A review of David McMahan’s new book, ‘Rethinking Meditation’

September 23, 2023


When I first started to meditate in 2010, I did so at the urging of my wife, Sharon, who had some experience with the Insight meditation tradition and had read books by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield. I was going through a rough time due to work-related stress and found that my usual exercise routines and other forms of relaxation were not enough to reduce the pervasive anxiety that I experienced. My initial foray into mindfulness meditation (with a focus on the breath) had a significant, positive impact and so I began a daily practice at the age of 57 which I’ve continued to this day.

Having experienced how meditation reduced my anxiety, I began to explore the Buddhist perspectives and ideas underlying the practice. My wife and I connected with a local Insight meditation center and I felt at ‘home’ among practitioners who seemed committed to a dharma practice that was oriented toward mindfulness and compassion without the rituals and cultural trappings that are part of many traditional forms of Buddhism.

While ethical action and generosity were certainly emphasized by the teachers at this center and then at the retreats we attended at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, the cornerstone of the practice was clearly meditation. In their dharma talks and instructions for meditation practice, the teachers conveyed to us that It was through individual, silent meditation that one could gain the crucial experiential insights that led to a peaceful, less stress-filled life. The ultimate goal of this meditation-centered practice was to achieve a kind of transformation of one’s understanding and way of being in the world. The exact nature of this transformation and to what extent it could be achieved was a bit fuzzy, however. Some teachers deemphasized talk of nirvana, preferring to focus on the impact of practice on this life, while others did assert that nirvana was an important goal of practice, even if fully achieving nirvana was quite difficult.

By this point, I self-identified as a secular Buddhist and found in Stephen Batchelor’s writings an approach to the dharma that I felt comfortable with. In line with that secular approach, I had rejected the traditional notion of nirvana as a complete overcoming of suffering, as well as other traditional Buddhist notions: rebirth, supernatural beings, etc. Yet, at the same time, my understanding of meditation and the goal of practice was initially deeply influenced by what I learned from Insight meditation teachers.

Here is the narrative they presented: To develop meditative skills, we need to overcome hard-wired tendencies in human beings which lead us astray and away from real happiness. Humans seek and want to hold on to pleasant experiences while we push away, are averse, to unpleasant experiences. The problem is that because our built-in desire for pleasant experiences can never be fully or permanently satisfied, we are bound to be frustrated and suffer. At the same time, this ceaseless appetite (greed) for pleasant experiences is underpinned by a fundamental delusion about ourselves. Each person thinks of themselves as an ‘I’ who possesses a solid, substantial self; this ‘I’ is the center and source of all our experiences. But the notion of an I, a substantial self, is a hard-wired delusion which is the basis for and facilitates our egotistic grasping at pleasant experiences. Both the human tendency toward ‘greed and aversion’ and a delusory notion of the self are products of human evolution and then are reinforced by psychological and social conditioning.

Making progress in meditation requires us to overcome these natural tendencies and various forms of conditioning. Our first task in meditation is cultivate the ability to become calm and tranquil so we are not dominated by the frantic motions of a ‘monkey mind’ driven by greed and aversion. Then, once we are in a more calm state, we learn how to engage with our experiences, whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, in a non-attached way. Through this process of mindful engagement, we are able to gain insight into the three ‘marks of existence’: that life is inescapably painful and distressing in various ways; that change or impermanence characterizes all existence; and that the self is not a substantial, separate entity but a process in which different experiential components come together sequentially based on particular ‘causes and condition’. By learning how to gain calm and tranquility and then mindfully experience these three marks, we can free ourselves from the pain and suffering and attain a true understanding of reality.

David McMahan on the ‘Standard Version’ of meditation

Reading David McMahan’s new book, Rethinking Meditation: Buddhist Meditative Practices in Ancient and Modern Worlds, I was struck by how similar the process, meaning, and purpose of meditation presented by Insight meditation teachers is to McMahan’s insightful portrayal of what he calls the ‘Standard Version’ (p. 6) of meditation in contemporary society. This is the version of meditation that I initially internalized but have moved away from as I’ve come to understand more fully the implications of a secular approach to the dharma and how that approach connects with other core perspectives in my life – humanistic Marxism, pragmatism, and democratic theory.

