I am sure that pretty much everyone has heard the term ‘mindfulness’ being bandied about in the media. While it has its roots in Buddhist meditative practice, it has been taken to mean that, at least in its most drastically simplified form, it involved ‘living in the moment’, that one should pay full attention to what one is doing at any given time and not be trying to do many things at once. i.e., it is the opposite of multitasking. For example when you are driving, focus on where you are going and how you are driving and don’t try to talk on the phone, text, read or daydream.
That seems fairly straightforward. But like most good ideas, it has been packaged and commercialized and now Ronald Purser, professor of management at San Francisco State University, has written a book McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality that critiques what has been done to the idea. In an interview with New Humanist magazine, he explains what he dislikes about the widely-marketed version that he labels ‘McMindfulness’, that it is “actually reinforcing the neoliberal status quo and that corporations, schools, governments and the military have co-opted it as technique for social control and self-pacification”, by ignoring the moral and ethical conduct that constitute the foundational elements of the practice.
I felt there was an urgent need for a book presenting an explicitly critical account of mindfulness, not least to balance the positive presentation of mindfulness in popular self-help writing. So, my book is meant to be a “public intervention” – a wake-up call – not only by critically questioning the hype, hoopla and exaggerated claims of the so-called “mindfulness revolution,” but also exposing the ways mindfulness has been selectively appropriated and refashioned into an instrumental technique for personal gain.
I also wanted to expose how wealthy, white, Euro-Americans created an elite social movement that took what was once a practice aimed at spiritual liberation from selfishness and greed and turned it into a highly individualistic, do-it-yourself self-help technique. I wanted to provide an account of why “mindfulness” has become such a buzzword and popular practice in contemporary times. The book is meant for those who have a healthy skepticism towards self-help techniques, the ideology of happiness and wellbeing, and capitalist spirituality.
Promoters saw the utilitarian value of mindfulness in terms of providing individuals therapeutic benefits. However, in order to make mindfulness widely accessible to secular audiences, these promoters had to mystify mindfulness – covering up the fact that they selectively extracted and uprooted mindfulness from its grounding in a religious tradition which was informed not only on a foundation of morality and ethics, but which is motivated by liberation from the story of being a separate self and cultivating a compassionate commitment to act for the welfare of all sentient beings. It is this process of mystification that also accounts for the widespread misconception in the West that Buddhist practice is synonymous with mindfulness meditation.
McMindfulness represents then a quick-fix for the anxieties of late-capitalist society. Lacking an ethical and moral framework, McMindfulness can be deployed for instrumental aims – improving productivity and career success, better decision-making among hedge fund managers on Wall Street, creating better test-takers or military sharp-shooters.
I have never been much into things like yoga or mediation even though I realize that they provide benefits for practitioners, so am not really in a position to evaluate things like mindfulness. But readers who know more about this may better appreciate Purser’s critique.