How “Mindfulness” Lost Its Mind

What inspired you to write Mindlessness: The Corruption of Mindfulness in a Culture of Narcissism?

What inspired me to write this book was my growing irritation and even revulsion at our general culture of narcissism, as well as its specific effects on mindfulness approaches, which I think show some promise as long as they are not diluted and distorted by self-focus, as they often are. True mindfulness has its roots in traditions that counsel selflessness, and engaging in this form of mindfulness can be a relief, especially to those who experience aspects of selfhood as onerous. It is thus jarring to see an emphasis on the self in some mindfulness circles, and the book is a complaint about this tendency.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

That mindfulness—nonjudgmental attention to the richness and variety of the present moment—can be a helpful practice in many real-world domains (e.g., health, education) but: a) it is no miraculous panacea even under the best of conditions; and b) it can be pernicious when mixed with a focus on the self; selflessness is part of the essence of mindfulness, and self-focus perverts it. Regarding its being a panacea, I show in the book how even the best-designed, most robust research on mindfulness is overhyped. Regarding the pernicious effects of self-focus, those are general in a species that needs a thriving polity and society to prosper.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

As I wrote, I felt more friendly toward authentic forms of original mindfulness, so I found myself leaving out some of the scorn I originally felt; I reserved the scorn for the self-focus-based distortions of mindfulness.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

That true mindfulness mostly emphasizes attunement to the self. The self is trivial as compared to all the rest of the cosmos and true mindfulness is heedful of this; it thus emphasizes attunement to everything (insofar as possible), moment by moment. The book decries the modern tendency toward navel-gazing; one’s navel is easily among the least interesting aspects of our vast (indeed likely infinite and maybe multiple) and beautiful cosmos.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

It was written for a general audience, as mindfulness has become popular in general, as have its self-obsessed imposter versions unfortunately.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?

All of the above. I intended the book as an entertaining intellectual adventure of general interest, but also one that may anger ardent mindfulness enthusiasts.

What alternative title would you give the book?

Its original title was “How Mindfulness Lost Its Mind.” There’s a way in which that’s a better title but it also is not better because it  refers too colloquially and casually to losing one’s mind, a very serious matter. My professional life is dedicated to preventing mental disorders and their sometimes disastrous consequences, like death by suicide. Another early title was “Carthage Must Be Destroyed,” which is how Cato closed his speeches no matter what he was talking about. I admire the doggedness in that and see preening self-focus as the opposite of that doggedness.

How do you feel about the cover?

I think it does a very effective job of showing the beauty of the natural world, and how the focus on the self distracts and detracts from that.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

On this particular topic, this is the book I wanted to write. On other topics, two of the books I admire in my own specialty are The Mask of Sanity by Hervey Cleckley, and The Final Months by Eli Robins. In both cases, the goal is the understanding of mental disorders, and in both cases this is achieved with rich clinical detail from decades of experience and thought. Beyond my specialty, if I had to choose one book, it would be On the Origin of Species; if I were limited to one piece of fiction, it would be William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

What’s your next book?

I am a clinical psychologist and my specialty is the understanding and prevention of suicidal behavior. My next book is on this topic. Its title, at least for now, is The Essential Unity Underlying Diverse Forms of Self-Violence, and the essential argument is that many forms of violence that people see as essentially non-suicidal (e.g., suicide terrorism, a behavioral syndrome call “amok,” perhaps even physician-assisted suicide) really are essentially suicidal.