The Mindfulness Racket

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The Mindfulness Racket

Postby WASW » Mon Feb 24, 2014 10:32 pm

An interesting article from the New Statesman

In yet another sign that the new age lingo of the 1960s is still very much with us, “mindfulness” has become the new “sustainability”: no one quite knows what it is, but everyone seems to be for it. It recently made the cover of Time magazine, while a long list of celebrities - Arianna Huffington, Deepak Chopra, Paolo Coelho - are all tirelessly preaching the virtues of curbing technology-induced stress and regulating the oppressiveness of constant connectivity, often at conferences with titles like “Wisdom 2.0.”

The embrace of the mindfulness agenda by the technology crowd is especially peculiar. Consider Huffington, whose eponymous publication has even launched a stress-tracking app with the poetic name of “GPS for the Soul” - a new app to fight the distraction caused by the old apps - and turned the business of mindfulness into a dedicated beat. Or take Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, who has warned that we need to define times when we are “on” and “off” and announced his commitment to make his meals gadget-free. There are also apps and firms that, at a fee, will help you enforce your own “digital sabbath,” undertake a “digital detox,” or join like-minded refuseniks in a dedicated camp that bars all devices. Never before has connectivity offered us so many ways to disconnect.

In essence, we are being urged to unplug - for an hour, a day, a week - so that we can resume our usual activities with even more vigour upon returning to the land of distraction. Here the quest for mindfulness plays the same role as Buddhism. In our maddeningly complex world, where everything is in flux and defies comprehension, the only reasonable attitude is to renounce any efforts at control and adopt a Zen-like attitude of non-domination. Accept the world as it is - and simply try to find a few moments of peace in it. The reactionary tendency of such an outlook is easy to grasp. As the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek once quipped, “If Max Weber were alive today, he would definitely write a second, supplementary, volume to his Protestant Ethic, entitled The Taoist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism.” And what a wonderful Kindle Single that would make!

CEOs embrace mindfulness for the same reason that they embrace all the other forms of the “new spirit of capitalism,” be it yoga in the workplace or flip-flops in the boardroom: Down with alienation, long live transgression and emancipation! No wonder Huffington hopes that the pursuit of mindfulness can finally reconcile spirituality and capitalism. “There is a growing body of scientific evidence that shows that these two worlds are, in fact, very much aligned - or at least that they can, and should, be,” she wrote in a recent column. “So yes, I do want to talk about maximising profits and beating expectations - by emphasising the notion that what’s good for us as individuals is also good for corporate America’s bottom line.”

But couldn’t the “disconnectionists” - as one critic has recently dubbed this emerging social movement - pursue an agenda a tad more radical than “digital detoxification”? For one, the language of “detox” implies our incessant craving for permanent connectivity is a medical condition - as if the fault entirely resided with consumers. And that reflects a broader flaw in their thinking: The disconnectionists don’t seem to have a robust political plan for addressing their concerns; it’s all about small-scale individual action. “Individuals unplugging is not actually an answer to the biggest technological problems of our time just as any individual’s local, organic dietary habits don’t solve global agriculture’s issues,” complained the technology critic Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic.

Note that it’s the act of disconnection - the unplugging - that becomes the target of criticism, as if there are no good reasons to be suspicious of the always-on mode championed by Silicon Valley, what is called “real-time.” Madrigal, for example, draws an intriguing parallel between our attitudes to processed foods (once celebrated for their contribution to social mobility but now widely condemned, at least by the upper classes) and processed communications (by which, he means all digital interactions). Like processed foods, social media and text messages are increasingly perceived as inferior, giving rise to an odd form of technophobic - but extremely artisanal - living. As Madrigal sardonically observes, “[T]he solution is to make local friends, hang out organically, and only communicate through means your Grandma would recognise. It’s so conservative it’s radical!”

There’s some truth to this, but in their efforts to reveal the upper-class biases of the “digital detox” crowd—by arguing, for example, that the act of unplugging falls somewhere between wearing vintage clothes and consuming artisanal cheese - critics like Madrigal risk absolving the very exploitative strategies of Twitter and Facebook.

