Speculative Non-Buddhism

ruins of the buddhist real

Criticism Matters

Posted by Glenn Wallis on December 14, 2016

handbookI contributed the chapter below to Ronald E. Purser, David Forbes. Adam Burke, Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context and Social Engagement (Basel: Springer Publishing, 2016) (link at bottom). It’s a big book, 500+ pages, with over 30 contributors. Many of those contributors will be familiar to readers of this blog; for example, David Loy, Richard Payne, Ronald Purser, and Bhikkhu Bodhi. I find the new, but obviously well-informed, voices, such as Zack Walsh, Per Drougge, and Edwin Ng, and many others, refreshing. I applaud the editors for their unorthodox group of contributors.

The title may give the impression that this is yet another of the proliferating paeans to the mindfulness industry or a How-To book. The book’s five parts reveal, however, that it’s up to something else:

Part I: Between Tradition and Modernity
Part II: Neoliberal Mindfulness Versus Critical Mindfulness
Part III: Genealogies of Mindfulness-Based Interventions
Part IV: Mindfulness as Critical Pedagogy
Part V: Commentary

As the first sentence of the Preface says, “This volume is a critical inquiry into the meaning of mindfulness today.” From my first perusal of the book, it seems that the degree of criticism varies from curry mild to habanero hot. Some pieces seem to be not at all critical; but I’ll have to take a closer look. In any case, the book should augur a new phase in the reception of mindfulness in the West. Let me know if you would like to review the book for this blog.

The final Part consists of only two chapters: Rick Repetti’s, “Meditation Matters: Replies to the Anti-McMindfulness Bandwagon!” and my “Criticism Matters: A Response to Rick Repetti.” As I understand it, the editors invited Repetti to offer a mindfulness-friendly voice to the overall critical tone of the volume. They then decided that his response itself merited a reply. And so they asked me to do so. Repetti’s background is philosophy. His chapter is over twenty pages long. Obviously, I couldn’t summarize or respond to his piece in its entirety; but there should still be some tasty pickins on the plate.

Criticism Matters: A Response to Rick Repetti

Glenn Wallis

Rick Repetti has written a lengthy, somewhat sprawling, rebuttal to four criticisms leveled against contemporary “mindfulness.” I offer here my reaction to his text in the form of reader response criticism. I’m not using “reader response” in its technical sense. I just mean to convey that I will not be commenting on each of his complicated meanderings or analyzing his copious analogies or dissecting his various examples. That would be too much. I will instead read through his text, pause at those points that strike me as salient, and then offer my more or less spontaneous response to them.

The [W]hole

To begin, I have some comments about the piece as a whole. As I read the synopsis I found myself questioning the viability of Repetti’s overall argument.  That is, I had to wonder whether he was making the right refutations. By “right” I mean refutations that other defenders of contemporary mindfulness would find necessary and significant. To be more specific, would other refuters of the so-called McMindfulness critique concur that the four objections that Repetti singles out for treatment are indeed the decisive issues to be addressed?  If not, what would be the point of responding to his defense of these objections? Mindfulness proponents would simply dismiss my response as an irrelevant straw man argument, even if the straw man was fashioned by one of their own. On reflection, two things occurred to me. First, I have in fact come across these four objections elsewhere, in both formal and informal settings. So, I do think that Repetti is addressing criticisms that mindfulness proponents deem worthy of refutation. Second, it occurred to me that my response will all but certainly be accused of being a flimsy straw man attack anyway. Whether they are aware of it or not, mindfulness proponents are fast gaining the reputation of being people who are less than fully open to the full force of the criticism leveled against them. They employ various rhetorical strategies for evading the brunt of some critical point. It would be a useful project for someone to chart and analyze these strategies. I was considering whether I should take that approach here; namely, present a kind of rhetorical criticism of mindfulness. Then it occurred to me: Repetti’s piece is valuable not because it defends mindfulness against certain objections, but because it exudes the very spirit of the mindfulness community’s engagement with criticism tout court. Along the way, Repetti’s piece exhibits two stock mindfulness rhetorical responses to criticism. I call these two responses respectively conceptual shape-shifting and covert idealism. I’ll say more about each of these strategies below. The point I am making here is that Repetti’s piece is instructive because it performs the rabbit hole that is “mindfulness.”

The Definition

Repetti helpfully begins by defining the term “mindfulness.” As this section’s title, “To Be Mindful or Not To Be Mindful, That Is the Question,” indicates, Repetti believes that we have a stark choice. We can either cultivate “the state of mind or quality of consciousness” that is mindfulness or we can fail to do so and engage in mindlessness. The difference lies in whether or not one is “paying attention to what one is doing, thinking, perceiving, experiencing,” via “metacognitive awareness.” My first thought on reading Repetti’s definition was that it conforms well to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s wheel-turning utterance: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. It’s about knowing what is on your mind.” Repetti, finally, uses the analogy of bodily strength to convey two crucial facts about mindfulness: (i) it is a natural capacity, and (ii) it exists independently of techniques for its development.

My additional thoughts on reading this definition were as follows. Repetti, like Jon Kabat-Zinn himself, is engaging in an equivocation of terms. The critique of mindfulness is not a critique of certain claims regarding cognition. Who would deny that the capacity of “paying attention” and so on is an important human trait? In the most substantive critiques of mindfulness the term “mindfulness” itself refers to the ideological edifice that has been erected around Kabat-Zinn’s founding statement. In offering the definition of mindfulness that he does, Repetti thus obscures and evades the real issue: the identity of mindfulness as a system of thought and practice, one that is, moreover, (i) implicated in a very specific social-economic-political context, and (ii) productive of a very particular subject and world. (From here on, lower case “mindfulness” refers to the purported cognitive capacity and practice that trains that capacity while upper case “Mindfulness” refers to the ideological system.) I will have an opportunity to say more about these points in the next section. The main point here is that Repetti’s definition establishes at the outset a premise that infects his entire argument. That premise cannot, I believe, avoid the charge of either disingenuousness or obliviousness. Does Repetti really think that a critique is being leveled against the claim for an almost simple-minded quality of human awareness? Repetti is in any case in good company here, for Jon Kabat-Zinn and every other Mindfulness proponent whom I have read or listened to are engaged in the same obscurantism. Perhaps what we are seeing in this (willful?) confusion is a kind of genetic trait of Mindfulness. The trait is an inability to distinguish between mindfulness as a curative fantasy cloned from the existing social formation and Mindfulness as an ideological strategy for engaging the existing social formation. If so, that would go a long way in explaining Mindfulness followers’ refusal to take criticism seriously. As an aside, Repetti’s use of the term “Bandwagon” in his subtitle is symptomatic of this trait. The term suggests that critics are mindlessly mimicking one another’s insubstantial talking points. It suggests that criticism is merely a passing fashionable trend, and thus must not be robustly engaged.     

