The Faux Revolution of Mindfulness

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Yves here. The packaging of “mindfulness” as a means for self-betterment has been a staple of the New Age for at least 30 years.  Some programs dangle the promise that if you become adept, you’ll become more successful, have better relationships…..even better sex.  And as is often true of cults, if you aren’t getting results, it’s because you aren’t sufficiently devout serious enough about your practice.

By Ronald Purser, a Professor of Management at San Francisco State University and co-host of The Mindful Cranks podcast. His new book, McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, is published by Repeater Books. Originally published at openDemocracy

According to its backers we’re in the midst of a “mindfulness revolution.” Jon Kabat-Zinn, recently dubbed the “father of mindfulness,” goes so far as to proclaim that we’re on the verge of a global renaissance, and that mindfulness “may actually be the only promise the species and the planet have for making it through the next couple hundred years.”

Really? A revolution? A global renaissance? What exactly has been overturned or radically transformed to garner such grand status?

The last time I watched the news, Wall Street and corporations were still conducting business-as-usual, special interests and political corruption were still unchecked, and public schools were still suffering from massive underfunding and neglect. The concentration of wealth and inequality is now at record levels. Mass incarceration and prison overcrowding have become a new social plague, while the indiscriminate shooting of African Americans by police and the demonizing of the poor remains commonplace. America’s militaristic imperialism continues to spread, and the impending disasters of global warming are already rearing their ugly heads.

Against this background, the hubris and political naiveté of the cheerleaders of the mindfulness ‘revolution’ is stunning. They seem so enamored of doing good and saving the world that these true believers, no matter how sincere, suffer from an enormous blindspot. They seem mindless of the fact that all too often, mindfulness has been reduced to a commodified and instrumental self-help technique that unwittingly reinforces neoliberal imperatives.

For Kabat-Zinn and his followers, it is mindless and maladapted individuals who are to blame for the problems of a dysfunctional society, not the political and economic frameworks within which they are forced to act. By shifting the burden of responsibility to individuals for managing their own wellbeing, and by privatizing and pathologizing stress, the neoliberal order has been a boon to the 1.1 billion dollar mindfulness industry.

In response, mindfulness has arisen as a new religion of the self, unencumbered by the public sphere. The revolution it proclaims occurs not out in the streets or through collective struggle and political protests or nonviolent demonstrations, but in the heads of atomized individuals. A recurrent message is that our failure to pay attention to the present moment – our getting lost in mental ruminations and mind-wandering – is the underlying cause of our dissatisfaction and distress.

Kabat-Zinn takes this one step further. He claims that our “entire society is suffering from attention disorder-big time.” Apparently, stress and social suffering are not the result of massive inequalities, nefarious corporate business practices or political corruption, but of a crisis inside our heads, what he calls a “thinking disease.”

In other words, capitalism itself is not inherently problematic; rather, the problem is the failure of individuals to be mindful and resilient in a precarious and uncertain economy. And not surprisingly, the mindfulness merchants have just the goods we need to be contented mindful capitalists.

Mindfulness, positive psychology and the happiness industry share a common core in terms of the de-politicization of stress. The ubiquity of individualistic stress rhetoric – with its underlying cultural message that stress is a given – should make us suspicious. As Mark Fisher points out in his book Capitalist Realism, the privatization of stress has led to an “almost total destruction of the concept of the public.”

Stress, we are told by the mindfulness apologists, is a noxious influence that ravages our minds and bodies, and it is up to us as individuals to ‘mindful up.’ It’s a seductive proposition that has potent truth effects. First, we are conditioned to accept the fact that there is a stress epidemic and that it is simply an inevitability of the modern age. Second, since stress is supposedly omnipresent, it’s our responsibility as stressed-out subjects to manage it, get it under control, and adapt mindfully and vigilantly to the thralls of a capitalist economy. Mindfulness targets this vulnerability, and, at least on the surface, appears as a benign technique for self-empowerment.

But in her book One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea, Dana Becker points out that the stress concept obscures and conceals “social problems by individualizing them in ways that most disadvantage those who have the least to gain from the status quo.” In fact, 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.”

Uncritically ingesting the cultural premises of stressism, the mindfulness movement has eagerly promoted itself as a scientific remedy. But the focus is still squarely on the individual who is expected to heal the so-called ‘thinking disease’ of modern civilization. By practicing mindfulness, we are told, we can skillfully switch from our frantic ‘doing-mode’ to a more harmonious ‘being-mode,’ learning to let go and flow with stressful situations.

Mindfulness is the new immunization, a mental vaccine that supposedly can help us thrive amidst the stresses of modern life. It is up to us to become what Tim Newton has termed “stress-fit” individuals. Mindfulness is often marketed as a way of upping our game, a useful technique for developing mental fitness so that we can become more productive workers and more effective coping agents. It’s no coincidence that the tag-line for the most successful mindfulness meditation app, Headspace, is “a gym membership for the mind.”

The golden maxim of this movement is to ‘be in the present moment.’ For mindfulness devotees, social and political change is contingent on the fantasy of converting the distracted masses to follow this advice and live ‘mindfully.’ The movement’s present moment fetish is a practice that cultivates social amnesia, encouraging a collective forgetting of historical memory and at the same time effectively foreclosing the utopian imagination.

This present momentism appears, at least on the surface, as a therapeutic solvent for all our problems, making our present situation more bearable. But this bearability of the status quo amounts to a permanent retreat to the psychic bomb shelter of now, a kind of bury-your-head in the sand mindfulness which acts as a sanitized palliative for neoliberal subjects who have lost hope for alternatives to capitalism.

The mindfulness movement operates in resonance with what Eric Cazdyn in his book, The Already Dead: The New Time of Politics, Culture and Illness, characterizes as “the new chronic.” Cazdyn explains that the new chronic “extends the present into the future, burying in the process the force of the terminal, making it seem as if the present will never end.” Just be in the present moment and all will be well. By living mindfully, we can continue our lives by deferring, evading and repressing any ongoing crisis.

The faux mindfulness revolution provides a way of endlessly coping with the problems of capitalism by taking refuge in the fragility of the present moment; the new chronic leaves us mindfully maintaining the status quo. This is a cruel optimism that encourages settling for a resigned political passivity. Mindfulness then becomes a way of managing, naturalizing and enduring toxic systems, rather than turning personal change towards a critical questioning of the historical, cultural, and political conditions that are responsible for social suffering.

But none of this means that mindfulness ought to be banned, or that anyone who finds it useful is deluded. There are emerging forms of social and civic mindfulness that avoid this trap. These methods are breaking free of a biomedical focus on individual pathology by integrating social justice activism with contemplative inquiry, cultivating critical thinking rather than non-judgmental disengagement.

Innovators in the field are rewriting mindfulness curricula by employing anti-oppressive, critical pedagogies. For example, Beth Berila has developed mindfulness methods that help practitioners uncover how they have internalized oppression, as well as ways to dismantle and unlearn privilege. Mushim Patricia Ikeda, along with teachers at the East Bay Meditation Center, has developed numerous programs that connect social justice concerns with Buddhist teachings on interdependence to foster solidarity and mindfully-engaged activism. And the Mindfulness and Social Change Network in the United Kingdom is experimenting with mindfulness practices that address social, political and environmental issues.

When we recognize that disaffection, anxiety and stress are not just our own fault but are connected to structural causes, mindfulness becomes fuel for igniting resistance.

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99 comments

  1. P S BAKER

    “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” [G B Shaw]

    Reply
    1. Disturbed Voter

      That is what they said in Germany in 1933, adapting yourself to your local environment. Sometimes it is better to flee your “reasonable” neighbors. G B Shaw was a gay rights advocate among other things.

      Yes, there is much fraud in New Age practices, as there are in all human activities. And of course all activities must support socialism today (sarc).

      Reply
  2. cripes

    Yes, slave self-improvement philosophy re-emerges every few years in mutated forms and has always been with us always. It’s a tight fit with traditional american “individualism,” self-help hucksters of every stripe, clinical seal of approval by the psycho-industrial complex, enforced by criminal justice, credit scores and eviction courts, Ad Infinitum.

    Americans, who hate losers as only crabs in a barrel can, just have a special zeal for this kind of self-flagellation. I swear they would not see the irony of 19th century anti-abolitionist’s argument that slavery is eternal and slaves should just strive to be better at their jobs.

    I suppose the feudal serf chastised the subversive in his midst with the same enthusiasm today’s wage slaves condemn their peers who aren’t all above average. Just look at the guy who rose from homelessness to trading on Wall Street!

    The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.
    -KM

    But we have so many flavors!

    Reply
    1. Adam Eran

      You make a good point. One of the twelve “traditions” in twelve-step programs, which predate the “mindfulness” revolution by decades, requires that no discussion of public policy occur in such programs. (“Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.”) I’ve been told they’re worried that controversy, or dissent would detract from their program. One wonders whether U.S. incarceration would have reached its current draconian proportions had people with a stake in that game said something.