So far, our debate about distraction has hinged on the assumption that the feelings of anxiety and personal insecurity that we experience when interacting with social media are the natural price we pay for living in what some technology pundits call “the attention economy.”

But what if this economy is not as autonomous and self-regulating as we are lead to believe? Twitter, for instance, nudges us to check how many people have interacted with our tweets. That nagging temptation to trace the destiny of our every tweet, in perpetuity and with the most comprehensive analytics, is anything but self-evident. The business agenda is obvious: The more data we can surrender - by endlessly clicking around - the more appealing Twitter looks to advertisers. But what is in Twitter’s business interest is not necessarily in our communicative interest.

We must subject social media to the kind of scrutiny that has been applied to the design of gambling machines in Las Vegas casinos. As Natasha Dow Schüll shows in her excellent book Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, while casino operators want us to think that addiction is the result of our moral failings or some biological imbalance, they themselves are to blame for designing gambling machines in a way that feeds addiction. With social media - much like with gambling machines or fast food - our addiction is manufactured, not natural.

In other words, why we disconnect matters: We can continue in today’s mode of treating disconnection as a way to recharge and regain productivity, or we can view it as a way to sabotage the addiction tactics of the acceleration-distraction complex that is Silicon Valley. The former approach is reactionary but the latter can lead to emancipation, especially if such acts of refusal give rise to genuine social movements that will make problems of time and attention part of their political agendas - and not just the subject of hand-wringing by the Davos-based spirituality brigades. Hopefully, these movements will then articulate alternative practices, institutions, and designs. If it takes an act of unplugging to figure out how to do it, let’s disconnect indeed. But let us not do it for the sake of reconnecting on the very same terms as before. We must be mindful of all this mindfulness.

This piece originally appeared in the New Republic.


This piece articulates quite well the ways in which I feel quite uncomfortable in the way meditation is being pushed. Meditation has obviously been a great boon to my life, but I worry that when pushed outside of an ethical and contemplative tradition to work within it ultimately becomes pretty vacuous and perhaps socially dentrimental in some ways. I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on this.
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Re: The Mindfulness Racket

Postby dzogchungpa » Mon Feb 24, 2014 10:44 pm

I couldn't get through all that. Could you sum it up in 140 characters or less?
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Re: The Mindfulness Racket

Postby Wayfarer » Mon Feb 24, 2014 11:04 pm

What is depressing is the way people can make a racket, or a problem, out of anything whatever.

My wife was reading a book on 'positive psychology' a few years back, by Martin Seligman. She read me a bit of it, it seemed quite sound to me. But then I noticed criticisms of 'positive psychology' and for that matter 'positive thinking' on the grounds that it is shallow, and only serves to make people adjusted to an inequitable social order, and so on. (There were even books written on the value of negative thinking and how unrealistic it is to be happy.)

Maybe its something to do with capitalism, and particularly American capitalism. It will seize on any kind of idea and try and 'productize' it - turn it into a craze, like the Hula Hoop. Then all kinds of possibilities present themselves for marketing it and exploiting the various collateral ideas that are associated with it.

This is especially so in the area of the Search for Happiness. After all, the pursuit of happiness is written into the constitutions, so everyone knows how important it must be. So any product which expedites that search, must by definition be an important product.

Anyway, this isn't that new - note this Time magazine cover from October 1975:

Image

And despite all the hype, the influence of such ideas and practices on Western culture is genuinely profound, I'm sure.
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Re: The Mindfulness Racket

Postby dzogchungpa » Mon Feb 24, 2014 11:10 pm

The Gospel of Relaxation - William James:
http://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Pajares/jgospel.html
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Re: The Mindfulness Racket

Postby dzogchungpa » Mon Feb 24, 2014 11:21 pm

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Re: The Mindfulness Racket

Postby Wayfarer » Tue Feb 25, 2014 1:00 am

I use the Insight Timer. It is a pretty simple app but it has been beneficial for my practice. I find that as it keeps track of 'number of consecutive days' I have a slight, additional incentive to get up and sit instead of sleeping in.

