Mindfulness is under attack. Much has been written in the past few years about the unfortunate secularization of this Buddhist meditation technique. Strong opinions are held on both sides of the issue. In this article, I will explore what’s being said and offer some opinions of my own.
Purser and Loy’s Beyond Mindfulness offered a major critique of the technique’s plight on the contemporary scene. You might say that mindfulness fulfills Karl Marx’s old saying: “Religion is the opium of the people.” Purser and Loy put it simply:
Mindfulness training has wide appeal because it has become a trendy method for subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and as an instrumental tool for keeping attention focused on institutional goals.
Mindfulness, has become, the critics say, a tool to reinforce a rampant individualism, ubiquitous consumerism and an ethically neutral approach to living. It is practiced by a privileged clientele in a simplistic manner without the complex cultural and ethical context of its original formulation and practice. Certainly, it’s true, many practitioners think of improving themselves by way of acquiring new habits or personality characteristics or bettering their job performance. It has become the ultimate self-help bonanza. As Suzanne Moore of The Guardian sarcastically put it:
The corporate world sees that it can make its workers more self-reliant, balanced and focused. What could be better? Take your medicine, because the mindfulness movement is symptomatic of what late capitalism requires of us.
Does mindfulness truly suck as Derek Pyle of Aestheic Gallows insists?
Those who promote mindfulness meditation as a mainstream cure all of life’s problems are doing us a disservice. The commodification of mindfulness, and the secularization of Buddhism, is actually just another form of socially colonizing and capitalizing on the exotic “East.
Not everyone is so lacking in enthusiasm. Hollis Phelps of Religious Dispaches asserts that “To reduce such practices to a sort of capitalist pacification…is a mistake.” Why? For Phelps it’s based on a rather different perspective on the nature of work in the 21st century.
Phelps makes a strong case that the demands of the workplace on our self-identities has changed. We are now asked to incorporate our self fully into the work environment. We are members of the team, are part of a family of workers that have internalized the goals of the institution. We are expected to share the values and mission of our employer and be committed to the future success of the company. In this late capitalism context, Phelps suggests, meditation may serve up some unintended consequences:
Meditative practices…don’t offer us an escape, a way out, but an opportunity to engage the world more critically and radically—which is a precondition for politics.
Meditation is a way to distance one’s self from the demands of the institution and gain perspective on what is actually happening to us and how we are being ideologically molded. This lays the groundwork for potential action both individually and collectively.
Tim Parks, author of Teach Us to Sit Still offers even more compelling advice about the practice of meditation. Although most of us come to meditation to in some way improve ourselves, feel better, be more productive, etc. Parks feels meditation doesn’t “…work so tamely. Rather, the meditation will tend to change your perception of what your goals were. Not for nothing is it bound up with a “religious” credo.” Parks stresses that after continuous practice we will experience ourselves and life differently:
Not that you will turn Buddhist, vegetarian and pacifist overnight. But after a couple of years of regular meditation, even without any Buddhist instruction, even without really thinking about it, Buddhist attitudes will begin to make more sense. This is altogether more than a medicine.
Parks doesn’t elaborate as to where meditation practice may lead. I suppose that may differ with each person. But Parks has pointed to the subversive nature of meditation in the Western context. Serious and continuous practice of meditation challenges our very sense of self and what is important in our lives. Meditation is a process of stilling the mind, of nurturing silence and of listening. Rather than seeing meditation as adding something to us we come to see it as a way of divesting ourselves of all the noise, vexations and attachments that cloud who we are. How can this not have an impact on our lives and on society?
The Nature of Meditative Practice
Here is where we come to the key points of meditative practice. The Chan (Zen) Master Sheng-yen reflected that when our mental turbulence begins to subside, we are poised to understand that “there is nothing to cultivate, nothing to acquire, for wisdom is inherent in every mind.” None of us need to add anything to who we are. There is nothing outside of ourselves that needs to be added to make us whole. There is no teacher that possesses something that is not already ours. Meditation is a way of reminding ourselves that we are whole and complete, that wisdom resides fully within us. Our task is to divest ourselves of the encumbrances that shelter this wisdom. In some ways, it’s like a game of hide and seek. Our socially constructed self, seeking its true nature.
Putting it simply, meditation is a slow but dramatic process of coming to know who we are. Imagine the profound consequences this can have on how we live our lives as individuals, parents, workers and citizens.
Meditation is a portal, not to anything new, but to an original consciousness, a consciousness always present and always available. When freed it erupts in kindness, compassion and forgiveness.
Over time, with consistent practice, comes a growing awareness of the interconnectedness of reality. My wellbeing is part of the wellbeing of all. This consciousness bestows awe and wonder, love and compassion, stability of emotion and concern for everyone’s welfare.
Born from love and compassion comes an empathy for those who are suffering and a determination to end that suffering and foster happiness. As the Venerable Bhikku Bodhi has taught:
This is compassion, not merely a beautiful inward feeling of empathy with those suffering, but a compassion that gives birth to a fierce determination to uplift others, to tackle the causes of their suffering, and to establish the social, economic, and political conditions that will enable everyone to flourish and live in harmony.
How can this be anything less than revolutionary?
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