Mindfulness—Beneath the Veil

I didn’t read it when it first arrived, but recently thought that my perspective on mindfulness perhaps needed to be broadened, and that I might benefit from reading “The Mindfulness Movement: What does it mean for Buddhism?” (Buddhadharma, Spring 2015), a conversation between an unnamed editor of Buddhadharma and four representatives of mindfulness. (I’m trying to not make this personal, so if you want to know who they are, you’ve got the link.)

The conversation opens with the question of whether it is appropriate to talk about mindfulness not simply as a teaching or practice, but rather as a movement. As the title of the article suggests, the participants feel confident that one can indeed properly refer to it as a movement—though equally unsurprisingly the meaning of that category is never discussed. Despite this, reading the conversation makes it very clear that mindfulness is not “just” a movement, as warm and fuzzy as that sounds, and has for quite some time been an industry. And not some mom & pop cottage industry, but a big business with vested interests to protect. It is the push for professionalization—training standards and behavioral standards—that most clearly demonstrates the industry status of mindfulness. Pretty obviously, the goal is to systematize and standardize mindfulness training adequately so that it can become another quasi-medical profession, and stand proudly alongside physical therapists and dental hygienists.

Let me state clearly and loudly that I consider such professions as physical therapy and dental hygiene to be very worthwhile and to have a great deal of social value.

There is, however, an unavoidable conflict between professionalization modeled on career paths of this sort, and the personal transformation that is held out as a value by speakers in the conversation. For such professionalization to be established, it will need to be on the basis of objective and measurable outcome studies. The techniques will have to be standardized so as to assure that the outcomes are effected by the mental technologies being taught to clients. Thus, the idea of professionalization implies treating mindfulness as a mental technology. However, while the speakers seem to value the benefits of professionalization, they also seem to like the idea that the practice is more than merely beneficial at a worldly level. One says, for example, that teaching mindfulness

is a presentation of something that isn’t just for making everything better but of something that will eventually wake everybody up to their true nature, to what it means to be a human.

I’m pretty sure that insurance companies and state licensing boards are not going to be interested in people coming to understand “what it means to be a human,” but rather in whether the frequency and intensity of migraines can be reduced, or whether the number of days of sick leave taken can be reduced, or whether measures of job satisfaction can be increased. I remember about a year ago, after hearing a presentation on mindfulness in public schools, making what I thought at the time was a joke about how pretty soon there will be an all out effort to standardize and professionalize mindfulness. While it may seem that the joke is on me, the real joke is that accomplishing that will preclude the more profound goals that are frequently pointed to in response to the criticism that mindfulness is merely stress reduction.

If I still have your attention, there are three additional details about the article that I found particularly disturbing. The first is a relatively simple logical fallacy, the second much more awesomely bad, and the third a more theoretical concern.

1) One speaker mentions four critiques of the mindfulness industry made by members of the Buddhist community. She concludes not by addressing any of the four, but by blandly dismissing these as not reflecting “the actual movement.” A second speaker follows, saying “I think these critiques come from more fundamentalist Buddhists.” This is an excellent example of an ad hominem fallacy. It attempts to undermine any validity of the critiques by asserting that those making the critiques are “fundamentalists,” that is, the rhetorical function is to discredit the critiques by discrediting those who make them.

2) The second speaker goes on then to address the critique that mindfulness is a sort of watered-down Buddhism by making a classic pot–kettle argument:

I mean, if you want to see watered-down Buddhism, travel to the beautiful Zen temples of Korea, a country where Buddhism is still alive and well, and you’ll see all the ladies in the temples working their malas, chatting about their kids, sometimes shucking peas; the temples are very much village and urban gathering places. How many people are deeply practicing? I don’t know, but I think in any center, it’s always the minority who are doing what dyed-in-the-wool Buddhists would recognize as pure practice.

