Mindfulness Muddle


Sciences, Publics, Politics: Mindfulness Inc.
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In “Mindfulness Inc.” (Issues, Fall 2019), Matthew C. Nisbet presents an important critique of the state of popular mindfulness programs. Building on my book The Mindful Elite (2019) and Ron Purser’s book McMindfulness (2019), he argues that teaching people to cope with stress and other problems through introspective meditation depoliticizes and privatizes stressors. Instead a “social mindfulness,” as termed by Purser, is needed: this would not only hone individual self-reflection, but channel attention back to direct action for structural social reform to hold institutions more accountable for the pressures they place upon individuals. I agree with all these points of Nisbet’s argument.

It is important, however, to bring attention to the process of how the field of mindfulness developed. As human beings, leaders of the mindfulness movement were not omniscient, and I do not want to over-rationalize their decision-making. In popularizing mindfulness, mindful leaders sought first to bring meditation into mainstream society. They correctly surmised that by introducing it into powerful organizations, where they knew people who might be sympathetic to meditation, they would have the most impact. This is an effective strategy many people in their (affluent) shoes would have taken.

Mindful leaders seemed unaware of how their manifold minor alterations to make meditation appealing in new institutions increasingly came to support the structures and cultures of the organizations they inhabited.

However, as mainly white, highly educated, members of the middle and upper classes, these mindfulness advocates had some blind spots. Their affluent networks aided their expedient—and successful—promotion of mindfulness, but handicapped them in other respects. Mindful leaders seemed unaware of how their manifold minor alterations to make meditation appealing in new institutions increasingly came to support the structures and cultures of the organizations they inhabited. Over time, their initial commitments to reform society more broadly seemed to fall by the wayside.

Staggering inequality and major cultural fissures pervade not only the United States but the globe. These fissures also permeate the mindfulness community. The movement is not centralized or well-regulated. As a result, a variety of mindfulness programs proliferate. Of these, programs in business tend to be the most instrumentally inclined—seeking productivity and career advancement for practitioners—and thereby deviating from mindfulness’s Buddhist roots. Some mindfulness programs in nonprofits, education, health care, religious organizations, and other sectors maintain more Buddhist ethical roots.

Programs also vary widely within sectors. Some mindfulness leaders are working to address the critiques leveled against them, to diversify the movement, face structural inequalities, and enact social reform. I hope they succeed in their efforts to advance social mindfulness.

Department of Sociology
Hamilton College

Matthew Nisbet has provided an accurate description of the lucrative mindfulness industry, illustrating how market forces have co-opted mindfulness to further a neoliberal agenda. And market data forecasts it will grow to $2.08 billion by 2022. Cleary, there are huge financial interests driving this growth. The fact that mindfulness has become a fashionable commodity easily accommodated into the dictates of the marketplace should give us pause. But why should we be concerned? Isn’t this just a natural consequence of a capitalist economy that responds to the needs of Western consumers?

Contemporary mindfulness is a recent and modern invention. Mindful merchants claim that their products are derived from Buddhism, but that is only a slick marketing move used to exploit Buddhism for its exotic cultural cachet. The former Tibetan monk Thupten Jinpa, a Buddhist scholar and frequent translator for the Dalai Lama, suggests that it would be more helpful to view contemporary mindfulness as loosely inspired by Buddhism, rather as a secularized derivative. In fact, as Jinpa points out, contemporary mindfulness practices have little resemblance or equivalence to Buddhist mindfulness teachings that have always been integrated with ethical and soteriological aims. Nevertheless, clinical and therapeutic mindfulness programs have offered thousands of people modest benefits in reducing stress and anxiety and in improving mental health. These salutary outcomes from mindfulness-based interventions are laudable and beneficial, and are not the direct target of the McMindfulness critique.

So what really is at stake? As I so often get asked, “what’s the harm if mindfulness provides modest benefits to individuals?” As the French philosopher Jacques Derrida notes, when the poison is in the cure, that harm is hard to see. Despite the potential health benefits, mindfulness practices have become co-opted and instrumentalized for furthering a neoliberal agenda. For example, the popularity of corporate mindfulness programs can be explained in part by how they shift the burden of responsibility for reducing stress to individuals, despite hard evidence that workplace stressors are tied to a range of systemic and structural issues such as a lack of health insurance, job insecurities, unrealistic work demands and long hours, and lack of employee discretion and autonomy. Mindfulness practices have been retooled for productivity improvement and for muting employee dissent. Moreover, by insourcing the causes of stress to individual employees, corporations are absolved of taking responsibility for the very conditions generating the need for such therapeutic interventions. Corporate mindfulness programs are hyped as “humanistic,” cloaking the fact that they ideologically function as the latest capitalist spirituality, yoking the psyche of the worker to corporate goals.

Taking our cue from Derrida’s problematizing of pharmaceuticals as the “pharmakon,” where a drug can be both beneficial and detrimental, the “mindfulcon” is an apt term for denoting the risks that arise when mindfulness is hijacked and corrupted by commercial interests and profit-making enterprises.

Cite this Article

“Mindfulness Muddle.” Issues in Science and Technology 36, no. 2 (Winter 2020).

Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, Winter 2020