Speculative Non-Buddhism

ruins of the buddhist real

Notes Towards a Coming Backlash

Posted by Glenn Wallis on March 4, 2016

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Notes Towards a Coming Backlash: Mindfulne$$ as an opiate of the middle classes

By Per Drougge*

The “Western Buddhist” stance is arguably the most effective way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity. –Slavoj Žižek 2001: 13

This is what we are obliged to posit here: the historical tendency of late capitalism—what we have called the reduction to the gift and the reduction to the body—is in any case unrealizable. Human beings cannot revert to the immediacy of the animal kingdom (assuming indeed the animals enjoy themselves such phenomenological immediacy). –Fredric Jameson 2003: 717

Introduction

An earlier version of this article appeared in a Swedish anthology, Mindfulness: Tradition, tolkning och tillämpning (“Mindfulness: Tradition, Interpretation, and Application”), back in 2014. As it is a kind of “nethnography,” or at least cites numerous online sources, I’d been thinking of posting a hyperlinked version of it on my own website; the web is really a much better medium for this kind of text than a printed book. I never got around to it, however, so I was very pleased when Glenn Wallis suggested I post an English translation on this blog. A man of many talents (and languages), Glenn also made a preliminary translation, to which I’ve added some  corrections and updates.

Just like in the US and many other places, mindfulness has become part of the therapeutic, self-improvement, and management mainstream in Sweden during the past decade. Critical voices have been few and far apart, and my main purpose with these notes was simply to introduce a few critical perspectives to a Swedish audience with the hope of challenging some of the uncritical media hype and hoopla contributing to the mindfulness craze.

For several years, I’ve also been fascinated by how websites, blogs, and discussion boards have opened up for critical discussions, not only of mindfulness but of x-buddhism as a whole. The speculative non-buddhism blogs have probably been the liveliest and most radical ones, but there are many others, most of them operating from within the world of x-buddhism, which have challenged the conspiracies of silence and stultifying dharmic correctness contributing to horrid abuse and an almost phobic aversion to critical thought and self-reflection. I therefore made a point of using mainly texts from blogs and online publications when compiling these “notes towards a backlash.” Most of the material will be familiar to readers of this blog, but hopefully the text can function as a compendium for anyone interested in critiques of the mindfulness cult.

As for the predicted backlash, I guess it’s still too early to decide if it has arrived. Given the faddish nature of the arenas where mindfulness has been most successful, and the incessant demand for new products and services, I suppose that the popularity of mindfulness has reached its peak, however. Around the time this article was first published, the word “backlash” itself suddenly also started to appear in many discussions of mindfulness (For a few examples, see here, here, or here). The important question, of course, is what will come next, how people will respond to whatever fad will replace mindfulness, and to what extent the tools used for a critique of mindfulness will still be applicable.

* * *

I am a social anthropologist with a special interest in the global spread of Buddhist idea(l)s and practices and the formation of so-called Western Buddhism. My forthcoming dissertation deals with something I call the monastic ideal, permeating most lay-oriented, modernist (or x-) Buddhisms, but for the past few years I’ve also had reason to concern myself with secular/therapeutic mindfulness and the rise of a global mindfulness industry. This makes sense; it has been argued that “mindfulness” is the most visible form of Buddhism outside Asia, and one could also see it as an extreme form of modernist Buddhism.

Whether secular/therapeutic mindfulness should be understood as a form of (crypto) Buddhism or something else, is a complex question which has been the subject of some controversy. Many (but far from all) mindfulness practitioners are quick to point out that
what they are teaching is not Buddhism. Like the vast majority of their clients, and the consumers of mindfulness literature, most of them also do not identify themselves as Buddhists. A scholar like Jeff Wilson (Wilson 2014), on the other hand, treats the proliferation of mindfulness-labeled products and services as a paradigmatic example of how Buddhism adapts to and gains mass appeal in a new host-culture by offering practical or worldly benefits. From the perspective of speculative non-buddhism it makes sense to include both secular mindfulness and so-called Secular Buddhism in the wide category of x-buddhism. (For an elaboration on this theme, see for example this post.)

As we know, the practice of mindfulness has often been marketed as a kind of “neutral” technique, stripped of religious beliefs and cultural specifics. Paradoxically, many of its proponents are also convinced that “mindfulness”, as taught today, constitutes the very essence not only of Buddhism but of all major “wisdom traditions”. This perennialist—and chauvinist— assertion has often also been part of what is undeniably a very successful sales pitch. To the critical observer, this may seem as a naïve (or very smart) attempt at having it both ways: The dubious invocation of a “2,500 years old, unbroken tradition” gives one kind of legitimization to the mindfulness project, while a meditation practice wrapped in the language of popular psychology, neuropsychiatry and managementspeak will be even more appealing to clinicians and a mass audience than one that comes with the bells and smells, foreign terminology and metaphysics of conventional Buddhism.  (To make things even more confusing, the mindfulness movements undisputed front-figure, Jon Kabat-Zinn, has been quite open with how he sees MBSR as a form of upaya in the service of Buddhist mission.

This janiform nature of mindfulness  raises several interesting questions about the role fo religon (specifically Buddhism) in today’s society, but also about distinctions such as religious/secular and soteriological/therapeutic The ambiguous connection to a religious tradition also makes the significant impact mindfulness has had on ostensibly secular contexts such as medicine, social work, education, the penitentiary system, human resource management, and the military, into something quite remarkable, and something which itself deserves a closer study. In part, this enthusiastic reception can probably be explained by the common but questionable idea that Buddhism is less a religion than a kind of (proto) science which just happens to always resonate with current paradigms, be it quantum mechanics, or cognitive neuroscience, or something else.1 Using a bit of SNB terminology, I would also suggest we could see this as a symptom of a widespread buddhaphilia, a general tendency towards uncritical admiration for all things Buddhist, especially the contemplative super-hero.2 And would it be too far-fetched to suggest that both the inflated claims of the mindfulness industry and the readiness with which substantial parts of the x-buddhist community has embraced it, has something to do with the principle of sufficient buddhism?

* * *

Somewhat in the shadow of the overwhelming hype surrounding mindfulness over the past decade, a number of critical questions and objections have also been raised. Such remarks are of different types, come from various theoretical positions and have been voiced with different emphases. Several of these critiques are discussed in the present book (Plank 2014), and others have been treated extensively elsewhere.3

Some of these arguments are familiar from related contexts, such as discussions about psychoanalysis and capitalism (Zaretsky 2013) or the great debates about psychiatry and anti-psychiatry during the 1960s and 1970s (Ohlsson 2008). Other objections to mindfulness and the mindfulness industry can be seen as variations or specifications of a more general criticism of commodified and/or trivialized “spirituality” (e.g. Carrette & King, 2005;  Hornborg, 2012; Webster, 2012). A different set of objections have been raised by Buddhist scholars and practitioners—central to their critique has been the interpretation and use of the Pali term sati (Skt. sṃṛṭi), that critics consider to have lost its original meaning when it was translated as “mindfulness” and grafted onto a new and very different context  (cf. Bodhi, 2011 and Gethin, 2011). More recently, there have also been some methodological objections to the numerous studies on the clinical effects of meditation which are often cited as proof that mindfulness actually “works” as intended, as well as a growing interest in possible side-effects of meditation practice.

Now, this criticism of mindfulness is obviously far from uniform, and sometimes even contradictory. Overall, however, it represents a potentially devastating critique of conceptual fuzziness, grandiose claims, cynical appropriation and (mis-)use of Buddhist concepts and practices, anti-intellectualism, and—mot least— how mindfulness functions as a control mechanism and ideological lubricant in an increasingly harsh neoliberal order (or as an “opium of the middle-classes” as someone put it). At the same time, it should be noted that most of this critical discussion, until quite recently, has occurred within narrow academic or x-buddhist contexts and rarely involved committed proponents of mindfulness.

Quite suddenly something seems to have changed, however. The last couple of years have seen an upsurge in critical engagement with both mindfulness and the mindfulness industry, in popular media as well as websites, blogs, online fora, and in so-called social media. The number—and intensity—of debates triggered by articles published in places like The New York TimesHuffington Post or Salon.com  indicates both a growing need and a new willingness to think critically about the issues outlined above.

