McMindfulness: capitalism's co-option of mindfulness meditation
June 30, 2019 12:55 PM   Subscribe

The mindfulness conspiracy. "It is sold as a force that can help us cope with the ravages of capitalism, but with its inward focus, mindful meditation may be the enemy of activism." This is an excellent piece by Ronald Purser (@McMindfulness, previously) on the co-option and commodification of mindfulness meditation. It's adapted from his book, McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. [Via @RubaAlHassani]
All the promises of mindfulness resonate with what the University of Chicago cultural theorist Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism”, a defining neoliberal characteristic. It is cruel in that one makes affective investments in what amount to fantasies. We are told that if we practice mindfulness, and get our individual lives in order, we can be happy and secure. It is therefore implied that stable employment, home ownership, social mobility, career success and equality will naturally follow. We are also promised that we can gain self-mastery, controlling our minds and emotions so we can thrive and flourish amid the vagaries of capitalism.As Joshua Eisen, the author of Mindful Calculations, puts it: “Like kale, acai berries, gym memberships, vitamin water, and other new year’s resolutions, mindfulness indexes a profound desire to change, but one premised on a fundamental reassertion of neoliberal fantasies of self-control and unfettered agency.” We just have to sit in silence, watching our breath, and wait. It is doubly cruel because these normative fantasies of the “good life” are already crumbling under neoliberalism, and we make it worse if we focus individually on our feelings. Neglecting shared vulnerabilities and interdependence, we disimagine the collective ways we might protect ourselves. And despite the emptiness of nurturing fantasies, we continue to cling to them.

Mindfulness isn’t cruel in and of itself. It’s only cruel when fetishised and attached to inflated promises. It is then, as Berlant points out, that “the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially”. The cruelty lies in supporting the status quo while using the language of transformation. This is how neoliberal mindfulness promotes an individualistic vision of human flourishing, enticing us to accept things as they are, mindfully enduring the ravages of capitalism.
Vice interview with Purser: Mindfulness Is a Capitalist Scam

Here's a similar piece by David Forbes, author of Mindfulness and Its Discontents: Education, Self, and Social Transformation: How capitalism captured the mindfulness industry: The secular technique and its relativist lack of a moral foundation has opened itself up to a host of dubious uses, called out by its critics as McMindfulness
The technical, neutral definition of mindfulness and its relativist lack of a moral foundation has opened up secular mindfulness to a host of dubious uses, now called out by its critics as McMindfulness. McMindfulness occurs when mindfulness is used, with intention or unwittingly, for self-serving and ego-enhancing purposes that run counter to both Buddhist and Abrahamic prophetic teachings to let go of ego-attachment and enact skillful compassion for everyone.

McMindfulness aims to reduce the stress of the private individual and does not admit to any interest in the social causes of stress.

Instead of letting go of the ego, McMindfulness promotes self-aggrandizement; its therapeutic function is to comfort, numb, adjust and accommodate the self within a neoliberal, corporatized, militarized, individualistic society based on private gain.
Interview with Forbes by Sean Illing*: Mindfulness meditation in America has a capitalism problem

Together Purser and Forbes run The Mindful Cranks (@MindfulCrank) website, publications and podcasts**.

Here's a related piece by Emily Reynolds (@rey_z): Why we’re made to feel guilty for work stress: Capitalism has co-opted “being present” so we ignore that it’s actually the structure of work that’s affecting our wellbeing.
But like feminism before it, which morphed from radical political struggle to bland eulogising about “empowerment”, mindfulness is on the cusp of becoming yet another corporate tool. Just as Girl Boss feminism ignored race, class and more in favour of Lean In style individualism, corporate mindfulness refuses its truly radical roots, instructing us to keep blaming ourselves for our lack of presence and calm. But if we look at the world around us, instead of the one inside, we might come closer to understanding where the root of our unhappiness lies.

Here are some responses to Purser's piece:

A piece by Adrian J Ivakhiv (featuring A.N. Whitehead & C.S. Peirce): (Mc)Mindfulness?
None of this is a new argument — it’s been made repeatedly by scholars of religion, including Buddhists (Purser among them), as well as by social critics like Slavoj Zizek. But I want to consider it further, if only because I dedicate one third of Shadowing the Anthropocene to introducing a complete system of mindfulness practice. How does that form of mindfulness — or bodymindfulness, as Shadowing calls it — differ from the “McMindfulness” Purser and others criticize? I’ll try to explain that here.

Here are a Twitter thread and an older article by Buddhist Geeks co-founder Vince Horn (@VincentHorn): I think the downside of this critique is that it stops at critique. It’s deconstructive without offering anything in place of the smoldering ruins it’s aiming for. This is the downside of what Ken Wilber has called the Post-Modern Pluralistic Cultural Meme...

The Second Generation of Mindfulness: As with every general hype cycle we’ve sped past “peak mindfulness” and are well into the trough of disillusionment. As we exit the trough be prepared to see 2nd generation iterations of mindfulness emerge.
And while many people have yet to Yo-Yo through the peak & trough of mindfulness it’s interesting to note that for those of us who have become disillusioned with mindfulness already, many of us are starting to reimagine mindfulness as an imperfect tradition which can incorporate its criticisms and evolve in response to the most valid points. We are The Second Generation of Mindfulness, slowly climbing the slope of enlightenment. We aren’t close to there yet, but it’s good not to be at rock bottom anymore!


I also expect that this second generation of mindfulness will continue to remain unbundled and remixable, but that the people remixing it — especially in a Post-Truth-Trump era — will increasingly focus on the underlying ethics of its application. While mindfulness can be easily adapted to many different ethical frameworks, how it’s taught and where it’s taught is still very much being driven by the ethical actions of its proponents.

Here are a couple of older pieces which compliment the ones above:

Marisela B Gomez: Spiritual Bypass Bypasses Justice: Can We Make Buddhist Communities More Authentic?
In the 1980s, Dr. John Welwood coined the phrase “spiritual bypass,” to reflect the way many in Buddhist communities use spiritual practices to avoid unresolved emotional issues and psychological wounds as they attempt to wash everything with a happiness lens. I recognize it as a trait shared by many in Buddhist and other religions as “ ... we try to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it.”


