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  • What are the problems with mainstream mindfulness?
  • What are the problems with mainstream mindfulness?
    King Siberia (2019) ©
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Can mindfulness help build a better society?

Mindfulness courses promise to help people alleviate stress, improve sleep, and declutter thoughts – but how effective are they and who do they ultimately aid? Canvas8 spoke to Ronald Purser, the author of McMindfulness, about how the practice can better serve individuals and society.

Location United States

Scope 
Used to sell everything from adult coloring books to chicken pot pies, mindfulness has grown from a niche practice to a mainstream, billion-dollar industry that has captured the hearts and minds of Americans. [1] There are almost 1,000 mindfulness apps available for smartphones and Amazon.com stocks more than 40,000 mindfulness-related books, from The Mindful Dog Owner to Mindful Birthing. [2] Jon Kabat-Zinn, who created the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts in 1979, argues that this form of meditation and self-reflection can do more than just combat stress. Mindfulness, he claims, “may actually be the only promise the species and the planet have for making it through the next couple hundred years.” [3]

Yet as the practice gains a foothold in schools, the military and even politics, Ronald E. Purser, a professor of management at San Francisco State University and co-host of The Mindful Cranks, is skeptical. [4][5][6] “It’s magical thinking on steroids,” he states. “Teachers of mindfulness need to acknowledge that personal stress 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.” [7]

In McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, Purser questions the efficacy of mindfulness programs, their purpose, and who exactly is profiting from the ‘revolution’. Canvas8 sat down with him to understand how mindfulness can be freed from its neoliberal shackles and move from a self-centered ‘me’ to a socially-minded ‘we’.

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Born in the MBSR
After coining the term ‘McMindfulness’ in a HuffPost article that went viral in 2013, Buddhist practitioner Purser enrolled in an eight-week MBSR course at a hospital in San Francisco to experience mindfulness for himself. [8] Although he witnessed fellow coursemates – many of whom were jobless, stressed, and ill – getting some therapeutic benefits, his feeling of unease grew. “Was this ‘mindful revolution’ just about coping, fine-tuning our brains so that we can dutifully perform our roles more efficiently – becoming better adjusted cogs in the capitalist machinery?” he asked himself. [9]

Purser’s book highlights that the standardized eight-week MBSR course is now offered in over 600 clinics worldwide and 20,000 people have graduated from UMass’s clinic over three decades. [7] “The whole premise of MBSR is that we suffer on account of letting our emotions get the better of us,” he explains. [9] The trickle-down effect has been monumental, with many people coming across Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness products – or offshoots of them – through conferences, CDs, and books. Purser calls the market for apps like Headspace and Calm – part of an industry that was worth $134 million in 2018 – evidence of the “McDonaldization of mindfulness,” providing the equivalent of a Band-Aid for everyday stressors. [10] “Downloading an app as a digital detox is irrational,” he says. “Mindful merchants don’t care. They seem proud to be creating a global branded product, accessible to anyone, anywhere – like a Big Mac.” [9]

According to Purser, the mindfulness movement is part of an ideological shift wherein people obsessively focus on wellness and happiness. It’s what Carl Cederström and Andre Spicer dub ‘healthism’, a form of morality that “tells individuals to make themselves flexible and more marketable in a precarious economy by making the ‘right’ life choices – whether it’s exercise, food or meditation.” [11] By engaging in mindfulness practices, however, people are being asked to retreat into themselves, leaving the individual to seek happiness alone. This approach may be counterproductive given that three out of four Americans experience moderate to high levels of loneliness. [12] “The neoliberal self is always being encouraged to go a little deeper… to take better care of itself. As this self-management moves to the foreground, collective lives become less important,” says Purser. [9] A 2019 survey highlighted how this focus on the individual isn’t fulfilling social needs – 64% of Gen Y respondents said they feel disconnected from their community and 69% wish to play a bigger role within it. [13]

A focus on self-care may ignore external sources of strain
A focus on self-care may ignore external sources of strain
Miltiadis Fragkidis (2019) ©

Occupational hazards
Gallup’s 2019 Global Emotions report revealed that Americans are among the most stressed people in the world – 55% of those surveyed felt a lot of stress the previous day, far surpassing the global average of 35%. [14] At least part of this is down to workplace expectations, with 77% of US professionals saying they’ve experienced burnout at their job. [15] “Previously, employees had ways of resisting manipulation and exploitation, but the unions have been decimated and the only way of resisting now is through psychosomatic symptoms,” says Purser. [9]

Against this bleak backdrop, he acknowledges that the promised benefits of mindfulness can be seductive. “It helps people face pain with equanimity, but it also conditions us to think about stress in unhelpful ways,” he explains. “First, it says we face an epidemic, which is simply an inevitable part of modern life. Second, since stress is endemic, it’s up to us to get under control and adapt these conditions as best we can. It sounds like an empowering tool, but it ignores any source of pain outside our heads, such as the capitalist system, which exerts so much pressure in everyday life. The result is to pathologize stress, while offering a treatment that fails to address its broader causes.” [7]

