From “The mindfulness conspiracy”, by Ronald Purser (2019)

Grafitti in Delhi by Harsh Raman (photo by Farah Mulla)

“Mindfulness is nothing more than basic concentration training. Although derived from Buddhism, it’s been stripped of the teachings on ethics that accompanied it, as well as the liberating aim of dissolving attachment to a false sense of self while enacting compassion for all other beings.

What remains is a tool of self-discipline, disguised as self-help. Instead of setting practitioners free, it helps them adjust to the very conditions that caused their problems. A truly revolutionary movement would seek to overturn this dysfunctional system, but mindfulness only serves to reinforce its destructive logic. The neoliberal order has imposed itself by stealth in the past few decades, widening inequality in pursuit of corporate wealth. People are expected to adapt to what this model demands of them. Stress has been pathologised and privatised, and the burden of managing it outsourced to individuals. Hence the pedlars of mindfulness step in to save the day.

But none of this means that mindfulness ought to be banned, or that anyone who finds it useful is deluded. Reducing suffering is a noble aim and it should be encouraged. But to do this effectively, teachers of mindfulness need to acknowledge that personal stress also has societal causes. By failing to address collective suffering, and systemic change that might remove it, they rob mindfulness of its real revolutionary potential, reducing it to something banal that keeps people focused on themselves.

[…]
Mindfulness advocates, perhaps unwittingly, are providing support for the status quo. Rather than discussing how attention is monetised and manipulated by corporations such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple, they locate the crisis in our minds. It is not the nature of the capitalist system that is inherently problematic; rather, it is the failure of individuals to be mindful and resilient in a precarious and uncertain economy. Then they sell us solutions that make us contented, mindful capitalists.

[…]
Mindfulness has been oversold and commodified, reduced to a technique for just about any instrumental purpose. It can give inner-city kids a calming time-out, or hedge-fund traders a mental edge, or reduce the stress of military drone pilots. Void of a moral compass or ethical commitments, unmoored from a vision of the social good, the commodification of mindfulness keeps it anchored in the ethos of the market.

[…]

In Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King argue that traditions of Asian wisdom have been subject to colonisation and commodification since the 18th century, producing a highly individualistic spirituality, perfectly accommodated to dominant cultural values and requiring no substantive change in lifestyle. Such an individualistic spirituality is clearly linked with the neoliberal agenda of privatisation, especially when masked by the ambiguous language used in mindfulness. Market forces are already exploiting the momentum of the mindfulness movement, reorienting its goals to a highly circumscribed individual realm.

Mindfulness is easily co-opted and reduced to merely “pacifying feelings of anxiety and disquiet at the individual level, rather than seeking to challenge the social, political and economic inequalities that cause such distress”, write Carrette and King. But a commitment to this kind of privatised and psychologised mindfulness is political – therapeutically optimising individuals to make them “mentally fit”, attentive and resilient, so they may keep functioning within the system. Such capitulation seems like the farthest thing from a revolution – more like a quietist surrender.

[…]
A truly revolutionary mindfulness would challenge the western sense of entitlement to happiness irrespective of ethical conduct. However, mindfulness programmes do not ask executives to examine how their managerial decisions and corporate policies have institutionalised greed, ill will and delusion. Instead, the practice is being sold to executives as a way to de-stress, improve productivity and focus, and bounce back from working 80-hour weeks.

[…]
Should we celebrate the fact that this perversion is helping people to “auto-exploit” themselves? This is the core of the problem. The internalisation of focus for mindfulness practice also leads to other things being internalised, from corporate requirements to structures of dominance in society. Perhaps worst of all, this submissive position is framed as freedom. Indeed, mindfulness thrives on doublespeak about freedom, celebrating self-centered “freedoms” while paying no attention to civic responsibility, or the cultivation of a collective mindfulness that finds genuine freedom within a co-operative and just society.

[…]
Rather than being used as a means to awaken individuals and organisations to the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, mindfulness is more often refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.

[…]
Perhaps the most straightforward definition of neoliberalism comes from the French sociologist Pierre Bordieu, who calls it “a programme for destroying collective structures that may impede the pure market logic”. We are generally conditioned to think that a market-based society provides us with ample (if not equal) opportunities for increasing the value of our “human capital” and self-worth. And in order to fully actualise personal freedom and potential, we need to maximise our own welfare, freedom, and happiness by deftly managing internal resources.

[…]
We are trapped in a neoliberal trance by what the education scholar Henry Giroux calls a “disimagination machine”, because it stifles critical and radical thinking. We are admonished to look inward, and to manage ourselves. Disimagination impels us to abandon creative ideas about new possibilities. Instead of seeking to dismantle capitalism, or rein in its excesses, we should accept its demands and use self-discipline to be more effective in the market. To change the world, we are told to work on ourselves — to change our minds by being more mindful, nonjudgmental, and accepting of circumstances.

