If I were writing my book, Mindfulness Yoga, at the current time, the biggest change would be in the definition and my description of "mindfulness" itself!
Between the explosive popularity, commodification, and cooptation of mindfulness over the last 15 years, and my deeper study and understanding that came from both my zen training under the Korean zen master, Samu Sunim and, especially, my Graduate Studies with Peter Harvey, I often tell students using my book for yoga teacher training that if I were writing it now, the chapter on mindfulness would be very different. Back then, my understanding of mindfulness meditation was still heavily influenced by the modernist version promulgated by teachers like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Thich Nhat Hanh.
This modernist understanding dates back to 19th century colonialism when some influential Buddhist leaders began to argue against the Christian colonialists by saying Buddhism was more “scientific” and rational than Christianity. As a nationalistic ploy to popularize Buddhism against the Christian encroachers, Buddhist monks started to teach a simple (perhaps even simplistic) understanding of mindfulness meditation, and downplaying the deeper analytical philosophical context and practices and then offering it, for the first time, to laity. Still, I find, most westerners equate meditation with Buddhism while for most of its history, most Buddhists did not meditate!
What is this more simplistic understanding of mindfulness? Note the following definitions:
Mindfulness meditation asks us to suspend judgment and unleash our natural curiosity about the workings of the mind, approaching our experience with warmth and kindness, to ourselves and others. https://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/
Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.
Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.
Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention to the present. This state is described as observing one’s thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad. https://www.headspace.com/mindfulness
Sara Weber defines mindfulness in her essay, “An Analyst’s Surrender” from Psychoanalysis and Buddhism as: “a cultivation of a moment-to-moment awareness of changing perceptions in a neutral, impartial way.” Carey Wong offers this succinct definition at the about.com website: “Mindfulness is a type of meditation that essentially involves focusing on your mind on the present. To be mindful is to be aware of your thoughts and actions in the present, without judging yourself.”
What these definitions have in common is that they emphasize an almost fetishistic and atomistic focus on the “present moment” as if the present is independent of the past and future; that it is a “moment-to-moment awareness” that is impartial, free of all judgements of right and wrong. But what this describes is more accurately “bare attention” which is an ethically neutral mental factor. That’s not the “right mindfulness” (you know, as opposed to the wrong mindfulness) apparently taught by the Buddha!
And the goal of this contemporary “mindfulness” practice, we are told, is to “bring about greater peace mentally and relationally. Mindfulness may also be used in mindfulness-based therapies to address stress, anxiety, or pain and simply to become more relaxed.”
If you know anything of the soteriological purposes of all forms of yoga, you may already see how far from the truth this all is. Ancient yogis couldn’t care less about “becoming more relaxed” or free from anxiety. In fact, they spoke of the first fruits of meditative insight as “the terror” that, thankfully, led to liberation! And, what I don’t see in any of the contemporary definitions of mindfulness is the word “liberation.”
My mother died from Alzheimer’s. She was moment-to-moment aware of everything happening, but five minutes later would not have any recall of it. In fact, five minutes after meeting you, she would have no memory of ever having met you. With such momentary awareness, there is no possibility of true relationship. And it is just this, the relational nature of existence, that the Buddha was directing us to remember! The word sati, translated as “mindfulness” comes from the word meaning “to remember.” When you see the fullest instructions for mindfulness meditation offered in the Pali Canon, the satipatthana-sutta, we see that the emphasis on practice is to – yes – observe the present moment without getting caught in our reactivity, but in order to understand the causes and conditions that led to the present moment! You can see how relational this practice is. Why do we wish to know how the present moment came to be? Because if the present moment is judged to be one of pain and suffering, we can then decide to end those causes. Not only that, we can then prospectively remember not to cultivate those causes and conditions in the future and even prevent future causes from arising.
Some critics of the contemporary Mindfulness Movement scathingly refer to it as McMindfulness, which brings me to the book under question. Subtitled “How Mindfulness Became The New Capitalist Spirituality”, Ronald Purser’s McMindfulness should be read by any yoga or meditation teacher who has come to mindfulness via the corporatized, new-age, decontextualized understanding of mindfulness. It should also be read by any practitioner who may have realized that there is something essential missing from such an approach. And while you're at it, you may wish to give a listen to Purser's Mindful Cranks podcast.
