Don’t just stand there, sit down! – 1

The Buddha

MINDFULNESS is everywhere. There are online courses, meditation classes, it’s been co-opted by the NHS, it’s in schools, the military and corporations. Mindfulness artifacts from meditation mats to amulets that are supposed to aid the mindful experience are hugely popular – and the mindfulness industry is worth billions of pounds a year. There is an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme run by groups like the Oxford University Mindfulness Centre. There is even a cross-party Parliamentary mindfulness group.

At some point, however, many practitioners may well ask themselves that that’s all well and good – but is mindfulness more than just a private activity or does it have wider social implications? More to the point, is mindfulness an inherently quietist activity. If it is, then no amount of mindfulness practice will help to bring about social change. Even worse, it is ripe for appropriation of the dominant ideology – and it is this concern that is gripping some people in certain corners.

The controversial Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek is definitely in that corner. In From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism he writes that Western Buddhism ‘enables you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it; that you are well aware of how worthless this spectacle is; and that what really matters is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always with-draw’. While mindfulness emerged from Buddhism, in the West it has been stripped of its spiritual and ethical basis enabling a kind of quietism much appreciated by the corporations. This is highlighted by a witness in David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs, who recalls: “The mindfulness seminars were even worse. They attempted to reduce the unfathomable beauty and stupefying sadness of the human experience into the raw physicality of breathing, eating, and shitting. Breathe mindfully. Eat mindfully. Shit mindfully, and you can be successful in business.” One can imagine someone who is unhappy with their low wages and working conditions being despatched on a mindfulness course in order to become more ‘mindful’ about her plight in much the same way as people are sent on anger management courses.

Ronald E. Purser is no doubt either that this neutering of mindfulness is a kind of opiate of the people. In McMindfulness he draws a parallel, as the title suggests, between the universalising one-restaurant fits all model and the kind of therapeutic interventions of the type deployed by the NHS. He writes: “Although derived from Buddhism, it’s been stripped of the teachings on ethics that accompanied it.” And again: “What remains is a tool of self-discipline disguised as self-help. Instead of setting practitioners free, it helps them adjust to the very conditions that caused their problems.” He adds: “Reducing suffering is a noble aim and it should be encouraged. But to do this effectively, teachers of mindfulness need to acknowledge that personal stress also has societal causes.” The guru of this kind of mindfulness and inventor of the MBSR model is Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the bestseller Wherever You Go, There You Are in which he claims that meditation ‘means cultivating a non-judging attitude toward what comes up in the mind, come what may’, although he also writes that this does not mean that you ‘cease knowing how to act or behave responsibly in society, or that anything anybody does is okay’.

However, Purser argues that Kabat-Zinn puts too much stress on the ‘present’ or the ‘now’. “Fetishizing present experience runs the risk of reducing mindfulness to a pop philosophy that relishes an amoral immediacy of being, undermining critical forethought and ethical awareness of the consequentiality of past and future actions.”

In recent years the mindfulness community has begun to wake up to this criticism of the practice, the dangers of quietism and the ironic injunction of ‘don’t just stand there, sit down’. The Mindfulness and Social Change Network, which researches how ‘social and environmental perspectives on suffering and wellbeing could inform mindfulness teaching and practice’. One of its members is David Forbes, author of Mindfulness and its Discontents, who believes that the potential for a more ‘evolved post-pandemic society is already here’, but ‘greed-driven corporations, anti-democratic and immoral politicians, and right wing corporatized media remain powerful forces that favor profit over public good’. He continues: “Whether these forces will win out in part depends on those who organize, resist, and fight for a better world. Can mindfulness play a part in this struggle? The answer is yes, if we connect our contemplation practices with social realities.”

This blog has largely concentrated on the doubts. The next will look at a more positive view. In particular it will explore claims that mindfulness is not inherently quietist – a tag which should perhaps be restricted to therapeutic interventions – and that, properly understood, it has the potential to help activism and effect social change. It will also ponder whether the two democracy cafés in Salisbury create the sort of liminal space that can operate as a transitional stage between silent meditation and social participation.

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