Transformation

The miserable cynic's guide to mindfulness

If unhappiness is the human condition, what's the point of mindfulness? 

Ray Filar
15 April 2015
Nancy from The Craft has no need for meditation. Credit: Tumblr.

Nancy from The Craft has no need for meditation. Credit: Tumblr.

Misery is one of life's great pleasures. Not just because it is easy, far more so than happiness, but because it is omnipresent. It's our one constant. It gives us purpose, along with its accompanying treats: angst, fatalism and complaining. Of course it's raining, it always rains. Of course you will repeat the mistakes of your parents. Of course you will die alone. 

Despair also has aesthetic appeal, and compared to other modes of being (contentment, for example), a better soundtrack. There's a reason why goth is always fashionable.

Many deny this. A booming, Westernised happiness economy promises us inner peace if only we buy the right self-help books, attend the right courses, practice the right positive psychology. Capital from this industry depends on the sale of the idea that we can achieve happiness and hold onto it, obscuring a reality in which happiness is by definition slippery. Happiness's very value is its fleeting nature; it makes sense only by contrast. In describing this affective imperative as “the happiness turn”, theorist Sara Ahmed writes: “happiness works primarily as a narrative of disappointment.”

Just as happiness is commodified, so are the means to it as an end. This happiness economy is closely allied with the corporate mindfulness movement, which appropriates formerly Buddhist mindfulness practices, repackaging them for Western audiences.

The United States military and businesses like Apple, Google and Sony now use mindfulness to placate their workforce in the service of profit. “It's like doing pushups for the brain”, said one American general, frantically trying to paint meditation as macho. The corporate worker dominates the imaginary of this 'McMindfulness' industry, with manuals boasting mindfulness as something to make people “more engaged with their work”. 

Last month 'The EQ Summit' on 'Emotional capital, mindfulness and the new economy' was held in London. Supported by Sky and the Harvard Business Review, it described itself as 'the largest emotional intelligence event in Europe'. Tickets cost £495. 

Non-Buddhists like me could therefore be excused our cynicism about mindfulness meditation. Its image problem is twofold: seemingly for corporate drones or for appropriative, gap-year trouser wearing hippies with Bob Geldof fantasies. It locates pathology in individuals rather than structures: just breathe and you can combat your anxiety! By adjusting yourself, you too can learn to accept how terrible everything is! As Darrin Drda writes, what's missing is an “ecological and sociopolitical awareness that can confront the converging crises of our day”. 

Despair: has a better soundtrack. CW: flashing images.

If misery is the human condition, though, there's something compelling about learning to better relate to it. To accept how we feel, if not the reasons why. Mindfulness draws on a set of meditative techniques aimed at becoming present, at noticing and accepting our internal play of emotions. I have now been attending meditation classes for a year, near where I live in South London. To my surprise, I quite like it. 

The hour starts with Qigong exercises, which are slow aerobics with traditional Chinese titles ('the phoenix stretches its wings'). Then its a sitting mindfulness meditation, focusing on breathing and being in the moment. The practice is to notice your mind wandering without judgement, and bring it back into the present however many times it wanders. Finally there's a lying-down 'visualisation' exercise, with more about the cosmic energy of the universe than I'd strictly prefer. The challenge is to be kind and gentle to yourself. Everyone is terribly nice to each other.

For some of us, meditation is not part of our personal brand. To put it bluntly: if it's a choice between working on my inner calm or another bottle of wine, I know what I choose. But divorced from corporate perversion, and with saccharine piety about its health benefits somewhat reduced, mindfulness could be practiced critically, as one form of self-care.

Self-care is feminised labour, often devalued as introspective or indulgent, but without it we are too burned out to do much else. Without self-care, it is difficult to find the capacity to care for others. As Maisha Z. Johnson writes: “When it comes to building the wellness of our communities, healing is an incomparable contribution.” 

Much of my resistance to practices that promise happiness stems from opposition to progress narratives, from not wanting to buy into the 'it gets better' quick fixes. For many, it does not get better. When it does, structural privilege is often at root.

Even so, you don't have to believe in wellness, health, or progress to use mindfulness as one of many coping tools. For those of us whose everyday unhappiness veers into anxiety or depression, the ability to observe these actions of the mind from a calmer place is, at the very least, reassuring.

And if opening up distance between despair and the self enables you to get out of bed, to care for others, to go to a party or do an action or stand around looking publicly nonchalant, there may be something to be said for it. Mindfulness does not erase misery, but allows us to embrace it, to meet it as the most consistent of old friends.

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