Can Mindfulness Be Liberated?

The release of Ron Purser’s book McMindfulness inspired me to take a break from the chapter on hermeneutics I’m writing.  Although I will be making limited mention of things buddhisty in my book, I want to make some notes here about my thoughts on having (too quickly, perhaps) read this book.

It is encouraging to see someone take a thoroughly critical stance toward a profitable ideological project.  And no doubt difficult to do, in an age when almost all access to media is controlled by a few big corporations which are focused exactly on promoting such projects.  This book is accessible enough, and engaging enough in its accounts of various mindful practices, that it is possible it may provoke some reaction, and so some critical thought about the newest mantra of neoliberalism.  So, kudos to Purser and to Repeater Books for publishing it.

But, of course, I have some concerns.

To begin with, Purser makes it clear that he “do[es] not question the value of adapting mindfulness for therapeutic use, nor do[es he] deny that it can help people”(83).  My position on this has always been that in fact this is what we do need to question. That is, that mindfulness does not actually help most people, and those people whom it does “help” it helps to become horrendous human beings.

To some degree, Purser would seem to agree with my last statement.  The overwhelming force of his book is in its argument that mindfulness produces a passive subject trained to adapt to the world as it is and never question, and certainly not attempt to change, the social formation.  The good subject of neoliberalism blames herself for her suffering, and seeks to avoid even considering the possible existence of any social or material causes of human suffering outside of her own attitude, her own disposition. Such people may, if they are affluent enough, actually be happy enough as they go about the business of reproducing capitalist social relations. But what they are doing is clearly, even on Purser’s account, nothing more than profiting by enabling the oppression of others.  I can see how this is therapeutic, if we understand therapy as the adjusting of individuals to better serve the interests of global capitalism—that is, if we grasp that therapists are, as Purser says (quoting Fromm) “the priests of industrial society,” whose goal is “helping the person to become better adjusted to existing circumstance”(258).  Given the overall force of the argument, and the approving citation of Fromm, it would seem to me to be a contradiction to still maintain that “the therapeutic functions of mindfulness-based interventions are clearly of value” and so “we don’t need to stop using them” (258).

To be clear, what Purser is advocating is that we “need to do much more”(258). That is, that we should do mindfulness practice, but then add on some critical thinking which will enable active participation in the transformation of society.  My position is, and has always been (see my last attempt, a couple years ago, here: https://speculativenonbuddhism.com/2017/04/08/mindfulness-yet-again/), that this is not possible. That is, that the goal of undertaking mindfulness is exactly to render the subject incapable of the “much more” that Purser, rightly I think, urges us to engage in.

So why this apparent contradiction?  Why the simultaneous acceptance of mindfulness as a necessary beginning in the midst of an overwhelming argument that beginning from there forecloses any hope of meaningful progress?

I think I can explain this contradiction by offering two objections to Purser’s critique, with the (admittedly faint) hope that this might get some discussion going.

First: What Purser so effectively critiques is the ostensible ideology of mindfulness. That is, he is right about what it is meant to do, and would do if it worked as advertised.  But my claim is that in fact this ostensible ideology is not what mindfulness really does, because the practice of mindfulness as described by all its advocates is not a possible thing for anyone to actually do. So, instead, we need to address the actual ideology of mindfulness, what it really does in practice.

Second: Purser’s acceptance of a postmodern relativist position, advocated by some Buddhist scholars, effectively rules out any hope of a real alternative to mindfulness, any hope of meaningful production of an ideological practice that resists and seeks to transform global capitalism.

Let’s look at a couple of examples of mindfulness in action, from Purser’s book, to try to clarify my point here.

What is really going on when someone teaches mindfulness?  As I suggested in the essay I linked to above, it is simply not possible to really non-judgmentally experience reality. All of our experiences are structured by our judgments about the world. That is, we have not perception at all that is not given its quality by our projects and intentions. Even a sunset, one of Kabat-Zinn’s examples, has a positive meaning only in relation to some construal of the world, some way of organizing our activities.  Consider the very different experience of the sunset described in the Tolstoy story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”  Sunsets and flowers and baby’s smiles seem like pleasurable perceptions to us because of their role in the kind of social project we are engaged in.  I won’t argue for this at length here—but if you’re in doubt, consider taking the time to read Charles Taylor’s essay “Self-Interpreting Animals.”  Many people, of course, have made the case for this point, but Taylor does it compactly and clearly, I think.

