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Dec 22
book reviews
McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality

Christine Heming reviews the book by Ronald E. Purser

McMindfulness occurs when mindfulness is used, with intention or unwittingly, for self-serving and ego-enhancing purposes that run counter to both Buddhist and Abrahamic prophetic teachings to let go of ego-attachment and enact skillful compassion for everyone.

David Forbes, The Guardian, April 2019

The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality. . . . . the main point of any spiritual practice is to step out of the bureaucracy of ego.

Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

Mindfulness has gone mainstream.  Endorsed by celebrities, given credence by some neuroscientists, adopted by the corporate elite – this movement has grown “evangelical.”  The inventor of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Jon Kabat-Zinn, proclaimed that mindfulness “may actually be the only promise the species and the planet have for making it through the next couple hundred years.”   Mindfulness is not just a movement, it’s a revolution.

Ron Purser among others is skeptical.  Mindfulness training, they say, may help people cope with stress and anxiety, but it may also be making what constitutes the causes of stress worse.  It is certainly not revolutionary.  On the contrary, it represents and reinforces the status quo.

Beyond McMindfulness

Purser and David Loy first published their concerns about the “mindfulness revolution” in a 2013 article called, “Beyond McMindfulness.” They argued that the “stripped down, secular technique” of mindfulness, that originated in the Buddhist tradition, not only fails to awaken people and organizations from greed, ill will, delusion and injustice, but also can actually reinforce those roots by bypassing the very causes of stress in our society – corporate culture, societal injustices, racism, speed, competition and consumerism.

Purser takes a close look at how mindfulness has come to reflect and embody its milieu – the white, privileged, individualistic, corporate, capitalist culture.  The problem isn’t with mindfulness itself, but with how it is packaged.  The fundamental message is that the cause of our dissatisfaction and stress is in our heads, or more precisely, our failure to pay attention to what is happening in each moment.  We get lost in thoughts, fears and regrets, all of which make us unhappy.  Kabat-Zinn calls this a “thinking disease” and suggests that our “entire society is suffering from attention deficit disorder  – big time.”  In this sense, mindfulness, or the lack of it, is a both private and pathological.

Purser reports that mindfulness is estimated to be $4 billion dollar industry.  Mindfulness books are sprouting up about everything:  parenting, eating, leadership, finance and dog ownership, to name a few. Mindfulness programs are now in schools, on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, the US military and UK government.  It has even made its way to Davos and the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.  Today numerous mindfulness workshops, online courses, smartphone apps, cushions, bells, clothing and other paraphernalia round out the brand. 

Aside from the commodification of mindfulness, Purser examines the discourse surrounding mindfulness.  In mindfulness lingo, wellbeing is often portrayed in individualistic and psychological terms like “self-mastery,” “resilience,” and “happiness.” The implication is that wellbeing is simply a matter of developing a skill.  Like exercising our muscles, we can train our brains to be happy.   Neuroscientist, David Richardson, says, “It’s best to think of happiness as a skill” not dependent on external circumstances.

Mindfulness, Corporate Culture, and “Universal Dharma”

This view dissociates stress from any political, societal or economic context and has made mindfulness the darling of corporate culture – Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and others have embraced it as an adjunct to their brand.   “Search inside yourself,” says Chade-Meng Tan, Google’s former mindfulness czar, for there, not in corporate culture, is the source of your problems.   

Purser warns that by deflecting attention from social, political and economic structures, mindfulness has become a form of capitalist spirituality, “perfectly attuned to maintaining the neoliberal self.”  Neoliberal mindfulness wants us to turn off our critical inquiry, tune out the world outside, and drop into a private realm of isolation that reinforces the cult of the individual.

This absence of critical thinking is a serious issue and nowhere is it more relevant than in Kabat-Zinn’s claims about mindfulness being a “universal dharma.”  Purser points out that this claim assumes a false unity of human experience that is clearly illuminated by Robin DiAngelo in White Fragility.  She writes:  “Whites are taught to see their interests and perspectives as universal [and] they are also taught to value the individual and to see themselves as individuals rather than as part of a racially socialized group.  Individualism erases history and hides the ways in which wealth has been distributed and accumulated over generations to benefit whites today.”