Repetti—inadvertently, I suppose—draws attention to a central feature of Mindfulness ideology that normally remains unacknowledged. I am referring to the fact that Mindfulness entails a covert idealism disguised as a materialist phenomenology. Repetti, for sure, is not explicit about this facet of Mindfulness. My impression is that Mindfulness believers, beginning with Jon Kabat-Zinn, are blissfully unaware of, or perhaps indifferent to, this aspect. In any case, we find Repetti ambling perilously close to this timeless Siren song of the spiritualist big Other, to, that is, the pure witnessing consciousness untouched by the contingencies of time, space, and matter. When Repetti speaks of “metacognitive states,” “phenomenological self-mirroring,” and mindfulness as “a natural capacity,” he is marshalling the allies not of an immanental phenomenology, as he seems to believe, but of a transcendental idealism.  

The final response that I’ll mention here is that Repetti’s definition—again, like Kabat-Zinn’s—is trivial. In proclaiming that each of us possesses a mental capacity for “being conscious that one is aware of what one is experiencing” we have learned nothing new. That is, the statement, whatever it might mean and whatever profound import it is supposed to have, is tautological. Mindfulness proponents will likely take that comment as evidence of my lack of adeptness in mindfulness. In doing so, however, they are, like Repetti and Kabat-Zinn, confusing Mindfulness with mindfulness.  

The First Objection

Repetti next takes on what he terms the “‘Meditation Fails to Change the World’ Objection” of the so-called McMindfulness critique. His argument seems to boil down to this: it is no more a “shortcoming” of Mindfulness that it fails to change an unjust world into a just world than it is a shortcoming of countless other human activities—“gardening, karate, chess, poetry, art, hydraulics, Classical music, Zumba, dentistry,” etc., etc., etc.—that they fail to do so as well. Certainly, his argument continues, no one should blame a mindfulness meditator for seeking a strategy for coping in a stressful world. Indeed, mindfulness meditation is best understood “as a form of existential digestion: it facilitates the digesting of experience. Meditation typically helps individuals process the stresses that accompany encounters with the rough edges of reality, but it does not typically do so by chemically blocking them from cognitive processing.”

My first reaction as I read this section was that Mindfulness does claim for itself world-changing prowess. This prowess, moreover, comes precisely from the cultivation of mindfulness. The most recent evidence for these two claims comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s conversation with Angela Davis in Oakland. The question driving the conversation was whether mindfulness practices can serve the advancement of social justice. Davis, for instance, pointedly asks: “In a racially unjust world, what good is mindfulness?” Kabat-Zinn clearly wants to claim that mindfulness and meditation possess world-changing potential. They are, he says, “transformative practices that are capable of moving the bell curve of the entire society toward a new way of understanding of what it means to be human.”[1] I also reflected on the large number of current books with “mindfulness” in their title, such as Mindful Parenting, Mindful Teaching, Mindful Politics, Mindful Therapy, and Mindful Leadership. I don’t think it is a stretch to suggest that the implicit claim of this conglomeration of books is that Mindfulness, and even mere mindfulness, has world-changing implications.

This disagreement of mine, however, was fleeting. What struck me most about Repetti’s argument in this section was its valorization of the neoliberal subject, and hence, his argument’s reactionary stance. I should add that this stance does not surprise me. Again, Repetti is proving himself to be a faithful Mindfulness subject here. In brief, Repetti seems to assume a subject that has no choice but to accept the “unjust world,” adapt to the “rough edges of reality,” and engage in practices that foster resilience. Repetti could not paint a clearer portrait of the diminished neoliberal subject. It is a subject that is perpetually vulnerable in the face of global, financial, environmental, political, ad infinitum insecurities. It is a subject that is racked by a degree of stress and tension that debilitates the real possibility of robust agency. These characteristics—vulnerability together with the necessity of acceptance, resilience, and adaptation—are classic neoliberal assertions about the human subject. This stance, of course, raises the possibility that Mindfulness is simply an unrepentant ally of neoliberalism. God knows the secret is out on “the long marriage of mindfulness and money.”[2] In that case, Repetti’s refutation of the “‘Meditation Fails to Change the World’ Objection” is justified. By all measures, it does indeed appear that Mindfulness is quite content being, as Slavoj Žižek puts it, “the perfect ideology supplement” of a rabid global corporate capitalism. So why in the world should we expect it to want to change anything?

My response to this sad conclusion is the following. When Repetti argues for the equivalence of the statements “Mindfulness Is All about Self-Help, It Does Nothing to Change an Unjust World” and “Brushing Teeth Is All about Hygiene, It Does Nothing to Change an Unjust World,” he reminds me of Donald Trump talking about abortion. As a recent Huffington Post headline put it, “Donald Trump Accidentally Articulates GOP Abortion Stance A Little Too Loudly.” In suggesting “that women should face legal sanctions for having abortions,” Trump inadvertently sailed “straight into ‘here be dragons’ territory.” Repetti, too, in linking Mindfulness with his “list of analogous things about which it is not a shortcoming about those things that they do not try to change an unjust world into a just world”—things like “embroidery, Pilates, hotel management, automotive mechanics, vinyl repair, bicycling, marathons, accounting, skydiving, fishing, deep sea diving”—is taking us into a Mindfulness “unauthorized personnel not allowed” zone. We can paraphrase the Trump article to fit our case: “Repetti was just saying bluntly what the actual implications of longstanding Mindfulness views on the diminished subject are.”[3]

The Second Objection

Repetti next tackles the “‘McMindfulness Is Divorced from Buddhist Ethics’ Objection.” Repetti’s point in this section seems to be: so what? mindfulness is great!