This is an interesting and promising phenomenon, not least since it shows how online debates allow for discussions across disciplinary and professional borders, sometimes blurring the distinction between academic, professional and popular discourses. One could also ask why this kind of debate is taking place at this moment. Does it reflect an increasing tedium and suspicion regarding mindfulness? Is it a consequence of people finally becoming fed up with cynicism and crassness that characterizes the meeting of “Eastern wisdom”, psychotherapy, and management?

In what follows, I will present a few particularly illuminating online discussions of mindfulness from the past couple of years. From the outset, I want to emphasize that the purpose of this contribution is not to formulate or synthesize a coherent critique of mindfulness and/or the mindfulness industry. This rhapsodic overview should instead be seen as an attempt to present a snapshot of an ongoing, informal (and often very stimulating) debate.

Using web publications (including blogs and their comment fields) as a starting point can, of course, be seen as problematic. Online interactions rarely allow writers to make subtle distinctions, and the opinions expressed are sometimes hasty, ill-informed and ill-conceived. It should be noted, however, that the selected examples are written by highly qualified commentators. And even if the tone is sometimes sharply polemical, their posts are of considerable substance. For reasons of space, I’ve had to abbreviate and simplify some rather complex arguments and I won’t try to reproduce the long and winding discussions that often follow the original posts. For the reader who wants to get some insight into how mindfulness practitioners think about their profession and respond to questions and criticisms, this kind of material is quite valuable, however.

Source volatility is another, unavoidable problem with this kind of material. All of the web pages that I am referring to were freely available in May, 2014 (a few have been added since then), but links go bad, web pages can be locked up behind pay walls, or disappear without warning.

It is still too early to determine whether these debates, dominated by North American participants, herald a massive backlash against mindfulness. They nevertheless indicate that the most naïve and uncritical claims no longer will go unchallenged; and it is my hope that they can contribute to a revitalized and more nuanced (“nuanced” doesn’t have to mean pedantic or bland) discussion also in Sweden.

Mindfulness in Wonderland

 

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My first example is a blog entry published in 2011, thus preceding last year’s debates. I have included it here anyway, as it deals with a couple of important themes that don’t seem to get the kind of attention they clearly deserve. Glenn Wallis’s “Elixir of Mindfulness” was first published on this blog and later in the journal non+x (Wallis 2012). The author holds a doctorate in Buddhist Studies from Harvard University, has published a number of studies and translations of Buddhist texts (such as Wallis, 2002, 2004, 2007) and is now the chair of a program in applied meditation at the Won Institute of Graduate Studies, in Philadelphia. In recent years, Wallis has also gained a reputation as a sharp critic of Western Buddhism as well as of secular mindfulness (Wallis, et al. 2013).

“Elixir of Mindfulness” begins with the observation that today’s mindfulness industry has successfully moved into the competitive market for naïve utopias that was previously dominated by healers and preachers, Theosophists and self-help groups, churches and cults. Like those enticers, mindfulness also comes with the promise of a universal aid, an elixir against all human suffering. This assertion may seem too drastic, over the top, or applicable only in the most vulgar abuses. Wallis, however, cites for evidence a popular website, mindful.org, which represents the business mainstream.5 The site proudly proclaims that a dose of mindfulness can both enhance our enjoyment and appreciation of everyday life, and help us deal with life’s most difficult challenges—in a way which makes the reader wonder if the copy was written (in the words of Wallis) by some latter-day Dale Carnegie who forgot to take his Adderall?

Indeed, there appears to be no limit to what can be achieved by means of mindfulness. According to mindful.org, mindfulness is helpful in such diverse contexts as nursing, death and dying, parenting, healing and health, intimate relationships and sex, consumerism, finances, cooking and diet, entrepreneurship, creativity, sports, activism, education, environmental protection, prison advocacy, and so on, ad nauseam.

In case a Swedish reader might feel compelled to dismiss this cheerful sanctity as a specifically North American phenomenon, let me mention some Swedish books and CDs:

Mindfulness Exercises 4-7 years; Mindfulness in School; Mindfulness for Parents; Lose Weight with Mindfulness; Mindfulness in Elderly Care;  Mindfulness in Life: Guided Meditations for Men (“Become a more conscious, present husband, lover, father and manager. Learn to observe and manage your thoughts so that they do not constitute an obstacle for you. Train your capacity for attention and mindfulness and to have the patience, perseverance and acceptance to grow. Treat every relationship, love meeting or golf swing as the unique moment it is. Increased desire and joy of life comes for free.”); Mindfulness in life: Guided Meditations for Women (“Mindfulness is a practice that can enrich your life by learning to listen to your body, embrace your femininity, and manage stress. Mindfulness means to have contact with the present, to the present moment as it is—pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad—because that’s what right now is right here.”). Would a certain over-satiety appear after this dose of mindfulness, there is also Heartfulness: Your Way to Happiness in the Present. The new wave of mindfulness.

The English market is filled with an almost incalculable number of such titles. Alongside of the conventional books on mindfulness and depression, anxiety, pain, obesity, anorexia, addiction, love, sex, childbirth, parenting, aging and death, we also find some difficult to categorize but evocative works with titles such as The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance; Mindfulness for Law Students; and The Mindful Dog Owner.6 In addition, of course, are the scores of books on Buddhist meditation that have the word “mindfulness” in their titles.

How is it possible that mindfulness can accomplish all this? And what do these books even mean by “mindfulness”? Both researchers and mindfulness practitioners with theoretical interests have long pointed out that Jon Kabat-Zinn’s oft-quoted definition (“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”) is unsatisfactory. Things become even more confusing when one examines how the term is used in diverse contexts. Wallis presents several examples from mindfulness.org and identifies four broad categories:

  1. Mental operations: attention, concentration, change in focus, value-free observation of consciousness content, etc.
  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, lovingkindness7, going inward, letting go, acceptance, truly seeing someone, minding mind, being in the moment, being moment to moment, just being.

The list of more or less diffuse descriptions ends with a recent formulation, attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn, which also confirms the concept’s elusive nature. It also shows that mindfulness appears to be yet another form of “spirituality” (with or without scientific claims):

Mindfulness is not a technology. It is a way of being, a way of seeing, a way of knowing.

The lack of a clear definition and the baffling and labyrinthine diversity of the phenomena that fall within the concept leads Wallis to describe “mindfulness,” with a reference to the semiotician David Chandler, as a textbook example of what is known as an “empty” or “floating” signifier.8 Wallis points to the similarities between the usage of the term “mindfulness” and the Melanesian word mana, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s famous example of a floating signifier. Wallis then asks if “mindfulness” can be said to function in the same way: an amorphous concept that in a Humpty-Dumpty-like fashion can mean whatever the user wants. The only consistency, perhaps, is that the various usages all circle around the notion of some kind of life-giving elixir. Seen in this way, it becomes easier to understand the (unreasonable) expectations and (grandiose) claims linked to mindfulness, as well as the futility of the search for clear definitions of the term.

 

Corporate Mindfulness and its discontents

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My next example is an article titled “Beyond McMindfulness,” written by David Loy and Ron Purser, published in the Huffington Post in the summer of 2013. The article began a debate that lasted for the rest of the year9,1 and the term “McMindfulness” itself has since become a recurrent trope in discussions about mindfulness.

Loy is a philosopher, a Zen Buddhist teacher, and author of several books that can perhaps be described as an attempt to formulate a critical theory with Buddhist overtones (Loy, 1996, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2008). Purser is also a Zen Buddhist teacher, as well as a professor of business management, and a business consultant. There is certainly nothing unusual about this apparent symbiosis between “spirituality” and the business community, but is interesting in this particular context as “Beyond McMindfulness” is a scathing critique of what Buddhist studies scholar Richard Payne calls “corporatist spirituality.” It is a short article of only a few pages. It touches, however, on several problematic aspects of today’s “unadorned and secular” mindfulness, especially its selective appropriation of Buddhist thought and practice as well as the way in which mindfulness is increasingly used in a cynical and manipulative corporate culture. (Purser has since published other articles in the same vein —listed on his academia.edu page, which can be found here —which has made him a somewhat controversial figure within the mindfulness movement.)