(I'm looking around for some e-liturgical resources too.)

There used to be, in ancient India, travelling teachers who would go from place to place, bringing with them paintings which were depictions of various famous scenes from the scriptures. They would hang them up or put them on a stand and then talk about what was in them. They were known as 'picture-show-men'. So that was using technology to disseminate Dharma, even if the means - namely, painting - was not particularly 'high-tech'!
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Re: The Mindfulness Racket

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Tue Feb 25, 2014 5:17 pm

Well, yeah..this kind of thing is disturbing.

I've noticed on the side of critics though, a desire to quickly pigeonhole people involved in stuff like this into a definitive "sell out" camp, which doesn't seem to quite be the case to me.

Basically it's just like Yoga, once it gets removed from the larger framework of what it's about, the generic thing left over is very easy to make into a product. That said, let's be honest..there have been people marketing Buddhism proper as a product long before this happened, the difference is this now "mindfulness" is a separate, more flexible product for marketing.

I personally draw a huge distinction between something like mindfulness for genuine therapeutic purposes, and mindfulness as a kind of product akin to a relaxation massage...or a product to make employees more docile! You can certainly argue that one possibly led to another, but in practice they aren't the same, IMO.

Couple of observations:

-Ideas like "contemplative technology" are actually not bad, the desire to simplify software and change people's relationship to technology is IMO a good one, since it doesn't appear to be going away any time soon, and wreaks havoc with people's lives currently. I've read a couple books by folks like this, and I was surprised to find that as milquetoast as the idea seemed in some ways..I thought they had good ideas, and were onto something with merit. As he alludes to in the article though, I found myself wishing that the author of the latest book on the subject I read (The Distraction Addiction) would take his contemplation just a couple steps further...from simply trying to reset his relationship to technology to asking the bigger questions under the surface about just how valuable this life of constant busyness and acquisition is in the first place. Still, I found the book to have a positive message, a bit on the "lite" side I guess, but certainly nothing insidious.

-It is a positive thing that people are interested in meditation, the negative part is that they are interested in it for self-serving purposes, as a kind of leisure product. This is the default in our society though, something gets picked up so it'll make you better, smarter, faster, a more productive version of what you are..see if our own actions don't conform to that somewhat too, i'll bet they do.
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Re: The Mindfulness Racket

Postby daverupa » Tue Feb 25, 2014 5:40 pm

I thought the article was taking the current mindfulness fad(s) and using that to point up how modern livelihoods, generally and in thorough-going ways, facilitate subtle mental harms that e.g. McMindfulness gets sold as remedies for.

Instead, I think the article seems to say, the problem is that very modern livelihood; the very common, unexamined & on balance harmful modes of living which prevail these days are worth opening conversations about.
    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]
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Re: The Mindfulness Racket

Postby Jikan » Tue Feb 25, 2014 6:01 pm

I'm writing my dissertation on the cultural history of Mindfulness (tm): the transition from a specifically Buddhist practice to a means of performance enhancement or stress relief in health care, business, education, &c. Instrumental rationality...

It's hard to keep up with all the recent stuff that keeps coming out. Remember a few years ago when every book published was the Tao of Something? That's mindfulness now.
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Re: The Mindfulness Racket

Postby Qianxi » Tue Feb 25, 2014 6:17 pm

daverupa wrote:I thought the article was taking the current mindfulness fad(s) and using that to point up how modern livelihoods, generally and in thorough-going ways, facilitate subtle mental harms that e.g. McMindfulness gets sold as remedies for.

Instead, I think the article seems to say, the problem is that very modern livelihood; the very common, unexamined & on balance harmful modes of living which prevail these days are worth opening conversations about.


Yes, Statesman headline is "The mindfulness racket: the evangelists of unplugging might just have another agenda". I think the bit after the colon is the important bit.