According to McMahan, the standard version of meditation includes three basic components: an emphasis on meditation as a individual, private experience; a claim that meditation allows us to gain direct access to the way reality ‘really’ is, to the ‘Truth’; and finally, that meditation is a kind of scientific technique for observing the mind. Meditation enable individuals to gain a non-biased understanding of themselves and the world.

McMahan believes that the standard version of meditation is deeply problematic, although he acknowledges the value that meditation has for many people. His concern is that the standard version is essentially ahistorical; it fails to recognize that the changing social and cultural contexts in which meditation has been practiced fundamentally shape the process, meaning, and purpose of meditation. To understand meditation practice today, we thus need to recognize the historical changes in our society and culture which have transformed meditation practice since the Buddha’s teachings on meditation in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10) and other discourses were presented. Specifically, we need to recognize that the standard version of meditation combines certain aspects of early Buddhism and Zen Buddhism with key elements in contemporary thought and society, including an emphasis on the isolated individual as the source of knowledge and experience:

Meditation has….been adapted to the post-Enlightenment view of the autonomous individual for whom being with others, being in society, and living in concert with social norms is considered a potential imposition on the individual’s freedom. Meditation is thus framed as the ultimate individualistic practice of the singular mind gazing at itself and discerning the truth of things in isolation. (p. 15)

McMahan is critical of the notion that ‘meditation breaks through to a pristine, unmediated, unambiguous, and Universal Truth beyond the “trappings” of particular religions and all culturally informed assumptions, biases, and conditioning – and that all meditative traditions culminate in the Truth.’ (p. 8) In his view, the process, meaning, and ultimate objectives of meditation are always based on and embedded in particular cultural and social forms:

 ….meditation cannot make any sense without a rich surrounding context of ideas, social practices, cultural orientations, and ethical commitments. Such contexts inform not only practitioners’ explicit understanding of what they are doing, but also their pretheoretical, tacit, implicit orientations, and even the experiences the practices generate. (p. 52)

The social imaginary for contemporary meditation

The surrounding context within which meditation has meaning and functions is ‘…..a social imaginary…a social and cultural context in which people live and make sense of their lives.’ (p. 55)  So, what is the social imaginary that shapes contemporary meditation practices?

McMahan identifies the following cultural influences and perspectives that have acted as ‘magnets’ to incorporate certain aspects of early Buddhist and Zen Buddhist meditation into a new, contemporary version of meditation: Romanticism, Transcendentalism, scientific rationalism, Christianity, and psychology. These are all important elements in the emergence and development of secular, liberal democratic societies, and they constitute a social imaginary which has profoundly shaped how we view and practice meditation today.

…. this combination of Enlightenment rationalism, romanticism, social psychology, and Orientalism with selected elements of Buddhist doctrine helped generate new individualistic, secularized versions of meditation that aspired to a kind of interior freedom that wove together western liberal conceptions of personal autonomy and ethical agency with Buddhist conceptions of freedom and liberation. It envisioned a kind of interior invulnerability and security, freedom from social norms and conditioning – an Inner Citadel that at one provided a respite from world chaos as well as the conditions of ethical agency. (p. 172)

The transformative potential of meditation

However, McMahan is not arguing that, because meditation is fundamentally shaped by a particular social imaginary, practitioners must remain ‘trapped’ within that imaginary and simply reproduce its key elements. Every social imaginary contains tensions and internal conflicts that provide a space for practices which disrupt the main tendencies of the imaginary. ‘One is always embedded in a social context and limited by certain possibilities therein. And yet, the reflexive moment that meditation can provide may foster the expansion of those possibilities, stimulating novel interpretations and imaginings not possible if one were simply being swept along unreflexively immersed in the momentum of one’s native habitus.’ (p, 192)

In the context of the social imaginary of secularism and liberalism that marks our contemporary society, there are four key components of the ‘ethical infrastructure’ or set of values which guides contemporary meditation: an ethic of the appreciation of life, an ethic of authenticity, and ethic of autonomy, and an ethic of interdependence. While the first three ethics are based on the notion of meditation as an ‘exploration of the individual’s interior,’ these ethics are in tension with the fourth component of contemporary meditation, an ethic of interdependence, which highlights the ‘ inevitable embeddedness of any meditator in a social, cultural, and political context’ (p. 135) and the need for meditators to bring a compassionate concern for others into their practice.