The two authors note, initially with appreciation, that mindfulness has become a part of the North American mainstream, and that this kind of meditation today is commonplace in large corporations and in government agencies, schools, prisons, and even in the military. “Millions of people have taken advantage of mindfulness and experience less stress, increased concentration, and perhaps a little more empathy,” write Loy and Purser. They then add that the “mindfulness boom” also has a darker side. What they particularly oppose is the secularization of mindfulness which, paradoxically, has been a necessary condition for its widespread applications. Decoupled from its ethical and soteriological context, this Buddhist-derived meditative practice loses its radical emancipatory potential; and what remains is not much more than a self-help technique to deal with psychosomatic disorders and foster more focused, thus productive, middle managers.

That recontextualized, therapeutic or medicalized mindfulness is a watered-down version of the “real” Buddhism is certainly a fairly common (yet controversial) criticism, coming mainly from “traditional” Buddhists. It is usually then claimed that the actual purpose of Buddhist practice, namely, liberation, enlightenment or awakening, has come to be replaced by something as trivial as well-being and reduced stress.10 The argument is also made that the more traditional Buddhist practice involves an integrated triad of meditative absorption (samadhi), ethical conduct (sila) and insight (prajna), and, furthermore, that a meditation practice lacking latter two aspects easily degenerates into an unproductive, narcissist pursuit.

Loy and Purser go a step further in their criticism when they point out that today’s mindfulness meditation is often used in a way that is not only ineffective in accessing the deeper causes of human misery (i.e., according to Buddhism, the three poisons of greed, anger, and delusion), but rather strengthens these causes. How? In situating well-being, concentration, and relaxation within the same free market economic system that is dependent on—and indeed can even be said to produce—these very “poisons”.

Many enthusiasts seem to assume that the cultivation of “mindfulness” through meditation practice in itself is either a value-neutral training or something that will automatically produce positive ethical consequences. To this point, Loy and Purser mention that in classical Buddhism an important distinction is made between “right attention” (samma sati) and “wrong attention” (miccha sati).

That mindfulness has become so popular in the corporate world can, obviously, be explained by the fact that the practice is not only marketed as a way to increase employees’ concentration and thus their productivity. Mindfulness is also advertised as a kind of respite from the modern world of work insecurity and competition. When a worker’s unhappiness and stress persist despite mindful breathing exercises and despite attentively chewing raisins, it is now understood that the responsibility lies with the individual, specifically with her lack of mindfulness. Here one could also add that the often-repeated encouragement to assume an “accepting,” “non-judgmental,” and “non-reactive” attitude, of course, fits like a glove for the employers who want their employees to passively accept the social and economic status quo of the workplace.

As mentioned above, “Beyond McMindfulness” attracted considerable attention. Although many Huffington Post commentators expressed agreement with the author’s argument, I got the impression that the larger debate that followed its publication only confirms what Loy and Purser write at the end of the article: that many mindfulness practitioners and advocates consider ethical and social considerations to be an irrelevant and unnecessarily politicized criticism.

Even if sympathetic to the authors’ analysis, one can of course argue that they make a mistake by injecting Buddhist ideals into a late capitalistic reality. It has been claimed, for instance, that today’s Western Buddhism often serves a similar or identical ideological function as secular mindfulness (Wallis et al. 2013; Pepper 2014). A critique similar to that presented in “Beyond McMindfulness” could also be directed against certain features of contemporary, Asian Buddhism. One example would be the Japanese Zen establishment; even though it no longer actively supports brutal militarism (Victoria 2006), it is still fairly common for Japanese companies to send their employees to Zen temples in order to cultivate self-discipline, endurance, conformity, and obedience (Victoria 1997).

 

Mindfulness or Mindlessness:
An Historically Informed Critique of Mindfulness

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The third example is neither an article nor a blog post, but a short paper by Robert H Sharf with the title “Mindfulness or Mindlessness: Traditional and Modern Critiques of ‘Bare Awareness,’” presented at the Division of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry’s Advanced Study Institute at McGill University, June 2013. The presentation was recorded on video and posted on YouTube11. As Sharf’s paper challenges several common notions regarding both Buddhism and mindfulness, it has generated some debate although the video clip has not received the same kind of attention as, say, the “Beyond McMindfulness” article. Nevertheless, it is an excellent and accessible introduction for anyone interested in situating both mindfulness and x-buddhism in a wider historical and doctrinal context.

Sharf is a professor of Buddhist Studies at Berkeley University and is well-known as the author of a few oft-quoted articles critiquing popular views on Zen and Buddhism in general (Sharf 1993, 1995a, 1995b). Mindfulness or Mindlessness can be seen as continuation of that work. Just like Loy and Purser, he problematizes the relation between the Buddhist tradition and mindfulness, but from an historically informed perspective highly critical of the modernist understanding of the role of meditation in the Buddhist tradition that has been so important for the formation of today’s mindfulness discourse.

Sharf’s exposition covers a lot of ground and is rather rhapsodic. Here I want to focus on two themes of particular interest. The first concerns the relation between Buddhist practice, mental health, and happiness. The second deals with the concept sati/sṃṛṭi or ”mindfulness” itself, and how it has been connected with ideas of unmediated, direct or bare awareness. Sharf points out, for example, that mindfulness, contrary to a common claim, is not the essence of a 2,500 year old, unbroken tradition. Today’s mindfulness could rather be seen as a development of the assemblage of ideas and practices known as “modernist” or “Protestant” Buddhism — a reform movement born out of the meeting of Asian Buddhism and Western colonialism and missionary activities during the 19th Century. The taken for granted, but often undeclared, ontology at the base of secular (or crypto Buddhist) mindfulness also includes notions of unmediated perception or direct, “bare” attention have been highly controversial also within the Buddhist tradition.

Mindfulness and Mindlessness opens with a discussion of Buddhism and depression, based on an essay by the Sri Lankan anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere (Obeyeseker 1985), where a contemporary, Western description of depression, placing a “generalization of hopelessness” at the core of the disorder, is juxtaposed with an orthodox (Theravada) Buddhist outlook. The similarities are striking, but Obeyesekere’s (and Sharf’s) point is obviously not that Sri Lankan Buddhists would be depressed (in a modern, Western sense of the word), or that the purpose of their religion is to bring on clinical depression. Obeyeseker suggests, rather, that the experience of hopelessness and loss in Western society exists in a free-floating manner, while it in different social contexts (in this case a traditional Theravada Buddhist one) is anchored to a shared ideology or a common philosophical and cultural context. I will not go into the cross-cultural implications of this comparison, interesting and important as they are12, but rather use it as a starting-point for a short discussion of how the popular, Western image of Buddhism has changed over time.

It is not that long ago since Western textbooks would describe Buddhism as a life-denying, pessimistic, or even nihilistic religion. While it is easy to dismiss such descriptions today, we should perhaps ask ourselves if the current popular image of Buddhism has not gone too far in the opposite direction. Even before the success of mindfulness, Buddhism was often presented as a kind of “happiness project,” symbolized by laughing monks rather than emaciated ascetics. This is a version of Buddhism which allows an affluent audience to enjoy its privileges while, at the same time, upholding a detached, cynical distance towards the vicissitudes of samsaric existence, which is why philosopher Slavoj Žižek (2001b) has described Western Buddhism as the “perfect ideological supplement” to capitalist dynamics. Hardly surprising, it is also this kind of Buddhism which has inspired today’s mindfulness.

Meditation, which in most Buddhist traditions was an activity engaged in by only a small elite of religious specialists and ascetics with the explicit purpose of cutting all ties with the world, is here presented as a method for improving our professional life and romantic relationships (not to mention golf swings!). Sharf reminds us that the orthodox, Theravada outlook can be described as rather dark: to be alive means that we are suffering; the only way out is liberation from saṃsara which demands that we abandon all hope of finding happiness in worldly existence. As a contrast to current, sanguine ideas of meditation, he goes on to quote a passage from Buddhaghosa’s classic Visuddhimagga with its descriptions of the fearful stages (so-called dukkha nana) advanced yogis traverse before attaining final liberation.13 Even though one should be careful not to take classical meditation manuals too literally (cf. Sharf 1995b), it is worth considering that the canonical literature often describe the Buddhist path as one filled with fear and loathing, and that the idea of Buddhist meditation as remedy for depression, chronic pain, substance abuse, personality disorders and whatnot, is an entirely new phenomenon.