Personally I don't see the mindfulness racket (faddish poor quality teaching at high price) as much of a problem. The problem is that we might be making life so stressful that everyone needs to regularly meditate just to stay sane.
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Re: The Mindfulness Racket

Postby daverupa » Tue Feb 25, 2014 6:23 pm

Jikan wrote:I'm writing my dissertation on the cultural history of Mindfulness (tm): the transition from a specifically Buddhist practice to a means of performance enhancement or stress relief in health care, business, education, &c. Instrumental rationality...

It's hard to keep up with all the recent stuff that keeps coming out. Remember a few years ago when every book published was the Tao of Something? That's mindfulness now.


Are you also looking into the Buddhist roots of DBT a la Marsha Linehan? CBT/MBSR/ACT as well, but DBT specifically, have probably had significant input into the phenomenon you're researching.

There's a growing wiki page on this as well.
    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]
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Re: The Mindfulness Racket

Postby WASW » Tue Feb 25, 2014 6:30 pm

Jikan wrote:I'm writing my dissertation on the cultural history of Mindfulness (tm): the transition from a specifically Buddhist practice to a means of performance enhancement or stress relief in health care, business, education, &c. Instrumental rationality...

It's hard to keep up with all the recent stuff that keeps coming out. Remember a few years ago when every book published was the Tao of Something? That's mindfulness now.


That sounds like it could be a really interesting thesis Jikan! Would you be able to post it on here when you're done please, or will the rules of your institution not allow that?
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Re: The Mindfulness Racket

Postby Qianxi » Tue Feb 25, 2014 6:32 pm

daverupa wrote:
Jikan wrote:I'm writing my dissertation on the cultural history of Mindfulness (tm): the transition from a specifically Buddhist practice to a means of performance enhancement or stress relief in health care, business, education, &c. Instrumental rationality...

It's hard to keep up with all the recent stuff that keeps coming out. Remember a few years ago when every book published was the Tao of Something? That's mindfulness now.


Are you also looking into the Buddhist roots of DBT a la Marsha Linehan? CBT/MBSR/ACT as well, but DBT specifically, have probably had significant input into the phenomenon you're researching.

There's a growing wiki page on this as well.

There was an interesting talk recently that touched on those links. In Australia with Stephen Batchelor, Prof Graham Meadows and Dr Maura Kenny. http://riaus.org.au/events/mindfulness/
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Re: The Mindfulness Racket

Postby Jikan » Tue Feb 25, 2014 7:07 pm

daverupa wrote:
Jikan wrote:I'm writing my dissertation on the cultural history of Mindfulness (tm): the transition from a specifically Buddhist practice to a means of performance enhancement or stress relief in health care, business, education, &c. Instrumental rationality...

It's hard to keep up with all the recent stuff that keeps coming out. Remember a few years ago when every book published was the Tao of Something? That's mindfulness now.


Are you also looking into the Buddhist roots of DBT a la Marsha Linehan? CBT/MBSR/ACT as well, but DBT specifically, have probably had significant input into the phenomenon you're researching.

There's a growing wiki page on this as well.


Sure, I've interviewed someone who went through a course in DBT. there's a clear continuity from Thich Nhat Hanh to Linehan which is interesting.
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Re: The Mindfulness Racket

Postby Jikan » Tue Feb 25, 2014 7:11 pm

WASW wrote:
Jikan wrote:I'm writing my dissertation on the cultural history of Mindfulness (tm): the transition from a specifically Buddhist practice to a means of performance enhancement or stress relief in health care, business, education, &c. Instrumental rationality...

It's hard to keep up with all the recent stuff that keeps coming out. Remember a few years ago when every book published was the Tao of Something? That's mindfulness now.


That sounds like it could be a really interesting thesis Jikan! Would you be able to post it on here when you're done please, or will the rules of your institution not allow that?


I should be able to post some selections at least. I'm early in the writing process (research is nearly done though), so it'll be some time before I'll have a decent manuscript.

