Mindfulness is much more than a secularised or watered down version of Buddhist meditation: its aims and framing are thoroughly different from its traditional roots. Anyone who might have gone through an 8-week mindfulness course will find the use of a recurrent metaphor — that of the mind as a muscle. Prof Willem Kuyken, the director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, has written that ‘just as brushing your teeth or going for a run are well-known ways of protecting general physical health, mindfulness exercises develop mental fitness and resilience’ (Baer & Kuyken, 2016). Like him, mindfulness teachers instruct their students to strengthen the muscle of mindfulness in the same way you would strengthen a muscle in the gym through repeated exercise. While it is true that to learn something for the first time, including mindfulness, repetition is part of the learning experience — thinking of the mind as muscle, and of mindfulness as an exercise to improve mental fitness is to turn the historical Buddha into a 6-pack modern superman. Developing mental fitness and resilience is definitely not what the Buddha had in mind.
The reconstruction of the Buddha has been taking place for over 100 years. Daniel Lopez (2012) calls this modern version the Scientific Buddha, a buddha that appeared to teach those incapable of understanding his true teaching: “The meditation that this Scientific Buddha taught was something called ‘mindfulness’ ~ a pale form of the practice. The Scientific Buddha taught stress reduction, something never taught by any other buddha in the past, for previous buddhas sought to create stress, to destroy complacency, in order to lead us to a state of eternal stress reduction, that state of extinction called nirvana”.
I have heard many take a stand in favour of this Scientific-Mental-Fitness-Coach-Buddha that has given the world one more stress-reduction technique. “It’s helping reduce suffering, wouldn’t you agree?” — this argument was thrown often at me when I started writing critically about mindfulness. Well, so does an aspirin one might counter-argue; Buddhist meditation, as it happens in other religious traditions, is not meant to help with well-being and self-enhancement but with moving way beyond the world and the everyday self. The spiritual vision and the hope associated with traditional meditation practices is almost entirely lost in modern mindfulness — almost. It retains a few technical elements which are then used for a purpose which opposes its original aim. In that sense, if we want to think of traditional Buddhist mindfulness as ‘spiritual’ ~ the sense of seeking something which we may call world/self-transcendent, modern mindfulness is ‘anti-spiritual’. Instead of providing means to move beyond the self, it simply reinforces a modern individualistic concept of the self.
It has taken me years to be entirely open and honest about this: I do not trust this scientific buddha of mindfulness or my psychology colleagues who pledge allegiance to him. There is a combination of dishonesty, naivety, and ignorance about meditation experience and its history. And greed — in many forms and shapes, including the marketing and selling of mindfulness into all aspects of social life, from the military to schools. Thankfully, there also are a growing number of sobering accounts of how mindfulness has failed. The most recent example is from a study (Montero-Marin et al., 2022) which cost over 6 million pounds and involved over 8000 children, where we learned that mindfulness didn’t help school children, or might even have been harmful to those that had mental health problems.
Alongside such studies, the critical work of academics who are themselves Buddhist has highlighted both the deep spiritual flaws of modern mindfulness, and its close alliance with a neo-liberal market ideology that puts the blame of mental health problems on the individual, and disregards the work and social context. In this sense, the critical term ‘McMindfulness’(Purser, 2019) offers a counter-metaphor to the ’muscle of mindfulness’: a meal which was succulent, rich, and healthy has been turned into processed, cheap food that slowly poisons you.
Taking a stand against mindfulness is much more than a way of annoying or antagonising friends and colleagues who use and promote it. It is, for me, an exercise in hope. The hope that by gaining insight about what this modern practice actually is, we can direct our attention to the extraordinary legacy of meditation practices developed over many generations by women and men that sought something radically different from everyday concerns (including concerns about stress-relief and wellbeing). Their vision and their courage bear no resemblance to the 6-pack buddha of mindfulness.
About the author: Dr Miguel Farias works on the psychology of religion and spirituality, including meditation practices. He has been a lecturer in psychology at Oxford University and currently leads the Brain, Belief, & Behaviour Lab at Coventry University. He is the co-author of The Buddha Pill: Can meditation Change You?i> and the lead editor of the Oxford Handbook of Meditation.
©Dr. Miguel Farias, March 2023
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