Our places of spiritual practice are rich soil for social justice work. They do not have to be an opiate that simply bypasses suffering but can, instead, play an important role in transforming injustice. But this can happen only if we all practice authentically with reality as it is- which requires that we acknowledge and understand our role in perpetuating a white supremacist system that validates the experiences of white people and invalidates the experiences of people of color. This more authentic path of mindfulness seeks a happiness that does not harm and does not exclude. It’s a truly transcendent path to happiness and justice.
Daniel M. Choi (@dmh_choi): Radical Mindfulness
At its core, Buddhism houses a radical social critique. The Buddha’s denial of a stable self also applies to the artificial distinction between the self and other sentient beings. Any harm done to another sentient being is harm done to the self. If our goal is to end our suffering, then we must act to end the suffering of other sentient beings. The Buddhist path thus becomes a practice of strict ethical conduct.

Regardless of lineage or tradition, all Buddhist teachers would all agree that meditation practice is meaningless without a strong adherence to moral precepts. This ethical imperative stands in stark opposition to modern image of a solipsistic practitioner who engages in meditation as a form of “self-care.” Mindfulness not only melts away the self; it demands engagement with the broader world.

The social mission at the roots of mindfulness also demands a practice located in community. While Zen has come to connote solitude and refuge from the rigors of modern life, it is not actually practiced alone, but in a Zendo, alongside fellow practitioners. Japanese, Burmese, or Tibetan, Buddhist monks meditate as a group in their monasteries.

By reintroducing the social dimension at the heart of Buddhism, we come to realize that mindfulness is not about simply passively being present, but about making active choices. As mindfulness moves beyond its Buddhist past, its practitioners need to ask, “About what are we mindful?” The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh puts it another way: “Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?”

*Sean Illing (@seanilling, previously): How meditation and psychedelic drugs could fix tribalism. Yes, seriously.

**Here's the latest Mindful Cranks podcast: Episode 17 - David Loy - EcoDharma
In this episode, we discuss David Loy’s latest book, ECODHARMA: Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis, available from Wisdom Publications. EcoDharma is a landmark work that is simultaneously a manifesto, a blueprint, a call to action, and a deep comfort for troubling times. David masterfully lays out the principles and perspectives of Ecodharma—a Buddhist response to our ecological predicament, introducing a new term for a new development of the Buddhist tradition. Our conversation explores why both Western Buddhism and the modern mindfulness movement have given little serious attention to the ecocrisis. Even socially-engaged Buddhism has operated primarily in terms of a one-on-one “service” model. David comments, “Buddhists have become much better at pulling drowning people out of the river, but-and here’s the problem – we aren’t much better at asking why there are so many people drowning.” Our dialogue ventures into tracing seedlings of social-engagement by the Buddha, the radical expression of the sangha as counter-cultural force, and other related strands of thought. EcoDharma is not afraid to take a moral stand and is not afraid to act. In fact, it demands it.
Loy coauthored the 2013 piece Beyond McMindfulness with Purser, which gets referenced a lot of these pieces and was one of the links in this previous post and its primary link: Deconstructing Mindfulness: Embracing a Complex Simplicity
posted by homunculus (59 comments total) 116 users marked this as a favorite
Another issue with the mindfulness trend is how it's often misused/abused in medicine:

Prescribing Mindfulness Allows Doctors to Ignore Legitimate Female Pain: This trend offloads the responsibility of care from the medical system to the woman. And its efficacy is questionable at best.
The reality, I now know thanks to years of being denied medical care and instead being prescribed mindfulness as self-management, is quite different. For me, the current obsession with mindfulness has become synonymous with my overall feelings of disempowerment within the medical system. In my experience, in clinical settings, mindfulness is frequently disempowerment framed as empowerment, a way of placing responsibility for suffering squarely on the patient herself and a way for doctors to wash their hands of problem patients.
posted by homunculus at 1:01 PM on June 30, 2019 [36 favorites]

I mean....I can see the argument they're making. However, I feel like this is a case where the enemy is conveniently bringing the tools of its own destruction:

* "Mindfullness" encourages you to be in the moment and see things as they honestly are.

* The more people are encouraged to look at things as they actually are, the more people might notice that "the way things actually are" is really kinda fucked up.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:01 PM on June 30, 2019 [34 favorites]

Mindfullness' malleability is both a great strength and great weakness.
posted by ZeusHumms at 1:21 PM on June 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

I suppose someone was going to have to write this book because the blowback was inevitable. I’m interested to dive in, but I feel like I can predict the general shape of the argument: “you thought this was good -and maybe it sometimes is- but now it’s being used for bad, and the status quo is being enforced and everything is worse.”
posted by Going To Maine at 1:23 PM on June 30, 2019 [10 favorites]

* The more people are encouraged to look at things as they actually are, the more people might notice that "the way things actually are" is really kinda fucked up.
Maybe, but the corporate mindfulness class that I took also stressed that you weren't supposed to judge the things you noticed. You were merely supposed to notice them, but not attach value to them. So you can notice that your employer offered to pay for this mindfulness class because your job is getting more stressful and nobody with power is willing to make any effort to make it less stressful. But you aren't supposed to say whether that's good or bad. It just is! Judgment is a barrier to acceptance!

I dunno. I think I got something out of the employer-sponsored mindfulness class that I took, but I truly see where the critique is coming from.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:25 PM on June 30, 2019 [43 favorites]

Maybe if those CEOs focused on ridding themselves of the Gaining Mind and identifying Clnging and Aversion within themselves, we might get somewhere....
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:32 PM on June 30, 2019 [8 favorites]

Maybe, but the corporate mindfulness class that I took also stressed that you weren't supposed to judge the things you noticed. You were merely supposed to notice them, but not attach value to them.