We can see this tension play out in the debate about the role of mindfulness in society. For many people, mindfulness meditation is about the relief of individual suffering, de-stressing, and gaining the ability to function better amidst the challenges of everyday life. This approach has been critiqued by others as overly individualistic and apolitical. For example, socially engaged Buddhists emphasize that mindfulness needs to be an integral part of projects and movements to challenge forms of exploitation, discrimination, and oppression in society. As McMahan notes,

There is, therefore, a tension between two poles of interpretation of modern, secular mindfulness practices: at one pole is mindfulness as a private matter, a matter of personal experience and psychological health or instrumental efficiency; on the other is mindfulness as an awakening to a more urgent sense of connectedness with others, which in turn may foster particular ethical sensibilities. (p. 212)

Assessing McMahan’s approach

I very much agree with McMahan’s core idea that meditation is fruitfully understood as an embodied practice which occurs within particular social and cultural contexts. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to meditate, nor does meditation practice allow us to grasp reality as it ‘really’ is – as the ‘Truth’. Rather, all forms of meditation are fundamentally shaped by the way of life and dominant ideas found in each society. Although the basic capacities and tendencies of human beings have remained the same, the social and cultural forms of human life, including meditation practice, have varied. Thus, while  we can see continuities in meditation practices from the Buddha’s teachings to today, the process, meaning, and purpose of meditation has substantially changed. McMahan does a fantastic job of drawing out both the continuities and changes in a nuanced way which recognizes the beneficial value of various meditation practices.

McMahan’s description of the social and cultural context – the social imaginary – omits a crucial contextual factor, however. In his view, the crucial perspectives of the contemporary social imaginary are Romanticism, Transcendentalism, scientific rationalism, Christianity, and psychology. These perspectives do profoundly shape how we meditate and for what purpose. Yet, in what is otherwise an exceptionally rich and insightful account, McMahan does not explore the impact of perhaps the most important contextual factor affecting meditation: neo-liberal capitalism.

The impact of capitalism on meditation practice

In simplest terms, capitalism is an economic system based on production for private profit rather than human needs, the control of economic resources by a small elite, and the exploitation of the vast majority of people within the production process. This system not only determines the ways in which goods and services are provided to people but has a profound impact on all aspects of life, including how we see ourselves as human beings, the values that we hold dear, how we relate to human beings and other sentient beings, and our connection (or lack of connection) with the natural world.

Institutions which are central to the maintenance of our capitalist society are not focused on facilitating inclusivity, care, and the fulfillment of human needs but on the ceaseless competition and conflict with others to gain power and wealth. Individual success, not the cooperative effort to build a society in which all human beings can flourish, is valorized. Overall, the system facilitates and reinforces the cultivation of human tendencies toward greed and hatred while blocking the cultivation of human tendencies toward compassion and care. 

That capitalism has a profound impact meditation practice should thus not be surprising. At one level, meditation has become just another business opportunity, a way to profit from the increasing popularity of mindfulness meditation in therapeutic settings, such as MBSR and mindfulness-based psychological interventions. In addition to the direct provision of mindfulness meditation ‘services’ by entrepreneurs, there are a host of consultants that provide mindfulness programs to corporations. Mindfulness meditation in these settings is oriented toward individual self-help and/or improvements in organizational efficiency, productivity, and profitability. It is this process of the  transformation of mindfulness in a capitalist society which has led David Purser and others to characterize secular mindfulness as ‘McMindfulness’.

While it is a mistake to broadly characterize mindfulness meditation as essentially a new tool of capitalist hegemony, it is important to recognize the deleterious impact of capitalism on meditation practice. And this occurs not just because meditation is sucked into the whirlwind of the profit generation machine. On an individual level, how we experience meditation and our objectives in doing this practice are profoundly shaped by a system which is based on an excessive focus on the needs and wants of individuals, rampant materialism and consumerism, and hierarchical structures which promote exploitation, oppression, and discrimination.

