Mindfulness is everywhere and in everything now. We’re encouraged to be mindful as we eat, work, exercise, and even when we’re ill in order to speed up healing. There’s nothing you can’t do mindfully. Even the US military has adopted mindful practices, one can only guess at why soldiers being sent to murder innocent brown and black people need to be mindful. This is part of why mindfulness and MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction strategies are coming under attack). The practice has been completely removed from its original roots and concern for people and nature and reduced to this tool to decrease stress and boost personal productivity, ostensibly for personal development though corporations are the biggest beneficiaries. Let’s talk about the problems with MBSR as it currently exists.
Detached from roots
Mindfulness is a practice that was lifted out of Buddhism, stripped of all its historic function and adopted for a white audience. What was once a spiritual practice, a tool for spiritual exploration and enlightenment is nothing more than just sitting down and breathing in and out to destress. A practice that was rooted in ethical, compassionate living is now this thing we’re encouraged to do to centre ourselves before we begin the day to boost our productivity. Then it was about being present, alert enough to see the world as it is, the hope being it would change our perception of the world and how things are set up. Now it’s about us being happier as individuals.
Today’s MBSR has nothing to say about compassion and caring about the people around us, and the conditions of their lives. It has nothing to say about living ethically and compassionately with each other. It’s just some daily breathing exercises for people who have justifiably developed anxiety, a side-effect of living in a compassionless world.
A practice that would have opened our eyes to all the injustices around us has been co-opted and is now even conducted by the very corporations wreaking havoc around us. So many corporations have adopted MBSR strategies in their workplaces including Google, Goldman Sachs (yes them), and the good old US Military. Think about it, the US military has adopted a practice whose ethos included non-violence. That’s how much mindfulness has been bastardized.
Individuals not systems or structures
Mindfulness situates the problem with the individual. Are you stressed, anxious, or depressed? You know what you need to do, set aside 10-15 minutes daily to meditate. All the articles cite these research papers that claim regular mindfulness-based practice has a positive effect on decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression and can even help in healing.
Still, there’s evidence that MBSR is one of those things that have benefited from being overly hyped and that it likely doesn’t work any better than just relaxing or even taking a placebo. Most of the cited studies had very few participants and were less scientifically rigorous than other medical studies. So maybe it works, but in the same way, taking a break to relax works.
Regardless of how it works, the problem is it makes what are ostensibly societal problems the individual’s fault. When students are stressed, the school introduces meditation instead of addressing why so many students are stressed. It doesn’t stop to address any systemic issues like excess assignments and the high-stakes exams children are told will determine their entire futures.
Entire populations are stressed out because of systemic things like the high cost of living, high unemployment rates and non-existent social support. No, let’s not talk about the exploitation you’re dealing with at work and the fact that you’re the only person with a job in your family. Let’s not even talk about the anger and helplessness that are the product of living in a cultural atmosphere where the elites call all the shots, are as corrupt as they want to be and if you are a member of the LGBTQ community or a woman or black, your life somehow has less intrinsic value. Let’s not even talk about living through the looming mass extinction event that is climate change.
No talking about what all this stress does to entire populations. The problem is not the cost of living, it’s your refusal to set aside time to meditate. You and the 40 million people in your country. Just read this book and download that guided meditation app and you’re well on your way to a better life. It’s abusive, maybe even gaslighting. It forces you to ignore the truth that you see with your own eyes, blaming you for things that are not your fault, making you doubt the reality you see and experience.
So now that we’ve identified that the problem lies with you and your refusal to practice mindfulness, it’s obvious that all that needs to change is you. There’s zero acknowledgement of the systemic issues that demand our attention if we’re to live happier, healthier lives, much less survive. Mindfulness has the effect of making people accept their circumstances and the conditions of their lives. It breeds political complacency and a lack of engagement in all efforts to change things. All that needs to change after all is each individual.
This counterrevolutionary effect is one of the most insidious and most dangerous. Just when we need to organize and push back and together create a society that works for the many, not the few, we’re told that that’s neither the problem nor the solution. When corporations adopt it, all mindfulness does is justify and maintain oppressive structures, and abusive systems. Not to mention boost their profits. When mindfulness and the self-help industry come together, all you have is people justifying why your suffering is your own fault not a part of an unjust system like capitalism or imperialism or sexism and homophobia.
Structural injustices and inequalities cannot be solved individually. They just can’t. They require us to come together and make our societies what we want them to be. As long as we believe MBSR’s lie that we solve our problems individually in a corner breathing deeply, nothing will change.
Instead of addressing the root cause of our stress, all mindfulness does is blame us and then give us tools to cope with the resultant stress. It’s not interested in alleviating suffering, just giving us the tools to calm down, re-energize and go back to our slave existence the following day. Just take a few breaths to manage that rising anxiety then go back to work or class or whatever it is that’s slowly killing you. Mindfulness must find its ethical roots, go back to being present in the world, moving with compassion and a desire to alleviate suffering. It must once again focus on nurturing people and the world we live in. Until then, it’s just temporarily beneficial breathing.
P.S. It should go without saying that if Goldman Sachs and the US Military are endorsing something, there’s likely something wicked wrong with it.
P.S.S. I say all this as someone who has greatly benefited from using mindfulness to manage stress and anxiety and maintain my sanity in a world committed to driving me nuts.
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