      Turns out AA isn’t that effective, either: “A study conducted by AA in 2014 showed that 27% of the more than 6,000 members who participated in the study were sober for less than a year. In addition, 24% of the participants were sober 1-5 years while 13% were sober 5-10 years. Fourteen percent of the participants were sober 10-20 years, and 22% were sober for 20 or more years.”

      Reply
      1. Clive

        The problem is, when it comes to addiction disease processes, no treatment is especially effective. Talking therapy alone does little to address addictive behaviour. Treatment centres can get addicts clean and sober within their controlled environment, but relapse once outside in the real-world — with all its stress and opportunities to return to previous coping mechanisms and self-medications — is all-too-predictable.

        Most, as in, the vast vast majority, of addicts will go on to die of their diseases. Often depriving their sufferers of vast amounts of money in the process through costly but ineffective treatments. Societies don’t like, don’t want to hear about and don’t want to acknowledge the existence of such depressing concepts. It doesn’t fit with our cultural preferences. Yet addictive behaviour is exactly this.

        As for the anonymous programs, a 36% success rate for 10 years or more abstinence from addiction patterns is way better than pretty much anything else you can use as a treatment approach. Plus, the cost is free, or only as much as the participant chooses to give. But they aren’t for everyone. I know many addicts who have been in and out of AA or NA for years, and in and out of sobriety, but whose patterns of addiction continue and their lives are becoming increasingly unmanageable.

        Also difficult and also against our cultural norms is that, if someone is addicted, their addiction is their choice, their recovery (or not) is the path they are taking and we, if we are caring and responsible people, have to honour their journeys. We have Disney movies because we don’t get to lead Disney-world lives. Very few of us are really willing to accept that.

        Reply
        1. John Zelnicker

          @Clive
          May 25, 2019 at 12:16 pm
          ——-

          I have to respectfully disagree with a couple of your points, Clive.

          One, the AA effectiveness study surveyed participating members of AA. That leaves out all of those who may have tried it and left. Other, more thorough studies, have come up with about a 5% recovery rate for AA and it’s affiliated organizations. IIRC, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has a higher success rate.

          The other disagreement I have is your statement that a majority of addicts will go on to die of their disease.

          According to one of the top experts in the field, Dr. Carl Hart, a very high percentage of addicts actually end up sorta aging out of their addiction and going on to live their lives without drug issues. He also has done research that indicates calling addiction a disease is a mistake.

          Dr. Hart is a neuroscientist at Columbia, researching addiction issues. A quick search came up with these two articles/interviews. I haven’t read them in full, so I don’t know if he mentions aging out of addiction, but they should provide a useful introduction to his ideas and work.

          https://www.soberforever.net/addictionblog/index.php/dr-carl-hart-and-the-truth-about-addictions/

          https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/interview-addiction-expert-carl-hart-explains-why-drugs-arent-the-problem

          I have had 2 periods in my life during which I was over-using drugs, each time for a few years. The first time in the 1970’s, after college, and the second many years later.

          I walked away from the first time with no ill effects (I also moved 1,500 miles away from my connections). The second time required some professional help, but was equally successful.

          After regaining control over my drug use, there was/is no remaining compulsion to go back to that behavior.

          Reply
          1. Clive

            Other evidence paints a much less rosy picture https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/health-matters-harmful-drinking-and-alcohol-dependence/health-matters-harmful-drinking-and-alcohol-dependence

            Alcohol related mortality

            Excessive alcohol consumption is a major cause of preventable premature death. It accounts for 1.4% of all deaths registered in England and Wales in 2012.

            Our figures show that the number of alcohol-related deaths in England has increased the following years:

            22,481 in 2013
            22,049 in 2012
            20,996 in 2002

            Liver disease is one of the leading causes of death in England and people are dying from it at younger ages. Alcohol accounts for over a third of all cases of liver disease. Most liver disease is preventable.

            Liver disease has more than doubled since 1980 and is the only major killer disease on the increase during that period in the UK. The CMO has highlighted liver disease as a major issue.

            And that’s just the booze. Never mind the narcotics. Opioid addiction is particularly resistant to treatment (pg.82/83).

            I’m so pleased that you’ve been able to get clean and sober and then stay clean and sober. Each day you achieve that is a blessing and a miracle. But as you yourself say, you’ve already had one instance of relapse. I did have to smile, and please believe me when I say I am in no way trying to mock you, when you said that your second period of sobriety was “equally [as] successful” as the first. Which wasn’t successfully at all, at least not permanently. I noticed you, wisely, didn’t describe yourself as “cured”.

            This would, I would have thought, been ample demonstration of the power of addiction, how cunning, baffling and pernicious it is and how easily a slip can turn into a fall. Sometimes you can pick yourself back up again. But sometimes you fall so hard, you cannot pick yourself back up again. There is zero, absolutely nothing, in the way of evidence or scientific research which can predict, for a recovering addict, whether or not today will be just another day, or the day you part company with the wagon, never to be able to get back on it again.

            So in that respect at the very least, medical science has its limitations as does the published research, when it comes to understanding addiction.

            Reply
            1. ChiGal in Carolina

              Clive, I of course respect you but I have worked in this field and you are propagating an unhelpful narrative here.

              First, alcohol is much more damaging to the body than heroin. Cigarettes are the worst and kill way more people (who aren’t trying to commit suicide) than opioids.

              The main problem with opioids is the social opprobrium and treating heroin as a criminal rather than public health issue. That causes people to use alone and until recently have little access to the antidote to overdosing. Overdosing is the main risk of opioids which are not nearly as hard on your organs as alcohol or cigarettes. The issue is that there is such a narrow margin between the amount that provides a high and the amount that fatally depresses the breathing reflex.

              Nobody would die from using heroin if we had our public policy priorities in order, like countries with safe injection houses, etc.

              John is correct that many more people get off drugs when they are not in treatment than when they are in treatment. This doesn’t mean they may not have had some along the way.

              And there are as many paths out of chemical dependence as there are into it. For some it’s AA but evidence-based treatment is a combination of addressing comorbid mental illness along with CD and the incorporation of harm reduction, motivational interviewing, and medication along with addressing deficits in support systems and housing, employment, etc.

              Addiction is a bitch, yes, but it’s much more than a brain disease: as this misguided post (cuz mindfulness is not incompatible with engagement for a better world) indicates, the social environment plays an enormous role.

              Reply
              1. Michael Fiorillo

                “… mindfulness is not incompatible with engagement for a better world…”

                Actually, within the context of the author’s argument, it pretty much is.

                If you combine the corporate absorption of the concept(s) with the innate individualism and bourgeois-skewed demographics of New Age practice, you get pretty close to an official religion correlating with, if not helping underpin, neoliberalism.

                Exceptions will exist, but the aggregates rule.

                Reply
            2. ChiGal in Carolina

              But as you yourself say, you’ve already had one instance of relapse. I did have to smile, and please believe me when I say I am in no way trying to mock you, when you said that your second period of sobriety was “equally [as] successful” as the first. Which wasn’t successfully at all, at least not permanently. I noticed you, wisely, didn’t describe yourself as “cured”.

              Also this. Addiction is a chronic condition that requires management. Relapse is a part of the process. The fact that John relapsed years later doesn’t mean he wasn’t successful previously. There is no black and white absolutism these days with abstinence only being the sole model.

              Like with other chronic illnesses, of course we don’t speak of “cure”. I have asthma and use an inhaler for it: I am managing it. I could well have to go to the ER for life-saving treatment if I didn’t. If I did, would I be un/successful? It’s not a relevant category.

              Other chronic conditions can also be life-threatening if not well managed, and we let diabetics carry around life-saving treatment in case they need it.

              Reply
              1. Cripes

                Addiction is “baffling.” Sigh, not really.

                For about 50 years since the Rat addiction “experiments” of the the last century, we have been told that drugs and drugs alone cause irresistible abuse when ingested.

                I suppose that was a small Improvement over 12 step programs admonition that addicts character faults were to blame.

                But no, imprisoning rats in Skinner boxes in solitary confinement and no other stimulation than pressing levers tho deliver drugs into their jugular veins turns out to be a very poor experiment.

                Creating a rat park with sawdust, running Wheels, toys and both genders instead of solitary confinement, makes all the difference. I’ll leave it to your imagination what would a world that doesn’t drive human beings to kill themselves with intoxicants look like?

                Bruce k Alexander explains in this excerpt from Addiction: The View from Rat Park 2010

                “In virtually every experiment, the rats in solitary confinement consumed more drug solution, by every measure we could devise. And not just a little more. A lot more.

                “We compared the drug intake of rats housed in a reasonably normal environment 24 hours a day with rats kept in isolation in the solitary confinement cages that were standard in those days.

