The Mindfulness Explosion

The Perils of Mainstream Acceptance

Mary Sykes Wylie

The explosive growth of mindfulness in America has inevitably triggered a backlash—a low, rumbling protest, particularly from Buddhists claiming that mindfulness has increasingly become yet another banal, commercialized self-help consumer product, hawked mostly to rich and upper-middle class white people who still wouldn’t be caught dead in a real zendo. While few critics quarrel with using MBSR as a way to alleviate suffering in mind or body, they’re disturbed by how much meditation in America appears to have been individualized, monetized, corporatized, therapized, taken over, flattened, and generally coopted out of all resemblance to its noble origins in an ancient spiritual and moral tradition.

In a 2013 blog for The Huffington Post titled “Beyond McMindfulness,” Ron Purser and David Loy—American academics and well-known Buddhist teachers—declared that enough was enough. The effort to “commodify mindfulness into a marketable technique,” they wrote, required engaging in a kind of bait and switch, branding mindfulness programs “‘Buddhist inspired’ to give them a certain hip cachet,” but leaving out the heart and soul of the original practice. As a result, what was once a powerful philosophical and ethical discipline intended to help free people from greed, ill will, and delusion becomes just another mass-marketed self-fulfillment tool, which can reinforce the same negative qualities. People can, in effect, use mindfulness to become better at being worse. A terrorist, an assassin, and a white-collar criminal can be mindful, Purser and Loy tell us, but not exactly in the same way as the Dalai Lama.

Further, mindfulness in America is so relentlessly marketed as a form of personal stress reduction that it tends to blind adherents to the larger conditions that create and perpetuate widespread emotional and physical stress in the first place. Stress originating in social and economic arrangements is, the author wrote, “framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments . . . re-fashioned into a safety valve, as a way to let off steam—a technique for coping with and adapting to the stresses and strains of corporate life.”

Google, for example, has developed a now famous mindfulness/emotional intelligence training program, the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI)—led by Chade Meng Tan, who has the supercute nickname Google’s Jolly Good Fellow—which it offers to employees and scores of corporate and institutional clients. According to the SILYI media kit, “We help professionals at all levels adapt, management teams evolve, and leaders optimize their impact and influence.”

People still aren’t entirely clear about what mindfulness is, says Willoughby Britton, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown. They’re also not clear, he says, about what distinguishes the different practices, or “which practices are best or worst suited to which types of people. When is it skillful to stop meditating and do something else? I think this is the most logical direction to follow because nothing is good for everything. Mindfulness is not going to be an exception to that. . . . If we think anything is going to fix everything, we should probably take a moment and meditate on that.”

What Purity?

To the outpouring of complaints by some Buddhist practitioners that secular mindfulness is basically a fraud dressed in bodhisattva clothing, the response of many others is essentially “Chill out, people.” Meditation, these critics of the critics say in effect, is a good discipline that’s helped suffering people all over the world. And if it isn’t always done in a perfect spirit of selfless “right mindfulness,” or doesn’t always produce better, more compassionate, wiser human beings, well, this is Planet Earth, inhabited by the same imperfect human race that lived here 2,500-plus years ago, when Siddhartha Gautama wandered around India preaching the Dharma. To the accusation that Buddhism has lost its purity to the crass ravages of modern corporate America, for example, antipurist critics respond cheerfully, “What purity?”

Jeff Wilson, author of several books on Buddhism in the West, including Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture, has pointed out that there has never been just one Buddhism, but a welter of Buddhist practices, organizations, ways of life, and opinions in a never-very-centralized tradition that’s moved from India to China to Burma, Japan, and finally the West, picking up accretions along the way. Whatever anybody said about Buddhism, somebody else could say the opposite. What you had, Wilson said, was just “a great big mess called ‘Buddhism,’” which adapted itself to an astonishing variety of social and political circumstances everywhere it landed.

As to the question of whether poor, innocent, little Buddhism can withstand the withering pressures of the marketplace, there never was a time when it wasn’t deeply connected to the political and economic realities of the world. “The truth of the matter,” says Wilson, “is that Buddhism has not ever at any point from its very beginning, or at any stage of its evolution, been apart from economic matters.” The ideal of the master sitting alone in his cave or high on a mountain, isolated from the nonspiritual hoi polloi, is essentially a myth. Buddhism has long been deeply embedded in the larger political economy. Monks have often exchanged spiritual goods (chanting to produce merit for a donor or a donor’s family) for economic support by the community.

Furthermore, the benefits people hoped to achieve by supporting the sangha (but not meditating; that was the prerogative of the monks) were often less spiritual and more worldly, practical, personal, and even selfish: success in love and business, good health, relief from pain, protection from evil, safe childbirth, better karma for the next go-around. This makes what most lay Buddhists in historical times wanted from their religion no different from what most people in most eras have always wanted, including people today: protection from disaster and harm, hope for the next life (however conceived), and a sense of peace in the security of knowing that there was some greater meaning to the unpredictable, often frightening, frequently miserable ebb and flow of mortal existence.

This blog is excerpted from "The Mindfulness Explosion." The full version is available in the January/February 2015 issue--Mindfulness Goes Viral: What Would Buddha Say?

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Topic: Mindfulness

Tags: Mindfulness | 2008 | Buddhism | Buddhist | buddhist meditation | Jon Kabat Zinn | Mary Sykes Wylie | mbsr | meditating | meditation mindfulness | meditation techniques | mindfulness based stress reduction | relaxation techniques | religion

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