Humans also pften have a pretty highly-developed "hey that's not fair" instinct, which can only be suppressed for so long, I find.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:37 PM on June 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

But you aren't supposed to say whether that's good or bad. It just is! Judgment is a barrier to acceptance!

Very true, Socrates!
posted by thelonius at 1:53 PM on June 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

Mindfulness-based CBT is like this too. My current therapist gets the job done, but the entire approach basically immunizes itself to critique. It has a quality of a hidden authoritarianism. Mindfulness is a euphemism for don't try to actually think about sociology and politics.
posted by polymodus at 2:01 PM on June 30, 2019 [23 favorites]

This seems like basically another variation on the realization that, in a very real sense, “religion is the opiate of the masses.”

Spirituality, like mindfulness, is a means to connect with deeper truths about oneself and society, with an eye toward greater peace and self-actualization. Which, in turn, may lead to activism as oppressive systems are seen for what they are.

But spirituality and it’s trappings are often used by the powerful to suppress, pacify, placate, and sublimate the individual’s interests in liberty, when those interests run counter to the rich and powerful’s interests in gaining and maintaining wealth and power.
posted by darkstar at 2:02 PM on June 30, 2019 [27 favorites]

Capitalism will always try to make a buck off thing X anytime there is a buck to be made off thing X. Thing X could be fancy yachts, the gospel of Christ, weapons of war, feminism, schoolchildren, or bear bile - capitalism will try to make a buck off it.
posted by splitpeasoup at 2:08 PM on June 30, 2019 [9 favorites]

* The more people are encouraged to look at things as they actually are, the more people might notice that "the way things actually are" is really kinda fucked up.

You might be surprised by the number of MRAs/ PUAs/other male supremacists who are really into mindfulness meditation and still don't see anything wrong with misogyny

And I's not like buddhist monks have never committed war crimes? And Buddhist communities themselves have a pretty bad sexism problem.

Mindfulness meditation doesn't really override pre-existing beliefs unless it comes with new ones.
posted by schadenfrau at 2:56 PM on June 30, 2019 [37 favorites]

I think it's fine to think critically about mindfulness just like everything else but to just throw it away because it's been misused seems like throwing the baby out with the bath water. If we cancelled every good invention that's ever been appropriated by bad actors there would be nothing left. Hunting and gathering is what led to agriculture so we'd have to throw that away too. No more fire, no more language, no more anything.
posted by bleep at 3:25 PM on June 30, 2019 [12 favorites]

It's probably worth remarking that "McMindfulness" was coined by a Buddhist teacher, and that the totality implied by the grauniad's headline is itself a sell, and provides a good open-ended use for airing all greivances about the method.

I'm somewhere in the middle of a book by cartoonist Ellen Forney about her tools for dealing with her bipolar disorder. One of them is mindfulness, and that's fine, because it helps her. And in the article, mindfulness is fine. Not every practice in your life needs to be a constant struggle session with capitalism for it to be good, and at the same time capitalism will interact with many things to use them for capitalist ends. Including making newspapers run clickbait headlines because they want your eyeballs.
posted by Going To Maine at 3:38 PM on June 30, 2019 [8 favorites]

But that's the exact premise of mindfulness that it seeks to make itself immune to inquiry: the framing that mindfulness is a neutral technologism. By critique, we're not nerely talking about lay people airing such thoughts and speculations about mindfulness; we're implicitly referring to a body of interdisciplinary, scholarly literature laying out precise criticisms and challenges to this popularized approach to counseling, consulting, self-help, and therapy. And one serious line of critical examination is the ways in which neutrality is used to obscure power and political inequalities.
posted by polymodus at 3:40 PM on June 30, 2019 [15 favorites]

Sure, but I would say that "actually, seemingly neutral thing has bad aspects" is at this point banal unless you can get beyond "capitalism can sell it to you and use it to insulate itself". Capitalism can sell anything, including anti-capitalism.
posted by Going To Maine at 3:47 PM on June 30, 2019 [8 favorites]

Various sorts of sitting are inner exercises, which have value in the same way that physical exercise does. How it pans out for an individual person is really up to them, just like weight training or jogging. None of them are magic bullets, but a daily practice in vipassana (mindfulness - allow your perceptions and thoughts to come to you without attachment or judgement) or zazen (for example - concentration, focusing on a point, like where your breath enters your nose) or metta (a practice that involves one's relationship to one's emotions that I'm really, really not qualified to describe, as opposed to the others, which I'm just really not qualified to describe) or a mantra meditation (best known example being Transcendental Meditation, but you could get someone who know how to describe it to you in five minutes, and as long as you do it twice a day for twenty minutes, it might work for you) can be very helpful. The exercise comes in restraining your attention to the specific object of attention, and different objects of attention exercise the mind in different ways - focusing the attention on a single point, and relaxing it so that it takes in everything without attachment are, I'd have thought, self-evidently different practises.

I find this obsession with "taking down" meditation to be very odd. There is a mind, it can be exercised, this is how you exercise it. Do it or not, it's really up to you.
posted by Grangousier at 3:49 PM on June 30, 2019 [28 favorites]

This. Most people aren't designed to exist in a world with 7.5 billion people. Most people aren't designed to live in a world with one either.
posted by es_de_bah at 4:11 PM on June 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

I find this obsession with "taking down" meditation to be very odd.

So here’s why I can be a little anti-meditation. My whole life I was told all my problems could be fixed if I could just meditate. Turns out I am incapable. So those same people were basically saying: “your problems are your fault”. If I had a dollar for every time a doctor or a psychiatrist told me the solution to my real medical issues was meditation or mindfulness... I’d have some good amount of dollars. I was seriously told by a doctor that meditation would help my period pain. Guess what? Endometriosis can’t be cured by meditation. I’m sure some of the meditation pushers have good intentions but I’m real sick of it.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 4:42 PM on June 30, 2019 [30 favorites]

When I went to my university's Faculty and Staff Counseling Office to seek help for sexual assault-related nightmares and such before going to the field most recently, they suggested I get the app "Headspace" to practice mindfulness, and, well, that was the extent of the support they were able to offer me. And it wasn't even them offering it to me organically - they have a contract with Headspace. I'm sure mindfulness is a useful thing, but I resented having my actual mental health concern shunted onto an actually unrelated to my issues app.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:46 PM on June 30, 2019 [55 favorites]

It's an interesting question, because it comes down to an individual's response to "mindfulness," which is a function of how s/he defines what that even is. You're basically talking about spiritual belief, which is a significant chunk of human intellectual output, comprising entire schools of thought in many cultures, on back through history. In short, it's complex and complicated.