Just as green-washing masks environmentally harmful policies with token eco-friendly gestures, saffron-washing helps hip, postmodern corporations present a gentler, kinder, wiser public image

Purser takes particular aim at corporate mindfulness, which flourished in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. According to a survey carried out in 2016, 35% of US employers said they would have implemented mindfulness classes or training in the workplace by 2017, and 26% said they would consider adopting such programs. [16] “Let’s get this clear – they’re sponsored by management, not by workers. I don’t know of any company where workers are voluntarily paying for mindfulness courses,” says Purser. As he sees it, these solutions don’t confront the obvious sources of employee stress, nor do they pose any challenge to the power structures in corporations, meaning they’re adopted without fear of disrupting the status quo. “It seems a low-cost win-win, but it functions ideologically as a tool of self-discipline, taking the focus off the structural or systemic issues.” [9]

“I can’t help but think of this whole charade as a form of what Sean Feit calls ‘saffron-washing’. Just as green-washing masks environmentally harmful policies with token eco-friendly gestures, saffron-washing helps hip, postmodern corporations present a gentler, kinder, wiser public image,” says Purser, explaining that the ultimate aim of these initiatives is to improve a business’ bottom line. [9] After all, mindful employees are good for profit. For example, after healthcare company Aetna offered mindfulness training to employees, it found that participants gained 62 minutes of productivity a week, equal to an estimated $3,000 worth of work per employee each year. [17]

Corporate initiatives can easily be seen as self-serving
Corporate initiatives can easily be seen as self-serving
Headspace | Twitter (2018) ©

Spiritualism, without the religion (or truth)
Although it co-opts many of Buddhism’s central tenets (individual salvation sought through meditation), Purser sees mindfulness as “distinctively American, priding itself on the narrative of scientific progress, the belief in [the] individual as the sole nexus of meaning.” [7] He doesn’t question the value of adapting mindfulness for therapeutic use, nor does he deny that it can help people. But he finds the switching on and off of Buddhist branding misleading and contradictory. “If you talk to mindfulness teachers, they’ll say what they teach is completely secular and pragmatic, with no connection to anything religious. But talk to them in private and they’ll say it’s extremely sacred and spiritual.” [9] This reflects a social shift in the US as people increasingly take a mix-and-match approach to faith. According to a 2017 Pew study, 27% of adults think of themselves as spiritual but not religious, up from 19% in 2012. [18]

But, as Purser points out, medical experts are admitting that mindfulness isn’t as effective for mental wellbeing as first thought. Researchers at McGill University’s Department of Psychiatry found that mindfulness studies suffer from positive reporting bias, which suggests that therapies may not be effective as indicated since negative results aren’t given the same public light. [19] And in a separate meta-analysis published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that mindfulness was moderately effective in treating a variety of conditions, but not more effective than other active treatments, such as drugs or exercise. [20] “The widespread belief that there’s compelling clinical proof that ‘mindfulness works’ is simply not supported by the scientific evidence,” says Purser. [9]

The fact that mindfulness’ positive reputation is based on junk science may do little to discredit it in the eyes of consumers. Americans are seeking out anchor points – which don't necessarily need to be scientifically proven – to ground them amid the chaos and complexity of modern living, whether that’s through alternative belief systems like astrology or guided meditation on mobile apps. Yet given that 39% of Americans believe cancer can be cured solely through alternative therapies, widespread belief in pseudoscience can sometimes have sinister outcomes. [21]

What would make mindfulness courses more inclusive and effective?
What would make mindfulness courses more inclusive and effective?
Mindful Schools (2019) ©

Insights and opportunities
Currently, there is no professional or statutory registration required to teach mindfulness-based interventions such as MBSR and MBCT, and no regulatory body that oversees the training of mindfulness teachers. “Since anyone with minimal training can set up shop, the only mark of a teacher is having students,” says Purser. He notes that he’s received letters from mindfulness teachers in the public school system in Richmond, California, that said teachers had been given just one day of training before being put in front of children. [9] This is problematic as certain practices can surface or resurface traumatic memories, while for those with a disposition to depression, bipolar disorder, or psychosis, meditation-based mindfulness could heighten this, which poorly trained teachers will not have the capacity to handle. 