The section consists of two parts. The first part is simply a paean to mindfulness. It largely repeats and expands on the definitional section that opens the article. To repeat—and there is an awful lot of repetition here—what Repetti means by mindfulness is the capacity “to attend consciously to whatever one is doing or experiencing.” As in the earlier section, the supposedly obvious value of mindfulness is highlighted by contrasting it to mindlessness—“failing to attend consciously,” etc.—the source of “a great majority of all errors in judgment, decision, and action.” So, again, Repetti is not addressing the covertly ideological, subject-forming production that is Mindfulness. He is simply asserting the power and beauty of the mana-like quality of consciousness that is mindfulness.[4]  What do ethics matter, Buddhist or otherwise, given this power? Then again, come to think of it—Repetti seems suddenly to realize—mindfulness does entail an ethics. But, in classic idealist fashion, it is an ethics that ensues naturally from the wondrous wellspring of metacognitive witnessing known as mindfulness. No prescribed ethics can trump the wholesomeness of that indigenous, natural effusion.

The Buddhist parable that Repetti cites to open this section says it all. By merely maintaining “mindful awareness” of the fact that he is stealing, this “incorrigible” thief finds himself incapable of further thievery. His mindfulness produces such an overwhelming gush of “compassion” for his victims that he just can’t go on with the thug life. So, critics of Mindfulness should stop already with their unfounded concern that mindfulness in the boardrooms of corporate capitalism and in the war councils of the military-industrial complex will turn out badly for the rest of us. For, as the mindful ex-thief makes irrefutably clear, we can be pretty sure that serious long-term mindfulness practice, like the descent of the Holy Spirit, “will naturally foster the blossoming of…noble, altruistic imperatives.”

In the second part, Repetti brings up critiques by Allen Ginsberg and Slavoj Žižek. He doesn’t do anything substantial with these critiques. Again, it all seems to boil down to Repetti’s earlier argument, repeated here as a rebuttal to Ginsberg’s implied objection that “anything that fails to change the world may be thereby criticized.” But, Repetti repeats, that objection “undermines the force of the objection against any particular thing, since it applies to almost everything” (think: “theater, prestidigitation [magic tricks], photography, calligraphy, food trucks, method acting, etc., etc.). He lays out some interesting criticisms made by Žižek, and seems to consider them important. For instance, Žižek’s contention, according to Repetti, that mindful meditation is the new opiate of the masses “is a chilling view, one that certainly merits serious reflection;” but Repetti doesn’t grant this, or any other of Žižek’s points, any reflection whatsoever. In fact, he simply employs the all-too-common Mindfulness tactic of facile dismissal of criticism. Žižek’s objection doesn’t really require refutation, Repetti concludes, because, after all, it “was already rebutted indirectly in my rebuttal of Moore’s non-world-changing objection.” No, it definitely was not.

My most general response to this section is that Repetti is right about his main contention. Critics’ objection that Mindfulness errs in not coupling its practices to Buddhist ethics is uninteresting. The objection also misses the point. Mindfulness certainly is a descendant of Buddhism. But it is a descendant many, many times removed. It is, I would argue, even more closely related to, and bears closer resemblance to, American pop psychology, the 1960s human potential movement, Perennial Philosophy, positive-thinking spirituality, and apocalyptic New Age thought, just to name a few obvious blood relatives.[5] You don’t have to look too closely to see that Mindfulness’s most recent progenitors are, of course, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. As I mentioned earlier, Mindfulness has the same DNA and was raised on the same values that undergirds today’s neoliberal, consumer capitalist social structure (acceptance, resilience, self-help, etc.). So, of course Jon Kabat-Zinn cozies up to corporate CEOs and American military generals.[6] And of course Rick Repetti wants to cancel the warrant on the claims of Buddhist ethics. When Žižek says that “meditation is the ideological form that best fits today’s global capitalism,” he is echoing the point that Repetti is making:

[Mindfulness meditation] in its abstraction from institutionalized religion, appears today as the zero-level undistorted core of religion: the complex institutional and dogmatic edifice which sustains every particular religion [can be] dismissed as a contingent secondary coating of this core.[7]

My point is that asking Mindfulness to conform to Buddhist ethics (whatever that is—which Buddhist ethics, for instance?) is like asking Prosperity Theology to reconcile its teachings with the Babylonian Talmud. So, I agree with Repetti when he rejects the notion that some sort of big fix “lies in the reconciliation of mindfulness with the ethical dimension of Buddhism.” The bigger problem for Repetti and his fellow Mindfulness believers, however, is that in invoking “ethics,” even as a negation, they inadvertently release the question-genie of just what kind of ethics Mindfulness itself is operating by. And, as far as I can make out, there be dragons.

The Third Objection

“The ‘Unethical-Applications’ Objection” is next up for refutation. Strangely, Repetti does not actually present that objection. He certainly does not present it in any of the relevant and strong forms with which I am familiar, such as William Davies’s exemplary The Happiness Industry. Instead, Repetti opines that the objection is a “misplaced criticism.” The reason he thinks it is misplaced is that “It is those uses of mindfulness under those circumstances (by the military, Google, and so forth) that would be the problem, if they would be a problem at all, not mindfulness itself” (emphases in original). That’s the core of Repetti’s response to the “indictment of the ideology of happiness and its accompanying horrors of mindfulness and well-being” that we find circulating in intelligent, philosophically astute critical circles today.[8] Repetti’s position on this issue boils down to a less consequential form of the NRA’s dogma that “guns don’t kill people—people kill people.”[16]

