In January 2020, the journal Mindfulness devoted a special section to “second-generation mindfulness-based interventions” (SG-MBIs), signaling a notable shift in the development of contemporary mindfulness practices. Though many psychotherapists still enthusiastically believe that mindfulness can be tremendously therapeutic, in recent years harsh criticisms of long-standing programs such as mindfulness-based stress reduction have started to dominate the conversation—particularly the widely promoted charge that they contribute to a superficial “McMindfulness” that offers relaxation but ignores the true causes of distress. The debate has become so contentious that the religious studies scholar Ann Gleig named it “mindfulness wars” in her 2019 book American Dharma.
Second-generation MBIs have arisen out of these clashes and are portrayed by their developers, like the British research psychologists William Van Gordon and Edo Shonin, as possible solutions to common criticisms. For example, Van Gordon and Shonin argue that unlike earlier forms, SG-MBIs are taught embedded within Buddhist ethical systems and exclusively by qualified, experienced teachers. If such practitioners now accept that a new generation of mindfulness practices is necessary to correct the failings of the old, then perhaps one side of the rhetorical “war” has already won. But what has been won, exactly?
Today, psychotherapists often feel trapped in a catch-22, convinced by many aspects of the McMindfulness critique yet also believing that mindfulness practices are powerful methods for healing suffering people. Critique is helpful for raising consciousness, but what should psychotherapists do with their new awareness? Should they stop using mindfulness practices altogether? And has the prominence of the McMindfulness critique been entirely positive, or are there ways that it can do more harm than good? The way clinicians answer these questions will have real consequences for the suffering people who come to see them for care.
Imagine you are one of those therapists, a social worker, perhaps, in your local VA hospital, providing counseling to veterans who have survived wars that are far from rhetorical. You’ve used therapeutic mindfulness practices since the 1990s, yet now, sitting across from this veteran, you feel conflicted. Your heart contracts as you listen to their harrowing stories of trauma and loss, as they tell you of sleepless nights and panic attack–filled days. Both research studies and your own experience tells you that mindfulness practices must be used with caution for some people struggling with trauma, but you also know that for many they can be absolutely transformative. What gives you pause today, however, is the rising chorus of concern about mindfulness that you’ve heard among your colleagues, other members of the meditation group you attend regularly, and even on Twitter. You became a social worker to help people, and furthermore, identifying as a committed Buddhist, you see it as part of your dharma path to reduce suffering wherever you can. At the same time, now you fear there could be ways you are actually inadvertently contributing to that suffering. You’ve often seen people struggle with avoidance. Could mindfulness be used to further it? Perhaps mindfulness could make us de-stressed to the point of numbed out, turning a blind (or non-judging) eye to the very problems that veterans face every day—homelessness, racism, feeling tossed aside and uncared for by society.
As both a practicing psychotherapist and a religious studies scholar who researches the history and development of how therapists have approached Buddhist traditions, I have heard clinicians increasingly describe this kind of situation. The debates, if not “wars,” surrounding mindfulness in the United States have roots that date as far back as the 1940s and 1950s, when such figures as the humanistic psychoanalyst Erich Fromm were already warning against treating Buddhist practices as clinical “techniques’’ extracted from a larger Buddhist path. However, as William Van Gordon wrote last year for Psychology Today online, “it seems unusual at the moment for even a week to go by without a media report surfacing somewhere relating to the superficial or negative side of modern mindfulness techniques.” The pervasiveness of criticism has brought with it what Gleig has called “the emergence of the mindfulness critic,” a sort of new “public and professional identity” who promotes such criticism. These professional critics have participated in the so-called mindfulness backlash for so long now that a series of publications periodically surfaces to catalog the wide variety of mindfulness critiques one regularly reads today.
Perhaps most prominent among them, however, is the McMindfulness critique. To summarize it, as explained by writers like Zen teacher, ecodharma activist, and scholar David Loy and Mindfulness and Its Discontents author David Forbes: ancient mindfulness practices have been culturally appropriated by profiteers in a global capitalist system and McDonald-ized, routinized into something superficial. Reduced to little more than a marketable commodity and promoted as a panacea for nearly every ill, mindfulness has become as recognizable as “the golden arches” in our cultural consciousness—and as lacking in true substance, true nutritional value. Moreover, these now-inauthentic mindfulness practices are being employed in corporate trainings by companies like Google to improve worker satisfaction and performance. As a result, McMindfulness has actually become a tool of global capitalism. And the public is persuaded that their struggles are an individual problem in need of “self-help” rather than a consequence of the systemic injustice many experience on a daily basis.
