McMindfulness Book Review2024-01-07
McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality (2019) by Ronald Purser
Mindfulness, as characterized by Ronald Purser, himself a Buddhist practitioner, has a strange relationship with the Buddhist spiritual practices from which it derives. Practitioners such as John Kabat-Zinn (the primary antagonist of this book) will in some contexts emphasize their connection to Buddhist Dharma, while in others distance themselves from it, leaning on "objective" science and research. In any case, Purses views mindfulness as lacking the social and ethical component of Buddhism as a practiced religion, reducing it to a specific, individualized practice of personal well-being, and a disciplinary practice that reinforces an unjust capitalist system. This lack of an ethical or religious core allows for mindfulness to be mis-applied as a technique for corporate discipline and military effectiveness.
The best part of Purser's book are the scathing critiques of these mis-applications, where mindfulness teachers, themselves sometimes practicing Buddhists, use bizarre and twisted logic to justify why teaching mindfulness techniques to tech CEOs and military generals is actually an authentic expression of the Dharma. He also makes interesting points about mindfulness as a social and disciplinary practice, for example, considering slow, relaxed, equanimous speech and mannerisms as a mark of a well-disciplined subject. However, Purser goes into this only at a shallow level, instead building a moral critique, explaining mindfulness is "bad" and "wrong". This is a recurring problem throughout the book: Purser's ideological agenda (which I am broadly sympathetic with) is at the forefront, and a more objective, critical analysis of mindfulness as a political and social institution, while present in some parts, are not expanded upon, and are only treated secondarily.
Unfortunately, it's not actually clear what Purser's ideological argument actually is. At times he is conservative, arguing that mindfulness lacks the ethical context and learned wisdom of Buddhism itself as a practiced religion. Other times he is liberal, arguing that mindfulness should be reformed to be more "engaged" with social and political issues. And sometimes, he is more radical, viewing mindfulness as a sort of false consciousness, which only seeks to pacify ourselves to systems of injustice that could be confronted head on.
Purser's approach is to throw every critique at the mindfulness industry that he has, with no real consideration for saying something more nuanced and specific. While he tells interesting historical stories about, for example, the development of the concepts of "stress" and "stress management" coming out of the neoliberal instability of the 1970s, or the hypocrisy of mindfulness practitioners in public schools, his actual argument is poorly fleshed out and inarticulate. It is hard to argue with his point that mindfulness is a watered-down Buddhism, or that mindfulness classes fail to address social inequities. But does that make them harmful, as he seems to say? Is there any problem with mindfulness as a merely therapeutic technique? Is he even saying this, exactly?
Ultimately, his argument is unconvincing. Referencing Foucault, Purser refers to mindfulness in schools as a "disciplinary practice". But Foucault's analysis of discipline is not a moralistic one. Teaching students to read, write and do arithmetic are "disciplinary practices" in a Foucauldian sense, but whether they are right or wrong is a separate question. Purser is not merely critiquing mindfulness in the sense of understanding how it came to be and why neoliberal capitalist institutions find it so compelling (a book which does this with greater rigour would be a far more interesting one than Purser's), he is writing a polemic against mindfulness practices and institutions, and the polemic nature of his argument muddles the critical one.
At the end of the day, is there anything wrong with doing a 5 minute Kabat-Zinn meditation? Mindfulness itself may lack an ethical or political component, but could not one bring an activist political core to one's mindfulness practice? Could not mindfulness, even in its "apolitical" form, be something that an activist political subject find value out of, something that empowers them to be more effective community organizers? I think that for Purser's argument to hold, he would have to argue that mindfuless actively dulls or diminishes one's sensitivity to ethical, political and social convictions. At times, Purser attempts to make this argument, but his conclusion ends with the "liberal" form of his argument, calling for a more "socially engaged" mindfulness. If at the end of the day, this is all that he is seeking, rather than something more radical (politically or spiritually), despite all his incisive rhetoric, is there really that big of a gap between him and someone like his enemy Kabat-Zinn after all?