The mindfulness movement is grounded in white middle-class privilege, which raises important questions around access and inclusivity. Purser highlights that much of the rhetoric in literature published by Mindful Schools, which claims to have trained 50,000 American teachers and professionals, depicts students of color and those from working-class backgrounds as dependent on welfare and lacking agency and power. What’s more, mindfulness teachers in schools are “not usually affected by the socio-economic inequalities driving the problems they address,” he explains. [7] Indeed, while 14% of white adults identify discrimination as a source of stress, that figure jumps to 46% among African Americans and 36% among Hispanics. [22] To tackle inequalities in wider society, ColorInsight employs mindfulness to address racial bias and internalised oppression, informed by research suggesting that an emphasis on being ‘color blind’ can hinder understanding of race and its impact on our lives, while Mindfulness for the People centers the voices of people of color in mindfulness research, teaching, and practice. [23]

We need innovators who can tie social change to mindfulness curriculum so it offers more opportunity for analysis and dialogue among participants

While these efforts may boost inclusivity, Purser argues that deep-rooted problems remain in mainstream mindfulness. “You could have all have all the qualified teachers you want, but if you’re still teaching mindfulness as an individual-level palliative then you’re keeping your eye off the ball of the socio-political dimensions of stress,” he says. A report for the 2019 UN General Assembly suggested that mental health can be promoted and treated more effectively by focusing on social justice with a rights-based approach, a view shared by Purser in an OpenDemocracy article in which he stated that alleviating inequality is a much better public policy investment than administering pharmaceuticals, therapy, and mindfulness-based interventions. [24][25]

As for effective, shorter-term solutions, Purser calls for a collective admission that mindfulness practice alone is insufficient. “If the aim is to effect social change, then methods of pursuing it need to be taught. We need innovators who can tie social change to mindfulness curriculum so it offers more opportunity for analysis and dialogue among participants,” he says. [9] He uses the term ‘civic mindfulness’ or ‘social mindfulness’ to reframe the practice, dislodging its focus on self-help and moving the ‘me’ to a ‘we’. Extinction Rebellion has harnessed this form of mindfulness, acknowledging that each member’s suffering is experienced in different ways while using it as common ground in their activism. Bill Beckler, an outreach coordinator for XR in New York, told Purser that the movement doesn’t want to mute suffering and that mindfulness is used as “spiritual support.” Pain, grief, despair, and anger do not, therefore, impede the group’s mindful resistance, they fuel it. [25]

Related behaviours
Mindful Moments: People are trying to focus on one thing at a time
Alt Faith: People are embracing alternative sources of authority

Sources
1. 'KFC made some very weird relaxation videos to help you deal with life in America today', Adweek (January 2018)
2. 'The meditation industry', SAGE Business Researcher (January 2018)
3. 'Jon Kabat-Zinn – Insights At The Edge Podcast w/Tami Simon (#IATE 7/1/14)', Sounds True | YouTube (October 2014)
4. 'New program encourages children to spend time outdoors, meditate and be more mindful', ABC News (October 2019)
5. 'A state of military mind', Pacific Standard (June 2012)
6. 'Does mindfulness in politics make any difference?', openDemocracy (August 2019)
7. 'McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality', Ronald E. Purser (July 2019)
8. 'Beyond McMindfulness', HuffPost (July 2013)
9. Interview with Ronald Purser conducted by the author
10. 'Mindfulness meditation application market continues on an uphill ride, as ‘self-care’ trend pushes its way into consumer priorities, finds Fact.MR', GlobeNewswire (July 2019)
11. 'The Wellness Syndrome', Carl Cederström and Andre Spicer (February 2015)
12. '3 out of 4 Americans are lonely, study says', Phys.org (December 2018)
13. 'Millennials don’t know their neighbors at all', New York Post (July 2018)
14. 'Americans are some of the most stressed-out people in the world, a new global survey says', Time (April 2019)
15. 'Workplace burnout survey', Deloitte (2018)
16. 'Minding what matters: incorporating mindfulness training at work', Mondaq (November 2018)
17. 'The busier you are, the more you need mindfulness', Harvard Business Review (December 2015)
18. 'More Americans now say they’re spiritual but not religious', Pew Research Center (September 2017)
19. 'Power of positive thinking skews mindfulness studies', Nature (April 2016)
20. 'Dr. Madhav Goyal’s study makes news around the world', John Hopkins Medicine (January 2014)
21. 'National survey reveals surprising number of Americans believe alternative therapies can cure cancer', ASCO (October 2018)
22. 'APA Stress in America Survey: Generation Z stressed about issues in the news but least likely to vote', American Psychological Association (October 2018)
23. 'How mindfulness can defeat racial bias', Greater Good (May 2015)
24. 'Right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health', United Nations (April 2019)
25. 'Moving mindfulness from 'me' to 'we'', openDemocracy (July 2019)

Featured Experts

Ronald E. Purser

Ronald E. Purser is a professor of management at San Francisco State University. He is an ordained teacher in the Korean Buddhist Taego Order and co-hosts The Mindful Cranks podcast.

Author

Megan Carnegie is the library editor at Canvas8. She has a degree in English Literature and French, an MA in magazine journalism, and was previously a freelance journalist and editor for TimeOut London, Courier magazine, and The Guardian, among others. Outside of work, she can be found reading, running, and killing off her houseplants.

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