What Repetti does not seem to recognize is that in taking such a position, he is pulling back the curtain on the covertly ideological nature of Mindfulness. An ideology, recall, “represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” So, mindfulness, though presented as a basic natural capacity that, like strength, can be further developed (it is metacognitive awareness, the opposite of mindlessness, paying attention, etc.), in reality functions as a technical term in a discourse of self-actualization (as, in the NRA analogy, “guns” functions as a signifier in a discourse of liberty). “Being mindful” signifies one thing in an old “Leave it to Beaver” episode (“Be mindful of your brother, Wally!”), another in a Jon Kabat-Zinn text (“[being mindful] wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments.”), and something altogether different in a Mindfulness-meets-scientism discussion (“being mindful leads to changes in the structural connectivity within the nervous system that would indicate an increase in interoceptive ability”). Repetti offers the analogy of “strength” in order to indicate the utter naturalness of “mindfulness.” But this analogy is as sheer as the emperor’s clothes since the term “strength” itself always occupies a specific position within a particular chain of signifiers, a position which alone determines its linguistic meaning and ideological function.[9]

That we are dealing here with a central article of Mindfulness faith—with, that is, an ideologically-encoded signifier that serves to inscribe the believer into the Mindfulness imaginary—is on full display in Repetti’s contention that an “ethical perspective or framework in connection with the teaching of mindfulness” is unnecessary. In any other context, such a claim would sound bizarre at best and irresponsible at worst. In what sort of alien universe might some human action be devoid of ethical implications? Unlike Repetti, apparently, my imagination fails me here. To be mistaken about such a bizarre possibility is irresponsible because it enables the disavowal of the ethical framework that is in place when teaching and practicing Mindfulness.

This act of disavowal is bound up with what Žižek calls the “new age spiritual fetish.” Repetti’s Mindfulness subject embodies the denial of the ethical implications of his or her beliefs and actions as interpellated Mindfulness subject. Briefly, a fetish, as used here, is “that which enables you to (pretend to) accept reality ‘the way it is.’”[11] Making Mindfulness’s ethics explicit is unnecessary because mindfulness is simply that which enables one to view metacognitively the “contents of one’s own mental state,” and, by implication, the contents of one’s world.[12] It is this belief that permits the Mindfulness fetish to function. In “practicing” metacognitive awareness (Repetti) or non-judgmental present-moment awareness (Kabat-Zinn), in, that is, simply seeing “things as they are,”[13] the practitioner is able to effectively keep at bay certain truths which, if acknowledged, would reveal Mindfulness to be but an ideological spectacle. Among these truths is, for instance, the fact that the believer’s thoughts, actions, and emotions are always inextricably implicated in the human symbolic collective known as society. When the Mindfulness believer is taught to view subjective iterations of the social collective with a putative “awareness” that is open, spacious, non-judgmental, non-reactive, metacognitive, phenomenologically reflective, and so on, he is in fact being taught to see the world through the ideological prism that is Mindfulness. Evidence of this fact is that despite Jon Kabat-Zinn’s grandiose proclamation that being thus mindfully present “actually does change the nature of our reality,”[14] the world remains unchanged. The only change that occurs is in the practitioner’s perception. The same can be said, of course, for a hallucination. This fact sheds light on another terrible truth that the Mindfulness fetish enables the believer to ignore; namely, the truth that the believer is complicit in sustaining the very social collective that compels him or her to employ the mindfulness remedy in the first place. The Mindfulness fetish fosters the illusion that the believer can live in an ethically neutral, or indeed superior, relation to social reality.    

The Fourth Objection

Repetti ends his piece by refuting “The ‘Meditation Doesn’t Matter Much to Buddhists’ Objection.” The objection is not really pertinent. Repetti, indeed, makes it clear that his motivation here is purely personal. He says, the objection “captures my interest…perhaps because I have made my own meditation practice the centerpiece of my philosophical life for over 42 years.” He apparently feels a need to resolve the issue for himself.

My response is that Repetti’s argument is more interesting for unintentionally highlighting yet another fetishistic aspect of Mindfulness. In this case, the fetish functions to ward off the numerous implications of Mindfulness’s relationship to Buddhism. Mindfulness ideology is woefully lacking anything resembling the theoretical apparatus that Buddhists have labored to construct through the ages. As faith-driven, and thus unsatisfactory, as they typically are, Buddhist theories at least attempt to work out the implications of its doctrines in the face of broader epistemological, ontological, and ethical concerns. Much of this theoretical work by Buddhists was prompted by the objections of their critics. As Repetti has revealed to us in each of his previous refutations, Mindfulness thinkers feel no such compulsion to respond to as much as to evade or dismiss criticism. Again, Repetti is proving himself to be the good Mindfulness subject in this regard.

A very telling exchange between Jon Kabat-Zinn and Danny Fisher brilliantly highlights the fetish at work, if somewhat frantically so.[15] I will cite the exchange at length, and let my comment on it serve as my conclusion to this response to Rick Repetti.

Kabat-Zinn: You understand that I myself am not a Buddhist, right? I don’t see what I do as Buddhism so much as I see it as Dharma expressing itself in the world in its Universal-Dharma-way.

Fischer: Well, that might be a good place to start. I know you have a history with…is it the Cambridge Zen Center?

K-Z: I’ve studied with a lot of different Buddhist teachers; still do. For a time I actually did consider myself to be a Buddhist. But I realized at a certain point that it was really most important for me to be a human—the fewer affiliations I had, the better. For me personally, that is. Also, I don’t think I would have been able to do what I did in quite the same way if I was actually identifying myself as a Buddhist; it inevitably would have been seen as Jon Kabat-Zinn trying to put his Buddhist trip over on other people. I wanted to offer instead a kind of translation of a universal understanding or approach that was never really about Buddhism. The Buddha himself wasn’t a Buddhist, and the term Buddhism is an invention of Europeans. And, of course, Buddhists could [sic] really care less because it’s all about non-duality: as soon as you start classifying Buddhists and non-Buddhists you’re not really a Buddhist anymore. I get quoted on these points a lot. All of this is just a way of giving you a background flavor of what it is that I do.

F: Speaking of quotes of yours, one that appears in the press release about your kickoff of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month at UCLA is about your work as an offering of “the wisdom and the heart of Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism…”

K-Z: Yeah, I have said that. I say those kinds of things a lot. It’s not meant to be disrespectful, in that anyone who knows anything about Buddhism will understand that it’s not about that—it’s about the Dharma. It’s about non-attachment to name and form, so to speak.