Like many other critics of mindfulness, Sharf admits that it may have some therapeutic value, and he mentions the “substantial body of empirical (if contested) data, that suggest it does.” He adds, though, that many years’ contact with experienced meditators has made him skeptical; not only do they exhibit behaviors at odds with common notions of what constitutes mental health—even more important, perhaps, is that they likely “do not aspire to our model of mental health in the first place.” And this, Sharf concludes, is a real challenge when we want to understand the connection between Buddhist meditation and its desired outcome.14

When the continuity between the Buddhist tradition and today’s mindfulness is emphasized, one is often reminded that “mindfulness” is a translation of the Pali term “sati” which is a central concept within canonical Buddhism. The English word seems to be a reasonable enough translation, even though “sati” literally means “memory” or “remembrance” (cf. Gethin 2011). As this memory often has to do with remembering one’s goals as a Buddhist practitioner, the term could possibly also be translated as “alignment” or something similar. Within “modernist” Buddhism and among mindfulness practitioners, however, there has been a strong tendency to interpret sati/mindfulness as “bare awareness”. One example would be the descriptions of mindfulness as a kind of “pure witnessing” or “observing self” that is something radically different than thinking itself.

Sharf points out that this approach to meditation as a “non-judgmental, non-discursive attending to the moment-to-moment flow of consciousness” has a long history in Buddhism; it can be found in the Chan/Zen15 and Dzogchen traditions, and it was prominent in the “modernist” interpretation of the Theravada school which is the foundation of contemporary Vipassana practice. It is important to know, however, that this tendency has been controversial and that it, contrary to what is commonly assumed today, cannot be said to be representative of the entire Buddhist tradition.

Sharf also suggests that the underlying ideology of mindfulness could be seen as an example of what scholars of religion call “perennialism.” (This is the idea that mystics in all times and places have had access to a common experience which is “unconstructured” and not conditioned by social, cultural, historical and linguistic influences.) Today’s mindfulness seems to be particularly influenced by a version of perennialism which Sharf calls the “filter theory”—an almost logophobic idea that our normal, conditioned discursive processes do not connect us with reality but rather function as a filter, locking us out from it. The purpose of a contemplative practice, then, is understood as a kind of radical de-conditioning, rather than the re-conditioning or gradual change in perspective and outlook that characterizes more traditional, monastic forms of Buddhist practice.

And here, I would suggest, we find a clue to the anti-intellectualism that has been the target for much SNB critique: (https://speculativenonbuddhism.com/2011/10/25/buddhist-anti-intellectualism/) Both “religious” x-buddhist as well as “secular” mindfulness discourses revolve around the notion that the roots of human suffering are to be found in destructive, individual patterns of thought, but have curiously little to say about the art of thinking better. The solution rather seems to be to create a distance to one’s own thoughts, or even to think less (as if that were possible). Thinking itself is seen (thought of!) as a hindrance.

In an insightful comment on “Mindfulness or Minlessness”, Tom Pepper (co-author of Wallis et al. 2013), points out that the ideal of “bare awareness” presupposes some kind of uncreated, eternal, and transcendent soul or atman. For anyone who doesn’t subscribe to such beliefs, the promise of attaining any kind of mindful awareness sub specie aeternitatis, must appear fraudulent or at least misleading. A person engaging in this kind of futile exercise will either experience it as a failure, or “succeed”—but only by mistaking “the watcher” or “observing self” for some kind of transcendental awareness.

The perennialist and quietist ideology shared by much Western Buddhism and the mindfulness movement is not simply a question of abstract, metaphysical, sometimes mystified, assumptions. It also has a practical and political side, and with references to Arendt, Levinas, and the Japanese “Critical Buddhism” movement, Sharf suggests that this quietist, perennialist ideology has an “ethically dubious and politically reactionary” side. As an example, he mentions Tricycle Magazine with its advertisements for all kinds of “dharmic” commodities and the similar entrepreneurial and commercial spirit with which mindfulness programs are marketed.

 

In Conclusion

After presenting a number of critical perspectives on the mindfulness phenomenon, it seems appropriate to end with a few words about the counter-arguments put forward by representatives of the mindfulness movement.

The most common response to the kind of critiques presented here seems to be the assertion that, in the final analysis, mindfulness actually works. Suffering people are really being helped by practicing these techniques, we are being told. Never mind that it is less than clear as how or why this is, or even what is meant by “mindfulness”, or if the different forms or applications have little in common except for the mana-like, suggestive label itself. Mindfulness “works,” even though (or, perhaps, just because) it helps shaping exactly the kind of obedient, quietist, detached subjects needed by the market. It “works,” even though expensive mindfulness retreats and courses are marketed in the same vulgar and hyper-active way as any other commodity. Mindfulness “works,” even though it is not what we are told (“The essence of Buddhist wisdom,” “2,500 years old techniques for attaining harmony and joy”). It “works,” even though “non-judgmental awareness” untainted by social, cultural, and linguistic influences is an impossibility, or would require some kind of soul or atman … And so on, and so on.

Relatively few critics of mindfulness have challenged this claim that mindfulness “works.” Indeed, the idea that “meditation is good for you” has become so axiomatic that it would seem absurd to question it. Which is obviously a good reason to do exactly that.

The “growing body of evidence” to the efficacy of mindfulness mentioned by Sharf, is often invoked by representatives of the mindfulness movement. But although there exists an abundance of scientific studies which seems to confirm the claims of the mindfulness industry, there are also good reasons to take these claims with a grain of salt. Meta-studies mention several methodological flaws (including research bias, a lack of active reference groups, and insufficient attention to placebo effects). Willougby Britton (Heuman 2014), a meditation researcher at Brown University Medical School, confirms the problematic nature of many such studies, and also mentions adverse effects of meditation practice, such as depression, confusion, and depersonalization, which until recently have received only scant attention in the scientific literature.

Another, naïve but surprisingly common, argument is that mindfulness in itself is a “pure” or neutral technique (but that its critics are motivated by some sinister agenda, or “ideology”). An obvious response would be that there simply is no such thing as mindfulness-in-itself, but that these practices, approaches, and ideals always are embedded in the greater social and cultural context where they become meaningful. They have a very specific history, and could also be seen as an expression of an ideology, often hidden behind layers of mystification.

Let me end on a personal note. I am obviously very skeptical towards the mindfulness phenomenon, and I find some aspect of the mindfulness industry quite repulsive. Even so, I’ve been a bit hesitant to attack an activity which, besides the obvious charlatans and peddlers of snakeoil, many well-meaning and sometimes idealistic individuals. But, as sociologist Roland Paulsen (2008) writes about a similar phenomenon, it is an important task to “critically analyze their frauds and castles in the air and call them by their right names.” I hope this contribution can serve to ignite a critical discussion—If mindfulness really has something of value to offer, its proponents won’t have anything to lose, except a number of cherished illusions.

 

Footnotes

1 Buddhism as a projection screen for Western dreams and ideals (even scientific ones) is nothing new. See for example See for example Lopez 2008 and 2012.

2 See Iwamura (2011) for a discussion of the fetishization of the “Oriental Monk”.

3 See for example the special issue of Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal (2011, 12: 1) (Here is a useful tool if you don’t have access to the articles through a library). This issue is devoted mindfulness and contains contributions by both practitioners and outside commentators from different disciplines. Plank (2011) contains a criticism of some aspects of secular mindfulness and relates the phenomenon to Swedish conditions, as does Drougge (2014).

5 Behind this site is “The Foundation for a Mindful Society,” which later also started publishing Mindfulness Magazine. That magazine can be described as a kind of counterpart to Yoga Journal (or perhaps Runner’s World), and has close links with similar, popular Buddhist magazines like Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma. The editorial board for “The Foundation for a Mindful Society” includes Jon Kabat-Zinn.

6 Jeff Wilson’s Mindful America contains long lists of mindfulness publications with titles sounding as if they were inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit of Tutteji Wachtmeister.

7 “Lovingkindness” is a common English translation of the Buddhist concept of metta, which incorporates both an empathetic, sympathetic approach and specific meditation practices with the aim to cultivate these qualities. We should also note the emergence of “compassion focused therapy,” a “new integrative psychotherapy approach based on learning theory, affect theory, evolutionary theory, attachment theory, affective neuroscience and Buddhist psychology” (Andersson and Viotti 2013: 223). Just as with “mindfulness”, it is also interesting that one chooses to use the untranslated English term (“compassion”) when an adequate Swedish word is available.