                In virtually every experiment, the rats in solitary confinement consumed more drug solution, by every measure we could devise. And not just a little more. A lot more.

                Rather, most of the consumption of rats isolated in a Skinner box was likely to be a response to isolation its self.”

                See the rest here

                http://www.brucekalexander.com/articles-speeches/rat-park/148-addiction-the-view-from-rat-park

                Reply
              2. John Zelnicker

                @ChiGal in Carolina
                May 25, 2019 at 4:32 pm
                ——-

                Please see my response to Clive, below. Especially, my comments about relapse.

                You are still using the addiction industry framework that tends to conflate addiction with dependence on and abuse of drugs. There is a significant difference. See the link in my response to Clive. One can be dependent and abusive without being addicted.

                I don’t “manage a chronic condition”, as I don’t have one, no struggle, no “One Day at a Time”, no desire to go back to using opiates. It simply doesn’t occur to me.

                Reply
                1. ChiGal in Carolina

                  I absolutely understand the difference between abuse and dependence. But dependence is the term used now for addiction. So your language is confusing.

                  Reply
                  1. John Zelnicker

                    @ChiGal in Carolina
                    May 26, 2019 at 6:48 am
                    ——-

                    I guess I’m not up to date on the definitions currently in use.

                    I used “dependent” in the sense that I depended on continuing use to avoid what I saw as the horrors of withdrawal. (It turned out to be much less horrible than I anticipated, but nevertheless extremely uncomfortable, even with medical support.)

                    I abused drugs in the sense of using far more than was necessary for pain management.

                    Hope this distinction clears up your confusion.

                    Reply
              3. Clive

                The big problem I have with the recent trend towards such crisis-management type of interventionist treatment approaches, whereby the aim is to stabilise the addict and the end result is harm-limitation with a view to enabling the addict to manage their addiction, is that it is moving the goalposts.

                No longer does the addiction-treatment industry have to promise or hold out the prospect of its merchandise or services being provided with curative intent. Rather, all it needs to do for addicts is provide tools for monitoring and controlling their addiction, patch them up so they can achieve a minimum essential functionality in society and then pronounce that is as much as can be achieved, so their work is done and, inevitably, their invoices settled because they’ve provided what they sold the client. Any life-long recovery is, if it has occurred, relegated to being a mere happy accident.

                Naturally, with such a low success rate and such a high probability of relapse as is unfortunately prevalent when we are talking about addiction, this — strangely enough for the now largely for-profit addiction treatment industry — provides a steady stream of repeat-business and freedom from the risk of litigation due to their services ever being able to be found to be unable to fulfil any promises.

                If the treatment industry doesn’t have to sell — and those who wish to help addicts don’t have to provide — any warranties, but yet get paid regardless, this could, I’d hope you agree, at least set up the potential for being a fraud and a racket, preying on those who have the misfortune to become addicted either behaviourally or chemically (or both).

                Reply
                1. Pespi

                  Thanks Clive, I’ve not seen that put as eloquently anywhere else.

                  We can play the kindness game and say some people are born with a pain to treat or a hole to fill, and need compassion as they go back to the rat drugs. It strips their dignity away, I think, the sort of genetic determinist way to act as if this is just a drama they were born to star in.

                  It’s easier to come up with compassionate and sustainable ways for people to keep pushing the button than to provide a social and material world for them to go it solo.

                  Reply
                2. Michael Fiorillo

                  And that “potential for being a fraud and a racket” is often cynically and profitably realized via forced participation in these habitually failing programs, by order of the criminal justice system.

                  Reply
            3. John Zelnicker

              @Clive
              May 25, 2019 at 2:58 pm
              ——-

              Please see the list of addictive behaviors in this link (2nd paragraph):

              https://www.indiana.edu/~engs/hints/addictiveb.html

              I never exhibited any of these behaviors. I had no obsession, no compulsive behavior with consumption, no performance problems, no depression, etc. Therefore, I never met the definition of an addict, although I was very dependent. The only withdrawal symptoms I had the second time (none the first) were the physical symptoms associated with the cessation of large amounts of opiates.

              Please don’t use the addiction industry terms of “clean and sober” when referring to me. I was never dirty, and I never lost control of myself or blacked out. Each day is not a “blessing and a miracle”, it’s just another (usually good) day in my privileged and relatively comfortable life. You’re right, I didn’t describe myself as cured, since I had no disease.

              My second bout of opiate dependence was not in any sense a relapse, since, at the time it started, I was not taking opiates and had no desire to. While the first time started as recreational use, the second started as a result of back surgery. When I no longer needed pain relief for my back, I continued taking opiates (always pharmaceutical, mainly Oxycontin and hydrocodone) because it was easier than stopping, sort of an inertia thing. Unfortunately, the quantities kept escalating until I knew I had to stop and get medical help to get past the withdrawal symptoms, which I feared greatly. Since I was in no way obsessed or compelled to use opiates, except to avoid withdrawal, there was no need for me to get any therapy, counseling, etc.

              Reply
  3. LawnDart

    The ink of the author’s pen reeks of sulfur and pitch.

    This is not in any way meant to construe disparagement: I greatly admire this writer.

    This “mindfulness” fad seems to be the neoliberal version of prosperity gospel– selfishness, self-centered behavior given authorative sanction. That and its encouragement of passivity, of inaction and cowardice… …yeah, just what we need.

    So, spit on your hands and gather the rope… …the blisters will heal. Friends, we have much work that needs to be done.

    Reply
    1. jrs

      Well maybe meditating is about as selfish as going to the gym is selfish. Even if one hits the gym purely for health and could care less about vanity, is too old to care about vanity anyway, it’s not changing the world, it’s purely concern with one’s own personal health.

      Most people are not meditating anyway and never will. It’s too hard to do if you come home from work tired, you start to meditate and just fall asleep. I’ve tried so many times and found it darn near impossible to fit into a work schedule. I’m just too tired. So I suspect it’s actually an extremely poor fit with contemporary capitalism. Even in theory, capitalism is all “go go go” and mediation is all “stay stay stay”. I mean people bragging about working 12 hour days (and that’s one’s Linked-in feed) are not meditating. But even if one doesn’t work an insane schedule, back in reality almost noone has that much extra time and energy to spare, we aren’t monks on the mountain top, we are exhausted wage slaves. Perhaps there is something about capitalism and human capacities that remain forever out of reach though.

      Reply
  4. Ted

    This is nothing but polemic through and through. Sure, the “mindfulness” industry is another turn of the corporate managerial worm. But, biopsychophysiological stress is real and well documented scientifically (Robert Sapolsky has written extensively on this topic) and toxic to the body and mind if chronic. Moreover, collectivist group-think solutions (yes, please do be political as long as your politics our OUR bourgeois academic politics and not the sort those red hat wearing working classes prefer) are perhaps as or more stressful as is corporate managerialism. While the life-long tenure holding academics sort out their political revolutions (still promising Utopia since 1848) the rest of us poor schlubs need some ways to manage everyday stress … if that means doing some meditation or yoga a few times a week, then so be it.

    Reply
    1. ambrit

      Alas, the “Poor Schlub Stress Management Systems” of old, and today too, if we are honest about it, rely on mind altering substances of a more ‘Traditional’ nature: Alcohol, Cannabis, Opiates, Nicotine, Khat, Religion, etc. etc.
      I believe that I do get your point. Stress relief is a survival characteristic. No matter how it is attained.

      Reply
    2. Brooklin Bridge

      I see this less as a polemic, and more a reminder that any self realization or self improvement efforts that become organized can have good or bad or a mix of such motives which get expressed in the character and precepts of the given organization, the ways to self help, stress relief, so on. The author is not arguing that stress relief, or those who come up with ways of dealing with it, are bad per se, but rather per instance (nor does he argue, in this case, the validity of stress and its harmful effects).

      A particularly good ‘tip off’ that you are involved with a questionable self help system is when it justifies itself or it’s precepts through some plausible but impossible to prove concept that hinges on your faults or something you are lacking for its validity. In some instances (for some of us) it’s pretty easy to spot; Jerry Falwell and his rousing spiritual progress defined by how much you give (to him), and other times it can be harder than figuring out the perspective of an Escher drawing such as the Hindu belief in reincarnation and karma (which can be insidiously misused to justify class stratification (the untouchables come to mind). And we all seem to have our soft spots, so judging a sucker for Falwell as such isn’t particularly helpful in the sense of ‘there go I but for the grace of…’

      This obviously goes back a long way and we have tried to deal with it with varying degrees of success via separation of Church and State, which interestingly has been significantly eroded over the past 60 years and particularly the last 40.

      Reply
    3. diptherio

      Robert Sapolsky’s work, along with others, has shown that high ambient stress levels in primates are the result their social systems. The lower on the totem pole, the more stress in your life. Sapolsky never suggested that his baboons’ stress was caused by a lack of meditation or mindfulness — it’s built into their society. And it’s the same for us. Of course, there are techniques that can help a person cope with being at or near the bottom of our social hierarchy, but trying to convince people that the reason for their stress is all in their head or that it can be managed solely on an individual level is simply covering up for the damaging nature of the status quo.

