The mainstreaming of mindfulness meditation continues at a rapid clip. According to the Center for Disease Control, in the years 2012 to 2017 the percentage of adults meditating in the United States more than tripled, to 17%. The American market for provision of meditation-related services is now worth $1 billion and growing.
With any phenomenon this mainstream, one expects a backlash. Sure enough, there have been a number of pieces appearing recently that chastise programs like BU’s under the name “corporate mindfulness”, or more pithily, “McMindfulness”. Ron Purser, a management professor whose understanding of mindfulness already informed mine, has now written a very interesting book with that title.
There is a great deal in Purser’s book, most of which I cannot discuss here. Purser is certainly right to raise questions about the mindfulness movement – most notably the continual tension between its Buddhist roots and supposed secularity, to which I don’t think there are easy answers. But there is one theme running through nearly every chapter where – I might say “as a Buddhist” – I found Purser’s approach quite troubling. For while Purser often takes himself to be chiding modern mindfulness for being insufficiently Buddhist, I think overall he is unwittingly criticizing it for being too Buddhist.
Purser’s critique begins with the 2014 Time cover proclaiming “the mindful revolution”. Purser retorts:
I am skeptical. Anything that offers success in our unjust society without trying to change it is not revolutionary — it just helps people cope. However, it could also be making things worse. Instead of encouraging radical action, it says the causes of suffering are disproportionately inside us, not in the political and economic frameworks that shape how we live. (7-8)
Purser is entirely right that the rhetoric of revolution, applied to modern mindfulness practices, is overblown, perhaps even a little ridiculous. So are many other claims made for the rise of mindfulness practice, like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s claim that it constitutes
a tremendous opportunity for addressing… the Orwellian distortions of truth we are now seeing on a daily basis in the news, and the perpetuation of dystopian “governance” by seemingly elevating greed, hatred, and delusion to new heights, with all its attendant consequences for the fragility of democratic institutions. (quoted on Purser 238)
All this is hype that is scarcely believable, and Purser is right to call it out. But I am not ready to follow Purser’s further step that it is “making things worse” to say “the causes of suffering are disproportionately inside us”. I agree with Purser that the “fundamental message of the mindfulness movement is that the underlying cause of dissatisfaction and distress is in our heads.” (9) But are we so sure that that message is a bad thing?
That message, after all, is impeccably and fundamentally Buddhist. It is right there in the Second Noble Truth, which states the cause of dukkha (which I’ve seen translated as dissatisfaction and distress, as well as the more usual “suffering”) is craving. Śāntideva, too, tells us that all fears and immeasurable sufferings come from the mind alone. Neither Śāntideva nor the Pali suttas have any interest whatsoever in “radical action”; if anything, they discourage it.
Purser laments that modern mindfulness’s emphasis on results “prevents it being offered as a tool of resistance, restricting it instead to a technique for ‘selfcare.'” (20) But why would we have ever thought it was a “tool of resistance”? To think that it would or could be that, seems like exactly the kind of hype that Kabat-Zinn engages in: making mindfulness something it is not. It was not such a tool, after all, in the hands of the Buddha of the suttas. His monks did in important respects opt out of the prevailing social order, and indeed occasionally criticized it – but they did not fight it, they did not try to change it. Rather, they created a separate (monastic) social order within the existing one – an order that one could even call “privatized”.
Through the book Purser seems to keep pursuing the hope that mindfulness could actually be a revolution, even in the face of people who rightly agree that it isn’t. New York Times reporter David Gelles notes, rightly I think, that ““We live in a capitalist economy, and mindfulness can’t change that.” Purser replies: “Well, it certainly won’t if sold in those terms.” (26) In which case I await the explanation of how a proper mindfulness, tied to a Buddhism as engaged as possible, will change the fact that we live in a capitalist economy – given that nothing else ever has, with the possible but highly questionable exception of a murderous set of barbarous régimes that killed more people than Hitler did. Purser was doing well to critique the overblown portrayal of mindfulness as revolutionary – why does he then still seem to hold up such faith that it could or should be revolutionary?
After rightfully critiquing the overblown rhetoric of revolution attached to modern mindfulness, Purser says “There is no radical blueprint in paying attention. If the aim is to effect social change, then methods of pursuing it need to be taught.” (246) And that’s true. But I think Purser is too ready to take up rhetoric that makes mindfulness into something it isn’t. In classical Buddhism the aim isn’t to effect social change, and maybe that shouldn’t be the aim of modern mindfulness either.
Purser notes that Buddhist mindfulness seeks to eradicate the three poisons of rāga, dveṣa/dosa and moha, which he translates “greed, ill will and delusion” (20). I could dispute a couple of these translations, but the basic point is correct. The thing to notice about it is: Purser objects to “a fundamental tenet of neoliberal mindfulness, that the source of people’s problems is found in their heads.” (38) But “in our heads” is exactly where we find rāga, dveṣa and moha! If you are telling us that the source of our problems is not in our heads, then you are telling us that that source does not consist of any of these problems. But that does seem to be exactly what Purser is saying. If he accepts the Buddhist critique of dveṣa, it is grudgingly at best:
According to mindfulness science, certain emotions — such as anger, disgust, sadness, contempt, frustration and aggression — are “destructive,” negative affects requiring emotional self-regulation. But what if one is angry, even enraged, about injustice? Just let it go. Focus on your breath. Bring your attention back to the present moment. Of course, mindfulness practitioners still have thoughts outside of practice, but they are conditioned to see these as problems if strong emotions get involved. This has a disempowering impact on political thinking. Even if it helps not to act with anger, we still need to act if we want things to change outside our heads. (42)
Many do follow such a project, which prioritizes fighting injustice and pays incidental attention at best to fighting our own anger. But it seems to me that such a project is quite far from traditional Buddhism – in a way that “neoliberal mindfulness” might not be. Which then raises the question: should we be far from traditional Buddhism? I’d like to explore that question a bit more next time.
Seth Zuiho Segall said:
Amod, I agree with you on your main points. I also think that Purser’s crititque is weak, not only from the point of view of “traditional” Buddhism, but also from the point of view of Western Buddhist Modernism. I have an article coming out shortly in The Humanistic Psychologist that addresses the McMindfulness question at length. The following quote is just a short excerpt from my larger argument, but is pertinent to the issues you address:
“The ethics of Buddhist modernism–and mindfulness–promote a humanism that transcends devotion to specific economic ideologies and policies. Greed, selfishness, anger, lust, hatred, and abuse of power are aspects of the human condition under any and all economic and political systems. The ancient feudal lords and mercantilists were as greedy as today’s capitalists—and socialist commissars and apparatchiks have proven no less venal. As the old joke goes, “under capitalism man exploits man; under socialism it’s just the opposite.”
While “greed, hatred, and delusion” are the poisons that Buddhism seeks to ameliorate, Buddhism is silent as to specific public remedies. There is no such thing as “Buddhist economics” or “Buddhist political science,” any more than there is such a thing as “Buddhist microbiology” or “Buddhist quantum mechanics.” There are only individual Buddhists bringing their humanist ethics and best judgments with them as they join together with others in collective efforts to promote communal well-being.”
And one other excerpt:
“It is true that mindfulness programs offer the where-with-all to develop emotional intelligence, but leave the politics up each individual recipient. That is how it should be. It’s not the job of mindfulness programs to tell one how to vote or think about economics.”
Just to note. There may not be a buddhist QM, but for sure there are connections. See upcoming conference on this at Berkeley in April.
Physicist Chris Fuchs coined a term for his presentation. I have to go back and look it up. In the meantime, maybe mine will do: Qbu.
Amod Lele said:
Thanks, Seth. I think your critique may actually go further than mine! I do think there is probably such a thing as Buddhist political science: there are a number of classical Buddhist texts that do talk about how rulers should run their states, even when (as with Candrakīrti) they think being a ruler is a bad thing that nobody should aspire to. So too I think it’s not impossible to speak of “public remedies” for craving, anger and delusion – we shouldn’t take on the additional delusion that such remedies will solve those problems entirely, but it does seem that there are certain kinds of public action that could reduce them.
I think Purser is right to point out that modern mindfulness deemphasizes a connection to ethics that was much more present in classical Buddhist thought. What I think he misses is that that deemphasis makes modern mindfulness more compatible with political activism than classical Buddhism was. I’ll say some more about that in the followup post.
Seth Zuiho Segall said:
If modern mindfulness is more compatible with political activism than traditional Buddhism, it is because modern mindfulness has emerged from the anlage of a Western Buddhist modernism that has already assimilated Western beliefs about human rights, social justice, etc. into its ethical system. I agree with you that mindfulness and Western Buddhist modernism (Yavayana?) are more amenable to political activism than traditional Buddhism. Both see changing the Self and changing the world as part of the same ongoing project of promoting individual and collective human flourishing.
Where you and I disagree—perhaps—is on the degree of guidance Buddhism gives us as to the kinds of public remedies that are likely to lead to greater flourishing. Knowing what kinds of public remedies are likely to improved general flourishing, and which are likely to lead to disasterous unintended consequences is outside of Buddhism’s scope. Buddhism provides guidance as to our intentions (non-harming, non-hatred, compassion, generousity, etc.) but it doesn’t offer us a way of analyzing the likely success or failure of public initiatives. This is why I say that there is no Buddhist political science. There is just good old normal old-fashioned political science which we use to actualize our Buddhist ethics on a public scale.
Amad, I saw you published an article on this subject in Tricycle. Congratulations!
Unfortunately, I am cheap and not a Tricycle subscriber — and it is behind a pay wall. .
Amod Lele said:
Thank you! But don’t worry – that one is just an edited reprint of this post and the following one, so you’ve got the content here.
The calmness that comes with mindfulness is no bad thing for activitism. It’s hard to hear what someone’s saying when they’re mad but when they explain in a calm voice where the issue is, I’m much more receptive. This is what mindfulness is great at.
I often think that mindfulness is a bit like tomatoes. For people who lack sufficient fresh vegetables in their diet, the pre-packaged factory farmed tomatoes available at the supermarket for a cheap price is better than living on only tinned vegetables. Some of us are a bit more obsessive about our food intake and further down the end of the spectrum like Craig LeHoullier (author of Epic Tomatoes) who writes out how a kind of tomato received it’s name, who named it, when they named it and the reason for naming it, he describes how to grow different types of tomatoes, what color they grow to and when to pick them. Of course the latter is more rewarding but not everyone is ready to put in the time & effort to get the full aroma of a perfectly home-grown tomato.
My issue with mindfulness is this. A former colleague said she learnt minfulness at the riflerange to help with focus. All well and good but I’m unsure the Buddha’s intention when he recounted the Satipatthana Sutta was ‘mindfulness for mercenaries’.