8 ”An ‘empty’ or ‘floating signifier’ is variously defined as a signifier with a vague, highly variable, unspecifiable or non-existent signified. Such signifiers mean different things to different people: they may stand for many or even any signifieds; they may mean whatever their interpreters want them to mean.” (Chandler, n.d.)

9 Discussion about the article has played out on several blogs and websites, with the participation of both “religious” and “secular” Buddhists as well as mindfulness practitioners. Here is a selection:
American Buddhist Perspective (Justin Whitaker)
Dispirited (David Webster)
Mindfulness Matters (Arnie Kozak)
Off the Cushion (Rev. Danny Fisher)
Secular Buddhist Association (Mark Knickelbine)
The Existential Buddhist (Seth Zuihō Segall)

10 Lopez (2012) argues, for example, that many forms of Buddhist meditation seem rather to be intended to evoke a kind of existential crisis, and that therefore they should rather be described as a way to create stress than as a means of relieving it.

11 A written version was later published in Transcultural Psychiatry and can be found here. http://buddhiststudies.berkeley.edu/people/faculty/sharf/documents/Sharf%20Is%20Mindfulness%20Buddhist.pdf See also Sharf 2014.

12 For an insightful elaboration on Sharf’s paper and Obeyeseker’s essay, see Tom Pepper’s ”Nirvana and Depression” (in Pepper 2013, available here).

13 Interestingly enough, there has been a growing interest within certain groups of (predominantly younger, North American) convert Buddhists in these stages, which are considered unavoidable and which are commonly referred to with a concept borrowed from St. John of the Cross: ”the dark noght of the soul” (cf. Ingram 2008). These Dukkha nana are often described in terms which sounds like clinical descriptions of depression, anxiety, and depersonalization. Some meditation researchers have also showed an interest in this “dark side of meditation”.

14 My own research among Zen Buddhist contemplatives in the US and Japan confirms Sharf’s observation, but I would add that the hope of improving psychological health and emotional well-being often seems to be an important motivation for taking up meditation practice, even within a monastic regimen.

15 See Hori 2000 for a problematizing discussion about the notion of “pure” or “prediscursive” awareness in the context of orthodox Rinzai Zen. In my own research, I’ve also noticed that the word ”mindfulness” is used fairly often, but that it has less to do with a detached, inward focus than its opposite: paying attention to the task at hand, be it zazen meditation or normal, everyday tasks.

 

References

Andersson, Christina & Sofia Viotti 2013. Introduktion till Compassionfokuserad terapi och Compassion Mind Training. Socialmedicinsk tidskrift 90(2): 222–226.

Bodhi, Bhikku. 2011. What Does Mindfulness Really Mean? A Canonical Perspective. Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(01): 19–39.

Carrette, Jeremy & Richard King. 2005. Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion. London: Routledge.

Chandler, David. (n.d.) Semiotics for Beginners (Online version of the author’s Semiotics: The Beginnings) Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal. 2011. 12:1.

Drougge, Per. 2014. Lost in Translation: Om sekulär mindfulness och buddhism. In: Moberg, Jessica & Göran Ståhle (eds.) Helig hälsa: Helandemetoder i det mångreligiösa Sverige. Stockholm: Dialogos.

Gethin, Rupert. 2011. On Some Definitions of Mindfulness. Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(1): 263–279.

Heuman, Linda. 2014. Meditation Nation. Tricycle Blog, April 25

Hornborg, Anne-Christine. 2012. Coaching och lekmannaterapi: en modern väckelse? Stockholm: Dialogos.

Ingram, Daniel M. 2008. Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book. London: Aeon.

Iwamura, Jane Naomi. 2011. Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religion and American Popular Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jameson, Fredric. 2003. The End of Temporality. Critical Inquiry. Vol. 29, No. 4.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon. 2005. Coming to our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World through Mindfulness. New York: Hyperion.

Lopez, Donald S. 2008. Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lopez, Donald S. 2012. The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Loy, David. 1996. Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press.

Loy, David. 2002. A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack. Albany: SUNY Press.

Loy, David. 2003. The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Loy, David. 2008. Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Loy, David & Don Purser. 2013. Beyond McMindfulness.

Obeyesekere, Gananath. 1985. Depression, Buddhism, and the Work of Culture in Sri Lanka. In: Kleinman, Arthur & Byron Good (eds.) Culture and Depression. Studies in the Anthropology and Cross-Cultural Psychiatry of Affect and Disorder. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ohlsson, Anna. 2008. Myt och manipulation. Radikal psykiatrikritik i svensk offentlig idédebatt 1968—1973. Diss. Stockholm: Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis.

Paulsen, Roland. 2008. Via Negativa. En antiauktoritär läsning av Kaj Håkanson. I Wide, Sverre, Fredrik

Palm och Vessela Misheva(red.)Om kunskap, kärlek och ingenting särskiljt. En vänbok till Kaj Håkanson. Uppsala: Sociologiska institutionen, Uppsala universitet.

Pepper, W. Thomas. 2014. The Faithful Buddhist. E-book. Available here and here

Plank, Katarina. 2011. Insikt och närvaro: Akademiska kontemplationer kring buddhism, meditation och mindfulness. Diss. Göteborg: Makadam.

Plank, Katarina (ed.) 2014. Mindfulness. Tradition, tolkning och tillämpning. Lund: Nordic Academic Press.

Sharf, Robert H. 1993. The Zen of Japanese Nationalism. History of Religions 33, 1: 1–43. (Reprinted in Lopez, Donald S (ed.). Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.)

Sharf, Robert H. 1995a. Sanbōkyōdan. Zen and the Way of the New Religions. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 22.(3–4): 417–458.

Sharf, Robert H. 1995b. Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience. Numen 42: 228–283.

Sharf, Robert H. 2014. Mindfulness and Mindlessness in Early Chan. Philosophy East & West, 64(4): 933–964.

Sharf, Robert H. 2015 Is Mindfulness Buddhist? (and why it matters). Transcultural Psychiatry Vol. 52(4) 470–484.

Victoria, Brian (Daizen). 1997. Japanese Corporate Zen. In Joe Moore (ed.) The other Japan : conflict, compromise, and resistance since 1945. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe.
Bulletin of concerned Asian scholars.

Victoria, Brian (Daizen). 2006. Zen at War. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Wallis, Glenn. 2002. Mediating the Power of Buddhas: Ritual in the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa. Albany: SUNY Press.

Wallis, Glenn. 2004. Basic Teachings of the Buddha.New York: Modern Library.

Wallis, Glenn. 2007. The Dhammapada. Verses on the Way. New York: Modern Library.

Wallis, Glenn. 2012. Elixir of Mindfulness. non+x. Issue 2.

Wallis, Glenn, Tom Pepper & Matthias Steingass. 2013. Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice: Toward a Revaluation of Buddhism. Roskilde: Eyecorner Press.

Webster, David. 2012. Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy. Winchester: Zer0 Books.

Wilson, Jeff. 2014. Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Zaretsky, Eli. 2013. Psykoanalysen och kapitalismens anda. Fronesis 44-45: 53–79.

Žižek, Slavoj. 2001. On Belief. London: Routledge.

Žižek, Slavoj. 2001b From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism. Cabinet Magazine. Issue 2.

________

*Per Drougge is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University. His research has focused on globalization of Buddhism, the formation of “Western Buddhism,” and the assemblage of idea(l)s and practices known as “modernist Buddhism.” Drougge also has an interest in medical anthropology, and has written about the relation between secular mindfulness and Buddhist meditation, as well as naikan, a very different form of “Buddhist psychotherapy.” Beginning in the late 1980s, Drougge also spent close to 20 years engaged in formal Zen practice in Sweden USA, and Japan.