F: So, in a sense, it’s about getting past “Buddhism?”

K-Z: I don’t know that it’s about getting past it so much as it is about going back to the beginning.

Jon Kabat-Zinn embodies here the fetishistic disavowal that Mindfulness is entangled in a relationship with Buddhism. This disavowal is not a well-reasoned repudiation. It is not a cool-headed rejection of the claim. It functions as a fetish because it enables Kabat-Zinn simultaneously to distance himself from the apparently unacceptable truth that Mindfulness is consequentially bound up in Buddhism and to sustain the implicit benefits derived from that relationship. Reasons for doing so should be obvious. Repetti’s desire to refute the “Meditation Doesn’t Matter Much to Buddhists” objection is indicative of these reasons. In short, the reasons constitute a coping mechanism: how to avoid entrapment in the overly determinate network of postulation that is Buddhism while simultaneously asserting mastery over Buddhism’s central truth (e.g., Mindfulness captures “the wisdom and the heart of Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism”). If Mindfulness is subsumed under Buddhism, it cannot avoid appearing as an indefensibly simplistic version of its progenitor. For, given Buddhism’s complex network of postulates concerning, for instance, the grounding of meditation practice in a robust ethics, Mindfulness is unable to answer adequately for its deviations from traditional norms. If Mindfulness is wholly withdrawn from Buddhism, on the other hand, it then becomes barely indistinguishable from any other unsophisticated, under-theorized self-help cure. Maintenance of this fetishistic disavowal thus enables Kabat-Zinn to view Mindfulness as more essentially Buddhist than is even traditional Buddhism. It enables the illusion that, in his words, Mindfulness is not so much Buddhism as it is “Dharma expressing itself in the world in its Universal-Dharma-way.”  

We could explore this central facet of Mindfulness ideology through several potent critical theories. We might apply, for instance, Harold Bloom’s concept of the anxiety of influence, and find that Mindfulness emerges out of an intentional, if largely unaware, misreading of the Buddhist text. To paraphrase Bloom for our purposes, when two “strong” systematizers meet, the newer one must commit “an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation” of the older one. Otherwise, the innovator will be subsumed under the older master, becoming but a mere manager of the traditional status quo. That Kabat-Zinn accomplished this feat with Mindfulness was due in part to his “self-saving caricature of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism” of Buddhism. The fetish aids Kabat-Zinn and his Mindfulness followers in staving off this unacceptable conclusion.

We might also employ the critical tool of Sigmund Freud’s “narcissism of minor differences.” This is a condition that breeds contempt toward that which you perceive as lying too close to you for comfort. Freud defines this as “a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression, by means of which cohesion between the members of the community is made easier.” He gives as an example the way northern Germans ridicule southern Germans. Any astute observer of the Buddhism/Mindfulness interface is witness to the mutual contempt each has for the other. To see how this condition is narcissistic just consider the manner in which, in the above exchange, Kabat-Zinn gazes into the mirror of Buddhism and sees reflected back to him the “Universal-Dharma-way,” the “the wisdom and the heart of Buddhism,” that is precisely the face of his very own Mindfulness. It is the fetish that allows this distorted reflection.

We might, finally, apply Jacques Lacan’s critical theory of the hysteric’s discourse. Doing so, we would see in what ways Mindfulness rhetoric presents an exemplary instance of the hysteric’s approach. As in Bloom’s theory, the hysteric always stands in relation to a master. For example, Kabat-Zinn reveals in the exchange—as indeed Repetti does throughout his piece—that he values and indeed desires the outcomes of the master discourse, Buddhism. Yet at the same time he reveals that he is impelled to challenge and resist being a subject of that discourse. As hysteric, he must therefore cast the master project in his own terms. It bears repeating that as hysteric—as, that is, an alienated subject of the master—Kabat-Zinn is nonetheless captured by the desire for the wisdom and liberation that the master discourse so deftly arouses in him. The fetish enables him the illusion that he is outflanking today’s traditional Buddhists themselves toward that end by “going back to the beginning” and thus becoming more essentially Buddhist than the Buddhists themselves.[17]

We might apply these and numerous other critical tools to better understand Mindfulness as the ideological system that it is. To call Mindfulness an ideological system is not to dismiss it out of hand as a product of false consciousness or devious manipulation. It is, rather, to acknowledge Mindfulness as being uniquely productive. It is productive of a quite particular subject, one that imagines his or her relation to the world in quite particular ways. The value of criticism is that it enables us to make explicit the operations of an ideological system that the system itself keeps implicit—its unstated assumptions; its unspoken values; its relationship to existing social, economic, and political formations; and, perhaps most importantly, its tacit formation of individual actors in the world. Marjorie Gracieuse sums up this task of criticism perfectly: it “consists in wresting vital potentialities of humans from the artificial forms and static norms that subjugate them.” It might be true that, as Repetti believes, “meditation matters” for humanity. But it is equally true that criticism matters. Without it, we can’t distinguish a vital human potentiality from a self-serving prescription of a covertly ideological program. Rick Repetti’s refutation of four objections to Mindfulness is valuable in stimulating further critical work toward this end.   


Notes

[1] “How Can we Bring Mindfulness to Social Justice Movements?” YouTube. http://tinyurl.com/hyrajjw. Retrieved April 18, 2016. Kabat-Zinn’s overall answer in this conversation once again reveals the transcendental idealism of Mindfulness. He constantly makes overly simplistic affirmations about the world-altering power of, for instance, attending; being present; heightened awareness; uprooting greed, hatred and delusion, and so on. Davis responds with the anti-idealist argument that social injustices are not a matter of mere personal attitude, much less the lack of attention: Their roots dig deeply into the material structures of our social system.

[2] See, Goldberg (2015). 3

[3] See, Linkins (2016).

[4] See Per Drougge’s contribution in the present volume.

[5] By “apocalyptic New Age thought” I mean beliefs about the end times of the Old World and the coming of a New World, augured not by collective social action but by some sort of “shift in consciousness” from, in Repetti’s terms, pervasive mindlessness to widespread mindfulness.

[6] See, “The Thousand-Year View: An Interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn,” Inquiring Mind, 30(2) Spring, 14–16. 7

[7] Ibid. “Spiritual meditation” stands in the original.