Capitalism pushes individuals to see and experience meditation in a highly individualistic way; it is all about how ‘I’ can benefit from meditation for many people. We are also more likely to view the practice as a kind of ‘consumption’ in which our goal is to accumulate pleasant experiences in the meditative process, perhaps even to grab the golden ring of nirvana if we work hard enough at the process. At the same time, given the pervasiveness of competition in a capitalist society, meditation practice can be the source of excessive pride and/or punishing self-judgment as we compare ourselves to others in the race to become the ‘best’ meditator.

In all these ways, capitalism profoundly shapes meditation practice and is thus a key contextual factor that must be recognized in understanding the process, meaning, and purpose of meditation today. Certainly, this does not mean – as McMahan made clear with respect to other contextual factors of the social imaginary – that meditation must inevitably support the economic structures, social forms, and psychological attitudes valorized by the capitalist system. Some of us have found in meditation a way of understanding ourselves and the world, and relating to people, which helps us become more mindful and compassionate activists who seek to challenge and transform the system. Unfortunately, this is not now the mainstream approach with the contemporary meditation scene. Hopefully, by building on McMahan’s excellent analysis and exploring more fully the negative impact of capitalism on mindfulness meditation practice, we can begin to make more relevant an alternative, socially engaged way of understanding and practicing meditation.



8 Replies to “A review of David McMahan’s new book, ‘Rethinking Meditation’”

I haven’t read McMahan’s book, but thanks for this account of it. I’m struck by the ways that it appears to reflect a common narrative in academia that confuses universality with absolutizing, often unnecessarily importing relativist assumptions along with the recognition of a social context to individual practice. Yes, of course meditation has a socio-cultural context that shapes how we interpret its practice and application. However, its value to us depends on the ways that it works with conditions that are common to humanity, such as having a laterally divided and horizontally layered brain in which ‘reptilian’ obsessions can become looped with fixed conceptual beliefs. Of course we don’t have certainty that every human in every culture experiences meditative hindrances, processes and breakthrough states in a similar way to the way I or you do, but there seems to be good evidence of a high probability of universality in the way meditation operates. All too often, it seems to me, relativistic dogmas that have become entrenched in the social sciences can step in prior to our appreciation of this universality, with the false assumption that our understanding of universality itself has to be based on dogma rather than experience.

Mike Slott

Hi Robert,

McMahan is not advocating an extreme relativist position. He recognizes that there are continuities in meditation practice that are based on human capacities and tendencies. Perhaps I didn’t put that across well enough in my review. However, he is arguing that it is crucial to understand the social and cultural contexts of meditation.



Indeed, when mindfulness meditation is taken out of its supportive scaffold (the Eight-fold path), it can and does become distorted and corrupted by the prevailing social forces; by itself, meditation has been used as a malformed means to an end. By keeping it embedded within the path and working in concert with the other seven factors, only then can it retain its resilient and wholesome purpose of supporting and nourishing the development of skilful views and intentions, actions and speech. From these hopefully arise the wisdom of mind and compassion of heart that are the building blocks of a healthy socially engaged practice. Thank you.

Mike Slott

Wonderfully said, Colette. I completely agree. The value of McMahan’s book is that, in exploring the social and cultural contexts of meditation, he provides us with an insightful (if incomplete) explanation of why mindfulness is taken out of the “supportive scaffold” of the Eightfold Path.

