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Your Wellbeing: Would you like fries with your mindfulness?

Revd Chris McDermott, Lead Chaplain for the University of Sussex.

I have just received a copy of Ronald Purser’s book, McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. I had ordered the book after reading a tailored ‘Long Read’ version in the Guardian some weeks ago. There have been a number of books, like Purser’s, that have reacted to the ‘mindfulness craze’ and highlighted a perceived shallowness in the industry. (See David Forbes’ Mindfulness and its Discontents) A few years ago, the doyen of mindfulness gurus, Jon Kabat-Zin, felt compelled to write an editorial in the Guardian to clarify his understanding of mindfulness and ‘McMindfulness’.

The phrase ‘McMindfulness’ was actually coined by Dr Miles Neale, also a Buddhist and ‘contemplative psychotherapist’ to refer to practices like meditation and yoga that get harnessed to practical ends while loosing their moorings in their original context of values and wisdom. Purser picks up on the social / political dimension of adding that ‘Mc’, suggesting a further dimension that potentially reduces Mindfulness to a tool for domesticating unhappy workers and convincing them that their suffering is coming from ‘within’ and their own narratives - and not from an external context and system that produces suffering for many for the benefit of a few.

I suspect that the article – and maybe the book - was received with some defensiveness by a few ‘mindful meditation’ practitioners. For me ‘mindfulness’ is not just meditation. It has a larger meaning than simply watching one’s breath or thoughts. It is an orientation to life and the world around us. But I thought it was an excellent corrective, written by someone who himself has been a Buddhist teacher for several decades and no nemesis of mindful meditation practice – unless of course it is detached from social critique. I had offered something along the same lines over a year ago in this newsletter by way of comments about the ‘mindfulness industrial complex’.

And that is basically the point Purser is seeking to make: a truly transformative practice not only re-orders the inner life of the individual but also critically engages us with those aspects of our external environment that create suffering for ourselves and others. Paul Freire speaks of critical consciousness. Critical consciousness is perhaps a way of describing the kind of mindfulness that embodies itself in action that seeks to humanise institutions, communities and societies and transform them again and again into spaces where optimal levels of wellbeing are possible for us all.

The word ‘revolutionary’ is sometimes associated with the mindfulness brand – see, for example, Purser’s reference to the 2014 Time Magazine Cover hailing The Mindful Revolution: but if mindfulness leaves injustice in our environment untouched that is no revolution. The ‘mindfulness industry’ - which in a sense began over 2,700 years ago - will benefit from renewing its original holistic sense of origin in a matrix of values, psychological insight, and critical analysis of the external environment that is included in the narrative of suffering.

But all that said, assailing this particular ‘flavour of the month’ and cause celebre, and obsessing over the gap between individual inwardness and the application and relevance to mindfulness to oppressive institutions in some presentations, we can obscure – even dismiss - the wellbeing benefits of meditation practice.

Honed capacities to be attentive, cope with anxiety, experience a sense of grounded and empathic self and other awareness and enhanced levels of mental and physical health is no bad thing. And there are worse starting points for political and social engagement.

Ah, imagine if only Paulo Freire had written a book about mindfulness. There would be no fries with that McMindful burger but there might be some fire.

By: Sean Armstrong
Last updated: Thursday, 18 July 2019