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
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 Times, Huffington 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
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:
- Mental operations: attention, concentration, change in focus, value-free observation of consciousness content, etc.
- Behavior: kindness, compassion, common consideration, love, deep listening, slowing down, niceness, being good.
- Traditional practices: various forms of Buddhist meditation, generalized/unspecified meditation, contemplation, various styles of yoga.
- 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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*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.
What do you think?