[8] Simon Critchley’s blurb for Davies’s book.

[9] For example, think of the different ways that “strength” functions in the following discourses: Rosy the Riveter; the American cult of masculinity; Alcoholics Anonymous recovery speak; the Catholic Mass (where weakness is strength); national security rhetoric, and so on. The point is not the obvious one about a term’s requiring context for its sense. It is, rather, the idea that that sense functions within productive subject and social formations.

[10] See, Butler (2014).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Repetti’s claim concerning metacognition and “phenomenological self-mirroring” is admittedly a weak, psychologized version of the old spiritualist quest for “things as they are.” Jon Kabat-Zinn, however, offers us the strong version: “Coming to terms with things as they are is my definition of healing.” See, Kabat-Zinn (2016b).

[13] They are, namely, like water cascading off a cliff, inherently empty or content-free, hence not requiring judgment or reaction, etc.

[14]Inquiring Mind, “Coming to our Senses: A Conversation with Jon Kabat-Zinn, http://tinyurl.com/jszqm2a. Retrieved April 21, 2016.

[15] “Mindfulness and the cessation of suffering: An exclusive new interview with mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn,” Lion’s Roar. http://tinyurl.com/hb38sag. Retrieved April 22, 2016.

[16] I say “astute” observer because this contempt is often veiled in the passive aggressive niceties of “right speech.”“Right speech” has emerged as a decisive discursive strategy in contemporary Western Buddhism. That is, it has become an apparently indispensable mechanism for normalizing certain voices, ideas, and behaviors, while excluding others. It has, in other words, become a censorious tool of subjugation. As such, it deserves further study. It certainly has burgeoned with the coming of the internet, no doubt due to the potentially unruly democratic nature of online discussions. I know of no Western Buddhist (pace Kabat-Zinn and Repetti, that moniker includes Mindfulness) blog, podcast, Web site, or Twitter account that does not invoke “right speech” either implicitly or explicitly, quite often the latter. The result is that Western Buddhist discourse is bland and predictable. Western Buddhist webmasters have apparently figured out that “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” (Chomsky 1998). So-called right speech is a crucial element toward this end.

[17] For a fuller account of the Lacan’s four discourses, see Wallis (2016).

References

Althusser, L. (2001 [1971]). Lenin and philosophy and other essays (p. 109) (B. Brewster, Trans.). New York: Monthly Review Press.

Bloom, H. (1997 [1973]). The anxiety of influence: A theory of poetry (p. 30). London: Oxford University Press.

Butler, R. (2014). The Žižek dictionary (p. 207). London: Routledge.

Chomsky, N. (1998). The common good (p. 43). Berkeley: Odonian Press.

Davies, W. (2015). The happiness industry: How the government and big business sold us well-being. London: Verso.

Freud, S. (1961). Civilization and its discontents (p. 61) (J. Strachey, Trans. and Ed.). New York: W.W. Norton.

Goldberg, M. (2015, April 18). The long marriage of mindfulness and money. The New Yorker Blog. http://www.newyorker.com. Retrieved April 18, 2016.

Gracieuse, M. (2012). Laruelle facing Deleuze: Immanence, resistance and desire. In J. Mullarkey & A. Paul

Smith (Eds.), Laruelle and non-philosophy (p. 42). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, the you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life (p. 4). New York: Hyperion.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2016a). Peel back the onion. http://www.mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-peel-back-the-onion. Retrieved April 18, 2016.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2016b). The healing power of mindfulness. http://tinyurl.com/god4wu6. Retrieved April 21, 2016.

Linkins, J. (2016, April 1). Donald Trump accidentally articulates GOP abortion stance a little too loudly. Huffington Post. http://tinyurl.com/zs5sfgf. Retrieved April 18, 2016.

Siegel, D. (2016). The healing power of mindfulness. http://tinyurl.com/god4wu6. Retrieved April 20, 2016.

Wallis, G. (2016). “Spectral discourse,” at the blog Speculative Non-Buddhism. http://tinyurl.com/hhsbjs5. Retrieved April 23, 2016.

Žižek, S. (2001). From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism. Cabinet Magazine. http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/2/western.php. Retrieved April 18, 2016.

Žižek, S., & Milbank, J. (2009). In C. Davis (Ed.), The monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or dialectic? (p. 27). Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Springer site for the book.

17 Responses to “Criticism Matters”

  1. You guys who challenge McMindfulness are fantastic and I applaud you and laugh with you. However, you eventually need to resolve your vexations with the very lowest rung of fundamental spiritual practice to begin real spiritual work.

  2. “His mindfulness produces such an overwhelming gush of “compassion” for his victims that he just can’t go on with the thug life.”

    I applaud you for including such a brilliant phrase in an academic text. Brilliant.

  3. Mal said

    I like the definition of the Mindfulness as a “new age spiritual fetish”, where, as a fetish, it is “that which enables you to (pretend to) accept reality ‘the way it is.’” But how do you respond to reality in a ‘real’ way, one that doesn’t involve pretence? Getting angry at, say, Trump’s abortion policy and then doing something, maybe going on a demonstration, or attacking it forums, seems more real than just being Mindful of the anger and letting it go. The latter approach just seems to be playing into Trump’s hands; potential opposition just taking themselves out of the important situation (providing direct opposition to Trump!)

  4. wtpepper said

    When will mindfulness finally go the way of EST and Gestalt therapy?

    I’m afraid you may be right that you will be accused of arguing against a straw man, though. It’s shocking that Repetti would offer such an obvious sophistical argument as the one you describe as his first objection. Of course the problem isn’t that Mindfulness fails to change the world—the problem is that it does, in poor ways. And of course it would be an argument against dentistry if it failed to change the world in the way it is intended to—if my dentist cannot really fix my teeth, I would certainly see this as a shortcoming, just as I would if my gardening failed to produce any vegetables. You say his background is philosophy, and he offers an argument like this? Perhaps we should find out where he studied, so people can avoid that school?