At first I found it hard to believe that someone could make such a stunningly (A) ignorant, (B) elitist, condescending, and arrogant, and (C) culturally insensitive claim. That may appear unnecessarily harsh (yes, just like yours, my mother also said: if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all), so let’s take that one at a time:

(A) ignorant: not all Buddhists practice meditation—as most people with a modicum of background in Buddhist studies already know; despite this, modernist Buddhists (mindfulness, along with Secular Buddhism, and the like) generally hold strongly to the dogma that meditation is the defining characteristic of Buddhism, and that therefore since “real Buddhists” meditate, then conversely if one does not meditate, then one is not really a Buddhist—perhaps only a “night stand Buddhist”; of course, as the speaker apparently fully believes that she is in the uniquely privileged position of knowing what a true, “dyed in the wool” Buddhist is, then she can call out those who are “working their malas” as not engaging in “pure practice.”

(B) elitist: the speaker seems to believe that she knows what “pure practice” is and therefore has the right to dismiss the ladies in the temple as being at some lower, “watered-down” level; condescending: “all the ladies in the temples working their malas, chatting about their kids, sometimes shucking peas”—oh my goodness, those ladies don’t behave like upper middle class white Buddhists, and of course upper middle class white Buddhists are the ones who set the standards for what real Buddhist practice is (let us pretend that upper middle class white Buddhists never talk about their kids during lunch breaks on meditation days); and arrogant: okay, so this is heaping on (I thought about adding pretentious, but that would have been just too repetitive), but to think that one knows what “pure practice” really is, and can therefore make disparaging judgments about others as failing to attain to that level (maybe they can’t afford a weekend workshop at some aesthetically refined country retreat center that serves only the best vegetarian cuisine, and have to shuck peas for dinner), seems arrogant to me.

(C) culturally insensitive: the speaker acts as if her culture is the standard against which all other cultures should appropriately be measured; our culture (hers, mine and I assume yours as well dear reader) is highly psychologized, and therefore thinks only that those practices that can be framed in psychological terms are meaningful; the psychological framing of Buddhism has no place for such traditionally Buddhist belief systems as karma. Being unable to stand outside of one’s own culture’s assumptions, and make such a derogatory characterization as the one given above on the basis of that inability is what it means to be culturally insensitive.

Beyond wondering what ever happened to humility as a value, this left me with two additional questions:

• just who are “dyed-in-the-wool” Buddhists anyway, and why do they get to set the standards for everyone else?, and

• just what is “pure practice” other than some kind of code for inclusion/exclusion?

Thinking back to the post on Latour, however, we can begin to guess what is going on here—it is the denial of authority to Asian Buddhism, and the claim of authority for American mindfulness and its teachers such as those in this conversation.

3) much of the rhetoric rather uncritically depends on the ideas of Perennialism—that there is a single religiosity hovering above all the different traditions, each of which only partially instantiates that higher teaching; the current form of that is to presume a universal human psychology, as is implicit in the comment that

If we talk about the mindfulness movement as an outgrowth of Buddhism, or even just mindfulness as an outgrowth of Buddhism, I think that’s a narrow and self-serving framing, because the fundamental mindfulness that we all have, which includes awareness and joy and caring and all sorts of other qualities, is obviously not an invention of Buddhism.

This reminds me of a very thoughtful dharma talk by Matthew Brensilver that I heard a while back. As I recall from memory, he noted that when questioned on these issues, he used to say rhetorically “Is attention Buddhist?” Apparently these days his answer is more nuanced, and as I interpret what he said, less likely to fall into the fallacies of Perennialism.

Just briefly (see Traditionalist Representations of Buddhism for more detailed critiques), one of the fallacies of Perennialism is that while it appears more liberal and accepting—as indicated by the quote regarding locating mindfulness in relation to Buddhism as being “a narrow and self-serving framing”—it actually imposes a single view on all the different teachings. An added benefit for those willing to make that imposition of uniformity is the opportunity to arrogate to oneself the status of being above the differences, and of being one of the elect able to see the true unity of all teachings. The use of Perennialist rhetoric overlooks a fairly natural consequence of the idea that all teachings are based in the same human universals—that consequence is that being a Buddhist, or a Catholic, or a Muslim, or Wikkan, or a mindfulness practitioner makes no difference. Personally, I think, and feel that Buddhism is different, and that being a Buddhist makes a difference, even if you’re a bad Buddhist like me.


5 thoughts on “Mindfulness—Beneath the Veil

  1. Hi Richard,

    Thanks for writing this. This mindfulness movement is increasingly disturbing, particularly as it is now being so widely practiced in schools, where young children are required to participate in this without even asking their parents’ permission.