      And just like Sapolsky’s baboons, we could radically remake our society and its hierarchies in a way that leads to greatly reduced amounts of stress for all involved…which is why it’s so important to certain people that the possibility of doing so is never even mentioned. Some folks have a vested interest in getting us to believe that all our problems are individual problems with individual solutions. As someone who meditates on a daily basis, I can assure you that meditation alone is helpful, but it ain’t doing nothing to remake the social structure within which we live and which is the cause of the vast majority of our stress.

      Reply
      1. Monty

        The baboons in question had to deal with a mass poisoning, and subsequent die off, of the adult males of the troop. Are you advocating for a partial genocide? Would that be better than each of us taking a bit of time to relax?

        Reply
        1. Kuhio Kane

          Global mass extinction is in motion right in the here and now. Meditate as you will and take a reality break. Then use your personal stress reliever time to recharge your efforts, in reality, to be a part of active revolt against a system which is the primal cause for most of the stress most living things are experiencing now.

          Reply
        2. diptherio

          That’s the whole point of Sapolsky’s study and others like the Whitehall study. The problem is the hierarchy that places people (or baboons) in a situation where they are unable to healthfully discharge their stress, which is caused by that same hierarchy.

          The baboons got their new society after a massive die-off of their most aggressive males. I think we’ll need something as game-changing as that to make any real differences (not the same thing, but something on the same scale). Personal actions to mitigate the harmful effects of our social system have their place and are useful, but the (implied) claim that what people need in their lives is just more meditation is a specious one. As stated at the end of the article, the mindfulness must be connected to actions if it is to be anything other than a coping mechanism. Actionless thought is just as bad as thoughtless action in my book, and unfortunately that’s what a lot of the pop mindfulness teachers seem to be encouraging (a view which my many interactions with upper-class Buddhists bears out).

          Reply
          1. Monty

            It would be a shame if, after exterminating 10-15 million men, the results of the baboon study weren’t able to be replicated in humans!

            Reply
            1. Tony Wright

              I would settle for a much smaller number, most of whom are leaders in politics, government and business. That would mitigate some of our problems in the short term, however the fundamental ecological and social problems of the planet are all the consequence of human overpopulation. Therefore stress levels will continue to escalate for most people via the inevitable ecological consequences of overpopulation – conflict, disease, famine and that almost unique human add on, anthropogenic climate change.
              Mindfulness, like religion and drugs, is a coping mechanism, nothing more, nothing less. Mindfulness per se does not address the causes of our stresses in life.

              Reply
      2. Brooklin Bridge

        Well said. This sort of thing always reminds me of Samual Jonshon and his “refutation” of Bishop Berkeley’s immaterialism (the claim that matter did not actually exist but only seemed to exist).

        “During a conversation with Boswell, Johnson powerfully stomped a nearby stone and proclaimed of Berkeley’s theory, “I refute it thus!” from Wikepedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Johnson

        Of course suggesting that someone making the immaterialism argument prove his or her thesis by, say kicking a curbstone and showing no pain, does not resolve the issue of matter existing or not (and that is key), but it would catch a lot of hypocrites promoting the idea for self serving purposes.

        Likewise, one might suggest that those making insidious claims about stress originating entirely from within go live homeless for a year or so and then demonstrate that their “mindfulness” has protected them from all the harmful stress related effects of living on the street.

        Reply
  5. Abi

    I’ve recently just become aware of the New Age religion and the mindfulness mantra. I’d seen a lot of “mindful living” charts on Pinterest, but I had no idea how entrenched and prevalent it is. The most surprising however, was to find out that Christian churches now adapt new age practices into their programs. I mean people believe crystals can heal them (they suggest it’s not that different from holy water). The most shocking still was to find out that since Lauren London said (at Nipsey Hustles funeral) that he used to burn sage around the house, a lot of young people do that to “cleanse the energy”. I seriously consider a PhD in social anthropology because I’m equally amazed and perplexed by how young people are latching on to every trendy idea and going with it, I just find is fascinating. To some extent, I see the value in managing yourself better, but just like the faux healthy food industry and influencer lifestyle – it’s like young ppl are creating an alternate reality that is a direct challenge to the old ways that brought untold misery to so many.

    Reply
    1. Pespi

      I’ve seen it ripple through my circle of acquaintances. The constant is precariousness and a sense that even as the wheels of society grind you into pulp, you’re still at risk of floating into outer space, alone and unconsidered.
      When the phone is in your line of sight more than the world, everything becomes tenuous

      Reply
  6. john BOUGEAREL

    While it was nice to see some counterpoint on mindfulness, for a few laughs, the core of the mindfulness movement has a great deal of merit. And certainly, the so called father of mindfulness probably gets just as much wrong as he gets right when he tosses out “thinking diseases” and “attention disorders.” But to Ted’s point, Sapolsky has written a very entertaining “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” and Sapolsky’s mentor Bruce Lipton has also weighed in nicely on the topic of stress. Dispenza, author of You are the Placebo, and Becoming Supernatural hits the nail on the head when it comes to the individual process of transformation.

    Reply
    1. Sy Krass

      These things exist. They only manifest under extreme circumstances, or I presume with much practice, not necessarily for self-enrichment, though I believe this is possible too. I was 22 years old in 1995, and upon learning of my Mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis, I became lost in grief and sincere prayer for the better part of a few hours. Long story short a large cyst on my body disappeared literally in 24 hours, and my Mother lived a comfortable 5 months before inevitably passing away. I have no explanation of what happened to the cyst other than receiving grace for sincere belief.

      Reply
  7. Socal Rhino

    The former Archdruid had an interesting take on this I thought: that the practice of these techniques removed from the larger system of practice or system of thought was dangerous to the user.

    Reply
    1. Disturbed Voter

      Correct. And I should never contradict that Archdruid. Same thing with Hatha Yoga. These things are properly associated with spiritual practices, not materialistic ones. When I was younger, my employer tried to promote “visualization” as a way to enable the accomplishment of work goals.

      Reply
      1. Plenue

        The next step is realizing that ‘spiritual practices’ are also just so much meaningless drivel.

        Reply
      2. Pespi

        The hijacking of our strange internal mechanisms for motivation and insight feels like a deeply sinister reach for control by the disgusting white claw of neoliberal capital.

        I refuse, darn it (family blog)

        Reply
    2. Steve H.

      Yup, intended to produce a dissociative state. Great if you’re seeking to remove oneself from the world of material illusion, not so much if you think food and human relationships are important.

      > mindfulness becomes fuel for igniting resistance.

      Whose resistance, Kemo Sabe? When methods intended to remove critical thinking are used to purpose, the outcome is often fanaticism.

      Reply
      1. skippy

        “When methods intended to remove critical thinking are used to purpose” aka the suspension of disbelief E.g. ideological narratives are based on it.

        Reply
  8. BillS

    As I understood this essay, it is not mindfulness that is the problem, but Buddhist mindfulness emptied of its ethical and philosophical content (McMindfulness). The Western tradition has a similar philosophy in the anciant Cynics and Stoics, oft misunderstood in the same way (but deeply influential on the cosmopolitanism found in Christianity). Both Buddhists and Stoics, as is the familiar view, would counsel the acceptance of pain and disappointment as part of life, but both philosophies , through their systems of virtue ethics, demand engagement with the world, lifting your fellow creatures into a better life through enlightenment and virtuous living. Good governance and healthy societies are built on the virtues of Wisdom, Justice, Temperance and Courage practiced by the people who run them, not on some empty idea of selfish mindfulness peddled by neoliberal new-age hucksters and charlatans.

    People are always looking for the easy way out, hence the proliferation of drive through restaurants, megachurches that promise prosperity, self-help books that promise e-z happiness with no stress and politicians that promise simple solutions to complex problems (at the expense of the weakest in society). Somebody will always be able to make a buck promising the easy way. If history is any guide, real change only seems to happen through catastrophe, because with catastrophe, it becomes apparent that the easy ways don’t work the old virtues give us the strength to shunt the hucksters aside and come out the other side whole.

    Reply
    1. human

      Good comment, however, I take issue with, “politicians that promise simple solutions to complex problems.” I see our current “leaders” as supplying complex solutions to simple problems.

      Reply
      1. BillS

        Your point is taken. However, it all depends on your point of view. Take Brexit: sold as the E-Z way to economic prosperity and sovereignty. Farage, BoJo and other Brexit bottom-dwellers are still selling it this way. “Prosperity is just around the corner!” The truth is turning out to be somewhat more complex (Irish border backstop, Scotland, failure of British Steel, political chaos, loss of influence/sovereignty, possible dissolution of UK, no more UK-USA “special” relationship, etc.)

