In a spirited and thoughtful defense of secular mindfulness, Susan Kaiser Greenland has offered up several points worthy of our attention. The impetus for her article is Thomas Joiner, Ph.D.’s, Mindlessness: The Corruption of Mindfulness in a Culture of Narcissism, which she calls “a take-down of the ‘faux’ mindfulness movement.”
For those unfamiliar with the term, mindfulness is a state of attention that’s strengthened through meditation. It was introduced to the West largely through the assimilation of trends in Buddhist thought. For Joiner, authentic mindfulness is the “moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness of one’s environment and subjective state” — as opposed to faux-mindfulness, which he sees as “an easy, faddish, and seemingly high-minded and spiritual excuse for self-regard and self-indulgence.”
So far, so good. Joiner, Greenland, and I are all on the same page. But, naturally arising – we hope – is the question: where is this faux mindfulness? And where is this authentic mindfulness?
Finding faux mindfulness
As has been hashed and rehashed in academic circles over the last decade or more, the use of the term authentic often points to little more than posturing and grabbing at power. The term once referred to something more like an enduring and honest reflection. An authentic American might have been a person who lived out a wide range of historical American values. An authentic person was a person who spent considerable time and effort looking within and back in time to see the myriad causes and conditions for his or her life. The term, however, has been banalized (made superficial) through repeated use on glossy magazine covers selling everything from diets to sex to dream homes and vacations. (Interesting how words that once held weight, and might still in certain contexts, can also be pulled out and misused. But I digress.)
Greenland chooses a similar point for exploration, writing, “Many of Joiner’s criticisms are well considered and well deserved. I will push back, however, against his main premise, which pits faux-mindfulness against authentic mindfulness. This oppositional set-up misses an essential component of authentic mindfulness, which is resistance to such simple dualisms.” (emphasis added)
She later writes, “Faux- and authentic mindfulness exist separately only in theory; in the real world, they’re more akin to poles on a spectrum.”
Quoting Joiner, Greenland finds the locus of Faux-mindfulness:
We have been infected with a set of ideas that has weakened us. The ideas take various forms, but they share a view of the importance of the individual self as compared to things like principle, posterity, and the greater good. They celebrate individual rights and entitlements but neglect individuals’ responsibility and duty, and they assume that whatever occurs to a particular mind has value and importance in its own right (mindfulness gone mindless), when in reality, the usual thought or feeling in the mind of any given human is so lacking in profundity that ironically, it staggers the mind. From whence this infection? The source is multi-determined, but there is a strand of thought within psychology that tends to encourage it: Namely, the flight of fancy that goes under the name of mindfulness.
And, in its outlines, I fully agree with this criticism.
A societal illness
There is a growing scourge of individualism, abandonment of responsibility and duty, and reduction in community and social involvement. These scourges, however, predate mindfulness by decades and had already generated concern throughout the country when Robert D. Putnam published Bowling Alone: the collapse and revival of American community in 2000.
Growing up Catholic (loosely), I knew fairly well the scourge of American individualism, the dreaded cafeteria Catholic. The ‘cafeteria’ metaphor can be seen in two senses (on a spectrum): one in which the person is flaky and cannot stick with just one thing and one in which the person is discerning, choosing the best from here and there. The Priests I heard never thought of the second sense, only mentioning the first, pejorative meaning. And so, as I began to learn and question aspects of Catholicism I had the choice of seeing myself as weak and flaky and sinful or leave the Church and fully embrace ‘free thought’. I know this isn’t true of all Catholics – many are broadminded – the Pope even believes in evolution these days (and climate change!).
As Greenland notes:
The issues Joiner has with faux-mindfulness relate to how modern materialism and consumer narcissism can hijack good ideas and even good intentions. Yet this exasperating phenomenon isn’t new. In 1967, Eric Hoffer cautioned against it in The Temper of Our Time: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
In any case, perhaps I’m misreading and perhaps Greenland has taken Joiner out of context here, but blaming mindfulness for our current societal illness -or even simply as encouraging it- has it all backwards. (Another digression, I’d be cautious about reading the Hoffer quote too broadly, or we might have to consider all of Buddhism and Christianity these days as somewhere in the ‘racket’ stage.)
