Over the past few years, interest in mindfulness meditation has exploded in the West: there is now a ‘Mindful Magazine’, the NHS recommends mindfulness as a treatment for depression and anxiety, and courses in mindfulness are popping up all over the country, including here at Oxford University, where much of the rapidly growing body of scientific research on the topic has been done.
So what is ‘mindfulness’ anyway? One of the controversies in the scientific research literature is precisely the vagueness of this term, but what is clear is that it originates out of practices taught by the Buddha as recorded in the literature of early Buddhism. Mindfulness meditation in Buddhism is taught as a tool for the attainment of liberation from suffering and as a means of ethical development, goals which are not distinct from one another. One of the most important early Buddhist texts is precisely the Discourse on the Establishment of Mindfulness, in which the Buddha teaches particular techniques which produce a non-judgemental awareness of the mind and body (or rather, the mind-body complex, as Buddhism rejects Cartesian dualism), free from desire and aversion. I won’t go into the exact details of the practice for the sake of brevity but suffice to say that mindfulness in its original context is not a politically neutral practice: it is a tool taught and practised by Buddhists in order that all sentient beings might liberate themselves and others from suffering.
It is all the more remarkable then — although perhaps not surprising — that mindfulness in the West has been forced into an unholy relationship with worker exploitation, racism and state violence. An article on Psychology Today tells me to ‘Meditate Just Like The U.S. Marines’, the writer presenting, shockingly oblivious to the irony, the image of a group of Marines meditating, ‘M16 rifles […] slung across their backs’. There is now a ‘Mind Fitness Training Institute’ that teaches the somewhat grotesquely named ‘Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training’ or ‘MMFT®’ to its clients, who include ‘Military service-members’, ‘Law enforcement officers’ and ‘Corporate executives’. Let me make myself clear: these jobs often involve experiencing incredible trauma and suffering and by no means would I oppose, say, soldiers being taught mindfulness practices to alleviate the symptoms of PTSD, or police officers who want to find a way to remain calm and present in dangerous situations. But if you are trying to use mindfulness practice to help you become more effective at the killing of foreign Others, or to rack up yet higher numbers in the continuing mass incarceration of black and brown people (which is indeed what mindfulness is often used for, as is shown by testimonials from members of the military and police), then, yes, I reserve the right to accuse you and the institutions to which you belong of the most abject and disgraceful cultural appropriation. Apparently, now you can be racist, but mindfully.
I am not concerned with whether or not people who practise mindfulness decide to call themselves Buddhists, or how extensive their knowledge of Buddhism is. It is, simply, a question of suffering: how you choose to act in relation to that suffering; and your collaboration with, or resistance to, the systems that produce it. Many Westerners have had profoundly positive experiences with mindfulness meditation, and my point is certainly not to accuse them all of racism and cultural appropriation. I think the growth of Buddhist practices of mental training in the West are a wonderful development in the history of Buddhism, regardless of whether or not they are practised by people who agree with the finer points of Buddhist philosophy. What I simply want to draw attention to is, rather, the hypocrisy involved in trying to use mindfulness to oil the wheels of large-scale systemic racism and economic exploitation.
It is also worth asking why mindfulness is being so keenly offered to the agents of state and economic violence while hardly any interest is shown to providing ‘Mind Fitness Training’ to those on the receiving end: prisoners, survivors of sexual violence, queer and trans people, undocumented immigrants, etc.
Moreover, upon Googling ‘mindfulness’, I find that within the last week, an article has been published in the Guardian with the headline ‘Mindfulness, purpose and the quest for productive employees’. Modern capitalism has distorted a practice aimed at compassionate action and joyful living into a stress-reduction tool to squeeze more labour out of employees. What a surprise.
Western Buddhists, overwhelmingly white, middle-class and politically complacent, have in general been content to sit back as Western discourse around mindfulness is used to prop up worker exploitation, state violence and imperialism (with some notable exceptions, such as the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the Speculative Non-Buddhists); and Western books on mindfulness, including those written by academics and professionals in psychiatry and psychology, are full of the kind of exploitative rhetoric that individualizes all stress, anxiety and depression to the laziness or weakness of the worker, rather than situating suffering subjects within the unjust socioeconomic conditions that produce them.
Mindfulness practice in the modern West is, then, a site of enormous contradictions, and we are already seeing the cracks of these contradictions open up as more research is done into the actual effects it has on people. It is not uncommon to read of people having unwanted and unexpected experiences as a result of mindfulness meditation: people who just want to reduce stress end up also experiencing depersonalizations (the dissolution of a sense of self); those who want to become more successful earners may end up developing a profoundly active sense of compassion, deflecting them from their original goals. Within the Buddhist tradition, these are not only expected but also marks of spiritual development, but they quickly come to seem like problems if we have decided to instrumentalize mindfulness as a capitalist productivity tool. There is a fundamental tension between the narrow directedness of mindfulness as a tool for increasing workers’ productivity and efficiency; and the expansive nature of the Buddha’s teachings: insight into the fundamental nature of reality, the transformation of one’s sense of being in the world, perfect selflessness as a result of the destruction of the illusion of the essential self, or anatta.
While I welcome and celebrate the growth of Buddhism in the global North, the phenomenon of Western Buddhism needs to be situated within the context of histories of imperialism, class oppression and epistemic violence. Some Western Buddhist teachers are still liable to spout Orientalist nonsense, such as that their thinking is a wholesome marriage of ‘Eastern mysticism’ and ‘Western rationality’, and Buddhism in the West remains largely inaccessible to those without the privileges of disposable incomes and a considerable degree of formal education. Mindfulness practices have been brazenly manipulated for the sake of violent ends, but, as the Western academic establishment is beginning to realize, the calm, compassionate mind is ultimately uncontainable and unpredictable in the paths that it follows.
As anti-racists of all stripes, Buddhists and non-Buddhists, we must voice our opposition to the commodification and appropriation of Asian cultural traditions towards ends fundamentally opposed to the impulse they embody, that of love. In continuing with the decolonization of knowledge, we can liberate ourselves and others, which is, after all, the ultimate end of the Buddhist project.