Becoming calmer and less caught up in habitual patterns sounds like A Good Thing. However, modern promotion of secular mindfulness comes with a shadow side. This is explored in McMindfulness by Ron Purser, a professor of management in San Francisco, and a long-time Buddhist practitioner. The book expands on his scholarly work on the mindfulness industry, criticising how it’s coopted by corporate forces. To explore what he means, I interviewed Ron at Watkins Books.
Mindfulness adapts Buddhist meditation to everyday life. It seems effective at managing depression and anxiety, and is taught in schools to boost resilience and grades. Whilst it can help to share techniques to cope with stress, this limits the scope for transformation. A fixation on self gets reinforced, which serves a brutal market system. However, if mindfulness in schools were to cultivate "moral and civic virtues," as British MPs suggest it should, it could foster compassionate "pro-social" action.
Buddhists have engaged with science since Christian missionaries called them backward. Inspired by Western scholars, who saw in "human Buddhism" a psychology "of incontestable value", 19th century modernisers rebranded Buddhism as a science of the mind. In the latest cross-cultural fusion, Tibetan Buddhist meditators are being studied by scientists in the lab, but scans of their brains have yet to yield major breakthroughs. Insights from practice can't be measured on a screen.
Modern yoga seems synonymous with postures, yet very few of them are described in ancient texts. So where did they come from and what are they for? And how does one practice authentically? Try sitting and holding an arm above your head for several decades. That's the essence of original yoga in ascetic traditions. This got combined in the medieval era with esoteric techniques from Tantric sects. Modern styles are a hybrid of exercise, wellness and threads from the distant past...
Practitioners and scholars can see the world through different lenses, which are challenging to reconcile. We cannot observe what another perceives, just what they say about it, or the neural activity it entails. The experience of insight amounts to: "I do not think, therefore it is." And yet precisely what it is, we cannot say. Academics still need to engage with first-hand evidence. More subjective research should be inter-subjective, acknowledging fluidity between observers and the observed.