Mindfulness. We see/hear it everywhere. It is touted as a spiritual/therapeutic hit for all; Lily-the-pink for the post modern age. It has much to recommend it; a simple moment of stillness that we can carry with us into our crazy lives.
Whilst appreciating the potential of mindfulness as a tool, something about it has always made me uncomfortable.
Is mindfulness just being used as a way to make the madness bearable, whilst changing nothing?
Perhaps it was the sense that a core tenet of an ancient faith was being appropriated.
Perhaps it was some of the people who I saw promoting it; expensive mindfulness retreats, shiny books, lots of mindfulness product.
Perhaps too it was a feeling I had that mindfulness should be a bi-product, not a short cut.
Then I read an article that summed up all of these feelings for me, entitled How capitalism captured the mindfulness industry.
The technical, neutral definition of mindfulness and its relativist lack of a moral foundation has opened up secular mindfulness to a host of dubious uses, now called out by its critics as McMindfulness. McMindfulness occurs when mindfulness is used, with intention or unwittingly, for self-serving and ego-enhancing purposes that run counter to both Buddhist and Abrahamic prophetic teachings to let go of ego-attachment and enact skillful compassion for everyone.
Instead of letting go of the ego, McMindfulness promotes self-aggrandizement; its therapeutic function is to comfort, numb, adjust and accommodate the self within a neoliberal, corporatized, militarized, individualistic society based on private gain.
McMindfulness aims to reduce the stress of the private individual and does not admit to any interest in the social causes of stress. In corporations, “[m]indfulness training has wide appeal because it has become a trendy method for subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and as an instrumental tool for keeping attention focused on institutional goals.” Mindfulness, they argued, needs to reclaim an ethical framework that goes beyond privatized adjustment to a society based on market capitalism that contributes to stress and other sources of unhappiness.
McMindfulness practices psychologize and medicalize social problems. Rather than a way to attain awakening toward universal love, it becomes a means of self-regulation and personal control over emotions. McMindfulness is blind to the present moral, political and cultural context of neoliberalism. As a result, it does not grasp that an individualistic therapized and commodified society is itself a major generator of social suffering and distress. Instead, the best it can then do, ironically, is to offer to sell us back an individualistic, commodified “cure” – mindfulness – to reduce that distress.
The other reason I am thinking about this is that every year, I lead a ‘Wilderness retreat’ over the May bank holiday weekend. An ever-expanding small band of friends hire some boats to drop us off on a small deserted Hebridean island for a few days. It is all about immersion in wilderness, the formation of temporary community, and engagement with Christian spirituality, albeit of a non-confrontational kind.
To extend the analogy used above, how is this not just a McWildernessretreat? Are we not just doing the same thing- consuming some space, taking lots of photographs to show what a adventurous people we are then returning to the same tramlines that we had only so recently vacated?
How is our own smug spirituality any different from those practitioners of McMindfulness who are after all doing their best to survive the wilderness of their own lives?
I suppose my answer to this is complicated. We get out of something what we give to it, so it is perfectly possible to engage with any experience in an eqo-first kind of way. But there are some things about our retreat that are different. Things that have me looking forward to it again more than I can say;
- The Wilderness is real. It is challenging, humbling, uncomfortable and awe-inspiring.
- The friendships are real. The conversations are real. The tears are real. The uncouth and poorly-judged jokes are real. The silent companionship is real.
- Faith is real- or at least we make faith a deliberate part of our encounter. This is of course highly individual, but even on the level of ‘suspension of disbelief’ it is a vital component of our gatherings.
- The hope for MORE is real. Not more stuff, more achievement, but just better. We are a group of people who want to be a force for good, even whilst the great wilderness forces us to acknowledge our own silliness and inadequacy.
You may feel (with some justification) that this does not get us off the hook – we too are creatures of our own culture – but nevertheless, I head out to the wild places with my friends in great anticipation, anxious to encounter the Great Stillness not as a cure-all, but as a discomfort, a disatisfaction.
How else can things change?