        Reply
        1. dk

          So maybe we can say that the complexity or simplicity of a problem and/or solution is not an absolute or exclusive measure of its effective quality?

          Related to the “mindfulness” topic, complexity/simplicity are very subjective (or domain-specific) determinations. Consider a single ball bearing. It can be embedded in a complex machine, but its own operation is simple (rolling in its casing). Then again if we examine the bearing closely we see a complex molecular structure, and may find signs of heat/pressure fatigue or poor manufacture. The production of reliable ball bearings is itself complex, but if we can do so, we can consider the ball bearing to be a simple component, and turn our attention to complexities of our machine.

          I’ve taught kungfu on and off throughout my life. I’ve encountered the “mindfulness” concept in students when calling their attention to subtle sensations which they will train their bodies to respond to. But focusing their attention on these sensations does not directly produce skill, it produces better preparation. Once their body’s neural systems have been trained, they don’t have to pay special attention to the sensations any more, and can (should) turn their minds to the larger matter of best conduct in a confrontation. But their training has increased the range of responses available to them. It’s all very complex, but subjectively for the practitioner, things just seem to get simpler and simpler.

          Careful preparation and practice (in manufacture, design, politics, or kungfu) produces more reliable performance, and reliable performance may let us fool ourselves into thinking that complex things have become simple. When this becomes a habit, even simple failures become catastrophic.

          Reply
    2. Dirk77

      I agree. A Buddhist teacher I know was concerned about the commidification of mindfulness divorced from all the related elements of her philosophy. Thich Nhat Hanh got tossed from Vietnam for his social activism as you know. In other words, the elements were strongly connected. She has been contacted by companies trying to use “mindfulness” to ultimately make their employees more productive, and is not happy with that. So there is concern then that trying to sell mindfulness itself as Kabat-Zinn appears to do will ultimately backfire and give Buddhism and related philosophies a bad name. As in everything, there is a middle way between being present and reflecting on the past and future. I’m no expert but I think in the philosophy, being an involved member of your community, your Sangha, is just as important as doing the practice (the Buddha) and learning the teachings (the Dharma).

      Reply
    3. Thuto

      “Before enlightenment, fetch water, carry wood, after enlightenment, fetch water, carry wood”, Zen saying.

      The idea, as you rightly point out, being that enlightenment shouldn’t be seen as a retreat from engaging with the realities of life. As I see it, the problem with “mindfulness” as packaged in contemporary western society is that it’s sold as an end unto itself: I.e. a final refuge to shelter from the unforgiving ravages of modern life. This “mindfulness for its own sake” sales pitch is what invites the sort of merited criticism outlined in the post. Mindfulness comes into its own when it’s seen as a platform from which focused, real world action can spring forth but alas, the latter is what proponents (purposely) dial down in their manuals. The advice to “stay calm and slowly back away if you chance upon a rattle snake” would have its merits curtailed if it only emphasized the part about remaining calm (mindfulness) and said nothing about slowly backing away (action springing from a calm state of mind). Even the Catholic church (yes with all its troubles) understands this dynamic as evidenced by how it structures the institution into enclosed, contemplative monastic communities and the wider priesthood whose function is to “engage with the world”. The problems arise, imo, when a spiritual tenet is cocommercialized and turned into an “industry”…

      Reply
    4. Plenue

      “Both Buddhists and Stoics, as is the familiar view, would counsel the acceptance of pain and disappointment as part of life, but both philosophies , through their systems of virtue ethics, demand engagement with the world, lifting your fellow creatures into a better life through enlightenment and virtuous living.”

      I’m sorry, what? When exactly are Buddhists doing this? When they aren’t running limb-chopping theocracies they seem to operate at a lesser level of general parasitism.

      Reply
      1. BillS

        Would you care to elaborate on how the violent behavior of some societies invalidates the ethical system of Buddhism..or Stoicism, for that matter? The Stoics rose to prominence in a violent, highly militarized empire whose chief form of public entertainment were the viciously brutal gladiatorial games. I don’t see how this negates the philosophical ideas that form the basis of Stoicism. The same could be said of Buddhism or any other philosophical/religious ideal.

        Reply
        1. Plenue

          I said nothing about them as philosophies. I was challenging the idea that Buddhism teaches ethics by lifting up other people. Tibet didn’t lift anything, other than palaces for the monks.

          Reply
  9. JDM

    The “mindfulness” tradition has existed for well over 2500 years and has served its practitioners well as long as it was incorporated into a larger spiritual (though, not necessarily religious) practice.

    In its Buddhist incarnation, mindfulness is mere one leg of a three-legged philosophy – wisdom, ethics, mindfulness. Should it be any surprise when one tries to sit on a one-legged stool?

    Reply
  10. Joe Lamport

    No one was more “mindful” in the 20th century than Gandhi. The problem the author seems concerned with is not inherent in the concept or techniques of mindfulness or meditation. It lies in their misuse to serve a limited or purely adaptive purpose of helping individuals live more productive lives in a corrupt and unjust society, as when the Air Force uses mindfulness to better train its fighter pilots. But there is a long counter tradition that shows meditation, mindfulness and spirituality generally can be well aligned with a heightened awareness of social justice. There are Chrsitian apologists for the existing social order and then there is Christ himself.
    Materialism (dialectical or otherwise) is very much part of our current planetary crisis. A deeper sense of spiritual awareness — and the inherent value of all living beings — is very much part of our path to a sustainable culture,economy, and way of life.

    Reply
  11. Juneau

    Interesting critique. I am also skeptical of the commodification although the principles been used in a some effective manualized mental health interventions like dialectical behavioral therapy. I have seen Jon Kabat-Zinn speak, he seems sincere; he runs an entire Mindfulness research program affiliated with the Harvard system in Boston so at least he is trying to get data on this. One negative study he reported showed that people coming out of detox relapse more when they use mindfulness. He has a lot of positive data as well apparently. At least he reports his negative data. Still, I can see how it could be misused to push “acceptance” on people who might be best served taking action.

    Reply
  12. Eclair

    Damn, but aging really wreaks havoc on short-term memory! I believe there was an essay in NC last week, something about the studying the psychological processes of an individual and how they influence behavior versus the study of how societal structures influence/constrain that behavior. And, how the current emphasis is more on the individual psychology, e.g., in fiction, film, etc. But, I may be imposing some of my own later ruminations .

    All this self-help, self-care genre is so focused on the individual. Like we exist independently of each other and of our social frameworks. The United States is a nation built on this concept of individuality, each striving to better himself, attaining self-sufficiency, doing it without the aid of government or family or tribe. Lots of little atoms, all circling around, maximizing her utility and producing the greatest economy the world has ever known.

    While wrecking the Planet and putting the continued existence of humans (and bees) at serious risk.

    Our focus is inward; how do I succeed, how do I become happy, how do I become rich. Economic theory says that if each of us as individuals maximize her utility, then, magically, everyone becomes happier, richer. A rising tide …, trickle down …., job creators …… And, if you don’t become rich/healthy/successful …. it’s your own fault.

    An alternate mode of thought, of being, is that each one of us is a small piece in a cosmic network. We are each connected to everything else. Our individual actions influence others. We cut down a forest, what are the consequences? We toss our plastic bags and bottles in the trash after a single use. What are the consequences? We bomb a city in Iraq. What are the consequences?

    And, because we are each a part of an interwoven network, sickness, poverty, homelessness affect all of us, even if we as individuals are healthy, well-off and well-housed. If young men in Appalachia are dying of Fentanyl overdoses, if African-American women are dying in childbirth, if 6,000 people in Seattle are unhoused …. then we are a diseased society. If our oceans are increasingly acidic, if Douglas fir trees are dying by the thousands, if bats are fungus-ridden …. then we are a diseased and dying society And, our psychological functions, as well as our actions, are dependent on and are constrained by, the overarching social structures that surround us.

    Apologies for going on at such length. But I believe that carrying on with this fiction that we live and act only as individuals is suicidal. Unless we change our mindset, we are headed toward disaster.

    Reply
    1. Monty

      Unless we change our mindset, we are headed toward disaster.

      I think that the brain-washing has been too successful and resistance is futile. The status quo will continue until it cannot. The change wont come until the disasters have made the current system irreparable.

      Reply
    2. flora

      Thanks for this comment. I agree.

      an aside: people say Bernie is a hypocrite for having a couple million and yet calling himself a democratic socialist. Money is of itself not the absolute determinant of a person’s view of what makes a good or a fairer society. FDR was a patrician and pushed through the New Deal programs to make lives for ordinary Americans economically better. Not perfect but better. It worked, too. Many but not all of the patricians of his day called him a ‘traitor to his class’. But there were also several who understood “we’re all in this together”, and supported the New Deal programs. It wasn’t a neat Dem/GOP divide either.