Private website: http://www.perdrougge.se/

24 Responses to “Notes Towards a Coming Backlash”

  1. Paul Ilott said

    Glenn,
    Thanks for the interesting post. Just thought I’d post a link that you may be interested in, to two book reviews from a site also critical of the growth of therapeutic culture. You’ve already alluded to one of the books – The Happiness Industry- in a previous post

    http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/happiness-a-modern-malaise/16949#.VtrVPfmLTIU

    Paul

  2. […] on SNB Per Drougge has an interesting post exploring the way mainstream media and the blogsphere are […]

  3. As someone who is both a Buddhist minister responsible for the guidance of several Sanghas, and has been teaching mindfulness in secular settings for 25 years (including prisons, half way houses – usually not the middle class) I do not see the incongruity. Part of the problem seems to be in how folks teach mindfulness (only offering meditation). Part of the backlash seems to be from those who are threatened from a religious point of view and the other from academics who may not be doing the daily work of engaging with people pastorally who are suffering. Furthermore, the corporate clients I have worked with have allowed me to help create a systemic change which has transformed the entire company into a more humane and compassionate workplace. The parallel for me is straightforward to my teaching of martial arts: I teach a full curriculum of martial art that requires years of devotion and discipline. I also teach self protection to folks at risk and I can tell you that while some will go onto to study the complete art form, no one has denied the benefit of the exposure.

    The Dalai Lama: “…it has been proven that being compassionate and kind-hearted is not [exclusively] connected to religion.”

  4. Anthony (#3). You say:

    “the corporate clients I have worked with have allowed me to help create a systemic change which has transformed the entire company into a more humane and compassionate workplace. The parallel for me is straightforward to my teaching of martial arts: I teach a full curriculum of martial art that requires years of devotion and discipline. I also teach self protection to folks at risk and I can tell you that while some will go onto to study the complete art form, no one has denied the benefit of the exposure.”

    Part of the backlash that Per Drougge is highlighting is precisely the fact that the once self-evidently (so The They naively believed) “humane” and “compassionate” have recently been emitting odious fumes. How easy it would be, I imagine, to find the limit of the humanity and compassion of these companies you’ve worked with. Concerning your martial arts metaphor, what would “self protection” be in the case of short-term mindfulness training?

  5. Per Drougge said

    Thanks for your comment, Rev Dr Tony Sensei (#3),

    In a way, there is no incongruity, and that’s why I say it makes perfect sense – from the perspective of speculative non-buddhism – to see “secular” mindfulness as an instance of x-buddhism. But there are other ways of understanding Buddhism (see Sharf’s paper, or Tom Pepper’s The Faithful Buddhist) for example.

    Other than that, your response seems to be of the kind I mention towards the end of the article: “Yeah, yeah, OK, whatever … but mindfulness works”. But if you’d care to say more about the transformative systemic changes you mention, please do so.I’m sure many readers would be interested in hearing more about that.

  6. […] 18 månader gammal artikel om mindfulness finns nu i en omarbetad engelsk version på http://www.speculativenonbuddhism.com och jag är barnsligt glad över detta. Glenn Wallis’ nyligen återuppståndna projekt är sedan […]

  7. johsh said

    mindfulness, like meditation, is advertised (mostly) as a “tool” to (re)condition one’s behavior. If the tool has been misused, or misunderstood, or capitalized/marketed, how is that an argument against mindfulness.

    yes, mindfully eating a pie is not going to recondition (or cultivate) one’s nature or behavior, but being mindful of anger/delusion/greed etc certainly does – particularly if one can see the consequences. What’s so wrong trying to be/become better human – most of the people sign up with good intentions.

    If mindfulness, or meditation, works or not ? It is simple to prove – try being conscious (always remembering/contemplating) of something , anything, you will soon become very good/familiar with it (atleast compared to your old-self), if not an expert. How else are we to discern the depths, if not by investigating consciously/mindfully, be present, aware. This may be common-sense, and we dont need no “mindfulness” jargon, but its just a formal training/process.

    It can be misused, or give worse results, for example greedy person becoming good at greed. That still is not an argument against mindfulness.

  8. Tomek said

    Glenn (#4), I’ve been quite curious if this zen wizard you happened to caught in your net will reply to your comment and perhaps say something more about what he exactly means by “a systemic change” and its potential limits in context of mindfulness an mmeditation. But since he chose not to reply I have a question to you. The institute you work for issued a catalogue where on page #52 one reads:

    “The Won Institute is an ideal environment for students to gain genuine expertise in meditation—a practice that has far-reaching transformative potential for both the individual and society. I am confident that any student coming out of the Applied Meditation Studies program will be uniquely skilled in the practical, professional, and theoretical dimensions of meditation. It is exhilarating for all of us here at the Institute to be able to participate in a program that is simultaneously rooted in tradition yet fresh, creative, and open to possibility.”

    ~ AMS Chair, Glenn Wallis, Ph.D.

    Could you share here with us what do you mean by “far-reaching transformative potential for both the individual and society” in the above quote?

    Thanks!

  9. Hi Tomek (#8). Nice to hear from you. That is cut out of a press release from nearly ten years ago, just before I actually started working at the Won Institute. Somehow, it’s survived our many changes and is still in the institute’s catalogue. We are in the process of re-configuring the program to be more aligned to critical theory. As we say say elsewhere in that catalogue, meditation is viewed as on a continuum with thinking and dialogue. I have become less and less interested in the one former feature, and more and more interested in the latter two features. Whether or not the Institute will support my innovations remains to be seen. You would have to talk to students about this “transformation” business. Of course, like education generally, the course of study is transformative–you’re not the same going out as you were coming in. Because all of our prospective students come in with good background on me, they are very self-selecting not to be of the tradition-custodian variety. At the most, they have a tenuous and complicated relationship with meditation and Buddhism. At the least, they could not give a shit about either. Here’s an example of a course I teach there. It might give you an idea of what we’re up to.

    Practice and Contradiction
    Contemporary German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk argues that “anyone who takes part in a program for de-passivizing himself, and crosses from the side of the merely formed to that of the forming, becomes a subject.” The colloquial word for such a program is practice. The more technical term is praxis. This course proceeds from two central questions. First, what does it mean to “practice”? What, for instance, distinguishes a practice from things like routine, habit, or simply a way of life? And when is a practice one of healthy self-formation as opposed to one of ideological subjugation or romantic fantasy? Second, how can we conceive of practice in an age of profound skepticism toward the transcendental orientations of our self-described spiritual traditions? What might a materialist or, in the language of Pope Francis, an “incarnational” practice look like; one that, moreover, rather than adapt the practitioner to the existing social environment, develops competent agents for changing their environments in closer conformity to their moral ideals? Thinking practice after the “death of the big Other” is contradictory in several crucial regards. And yet, is there an alternative? We will consider the ideas of thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, Alain Badiou, Alenka Zupančič, Franҫois Laruelle, Gilles Deleuze, Terry Eagleton, Peter Sloterdijk, and others.

  10. Viriya said

    I’d add another big criticism of the ‘mindfulness’ industry to your apt points about corporate culture and meditation-commodification: the people teaching ‘mindfulness’ are, by and large, totally unqualified to teach meditation!

    The enthusiasm of the ‘mindfulness’ industry has far outpaced the actual supply of experienced teachers who understand how to navigate the territory of meditation. Since this is outside the traditional religious superstructure, there is no good regulatory system to ensure the credentials of ‘mindfulness’ teachers. Personal trainers, psychologists and yoga teachers can do 3 day courses to become ‘mindfulness instructors’ and go out in the world taking charge of the inner-lives of unsuspecting would-be practitioners. This situation is DEEPLY unethical. Meditators can easily end up in strange/difficult territory very quickly if they take to the practice, and if your teacher’s qualification is having a few books and adopted a 20 minutes/day practice, you’re basically up s*** creek. And indeed, there’s already a growing number of ‘mindfulness casualties’, people who have taken up meditation on the advice of some goober therapist or personal trainer, ended up in serious ‘dark night’ territory, and have to try to fumble their way out of the dark by themselves. Google ‘dark night project’ if you aren’t familiar.

  11. Per Drougge said

    Hi Josh (#7),

    Your short comment raises several issues. I’ll respond to a few:

    1. The “Elixir of Mindfulness” article gives numerous examples of how mindfulness is marketed as a panacea, a universal remedy, or an elixir for, well, everything. If you look at the list of categories I quote, you’ll also notice that it is often presented as something more than simply a tool, or a set of techniques.
    2. For several years now, many people have remarked that it is often less than clear what its proponents actually mean by “mindfulness”. Is it a technique or practice, or its desired outcome, or perhaps awareness itself?