Some people could define mindfulness as "calm down, all is well," while others could define it as "now I see the reality, and the plutocracy must be destroyed." Those are pretty disparate positions, but both equally plausible, depending on the person.
posted by zardoz at 4:49 PM on June 30, 2019 [8 favorites]

As if anything is this world hasn't been co-opted by capitalism. It is 100% captured.

Ok, ok, there are nooks and crannies. You can go take a silent 10 day retreat for free, and there will be no profit motive behind it. You can do a guided meditation on youtube for free, and at worst it will be sponsored by someone. Or you can just sit and observe your breath, ultimately it's your own journey and teachers are mostly there for support and to build confidence, because meditation is one of the simplest things a person can do, it's a person's experience of themselves that can be confusing and scary.

For profit journalism isn't interested in interrogating the world outside of the lens of capitalism either - whenever they do an article on meditation they always get a quote from fucking google's wellness director or some adjacent person, it's never someone at the local mediation center, which is never more than 10 miles away if you're in a city over 100k people.
posted by MillMan at 5:02 PM on June 30, 2019 [7 favorites]

I don't think that they're objecting to mindfulness in general. I think that McMindfulness is fairly specific: it sounds like they may be talking specifically about the program created by Jon Kabat-Zinn, which is heavily marketed to workplaces, educational institutions, and what have you. I attended one of these workshops as part of a workplace wellness program. Every year I take an online health assessment, and one year my health assessment tagged me as having an issue with stress. I was offered the opportunity to take this workshop, which is taught by a therapist who trained at Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness Center at the University of Massachusetts. I have mixed feelings about it: I got some useful things from it, and I don't regret doing it. But it is also true that my workplace identified me as having an issue with work stress, and instead of intervening to make my work life less stressful, they offered me access to a program that aimed to help me deal more skillfully with stress. It completely internalized my problem and put the burden for dealing with it on me. And it is also true that this program is a product that is heavily marketed, and you can ask a lot of questions about what it means when a spiritual practice is coopted and marketed for purposes that include helping people cope with, but not remove, work-related stress.

I think that Kabat-Zinn originally developed MBSR to help people who were dealing with serious, sometimes terminal illnesses, and you could argue that it's much less objectionable when it's offered to people whose problems really might not be resolvable. But it has definitely become intertwined with the world of workplace wellness, and in that instance I think it really is pretty problematic.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:03 PM on June 30, 2019 [53 favorites]

When I went to my university's Faculty and Staff Counseling Office to seek help for sexual assault-related nightmares and such before going to the field most recently, they suggested I get the app "Headspace" to practice mindfulness

Fucking WOW. Oh. Oh man. That makes me very stabby, and I’m very sorry it happened.

From what I can tell, Western mindfulness people are only just starting to formalize an awareness that meditation can also fuck people up, sometimes in very specific ways. “Spiritual bypass,” yes, but deepening dissociation is also a risk, amongst others. Trauma-informed mindfulness is becoming a thing, but last time I looked there wasn’t a lot of depth to it yet. I know there are researchers looking into it.

But that is all to say: meditation is often thrown around really irresponsibly, and not just by the MBSR crowd (although yeah that whole program is...I was not super impressed, and it varies by instructor). People talk about doing meditation “wrong” for 20 years or whatever, and there are definitely people who have been harmed by it.

It’s not a benign thing. And in some situations it’s actively harmful. Like with everything, I guess, the quality of the instruction makes a big difference. And an app can’t really coach you through a flashback.
posted by schadenfrau at 5:15 PM on June 30, 2019 [14 favorites]

It’s almost as if a “spiritual technology,” designed to be part of an entire system of belief, teaching, and practice, can’t be abstracted and separated into easily-marketed pieces, without leaving sharp edges for the unwary.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:36 PM on June 30, 2019 [28 favorites]

I acknowledge that my meditation practice is being co-opted.

I recognise the source of the thought and place it to the side.

I clear my mind of thoughts, and breath.

Inhale 1-2-3-4...
posted by humboldt32 at 5:43 PM on June 30, 2019 [9 favorites]

A lot of entities would love for humans to be unmindful. They want to make our decisions for us, rule us with dogma, rule us with politico-dogma, save money, drug us for run amok feeling bodies, whatever.

Mindfulness serves social justice by helping busy people cope, and fit social justice into their lives, and have heart left for it. I hope mindfulness training out paces conversions to evangelical religion, or any other for that matter.

Ohhh-watch out, that person is mindful, oh no!
posted by Oyéah at 5:45 PM on June 30, 2019 [9 favorites]

The toothless mindfulness stuff they do at my workplace seems like a fad that should be mostly harmless in a corporate context. The problem, as I see it, is that this is just the latest thing that management has seized on as a way to insist that all corporate problems are actually the fault of everybody but management. The six hour meeting isn't the problem; the people who can't stay engaged are the problem, so let's start nagging them constantly to be here now. They'll just move on to something else when mindfulness isn't the cool thing anymore.

They seem honestly to be not terribly invested in whether I'm any happier or more "present", as long as they have something to point to about how our recent massive turnover and steadily decreasing work output is anybody's fault but management.
posted by Sequence at 5:48 PM on June 30, 2019 [21 favorites]

I once went in to the employee resource center where I worked because of both severe work and life stress. The bland, white, male counselor handed me Cabot-Zinn's book, "Wherever You Go, There You Are." I asked him if he knew where the book title came from, and he didn't. I explained how Gretchen Fetchin, The Slime Queen from Thomas Wolfe's, "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test," made up this koan during an experience on LSD. He blinked a couple of times said, "Oh."

