What the Critics of the Mindfulness Trend Don’t Get

office planking
"Planking on top of my cubicle at the office." Photo courtesy flickr user slworking2 via Creative Commons.

Mindfulness, its advocates contend, offers a better life.

Now used as a catch-all term for a slew of eastern-derived (or -inspired) meditative practices, mindfulness promises practitioners many benefits: respite from the bruising demands of everyday, normal life as well as more lasting rewards, from physical and mental health to inner peace and personal transformation.

We need your vote!All of that sounds great, of course, but the trend is not without its critics. One complaint is that mindfulness practices present to their privileged adherents watered-down, piecemeal versions of otherwise complex, situated beliefs and practices. Mindfulness, as it is often practiced, is, in other words, a more exotic form of mainstream self-help.

If and when practitioners take the so-called religious contexts of such practices seriously, they do so selectively, usually drawing on those elements of a tradition that challenge them the least. As Melanie McDonagh has argued, religious traditions have developed their practices intentionally, meaning that you pick and choose at your peril.

But this kind of selective spirituality also may represent just one more concrete illustration of the west’s appropriation of “the other” for its own purposes—a kind of spiritual colonialism.

These are real concerns, but I feel these critiques are framed in simplistic terms.

Fair enough that contemporary practitioners of mindfulness appropriate other religious traditions in piecemeal fashion, but I’d wager that that happens within those traditions themselves as well. Show me one religious tradition in which that doesn’t happen.

Such critiques tend to assume an idealized context for mindfulness practices, an original sense to them, outside of which the result is little more than nonsense. That assumption—that there are pure meditative practices outside their western appropriation—feeds the fantasy of the exotic other. But it is also simply inaccurate: as any scholar of religion knows, the development of religious traditions includes a lot of cross-pollination.

Claiming that there’s some unsullied religious idea or practice apart from its “alien” appropriation may be theologically appealing and convenient, but the idea is hard to support.

One of the more interesting critiques, though, has to do with the supposed apolitical character of meditative practices.

Suzanne Moore, for instance, has criticized mindfulness practices as something like a postmodern opiate for the masses. Cultivating awareness and detachment may, of course, be great for one’s mental health, offering a little sanity amidst the constant pressures of day-to-day existence—but for Moore that’s the whole problem.

Mindfulness is a “neutered, apolitical approach” to the problems that plague us. The “mindfulness movement” may promise to “help us personally,” but it has “nothing to say on the structural difficulties that we live with. It lets go of the idea that we can change the world; it merely helps us function better in it.” That’s why the type of spirituality that such practices foster fit so easily with corporate culture, and can even contribute to a kind of “spiritual meritocracy,” as Shawn van Valkenburgh puts it, that rivals Max Weber’s famous Protestant ethic.

The philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek has similarly criticized such practices. Western appropriations of non-western traditions that emphasize mindfulness, inner peace, disinterest, non-attachment, and so on function for Žižek as “the paradigmatic ideology of late capitalism.” That is, they “represent the most efficient way for us fully to participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity.”

Mindfulness practices, in other words, allow us to have it both ways: we can work and participate in the market more generally without being existentially engaged in such activities, since the latter, in the end, really don’t matter for the cultivation of our “inner” selves. It’s not what we do but who we are “on the inside” that counts, which is why the contemporary mindfulness movement is, for someone like Žižek, almost perfectly suited for a market society

To reduce such practices to a sort of capitalist pacification, as Žižek and other critics at time tend to do, is a mistake, I would argue. Apart from engaging in an often unhelpful moralism that hinges real political action on an imagined pure act, such critiques often misread the way that capitalist dynamics function.

Take something like work, for instance. At an ideological level, contemporary work does not function on the basis of a gap between participation and engagement, between our work and our “inner selves.” Rather, the whole point of work in late capitalism is, as Frédéric Lordon has argued, to close this gap, to force an identification of the whole self with the desires of one’s employer. That is, one must be internally motivated toward and existentially engaged in one’s work—or else face the consequences. Work is not just something we do but who we are—which is why we must be “collegial,” “team players,” “share the values” of our employer, and be committed to “the future of the company.”

We must, moreover, embody this identification not only while at work but also “on our own time,” which also means that that time is not really our own.

This ideology of work, I would suggest, applies to so-called blue-collar and white-collar work alike. It also applies to professions that have normally thought of themselves as above the fray, such as the professoriate, as the case of Steven Salaita illustrates all too well.

To the extent that contemporary work requires a complete identification with the desires of one’s employers and, indeed, with the market itself, the “detachment” that mindfulness practices promise may, in fact, function in a more political way. That’s at least what Tom Pepper, an academic and practitioner, argues. For Pepper, meditative practices such as we find in various Buddhist traditions don’t necessarily entail withdrawal from the world to some sort of inner sanctum. Rather, they allow us to grasp the way that ideologies function to organize our lives in a particular ways, ultimately cutting through them to offer a glimpse of something different.

Meditative practices, in this sense, don’t offer us an escape, a way out, but an opportunity to engage the world more critically and radically—which is a precondition for politics.

Seen this way, mindfulness and meditation are the enemies of apathy—if that’s true, the migration of mindfulness into the mainstream can only be a good thing.