Perhaps professional mindfulness critics are guilty of the very ills they accuse others of as they establish McMindfulness franchises.
It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to point out that some clinicians feel defensive in the face of the McMindfulness critique. The psychologist and author Lynette Monteiro, for example, told me that mindfulness practitioners initially felt attacked when first hearing of McMindfulness. Again, we may be able to empathize, as professional mindfulness critics often seem to “question the character of” practitioners (in Monteiro’s words) and speak about them in a “derogatory” way.
In response, some seem to want to turn the tables on those who promulgate the McMindfulness critique. Van Gordon highlighted in his Psychology Today post “one of the key problems [second-generation mindfulness techniques] seek to address—McMindfulness.” But he also issues a warning about the critique itself. He and Shonin call it “extreme” in an editorial they contributed to the January 2020 issue of Mindfulness, arguing that “despite no doubt having intentions of seeking to raise awareness of the inadequacies of some current approaches to mindfulness practice . . . [it] could easily become misguided due to seeking to establish and propagate its own legitimacy. In the event such a ‘McMindfulness ego’ were to emerge, it would only serve to foster additional superficiality and confusion.” Whether or not we are witnessing the emergence of a “McMindfulness ego,” it seems undeniable that, even as contemporary mindfulness practices are criticized for being co-opted within a consumeristic society, the McMindfulness critique is now its own global brand representing a cottage industry of books, podcasts, videos, and online classes, a wholly owned subsidiary of the larger mindfulness economy. Perhaps professional mindfulness critics are guilty of the very ills they accuse others of as they establish McMindfulness franchises pursuing a certain kind of celebrity or “social capital” along with financial capital.
As the McMindfulness critique has gained greater and greater prominence, commentators from various fields have entered to refute its basic claims. For instance, the philosopher Rick Repetti’s retort in a recent essay to the criticism that “mindfulness is all about self-help[;] it does nothing to change an unjust world” is that this sentiment is analogous to arguing that “a shortcoming of sports [is] that they do not try to change an unjust world into a just one . . . [or that] it is a shortcoming of psychotherapy that it fails to try to change an unjust world into a just one.” If mindfulness-based psychotherapists were to adopt the perspective of Repetti and others, they might argue that anything other than symptom reduction, easing the psychological pain of those who come to see them for care, is out of their “scope of practice.”
But psychotherapists have not dismissed the McMindfulness critique; they have actually been at the forefront of grappling with the questions it raises. In fact, it is interesting that Repetti chose psychotherapy as a counterexample in his above analogy. In reality, since the very invention of talk therapy, clinicians have debated whether psychotherapy should, indeed, seek to do more than only cure psychological illnesses and instead, as Repetti says, contribute to “chang[ing] an unjust world into a just one.” From contemporaries of Sigmund Freud himself like Alfred Adler to Erich Fromm to today’s feminist psychologists, there have always been therapists who have advocated for an understanding of the person as deeply interconnected within a larger society that can often be the primary source of their suffering. Some therapists actually consider Buddhist traditions to be the ultimate antidote to psychotherapies they see as overly focused on the isolated individual. They hold up Buddhist teachings on mutual co-arising and the interrelatedness of all human beings within their environments as a crucial corrective that should revise existing psychological theories (despite the fact that this is actually a relatively new modern[ist] understanding of Buddhist doctrine).
Though he is rarely credited, it was the mindfulness practitioner and psychologist Miles Neale who (in 2011) coined the term “McMindfulness.” His rhetorical flourish has gone on to itself be “culturally appropriated” time and again in the years since. But Neale told me that he felt somewhat alone in the 1990s when he first became concerned that therapeutic mindfulness practices could be misused to further not only materialistic but also nihilist elements in US culture. On the contrary, however, nearly all of the psychotherapists (mindfulness practitioners or otherwise) I have interviewed for my research have been concerned about some of the same issues now encapsulated under the banner of “McMindfulness,” such as how Buddhist practices have been incorporated into fee-for-service health care systems.