[…]
The ideological message is that if you cannot alter the circumstances causing distress, you can change your reactions to your circumstances. In some ways, this can be helpful, since many things are not in our control. But to abandon all efforts to fix them seems excessive. Mindfulness practices do not permit critique or debate of what might be unjust, culturally toxic or environmentally destructive. Rather, the mindful imperative to “accept things as they are” while practising “nonjudgmental, present moment awareness” acts as a social anesthesia, preserving the status quo.

[…]
We are also promised that we can gain self-mastery, controlling our minds and emotions so we can thrive and flourish amid the vagaries of capitalism.As Joshua Eisen, the author of Mindful Calculations, puts it: “Like kale, acai berries, gym memberships, vitamin water, and other new year’s resolutions, mindfulness indexes a profound desire to change, but one premised on a fundamental reassertion of neoliberal fantasies of self-control and unfettered agency.” We just have to sit in silence, watching our breath, and wait.

[full text]

[Purser’s book]

From “The mindfulness conspiracy”, by Ronald Purser (2019)

From ‘A Talk given to an Ageing Lay Disciple Approaching Death’, by Ajahn Chah (1987)

So let go, put everything down, everything except the knowing. Don’t be fooled if visions or sounds arise in your mind during meditation. Put them all down. Don’t take hold of anything at all. Just stay with this non-dual awareness. Don’t worry about the past or the future, just be still and you will reach the place where there’s no advancing, no retreating and no stopping, where there’s nothing to grasp at or cling to. Why? Because there’s no self, no “me” or “mine.” It’s all gone. The Buddha taught us to be emptied of everything in this way, not to carry anything with us. To know, and having known, let go.

From ‘A Talk given to an Ageing Lay Disciple Approaching Death’, by Ajahn Chah (1987)

Ben Ratliff, in ‘Chasing the Trane’ (2016)

“For [John] Coltrane I think there was a pattern of doing something that is unexpected when you look at what came before it. So he would do something that would trip himself up, so he could figure out what to do next; and that sense of struggle and thinking through the next problem propelled him, and made him keep getting better and stronger, and more interesting and challenging. “

Ben Ratliff, in ‘Chasing the Trane’ (2016)

From ‘Interview with Ajahn Pasanno and Julia Butterfly Hill: The Bhikkhu and the Butterfly’, by Barbara Gates, Dennis Crean and Wes Nisker

Sequoia sempervirens – Humboldt County, California

Inquiring Mind: Julia, did you have any connection to Buddhism when you began sitting in your tree?

Julia Butterfly Hill: Not much. I was raised with a traveling preacher for a father, and we lived in a 31-foot camping trailer that we pulled behind our car, going from church to church throughout the Midwest and South. In my early teens I became disgusted with what I saw as profound hypocrisies in Christianity and with a tradition that really didn’t allow me to be honored as a woman, other than the role I might play for a man.

For a while I thought I didn’t believe in God, and then I realized I was angry at God. But how can you be angry at something you don’t believe in? [Laughs.] Eventually I began to study different religious traditions, including Buddhism, and I started taking little pieces from many of them. But I didn’t really embrace any spirituality until I was up in the tree, when everything—my mind, my body, my heart, my spirit—was completely broken. At that point I started asking myself, How can I make every moment an act of meditation? That was the only thing that was going to allow me to survive. And now that’s the way I try to live my whole life.

One of my practices is to get up in the morning and sit. In my meditation space I have different sacred objects that people have given me, including a little amber bracelet from Ajahn Pasanno. While I’m sitting, I pick an intention for the day based on where I am feeling some weakness or need. So on days when my heart is hurting, I’ll choose to be focused on love. On days when I’m feeling shy and withdrawn, I’ll meditate on connecting with people. I set the intention and then try to live that day with that intention as my meditative practice.

IM: Did you make that practice up or did you read about it somewhere?

JBH: I think it came partly from my reading, partly from my life experiences, and partly from my experiences in nature. I’ve found that all faith-based traditions have a way to tap into sacred wisdom and interconnection, and one fairly common path is through nature. So after I came down from the tree, people were telling me that my spiritual practices were just like tai chi, or just like tonglen [the Tibetan practice of giving and receiving], and I thought to myself, “Wow! My tree taught me all that.”

AP: Julia, you are now out on the road a lot, trying to encourage people to focus on protecting the life of the planet. But I live in a monastery in Northern California, which is to some degree in a cultural and political bubble. From what I read and sense about the current social climate in America [in 2005], people are caught up in a lot of fear. Is that your experience?

JBH: Yes, the common language being spoken is often one of fear. So I am trying to be a holistic practitioner, and my medicine is the language of love, which creates a space where all people can sit down together. Our world is literally dying for us to become emissaries of love, and that love has to be based in every thought, every word, every action. I’ve been blessed to see real miracles happen in that space. But when I fall out of my center and begin thinking of a lot of four-letter words—none of them love—you can bet I don’t have nearly as much success.

From ‘Interview with Ajahn Pasanno and Julia Butterfly Hill: The Bhikkhu and the Butterfly’, by Barbara Gates, Dennis Crean and Wes Nisker