According to its backers we’re in the midst of a “mindfulness revolution.” Jon Kabat-Zinn, recently dubbed the “father of mindfulness,” goes so far as to proclaim that we’re on the verge of a global renaissance, and that mindfulness “may actually be the only promise the species and the planet have for making it through the next couple hundred years.”
Really? A revolution? A global renaissance? What exactly has been overturned or radically transformed to garner such grand status?
The last time I watched the news, Wall Street and corporations were still conducting business-as-usual, special interests and political corruption were still unchecked, and public schools were still suffering from massive underfunding and neglect. The concentration of wealth and inequality is now at record levels. Mass incarceration and prison overcrowding have become a new social plague, while the indiscriminate shooting of African Americans by police and the demonizing of the poor remains commonplace. America’s militaristic imperialism continues to spread, and the impending disasters of global warming are already rearing their ugly heads.
Against this background, the hubris and political naiveté of the cheerleaders of the mindfulness ‘revolution’ is stunning. They seem so enamored of doing good and saving the world that these true believers, no matter how sincere, suffer from an enormous blindspot. They seem mindless of the fact that all too often, mindfulness has been reduced to a commodified and instrumental self-help technique that unwittingly reinforces neoliberal imperatives.
For Kabat-Zinn and his followers, it is mindless and maladapted individuals who are to blame for the problems of a dysfunctional society, not the political and economic frameworks within which they are forced to act. By shifting the burden of responsibility to individuals for managing their own wellbeing, and by privatizing and pathologizing stress, the neoliberal order has been a boon to the 1.1 billion dollar mindfulness industry.
In response, mindfulness has arisen as a new religion of the self, unencumbered by the public sphere. The revolution it proclaims occurs not out in the streets or through collective struggle and political protests or nonviolent demonstrations, but in the heads of atomized individuals. A recurrent message is that our failure to pay attention to the present moment - our getting lost in mental ruminations and mind-wandering - is the underlying cause of our dissatisfaction and distress.
Kabat-Zinn takes this one step further. He claims that our “entire society is suffering from attention disorder-big time.” Apparently, stress and social suffering are not the result of massive inequalities, nefarious corporate business practices or political corruption, but of a crisis inside our heads, what he calls a “thinking disease.”
In other words, capitalism itself is not inherently problematic; rather, the problem is the failure of individuals to be mindful and resilient in a precarious and uncertain economy. And not surprisingly, the mindfulness merchants have just the goods we need to be contented mindful capitalists.
Mindfulness, positive psychology and the happiness industry share a common core in terms of the de-politicization of stress. The ubiquity of individualistic stress rhetoric - with its underlying cultural message that stress is a given - should make us suspicious. As Mark Fisher points out in his book Capitalist Realism, the privatization of stress has led to an “almost total destruction of the concept of the public.”
Stress, we are told by the mindfulness apologists, is a noxious influence that ravages our minds and bodies, and it is up to us as individuals to ‘mindful up.’ It’s a seductive proposition that has potent truth effects. First, we are conditioned to accept the fact that there is a stress epidemic and that it is simply an inevitability of the modern age. Second, since stress is supposedly omnipresent, it’s our responsibility as stressed-out subjects to manage it, get it under control, and adapt mindfully and vigilantly to the thralls of a capitalist economy. Mindfulness targets this vulnerability, and, at least on the surface, appears as a benign technique for self-empowerment.
But in her book One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea, Dana Becker points out that the stress concept obscures and conceals “social problems by individualizing them in ways that most disadvantage those who have the least to gain from the status quo.” In fact, Becker has coined the term stressism to describe “the current belief that the tensions of contemporary life are primarily individual lifestyle problems to be solved through managing stress, as opposed to the belief that these tensions are linked to social forces and need to be resolved primarily through social and political means.”
Uncritically ingesting the cultural premises of stressism, the mindfulness movement has eagerly promoted itself as a scientific remedy. But the focus is still squarely on the individual who is expected to heal the so-called ‘thinking disease’ of modern civilization. By practicing mindfulness, we are told, we can skillfully switch from our frantic ‘doing-mode’ to a more harmonious ‘being-mode,’ learning to let go and flow with stressful situations.
Mindfulness is the new immunization, a mental vaccine that supposedly can help us thrive amidst the stresses of modern life. It is up to us to become what Tim Newton has termed “stress-fit” individuals. Mindfulness is often marketed as a way of upping our game, a useful technique for developing mental fitness so that we can become more productive workers and more effective coping agents. It’s no coincidence that the tag-line for the most successful mindfulness meditation app, Headspace, is “a gym membership for the mind.”
The golden maxim of this movement is to ‘be in the present moment.’ For mindfulness devotees, social and political change is contingent on the fantasy of converting the distracted masses to follow this advice and live ‘mindfully.’ The movement’s present moment fetish is a practice that cultivates social amnesia, encouraging a collective forgetting of historical memory and at the same time effectively foreclosing the utopian imagination.
This present momentism appears, at least on the surface, as a therapeutic solvent for all our problems, making our present situation more bearable. But this bearability of the status quo amounts to a permanent retreat to the psychic bomb shelter of now, a kind of bury-your-head in the sand mindfulness which acts as a sanitized palliative for neoliberal subjects who have lost hope for alternatives to capitalism.
The mindfulness movement operates in resonance with what Eric Cazdyn in his book, The Already Dead: The New Time of Politics, Culture and Illness, characterizes as “the new chronic.” Cazdyn explains that the new chronic “extends the present into the future, burying in the process the force of the terminal, making it seem as if the present will never end.” Just be in the present moment and all will be well. By living mindfully, we can continue our lives by deferring, evading and repressing any ongoing crisis.
The faux mindfulness revolution provides a way of endlessly coping with the problems of capitalism by taking refuge in the fragility of the present moment; the new chronic leaves us mindfully maintaining the status quo. This is a cruel optimism that encourages settling for a resigned political passivity. Mindfulness then becomes a way of managing, naturalizing and enduring toxic systems, rather than turning personal change towards a critical questioning of the historical, cultural, and political conditions that are responsible for social suffering.
But none of this means that mindfulness ought to be banned, or that anyone who finds it useful is deluded. There are emerging forms of social and civic mindfulness that avoid this trap. These methods are breaking free of a biomedical focus on individual pathology by integrating social justice activism with contemplative inquiry, cultivating critical thinking rather than non-judgmental disengagement.
Innovators in the field are rewriting mindfulness curricula by employing anti-oppressive, critical pedagogies. For example, Beth Berila has developed mindfulness methods that help practitioners uncover how they have internalized oppression, as well as ways to dismantle and unlearn privilege. Mushim Patricia Ikeda, along with teachers at the East Bay Meditation Center, has developed numerous programs that connect social justice concerns with Buddhist teachings on interdependence to foster solidarity and mindfully-engaged activism. And the Mindfulness and Social Change Network in the United Kingdom is experimenting with mindfulness practices that address social, political and environmental issues.
When we recognize that disaffection, anxiety and stress are not just our own fault but are connected to structural causes, mindfulness becomes fuel for igniting resistance.
Ronald Purser’s new book, McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, is published by Repeater Books.