Ronald E. Purser has written a very important book, McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, about the limitations, fake claims, and sleight of hand in the contemporary secular mindfulness product. The underlying perspective of Purser’s critique isn’t fully unveiled until the last chapter, “Liberating Mindfulness.” It boils down to a great vehicle (Mahayana) take-down of the narcissism and limitations of the individual vehicle (Hinayana).
In addition to the run-of-the mill great vehicle bodhisattva’s tools like ethics and compassion, Purser, a professor of management and long-time dharma practitioner, also shows up with keen awareness of neoliberalism and its oppressive attendants – materialism, classism, racism, and genderism.
Purser powerfully demonstrates how the individual vehicle approach lends itself to the seduction of these neoliberal forces.
In this review, a McMindfulness greatest hits, I’ll start with the end – the solution – and then trot out five of the central issues that Purser identifies. And because he has a particularly powerful way of expressing himself, I’m going to quote him briefly for each point.
In the end, Purser advocates revolutionizing mindfulness like great vehicle bodhisattva:
“Truly revolutionary mindfulness is non-dual: its transformative strength is undivided, owned by no one. By harnessing this together, we can seek the liberation of all sentient beings.”
“We need to revolutionize mindfulness. This requires us to accept the limitations of what is currently taught, and to dispense with the hype surrounding it. The therapeutic functions of mindfulness-based interventions are clearly of value. We don’t need to stop using them, but we do need to do much more. Calming the mind can help us engage with social, historical and political realities. We don’t need another form of praxis defined in biomedical and universalizing terms. Mindfulness needs to be embedded in the organic histories and local knowledge of communities, empowering them to see how things are.”
“Dissatisfaction and unhappiness are not impediments to revolution; they are its fuel.”
Problem 1: Commodifying the calm mind
“Mindfulness is now said to be a $4 billion industry, propped up by media hype and slick marketing by the movement’s elites. More than [60,000] books for sale on Amazon have a variant of ‘mindfulness’ in their title, touting the benefits.”
“Mindfulness is positioned as a force that can help us cope with the noxious influences of capitalism. But because what it offers is so easily assimilated by the market, its potential for social and political transformation is neutered.”
“Dawa Darchin Phillips … daily consulting fee for delivering a corporate mindfulness training program? … $12,000 per day….”
Problem 2: Decontextualizing mindfulness from the social, economic, racial, and religious reality
“But commoditized impotence is not very helpful to those on the economic precipice, facing a shrinking welfare state, and other disadvantages from xenophobia to cultural trauma.”
“I’m unconvinced that humans will exist in a thousand years without radical changes. It seems foolhardy to assume that watching one’s breath will have any systemic effect on climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, or mass environmental devastation. As for changing the plutocratic control of government, finance, and the media by corporations—or ending unemployment, inequality, homelessness, substance abuse, or white supremacy—it seems almost mean to suggest that paying attention will wave magic wands.”
“Decontextualizing mindfulness from its original liberative and transformative purpose, as well as its foundation in social ethics, amounts to a Faustian bargain. Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.”
“Most Buddhists that I know, myself included, have no issue with the adaptation of mindfulness for secular and clinical purposes. The issue isn’t one of intellectual property, but of truth in advertising. I have repeatedly observed mindfulness teachers tell corporate sponsors, especially when trying to sell programs,that what they offer is in no way Buddhist. But in other situations, such as these sorts of conferences, the same teachers wax poetic about how they are translating the whole of the dharma. This seems not only disingenuous, but also contrary to the honesty on which mindfulness traditionally depends.”
Problem 3: Blaming the victim
“By individualizing social problems, the practice of mindfulness disadvantages those who suffer the most under the status quo. Critiquing definitions of stress in such limiting ways, Dana Becker has coined the term ‘stressism’ to describe the current belief that the tensions of contemporary life are primarily individual lifestyle problems to be solved through managing stress, as opposed to the belief that these tensions are linked to social forces and need to be resolved primarily through social and political means.”
“This masks the social and economic conditions that may have caused the problem. Mindfulness programs pay little attention to the complex dynamics of interacting power relations, networks of interests, and explanatory narratives that shape capitalist culture. Yet as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett point out in The Spirit Level, evidence from social epidemiology shows that stress and psychosomatic illnesses are concentrated in highly unequal societies, with strongly materialist, competitive values.
“Privatizing stress as a personal problem, and using science to affirm this agenda, mindfulness turns individuals on themselves. Not only does this blame the victims of cultural dysfunction, it drives a spiral of narcissistic self-absorption.”
Problem 4: Absence of ethical reflection
“The conspicuous absence of a path for ethical development in the secularized mindfulness movement creates a moral vacuum. A belabored form of self-surveillance—being in the present moment—displaces ethical reflection, severing the chain from past to future. Forethought and care, vigilant awareness of the consequentiality of one’s actions, and striving to eradicate unwholesome mental qualities (all basic Buddhist aims) take a back seat to just ‘being mindful, ‘being present,’ and other platitudinous edicts like ‘radical acceptance.’
“Despite the apparent sincerity of his intentions, Jon Kabat-Zinn does something similar [to Trump]. Having secularized mindfulness to help patients face chronic pain, he sells it as a global panacea. We are simply told to focus on the present, ignoring the long-term effects of our behavior. Abstaining from being ‘judgmental,’ we are invited to abandon ethical discernment. Just like Trump, the mindfulness movement promotes moral ambiguity to help us feel better. Both reflect the triumph of narcissism in modern American culture.”
Problem 5: The research isn’t as good as claimed
“As mindfulness has increasingly pervaded every aspect of contemporary society, so have misunderstandings about what it is, whom it helps, and how it affects the mind and brain. At a practical level, the misinformation and propagation of poor research methodology can potentially lead to people being harmed, cheated disappointed, and/or disaffected.”
“The late Catherine Kerr, who trained at Harvard Medical School and was Director of the Contemplative Neuroscience program at Brown, feared the tendency to overstate mindfulness research could backfire. ‘If this wave of hype continues,’ Kerr warned, ‘the backlash will be too strong.’ Her concern was simple: if findings don’t pan out, ‘people will lose faith and revert to the other side: mindfulness has no value.'”
Liberate mindfulness by fully entering a buddhadharma path. And carefully read Purser’s book! Highly recommended. Warning: he might get your hackles up from time-to-time.
Oh, and, by the way, those really cool fMRI pictures don’t mean what they’re often said to. More on this in McMindfulness.
You might start with this excerpt: The Mindfulness Conspiracy.