      Reply
  13. Herb

    I recently attended a remarkable workshop organized by Dan Siegel with presentations by Kabat-Zinn and other leaders in the mindfulness movement. It was focused on how mindfulness can be employed to deal with both climate change and racism. So I entirely reject the argument made by the author.

    Mindfulness is remarkably empowering and enriching and I do believe that as more people are trained in mindfulness the level of social activism would substantially increase.

    Reply
  14. Norb

    The essence of capitalist thinking is that everything can be turned into a commodity for sale, leading to profit. This commodification requires endless growth to persist thru time. The trouble with capitalist thinking is that the system works best when you have individuals outside that thought system to exploit. People not conditioned to accept the commodification of the world mindset are susceptible to lies and double-crosses. They see too late the dangers and ultimate fate of associating with such ruthless people. The nature of the capitalist mindset is not to live, but to grow and expand- endlessly.

    This mindset is reflected by the Alec Baldwin character in the sit scene in Glenn Gary Glen Ross.” ABC- Always Be Closing…. Always Be Closing”. “There are people out there DYING to give you their money, are you MAN enough to TAKE IT.– You need brass balls to survive in this world. The world is divided into winners and losers.

    That is the capitalist system, a juggernaut plowing through the world- always looking for new avenues to exploit and conquer. Capitalist thinking infects and distorts every other sort of thinking and life process. It refuses to see the world dialectically, by which I understand that term to mean the process of thesis/ antithesis/ synthesis. Which means different ways of seeing and experiencing the world bumping up against each other- conflicts and contradictions- resulting in a new way of seeing and being in the world. With this worldview, the world is dynamic and always changing. With capitalist thinking- TINA- there is no alternative. The world changes to remain the same. Capitalism is a machine, not a living process. Capitalism is not a true human culture.

    Training the mind is an important thing. But the goal must be to live in harmony and peace with the world around us- not some coping mechanism to become better capitalists or to be able to tolerate its injustices. Alcohol and Drugs meet those needs nicely, but then again, one group of capitalist have cornered that market already.

    Conditioning the mind and body to move beyond capitalist thinking and being is required for a livable future. To bring about change in the status quo however, the stress must be on the body though, not the mind. Physically removing oneself from the system is most preferable to those that can, or physically not participating to the best of your ability- civil disobedience.

    Now wonder the capitalists are working overtime to control the mind, and offer no benefits for the body, instead of making it sicker, which will then require higher maintenance expenditures.

    Reply
  15. Krystyn Walentka

    Mindlessness Movement I say. (And for those who want receipts, I was a Theravada Buddhist for years.)

    I have been seeing religion as a safety valve for the pressures of capitalism. Even the Buddha was just another guru leading us to a path of complacency. He was the first wealthy neoliberal who could not take the boredom of being cloistered from reality.

    I would say Christ taught a more engaged lesson by kicking the bankers out of the temple. But once his message could not be silenced it was absorbed by capitalism and watered down.

    What mindfulness does touch on is what I call “Unprocessed Reality” as opposed to highly processed reality (junk food reality). Any reality that is created with human technology (TV, Facebook, Blogs) is missing some mental nutrients. When we have reality processed for us we getting the sugar without the fruit and we get mental diabetes.

    To me this is where the Daoists got it right. The original Daoists did not seek to change the world and make it better, they accepted it all.

    Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      I always found it interesting that in Japan Christianity was seen as radical and an attack on the feudal status quo, which is why it was so popular with the poorest peasants in the 16th Century – and so vigorously rooted out. Shintoism and Buddhism were seen as upholders of the existing order.

      Shisaku Endo’s book ‘Silence‘ is an eloquent fictional account of the conflict.

      Reply
    2. Michael C.

      Also a practitioner in the Theravada tradition, but with the secular bent that is common in the 21st century, mindfulness in the Buddhist sense is much more than just being aware in the present moment, if that is what the new agers think. The purpose of mindfulness is to develop insight into how the mind grasps to things that are only temporary in relation to greed, hatred, and the delusions with which we create by attaching to the impermanent as if permanent.This includes the false narratives we create and construct about ourselves and our world and place in it. It is about seeing the world–meaning our minds interaction with the world– as it actually operates. It is not about disengaging from the world, and in Buddhism it cannot be practiced effectively unless one begins with “sila,” which is ethically living. Have you ever seen a good idea that did not produce a bunch of charlatans marketing the idea for profit like many of the new age gurus do? That does not make the initial teaching wrong. Too many people have a popular idea about what Buddhism is and do not really understand it.

      And of course, there are bad people who call themselves Buddhist, as there are bad Christians and bad Muslims, etc. The Burmese killing and discrimination against the Rohingya and the Sri Lanka killing and discrimination against the Tamils, both are examples of the great gulf between what was taught and what is carried out in the name of Buddhism. This is not unlike new agers pilfering aspects of the dhamma and making it into a profit machine when originally the gift of the teaching was to be free and “the greatest of all gifts.”

      Having said that, mindfulness meditation has been shown to remove stress, make one calmer, and more aware of relationship to the world around us. Not sure how that can be a bad thing.

      Reply
  16. Karl Boyken

    Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) were developed by Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts medical school. The American Mindfulness Research Association (AMRA) has many medical research articles available online about the effectiveness of MBSR and MBCT, at https://goamra.org/

    I was diagnosed with chronic pelvic pain syndrome in 2006. I took an MBSR class in 2008, and mindfulness practice has helped me deal with my chronic pain, without medication. I’m one of many chronic pain sufferers who have found relief via this practice.

    While mindfulness has been something of a fad lately and has been co-opted by the corporate world as a tool to maximize profit, it’s also true that MBSR actually does benefit many people, in multiple ways.

    Reply
  17. The Rev Kev

    Seems to me that you can’t go far wrong organizing a movement around the premise “You Are Special!” It could be even very lucrative that. It appears to be a technique that has been stripped away from its philosophical context to package it better. Of course over time these sorts of ideas encourages other concepts like “The Secret” which had the idea that “You are not only Special but you are also Magic!”. Maybe it would be better to have people practice “wisdom” instead. It seems to be a word that has gone out of fashion that. As far as mindfulness is concerned, yes, there is a time and place for it but as far as general use is concerned I would repeat Eric Cartman’s sentiments here when he said – “It’s all a bunch of tree-hugging hippie crap.”

    Reply
  18. David

    There is a much better article to be written here about the corruption and spoiling of an ancient and extremely useful idea, found in pretty much all religious traditions, but also these days available as a purely secular exercise. Mindfulness is one (but only one) tradition of meditation, and its benefits for health and happiness are incontestable. John Kabbat Zin, the subject of some scornful remarks here, is a distinguished scientist who’s been getting good results for decades and has written some interesting books on the subject. It’s hard to imagine, in fact, not wanting to be mindful and so going through life seldom aware of what you are doing, unable to concentrate, forever consumed by resentment of the past and fear of the future and angry and disturbed about things that are beyond your power to influence. I don’t know where the idea that meditation leads to quiescence comes from, but you don’t find it in the traditions for the most part. Meditation has historically been a way of engaging with the world more effectively and living better.

    Reply
    1. ChiGal in Carolina

      This is an excellent comment. It is an old, old culture-bound debate, engaging with the world as Western vs inner acceptance as Eastern.

      Except the POINT of mindfulness as currently encouraged is precisely to enable one to more EFFECTIVELY engage with the world, to act rather than react.

      There need not be a conflict between working for social justice and coping better with the stress its absence imposes on us.

      Cutting edge thought in mindfulness relates it to attachment, because our very selves are constructed in relation to others (think of that horrible experiment in which newborn monkeys deprived of all physical contact withered and died); when feeling connected and safe, higher-level cognitive functions such as attunement, insight, empathy, response flexibility, fear modulation, moral awareness, intuition, and others (see the work of Daniel J Siegel) come online.

      The Polyvagal Theory of Stephen Porges maps our autonomic nervous system to show that it has evolved from the dorsal vagal circuit of the parasympathetic nervous system, 500 million years old and still protecting us though shutting down to conserve energy when threatened (the way animals “play possum”), to the sympathetic nervous system, 400 million years old, which enables us to mobilize when threatened (“fight or flight”), to the central vagal circuit of the parasympathetic nervous system (prefrontal cortex), 200 million years old, described in the previous paragraph and based in our capacity for social engagement.

      Pretty cool stuff…

      Reply
    2. Dirk77

      I think I would probably have taken the same reductionist approach to studying mindfulness scientifically as Kabat-Zinn. I mean it’s the first thing to try for the scientifically trained. But I think eventually all the other related elements will arise. I have noticed when being present that I have more empathy of the frailty of others for example. So in that sense, McMindfulness may have its place and be a roundabout positive thing, even though I realize that being present appears to be just one part of a whole.

