McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, by Ronald E. Purser

Kathryn Ecclestone considers a bold attempt to take mindfulness to task

July 25, 2019
Mindfulness seminar
Source: Getty

A friend has joined 39 million people worldwide using the “HeadSpace” app as an aid to dealing with difficult situations. A Buddhist colleague’s line manager asked him to begin a staff “awayday” with a few mindfulness minutes, during which another colleague, hoping for some professional development to distract her from work and home pressures, burst into tears. Other university colleagues subjected to mindfulness during an academic leadership programme felt unable to challenge the patronising exercises, trite neuroscience and grand claims promulgated by the smooth-talking, bought-in “consultant” and his expensive glossy “learning materials”.

These experiences resonate with Purser’s thought-provoking, energetic and visceral account of “McMindfulness”, a $4 million global industry in which celebrities and the Dalai Lama endorse mindfulness as a magic bullet for rising stress, anxiety and depression and, even more floridly, a way to “heal the world”. Funded by institutions with religious sympathies such as the John Templeton Foundation, taxpayers and companies such as Google and Ford, mindfulness is supported by research centres (including one at the University of Oxford) and bought enthusiastically by global corporations, political elites (such as British MPs), schools, workplaces and the American army.

Purser shows how mindfulness is the latest psychological movement to start out as a radical alternative to capitalist ways of being and yet, through the old adage of “to change the world, you first need to change yourself”, ends up making individuals “auto-exploit” themselves. He offers some vivid examples of the profoundly reactionary side to this “bio-medical” disciplinary power. A political protest against Google’s contribution to the gentrification of San Francisco interrupts a corporate mindfulness session. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leading mindfulness proponent, writes sanctimoniously about an encounter with a homeless beggar. Such confrontations with unrest and poverty are merely opportunities to practise inner calm. Another example shows how the mellifluous “healing” rhetoric of a mindfulness trainer quickly gives way to calls to exclude stroppy urban pupils who challenge the pointless intervention she imposes on them.

Rooted in his own Buddhist values, Purser is explicit in his desire to take down a version of mindfulness that serves neoliberal capitalism’s drive for compliant, productive and unstressed workers. His alternative is a mindful critical pedagogy, a communal, “liberatory”, ethical mindfulness that reveals the causes of individual problems and offers a means of resistance.

The danger is that this becomes just another pitch for a place in a constantly changing, cut-throat wellbeing and mental-health intervention industry competing for public and private funding. The book doesn’t locate mindfulness in this wider arena or acknowledge that fellow critics of its dodgy evidence base are promoting their own therapeutic products with equally questionable evidence.

It is also easy to stray into hyperbole about the taming “hegemonic power” of mindfulness. There are no proper studies of participants in this or other interventions; we don’t know whether they are docile, silently resistant, bored, transformed or untouched, enthralled or harmed. And, if the numbers presenting with stress, anxiety and depression are anything to go by, 20 years of therapeutic interventions seem to be making things worse.  Meanwhile, taxpayers continue to bankroll a spurious and cynical industry while the search for a truly effective counter-attack continues.

Kathryn Ecclestone is visiting professor of education at the University of Sheffield and co-author of The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, reissued in 2019.

McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality
By Ronald E. Purser
Repeater Books
304pp, £10.99
ISBN 9781912248315
Published 9 July 2019

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