The mainstreaming of mindfulness meditation continues at a rapid clip. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of adults meditating in the United States more than tripled, to 17%, from 2012 to 2017. The American market for provision of meditation-related services is now worth more than $1 billion and growing.
With any phenomenon this mainstream, one expects a backlash. Sure enough, there have been a number of pieces appearing recently that chastise meditation programs, like the one offered by my employer, Boston University, labeling them “corporate mindfulness,” or more pithily, “McMindfulness.” Ron Purser, a management professor at San Francisco State University whose understanding of mindfulness has informed mine, has now written a very interesting book with that title.
Purser is certainly right to raise questions about the mindfulness movement, most notably the continual tension between its Buddhist roots and supposed secularity, to which I don’t think there are easy answers. But there is one theme running through nearly every chapter where—I might say “as a Buddhist”—I found Purser’s approach quite troubling. While Purser often takes himself to be chiding modern mindfulness for being insufficiently Buddhist, I think overall he is unwittingly criticizing it for being too Buddhist.
Purser’s critique begins with the 2014 Time cover proclaiming “the mindful revolution.” Purser retorts:
I am skeptical. Anything that offers success in our unjust society without trying to change it is not revolutionary—it just helps people cope. However, it could also be making things worse. Instead of encouraging radical action, it says the causes of suffering are disproportionately inside us, not in the political and economic frameworks that shape how we live.
Purser is entirely right that the rhetoric of revolution applied to modern mindfulness practices is overblown, and perhaps even a little ridiculous. So are many other claims made for the rise of mindfulness practice, like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s claim that it constitutes “a tremendous opportunity for addressing . . . the Orwellian distortions of truth we are now seeing on a daily basis in the news, and the perpetuation of dystopian ‘governance’ by seemingly elevating greed, hatred, and delusion to new heights.”
All this is hype that is scarcely believable, and Purser is right to call it out. But I am not ready to follow Purser’s further step that it is “making things worse” to say “the causes of suffering are disproportionately inside us.” I agree that the “fundamental message of the mindfulness movement is that the underlying cause of dissatisfaction and distress is in our heads.” But are we so sure that message is a bad thing?
That message, after all, is impeccably and fundamentally Buddhist. It is right there in the second noble truth, which states the cause of dukkha (“dissatisfaction” or “suffering”) is craving. The 8th-century Indian Buddhist monk and scholar Shantideva, too, tells us that all fears and immeasurable sufferings come from the mind alone. Neither Shantideva nor the Pali suttas have any interest whatsoever in “radical action”; if anything, they discourage it.
Purser laments that modern mindfulness’s emphasis on results “prevents it being offered as a tool of resistance, restricting it instead to a technique for ‘self-care.’” But why would we have ever thought it was a tool of resistance? It was not such a tool, after all, in the hands of the Buddha of the suttas. His monks, in important respects, opted out of the prevailing social order. They occasionally criticized it—but they did not fight it or try to change it. Rather, they created a separate (monastic) social order within the existing one—an order that one could even call “privatized.” The claim that mindfulness would or could be a tool of resistance seems like exactly the kind of hype that Kabat-Zinn engages in: making mindfulness something it is not.
Throughout the book, Purser keeps pursuing the hope that mindfulness could be a revolution. New York Times reporter David Gelles notes, rightly I think, that “We live in a capitalist economy, and mindfulness can’t change that.” Purser replies: “Well, it certainly won’t if sold in those terms.” In which case I await the explanation of how a proper mindfulness, tied to a Buddhism as engaged as possible, will change the fact that we live in a capitalist economy—given that nothing else ever has, with the possible but highly questionable exception of a murderous set of barbarous régimes that killed more people than Hitler did. Purser was doing well to critique the overblown portrayal of mindfulness as revolutionary—why does he then still seem to hold up such faith that it could or should be revolutionary?
After rightfully critiquing the overblown rhetoric of revolution attached to modern mindfulness, Purser says: “There is no radical blueprint in paying attention. If the aim is to effect social change, then methods of pursuing it need to be taught.” And that’s true. But I think Purser is too ready to take up rhetoric that makes mindfulness into something it isn’t. In classical Buddhism the aim isn’t to effect social change, and maybe that shouldn’t be the aim of modern mindfulness either.
Purser notes that Buddhist mindfulness seeks to eradicate the three poisons of raga, dvesha/dosa, and moha, which he translates “greed, ill will, and delusion.” I could dispute a couple of these translations, but the basic point is correct. The thing to notice about it is: Purser objects to “a fundamental tenet of neoliberal mindfulness, that the source of people’s problems is found in their heads.” But “in our heads” is exactly where we find raga, dvesha, and moha! If you are telling us that the source of our problems is not in our heads, then you are telling us that that source does not consist of any of these problems. But that does seem to be exactly what Purser is saying. If he accepts the Buddhist critique of dvesha, it is grudgingly at best:
According to mindfulness science, certain emotions—such as anger, disgust, sadness, contempt, frustration, and aggression—are “destructive,” negative affects requiring emotional self-regulation. But what if one is angry, even enraged, about injustice? Just let it go. Focus on your breath. Bring your attention back to the present moment. Of course, mindfulness practitioners still have thoughts outside of practice, but they are conditioned to see these as problems if strong emotions get involved. This has a disempowering impact on political thinking. Even if it helps not to act with anger, we still need to act if we want things to change outside our heads.