Purser offers critiques of the mindful schools movement, the science supporting mindfulness, and research on the effectiveness of mindfulness training programs, and finds all of these aspects of the movement lacking in important ways.  He is not kind to Jon Kabat-Zinn whom he feels has gone far beyond secularizing mindfulness to help persons with chronic pain to selling mindfulness as a global panacea.  At the same time, he is clear that mindfulness training, and in particular, MBSR, can be of benefit to many when instructors are knowledgeable about its limitations, including the possibility of significant harm for some individuals.

“More than merely paying attention”

Purser has offered an important critique of the mindfulness movement. In addition to his insights into the failings of the movement, he does acknowledge its positive applications, and also suggests how it might be liberated into a truly revolutionary force in society.  In this regard it is interesting to note how mindfulness is viewed in the Shambhala path.  Kabat-Zinn refers to mindfulness as “bare attention,” while we understand mindfulness from the Tibetan word, trenpa, which is more than merely paying attention.  As it says in Shambhala Meditation, “it is a feeling of deeply caring about our mind, and therefore who we are – not with self-centeredness, but with kindness and love.”

To find a copy of McMindfulness, visit Penguin Random House here.

Christine Heming is a writer and educator.  She has been a student of the buddhadharma for over 45 years, and a senior teacher and meditation instructor in Shambhala.  She lives in Port Royal, Nova Scotia.

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4 responses to “ McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality ”
  1. Thank you for this review, Christine. Dzongsar Khyentse R. says the problem w/ mindfulness is that even though the mind settles all the sediment or thoughts in the over-used glass of water analogy, that sediment, or the habitual thought patterns, are still there. Shamatha’s only benefit to awakening is that, when the mind does settle, we get a chance to see clearly the lack of substance of all our thoughts–a sign that mindfulness has launched the insight of awareness.

    Calm, pacification, is a very temporary state. It may well have temporary health benefits, but it in itself is a far cry from awakening.

  2. Thank you for the translation of the author’s core concerns in an understandable way. It helped me see that mindfulness, like all medicinal tools, can be both healing or harming depending on how it is ingested and metabolized by the individual and society as a whole. Mindfulness can not only be a powerful antidote to the numbness of overwhelm and the falsely separating speed of society, it can also be the environment that fosters these challenges. Depending on how it is presented, it can reinforce a disassociation from the climatic crisis, both in society and our environment. Allowing us to hit snooze on the ’call to rise’ and tuck ourselves more deeply into our privilege under a leadened duvet of ’mindfulness as inactivity’. I had not thought of mindfulness in these terms as I use it often to navigate my own stress levels in the ’helping field’ as well as sharing it with colleagues, students etc. I see now how it can be co-opted into a spiritual gas lighting of sorts. ”It’s not our corporate practices or societal lack of compassion that needs to change, it’s how you’re viewing it… Seems you need a workshop on mindfulness”. Very thought-provoking. I deeply appreciate your thoughtfulness and time spent sharing your reflections. Thank you.

  3. Christine Heming
    Dec 25, 2019

    Thank you Craig for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you completely. This is the warriorship that is needed right now. We are in the midst of a powerful status quo but our weapons are powerful beyond measure.

  4. Craig Adams
    Dec 23, 2019

    Thank you Ms. Heming for another great book review. From my Shambhala practitioner’s view, it dovetails nicely with Meg Wheatley’s book, “Who Do We Choose to Be?”( reviewed by you previously). In a world collapsing from the capitalistic/materialistic worldview, we don’t need a spiritual practice that further isolates us and numbs us to the suffering caused by societal structures based on the three poisons. We need a spiritual practice that brings love and awareness to all the causes of our suffering. As we face the possibility of societal environmental climate collapse, we need a practice that grounds us in the love/basic goodness of ourselves and all other sentient beings. We need a practice that frees us to step forward beyond our fear and isolation to create “islands of sanity.”

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