Does mindfulness meditation make us less caring about the world? Less ethically and socially oriented? And more passive and self-centered?

I recently finished reading the book McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality by Ronald Purser. The book is a striking and thought-provoking critique of the modern mindfulness movement, especially towards the break from the Buddhist-based form of meditation and reflection’s “original liberative and transformative purpose.”

Put more precisely the questions are this: Has the Westernizing of mindfulness turned “quieting our minds” into an unchallenging acceptance of the capitalistic and neoliberal status quo? Has the technological mediation of meditation through apps, podcasts and other digital services led to the decontextualization from the Buddha’s mission of liberating all sentient beings? Does Western Mindfulness Meditation practices makes us more apathetic to systemic, even revolutionary, changes?

Here are my takeaways and notes on the book.

Book Notes, Quotes and Key Takeaways

  • Has westernized mindfulness lost its “social ethics”?
  • Has mindfulness become “a tool of self-discipline, disguised as self-help”? Put another way, “Instead of setting practitioners free” does it instead help “them adjust to the very conditions that caused their problems”?
  • 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.”
  • Has westernized mindfulness lost its “social ethics”?
  • Most mindfulness training nowadays is nothing more than basic concentration training.
  • Biggest contributor to this transformation is Jon Kabat-Zinn and his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which focuses on stress reduction but has come to serve a number of commercial interests and become big business too.
  • Stat: “In 2018, the Global Wellness Institute valued “the wellness economy” at 3.72 trillion. The “fitness & mind-body” sector, of which the mindfulness industry is part, is worth $542 billion.”
  • “Although derived from Buddhism, it’s been stripped of the teachings on ethics that accompanied it, as well as the liberating aim of dissolving attachment to a false sense of self while enacting compassion for all other beings.”
  • The problem is in our heads: “The fundamental message of the mindfulness movement is that the underlying cause of dissatisfaction and distress is in our heads. By failing to pay attention to what actually happens in each moment, we get lost in regrets about the past and fears for the future, which make us unhappy.”
  • Mindfulness advocates, perhaps unwittingly, are providing support for the status quo.
  • Instead of asking about the systems and social demands that create stress, mental health issues and burnout, mindfulness makes an appeal to quiet our mind and find relief in passivity.
  • “Mindfulness, like positive psychology and the broader happiness industry, has depoliticized and privatized stress. If we are unhappy about being unemployed, losing our health insurance, and seeing our children incur massive debt through college loans, it is our responsibility to learn to be more mindful.”
  • The term “McMindfulness” was coined by Miles Neale, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, who described “a feeding frenzy of spiritual practices that provide immediate nutrition but no long-term sustenance.”
  • Scentific benefits are suspect too: “One meta-analytic study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University — well-publicized in 2014 — showed that mindfulness was no more effective than physical exercise or other relaxation techniques. It found moderate improvements in depression, anxiety, and pain, and very small reductions in stress, but there were few other measurable benefits.”
  • “In Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King argue that Asian wisdom traditions have been subject to colonization and commodification since the eighteenth century, producing a highly individualistic spirituality, perfectly accommodated to dominant cultural values and requiring no substantive change in lifestyle…Privatized mindfulness practice is easily coopted and confined to what Carrette and King describe as an “accommodationist” orientation that seeks to “pacify feelings of anxiety and disquiet at the individual level rather than seeking to challenge the social, political and economic inequalities that cause such distress.”
  • Mindfulness equates to being quiet and being productive: “Mindfulness-based interventions fulfill this purpose by therapeutically optimizing individuals to make them “mentally fit,” attentive and resilient so they may keep functioning within the system.”
  • Potential for social and political transformation is neutered.
  • We loss the collective and we break with the “liberative and transformative purpose.”
  • Presentism isn’t a political or ethical panacea: “Ryan and Kabat-Zinn seem to confuse their advocacy of being fully present in the moment with particular forms of political consciousness. Being present is not a guarantee of being just.”
  • Conservatism in Mindfulness: “The movement’s underpinnings are deeply conservative and American: a naïve belief in progress, idealism, and rugged individualism, with all of us free to get lost in a romantic hybrid of Whitmanesque wordplay and ersatz Buddhism.”
  • “If promoters of mindfulness are seriously interested in change, they should start by acknowledging the problem: their own complicity in managing systems that naturalize suffering.”
  • Has mindfulness meditation and much of its framing resulted in what Deborah Orr, a York University philosophy professor “fostering a delusional self-understanding”?
  • A mindfulness practitioner might have spent a lot of time listening to their breath but shouldn’t she or he also be attended to noticing the suffering of the world all around them? To borrow from the Buddha should the end goal be the liberation of all sentient beings? In other words, social and systematic change.
  • “Total liberation requires a new praxis, Fromm explains: one that works on the dialectic between self and society, between an interior search for wellbeing and changing socioeconomic structures.”
  • Stress is not just our own fault: “When we recognize that disaffection, anxiety and stress are not just our own fault, but are connected to structural causes, this becomes fuel for igniting resistance.”
  • Alternative: “civic mindfulness” (Kevin Healey) or “restoring collective attention to shared responsibilities”
  • Alternative: “conscientious compassion” (Bhikkhu Bodhi)