      Reply
  19. Susan the other`

    It could be true that you can fool some of the people all of the time, but I’ve never known any of those people. Gas-lighting is as old as the hills. And in spite of our bizarre tendency for denial, as necessary, we still evolve at a pretty steady pace. The ironies contained in the concept of mindfulness are delicious. Tell the US Military to be mindful. Tell a captain of industry to be mindful. In fact, tell them if they are not mindful they will be hung by their heels from the gas light. Tell all the homeless people to be mindful and they will turn you into a quintessential hypocrite. Tell the City Council of San Francisco to just be mindful of the homeless. Maybe raise the bar for felonies from $50. to $1,000 – in an act of compassion for their deprivation. If you are too mindful to install public toilets you can always hire a fleet of poop scoopers at top dollar because the miasma of mindfulness has ruined a once delightful town and you are desperate to make it great again. Etc.

    Reply
    1. newcatty

      What are we mindful of, as we meander through our lives? Everything is framed around perception and that is in our minds. So, it’s is individual. The delicious ironies inculcated in the framing of mindfulness are unavoidable…one man is greatly helped in the context of practicing it for pain relief. This is beneficial for him…and it’s situational. Another person, who has completed rehab, practices it and it is not beneficial. They are ready to be focused on a positive perception of stilling their mind. Almost any spiritual, religious or mind controlling practice can be used for good or bad. Now, my perception and belief, is that the military using it to enhance their pilots, snipers or covert operatives effectiveness is not a good thing. It is well known that meditation or mindfulness practice is used by corporations to enhance the effectiveness of CEOs or to control the office slaves by giving them some relief from drudgery. Meditation, or breathing practices can be beneficial to kids in schools. But, if its to placate them, to move them to behave “well”, to enable them to focus better in class, to be less reactive to others’ provocation then it is just emotional bandaids for the school staff. If none of the underlying reasons why the kids are tired, or hungry, or depressed or angry then it is just hypocrisy . The most egregious meditation neolib racket is one who charges a lot of money to just “learn to meditate”. After that induction, you can take many classes, etc., to deepen your practice and so on. There are retreats to enjoy and, BTW, you are helping to bring about world peace, too. Ah, it works for many. Guess my biggest problem with some groups is that they see their method as the only effective. One of the most spiritually mature and compassionate women I have ever known was a Catholic lay person who lived in community of a monastery. She practiced her faith and also was an astute student of other religions and cultures. She did believe that reincarnation made sense, but it may not as linear in time. She was a modern day mystic. She and her friends taught Christian contemplation; had weeks long retreats for young people, who were mostly just out of rehab ( were not required to be religious at all); had a wonderful festival of featuring their gardens and orchards foods and local musicians ( this for a nominal entrance donation); welcomed visitors at all services. Nothing was charged for the gifts of sharing their lives with others. I have just touched on their generosity. So, there are “religious” groups who do good work for others. And, She believed in the inner connectedness of life.

      Reply
      1. Susan the other`

        Yes, I believe you. I wasn’t thinking of religious applications. Just mind control really. I think when it is abused it is a form of denial. Even group denial. The only person I was ever told to be mindful by was my doctor and I’ve decided he’s a weasel. I almost said, Hey, you be mindful. ;-)

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      2. Susan the other`

        Also too: It seems to be indicated by experiments on snow crystals, and on water even, that thinking “bad thoughts” can rearrange their molecules making them less structured. We all talk to our plants in a loving way, right? And they really do seem to thrive for it. And recently there is a theory of time (Smolin) that sounds a lot like Rupert Sheldrake’s morphogenic fields of energy, which claims to be falsifiable/verifiable – that precedent is sort of a self-perpetuating phenomenon at the quantum level. So the tiniest particles in our world seem to be finding their own way, following paths. And logic follows that if we can influence a snowflake with our thoughts we can surely influence the direction of events because they all begin and grow from tiniest beginnings. I really don’t think there is anything “mystical” about it. I think it is real.

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  20. Todd Lewis

    I think you can include the Amazon’s Gamification at work as the penultimate of this in the moment mindfulness. If your always in the moment then you won’t notice the horrible working conditions, lack of mobility, lack of being able to get ahead, etc.

    This mindfulness meme is all over linked in with its faux intellectualism, CEO of company X does this so should you. Implying that since you don;t do this your not successful. It gets repeated over and over in different clickbait articles.

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  21. Henry

    Agreed. The problem is not the tradition of mindfulness, but the ability of capitalism to exploit just about anything. Quieting the “monkey mind” within the context of modern western society can be a challenge, though I’m amazed that we don’t teach everyone at least some basic breathing techniques while in school. Get home from work tired or not awake yet in the morning, fire up the sympathetic system with a minute of short fast breathing , works as well as coffee at least until you become addicted to caffeine. Stressed or want to wind down, then engage the parasympathetic system by slow relaxed breathing through the nose. Long inhale short exhale, warms you up. Short inhale long exhale cools you down. Finally what could be more effective at countering neoliberalism than teaching compassion.

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  22. Jeremy Grimm

    That “mindfulness” — as hawked by the mindfulness-movement — “encourages settling for a resigned political passivity” seems prominent among the criticisms of mindfulness in this post. This idea of mindfulness as “sanitized palliative for neoliberal subjects who have lost hope for alternatives to capitalism” is little more than an echo of an old critique of religion.

    I am fine with casting aside opiates and “igniting resistance” but what exactly is the author of this post proposing we do? Vote? Protest? Stop buying Nike shoes and iPhones? Give away all our worldly goods and live as a lily of the field? I am mad as hell and I am not going to take this anymore! … but what am I supposed to do after I shout out my window?

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  23. das monde

    Since antiquity, mindfulness, zen enlightenment, virtues, eudamomia, feeling in control were prerogatives of society alphas. It is hard to fake that while in submission!

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  24. martell

    Yes, could have been much better. But it was good for a few laughs. I especially liked the part about the Social Justice version of mindfulness training, the version that gets people to focus on privilege and internalized oppression. I think this should be part of a package of Social Justice goods and services, including a cookbook and exercise manual. The cookbook would consist entirely of recipes that you mustn’t use. Because Cultural Appropriation. The exercise book would include models who cannot actually perform the exercises due to obesity or overweight. Anything else would be Able-ist. And we wouldn’t want to implicitly body shame anyone by not including representatives of all shapes and sizes. That would be oppressive. Might get internalized.

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  25. Olivier

    “A new religion of the self, unencumbered by the public sphere”. That’s a masterful formula! I am saving it.

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  26. JohnB

    Meh…Mindfulness is a tool, and people do have real stresses – and not all of them are socioeconomic, some of them are bonafide irrational/damaging – and I’ve had long term anxiety socially, which took away a good portion of a decade and a half of my life, socially (all good now, though – thankfully).

    Mindfulness is a very useful tool. It’s also an incredibly simple one. It can be the difference between walking down the street and feeling racing anxious thoughts about people judging me or looking at me weird, with my anxiety escalating to unmanageable levels – versus me being able to use mindfulness to ‘step back’, and view myself and my feelings like from the third person, and not be consumed by them, to not let the racing thoughts begin, and to see how irrational they are – and be able to cope.

    A little bit too much of the ‘Marxist Interpretation of Peaches’ in this article:
    http://www.skateboard-city.com/messageboard/showthread.php?62186-Marxist-Interpretation-of-Peaches&s=c09af4e5886f42eb46c7702b19808c5a

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  27. Cal2

    Powerful indictment of the dangers of this “hocus-focus.” Thank you.

    Let’s explore the comedic aspect of it:

    “mindfulness” as a means for self-betterment has been a staple of the New Age for at least 30 years”

    More like 55 years in this neck of the woods, the San Francisco Bay Area. (e.g. Alan Watts).
    https://www.alanwatts.org/life-of-alan-watts/

    Many sightings of robe wearing Buddhists riding in a Brand new BMW SUV with a bumper sticker:
    “My next car will be electric!” , next to a Beto decal. Yes, we are in California.

    Hark! The End Times are here for some:
    “After 17 years of promoting, teaching, and engaging in mindful activism, we have closed the Green Sangha organization…Why did we close? The Board worked hard to develop our membership, but the efforts were insufficient to grow the base of support [donations ]needed to keep a non-profit afloat. We decided to close the organization, knowing that the ideas, methods, and motivation that have meant so much will continue to guide and inspire as we work for a safe, just, and beautiful world.”

    The string of Tibetan flag vendors, home shrine installers and the “religious name” crowd are in panic mode, as they are becoming about as relevant a Tupperware vendors, at least hereabouts. Maybe it will take longer in the sticks.

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  28. 3.14e-9

    Interesting timing for this article to show up on NC. I participate in a weekly call-in meditation program through the VA and feel like it has been doing a lot of good. I’ve missed only a couple of sessions since starting last August. However, on Thursday, I became irritated and, for the first time, hung up before a session ended. As I was mulling over what triggered that reaction, I realized I’ve had a growing sense that the VA is using this approach for veterans with PTSD as a means to deflect appropriate anger.