    I think you have hit on the key problems with the rhetoric of the movement; I wonder to what degree this poor logic and inability to be aware of one’s own ideological assumptions, so clearly demonstrated by all of the participants in this “conversation” in Buddhadharama, is both a prerequisite for and a product of the practice they advocate?

    If I might, I’d like to mention a couple more disturbing aspects of the rhetoric used in the article.

    First, the simple refusal to address criticism is generally accepted as having successfully refuted the critics. Statements like “I don’t see any of these as reflective of the actual movement” and “I don’t take the charges seriously” are just accepted as a complete refutation. Combined with the rhetoric of being “on the ground,” as opposed to the critics who are apparently assumed to be up in the air, they wind up doing exactly what they have pointed out their critics are bothered by—focus so narrowly that the systemic causes of a problem remain completely invisible. It is sad that such non-arguments are so often the most convincing, and I really do believe that they are convincing exactly because of the current cultural belief, implicit in the mindfulness movement, that all thought is inherently bad and is the real source of all our problems.

    For me, however, the far more disturbing element is the “charisma” factor, the cult-of-personality component in mindfulness, common, of course, to all ideological projects trying to present themselves as eternal/mystical truths. One speaker mentions Kabat-Zinn reverentially as a “fully embodied, clear teacher,” and goes on to mention that far from the kind of technical training that might be required of, say, dentists or physical therapists, what is really needed is someone in “whom a felt sense of authentic embodiment shines through, no matter what their training has been.” Charisma is more important than training, as one would expect in a practice that is one of ideological interpellation, and not at all an actual medical intervention. That this charismatic factor is central to mindfulness should be all the more disturbing, given the widespread forced participation of young children in this practice.

    I wouldn’t deny that relaxation exercises have some potential uses; however, it should be clear enough that the only thing added to relaxation exercises in the mindfulness movement is a kind of placebo effect. This is probably why the outcomes of studies are so, well, lackluster. Placebo effects tend to be small (although quite real), and highly dependent on factors that are hard to pin down and quantify, such as the degree of suggestibility of the participant and the degree to which the person administering the treatment seems admirable and wise to that participant. Unlike dental hygiene, which is always good and always has measurable positive effects no matter how attractive the hygienist or what the patient believes, the effects of mindfulness are completely at the level of ideology, and depend on factors that cannot be reduced to a manualized technique.

    Sorry to ramble on. I do think you hit the key problems in the article, these are just some further troubling points. I am aware that when it comes to mindfulness, my participation in the discussion has the potential to provoke violently angry responses and to cause all potential readers to ignore the content of the discussion, so if you would prefer to delete this comment to avoid this response I will not feel at all slighted.

    Thanks again Richard. Keep fighting the good fight!

    • Thank you for your comments, Tom. These are important additions to the understanding of what in addition to being an industry may also be called, quite unfortunately, a cult in the journalistic sense. I especially appreciate your point regarding the rhetoric of “on the ground,” as it is one that I do often find intimidating—an effective means of blocking criticism. My doubts run along the lines of: I’m not engaged in the activity of teaching mindfulness; I know people who do seem to have benefited from taking time out each day to watch their own thoughts; oh, and there’s all those fMRIs and stuff that looks real sciency; etc. But I am actively engaged in the process of trying to assist people to think clearly, and the kinds of errors, both formal and informal, are repeated incessantly. The subject matter may be different, but the bad reasoning applied to it remains the same.
      I’m rather slowly working my way through Cruel Theory, and hope to comment here about it directly in the not too terribly distant future.
      all the best, etc.

  2. At the risk of being ridiculously annoying, one more point occurs to me: there would seem to be a very important connection between the minfulness movement and your previous post on the obscurations Specifically, as mindfulness is usually understood as the practice of stopping all thought and somehow having a non-conceptual awareness (as impossible, and dependent on the illusion of a transcendent soul, as this idea is), it would seem to depend on a particular understanding of the second obscuration, on knowledge as an obscuration, instead of the understanding that assumes the obscurations are obstructions to correct knowledge. In general , our culutre seems to have accepted the Romantic interpretation, that any thought is an impediment to “true experience,” and the ideology of the mindfulness industry is an attempt to advance this ideology of the subject,with its secularized soul and illusions of escaping the dross of history.

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