Mindfulness, Yet Again

Last Monday, Tricycle’s “Daily Dharma,” an email offering inspiring quotations from the magazine’s essays, contained a passage from the essay “What’s So Great About Now?” which takes a critical stance toward the popular practice of mindfulness meditation. A reader of this blog sent me a copy of the essay suggesting that I would like it, as it seemed to him to confirm my own criticism of mindfulness.

I thought I’d take a little time to respond this essay, for two reasons. First, the critique of mindfulness in this essay is absolutely not something I would agree with, and what better way to waste a rainy afternoon than one more futile attempt to clarify my own position? Second, the most common complaint I’ve heard since the first essay I ever wrote on SNB (other than that I am an obnoxious jerk, of course) is that I offer only criticism, and don’t produce a positive alternative practice; so I would like to use this essay to try, one more time (and probably, again, futilely) to explain how critique is in fact the positive practice we need to engage in every day.

In “What’s So Great About Now?”, Cynthia Thatcher argues that the common understanding that we will be happier if we just stay in the present moment is a serious error:

“The current myth among some meditation circles is that the more mindful we are, the more beauty we’ll perceive in mundane objects. To the mind with bare attention, even the suds in the dishpan—as their bubbles wink in the light—are windows on divine radiance. That’s the myth.”

Her argument is that the goal of mindfulness ought to be almost the exact opposite: to recognize how unsatisfactory absolutely every “sense-object” is, so that we might “lose all desire for them.”

It might seem, because Thatcher is critical of mindfulness, that I would agree with her Continue reading “Mindfulness, Yet Again”

Criticism Matters

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: Continue reading “Criticism Matters”

Notes Towards a Coming Backlash


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 ->

Comfort-Food Buddhism

Vague Platitudes to Avoid Life’s Hard Questions: Thich Nhat Hanh’s Comfort-Food Buddhism

by Tom Pepper

My first experience with the “mindfulness” craze was in psychology class.  Nobody seemed very clear on what mindfulness meant, but they were all sure it was a “Buddhist concept.”  It seemed harmless, if not at all helpful, so I ignored it.  Until they showed us the educational dvd on mindfulness, which I believe came from the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA.

In this video, a well-meaning psychologist spoke earnestly of how mindfully living “in the moment” would cure everything from ADHD to post-traumatic stress to addictions.  When she got to the description of how we should learn to ignore everything but our sensory experiences, I thought, well, she just doesn’t know much about the history of psychology, or she would be aware that such practices have been tried, and nobody can EVER do that.  Not even for a moment.  And she doesn’t know much about Buddhism, or she would know that such “bare awareness” is not at all what the Buddha meant by sati.  Then, she began to describe how one could mindfully walk to the guillotine to be executed, and I laughed so hard I had to leave the room.

I didn’t think much of the new fad of mindful-everything, and figured it was harmless, and irrelevant to Buddhism.  I didn’t think any Buddhists were so mistaken about the concept.

Then, I read Thich Nhat Hanh. I discovered that this concept really is coming from a Buddhist, and it became much more troubling to me.  I had never read Thich Nhat Hanh until about four years ago, when a study group in my sangha decided to read his Answers from the Heart.  I wasn’t much interested in the kind of night-stand Buddhism that is usually found in the books on the shelves at Barnes and Noble.  These books seemed mostly interested in making a quick buck off of the American middle-class readers who just want to feel better about themselves without too much effort, and like to think they are more open minded and spiritually advanced than average.  I pretty much dismissed Thich Nhat Hanh without reading him.

I sometimes wish I had left it at that. Continue reading “Comfort-Food Buddhism”

Mindful Lobotomy

Obedience to normalcy
is what lobotomies are for.

Someone sent me a link to Tricycle magazine’s “Daily Dharma” for February 3-10. My first response, when I get such links from the Buddhist glossies is to hit delete. Ready for some procrastination, though, I read this one.  The advice distilled in this “Wisdom Collection” confirmed a growing suspicion of mine:   meditation/mindfulness in present-day North America is hardly distinguishable from lobotomy.

Consider this. Among the “good results” of a prefrontal lobotomy are calming of obsessive-compulsive states; reduction of chronic anxiety; lessening of recursive introspection; amelioration of affective disorders; reduction of  feelings of inadequacy and self-consciousness; reduction of emotional tension. Sound familiar? Most significantly—Kabot-Zinnites take note!— prefrontal lobotomy

has also been used successfully to control pain secondary to organic lesions. In this case, the tendency has been to employ unilateral lobotomy, because of the evidence that a lobotomy extensive enough to reduce psychotic symptoms is not required to control pain. (My source for all of this is Leland E. Hinsie and Robert Jean Campbell [1970]. Psychiatric Dictionary. Fourth Edition. Oxford University Press.).

I am not saying that meditation has similar effects as a lobotomy. How could I? Pardon the pun, but “meditation” is nowhere near as cut and dry as “lobotomy.”  My point is that the contemporary western rhetoric of meditation/mindfulness suggests a similarity. In case you think my comparison of the two is overly cute (as opposed to merely cute), here are some pearls of wisdom from Tricycle’s “Daily Dharma.”

In “Finding Sense in Sensation,”  S. N. Goenka recommends that we attend to the “arising and passing” of sensation. Why? Well, precisely not to feel life more acutely; precisely not to be more alive to the rich, intricate textures of human existence. No. The “sense in sensation” is to “understand its flux,” in order to  “learn not to react to it.” Fuck that is my reaction. Continue reading “Mindful Lobotomy”

Elixir of Mindfulness

The mighty “Mindfulness” juggernaut continues to roll joyously throughout the wounded world of late-capitalism. And why shouldn’t it? The Mindfulness Industry is claiming territory once held by the great occupying force of assorted self-help gurus, shrinks, health care workers, hypnotists, preachers, Theosophists, the church, the synagogue, actual gurus, yogis, meditation teachers, and even—gasp!— Buddhists themselves.  Who, after all, can compete with an industry that claims to offer a veritable fountain of bounty, an elixir to life’s ills? According to the new website mindful.org (links provided at end of post) “a dose of mindfulness (or a very large helping) can enhance your joy and appreciation of everyday life—and help you to deal with some of life’s toughest challenges when they arise.”

“Mindfulness” can, apparently, be applied to virtually any activity whatsoever, thereby enhancing that activity’s compass of well-being. According to the site, mindfulness, for instance, significantly impacts activities as dissimilar as caregiving, dying and death, sex, parenting, healing and health, navigating intimate relationships, consumerism, finances, cooking, eating, entrepreneurship, creativity, sports, activism, education, protecting the environment, working with prisoners, and much, much more.

How, you ask, can mindfulness accomplish so much? Continue reading “Elixir of Mindfulness”