Mindfulessness

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to participate in the Mindfulness and Compassion conference at San Francisco State University. (Round-ups can be found here and here.) I’ve been meaning to write something about the experience, but nothing has gelled.

Last week, Ron Purser kindly forwarded this article to me and a dozen or so other folks (many of whom attended the conference). It’s worth a read. In sum, the author discusses her disillusionment with mindfulness practices as she learned them because, among other reasons, they tended to make her less engaged with the world rather than more engaged. Rather than quelling the mind and its distracted trains of thought, she wonders if distraction and multitasking aren’t actually good things.

It’s easy to critique this woman and her teachers and her (mis)understandings and their (mis)appropriations of mindfulness. It’s easy to draw quick conclusions from this and point our fingers and say that either she didn’t “get it” or they didn’t teach her right. It’s easy to point to some other version of mindfulness (“traditional,” “Buddhist,” monastic, whatever those terms mean) and make the claim that these other versions are more authentic, more correct. And then to lament the secularization of mindfulness. Alternately, it’s easy to leave all that aside and make the claim that mindfulness is in some way universal, not something that Buddhism “owns,” and whereas this woman had a bad experience, a lot of positive good has come to people who have engaged the practice. In short, it’s easy to use this article as evidence of one set of ideological claims or another — claims either in support or critical of secular mindfulness, its value, its limitations.

Collectively, this article and many more like, represent not mindfulness itself but a growing narrative about mindfulness. Rather than concerning ourselves with the questions of whether or not this version of mindfulness is “really” Buddhist, rather than concerning ourselves with questions of whether or not the secularization of mindfulness is a good thing or a bad thing, rather than asking whether or not mindfulness really “works” in any way close to the way its apologists claim — all very good critical lines of inquiry — I’d like to suggest that these articles, this narrative genre, be taken at face value. Regardless of this version of mindfulness’s relationship to any other, it is a version of mindfulness that is being perpetuated in a growing body of popular sources, creating its own narrative truth. It is becoming naturalized. Like it or not, historically accurate or not, this is what mindfulness means. To quote the article:

I dove into what was an open-ended experiment to see if I could correct the things about me that were loose and scattered, and reap the touted benefits of mindfulness. It was a good time for me to try, because I was about to go through a pregnancy, and wanted to be a good parent, a “mindful” parent, as all the parenting books suggested. Besides, since this way of being was supposed to greatly improve my life, to make it feel more meaningful, and to even help me lose weight, who was I to argue with it?

This is the narrative. Some aspect of modern life is pathologized and problematized (we’re too distracted, there are too many iDevices). Mindfulness, described alternately as singleness of attention and “thinking about nothing” is offered as the cure. It is valued as the thing that will create meaning in all aspects of our lives, from the vague and abstract (making life meaningful) to the mundane and particular (loosing weight). And critical thought is discouraged. Indeed, who are we to argue when all of this sounds so good?

(In passing, I’d like to note the never-ending layers of pathologization going on here, the creation of dichotomies, the explicit labeling and valuing of those dichotomies, and the endless deployment of fixes. Weight gain is a problem. A life without meaning is a problem. Distractions and cell phones are problems. A lack of productivity is a problem. Here is this fix. The irony, of course, is that mindfulness is supposed to be the nonjudgemental awareness of mental phenomenon, here deployed in the service of endlessly judged problems.)

This narrative should not surprise us. It did not come into being with Jon Kabat-Zinn. It is not unique to secular mindfulness. Its origin is implied in the article when the author lists all of the various practices she engaged in on her mindfulness journey — meditation, yoga, books by gurus, aura readings. This is familiar territory. This is the New Age/self-help narrative that has been a central aspect of American popular religion for at least the last four decades. This is not new.

(See Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s Selling Spirituality for a good overview.)

To note how this narrative overlaps with pre-existing narratives is not to discredit some aspects of mindfulness practice (or Buddhist practice, for that matter). For every New Age dilettante with a Native American dream catcher hanging from his car’s rear-view mirror on his way to a yoga class on his lunch break, there are countless persons who use the same signs and symbols for wholly different reasons, often to great effect. Whereas the author of this article may not have “succeeded” in her quest for a more meaningful mindful life (whatever that might mean), the same practices have no doubt helped countless people overcome a host psychological and physical aliments. To note that this narrative stinks of the same snake-oil as other quick-fix self-help products is not to dismiss mindfulness in its entirety. It is merely to be critical of one of its current meanings.

Mindfulness has now taken on at least three different meanings: (1) some “traditional” Buddhist meaning, (2) a “legitimate” psychotherapeutic meaning, (3) and a quasi-New Age/self help meaning. Each of these meanings can be critiqued; each of these meanings has its own underlying ideological assumptions and agendas. And, obviously, they overlap. But being clear on what it is were are critiquing, and what we are not, provides us with a clear way forward.

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