I realized that nothing he or Cabot-Zin could say would help me with my real life, stressing problems, and that counselor was not someone I cold ever discuss something as personal as orgasm, with. I left him the book, and quit the job. My life improved by 50% on the spot.
posted by Oyéah at 5:58 PM on June 30, 2019 [15 favorites]

My problem with mindfulness meditation is I'm a neurodivergent woman and I've been told 'be still' my whole life. I'm tired of it. There is no inherent good to stillness. I am much more "in the moment" when I'm creating, learning, experiencing. I can be still, of course. And then, almost invariably, I daydream. But I was always yelled at for that, too. Because dreaming up worlds and stories is somehow worse than focusing on my breathing, I guess. That kind of inward focus is bad, this kind is good. Be still, be quiet, be patient. In fact, just don't be. That's what's good. That's how you fight through stress and find peace.

Bullshit. What reduces my stress is being in the world and taking in as much of it as I can, while putting as much of myself out in the form of art and writing and objects and relationships and jokes and everything else I can build with my hands and my mind. Maybe it's because I don't want peace: I want joy and meaning. And that's what I get when I'm building things or taking in information or interacting with people. People tell me I need to learn to be okay with doing nothing, that I'm "addicted to being entertained," that if I can't be still then I'm not truly living life correctly.

I absolutely believe that it is valuable for many people, and that stillness is exactly what some people need to deal with how shitty life is. But I'm tired of them telling me that's what I need, when I know that I connect to the world and present moment by doing, and that doesn't make me weak or addicted to gratification or whatever. Yet everywhere I turn, someone is trying to tell me how only mindfulness meditation will solve my problems, and if I'm not doing it I'm doing something terribly wrong. Including my workplace and my doctors, for whom it is most convenient if I 1) deal with stress on my own with no help from them, and 2) do so in the quietest, most unobtrusive way possible. You know what would help me? If I could knit or draw during meetings and classes, but that's not professional. If I was given more time to engage in my hobbies, rather than being told "meditate while standing in line, or on the bus!" If my friends and family had lighter workloads and more time to spend just hanging out and talking.

It is convenient, for society, that the most-touted solution for stress is the one that makes me the smallest and requires no one to ever make space or time for me.
posted by brook horse at 6:31 PM on June 30, 2019 [56 favorites]

Here's the thing. Mindfulness didn't come out of nowhere. It's a tiny piece of a huge philosophical system, namely Buddhism. And in Buddhism, as it's practiced in Asia, mindfulness isn't about "quelling anxiety" or "de-stressing." It's about watching the mind's random stream of thoughts until that you realize that the idea of a grounded, permanent self is an illusion. Once you've done this, it becomes a fuckton easier to fight for justice, because you're no longer hung up on your own needs but are committed to helping others. With selfless compassion.

If you don't think that mindfulness promotes intense political activism, look at the hundreds of thousands of monks and spiritual leaders in Buddhism who commit their lives to overthrowing an unjust order. Look at Thích Quảng Đức, who set himself on fire in the street to protest the Vietnam war. Look at the Buddhists who fight against imperialism in Tibet to this day.

Mindfulness, despite the way it's presented in the west, isn't about me, me, me. It's about you, you, you, and them, them, them. It's fiercely committed to fighting for equality, engaging with reality, and improving the world.
posted by Gordion Knott at 6:43 PM on June 30, 2019 [35 favorites]

Whenever I encounter the Mindfulness movement I am struck by how much it seems necessary for people to buy something in order to be mindful. Face masks, Nutribullets, uplifting prints for the wall, yoga mats, pretty dream diaries, all sorts of expensive crap. And the magazines are some of the most expensive on the shelf, too, and very much white-middle-class.

I did myself a favour and stopped buying them.
posted by HypotheticalWoman at 7:56 PM on June 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

I've already favorited, but I had to repost for all the "hear hear's" I wanna do to this.

"the more people are encouraged to look at things as they actually are, the more people might notice that "the way things actually are" is really kinda fucked up."

Maybe it's to notice that things are as they are because they aren't fixable so you need to suck it up?

"So you can notice that your employer offered to pay for this mindfulness class because your job is getting more stressful and nobody with power is willing to make any effort to make it less stressful."

"But it is also true that my workplace identified me as having an issue with work stress, and instead of intervening to make my work life less stressful, they offered me access to a program that aimed to help me deal more skillfully with stress. It completely internalized my problem and put the burden for dealing with it on me."

Yup. My office is all into this sort of thing these days. Now to be fair, I don't think there is anything they can do about the facts that our clientele has gotten FAR more demanding and difficult and we don't even have any quiet time short of the week before Christmas and New Year's. any more because the demand never stops and we are fried all the time. On the other hand, they recently announced that they are hiring!....3 new managers! We don't have enough people to handle the grunt work and anyone who leaves can leave, but we have the money to get managers? Who as far as I can tell aren't really taking much work off the peon's plates or even the current management's plates? What the hell?

To some degree, I concur that management can't fix most problems.. and those that they could, they won't or don't want to or it's too hard, blah blah whatever. So yeah, it's up to you and only you to save yourself. That's just the reality of life for everything, man. Nobody's ever going to help you but you in the end.

"Including my workplace and my doctors, for whom it is most convenient if I 1) deal with stress on my own with no help from them, and 2) do so in the quietest, most unobtrusive way possible. You know what would help me? If I could knit or draw during meetings and classes, but that's not professional. ... It is convenient, for society, that the most-touted solution for stress is the one that makes me the smallest and requires no one to ever make space or time for me."

Also hear hear, and I'm so tired of having to Sit Still And Stare because being bored off my ass is "professional."

And yes, this is the only option because nobody else is going to help you with any other option. Period.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:54 PM on June 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

Sometime it pays to listen to the old heads. False Consciousness
posted by rdr at 10:48 PM on June 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Bosses want you to work on yourselves rather than working together.