So, what does that say about what is really happening when people are asked to engage in mindfulness?  Purser describes the attempt to force mindfulness on students depicted in the documentary movie Room to Breathe. What happens is never, in these cases, what the mindfulness facilitator wants to happen.  My own kids underwent forced “mindfulness” in school, and they simply ignored the instructor. My older daughter explained that everyone simply put their iPhones on their legs, and sat looking through their Instagram feed, or something.  My younger daughter, too young to have a phone, said she simply sat daydreaming, thinking about what she would do on the playground at recess. But, of course, they knew enough to sit quietly and not disrupt the boring and useless presentation. So, they were properly interpellated into the ideology that schools are meant to teach: we don’t care what you think, so long as you give the outward appearance of consent, so long as you don’t disrupt our routines.

In the documentary, several students do object.  When one simply states that “it’s boring,” the facilitator sends four students out of the room.  This, today, is a standard punishment in schools.  My own daughter once asked her music teacher why they were doing trivia contests in music class, instead of learning about music. She was sent to stand in the hall, and learned her lesson: questions will get you noticed in a bad way, and lead to bad grades on report cards.  My suggestion is that the participation of the remaining kids was simply their recognition that this was not an activity in which questioning was going to be allowed.

Of course, some students will always be enthusiastic about anything they are asked to do.  These are the students who learn quickly what the teacher wants them to say, and say it. They are the ones who seek the approving gaze of the Other, in Lacanian terms.  They want to be seen by the Other as the good subject, hoping in return to get the promised reward of social and financial success.  That is to say, those who enthusiastically announce that they loved being “mindful” actually just loved being approved of by the teachers and mindfulness facilitators.  They will, likely, also be the ones who will succeed in school, and then their active participation in mindfulness activities will be given the credit.  But in fact the real cause of both success in schools an active participation in such activities are that these are the good subjects, already well interpellated into the goals of the existing system, already sharing in the collective projects and intentions of global capitalism.

While we’re on the topic of ideology, let’s consider Purser’s chapter on “Mindful Employees.”  He suggests that “corporate mindfulness works very subtly to train good employees to serve their employers—and the broader system that supports them”, not by some “industrial form of brainwashing” but by “binding people’s inner lives to corporate success” (140). My suggestion, again, is that mindfulness could not possibly do this.  What does this is, of course, the paycheck.  Our “inner lives” are quite literally bound to corporate success by the fact that if they weren’t we couldn’t eat or pay our mortgages.  All that corporate mindfulness programs do is remind employees of exactly what kinds of behavior their continuing paychecks are dependent upon. As with the schools, those who participate most enthusiastically are not those who really succeed in achieving “pure non-judgmental perception of the present moment,” which is of course an impossibility; nor are they even those who have deluded themselves they can do this; no, they are those who have grasped that their employer is demanding that they claim to have done the impossible, even while fully knowing in cannot be done. Like the character in Koestler’s Darkness at Noonwho must finally admit he sees five lights while he and his interrogator know there are only four. The demand is not to be mindful, but to become willing to enthusiastically voice any falsehood you are asked to voice.

And in the same chapter, we can begin to see the fundamental underlying conceptual problem which leads to the contradiction structuring this whole book. This has to do, of course, with an incorrect concept of ideology—this is where this bears on the book I’m writing.

Purser cites Richard Payne’s assertion that “All tools are ideologies.  They exercise the values of their makers and instantiate those values in their users”(141).  The implication, here, is that ideology is a clever plot of corporate masterminds to brainwash their employees.  Of course, it is true, as Payne says, that all tools are ideologies. Every tool is meant to accomplish some project, to fulfill some intention, to help in producing the fundamental needs of humans in some particular way.  We invent plows because we have the idea of staying put and growing food instead of wandering and gathering food—and the use of that tool makes the person into someone who shares the values that motivated the invention of the tool. But we need not see this as necessarily oppressive, as a manipulation by some clever elite who knows they are controlling the mind of the masses. In fact, tools can often be put to uses beyond those of the existing organization of society—can be used to transform rather than simply reproduce it. This was clearly the danger, for instance, with higher levels of education and literacy, intended to facilitate capitalist growth but threatening to be turned to different uses by those now literate but not benefitting from capitalist. So, of course, literacy skills and critical thinking have been eliminated from the schools as the focus of education turns to job training.

