by Mike Slott
The title says it all. Ron Purser, a trenchant critic of the secular mindfulness movement in the United States, offers a scathing criticism of how the Buddhist practice of mindfulness has been transformed into a method to reduce the stress levels and improve the concentration of individuals in a competitive, commercial, and unjust society. Stripped of its ethical foundation and the goal of radically transforming one’s self-conception, he argues that mindfulness has been hijacked to serve the interests of corporate leaders intent on gaining more profits and generals who need alert, focused soldiers.
Here’s Purser on mindfulness programs in businesses:
‘A truly revolutionary mindfulness would challenge the Western sense of entitlement to happiness irrespective of ethical conduct. However, mindfulness programs do not ask executives to examine how their managerial decisions and corporate policies have institutionalized greed, ill will and delusion, which Buddhist mindfulness seeks to eradicate. Instead, the practice is being sold to executives as a way to de-stress, improve productivity and focus, and bounce back from eighty-hour work weeks. They may well be “meditating,” but it works like taking an aspirin for a headache. Once the pain goes away it is business as usual.’ (p.20)
Mindfulness as a reinforcement of the status quo
Purser recognizes that mindfulness programs, particularly in the context of the treatment of physical illness and various forms of emotional distress through such programs as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MCBT), can be very useful. And he is not impugning the motivations of the leaders of the mindfulness movement: ‘I have no doubt their hearts are in the right place.’ (p.8)
What he does object to is the failure of most mindfulness teachers to address the social causes of personal suffering. By ignoring the systemic social problems which lead individuals to suffer, mindfulness teachers, at least in the United States, strip away the revolutionary potential of mindfulness while reinforcing the individualistic focus of our profit-oriented society.
Purser details the ways in which mindfulness is used to buttress the status quo in our educational system, corporate economy, the armed forces, and in politics. Readers will find his description and analysis of the unethical use of mindfulness in these areas to be a welcome corrective to the current, celebratory view of mindfulness in our culture.
Need for more nuance
Yet, in emphasizing the negative aspects of mindfulness, Purser has created an overly ‘black – white’ dichotomy which misses some of the nuances and contradictory trends. It’s true that corporations use mindfulness programs primarily to boost their own bottom lines. We shouldn’t be surprised that, when a 2,500 year old meditation technique meets up with a society in which capitalist economic and cultural values are hegemonic, it will be transformed fundamentally, and in not such good ways.
On the other hand, as secular mindfulness programs have grown more popular, hundreds of thousands of individuals have been introduced to mindfulness and for some percentage of those individuals, the impact has been not just to lower their stress and to reduce cycles of rumination, but to initiate a process of self-transformation and new forms of engagement with the world.
Two personal examples
In the sangha that I participate in northern New Jersey, near New York City, several of the sangha members first began to meditate through their participation in MBSR programs. They found something that resonated with them in mindfulness practices and have now become mindfulness teachers. They are deeply exploring the basic concepts of Buddhism and various meditation practices, and have incorporated Buddhist insights into their daily lives. They are definitely engaged with the dharmic path.
And yet, there are others for whom an MBSR program seems to have relatively little impact. I have a friend who went through a very good MBSR program. While he learned some useful techniques to reduce his anxiety and tendency to ruminate, the main conclusion that he drew from the program was that he is ‘OK’ and that he should worry less about what others think of him. No significant shift in his self-concept or his way of being in the world occurred.
Positive effect of mindfulness on political movements
Purser misses what I think is a quite significant impact of mindfulness among political activists, particularly younger ones. I’ve been active in left political movements and the labor movement since the 1970s, a period in which unions have been weakened and, until very recently, the left was quite marginal.
While the failures and challenges of the left are due to many causes, many of them beyond the control of activists themselves, one key problem has been the failure to recognize the ways in which the greed, ill will, and delusions of individuals can lead to ego-driven agendas and organizational dysfunction in political movements. As mindfulness has become more prominent, there has been a growing realization among activists that a mindful awareness of our complex personalities and self-care are as crucial to helping to sustain a viable movement for collective transformation as are political strategies and tactics.
In short, the mindfulness movement has helped to reinforce the notion that individual and collective transformation are not separate and opposed to each other, but go hand in hand.
While Purser provides us with an extremely useful description and analysis of how mindfulness has been misused to create a new capitalist spirituality, one which helps sustain an exploitative and oppressive system, he has an overly negative view. It’s not at all clear how the mindfulness movement will develop in the coming years.
My sense is that the future role of mindfulness will largely depend on broader social trends, including whether and to what extent corporate power in all its forms can be successfully challenged than on anything intrinsic to secular mindfulness programs.
McMindfulness: how mindfulness became the new capitalist spirituality, by Ron Purser, Repeater Press, 304 pages, 2019.