The pain of a person struggling with addiction or depression—the toll it takes on their mind, body, and heart—is not theoretical. Does this real-world pain get lost in conversation about the McMindfulness critique? A number of cultural commenters have questioned whether—even if we grant that the use of mindfulness practices could have the risks expressed by the McMindfulness critique—we should really, as Doug Smith suggests in an article for the Secular Buddhist Association, “throw the Buddha out with the bathwater.” Psychologist Lynette Monteiro told me that in her view especially the “initial stage of the McMindfulness movement was very diminishing of people’s suffering.” Practitioners were concerned, she said, that “by highlighting the criticisms of McMindfulness, we can withhold treatment that can be helpful.”
And the need for this treatment can sometimes be extremely urgent. There are those who struggle with urges to self-harm, to cut or burn themselves. Those therapists who believe that mindfulness practices can assist people to become nonreactive to those cravings might indeed believe it deeply unethical to deny them. Perhaps addressing these immediate needs should supersede any other consideration. We might recall an oft-evoked metaphor of an army medic in the midst of an unjust war. That medic may be gravely concerned with the evils of the battle they witness, but they will nonetheless still jump into action when confronted with a soldier writhing before them in anguish. A recent article on the McMindfulness critique in The Guardian used just this metaphor, citing the ethicist Jeff McMahan as saying “We do not condemn a doctor who treats the victims of a war for failing to devote his efforts instead to eliminating the root causes of war.”
Importantly, psychotherapists, dating back to at least Erich Fromm’s time, have not felt satisfied by this argument. For medics who mend soldiers only to have them sent back onto the battlefield in advance of an unjust cause may wonder whether they have ultimately only contributed to more suffering. A therapist who helps to reduce someone’s anxiety without addressing its societal roots might unintentionally prevent those roots from fully coming to light.
Some psychotherapists have thus remained conflicted about their use of mindfulness practices—Neale, for instance, told me, “I see both the value and the critique at the same time”—and seek ways to resolve their dilemma. Some express optimism in the transformative power of mindfulness practices, arguing that even in corporate settings they will lead to liberation from greed, hatred, and delusion. Psychologists like Monteiro, meanwhile, believe that the use of mindfulness practices can undergo a positive “evolution.” Therapists, she says, should heed the “warning signals” of the McMindfulness critique, which should be “skillfully used to be protective of our clients, of people who suffer who come to us, so it’s not . . . ‘Oh, just go and sit and meditate and you’ll be fine. Oh, just breathe and it will all go away.’” But she also believes that mindfulness practices can be used in an ethical way to help transform society by, for example, recontextualizing their instruction within the eightfold path.
The situation is far more complex than a simplistic dualism of “good” and “bad” usages of mindfulness practices.
All of this can be lost in the sweep of the McMindfulness critique. In its narrative, the main actors are massive global social forces (like “capitalism” and “neo-liberalism”) that encounter Buddhism through mindfulness and threaten to consume both of them whole. But the people participating in the mindfulness movement are professionals struggling with a set of highly complicated issues. The psychotherapists I have met are not unreflective profiteers driven purely by greed or well-intentioned unwitting dupes naively furthering the aims of corporate interests. Many have expressed their own concerns about the trajectory of contemporary mindfulness practices for decades and have thoughtfully attempted to weigh out multiple and sometimes competing motivations. New developments like second-generation mindfulness practices are a continuation of an ongoing process that generations of psychotherapists and other mindfulness practitioners have taken part in.
Of course, there are surely significant flaws to be found in efforts like second-generation MBIs. It is far from clear, for example, whether they truly represent a new approach to teaching mindfulness practices or merely a new way of talking about them. But when we imagine ourselves in the position of practicing therapists today, what is clear is that the situation is far more complex than a simplistic dualism of “good” and “bad” usages of mindfulness practices. Corporate interests can undoubtedly have a stake in the promotion of the latest mindfulness apps for smartphones, but contemporary mindfulness practices have not only been used at corporate retreats; they were also found at the Occupy Wall Street protests. Practitioners do not only see mindfulness as doomed to foster a social amnesia of the social and historical causes of suffering; some marginalized communities have even taken them up for healing from the intergenerational trauma of racial violence.
If we are to move forward from a second generation of mindfulness practices to a third and beyond, we would do well to adopt the humility of a more nuanced and balanced perspective on the place of contemporary mindfulness practices in society.
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