Got a big plan, this mindset maybe its right… the Politics of Mindfulness

Focus on your breath.  In and out.  Be genuinely curious about your breath.  Your mind is like a puppy.  It will wander and you will gently pick it up and place it back on the mat.  Focus on your breath.  Focus on your breath.  Return to the present moment.  Mindfulness might be able to cure AIDS.

Mindfulness is a meditative practice for white people who are disconnected from culture and meaning.  For a few minutes per day, you can indulge your current experiences by focusing your attention on yourself.  Be curious about yourself.  Notice yourself.  But do it uncritically.  Einstein maybe did the same thing.

It’s important to know that there are Studies.  You might not be able to understand the Studies, but they definitely exist.  And they’re definitely good Studies.  And there is definitely no evidence against spending money on mindfulness retreats.

The focus on the self as an atomic, self-formed object has clearly resulted in its adoption by two very different groups.  The New Age, anti-authoritarians on the one side, and executive management types on the other.  For all its claims to being scientific, mindfulness is an inherently political practice and it should be critiqued as such.

A quick skirt around the alternative communities on Facebook shows a strange approach to authority.  Authority is bad, unless it’s an anti-authority authority.  Einstein is a favourite, regardless of whether Einstein is the source of the idea.  Einstein is also characterised in terms other than his scientific identity.  He is a scientist sans science, as if he spontaneously came up with brilliant ideas autonomously.1

The focus of this approach to science is that the individual should be the final judge.  You shouldn’t acknowledge that you don’t have the skills to engage with the material; you are intelligent, clever, and in touch with your own body.  Thus, the surprising amount of fringe-science hogwash that floats.

But it’s the focus on the individual that surprises me most because it’s not really what we expect from the ‘get back to nature’ crowd.  Where we expect some kind of universality of connexion, of cosmic spirit, of greater power, instead the rhetoric is often about reinforcing your own subjective experience, and not engaging with issues beyond their immediate concern.  The result is a detachment from systemic responsibility for social issues.

Focus on your breath.  Listen to your body.  If you mind wanders, don’t worry.  Just observe your thoughts uncritically.  Your thoughts are spontaneous and authentic, but distracting from focusing on your breath.  Focus on your breath and don’t think about the economic inequality in the world which gives you this leisure time to focus on your breath.  Focus on your breath and don’t think about how your ideas are constructed.  Focus on your breath and don’t think about the people in the world who have real problems that can’t be solved by listening to their body.

It’s here that we see the political awkwardness of the practices suggested.  When an affluent class of people can indulge in their sensory experiences and distance themselves from their material conditions through some breathing exercises, they are encouraged to believe that the problems in the world are just of attitude.  In one exchange I had with people who advocated mindfulness, one claimed (and the others seemed to agree) that racism was really an individual problem: ‘I can’t control a person’s negative behaviour, but I’m also not responsible for their negative behaviour.’  One spoke of wanting to find ways to live ‘off the grid’ so they could withdraw from social problems entirely and live a more simple life.

This focus on the authentic self and the need to feel good results in the peculiar form of politics.  It’s not a practice that awakens you to your responsibilities or culpabilities.  It is a practice that forces you to distance yourself from the lives of others.  So it’s obvious why this appeals to and reinforces particular liberal intuitions about the monadic, isolated self.  Even on retreats, you’re surrounded by people who are focussing on themselves.

But Mindfulness has recently exploded into the world of management.  It’s not just a way for self-absorbed hippies to self-actualise their vanity and narcissism; consultants with arcane and mysterious postnominals come and deliver ‘training’ in mindfulness practice.  The first third of which is reference to the Studies, the second third of which is motivational quotes and folksy wisdom about Einstein, and the third of which is sitting in silence.

What is added to this aspect of Mindfulness is performance.  We are delivering training in mindfulness so that we can be more efficient, cope with the stress of the workplace, and Get That Promotion.  Nobody is ever encouraged to ask why on Earth we need meditative practices in order to survive the workplace.  Surely if you’re resorting to meditating in the workplace to manage your stress and anxiety, we might wonder what kind of workplace we’ve created.

The intuition underlying this focus on mindset is that the corporate culture is a given.  It is unable to be changed, fixed since time immemorial, and the only possible response to this is to change ourselves to fit that environment.  It’s not that you have insufficient resources to do your job, it’s that you’re not mindful.  It’s not that you resent having to work hideously long hours and suffer the bullying of toxic people, it’s that you’re not concentrating on your breath and living in the moment.  The stress is internal to you; it’s never something that your workplace does to you.

Thus the appeal of Mindfulness in the workplace.  You can shift the onus for fixing an organisation’s culture on to the people who are suffering the most from it, and give them the tools to suffer it more effectively.

We should all be terrified when neuroscientists and neuropsychologists start making profitable claims about how to make people more effective in the workplace.  Next they will be looking at wellness programmes and training sessions on how to eat better and do more exercise.  Oh, wait!  They’re doing that, spending money in the promise of reducing sick days and increasing worker capacity.

It would be far better for morale if people in management positions were thinking less on their breath and how they can distance themselves from the concerns of others, and instead focus more on the sort of culture that they are creating and what their priorities are.  But Mindfulness lets them off the hook for that, feeding into the intuition that we are isolated monads with no responsibility or obligation towards others.

If you’re genuinely interested in meditative practices, go engage with meditative practices and the culture that surrounds them.  And I don’t even mean just in a white person, cultural buffet approach.  Engage with Christian mysticism and meditation on the divine.  Or read.  Taking an hour out of your day to read the thoughts of somebody who came from an entirely different time and culture can put you back into communion with people of your own time and culture.

Just avoid the claptrap nonsense of charlatans who want to tell you that the key to your problems are to disconnect from the problems of the world.


1. On a bit of a tangent, but it’s not just the fringe alt-science crowd who do this.  Consider how often we are subjected to the undercooked political views of science communicators.  Brian Cox might well be an excellent physicist and be worth every single pound of the £250,000 he is paid each year by the BBC, but his views about giving a space for extremist views on university campuses are just dopey.  Or consider the argument for more STEM content at literary festivals.  Scientists aren’t presented as experts on one particular field (and, often, not even that, but an expert on one particular topic within that field), but are instead Professors of Everythingology.  Meanwhile, scientists like Richard Dawkins openly disparage experts from the social scientists…

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Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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