Bosses want you making yourselves better employees rather than making yourselves a better workplace.
posted by Reyturner at 12:29 AM on July 1, 2019 [8 favorites]

The more people are encouraged to look at things as they actually are, the more people might notice that "the way things actually are" is really kinda fucked up.

People keep saying this here, and yet no-one has actually set up a guillotine and started executing management. It is quite tiresome.

I have found mindfulness helpful with my dysthymia. Instead of trying to have every thought at once, as I am want to do, I have one thought for a bit, my brain calms down, and then I can have my thoughts in a fashion that means I'm able to action them. I don't find it particularly useful to speculate whether it's a tool of capitalist oppression or not, because it's been helpful for me; I feel like if people think this is just another way to obfuscate what should be simple, see paragraph above re: guillotines.

My best friend, who has schizophrenia, cannot meditate, because a dissociation of thought is his natural state and he takes a pill to keep that from happening. This seems quite reasonable to me.
posted by Merus at 4:59 AM on July 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

kanata, there's been talk lately about risks of mindfulness practice, but it hasn't hit the mainstream enough.

I'd heard about risks of serious depersonalization, but this includes some risks (shutting down useful thoughts, forming false memories because of less ability to doubt them, etc, that I haven't heard of.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 4:59 AM on July 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

My therapist uses DBT and mindfulness to help me figure out strategies to avoid going into suicidal depression spirals. I admit I get itchy when I see anything that seems like it could even remotely sound like, "You're not mentally ill: it's capitalism!" No, my brain is fucked up and it would be even in the antiracist anticolonialist anarchosocialist utopia, comrade.
posted by pelvicsorcery at 6:14 AM on July 1, 2019 [15 favorites]

For what it's worth, I learned MSBR from a Kabat-Zinn trained psychologist, hosted at a local church.

Risks of mindfulness remind me of risks of self-hypnosis. Both allow selective defocusing on specific activity in ones mind, which allows what remains to become dominant. This is a problem sometimes, if what remains overwhelms the individual. Mindfullness can be a means to an end, but not one that's risk free.
posted by ZeusHumms at 6:51 AM on July 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

This looks cool: The Open Dharma Foundation provides scholarships for meditation practitioners in financial need to attend retreats.
posted by homunculus at 7:36 AM on July 1, 2019

There are definitely ways to be both mindful and active, and to have both enhance each other. My yoga studio is hugely diverse ethnically, culturally and economically, and has a big focus on meditation and mindfullness. The pre and post-class conversations we have are my most important source of knowledge and growth in intersectional justice, and we do get involved in activism. It can be both, but I go to a homespun studio in a poor neighborhood where we all pitch in to clean and cook and help. I don't think those conversations or friends would be possible at a corporate studio or in a mandatory training.
posted by skookumsaurus rex at 7:46 AM on July 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

Robert H. Sharf, University of California, Berkeley:Mindfulness or Mindlessness: Traditional and Modern Buddhist Critiques of "Bare Awareness"
Buddhist scholars have shown that the form of "mindfulness meditation" (sometimes called satipatthāna or vipassanā meditation) that has become popular in the West is, at least in part, a relatively modern phenomenon; it can be traced to Burmese Buddhist reform movements that date to the first half of the twentieth century. The features that made Burmese mindfulness practice—notably the form taught by Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982)—so attractive to a Western audience are precisely those features that rendered it controversial in the Buddhist world. For example, Mahasi's technique did not require familiarity with Buddhist doctrine (notably abhidhamma), did not require adherence to strict ethical norms (notably monasticism), and promised astonishingly quick results. This was made possible through interpreting sati as a state of "bare awareness"—the unmediated, non-judgmental perception of things "as they are," uninflected by prior psychological, social, or cultural conditioning. This notion of mindfulness is at variance with premodern Buddhist epistemologies in several respects. Traditional Buddhist practices are oriented more toward acquiring "correct view" and proper ethical discernment, rather than "no view" and a non-judgmental attitude. Indeed, the very notion of an unmediated mode of apperception is, in many traditional Buddhist systems, an oxymoron, at least with respect to anyone short of a Buddha. (Indeed, it is a point of contention even in the case of a Buddha.) It is then not surprising that the forms of Burmese satipatthāna that established themselves in the West have been targets of intense criticism by rival Theravāda teachers in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. This doesn't mean that modern forms of "bare awareness" practice are without historical precursors. Both Tibetan Dzogchen and certain schools of Chinese Chan were, at least at first glance, similarly oriented toward inducing a mental state that was "pure," "unconditioned," "non-judgmental," and so on. Not surprisingly, these traditions were also subject to sharp criticism; they too were accused of heterodoxy—of promoting practices that contravened cardinal Buddhist principles and insights. My paper will begin with the parallels between the teachings and practices of these three traditions, and suggest that some of these parallels can be explained by historical and sociological factors. I will then move on to the philosophical, psychological, ethical, and soteriological objections proffered by rival Buddhist schools.
posted by homunculus at 7:50 AM on July 1, 2019 [14 favorites]

It's mostly seemed to me that mindfulness practices are a cognitive exercise, and of course like any exercise there's risk factors that will vary by individual. Partially, maybe even largely, the "follow the breath" exercise has hit me as being a kind of deliberate induction of dissociative state--a "stretching" kind of mental activity into a controlled extension and held exercise posture, to metaphor-stretch. And like more literally physical stretching, what may be healthy and great for many peoples' joints and flexibility could be risky or downright terrible to people whose joints already can hyperextend at the drop of a hat and pushing that kind of thing can damage them when what they should instead be focusing on is core strength and stability.
posted by Drastic at 7:51 AM on July 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

Both of my last two links are via David Collins (@bodhidave3) on Twitter, whose account is worth following for anyone interested in Buddhism, psychology & spirituality, and meditation. Collins wrote the piece on the history of secular mindfulness in the West at the end of the OP:

Deconstructing Mindfulness: Embracing a Complex Simplicity. There’s been a marked increase in studies of mindfulness and meditation in recent years. I’m worried that many of today’s researchers may think they know what they’re doing..