What I’m suggesting here is that the inability to see that we are always ideological animals by nature, that we never live outside of ideology, that ideology does not trap and oppress us but empower us to engage the world, leads to the inability to see any real alternative to global capitalism in Purser’s book. There are lots of calls to be radical, to “engage with social historical and political realities,” but no real demonstration of what that might look like in practice. We must “assist victims of exploitation to resist the inhuman demands of capitalism”(259), but how, exactly?

Well, apparently by simply accepting postmodern relativism as an ultimate truth.  Purser argues that his better version of mindfulness, his “mindfulness liberated,” would be the recognition that, in the words of C.W. Huntington, “I, too, and nothing but a mental construct, a phantom’s mask covering the reality of change”(249).  This leads directly into the assumption that “to be somebody—anybody—is to continually suffer.” We can only stop suffering once we realize we don’t actually exist, but are an illusion projected onto a “ceaseless ungraspable stream of event that spontaneously emerge and disappear.”  We must forget, on this model, that we are metaphysically real entities with real causal powers.  Rather, we must see that all things “spontaneously” occur, and we have no real hope of agency at all.  (I’ll leave aside the baffling question of who exactly is making this error, who is being fooled by this construct—I’ve discussed that enough to tire even myself at this point.)

The dilemma Purser is left with is that he cannot figure a way out of the trap of suffering, since the “suffering caused by neoliberalism is…so amorphous, pervasive and systematic…the inner and outer worlds become confused” (255). The solution seems to be to “raise collective awareness of…class interests, social inequalities, and political oppression,” but how can we do this if the final cause of all (illusory) phenomena is merely the “ungraspable stream”?  If there are no metaphysically real objects with causal powers—like human subjects?

I think this error is what leads to the contradiction that generates this book, but also leads to the failure to do more than simply assert that we should, somehow, be more radical.

Let me offer a suggestion of what I think is more radical.  Purser collapses all kinds of what he calls “first order suffering” in a troubling way.  First-order suffering includes: “sickness, old age and death, chronic physical pain, conflicts in personal relationships, divorce, and loss”(255).  But does it really make sense to say that divorce and death have the same ontological status?  Isn’t one what I have called mind-dependent and the other mind-independent?  We need to maintain this distinction to begin to recognize the removable causes of suffering. We may need to learn to accept our mortality and stop agonizing over it, but we don’t need to learn to accept the institution of marriage, or, more importantly, the capitalist economy as something inevitable and beyond our control.  We need to be like that kid in the documentary, and object to the practices we are being asked to engage in.

But we need to do it in a more critical way, examining the actual ideological practices taking place not merely the ostensible ideologies.  Part of this would be learning to reject the approval of the gaze of the Big Other, which promises us things it can never deliver.  Only once we can reject the temptation to seek this approving gaze might we be able to do really radical things, like form unions of the precariat to demand a universal living wage to all regardless of employment. No existing gaze will approve such action—it will need to be motivated in mutual recognition, in the approval of small-O “others” who are our equals.

Of course, as I’ve said before, mindfulness does “work” in some sense. It does help the affluent to more easily accept that it is okay to participate in global capitalism, to benefit from it, and not to question its effects. It teaches them they are better people when they do this.  It is simply not the case, as Purser believes, that “individual happiness seems hollow unless all human beings are free of oppression, poverty, and violence”(260).  The function of mindfulness is exactly to make such happiness seem not hollow but full. It works. It just works not by giving access to pure and non-judgmental perceptions, but by constructing an approving gaze.  For this reason, it will never work to go on with mindfulness, as Purser suggests, and then add on some critical analysis of the causes and conditions enabling our current social formation.  The task of mindfulness is exactly to construct subjects for whom such analysis is impossible.

 

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8 Comments

  1. There’s something of a paradox here, regarding the notion of “non-judgementalism,” is there not? It does seem to be the case, as you suggest, that mindfulness practices promote the illusion of non-judgmentalism (in other words, the illusion of its possibility as something humans can attain, or should even want to attain).

