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.
After dropping nuclear bombs on Japan, Americans hungered for its wisdom. The spiritual teachings they lapped up as Zen owed as much to interpreters as to ancient Asian ways. These mystical insights helped dropouts and "squares" to find new meaning. They also fired up debate on transcendent experience. But beguiling suggestions of change in social order petered out. Buddhism quietly endured. It's resurgent today in psychologised mindfulness. Practice might help free our minds, but where that leads is up to us.
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.