Many do follow such a project, which prioritizes fighting injustice and pays incidental attention at best to fighting our own anger. But it seems to me that such a project is quite far from traditional Buddhism—in a way that “neoliberal mindfulness” might not be. Which then raises the question: Should we be far from traditional Buddhism?
McMindfulness and Engaged Buddhism: The Twin Innovations
Purser’s critique of McMindfulness is in line with William Edelglass’s critique of the “happiness turn” in Western Buddhism. Purser and Edelglass are both right to note that something new, less traditional, is going on in modern mindfulness. For there are parts of Buddhism that secular mindfulness leaves out, intentionally. Purser is right about that: right mindfulness (sammasati) is only one part of the traditional noble eightfold path, and mindfulness practices often leave out the rest. And so he is also right to ask the question:
[W]hat is mindfulness for? Is it merely to attain better health, higher exam scores, focused concentration at work, or “self-compassion?” Is it a medical form of self-improvement? In a way, posing the question is tantamount to asking what constitutes “the good life,” the traditional basis of philosophy.
Indeed it is. And that is of course a difficult question. But it is important that the traditional Buddhist answers to that question are no closer to Purser’s anti-capitalist activism (or to Edelglass’s concern to alleviate “deprivation, violence, illness, racism, and environmental degradation”) than they are to secular mindfulness. I suspect they are further away from it.
Purser makes a biting critique of a Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco that featured corporate mindfulness teachers: “such outmoded traditions as Buddhism clearly need upgrading from Wisdom 1.0.” It is easy to laugh at such attempts to modernize Buddhism. But Purser should be careful which houses he throws stones at. For he then compliments the protesters outside this conference, objecting to San Francisco’s tech-driven housing crisis, led by Amanda Ream. He tells us that “Ream, a member of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, was effectively teaching ‘Wisdom 101.’” Purser’s language at least suggests that the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF)—ground zero for the Western engaged Buddhism movement—is teaching authentic premodern Buddhism in a way that corporate mindfulness is not. Such a claim would be absolutely false, and should not be allowed to stand.
Purser tacitly admits as much when he describes Thich Nhat Hanh, born in 1926, as “one of the pioneers of socially engaged Buddhism,” effectively implying that this particular brand of “Wisdom 1.0” was pioneered in the 20th century, just as modern mindfulness was. Engaged Buddhism is a modern movement with Western roots, much of which rejects some of classical Buddhism’s core tenets. The BPF, in particular, was founded in explicit defiance to the instructions of its early members’ more traditional Buddhist teachers.
Engaged Buddhism and mainstream mindfulness together make up a large component of the complex that is modernized Buddhism. Their histories are closely tied, both going back to colonial-era reformers like the Sinhalese Buddhist rivivalist Anagarika Dharmapala, who wanted to make Buddhism newly relevant in an age that valorized science, capitalism, and political participation. Anagarika Dharmapala and other engaged Buddhists add to traditional Buddhism a belief in the importance of activism, with strong roots in the Victorian era’s utilitarian and Marxist traditions; likewise, modern mindfulness adds a belief in the importance of science, denying rebirth, and turning to psychological research.
Now, I’m no advocate of trying to maintain a pristine premodern Buddhism. Engaged Buddhists have a right to try to update Buddhism to reflect their political commitments. What they have no right to do is make the false claim that their political engagement is one iota less of a modern innovation than the corporate mindfulness movement is. Engaged Buddhism is every bit as untraditional. If we are going to critique corporate mindfulness for being untraditional, we cannot reasonably do so from the standpoint of engaged Buddhism, and if we are going to update Buddhism to be politically engaged, we cannot then fault corporate mindfulness for its updating Buddhism.
This same critique, I must note, applies in reverse. I myself have been critical of engaged Buddhists’ innovations while praising other modern innovations like naturalizing karma. I’ve tried to be clear that engaged Buddhism’s innovations are not themselves the problem. That activism and scientific naturalism are modern innovations does not make either one bad, as long as we don’t pretend that they were already there in the dharma from the start.
We need to acknowledge that each modernized Buddhism is a fusion of Buddhism with non-Buddhist elements. That is not a criticism, since most existing Buddhist traditions also include non-Buddhist elements. The key is to note which non-Buddhist elements are added, and evaluate those on their own merits. That’s not an easy thing to do—in many ways it comes down to evaluating an entire ethical system, which in turn requires identifying one’s own system. But that more general process of ethical evaluation, rather than considerations about innovation or the lack thereof, needs to be our basis for critique. Inconsistency is a problem in any ethical system, and when we belong to multiple traditions—which is what a modernized Buddhism effectively requires—the risk of inconsistency is higher. But there too, we are better off consider the potential inconsistencies than we are writing off innovation as such.
Purser is right to point out that modern mindfulness is detached from the ethical framework in which traditional mindfulness was embedded. But I would argue that that fact makes modern mindfulness more compatible with socially engaged Buddhism! The ethical framework of traditional Buddhism is one that does not pursue the systemic change of society and is sometimes even hostile to it. And that is so for reasons Purser has himself noted: it claims our real problems are craving, anger, and delusion, which are phenomena in our minds and not the world—and trying to change the world might make them worse. We may well disagree with those reasons and prefer a modern post-Victorian ethic of activism to a classical Buddhist ethic of monastic restraint—but if we do, then we are lucky that modern mindfulness separates itself from traditional Buddhist ethics. That separation actually ends up making modern mindfulness more compatible with engaged Buddhism than traditional mindfulness was.
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