Overall I've come to the conclusion that mindfulness' popularity now has everything to do with our historical moment: resources are scarce, expectations are lowering, tensions are rising, it's harder to find work and hence you have to hold onto whatever crappy job you have... which means you need tactics for mitigating this new thing we call "stress." (Note that the category of "stress" entered public discourse at about the same time mindfulness meditation became a secularized practice in the mid-1970s. the solution emerged coincidentally with the problem.) Personally, if it helps people to aspire to cause less harm and do more good, and I have reason to think it often does, then there's surely some value in it.

Thanks for your interest!
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Re: The Mindfulness Racket

Postby bob » Tue Feb 25, 2014 7:50 pm

Jikan wrote:(Note that the category of "stress" entered public discourse at about the same time mindfulness meditation became a secularized practice in the mid-1970s. the solution emerged coincidentally with the problem.)


Actually, back in 1951 Alan Watts published The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety -- a very influential and seminal work -- in which he recommended mindfulness-type methods, especially the practice of being present, as an antidote to the widespread perceived stressfulness of the times. Indeed, many writers characterized the dawn of the atomic age as a time of increasingly pervasive stressfulness, and a number of artistic productions and sociological papers took "The Age of Anxiety" as their title and theme.
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Re: The Mindfulness Racket

Postby dzogchungpa » Tue Feb 25, 2014 8:50 pm

Jikan wrote:Overall I've come to the conclusion that mindfulness' popularity now has everything to do with our historical moment: resources are scarce, expectations are lowering, tensions are rising, it's harder to find work and hence you have to hold onto whatever crappy job you have... which means you need tactics for mitigating this new thing we call "stress."

If Thanissaro Bhikkhu is to be believed, stress has always been central to Buddhism:
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/study/truths.html#first
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Re: The Mindfulness Racket

Postby Wayfarer » Tue Feb 25, 2014 9:47 pm

Access to Insight and its translators tend to translate dukkha as 'stress'. I don't think it conveys the depth of meanings of dukkha very well but then dukkha is one of those key Buddhist terms that is very hard to find a direct English equivalent for.

But, speaking of Thanissaro, I have found one of his typically insightful and erudite essays on just this topic, Untangling the Present: The Role of Appropriate Attention.

My observation is that the principle of mindfuless is simple, but the application is anything but. That is because 'mind' (as in 'conditioned mind') is thoroughly embedded in a cultural matrix which makes it practically impossible to comprehend and apply 'bare awareness' without considerable effort and application over long periods of time (as Thanissaro says above). I think it turns out that in order to benefit from it, you need to observe the basic precepts and commit to the kind of life within which the implications of mindfulness can be meaningfully understood and integrated. And if you do that, you have actually changed - it is no longer simply 'a technique' but 'the path of insight' and no longer a gimmick or a fad. Maybe that is why the better-known purveyors of 'secular mindfulness', such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mark Epstein, (and even Goenka) always include some form of Buddhist philosophy and reflection on values and how this all fits into the larger whole, as part of the curriculum.

Harking back to the Transcendental Meditation movement again (even despite its later shenanigans!) it started out as the simple idea of practicing two 20-minute periods of mantra meditation daily, as an introduction to meditation and spiritual awareness. And for a great many people, it actually worked, and led to a life-long engagement with meditation.
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Re: The Mindfulness Racket

Postby dzogchungpa » Tue Feb 25, 2014 10:07 pm

I was mentioning Thanissaro mainly as an example of the ubiquity of "stress", the word, these days. BTW there's a thread here:
http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=41&t=13538 on Thanissaro's book "Right Mindfulness: Memory & Ardency on the Buddhist Path".
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Re: The Mindfulness Racket

Postby Osho » Sat Mar 08, 2014 2:59 pm

http://bemindful.co.uk/

The ( UK) Mental Health Foundation hosts that useful site.
Mindfulness seems to be very fashionable at the moment in the UK.
Oxford University Department of Psychiatry is a major player.
Not sure about the 'racket' aspects.
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