Mindfulness: Spiritual Transcendence or Neoliberal Scam
Mindfulness, stripped of its foundational roots, has been repurposed as an elixir for all the evils of the modern society. Read more...
Understanding the growth of the mindfulness story so far...
If you have heard of mindful gardening, colouring books, cooking, eating, drinking, loving, sex, parenting, coaching, journalism, leadership, smartphone apps, courses, bells, cushions, beauty products, and other paraphernalia, you are not alone. Mindfulness, in the past few decades, has gone mainstream with endorsements from celebrities, elite athletes, movie actors, and CEOs. It is a $4 BN industry that has penetrated its way into schools, corporate organisations, sporting clubs, and government agencies, including the military.
In 2014, Time Magazine featured "The Mindful Revolution" with a seemingly blissful and rejuvenated blonde on its cover. The feature included a classic mindfulness exercise: eating a raisin, very slowly! "The raisin exercise reminds us how hard it has become to think about just one thing at a time. If distraction is the pre-eminent condition of our age, then mindfulness, in the eyes of its enthusiasts, is the most logical response." - the author adds.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist by training who pioneered the mindfulness movement in the West, proclaims it as "...the only promise the species and the planet have for making it through the next couple of hundred years" (Purser, 2019). These are tall claims for a method that most Western folks still understand very little about. And yet, mindfulness has now become the gold standard for western psychotherapy and is prescribed everywhere – from universities, medical clinics, and popular culture to the World Economic Forum. Mindfulness books, courses, and products regularly feature on bestseller lists on Amazon and Ebay. Even Silicon Valley corporations have introduced modules on mindfulness.
Now before you hurriedly buy candles or bells or book a retreat to Benaras or Dharamshala in India, you should perhaps know a bit more about what mindfulness is and whether it is really this magical panacea that everyone hails it to be.
As a Hindu who has grown up in a culture where meditative practices were imbued very early on at home, infused at school, and nurtured in the ethos of the society, along with graduate training and field experience in psychology and mental health, I feel I am qualified to provide some insights. However, in doing so, I will unambiguously state that my insights will neither provide you with a magic pill to allay all your worries nor will it help you attain Moksha (मोक्ष or Liberation). And I mean this in a psychological and eschatological sense.
Mindfulness in the East
In traditional Eastern philosophies, mindfulness forms an essential component of spiritual training and is cultivated through disciplined meditative practices (Roychowdhury et al., 2021). Mindfulness finds its origin in the Eastern tradition of Hinduism in ancient India. From historical records, it is clear that various methods of disciplined meditative practices in ancient India were common custom, taught in the form of recitations, and passed on from one generation to another verbatim. The purpose of such rigorous practices was to gain a deeper ontological, soteriological, and epistemological understanding of the nature of reality, being, and existence. These practices are now believed to have been around for thousands of years before they were formally compiled and documented in Rigveda (ऋग्वेद), which is one of the four sacred canonical Vedic texts of Hinduism, approximately around 3000 BCE.
It should also be noted that the origin of mindfulness is often misattributed to Buddhism. Mindfulness, as a meditative practice, did not begin with the Buddha or Buddhism. The origins of such practices may be traced back to the very birth of Hinduism where scholars and yogis emphasized the importance of contemplative practices as an essential path to enlightenment and liberation. It is believed that Prince Siddhartha, inspired by Vedic teachings at the time, incorporated elements of mindful meditative practice into his teachings and noble truths on suffering (दुःख or dukkha) and liberation (मोक्ष or moksha). In Buddhism, the path of mindfulness is one of the Eightfold Paths in the Fourth Noble Truth and is considered an essential element towards the path of enlightenment (निर्वाण or nirvāṇa). Some of the first recorded instructions on mindful practice in Buddhism appear around 20 BCE in the texts of Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, which is considered as one of the widely studied discourses in the Pāli canon of Theravada Buddhism.
Mindfulness in the West
In the West, the story of mindfulness has been quite different. Here, mindfulness has predominantly been presented as an attention control measure, where redirecting your attention inwards, regardless of the storm outside, is supposed to bring vital psychophysiological health benefits. More importantly, mindfulness has been stripped of its spiritual and metaphysical foundation; devoid of its Hindu philosophy, ethics, and orientation; compartmentalised into a secular self-help tool; and marketed as frees-all-stress-technique (FAST) that anyone could use if they just applied themselves in life with a bit more fervour.
Folks like Kabat-Zinn and other modern mindfulness zealots have borrowed the concept of mindfulness from the East, repackaged it into a product, and brashly promoted it as a psychological tool that guarantees to alleviate all mental suffering and promote well-being. According to them, it is the mindless individuals who are to blame for their dysfunction and suffering. Shifting the burden of responsibility to individuals, mindfulness is then presented as the optimal solution to overall well-being. It is DIY (do-it-yourself) therapy on steroids!
How Mindfulness has been repurposed and commodified
To understand how mindfulness was repurposed for the Western market, I present Wilson's six-step process below:
Occupying an intermediary position to seemingly form a connecting link between Eastern concepts and their application to Western lifestyle
The nature of mindfulness is downplayed, minimized, or reinterpreted in a non-threatening or metaphoric manner
Mindfulness is reframed as a psychological technique that provides scientifically verifiable physical and mental benefits
Mindfulness is applied to everyday experiences in order to enhance them or gain control over them
Mindfulness is turned into a consumer commodity that can be marketed and consumed, providing income and status for its seller
Mindfulness is presented as remedy to the threat of mindlessness (a condition of extreme and dangerous distraction); providing alternative values, worldviews, and imperatives such as compassion, wisdom, or sustainability
If you think this reeks of colonialism and imperialism, you're right! The wars of capitalism and moral superiority are now fought on softer grounds. Furthermore, this sort of leeching off isn't exactly new. The western discovery of ancient Indian practices may be traced back to early 15th and 16th century when missionaries, who failed to comprehend the rich labyrinth of Vedic scriptures, decided to lump Eastern philosophies as "Oriental Philosophy", and adapt and extol traditional practices into rational and scientific exercises that was more palatable for their Western audiences (Lopez, 2008; 2012).