    At the same time, as even mindfulness propagandists often point out, when one first begins meditating the first thing one notices—and continues to notice for a long time—is just how much we do judge. The goal then, in mindfulness, is to try to get rid of this judgment. This is of course impossible. But that initial noticing of the pervasiveness of judgment, in my view, is actually a great thing. In fact, I would argue that it is one of the most important skills we can cultivate: the ability to notice just how judgemental our awareness is, in the sense that we are always judging our perception through our intentions about how we wish to act in the world. In other words, the ability to notice that we are constantly in ideology.

    Would you agree with this? And if so, is it possible that mindfulness can be “liberated” by simply dropping its (admittedly somewhat constitutive) aim of non-judgemental awareness? Instead, the practice would consist not just of “paying attention” to our judgements but also of a resistance to the desire for non-judgementalism. In other words, (re)becoming aware of our ideologies, “beginning again” with this recognition, but without the imagined end of escaping ideology.

    Does that make sense? I’m just shooting the shit here, and maybe I’m still somehow falling for this same illusion you are pointing out. Let me know if I am missing something.

  2. Yes, I would like to see a kind of meditation that teaches us to be much MORE judgmental. To consciously make the judgments that are usually made for us in “common sense” or just in our everyday practices and language.

    I do think, on my reading of it, that is part of the original intention of “sati,” which is meant to be something like recalling, in rigorous conceptual thought, all of the causes and all of the effects of any particular action. Of course, this is probably not completely possible, but it is the goal we are meant to reach for. It is close to the goal of Aristotelian dialectic—to arrive at the essential nature of the thing in the midst of all the confusing impacts of accident.

    I just think that this is not what is meant by “mindfulness” today. The idea of mindfulness, as Purser describes it, is to begin by reaching a calm state of detachment—then, he suggests, we should add on the critical thought about the causes of misery. My suggestion is that the effort to reach a “calm” state is inherently an effort to obscure the causes of human misery, and to convince ourselves they are not “really real.”

    I’ve just started reading Hagglund’s recent book “This Life,” and he seems to be advocating something like a practice of cultivating greater attachment to the impermanent as a starting point for real radicalism. Danny mentions this book, which I hadn’t heard about, in a comment on your post at SNB—I read Hagglund’s book “Radical Atheism” and thought it was smart, but a bit, well, to me at least, obvious (although clearly what he was arguing there was contrary to the mainstream position in academic philosophy). Maybe Hagglund can help me with that final sections of the book I’m working on—the part in the outline called “what I don’t know yet.” That is: how do we make more bad subjects?

  3. Tom,
    I’m glad you saw my comment on Chiam’s post, I was going to mention this book to you. I thought you might be familiar with Hagglund. I really liked this book. I think you’re correct about his “cultivating greater attachment to the impermanent” to begin real radical work. He spills a lot of ink arguing against religious faith and the prospect of eternity and for a secular faith that sustains the commitment to this shared, fragile and finite life. I think he truly makes a convincing argument for living a life of authentic freedom, beautifully written too. I hope it proves helpful in writing your final chapters and of course the essential question: how to make more bad subjects.

  4. Here’s and interesting exchange between Hagglund and Robert Pippin: https://thepointmag.com/2019/examined-life/limited-time-robert-pippin-hagglund-this-life
    I do see Pippin’s point that Hagglund’s defense of secular faith may seem to suggest we should believe it because it would make us feel better, not because it is true. I don’t think that is what he is arguing though—it seems essential to try to overcome the almost universal notion that our sense of meaninglessness today is a result of the disenchantment of secularism. That is, everywhere you look, including x-buddhisms, you see the assumption that if life is not eternal it is meaningless. So he needs to work hard to defend the idea that meaning is not dependent on transcendence. Only then can he make the case that meaninglessness is a result of alienation under capitalism, not an inherent feature of any secular world.

    Still working on the book. His arguments mostly seem obvious to me, but at the same time I’m doubtful they would convince a good subject of capitalism. This is why I’m imagining an audience for my book which is already dissatisfied with the World as it is. I cannot even imagine the argument that would convince most of my neighbors here in CT that there is anything at all wrong with capitalism…

  5. David Watson

     /  July 27, 2019

    Isn’t the idea of a transitional program or a transitional demand that instead of arguing that there is something wrong with capitalism you demand something that capitalism by its own terms promises yet cannot provide (e.g., adequate health care)? So that the failure of capitalism to meet such a demand forces on those who would never be convinced by any argument the conclusion that there is something wrong with capitalism?