In 13 chapters (along with his “Conclusion”) Purser pulls no punches and leaves no arena untouched. He begins by questioning the notion of the hyped “mindfulness revolution” and follows this up in Chapter Two with explaining how the contemporary understanding of mindfulness lends itself to being coopted by neoliberal ideology which it then slavishly serves. In Chapter Three he talks about stress. Interestingly, there has been some recent criticism of the tendency to see anxiety, grief and anger as “mental disorders” rather than the appropriate response to situations of loss and abuse. It has been argued that psychiatric diagnoses are not only scientifically invalid, they are harmful in their own right. The language of illness implies that the roots of such emotional distress lies completely in abnormalities of the brain, leading to an almost willful ignoring of the social, economic and political causes of distress. He refers to letters in The Lancet Psychiatry where the authors wrote:
Broadening routine data captured within UK National Health Service records could establish more inclusive, social, systemic, and psychologically comprehensive patterns of difficulties, which could target information regarding established social determinants of mental health problems, such as inequality, poverty, and trauma. Imagine if it were as serious to fail to document extreme poverty as it would be for a clinician to fail to identify severe depression.
And this is exactly Purser’s argument regarding the mindfulness movement’s lack of paying any mindful attention to social, political and cultural causal factors of suffering.
Other chapter titles include “Privatizing Mindfulness”, “Colonizing Mindfulness”, “Mindfulness as Social Amnesia” and “Mindfulness’ Truthiness Problem” in which he skewers the claims made by the contemporary mindfulness proselytizers for scientific validation of their claims for mindfulness. When the science is looked at impartially, we see that their claims far outstrip the science. For instance, in a meta-analysis of almost 19,000 studies cited in various databases that was run by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, they found only 47 that used randomized controlled trials! Mindfulness was found to be moderately effective in treating a variety of conditions, but no more so than other active treatments including exercise! In another study testing the claims that mindfulness as taught in contemporary programs strengthen pro-social behaviors found moderate increases in compassion only in studies that had the meditation teacher as a co-author! Red flag!
After these seven chapters, Purser takes aim at specific contexts where McMindfulness is being used. In “Mindful Employees” he shows how corporatized programs support the neo-liberal capitalist project just as the psychologist critic stated above: by situating the site of all anxiety and stress in the employee, the company makes the employee fully responsible with dealing with the stress and can avoid looking at any impact the corporate structure and culture play in creating the stress. In “Mindful Merchants” he exposes a mindfulness equivalent of “greenwashing”.
In “Mindful Elites” he takes us to Davos where the global elite latched on to the mindfulness fad. I grew livid – and you should too – when he describes one Davos acolyte as saying “The root cause of our current economic and civilizational crisis is not Wall Street, not infinite growth, and not Big Business or Big Government.” He goes on to locate it “between our ears”.
In “Mindful Schools”, Purser does show nuance and balance. Any parent would agree that any aid in teaching children skills to aid them in dealing with challenging emotions is welcome, and still the emphasis on how they react and not the conditions to which they react is at best problematic.
But, the chapter that I underlined the most is “Mindful Warriors”. Considering that the Buddha explicitly stated that any dealing in arms was not right livelihood, the very notion that mindfulness is something to be brought into the military is oxymoronic delusion. I’m all for adding mindfulness to the treatment palette for soldiers returning from military engagement suffering from PTSD, but I’m completely against any use of mindfulness to make for better snipers. Elizabeth Stanley, a former Military Intelligence officer, is the creator of Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT) which is offered to soldiers about to be deployed for combat. Her description of her program makes it chillingly clear that the purpose of the training is to support the soldier’s core objective: to kill:
A true warrior must be able to still her body and mind to call forth strength; exhibit endurance during harsh environmental conditions; have awareness of herself, others, and the wider environment so she can make discerning choices; access compassion for herself, her compatriots, her adversary and the locals where she is deployed; and show self-control during provocation so that she doesn’t overreact. And yet, if the moment demands, she must also have the capacity to kill, cleanly, without hesitation and without remorse.
