While media coverage of the mindfulness phenomenon has been frequent, plentiful, and occasionally lively, it has also fallen along a narrow spectrum. After a prolonged glut of self-congratulatory puff pieces, we’ve finally witnessed what some have called a backlash. We might now arrive at what could be a more nuanced take, with a number of writers, scientists, and thinkers complicating the received narratives about mindfulness.
Last week’s Mindfulness and Compassion conference at San Francisco State University, and the Buddhism and Modernity seminar at Mangalam Research Center that followed, may have marked a milestone in this conversation. Mindfulness, as it’s popularly understood, has become an increasingly important example of the dialogue between Buddhist thinking and Western disciplines, which has developed at a pace that far exceeds the thinking behind it.
In the old discursive space of mindfulness, which was so carefully circumscribed, facile thinking flourished. You were either with mindfulness or against it. This not only makes little sense—after all, who could possibly be against sitting still and calming the mind or counting the breath?—but also represents the most simplistic kind of thinking. Now, thanks to the work of pioneers such as Willoughby Britton, David McMahan, and numerous others, it’s become quite common to interrogate the potentials of mindfulness and its status in relation to Buddhism or other traditions. We can problematize certain applications of mindfulness or criticize instrumental rationality without being spurned as detractors undermining a prophetic movement. In the end, we’ve come to appreciate context. And our dialogues have become more honest.
Whatever the cause of the once-stymied discourse (and perhaps it was only the case that it was in its infancy, and hadn’t yet encountered itself in the mirror), we were faced with an understanding of mindfulness not just as a technique but also as a movement wherein all applications would produce the same result, regardless of context. Any questioning of the ends to which mindfulness would be deployed—say, in the military or among Wall Street’s permanent “uncriminal” class—could thus be summarily dismissed as an attack on the movement. This was a way to limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion: If you interrogated specific implementations, you were only getting in the way of individuals’ well being.
The way in which we still, for the most part, speak about mindfulness is no help, though this is quickly changing. We generally limit ourselves to two different but parallel languages, both of which lack any real sense of collectivity, any metaphysic of society, of people acting as more than individuals chasing their own well being: the rationalist objectivity of science and the radical subjectivity of Buddhist contemplative tradition. Faced with a kind of mechanical view of the mind put forward by the sciences and reinforced by the psychosomatic surveillance technologies it employs, there has naturally been a temptation to retreat to a radical, irreducible interiority or mysticism. The tendency is to view the mindfulness phenomenon or so-called Buddhism and science dialogue as the meeting of these two streams. The thing is, these two philosophies—harsh objectivity and radical subjectivity—are actually entirely compatible in that neither is able to challenge the other in any meaningful way. Until we cultivate the necessary social imagination missing from both of these models we can expect the public discourse around mindfulness to keep puttering along.
But I don’t think this will be the case. That was made clear during last week’s conference, in which scholars from the humanities and social sciences entered the conversation. It was especially encouraging to hear scientists tackle some of the most difficult questions about being human, about ethics—questions that fall outside of science’s ambit, but that we all have the equal responsibility to think through—and to hear Buddhist thinkers and meditation teachers do the same.
We now have the unique opportunity to pause, reflect, and really think through what it is we are doing and why. To think what we do, because no one will do it for us.
We look forward to it.
Tricycle was an official partner of the Mindfulness and Compassion Conference. This text has been adapted from remarks given there.