active ingredient? Yet, still, “mindfulness” on the “Mindful Practices” pages of mindful.org’s website remains an extraordinary testament to what the visual semiotician Daniel Chandler refers to as “a signifier with a vague, highly variable, unspecifiable or non-existent signified.” Perusing the articles there, I find usages that include the following categories. Mindfulness entails: (1) Mental operations: ordinary awareness, paying attention, concentration, changed focus, observing the contents of the mind, freedom from judgment. (2) Behavior: kindness, compassion, common consideration, love, deep listening, slowing down, niceness, being good. (3) Traditional practices: various forms of Buddhist meditation, generalized/unspecified meditation, contemplation, various styles of yoga. (4) Indistinct something-or-others: openness, relating more effectively to thoughts and feelings, lovingkindness, going inward, letting go, acceptance, truly seeing someone, minding mind, being in the moment, being moment to moment, just being.
Has some latter-day Dale Carnegie forgotten to take his Adderall? Or perhaps he took acid instead. Let’s focus, people! Do the editors of mindful.org not see the cruel irony of presenting their ostensibly distracted, abstracted, absent, scattered, attention-deficient hyperactive and/or depressed readers with such a salmagundaceous smorgasbord of—what?—practices, techniques, forms of comportment, affirmations, good intentions, wishful thinking, self-help remedies?
No sooner do I wonder then I come across this statement by the progenitor of the current mindfulness juggernaut, Jon Kabat-Zinn: “mindfulness is not a technique. It is a way of being, a way of seeing, a way of knowing.”
The vacuity of the term “mindfulness” can be traced, in fact, to the vague, platitudinous, and circular definition given it by Jon Kabat-Zinn. That definition takes the following form in his influential Coming to our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World through Mindfulness:
Mindfulness can be thought of as moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a specific way, that is, in the present moment, and as non-reactively, as non-judgmentally, and as openheartedly as possible (p. 108).
It is not insignificant, I think, that the originator of the term “floating signifier,” the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), used the Polynesian term mana as a prototypical instance of such an “empty” signifier. Mana was used by Pacific Islanders broadly to denote the mysterious, unknowable, invisible “stuff” of life. The more mana you possessed, the more powerful you were; the more powerful you were, the greater well-being you enjoyed. People who knew how to get mana were particularly sought after. Like many modern-day priests, gurus, psychologists, meditation teachers, and so on, these people claimed to know how to manipulate and acquire the mysterious, elixir-like “stuff” that resides in all of life. Modern-day anthropologists observed that mana-like beliefs could be found across cultures, extending into what we “civilized” people call religion. Thus, mana, Lévi-Strauss observed, simply came to “explain” too much in human culture. Virtually anything having to do with power or animation could be tagged with “mana.” Is it possible that “mindfulness” is like “mana” in being both an amorphous floating signifier, yet one that hovers around something like “the animating elixir of life”?
Another question to ask about the Jon Kabat-Zinn inspired Mindfulness Industry is just what its relationship to Buddhism is. In one problematically-titled article on mindful.org, “Curing your illness is all in your mindfulness,” authors Ed Halliwell and Jonty Heaversedge broach this issue:
The practices taught in mindfulness courses have been adapted from Buddhism, but are presented in entirely secular terms, as a form of psychological aid. They have therefore escaped the religious, new-age or hippie connotations that sometimes put people off meditation. This is largely thanks to Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American medic who became convinced that mindfulness could help patients with chronic health problems, especially when they had come to the end of the road with conventional medicine.
From the perspective of Speculative non-Buddhism, “adapted from Buddhism” speaks of a perfectly legitimate enterprise. But, in my reading of the mindfulness literature, it is not at all clear whether, to what degree, and precisely how such an adaptation has occurred. My sense is that mindfulness adherents merely pay fealty to Buddhism. Whether they do so because of Kabat-Zinn’s early relationship with Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn or as an attempt to gain legitimation or for some other reason, is unclear. That there is an explicit and demonstrable affiliation with—an “adaptation from”—some form of Buddhism remains to be shown. I am a bit baffled by the Mindfulness Industry’s nod to Buddhism. Is it simply a case of politely acknowledging your sources? Does it stem from an agonistic anxiety of influence? Is it—given the misprision that the Mindfulness Industry has performed on Buddhist literature—evidence of an oedipal complex (with Buddhism as father and meditation as mother)? What are we to make of articles on the mindful.org site such as “Ancient Wisdom Proven by Modern Medicine”?**
Halliwell and Heaversedge err when they write that mindfulness, via its secularization and psychologization, has “escaped the religious, new-age or hippie connotations that sometimes put people off meditation.” From a Speculative non-Buddhism perspective, the Mindfulness Industry has set up camp much too closely to the great spiritualist vallation within which Buddhism and its brood are ensconced. Scanning a few articles on the “Spirituality” page of mindful.org, I see the following words: essential self, psyche, soul, essence, spiritual teacher, spiritual practice, prayer, transcendental knowledge, true self, true mind, contemplation, grace, oneness, God. It may be that the form of mindfulness to which Halliwell and Heaversedge subscribe is devoid of such flamboyant language; but, clearly, the Mindfulness Industry is run through with “the religious, the new-age, and the hippie.”
Speculative non-Buddhism sees in the entire mindfulness project a neo-Carnegian-quasi/pseudo-Buddhist-qua-self-actualization hall-of-mirrors. The Mindfulness Industry lays its tracks in what French social theorist Jean-Gabriel de Tarde (1843-1904) called “the grooves of borrowed thought.” (Recall that de Tarde also coined the term “group mind” in an effort to understand “herd behavior” and crowd psychology.) By re-packaging age-old optimisms, the Mindfulness Industry feeds off of the multi-billion dollar addiction of the desiccated twenty-first century middle classes for anything that will lead them to the promised land of “well-being.”
Speculative non-Buddhism is not, of course, opposed to practices that cultivate salutary forms of life. On the contrary, it places the highest premium on such practices. One such practice is, for lack of a better term, “meditation.” In my next post I will explain.
*A (very small) sampling of recent book titles will make my point clear. First, the adjectival variety: Mindful Parenting, Mindful Eating, Mindful Teaching, Mindful Politics, Mindful Therapy, Mindful Leadership, Mindful Recovery, The Power of Mindful Learning, The Mindful Brain, The Mindful Way through Depression, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, The Mindful Path Through Shyness, The Mindful Path through Worry and Rumination. There are books with sub-titles such as Mindful Writing, Mindful Relationships, Mindful Creativity. Somewhat ambiguously, we have, too, Mindful Dog Teaching. We also get the noun variety: Mindfulness for Law Students, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Mindfulness, Mindfulness in Plain English, Beginning Mindfulness, Mindfulness and Mental Health, The Art and Science of Mindfulness, The Miracle of Mindfulness, and just plain Mindfulness. Whew! Oh, wait. Just when you thought— unmindfully!— that you had mastered the subject, someone plops down on your desk Beyond Mindfulness!
**The recent special issue of Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal, volume 12 number 1, May 2011, should answer this and many other questions. I just ordered a copy and will post about it in the future. Jon Kabat-Zinn is one of the guest editors of the issue, which is titled:”Mindfulness: diverse perspectives on its meaning, origins, and multiple applications at the intersection of science and dharma.” You can read Kabat-Zinn’s introduction here.
Link here to mindful.org.
I am tagging this post as “Constructivists” and “Secularists” because of the approach taken at mindful.org; and “Critics” because of my evaluation of the site and of “mindfulness” as term.
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