Is mindfulness a cure?
For this I return to Greenland’s idea of a spectrum, from faux (or ‘mindfulness lite’) to the deep stuff that can only be found exploring caves in Burma, wandering the ruins of an ancient Buddhist kingdom in Sukhothai in central Thailand, prostrating up a mountainside at Wutai Shan in northern China, or sitting under oscillating fans in the sticky heat of a monastery in Bodhgaya.
Here, Greenland’s image of a spectrum (I might invoke the idea of a gradual path) is incredibly helpful. She notes that mindfulness is developed in the same way as singing; it is not all or nothing. She also, rightly, suggests that faux mindfulness can be a stepping stone for people to a more authentic (oops, that word) path.
If someone asks how I got started in my Ph.D. in Buddhist ethics, I might tell them I read The Celestine Prophesy and The Monk who Sold His Ferrari, which helped steer my dissatisfaction with Business School toward exploration of the Humanities. I’m not necessarily endorsing the books or the idea that the authors should be millionaires while fellow academics go into sex-work to make ends meet; but they were an undeniable part of my path. A similar conversation occurred in one of my circles today around the value of some of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books – they’re often not exactly Ph.D. quality academic rigour and sometimes seem platitudinous, but they might be just what someone starting out needs, and it could get them on the gradual path to grad school or a monastery in China or India.
As a student-now-teacher of mindfulness in its authentic form I find myself intolerant not of faux mindfulness, but of the attitude behind it – the same one so well summarized by Joiner in the quote above. Nonetheless, I can empathise with it, and then seek to ‘turn’ the selfish person toward community. Selfishness is nothing new. A great teacher can recognize that and use it as to teach, as the Buddha did with King Pasenadi in the Mallika Sutta:
Though in thought we range throughout the world,
We’ll nowhere find a thing more dear than self.
So, since others hold the self so dear,
He who loves himself should injure none.
The Buddha elsewhere draws on the ubiquity of suffering as a reason to care for others. Cleverly, he takes the fact of every (ignorant) person’s selfishness and uses that to push them on the path toward wisdom / regard for others – and perhaps eventual self-less-ness. As Greenland says, “Given that mindfulness helps people recognize how deeply connected they are to others, encouraging them to start where they are, even when the reason they start is self-centered, is essential. It’s a skillful way to help them develop a wider perspective and more compassionate motivation.”
You can love the market or hate it, but for now, it’s what we’ve got. And mostly I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Even when I read an announcement last year sent from a friend for mindful harmonica lessons. Maybe harmonica players are just stressed out and could use a break. Maybe this’ll be their Celestine Prophesy or Thich Nhat Hanh book. What I don’t want is for people to think that THAT is mindfulness. There is more to it. And there is more to it than you’ll find in a day-long workshop, or an 8-week course, or a month in a Chinese monastery. But you’ve got to start somewhere. And rather than criticize that starting point as insufficient (which it is), I think better time would be spent criticizing the underlying societal pulls toward individualism.
A good mindfulness teacher, in my book, is one that moves you away from the faux and whatever individual suffering you might have and toward community, toward social responsibility, reflection on your own ethics in daily life, reflection on dissatisfaction with societal norms, indeed to eventually reflect on the nonsubstantiality of your self. But first, go ahead and figure out that harmonica.
Like your mindful harmonica teacher and Michael the mindful welder, I have bills to pay and local, organic, free-range tomatoes to buy; and unlike Michael, whose bronzed chest insulates just fine, thank you, I need to buy shirts from time to time as well.
Please chip in if you can and join a community of fellow learners/practitioners at my Patreon page.