    Reading through the Pippin-Hagglund exchange, I was disappointed to find Hagglund stressing the same tired truisms. Collective ownership of the means of production and “the pursuit of labor from each according to her ability, to each according to her need” (a somewhat confusing formulation) are not transitional demands, they are abstract principles of socialism. Capitalism promises neither; on the contrary, it openly opposes both.

    Free time, perhaps, is different. 30 for 40 seemed to me at one time to be a logical example of a transitional demand.

    I have requested the new book from my library. I did spend some time with Radical Atheism, though I think I stalled out midway. Wasn’t the notion that transcendence precludes, rather than provides, meaning also part of the point of that book?

  6. I see your point about Hagglund. I’m a bit troubled, as I make my way through his book, about his naive Romanticism. He still sees the subject as radically individual, and his position is very voluntarist. For instance, in discussing Knausgaard, he sees his books as radical, as making a commitment to immanence—but he totally misses the obvious Romanticism of Knausgaard’s entire project, that it takes place within a Romantic aesthetic in which one gains transcendence exactly by the act of introspection and confession. Knausgaard gains freedom from the burden of necessity—enormous wealth and fame—exactly by “daring” to do nothing but examine his deepest self. Even the decision to stop looking for a subject to write about, and pick himself as the subject of his masterpiece, is exactly what Wordsworth did. Hagglund is still so thoroughly caught in the Romantic ideology that he sees himself as escaping capitalism by being ever more Romantic.

    That said, there are some good points here—like his long effort to dissuade people of the idea that only something eternal can be meaningful.

    I’m not sure about the kind of transitional program you mention. This has always seemed to me to be, well, a bit condescending. It assumes that others just aren’t as smart as me, so have to be tricked into seeing the contradictions of capitalism. So, let’s demand equality under the law—something capitalism promises but cannot deliver—then you’ll see that capitalism is inherently flawed and its promises are empty. That may work…I don’t know. But I still (perhaps foolishly) try to point out the inherent contradictions in the very concept of “equality” that we employ, with the idea that the way out of capitalism is a more correct understanding of things, not manipulating people’s desires from the position of the subject who knows.

    I do agree about the “ownership of the means of production” idea, though. My position is that ideas like “ownership” and reifying the “means of production” is a dead end. We would be better off trying to convince people that what we want is not “ownership” at all, but a collective participation in setting the goals of society, deciding what we ought to be producing and what “means” we need to get that done, rather than letting the “market” make those decisions for us.

    I’m curious of the promise of “mindfulness” might serve as the kind of transitional program you mention. It might encourage people to work toward a kind of mental health and contentment that is just fundamentally at odds with everything demanded of them under capitalism. It also, of course, might lead some people to realize the absurd contradictions at the core of the Lockean theory of the subject on which mindfulness depends—to realize that it requires them to do something that is just not at all possible. But I’m afraid what happens is what happens with most such attempts (like the call of equality): people realize it isn’t possible, and just lose interest after a while. This is why I’d rather take the approach of encouraging critical thought, rather than duping people into confronting their own illusions. But I’m not so sure my approach is all that successful either.

  7. David: You raise an interesting point regarding strategy here, but I suspect that the strategy of demanding something that capitalism is unable to provide, in the hope that people will suddenly wake up to its illusions, is not sufficient. In fact, I would argue that this strategy is already failing right now, and might even work perfectly as a way to get people more attached to capitalist ideology, not less.

    Capitalism has always promised things that it cannot possibly deliver (autonomy, success, equality, etc). How long should we expect it to take for people to realize that the promise of universal access to healthcare, for example, is incompatible with capitalism? A year? An election cycle? Two consecutive administrations of Democrats in power, who promise precisely the kinds of things that are impossible under capitalism? There seems to me to be enough evidence that repeating capitalist myths (such as by promising outcomes which capitalism prevents) does not make people question the viability of capitalism, and only manipulates people’s desires as Tom says above. Every time we take the subway, or watch TV, we are bombarded with advertisements promising the impossible under capitalism, and nobody seems to notice at all.

  1. On Attachment – The Failed Buddhist

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