He was recently on the "Both And" podcast where they talked about meditation, the jhanas, neuroscience, "The Cloud of Unknowing" and Ravel's "Bolero." It's a great conversation:

Both And #11: Simply Awake with David Collins

"Both And" co-host Jason Snyder (@cognazor) also wrote a good piece on meditation recently:

Decentralizing Cognition: Integrating Mindfulness and Self-Inquiry. The primary goal of meditation is to temporarily suspend the sense that there is a self riding around in the head who is somehow separate from the rest of the body and the world. Why would somebody want to do this?

The latest episode of "Both And" has Erik Davis (@erik_davis) as a guest. I haven't listened to this one yet, but Davis is always worth checking out, imo. He wrote a piece last year about how capitalism is threatening to co-opt the psychedelic renaissance in the same way as it is with mindfulness:

Capitalism on Psychedelics: The Mainstreaming of an Underground

The topics for this episode of "Both And" include "eclecticism, psychedelics, philosophy, spirituality, existential dread, esotericism, capitalism [&] meditation & more" so it sounds like a good conversation that's likely relevant to this thread:

Both And #14: Paradigm Shifting with Erik Davis
posted by homunculus at 8:12 AM on July 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

There are more pieces on the psychedelic renaissance and how it too risks being co-opted by capitalism (including a video of the CIIS conference which Davis refers to in his piece above) in this previous post: Decriminalizing Shrooms; Psychedelic Therapy; Pyschedelics vs Capitalism.
posted by homunculus at 8:43 AM on July 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

I find this obsession with "taking down" meditation to be very odd.

Agreed, it's almost like the powers that be are starting to realize that this kind of practice could actually help some--not all--people tune out some of the anxiety-producing thoughts and social expectations that keep them from focussing on what really needs to change and acting to change it. Almost like an aware population could, in some circumstances, be a threat to the status quo.

In all seriousness, thank you for this excellent, well-researched post and discussion. I can certainly see that there can be a downside to mindfulness, especially the corporate lip-service variety, and particularly for some people. But, I've been practising both writing and guided meditation for two decades now, and can honestly credit my practice with allowing me to dismiss the noise and focus on taking concrete action where and how I can. It has made me more active and effective, not less, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one.
posted by rpfields at 8:54 AM on July 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

Can I just point out that a lot of the pro-mindfulness rationales given here a) Do not in fact demonstrate meta-level mindfulness, i.e. applying mindfulness to itself and being compassionate to those who disagree, which b) makes this a symptomatic example of the kind of neoliberal prejudice that critics try to talk about.

So I'm just saying that in repeating those sorts of well-known and repeated arguments, have people taken a step back and mindfully reflected on about how those arguments might contain hidden prejudices that some of us here having been trying to point out all along? I'm talking about the idea that sometimes people say things and don't seem to realize the very thing they're saying demonstrates the very prejudice or bias that is being argued about, because they're not exposed to, or haven't spent significant time read other sources of research and other schools of thought. And given the topic of this thread, the result is some of us here not feeling heard on that. Demonstrating being well-versed and well-read on the existing, substantial critiques of mindfulness would go along way in bridging this empathic gap that I'm observing.
posted by polymodus at 11:21 AM on July 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

> kanata, there's been talk lately about risks of mindfulness practice, but it hasn't hit the mainstream enough.

The Little-Known Downsides of Mindfulness Practice: Some potentially serious pitfalls

I'd heard about risks of serious depersonalization, but this includes some risks (shutting down useful thoughts, forming false memories because of less ability to doubt them, etc, that I haven't heard of.

Here are a couple other relevant pieces:

The Other Side Of Paradise: How I Left A Buddhist Retreat In Handcuffs. Michael Holden went to a Buddhist retreat to find himself. Now he's off his meditation
After several days of silence, sermons, slender rations and pre-dawn starts, something significant shifted inside me. The inner dialogue ceased, replaced by an outbreak of peace so fundamental as to transcend what I could or can still share with language. And I could see and sense, even if I couldn’t speak to the others, that this was happening among them too.

The power of such a revelation, that everything you might have hitherto insisted you consisted of was instead an illusory construct which can, through self-examination, vanish and be replaced by something best described as love… that can take some getting used to. The implications for your “self” (by this point a minority shareholder in that which you perceive yourself to be) and society (all conflict, and thus much of history, being by these terms an avoidable mistake) are considerable. But before I could assimilate this, or perhaps because I couldn’t, the limitless love became a gruelling fear, mutating into the conviction that I, personally, could bring about the end of everything, since the macrocosm of our universe seemed so clearly and precariously contained within the microcosm of my being. Say this like you mean it, act stubbornly on your pronouncements, and they will come for you with handcuffs too.
Here's a response to the above by Zen teacher Brad Warner: Buddhists on the Funny Farm
The current craze for mindfulness has encouraged a lot of people to get into the meditation game without any real qualifications. I keep saying this same thing. But I think it’s important. Meditation is not a trivial matter. Sure. The initial stages of practice generally produce feelings of well-being and calm mixed with crushing boredom. But if you go into it more deeply, you’re going to start discovering stuff that will challenge your core beliefs and understandings about who you are, what the world you’re living in is, and what you ought to do about that.

If you don’t have the proper grounding when that stuff starts coming up, you might end up going a little koo-koo. Or even going seriously koo-koo. And if the person teaching you meditation hasn’t gone through that experience themselves, they’re not going to have any idea how to handle it. In fact, I have gone through those stages myself and I can tell you that handling someone else who is going through that stuff is not easy even for me. I’ve never had to call the guys with the white coats and butterfly nets — yet. But I can see how that could become necessary.
posted by homunculus at 11:25 AM on July 1, 2019 [15 favorites]

It feels like mindfulness should be a practice that helps us stay clear and focused on our values and, vitally, how to change things in our lives and the larger world to align with our values. But that supposes that we have values, and that those values are beneficial to society.