    3. I agree that “we don’t need no ‘mindfulness’ jargon”. But the kind of mindfulness practice that we’re discussing here comes wrapped in all kinds of mystifying jargon. I also don’t buy the idea that there is something like “mindfulness itself”. Like all other human practices, it is always part of some larger social/cultural/ideological context. This is not a problem in itself, but it is important to understand that context. And that is exactly what the many critics I mention are doing.

    Hi Virya (#10),

    Thanks for commenting. I know there’s been a lot of talk about the “dark night of the soul” among Buddhist meditators for a few years, and this is mentioned in the article with references to both W. Britton and D. Ingram. While I am skeptical about the way this “territory” is often discussed, I’ve met a fair number of people who’ve had very disconcerting, frightening experiences as a result of intensive meditation practice. I don’t know how common this is among mindfulness practitioners, but I have no doubt that inexperienced instructors cause a lot of harm and confusion. A related question, the personality cult and “charisma factor” in so-called secular mindfulness, was briefly discussed here a while ago.

  12. Viriya said

    Apologies, I missed your reference to the dukkha nanas. I agree that the ‘dark night’ term is abused: it seems to have been adopted in the new-age scene as a jargony way of saying “feeling bad.” I meant it in the specific sense of the dukkha nanas as destabilizing stages of insight.

  13. johsh said

    Thank you Per Drougge (#11) for your response. I am not disputing how mindfulness is marketed, in fact i agree with most of your article, particularly when viewed from how mindfulness is “productized”.

    As you point out in #2, definition of what mindfulness is, is the key, even for this article. Which “mindfulness” specifically are you criticizing in this article. Some parts of your article even suggest there is 0% use in it, or worse (citing some examples of dangerous results).

    you said, “Like all other human practices, it is always part of some larger social/cultural/ideological context.”

    Context is very important, and mindfulness at the minimum carries the context of easing/helping/fixing something. In this sense, it is not related to social or cultural or even ideological context. Perhaps a better comparison is “medicine”…even if not a real one (placebo), or ineffective. I am not suggesting it IS medicine. I view it primarily as a “tool”, just as in how “breathing” is used to pin-down focus (gather our awareness, away from distractions).

    Since mindfulness (and meditation) sprung up from buddhism, its context is very well defined. To end suffering – can mean different things, but the context/implications are real.

    Wallis (#9) said, “meditation is viewed as on a continuum with thinking and dialogue. I have become less and less interested in the one former feature, and more and more interested in the latter two features.”

    I read Wallis books (& big thanks for x-b & this site), and I am no expert, but i believe “Contemplation” was the preferred word in early buddhism. Thinking and dialogue fall short – one has to internalize the outputs of “thinking and dialogue”. Meditation, mindfulness, breath/awareness, abstract (may even be unreal) concepts of karma, dhamma, – all of these are used as tools to internalize/cultivate one’s self-nature (bhavana). How else does one cultivate behavior/being-ness … will just (critical) thinking and dialogue suffice ?

  14. Per Drougge said

    Josh (#13),

    Judging from a few comments, here and elsewhere, I wasn’t clear enough when I wrote that my aim isn’t to formulate or synthesize a coherent critique of mindfulness and/or the mindfulness industry, and that the examples I bring up emphasize different aspects of the mindfulness phenomenon.

    As for your tool analogy: Isn’t a tool always used for some specific purpose? The hammer can be used for building a tree house or a gulllotine, or you can hit someone in the head with it. A master carpenter can show you how to make good use of the tool, someone else will make a mess both of his thumb and the wall. Sometimes you’d better put down the hammer and use a screwdriver instead, and so on.

  15. johsh said

    Per Drougge (#13), thanks for clarification. You said “Isn’t a tool always used for some specific purpose” … agree mindfulness, if viewed as a tool, has its role or purpose.

  16. Tomek said

    You know, Glenn (#9), when I hear these days someone from mindfulness industry, like The Rev. Dr. above, speaking about “systemic change,” I wonder, does he for instance mean something like reversing – through “mindfulness,” of course – the rising trend in prison privatization and reducing this crazy rate of incarceration that I hear about happening in the US, and last but not least, preventing the sweeping process leading to events like the one you can see on this video? Process that is, I guess, one of the major factors responsible for US incarceration rates, and which in turn feeds the demand for “mindfulness” instructors working with inmates, right? Can “systemic” things like these be changed through “mindfulness”?! Can “mindfulness” be really more consoling than a loud “fuck you!” that you can hear people shouting on that video? Or for that matter more consoling than simply voting for Mr Trump this election? I doubt it.

  17. Patrick jennings said

    Hi Tomek,

    Exactly to the point. The answer to your question about the “fuck you “ being consoling is that, from the x-buddhist point of view, the anger expressed by the “fuck you” is an internal mind/body state of ignorance, unmindfullness and regression and of inter-subjective discord. So the reading of the “fuck you “ as in some way consoling (be mindful of your anger and watch it dissolve into the undifferentiated ground of emptiness or some such bladder ) just is an appropriation of a legitimate sense of anger originating in a particular economic/social/political moment by an ideological discourse, namely contemporary Buddhism.

    Just so the other scenario you mention—-voting for Trump. The difference here is that legitimate ” worker anger” is being appropriated by a populist politician who seems to represent a new phase in the political evolution of American capitalism –- the consolidation of political power on the back of a mobilization of disgruntled, mostly white workers desperately watching the neo-liberal free market economy outsource the traditional quintessentially American Fordist economy (or what’s left of it). In the absence of a left alternative (and Bernie Sanders is not a left candidate but a left of centre one , as one will very quickly realise by examining his record as mayor of Burlington and later as a senator) this is an old story of American politics, but in the new and deadly era of climate crisis.

    The emergence of class polarisation in American politics and the militarisation of its foreign policy is the end of consensus/liberal politics and a new phase of populist politics and foreign adventurism. The answer to the questionZizek asks—is Buddhism the ideal late-capitalist subject? – is no. The late capitalist subject will not be Buddhist. It will be a resilient socially/economically/politically adaptable subject who can negotiate the tribulations of an unstable political/ economic formation in an era of climate crisis. The rest of us will make do with bread and circus or become the new subject of a radical non-politics – left of centre, anti authoritarian, organizationally resilient, pluralist, ground up and not top down , and prepared for a long march into an unpredictable future.

    What of Non- Buddhism? As its “object” of critique— the quasi-religious beliefs of a mostly white upper middle class/professional/academic constituency, — becomes marginalised and increasingly irrelevant, it too will be (theoretically) reduced in significance. Except that its connection with Laruelle, contemporary philosophy, Marxism, radical politics and critical thought will allow it to do as Per implied above—“The important question, of course, is what will come next, how people will respond to whatever fad will replace mindfulness, and to what extent the tools used for a critique of mindfulness will still be applicable.”

    Fad is perhaps the wrong word. ( he is using it in a different context of course). There is nothing “Fadish” about populist politics of the Trump variety and military adventurism , as an examination of the Hitler era will show. (although social fads will continue as a staple of the consumerist subject , along with the “mind blowing” special effects of movies like Mad max.). Such a barbaric world (of the Hitler era or there abouts) will undoubtedly be the international milieu of the new capitalist subject. That and surviving in a precarious economy. Such a subject is, of course, already being celebrated in much of academic writing about the anthropocene, the bio-machinic, and post-humanism. It was foretold long ago (and her words have,already, the mythological aura of a past-of-communism) in Rosa Luxemburgs prophetic “Socialism or Barbarism” and is beautifully expressed in material form in the late capitalist response to oil supply crisis —the rapacious and ecologically brutal “fracking” or, further afield, the physical destruction of Iraq, Syria and Libya, whose unfortunate populations happen to sit on top of the oil supplies America needs. The result, in both cases, is a World reduced to a heap of rubble and presided over by gun-toting survivors.

    Welcome to the “new world”. Long live “King Trump” his motley crew of military adventurers, corporate pirates and his quasi-fascist/racist/ disgruntled worker popular base. The future looks bright for the new capitalist subject and, as Orwell envisioned, can be represented by the image of a boot in a human face.

  18. Tomek said

    Hi Patrick (#17),

    “…the anger expressed by the ‘fuck you’ is an internal mind/body state of ignorance, unmindfullness and regression and of inter-subjective discord.”