“If our aim is to heal the world rather than to fix it,” writes Peter Gabel in The Desire for Mutual Recognition, “then we must engage in intuitively-based social-spiritual actions that may redeem our collective being rather than in rationally-based formal changes that we think will bring about social-spiritual effects.”

  • “Individual happiness seems hollow unless all human beings are free of oppression, poverty, and violence — as well as free to speak and act in the public sphere.”
  • Alternative: “Social mindfulness” - “starts with the widest possible lens, focusing collective attention on the structural causes of suffering.”

My Quick Take Reviews

  • I rated this book a 5 out of 5 on Goodreads.
  • Would I recommend it? Yes, anyone who meditates or promotes meditation, yoga, or mindfulness will find this book challenging and make you think critically.
  • Would I read it again? Probably not.

My Own Practice, Experiments and Writings on Meditation

Meditation is a topic I’ve explored and experimented with in the past with mixed results and an on-going skepticism. Initially years ago I found benefits in how meditation (through concentration training) cultivated better focus for me, especially the idea of noticing distraction and returning my mind to my breath. I spent nearly a year and half of almost daily mediation and even tried to track my meditation at least in terms of adherence as way to enable behavior change.

While mindfulness meditation is the most hyped and popularized, there are a lot of different meditation practices, which I wrote about in my post What am I meditating for? In Pursuit of A Definition of Meditation where I attempted to define meditation phenomenologically in terms of mental states activate.

I find that this book did an amazing job of criticizing one particular movement and practice, but it didn’t really give much of an alternative grounding for meditators to practice meditation. How should I meditate if I care about more than myself? How should “we” meditation if our goal is compassionate liberation of all sentient beings?

In Can Meditation Improve Your Attention? Self-Experiment into Mindfulness and Cognitive Testing, I did my most dedicated tracking experimentation on meditation and how it might improve cognitive function, but in spite of some fun study design and statistical analysis, I found limited results.

While I no longer formally meditate, I still continue to recognize the value of focus and in particular flow, which is something I improved and learned more about through meditation. I also think meditation provides a good way to relax regularly. In fact, I’d almost argue that one of the main benefits of meditation is from simply relaxing regularly. That said, there are many ways to relax without meditation, like walking, sitting quietly in nature or just being still. If the chief benefit of meditation is relaxation, should the goal and pursue be relaxing rather than anything else?

Beyond Instrumentality: Meditation as Enabling Self-Awareness and Empowerment

Overall, I got a lot out of this book. Reflecting on different aspects of its critique of meditation has given me a new perspective on my chief takeaway and chief, namely a critique of instrumentality. While not a central point, I believe this book again reiterates a point I took out of another book, Four Thousand Weeks, namely that we need to be attentive to how any practice, technology or philosophy defines its goals and objectives in largely instrumental terms.

Human life isn’t about turning everything we do into a productive or instrumental pursuit. As a designer and technologist, I’d argue that meditation whether as a practice or through meditating technologies should strive to be enabling and empowering. Put another way, how might meditation and technologies that nudge and facilitating is enable us as individuals and collectives to make better choices and be better?

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