I'm interested in the points about mindfulness being plucked from its framework of ethics in Buddhism. I've been thinking a lot lately about how white people in the west just tend to pluck bits and pieces from other cultures' spiritual traditions without doing the work to understand the larger meanings and systems (and often while actively disrespecting or dimissing those larger meanings and systems). Which is a capitalist/colonialist act in itself.
posted by lazuli at 12:33 PM on July 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

> Thanks for the articles. It helps to understand what happened and is healing to the part of me that still blames myself for not meditating right.

You're quite welcome, kanata. I'm glad you found them helpful.
posted by homunculus at 12:39 PM on July 1, 2019

Here's a good piece on meditation apps:

Meditation in the Time of Disruption: Mindfulness and meditation have become big business for tech-savvy entrepreneurs. But can you really unplug and reset while tied to an app on your phone? Companies like Headspace and Insight Timer say yes. But longtime practitioners, philosophers, and scientists aren’t so sure.
Headspace is particularly bullish on research. Since its inception, the company has conducted more than 60 studies in conjunction with partners in the medical and academic community, including the National Health Service. Jones Bell describes general findings—improved focus, decreased aggression, increased compassion—as “consistent with the general meditation research but specific to our product.” With Headspace, one always senses the bottom line looming somewhere.

More recently, the company has begun the daunting and implicative project of securing FDA approval of a Headspace prescription meditation app, such that it could be integrated into mainstream health care by, say, increasing quality of life for cancer patients—something that meditation generally has already been found to do. The notion isn’t just that meditation would be prescribed alongside conventional medicine, but that the meditation prescribed would be offered by Headspace.


That meditation and mindfulness have entered the repertoire of global capitalism isn’t surprising: In the face of stagnant wages and an ever-deteriorating boundary between work and whatever we do outside it, why not shift the responsibility of finding peace to the individual? Put another way: Next time work makes you feel less than human, should you gently speak truth to power, or should you use mindfulness to self-regulate and maintain function in an oppressive system? And should you choose to self-regulate, are you tacitly thanking the oppressive system for giving you the tools of self-regulation to begin with? Furthermore, how much of this experience—this process of spelunking into my mind—should be comfortable and brightly colored? How much should feel good?
posted by homunculus at 12:45 PM on July 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

More on meditation apps: Rebecca Jablonsky (@STS_Rebecca) is a digital anthropologist and PhD candidate who is working on a dissertation on meditation apps. Here's a piece she wrote recently for CASTAC's blog Platypus:

Listening to/with Technology: Meditation Apps as the New Voice of Mental Health

She was a guest on Erik Davis's (see above) Expanding Mind podcast recently. It's a fascinating conversation:

Expanding Mind – Meditation Apps. Science and technology researcher Rebecca Jablonsky talks about consciousness hacking, tech ethnography, information ecosystems, media fasts, and the ups and downs of outsourcing awareness.
posted by homunculus at 12:51 PM on July 1, 2019

Brad Warner: Never Check Facebook on a Zen Retreat
posted by homunculus at 2:33 PM on July 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

But it is also true that my workplace identified me as having an issue with work stress, and instead of intervening to make my work life less stressful, they offered me access to a program that aimed to help me deal more skillfully with stress.

I'm on a personal journey right now to Figure My Shit Out. This line really resonates with me, but I wonder if that is part of my issue.

I've spent 15 years trying to find an employer that would take care of me, a city that would take care of me, a career that would be long lasting, supporting, well paid. That's the american dream I was told when I was a kid.

I wonder if that's not true at all. I see a lot of coworkers who are totally inundated with work, working 60+ hours a week for no more money than the person in the next cubical over. And there is record low unemployment levels. And I keep wondering - what is stopping them from signing off at 5pm. What is stopping me from doing so?

I don't think mindfulness apps will fix this. But I do think we need to be more willing to say "here's the labor I will sell you."
posted by rebent at 8:11 AM on July 2, 2019 [7 favorites]

fwiw, i thought erik davis' interview with jason silva was also pretty good on this! esp ~28m :P
posted by kliuless at 9:39 PM on July 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

New TSV article by Jacob Given (@JacobNealGiven): Evagrius’s Demons: The world offers resistance, sometimes it even overwhelms us, and we are compelled to theorize in order to regain balance, to find relief.
This essay tracks the dynamics of the demonic in the work of Evagrius of Pontus, a desert Christian monk of the 4th century. To recapitulate the practice of the Evagrian monk in writing, and therefore in ourselves, it will be helpful to review the cosmological theory of Origen, a theologian, philosopher, and biblical exegete of the early church. This recapitulation is not meant to reinforce a crude division between theoria and praktikē. Theory is a subset of practice. The world offers resistance, sometimes it even overwhelms us, and we are compelled to theorize in order to regain balance, to find relief. Truth, as we’ve been told, lies in correspondence, but a fitting correspondence is signaled only when the painful obstinacy of the world dips below a tolerable threshold. This is sense-making.

Theory makes possible a configuration of flows. It opens some avenues and closes others. It invites some energies and banishes others. It actively reconstitutes the life-world. Discursive theorizing is the search for an incantation, a configuration of words and annotations that appease the world for us, that satisfies a demand inherent in the gift that we have received in the world (and in this sense it is an offering), and that gives us the power to act in new capacities, genres, and styles. Theory brings new possibilities into view, it brings new avenues of energetic expenditure within range. As such, the cosmological theory of an Evagrian monk forms the boundaries of what is allowed to occur, of how phenomena are allowed to give themselves, and of how the monk is empowered to act.
posted by homunculus at 12:24 PM on July 11, 2019

Oops, the above link was supposed to go in my post about The Side View (TSV). Oh well, no harm done. I think anyone who liked this post will probably enjoy that one too.
posted by homunculus at 12:32 PM on July 11, 2019

Here's a good piece in The Baffler about mental health apps and capitalism:

I Feel Better Now - Depressed by the burden of life under capitalism? There's an app for that!
posted by homunculus at 7:53 AM on July 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

« Older “When is Channel Orange coming out on vinyl?”...   |   Mor a Mallorca el dibuixant argentí Guillemo... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments