On McMindfulness

Ronald E. Purser's McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality (Repeater 2019) is a must-read for teachers of mindfulness. First, two disclaimers:

  1. I didn't actually read the book. I listened to it on Audible because I was experiencing back pain that had me on the floor for hours with nothing to do but be with my discomfort. Ordinarily, a post like this would be chock full of quotes from the book, but alas . . .

  2. I am a Certified Mindful Schools Instructor and a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher trained by the Brown University Mindfulness Center. And Purser has heaps of criticism for Mindful Schools as well as MBSR.


Deconstructing Purser's Pushback


I love pushback. And there's a lot of pushback here, with varying degrees of resonance for me. As I heard it, there were four main issues, regardless of how the book is actually organized.


1. Mindfulness supports/enables capitalism.

The claim is that mindfulness is an opiate of the masses, intending to create obedient workers and other people whose circumstances might otherwise cause them to want to rebel. It also helps them cope better with their situation and make them able to focus and perform better.


Here's the thing about the capitalism argument: If that's your hammer, you will find nails all around you in the US in 2020. I appreciate the perspective, being quite capitalism-ambivalent. And I especially appreciate the discussion about mindfulness in the military, as creating killers who are more focused and resilient just doesn't sit well with me. For me, that qualifies as a misuse of mindfulness.


Clearly capitalism doesn't seem to be serving the majority of the world's people or the planet we all live on. But from where I sit, I just don't see that intention--that motivation--in the training by Mindful Schools or Brown. There are people who really are just jumping onto a trend and trying to make a buck. It's all about intention, sincerity, and training (and by no means am I saying the training I chose is the only way to prepare; it's just the only thing I can speak to). This pushback highlights mindfulness, the fad, but its ire is directed at (at least some of) the wrong people.


Furthermore, it's true that kids aren't taught what paying attention feels like in their own bodies and minds. Nor are they given the tools to discover what their emotions feel like in their bodies as they emerge. Ditto for grown-ups. And don't get me started on listening. To jump from cultivating qualities and habits that make us better humans who have better relationships with themselves and others, to equating that with creating better cogs in wheels or celebrating a kind of individualism that is destructive to individuals and puts undue pressure and responsibility on them (see neoliberalism) seems unfair. It seems like a willful misunderstanding--a bad faith argument.


2. Mindfulness serves neoliberalism.

Half of this discussion resonates with me and I think it's important to take the time to emphasize that although we as individuals have the ability to manage the way we respond to the conditions of our lives, and truly all we have is the present moment, that doesn't mean that mindfulness is context-free. I don't think trained MBSR and Mindful Schools teachers are out in the world saying that social, political, and economic forces don't affect people's lives and that all they need is to pay attention, moment-by-moment, non-judgmentally. All they have is the present moment, but it's not all they need.


Even Sam Harris, who is briefly addressed along with Dan Harris (no relation) would probably say that all we have is consciousness and its contents, but he wouldn't deny the existence and influence of systemic racism, poverty, religious oppression and other factors that inform the contents of consciousness.


Purser's argument is that mindfulness in itself isn't a bad thing, but that part of the intention of MBSR is to locate the source of all of human suffering inside the mind, and claim that there is nothing to be done other than to pay attention. Meanwhile, at the end of multi-day, silent mindfulness retreats (i.e., only the teachers speak, there is no reading or texting or listening to music, and no one looks at each other, and this is all a grave oversimplification), the teachers say something like: "Don't get married, don't get divorced, don't quit your job, and don't get a tattoo as soon as you get home." They say that because the retreate experience, like the 8-week MBSR course, is intense and brings things into awareness that do require action. They require deliberate, considered responses that might not be possible in the days immediately following the retreat. Maybe counseling is needed, maybe other kinds of support are needed in order to plan and execute next steps. No one is saying all you need is mindfulness. There is always the question of: What do I do with these new realizations? With this new awareness?


My final note regarding context is that white savior behavior, colonialism and cultural appropriation are taken seriously and given space--even if it is by the mostly white staff and faculties of both Brown and Mindful Schools. Diversity and inclusion are important and not just given lip service. They both appear to be sincerely trying.


3. MBSR is hiding its Buddhist roots.

I can speak only to my own training. Nobody's hiding anything. I'm an atheist. There were Catholics, Jews, Jains, and Hindus in my classes at Brown and Mindful Schools. These are actual religious people who practice their religion on days other than high-holy days. The only downside of the Buddhist origins comes from people who want to see MBSR as religious. Ask a Catholic mindfulness teacher how religious MBSR is. Ironically, I recently led a Deep Listening exercise in a corporate setting, and afterward a participant who identified herself as a Christian said she found the experience to be "biblical." Contemplative traditions have much in common, and we all have our own lenses. MBSR and Mindful Schools teachers might have root traditions themselves, but they don't bring the trappings or the language of those traditions into the classroom. This, in my mind, is what it means to call the programs "secular."


Mindfulness also has much in common with Stoicism, and I wonder if its origin was Stoicism (therefore, the West), would people be so upset about it?


4. Claims of benefits are overstated.

Purser rightfully points out that the science is in its infancy and there are claims made that are simply not supported by the research. Mindfulness teachers know this, though. My training with Mindful Schools and Brown both featured Willoughby Britton, whom Purser quotes, and who has made a career of studying mindfulness, meditation, and the research.


In addition, both Mindful Schools and Brown are trauma-informed programs and at no point do they claim that mindfulness is always good for everybody.


In Conclusion . . .


Mindfulness means many things. It's a fad, it's a word, it's a practice, it's a path, and it's a state. And practically anyone can set up shop as a mindfulness teacher or coach serving any population you can think of; Purser is right about that. However, he could have spent more time discussing that than ridiculing people whose intentions are sincere and/or who understand the position legitimate mindfulness teachers are in explaining what mindfulness is and what it isn't.


A word on the audiobook


That word would be petty. Either Purser listened to the recording (he isn't the narrator) and thought it was okay, or he didn't quality check it. Evidently it's very easy to read the book in a glib tone and quote people you disagree with by making them sound like a tween saying, neener-neener or what-ever. It takes away from his ideas and makes him sound cranky. It's unnecessary and distracting. When you are presenting a perspective that in any way ridicules people, it's best to use your grown-up, kind, reasonable voice.


© 2020 by Mary Martin, Ph.D. 

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