    Anyone with even a little background in philosophy ought to know that just about every term in his definition of mindfulness is quite problematic, from metacognitive and awareness all the way to attention and experience. To just pretend these are obvious terms, that we all know what they mean, and assert that we just have this capacity as unproblematically as the ability of our muscles to contract is…well, maybe he can get a refund on that philosophy degree?

    I’m afraid it does come off looking like the editors picked kind of a dim bulb to be the one defender of the faith in the book.

    I probably won’t read a book like this, and I’d be curious to see how effective it is. Most such books avoid the one thing that seems to me the most troubling: they don’t want to point out that mindfulness depends on convincing people to delude themselves that they are doing something that is in fact not possible. Of course we do this all the time. How many people are convinced that they have psychic powers? Or absolute free will? I’m reminded of a passage in Stephen Batchelor’s Confession of a Buddhist Atheist where the follower of some Tibetan Lama convince themselves that he has magically controlled the weather, even as it continues to rain.

    I know that Mindfulness is just one more attempt to keep the empiricist subject alive, after its illusions have been pointed out repeatedly for centuries: just add some religious-sounding terms, and do the same thing again, and now it would be too politically incorrect to criticize it. Even the critics in this book have (elsewhere) conceded that it does in fact “work,” and assume that in fact we can “live fully in the present moment.” I doubt they’ll point out here that it is just warmed over phenomenology, with all the same failings. As Derrida pointed out almost fifty years ago (in “Speech and Phenomenology”), this practice always was a kind of transcendental idealism, dependent on rhetorical sleight of hand to keep it going. Until we just come out and say this, we can’t make progress explaining why it is so popular. As you say, Glenn, it works to produce a neoliberal subject (it really does so, it really does change the world in this way); but if we don’t point out that the practice itself of mindfulness is an illusion, if we concede, as most of its critics do, that it really can be done, then this critique becomes ineffective.

    Fortunately, and despite the fortunes being made on it, it doesn’t really work all that often, and deludes far fewer people than its proponents seem to believe. I’d wager far more neoliberal subjects were produce by Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead or Hunger Games than will ever be produced by mindfulness. I’ve seen literally dozens of people go in for the mindful fad (jump on the mindful bandwagon?) over the past decade or so. They all still say “it works, it really did make my life better and relieve my stress etc.,” and when I ask them why they stopped practicing it after six months or so, they just shrug and say “yeah, I really should get back to that..” But they still watch TWD every Sunday night.

  5. Matthias Mauderer said

    Dear Glenn,

    you write:

    “The trait is an inability to distinguish between mindfulness as a curative fantasy cloned from the existing social formation and Mindfulness as an ideological strategy for engaging the existing social formation.”

    I somehow can’t get the difference between the mindfulness (small m) and the Mindfulness (capital M) you mention above. Do you mean with mindfulness (small m) the “mental capacity for ‘being conscious that one is aware of what one is experiencing’? If yes why do you call it a fantasy?

    Thanks in advance for clarifying my confusion.

  6. Geoff said

    I like this piece from the UK Guardian……good to see there is still some scepticism about……

    “One of the few pieces of good news is that mindfulness can apparently drive you mad.

    It’s the relaxation technique of choice, popular with employers and even the NHS. But some have found it can have unexpected effects”

    https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jan/23/is-mindfulness-making-us-ill

  7. Hi Matthias (#5). The fantasy is that possessing this cognitive ability (however it is defined) produces a cure. It does, of course, produce something, and maybe even something like a cure, but only so in relation to an ideology, namely Mindfulness, for which that particular “cure” is indeed salutary. Zizek’s argument, for instance, is that Mindfulness and mindfulness do in fact “work” precisely to the degree that they disable other kinds of “working,” like resistance to the current status quo. Similarly, Mindfulness and mindfulness can be considered cures precisely to the degree that they disable other kinds of health, like emotional abandon or whatever else is left out of the Mindfulness Inventory of Permissible States.

  8. Hi Glenn (#6). So woud you deny any curative effect from mindfulness or is your critique rather aimed at the sole salutary status mindfulness gets in the Mindfulness ideology? Would you say that there simply are no curative effects found in mindfulness but these are rather hallucinated by Mindfulness ideology?

    If we define mindulness as ‘the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something’, I think this is helpful in many situations. So I think the problem is that the Mindulfness ideology does not acknowledge that there are other cures or important factors outside the mindfulness cure.

  9. Matthias Mauderer said

    #6: In relation to my point in #7, with the ‘something like a cure’ do you mean ‘the neoliberal subject which acts according to the status quo’? This would make sense to me. But it depends on how we define mindfulness. If we define it as a kind of non-judgemental awareness which helps us to accept everything as it is, then the cure indeed is rather for the benefit of neoliberalism than for the practicioner herself.

  10. wtpepper said

    Matthias–I’m interested as well in Glenn’s response to this, as it seems important to sorting out the rhetorical strategies used in promoting Mindfulness.

    For my own clarification, though (so I can follow the discussion) I wonder if you can clarify for me your suggested definition of mindfulness? It seems to me that shifting the definition of the term is the most common strategy for defending the practice. When someone explains why non-conceptual perception of the present moment is just not a possibility, the response is usually something like “Clearly this critic if foolish enough to believe that no human being has ever been conscious, or noticed something, so we can dismiss her,” and then the discussion of how to achieve thought-free bliss resumes, as if it has been proven that it is possible.

    So, when you suggest that “being aware of something” might be a definition of mindfulness, what exactly do you mean by this? That is, what might be an example of this? It is the case that in the ordinary use of the word mindful from a hundred years ago, it would have meant to be aware of something in the sense of having concepts in the mind of the causes and potential effects of a particular action. So, just the other day I encountered the word in a novel from 1901, where a character was “mindful” of the possible emotional effect on another of a particular response she might make to a question, and so remained silent. This meaning of “mindful” certainly is not limited to the present moment, and is completely conceptual. If we say, “it is all a matter of how you define the term,” well, this is true. But it is important not to offer one definition as proof that a completely different definition is an actual thing in the world. We wouldn’t say, for instance, that unicorns are imaginary creatures, imagination is a real thing, therefore there really are unicorns in the world.

