So, we’re told that there’s a quite revolutions sweeping the Western world. It doesn’t seem to be the violent revolution of the desperate or distant franchise margins of society. Nor does it resemble the impassion conflict of religion’s fundamentalism. But rather it appears as a peaceful revolution being led by so called ordinary citizens. By which people seem to mean white, middle class Americans. The revolution doesn’t seem to require any particular change in values or economic systems, but simply involves our becoming able to relate to these differently with more patience, with more gentleness, and compassion.
In the words of US Congressman Tim Ryan, “The mindfulness movement is not quite as dramatic as the moon shot or the civil rights movement, but I believe in the long run it can have just as great an impact”.
For a revolution, this movement seems to show remarkable conservatism. The leading voices make no demands on followers to participate in activism, to launch political struggle, or to engage in class warfare. There are no millenarian cults, no mass suicides. There is nothing to televise. Instead in general, the literature suggests that capitalism is not really the problem. Indeed, it’s architectural embrace of liberalism is entirely consistent with the future society of peace and prosperity for all. The problem such as it is then, is that people in contemporary societies are suffering from what Jeff Wilson calls a Thinking Disease. The crisis is envisioned as being in the heads of individual people, not in the structure of and institutions of society per se.
In the words of one of the founders of modern secular mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn it’s as though societies themselves are suffering from a form of A D D.
And he says big time and in it’s most prevalent variant: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is getting worse day by day. In other words, the mindfulness revolution suggests that society’s sickness is not a material condition that should be treated by physical interventions at the barricades. The problem is not the distribution of wealth or justice per se. Rather, society is ailing psychically. It needs therapy. In a language of Thomas Chas and Robert Lang, the progenitors of anti-psychiatry, the patient requires a moral education to deal with the problems of living and not the violence of biomedical procedures. However, it’s not even that the envisioned revolution requires an ideological intervention to transform societal values.
Instead, it’s focused on the impact of changes in individual psychology. The mindfulness revolution does not aim as ideological change as much as it each of us becoming more in touch with more compassionate about our authentic selves and our genuine relationships with each other and with the institutions of society. The idea is that mindfulness will reinvigorate existing value structures by enabling a more authentic engagement with them. So, mindfulness will transform our society into a better version of itself. As Tim Ryan explains, “We don’t need a new set of values. I really believe we can reinvigorate our traditional, commonly held American values, such as self-reliance, perseverance, pragmatism, and taking care of each other, by adding a little more mindfulness to our lives.
In other words, from a certain stand point the circled revolution looks quite deeply conservative. Indeed, this Jeff Wilson has noted, the mindfulness literature is consistently conservative in its politics. Mindfulness authors expect change to come about slowly, peacefully, through the established ;political system. They rarely call for wholesale shifts to a totally new form of economic organization. A mindful America will be a consumerist, capitalist nation. In concrete terms, the mindfulness movement suggests that change is to be accomplished at the level of the individual. Social change will be the natural incremental result of individuals reaching more authentic and healthy understandings of their relationship with the way they feel and think about their possible material and changing place in society.
A good question at this point then, if so much is allowed to remain as it is, at least materially, is whether we’re really talking about a revolution at all. Indeed for Jon Kabat-Zinn, this revolution actually seems more like an evolution. He suggests a loosely teleological vision of human history in which the development of the mindful society is a natural outcome or perhaps the combination of the development of democratic societies. In a society founded on democratic principles and a love of freedom, sooner or later meditative practices. What are sometimes called the consciousness disciplines, are bound to come to the fore. It is part of the ongoing evolutionary process on this planet, which develops towards maximal individual self understanding and freedom.
So, the rationale behind this evolutionary vision seems to be that modern citizens have their authentic freedom compromised by being too attached to discriminatory thinking and rumination. They spend too much of their time lost in thought, ruminating about the past and the future. Worrying, dreaming, riddled with anxieties about things that are not happening and might never happen, they’re depressed and stressed and unhappy. Hence, the modern individual spends more of her life entrapped in her own abstractions than she does actually experiencing the world around her. In short, people today have learned thought patterns, that actually disconnect them from the world around them, and from the people around them. We’re all self alienated by our own cognitive patterns.
In other words mindfulness revolution seeks to pathologize and politicize certain patterns of thought. Suggesting that liberating ourselves from this schema will also emancipate our communities. Of course it’s not the case that the mindfulness movement demonizes all thought, only certain types of thought that involve the thinker in cycle of rumination. It’s not about or should not be about a self transformation into mindless zombies. Indeed as we’ve seen in this course, mindfulness training generally takes the form of therapeutic interventions designed to transform our thought processes from toxic into more healthy patterns, not to prevent thought processes altogether.
While the idea that particular styles of thinking can be pathologized that is made to seem like an illness with political significance evokes the controversial anti-psychiatry movement. One of the particular characteristics of the mindfulness movement is that it does not target an ostensibly deviant minority of individual for correction by authority, but instead asserts that it is the majority in society that is somehow muddle-headed and sick. The demonic or hegemonic mainstream discourse is actually the source of toxicity rather than the basis for rectification. In this case, the political relations implied by the political therapeutic model are not the personalized power relations of the center and periphery of society or even between state and society as suggested by the anti-psychiatrist.
But rather the disjunctions between the material conditions of capitalism and the psychic conditions of humanity in general. With a few invaluable exceptions we are all muddle headed about how to live in capitalism in a healthy way. We are all mal-adapted to our own civilization. So, from this perspective the mindfulness movement seeks to reveal and resolve a kind of false consciousness generated by the dynamics of capitalism itself.
One of the difficulties of this situation which has not been adequately addressed by the movement or by the scholarship concerns the political meaning and significance of this revolutionary or evolutionary therapeutic agenda. To some extent this question has simply not been asked by mindfulness authors or practitioners, because of the movement’s focus on the therapeutic efficacy or effectiveness at the level of the individual. However at the very least there are two political possibilities we’ll explore in the next session. The first, is that mindfulness enables a form of genuinely healthy authenticity that emancipates people from the suffering foisted on them by the inequalities of capitalism even while leaving the structures and institutions of capitalism materially unchanged and untouched.
The second, is that mindfulness functions as a form of secular religion within capitalism. A contemporary opiate for the people, if you like, serving as a new form of ideological domination that encourages and actually enables people to endure the alienating conditions of capitalism without calling for material revolution, redistribution, or institutional change. Now after sketching these two provocative possibilities for the revolution in the next session, we’ll then move on to consider some more specific issues and controversies in the relationship between mindfulness and society today. What kind of cases there from mindfulness in military action or violence more generally? What is the role in significance of mindfulness in educational environments?
And finally, what should we make is a way that mindfulness has been and continuous to be, Increasingly commodified and commercialized today.