[If you want a more extreme and chilling (historical) example of similar tactics of rapacious extraction, you need not look further than what the Indian politician and diplomat, Dr Shashi Tharoor, pens in his book, An Era of Darkness].
So, is Mindfulness bad?
There are certainly worthy dimensions to mindfulness practice. The past two decades have witnessed an explosion of studies detailing the benefits of mindfulness (GG, 2021). Reducing suffering and promoting health and well-being is a noble aim - one that must be encouraged and appreciated. However, the problem lies in the packaging of mindfulness. The new age mindfulness merchants will have you believe that stress only occurs in the heads of atomized individuals. According to them, what makes us unhappy and stressed in life is our inability to pay attention in the present moment and getting lost in rumination about the past or worries about the future. Kabat-Zinn's diagnosis is that individuals now have "thinking disease". The cheerleaders of this movement, enamoured by their revolutionary aim of saving the world, have privatized and pathologized distress, ascribing it to individuals with ostensibly fragile psychological constitution. Conveniently, other sources of psychological, social, or cultural malaise are muted in their discussions.
Rather than challenging the context in which distress occurs, such as massive social inequalities, institutional racism and sexism, nefarious corporate greed, political and economic uncertainty, and indiscriminate hacking of our senses by social media platforms, the ultimate responsibility of health and well-being is relegated to the individual, who is then presented with mindfulness as a viable DIY solution.
This perverse fascination with self-initiated self-care in a precarious society that is riddled with tribulations reinforces neoliberal endeavours. Modern mindfulness now reflects the white, privileged, individualistic, corporate, and capitalist culture that is both arrogant and self-serving. In a recent international conference that I attended in Germany, leading scientists were trying to ascertain the right dosage of mindfulness that could be neatly packaged and sold to elite athletes and military personnel to improve productivity and performance. Mindfulness is now commodified and presented as a new vaccine for the stress disease. My enquiry about the ethos behind such a rationale was met with a sigh of indignation and the comment "Why else would you research mindfulness?", as if it were the last frontier and resort for the scholarly community to assist in capitalistic pursuits and monetize human suffering. I wonder what the Hindu yogis or even the Buddha would have retorted with?
So what's next, you ask?
Perhaps, a mindfulness fragrance, spray, inhaler, patch, wearable band, pill, drink,....or whatever you fancy.
To be honest, I would not be shocked if such mindfulness health products flood the market in the next 5-10 years. For instance, imagine yourself holding a mindfulness moisturizer that the manufacturer insists should be applied generously. Perhaps you will see instant noticeable change or perhaps you won't. It may perhaps take 5, 10, or 20 years for you to see discernible results. But you must know that your success ultimately depends on your ability to use the moisturizer almost religiously and neither on the contents of the moisturizer nor the manufacturer's express guarantee.
The grandiose ambition of reducing human suffering and optimising performance and functioning by tweaking internal states through simplistic (and under-developed and poorly-understood) mindfulness mechanisms in an effort to bring life-changing transformations without any regard to the socio-political context in which life unfolds and adversities subsist is not only naive and misguided but outright dangerous. Mindfulness, as it is preached by some, may produce unintended consequences, which may be arduous for clients with certain symptomatology. And yet, the fans of modern mindfulness movement will vouch for its magical powers, regardless of the diagnosis or context.
I do sincerely believe that the practice of mindfulness, along with other cognate practices that are enshrined in Indian philosophy, has the potential to bring transformational change to humanity. However, in its current form, mindfulness risks becoming another fad that will only last until all monies have been extracted by corporate leechers, and something new and shiny comes along and tickles our imagination.
Modern mindfulness now finds itself positioned as a self-help, therapeutic tool, often depicted as purely rational and secular, which stems from a reductive, compartmentalized, and over-simplified understanding of the human mind. By seemingly espousing to an ostensible narrative of well-being and health, albeit still operating from archaic pseudo-secular, neoliberal, colonial, and capitalistic value systems in actuality, modern mindfulness has been deviously turned into an omnipotent detritus of the very roots of human suffering it was intended to solve at the first place.
Understanding mindfulness requires a nuanced comprehension of its Hindu philosophical roots, historical background, and spiritual and psychological purpose. Attempting to understand concepts such as mindfulness is like looking at someone pointing their finger at the moon. It is important not to confuse the finger for the moon!
Greater Good Magazine. Mindfulness: Why practice it?. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/definition#why-practice-mindfulness
Lopez, D. (2008). Buddhism and science: A guide for the perplexed. University of Chicago Press. https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/B/bo6040538.html
Lopez, D. (2012). The scientific Buddha: His short and happy life. Yale University Press. https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300159127/scientific-buddha
Purser, R. (2019). The mindful conspiracy. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jun/14/the-mindfulness-conspiracy-capitalist-spirituality
Roychowdhury, D., Ronkainen, N., & Guinto, M. (2021). The transnational migration of mindfulness: A call for reflective pause in sport and exercise psychology. Psychology of Sport and Exercise , 56, 101958. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2021.101958
Tharoor, S. (2017). An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India. Aleph Book Company. http://www.alephbookcompany.com/book/an-era-of-darkness-the-british-empire-in-india
Time Magazine (2014). The mindful revolution. http://content.time.com/time/covers/pacific/0,16641,20140203,00.html
Wilson, J. (2014). Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture. Oxford University Press. https://global.oup.com/academic/product/mindful-america-9780199827817