    Sure, it is good to “be aware of something,” but it is also too obvious a claim, too vague, to be of much use. Can you give an example that might narrow down what your definition of mindfulness might be?

  11. Matthias Mauderer said

    Dear Tom (#9). I would define it, inspired from your response above, as ‘being aware of concepts’. Conceptualizing is what our brains do – that’s our destination. For sure I don’t know if my definition is an actual thing in the world. I don’t dismiss the view that mindfulness is ‘non-conceptual perception of the present moment’ to proof that ‘being aware of concepts’ is the truth. I try to be thrilled by eartquakes which shake up and loosen my fixed ontological and epistemological commitments. Inspired by Nabokov, I would say that reality is the one word which makes sense only when written in quotation marks.

  12. wtpepper said

    Re#10: Okay, but can you give a concrete example? What would “being aware of a concept” look like in real life? What concept? What is the content of the awareness (i.e., is it not another concept)? What exactly is it that is “aware”?

  13. Matthias Mauderer said

    Tom (#11). A concept would be for example the concept of a first-person-perspective we construe from our experience. How it is possible to be aware of a concept defies any concrete explanation, at least for me. From my very limited perspective, I would say it is a somehow generated first-person-perspective (a concept) which is aware of other concepts. This is how it feels in my experience. There are a vast number of explanations concerning this (global workspace theory etc. pp) and I think there is no satisfying explanation yet, and maybe we will never achieve such an explanation. Is there some thing like a self? I think this is an open question. I will look up your thoughts on the topic, like here for example.

  14. Jonathan E. said

    Hi Tom, when you say in 4. that most books “don’t want to point out that mindfulness depends on convincing people to delude themselves that they are doing something that is in fact not possible,” what do you mean? As Glenn says, the definition for “mindfulness” frequently shifts. I assume you mean that the “non-conceptual perception of the present moment is just not a possibility.” Would you be able to elaborate on that more please? I don’t have a definition of mindfulness, but [resume talk of thought-free bliss] from my experience I know something definitely happens when I intentionally focus my attention on an object, rather than continuing on auto-pilot and following all of my impulses. But I guess that’s not what you are critiquing, just the idea of the present moment being thought-free.

  15. Craig said

    12

    The way I see it is that it is basically impossible to be totally ‘mindful’ while cutting carrots. Again, we are back at ‘what does that mean?’. There’s just no way to stop thoughts and physical reactions. Also, ‘who’ is cutting the carrots? If we take anatman at full strength then there is no such thing as a person(what is that?) perceiving non conceptually. There’s no way to perceive (what is that?) something outside an ideological framework. So nothing is non conceptual.

    I still struggle with explaining how mindfulness is used in this capitalist society to quiet any sort of thinking or action. This may be too primitive, but if there is suffering going on sitting still and attempting some impossible activity is not the way to address it. No?

    Just my thoughts. No thought-free-ness on my end.

  16. Yael said

    Hi Glenn,

    I am currently in the process of trying to write a coherent MA thesis on the role of mindfulness in child and youth care work. As a self-confessed ‘born-again’ mindfulness practitioner (and ‘practitioner’ can be interpreted in many ways, including cynically, as I suspect some readers will – though to me it merely means ‘someone who makes an effort to live life in a way that is not a series of knee jerk reactions’) who also considers herself a critical thinker, I have gone through a process of engaging with the various McMindfulness critiques. Admittedly, I was initially inclined to throw out the baby with the usually incredibly disparaging bathwater. Most of the academic mud-slinging literature I found did little to provide me with enough substance to critically examine my own understandings and assumptions. What assisted me to open up to the criticism was Forbes’s article on modes of mindfulness, where a framework for this criticism is offered in a way that is intelligible for more ‘regular folks’ like myself.

    I just finished reading Repetti’s chapter and your critique, and simply wanted to share with you that my heart sank as I made my way through your words. I could agree with you on some points (e.g. Repetti’s repetitiveness), and I don’t think his chapter met the challenge he set forth for himself in the best of ways. But your response was, in my eyes, highly reactionary and unnecessarily belligerent. And don’t get me wrong, I come from the Middle East. I am not of the kumbaya type who believes if we just all sit together for long enough and try to appreciate each other all our differences will melt away. I like engaging in a good discussion. But this wasn’t one. It was a conveniently oversimplified tit-for-tat that saw no use in looking for much of any common ground. In other words, it was mostly a dismissive middle finger crafted to read like an academic rebuttal. While you are by far not the only academic engaging in this kind of writing (which always reminds me of British Parliament sessions, and not in any positive way), I thought I’d take this opportunity, as I semi-mindfully procrastinate my own writing, to let you know how unhelpful I found your piece as I engage in an honest effort to better understand the various viewpoints on mindfulness and Mindfulness. I consider myself to be reasonably intelligent and far from naive, and can elbow my way through verbose papers rather unscathed. So this is not a matter of not being able to get to the bottom of what you were trying to say. I got it. It just left me over saturated with reactionary cynicism of what you believe not to be true, and still hungry for a better understanding of what it is your worldview supports with regards to both mindfulness and Mindfulness. I hope to come across something more substantial in that respect as I continue in a sincere and less ego-driven effort (yes, I went there) to understand the big picture in a wholesome way, holes and all (yes, I went there too). I am not looking to one-up anyone, academically or otherwise, I just want to engage in thoughtful and dignified critical reasoning on a matter that is important to me. If you have any literature recommendations to that end, I’d be grateful for your thoughts.

    Kind regards,
    Yael

  17. Yael (#16). Speaking of British Parliament sessions, don’t you think it would more productive to offer a concrete example of what you find “highly reactionary and unnecessarily belligerent”? Otherwise, I don’t know what to respond to. (Hence, for instance parliament rules III.9: Know the meaning of the question being debated; III.23: Make a point concisely; III.24 Attack issues, not people, etc. etc.) About literature recommendations, I suggest Emil Cioran. He’s good tonic for a “self-confessed ‘born-again’ mindfulness practitioner.” As far as “thoughtful and dignified critical reasoning” on mindfulness, you’ve wandered into the right place! You’ll find extraordinarily thoughtful materials born of profound dignity and compassion. (Not meant sarcastically.)

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