Finally, in Chapter 13, Purser tackles “Mindful Politics” and in particular Tim Ryan, a Congress Person from Ohio who says “All we have to do is search inside ourselves, and the world will be transformed.” In response to Ryan’s epiphany while “mindfully” eating a raisin, Purser asks, “Never mind how the raisin looks, feels, smells, and tastes to a privileged congressman, what if Ryan had contemplated the farm where the raisin was grown by immigrants doing back-breaking work in the San Joaquin valley, earning a cent for every two-hundred grapes harvested.”
This made me recollect a presentation I offered at the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s annual conference in Seattle many years ago. Called “Wake Up and Drink The Coffee”, as part of my dharma talk, I did indeed talk about contemplating how the coffee we were about to drink had come to us; the “72 labors that brought us” this coffee. Afterward, more than one coffee buyer came up to me and said that the experience made them realize they had to pay more attention to sourcing his coffee in relation to sustainability and fair recompense to the producers.
The reality is that as mindfulness is currently popularly taught, its potential radical, revolutionary potential has been eviscerated. Even if mindfulness as its taught makes us feel better, the world remains unchanged. Being told to refrain from “judgement” (which makes no sense since as that is a judgement that judgement is wrong and to be avoided!) we are being urged – not consciously perhaps, but still – to abandon ethical discernment while the whole Buddhsit practice of mindfulness is based upon sila training or ethical awareness. In fact, the precepts serving as the bedrock of Buddhist practice and understanding are seen as “mindfulness trainings!”
Those who are in the sights of Purser’s criticism make a straw-person argument, asking “what should we do, throw the baby out with the bathwater?” Or that he is “being negative”. This is something I have seen as well: so much of contemporary yoga and Buddhism sees any critical thinking as “negative” which ends up marginalizing dissenting views and leads to self-censorship by those who are told are not practicing “right speech” when they question or offer any critique. But, Purser himself in his powerful “Conclusion” writes “Mindfulness could still be revolutionary, but it has to be taught in different ways.”
When Angela Davis challenged Kabat-Zinn to confront the limitations of his approach she told him that “Teaching individual police officers to be mindful wouldn’t stop policing from being a racist institution” he agreed but then, showing a poverty of imagination responded, “… what do you see as an effective alternative?” Purser responds by suggesting that while mindfulness can be helpful in calming the mind, it should be as a preliminary to set one’s sights on the structures that perpetuate racist behavior. As the Buddha encourages 18 times in the satipatthana-sutta, we need to apply mindfulness internally, externally, and both internally and externally. Yes, no one would deny that there is internal greed, hatred and delusion (the three roots of suffering) that we need to bring mindfulness to. And there is also institutionalized external greed, hatred and delusion that we need to be mindful of as found in corporate capitalist structures epitomized in Wall Street; the military and the militarized police; and the profit-based media respectfully. And how these two interact is what is meant by internally and externally. Liberation can only happen when mindfulness and resistance to these forces go in tandem, internally and externally simultaneously.
Purser points out that “Our suffering is often a guide to what needs changing – in the world as well as how we respond.” (Proving he is not completely negating the introspective aspect of practice). “Turning critique back outwards removes the intellectual cover that the mindfulness movement offers capitalism. Privatizing stress as a personal problem…mindfulness turns individuals on themselves. Not only does this blame the victims of cultural dysfunction, it drives a spiral of narcissistic self-absorption…. Truly revolutionary mindfulness is liberating, social, and civic. It depends upon critical thinking, not non-judgmental disengagement.”
Finally, in answer to Kabat-Zinn’s question to Angela Davis, Purser shows he offers more than just critique (which as a praxis such critique would be enough!) and writes that the “mindfulness curricula should not be confined to internal self-management. A much wider focus is required, using a practice to develop an insight into how social experience is embodied…. They need to develop communal attention, solidarity, and resistance.” Communities of mindfulness must need be communities of resistance. Instead what we see now with the Mindfulness Movement is something similar to what Erich Fromm criticized about psychoanalysis; how in coming to America it lost its “original radicalism because instead of challenging society, it conformed to it.” When mental health is defined as better adjustment to existing circumstances and those circumstances are oppressive and insane, there’s a deeper problem than learning how to relax! Total liberation requires a praxis that addresses the dialectic between self and society (which, following the Avatamsaka Sutra’s teaching, are mutually causal) and between an interior search for wellbeing and changing socioeconomic structures. And this is so because a truly revolutionary mindfulness recognizes the non-dual nature of dependent origination: no ‘thing’ exists from its own side!