Karsten Struhl

This is a really excellent summary of the most significant claims of McMahan’s book and a very insightful evaluation which, while recognizing the books strengths, also recognizes the key factor that is left out of McMahan’s analysis. Without including the ways in which capitalism shapes the narrative that constitutes the standard version of meditation as well as the practice itself, we are left with a grab bag of cultural phenomena that hangs in the air without social-material roots. In following Mike’s evaluation, let me add a few additional points. First, mindfulness meditation has not only become a business opportunity for “service” entrepreneurs but is rapidly becoming a huge corporate enterprise in its own right, hence Purser’s characterization of it as McMindfulness. Second, mindfulness entrepreneurs not only serve individuals but often serve corporations whose motive is to use mindfulness meditation as way to pacify workers, to make them more compliant and less likely to resist. Third, as a result of this, mindfulness meditation has in fact increasingly become a tool of capitalist hegemony. This, however, does not mean that mindfulness meditation does not also contain seeds that can work against capitalism, as hegemony itself always contains internal contradictions. But in order for the subversive aspects of mindfulness to be in ascendency, the mindfulness movement must join with other social oppositional force not just within Buddhism — i.e., socially engaged Buddhism — but also with a much larger anti-capitalist movement. Finally, while I very much appreciate Collette’s comment (above) about the need to keep mindfulness meditation embedded within the eightfold path, it is also also important to recognize that some interpretations of that path, both in early Buddhism and in contemporary Theravada Buddhism, maintain an individualist orientation of the soteriological goal — the lone individual seeking his or her enlightenment.

David Dane

Thank you I found the article on meditation very interesting to read, particularly the parts about capitalism and meditation. Yes, there is always a danger of commodification of spiritual practice.
I am a 71 year old man with a C4 spinal condition. These days I am interested in an Indo Tibetan type of Buddhism. I am however very critical of much of the way some Tibetan Buddhism is practiced in the West. I am interested in transpersonal psychology and the ideas of Jung. I accept the concept of rebirth At various levels.
I probably would differ from many secular Buddhists on that issue. Thanks for the article.
Best wishes David

Thanks so much for this excellent summation and thoughtful critique of McMahan’s book, Mike. The argument you make for capitalism as a crucial factor (perhaps “the” crucial factor) affecting our meditation practice is so convincing that it’s all but impossible to understand how this accomplished author could have overlooked it. That said, I’d like to take note of one particular theme running through your essay (and also, it would seem, through the book itself) that particularly resonated for me, viz., the tension between meditation practiced for the cultivation of individual peace of mind, and meditation practiced for a heightened awareness of our interconnected nature and our shared responsibility for suffering beings everywhere. As you acknowledged in the biographical note with which you began this review, while traditional vipassana instructors have always included a nod to generosity, compassion, and ethical behavior, they seem to have – intentionally or not – pointed many of their students in the direction of individual practice as first and foremost a path to a more peaceful life. A book like McMahan’s, and an informative review such as yours here, may hopefully point more practitioners in the direction of – (I’m quoting your very eloquent closing sentence here) – “an alternative, socially engaged way of understanding and practicing meditation.”

John Graham

I’m enormously encouraged by your words, Mike. It was reading Winton Higgins, particularly his ‘Revamp’ (Tuwhiri, 2021), that confirmed my interest in Secular Buddhism. And one of the many reason this text was so appealing to me was that Higgins specifically identifies neoliberalism as a factor necessarily to be understood and countered within the Secular Buddhist project. Early in your piece I was struck by McMahan’s failure to list neoliberalism among the cultural influences that have shaped contemporary mindfullness. That is not because I am particularly perceptive but due to the fact that neoliberalism, or to be more precise, the absence of awareness of neoliberalism in contemporary western culture, has been my central concern since first hearing about the phenomenon and beginning to understand its workings some years ago. Neoliberalism is a closely guarded secret that has been quietly proliferated across the globe, a secret that our broadcast and print media refuses to name. That you correct this failing in your analysis of McMahan’s text confirms my sense of being in the right place here within the Secular Buddhist community. Thank you for your energy and focus in making this crucial point a central aspect of your review.

Neoliberalism, we are led to believe, is now superceded by the new nationalisms that are sweeping the globe. However, it is, I believe, important to understand that the neoliberal project was the force that hollowed out the political structures here in the west, and as such it has been the main factor in creating the dissatisfactions that have swept the nationalists to power. And to those who would point out that neoliberalism is a casualty to this political reorientation away from a globalist, neoliberal form, I would wish to suggest that the cynical techniques that were so carefully crafted within the neoliberal project are proving entirely compatible with nationalist forms of governance. Again, thank you Mike, for naming and defining the corrosive doctrines that are entirely incompatible with all that we cherish and celebrate in our Secular Buddhist practice.

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