Mindfulness in an Unjust World

Mindfulness meditation has become very popular. Its exotic Buddhist origins combined with the mounting evidence produced by Western science that meditation is (mostly because of brain plasticity) good for us, makes it very appealing. Many therapists are now designing new mindfulness-based cognitive and behavioural therapies, and some physicians now recommend it to their patients. Mindfulness-based programs are used to treat depression, anxiety, chronic stress, chronic pain, and so on.

Being mindful is being able to focus our attention, moment by moment, on stimuli such as one’s breath or bodily sensations and, in doing so, to step out of the constant flow of thoughts and feelings that inhabits our mind under normal conditions. This is why many think that meditation “quiets the mind”. It is recognized that thoughts and emotions will always irrupt, but such mental states should be welcomed in a non-judgemental manner and objectified, i.e. observed as external phenomena by the reflexive and compassionate self that we are when we practice mindfulness meditation.

It is not difficult to understand the appeal of mindfulness meditation. Our frantic, hyperconnected lifestyle paradoxically creates a gaping space for something to halt the ongoing stimulation provided by information technologies, as well as the constant planning, striving and ruminating that occupies a huge chunk of our conscious experience. Now that the separation between professional and personal lives is disappearing, at least for many of us, we can be working and social networking pretty much all day long. That’s a scary thought. And I didn’t even bring parenthood into the mix. Under such circumstances, rewiring the brain through mindful meditation is surely not the worst thing that one can do with one’s spare time. Just writing about it makes me want to do it more.

Now, the hype about mindfulness was bound to create a wave of skepticism. This is fine. I myself was very recalcitrant the first time I heard about it. I had heard about “transcendental meditation” before and thought it sounded pretty wacky. It’s my wife who discovered that mindfulness meditation was not esoteric at all and that it seemed like a salutary practice in today’s world. Mindfulness meditation helped her when she was going through a rough patch and she since then integrated it in her clinical practice and in her teaching to residents in family medicine. She wrote about it here.

The Guardian’s columnist’s Suzanne Moore doesn’t see it this way. In a column entitled “Mindfulness is all about self-help. It does nothing to change an unjust world”, she unleashes against what she sees as the new fad among bobos, overachievers and the top 1%.

One understands that the piece has “false dilemma fallacy” written all over it just by reading the title. Yes, mindfulness meditation is about one’s own well-being and, no, it is not a critical theory of society. Mindfulness will not run political philosophy and social theory out of business. But how does one arrive at the idea that we need to choose between the two, or that meditating is a dark force working for the status quo? By which unconscious mechanisms exactly does caring for oneself by jogging, doing yoga or meditating somehow make one politically complacent or succumb to the illusion that deep collective changes can be best brought about through personal transformation?

Moore is irritated because meditation has gone mainstream and because Wall Street and Silicon Valley types use it as a cognitive enhancer. And also because she doesn’t like to count grains of rice with Marina Abramović. This is all well and fine, but it doesn’t make her rant about mindfulness cogent and convincing. I wonder whether she prefers that physicians keep prescribing too much pills for treating anxiety, chronic pain and attention deficits, or whether she thinks that it’s better for me to look one more time at my Facebook thread instead of doing a 15 minutes body scan meditation. Contrary to what she claims, mindfulness doesn’t make you think less, but it arguably helps you focus and concentrate better. There is also some evidence that it might make you more empathic.

“The new ascetic is someone who goes for a walk without their phone or takes a week off Twitter to cleanse themselves. This version of meditation requires no more than the faith that we can all be self-improving part-time gurus. It requires no commitment to a community, and it’s cheap.” Once again, there’s no need to choose between the belief, on the one hand, that mindful walking and switching off technology are good for us and, on the other hand, that we need to cooperate with others in order to bring about positive social change.

Moore’s main concern is that the inoffensive Westernized mindfulness worldview “lets go of the idea that we can change the world; it merely helps us function better in it.” This potentially powerful claim is, alas, unsubstantiated. I’m not an expert, but I have never read anything that suggests that mindfulness meditation is logically wedded to political quietism; that it would be a form of stoicism. (I do not think that Greek stoicism promotes political apathy, but that’s another story.) I’m sure that there are people out there who think that personal transformation is the highway to social and political change, but I doubt that this worldview is the meditator’s prerogative.


Mindfulness in an Unjust World — 3 Comments

  1. well the argument may not be logical but it is obvious that many actually do combine mindfulness with dropping out from social responsibility.

  2. Allen: Surely the question is whether those who practice mindfulness are *more* likely to disengage socially and politically in comparison to others. I doubt it is.

  3. Ok, I’m loving the diversity of this blog. I think we can critique commodification of mindfulness (Ayn Rand on Lululemon bags: surely one of the most shameful corporate moments in history), and also the very weak notions of it (taking a walk without your phone will not be enough to graduate to the “mindful person” category). But there is, to me, absolutely no question that “yoga” (I put in quotations to capture the bundle of ideas and practices that tend to go with it) creates the possibilities for a much more community minded and politically active life. In its best forms, the idea is to diminish your narcissism and bring a source of joy into your life that doesn’t involve buying stuff or showing off (ok, maybe a little showing off). How could the pursuit of these ideas not improve your chances of being a better activist? If Moore is saying that the “emptying out” of meditation needs to be following by a “filling up” of social justice engagement, well, sure! And if Moore is saying that people can use spirituality to feel better for a second without achieving real awareness or care, well, sure! Anything that can be done can be done badly. But a good faith effort at “yoga” won’t block community engagement; this isn’t just a “false dilemma fallacy”, I think the opposite is more true. (Spoken like someone who is on their way to yoga…)