    Or disequilibrium, as they say both in neurobiology and neoclassical economics. Because in case if you do not “quiet down,” as this HR professional warns the audience on the video – if you keep staying internally upset, you will (as it happens in imitative magic) upset market equilibrium, that is, this “extremely price sensitive marketplace” as he puts it. Being quiet (or mindful, one should say) is the preliminary condition in order to understand that what you hear about from me today “is strictly business decision”, as one hears further in this corpo talk. So market understood as a supersensitive information processor is in fact wholly dependent on the internal equilibrium of working masses. If they go berserk it goes with them … Hence the need of being mindful.

  19. wtpepper said

    Per,

    As you mention in your post, one of the most common defenses of mindfulness against the critics is that “it works.” In one of the articles you link, from the Huffington Post, Carolyn Gregoire asserts that “when it comes to the benefits of meditation, the science is incontrovertible” and she tells her readers that “mediation has been shown to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression.” One concern is that there just is no such “incontrovertible” evidence.

    The study most commonly cited, and used as a justification for treating depression with MBCT (as pointed out in another article you cite, in the N.Y. Times), does not treat depression at all!! In fact, the study (Teasdale et al, 2000) only uses mindfulness with former patients who are NOT currently depressed; even then, it only successfully reduced the rate of relapse by 44%, and only in those with three or more previous episodes of major depression. It had no effect on patients with only one or two episodes. The authors of this study are also far less certain that the science is “incontrovertible.” They say: “the design of the present study does not allow us to attribute the benefits of MBCT to the specific skill taught by the program versus nonspecific factors, such as therapeutic attention and group participation.”

    There has been no evidence that MBCT successfully works to cure depression–that is, the best it might do is reduce symptoms, but the participants remain depressed. And even this modest effect is not exactly unequivocally. Consider a recent study proposed by Chiesa et al in Psychiatry Research. They suggest that “the available studies suffer from important methodological shortcomings, including lack of adequate control groups”. Their own proposed study is meant to fill the research gap, but perhaps we should wait for some actual evidence before making wild proclamations that “it works”?

    Most proponents rely on personal anecdotal evidence, asserting that if it doesn’t work, it is because the participant wasn’t a true believer. The charismatic influence of the mindfulness teacher is also frequently cited as an important factor. Clearly, what is at work here is the attempt to interpellate participants into a particular ideology. When it works, they report more contentment with the world. But the response to this needs to be ideological critique–given that the goal is to produce an ideology, we need to critically examine the social and individual function of that ideology, and determine whether the self-report of greater contentment is really worth the broader ideological cost. Some may find it is, perhaps. But that hardly makes it “scientific.”

    The obsession with calling this “science,” and the exaggerated (and flatly dishonest) claims about scientific evidence, the obsession about brain effects…all this is an attempt to avoid admitting that mindfulness just attempts to interpellate individuals into a specific ideological construal of the world. Proponents want to claim that mindfulness has the same objective scientific effect as something like an antibiotic. It just doesn’t. Antibiotics don’t depend, for their efficacy, on the belief of the patient or the charisma of the doctor. (Placebos, however, do…)

    Of course, there is nothing wrong with attempting to produce an ideology. We are ideological animals by nature, and cannot live in a culture without one. However, whenever an ideology tries to pretend it is not one, there always seems to be something troubling about it. Mindfulness is no exception. If it were not simply a tool of capitalist oppression, producing delusion, confusion, and human suffering, it wouldn’t need to hide behind the pretense of “science,” it could just be explicit about its ideological goals.

    Thanks for this post. I hope it at least makes a few of the not-yet-converted pause for thought.

  20. johsh said

    Wtpepper [#19],

    It all boils down to this : can one change themselves by consciously conditioning their behavior or actions ? If yes, the usefulness of mindfulness , or its scientificity, can be seen easily. Mindfulness is just one piece of the puzzle though. One needs to see why (insight), how (samadhi/focus/awareness), and act (consciously condition). Mindfulness fits in somewhere in that process. By itself, its of no use.

    A tool without a technique or target is just a tool. We can look at the tool (any), all by itself, without taking into its applications/context, and scientifically study it and come back proving it or disproving it. Almost a meaningless exercise. Its very hard to study things in isolation when mind is involved – and doing it objectively is even harder as the self/bias comes into play.

  21. The Rev. Dr. Anthony Stultz said

    The changes we see in a company are similar to those we see in individuals and groups I have worked with such as families and in tough places like a halfway house.

    Less anxiety
    More creativity
    More compassionate and constructive communication
    More compassionate approach to problems
    More compassionate environment/culture

    I don’t use the word mindfulness in a limited fashion to a few techniques, but after the manner of Thich Nhat Hahn; our programs are not just about wellness or stress reduction (is that really anathema to the Dharma? If one person experiences less suffering, is that not worth it?))but are systemic approaches to an entire structure and culture based upon the foundations of Buddhism. Our vision is to create an environment that is like a sangha: certainly not perfect and always in process. I personally do not believe that there is any environment that cannot be transformed by the Dharma. But nor do I believe the Dharma is limited by any particular cultural language or reference. I believe that whatever we call the emerging Western Dharma of the 21st century it will contain three aspects; As Joe Goldstein has said, “.. the method is mindfulness, the expression is compassion, the essence is wisdom”

    With regard to political vitriol: I believe the Dharma has much to contribute to social issues and have been engaged in them all of my adult life; but I have heard few voices that rise beyond the angry dualism of our Judeo-Christian culture. In particular, I do not believe that a political party or economic system can be identified with the truth of the Dharma and therefore, unlike the Dharma, it can never become an object of devotion.

    PS With respect- It is, unfortunately, not very hard to see the limits of humanity and compassion in some of the responders to the post.

  22. PS I do not believe in panaceas. Nor do I disagree with everything in the article- Buddhism and mindfulness are often marketed in ways that I might disagree with- but it’s what has worked for me and many others, so I have devoted my life to sharing them without proselytizing or apology. And you just never know where it will lead to; a recent personal example: an employee of one the groups I work with who had taken our seminars, had asked to see me privately. He explained that all his life he had been plagued by anger and that he found that he would go through periods of big highs and deep, suicidal lows. He knew something was wrong but he was raised to believe that you don’t need therapy and that you should be able to handle things by yourself. But he felt safe with mindfulness and it was opening him to greater self awareness. Over the next few weeks I was able to help him disarm his fears and biases and to actually get psychiatric help. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and began medication. We continue with his mindfulness training. At our most recent meeting he began to weep and shared how he wished he had done something sooner and that without the exposure to mindfulness he probably would have never gotten help. The point is, this is a common experience and I am often perceived as a safer person to talk to and mindfulness can actually help folks open up and may even move them to get the help they need. Now, based upon the responses above, I’m sure this example will be discounted out of hand or used to justify one opinion or another; but to me it’s all that matters.

  23. johsh said

    The Rev (#22),

    “I do not believe in panaceas”

    Interesting comment 🙂 , but it doesn’t tell much without a proper/full context.

    Buddha’s life story and teachings are about “a” panacea. If you see from his point of view, there IS a panacea. He found a “new kind of fire” that extinguishes suffering/stress/clueless-ness. He used it effectively…and taught it. Countless people used it…and extinguished what ever suffering they could. Just as the normal fire is a “tool”…so is dhamma.

    I understand this site, and its followers, do not appreciate it much. But it worked, works, will continue to work. As it is, as true and real as regular fire .. and the results are as deterministic/real as regular fire.

    That said, it is not a panacea for everything. None of the tools are. They all have intended purposes. For suffering/stress/clueless-ness, it is dhamma.

  24. You mentioned mindfulness as an extreme form of modernist Buddhism — IMHO, the mainstreaming of ‘mindfulness’ is mostly just the dumbing down, or diluting, of the esoteric Buddhist practices, & the difficult, arduous work they require in order to be fruitful. Once something comes into the middle class’ attention, it inevitably becomes simplified, washed out, distanced from the spark it was originally kindled from. And then when corporate mind becomes interested in something, eg mindfulness practices, well …….. it just becomes another tool for using the worker’s energies while promoting the idea the s/he is gaining something from the effort. (I used to write a blog on “my mindfulness journey” & once I realized how …. well, common, the idea had become I couldn’t stand it anymore!)

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