    So, while I think the author of this article is overly negative, he’s not wrong (and maybe the book is more balanced). Reader comments to the effect that powerful self-awareness techniques can be misused and abused for mind control and other nefarious purposes are on-point.

    Actually, I’m surprised that no one has mentioned the VA, since there evidently are quite a few veterans among the commentariat, and the VA has been big on mindfulness for treating PTSD. This study provides a pretty good view of current VA thinking on mindfulness:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5871168/

    The authors measured results in terms of “enhanced present moment awareness, increased nonreactivity, increased nonjudgmental acceptance, decreased physiological arousal and stress reactivity, increased active coping skills, and greater relaxation.” Predictably, they reported that “[m]ore participants in the mindfulness intervention groups reported improvement in PTSD symptoms when compared to participants in non-mindfulness groups.” They do get credit for reporting an unintentional finding that the “control group,” which didn’t do anything other than sitting quietly, also got results, prompting this wonderfully incongruous statement: Perhaps simply sitting quietly for 20 minutes each day may be helpful for improving PTSD symptoms.

    For anyone interested in the general state of the scientific evidence (or lack thereof), PubMed is a good place to start:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/?term=mindfulness

    Lastly, anyone who’s curious about the call-in meditation program through the VA can find out more information at the link below. It’s supposed to be for veterans, but the call-in information is public, and the program is taxpayer-funded.
    https://www.warrelatedillness.va.gov/meditation/

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    1. Michael Fiorillo

      Thanks very much for raising this important aspect of the discussion, where personal therapeutic needs rub directly up against institutional objectives and behaviors, all of it situated within a huge and complex socio-politico-economic tapestry.

      It’s hard to imagine a more concrete example of “the personal is political.”

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    2. Dirk77

      I’m not sure sitting quietly is a valid control group. If I infer correctly what that means, then looking out one’s window at the birds and trees applies, say. But isn’t that being present too?

      Reply
  29. RubyDog

    Reading the article and then the comments illustrates nicely how a subject with complex historical cross cultural threads and meanings gets interpreted through one’s personal filters and ideological biases.
    My own biases say that yes, mindfulness is being overhyped and sold as a panacea for everything that ails modern society, and yes, it has been co-opted by corporatism to imply that the source of stress is within an individual and deflecting attention from any need to change the extant sources of stress within modern capitalism.
    However, going back to the roots and traditions of meditation, there is clear value to inward seeking, quietness of mind, solitude and learning to be in the moment. But it’s not easy, and it won’t help you if you’re looking for quick and easy answers.
    Also, I can’t be the only one who is slightly horrified by the notion of “mindfulness methods that help practitioners uncover how they have internalized oppression, as well as ways to dismantle and unlearn privilege.” Fine, if that’s what you want, but yikes!

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    1. jeremyharrison

      Mindfulness is an ancient, effective technique (used in numerous wisdom traditions), for developing a clearer view of What Is. Full stop.

      When one brings a pre-existing agenda to focus on one particular “thing”, be that “functioning as a better corporate manager” or “getting rich”, or “having better sex” or “uncovering internalized oppression and dismantling privilege” – Yikes, indeed. The entire effort is undermined from the very beginning.

      You want to talk about cults, have some conversations with college student social justice warriors of various kinds – who seem quite helplessly stuck in both their minds and their lives, as they blame their every problem on outside forces (hence can never better themselves unless and until some Total Revolution unfolds), and have nothing resembling open-minded self-reflection. The only people they can civilly engage with are fellow cult members. Everyone else who thinks differently is “other” or “enemy” in the exact same way that the worst religious cult members view things.

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    2. Michael Fiorillo

      Ruby Dog,

      Those mindfulness practices to “unlearn privilege” sound an awful lot like an an updated version of the “self-criticism/struggle sessions” that were used to enforce orthodoxy back in Mao’s China, and which are still common, in varying degrees, among Left Sectarians here.

      Reply
  30. Mattski

    As critique of a narcissistic self-help movement that’s half a century and more old. . . this is right on. As criticism of “mindfulness” generally, it is an important note of caution. But as critique of the mindfulness programs that Kabat Zinn runs out of UMass Amherst’s medical school, it’s a load of balls.

    That program uses four yoga and meditation techniques to work first with people recovering from illness, and its practitioners–with the medical school–have spent decades chronicling the efficacy of those techniques, tweaking them, trying them with new populations and–importantly–credentialing teachers after a lengthy and rigorous, entirely non-dogmatic process. (You must have a higher degree to teach at all, which is the source of some controversy.)

    Kabat Zinn is himself is a lefty, relative of Howard Zinn, and keenly aware of the criticisms and limitations. He has debated/discussed with the likes of Angela Davis (a practitioner) on the internet, which interested readers can examine for themselves. (For the record: I am on her side, but MBSR, as Davis recognizes, survives as an important tool for health.) New organizations like Mindfulness for the People have sprung up in places like Madison, WI. It is particularly helpful for people with chronic depression and–in fact–cuts through some of the self-hating/self-blaming attitudes that MANY therapies inculcate–every MBSR teacher I have had has noted this dynamic.

    This article sounds good but omits the simple value of meditation in enabling any of us to be calm enough to fight back. I recently conducted a six-week MBSR course at a local public housing project with a group of about 20 women, and it went well. They want me to do it again; I wasn’t counseling quiescence.

    The article throws out the baby with the bathwater. The baby is us vulnerable human beings. My world still needs changing when I am done meditating or doing yoga in the morning, when I awaken from the better sleep that the MBSR techniques, non-dogmatically, help develop. But my blood pressure is lower, I am calmer, and–according to some studies–I am even hearing better and recovering from a host of ailments more quickly.

    The article, ironically, falls into the error that so much New Age/self-help twaddle does: it’s not rigorous.

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  31. Chauncey Gardiner

    Based on this layman’s understanding, feel it’s a bit of a stretch to assign blame to mindfulness for the continuing political dominance and social ills of neoliberal capitalism. Perhaps we should instead blame church potlucks, popular music, yoga, Yellowstone vacations, watching NFL football, or any of a seemingly unlimited number of activities for the massive, ongoing societal and individual costs of neoliberalism. It detracts from discussion of how health, environmental and other issues attributable in part to the anxiety and stresses of everyday American life under a system of neoliberal capitalism might be effectively addressed through systemic change. Maybe I’m missing the point, but the outcry against what I perceive to be a relatively benign and potentially beneficial individual activity is puzzling.

    As reflected in the rising numbers of homeless and the plethora of addictions in various forms, ours is a pathological environment for far too many Americans. So how does one “have a life” under the current neoliberal capitalist system, particularly if one’s personality and interests are not aligned with the particular traits, values, reward incentives and pathologies of neoliberalism? What are the alternatives?…

    I share the writer’s expressed belief in his concluding paragraphs that the tools of mindfulness can have value not only as an individual coping mechanism, but in fostering activism to address social, political and environmental change. I hope that is where this is headed.

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  32. gordon

    “We need to change our laws, habits and institutions; our society is very imperfect”

    “I need to change myself”

    The tension between these two responses to stress, failure and general unhappiness is longstanding. Arthur Koestler’s essay “The Yogi and the Commissar” (1942) was the first to articulate this clearly to me. Since I first read that essay, I have seen the public/private alternative reappear in many contexts. It is, in fact, as much an “old chestnut” as the perhaps better-known nature vs. nurture alternative. Like nature/nurture, the answer to the question of whether we should be reformers of the world or ourselves is very often “a bit of both”.

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  33. Richard H Caldwell

    Where do I start? This screed relies on a couple of key assumptions and associations that are: a.) inconsistent with my own experience of both life and vipassana; and b.) never supported beyond strident assertion.

    Mindfulness as a tool of neoliberalism? The author’s apparently very limited exposure to mindfulness is exacerbated by a tendency to generalize from that limited dataset. Every discipline has its outliers — hot yoga, power yoga, naked yoga — to characterize the practice of yoga from these screwball examples is to exhibit a lack of serious understanding of the ancient meditative practice that is yoga.

    Mindfulness serving the interests of worldwide capital by encouraging practitioners to see and understand suffering as a personal creation, avoidable through self study and practice? Reductio ad absurdem combined with a specious association. Yes, one side benefit of mindfulness is the growing awareness of personal responsibility for one’s reactions to external conditions; unmentioned, elided (unknown?) by the author is a corresponding relaxation of the sense of responsibility for one’s situation or context. It takes a contortionist’s ability to twist this into support for late-stage capitalism.

    I’m surprised that NC would post such an unbalanced, misrepresentative, and snide hit job on something as beneficial and non-toxic as the study of mindfulness. Just as athletes must train for superior performance on the physical plane, so do others exercise their perceptual faculties in order to discern and discriminate mental and emotional phenomena more acutely. To disparage this activity in the way this article does displays profound ignorance and inexcusable cant.

    Reply

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