Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Justin Whitaker - 2013 as the Year of Mindfulness: Critics and Defenders

Over at his Patheos blog, American Buddhist Perspective, Buddhist scholar and philosopher Justin Whitaker examines 2013 as the year of mindfulness. Is mindfulness the wonderful tool Western psychology takes it to be, or are there deeper issues to be considered around skillful means and the ultimate nature of suffering?

Justin offers a great overview of this debate. Here are the first few paragraphs - follow the links to read the whole article.

2013 as the Year of Mindfulness: Critics and Defenders

December 21, 2013 
By Justin Whitaker

Those who have followed ‘mindfulness’ in the Western Buddhist world in recent months have noticed a rising debate between those who find it useful on the one hand and those who question it from a variety of perspectives on the other. This all seems to have blown up with the July 1st article by Ron Purser and David Loy in the Huffington Post titled “Beyond McMindfulness.” There they wrote:

Suddenly mindfulness meditation has become mainstream, making its way into schools, corporations, prisons, and government agencies including the U.S. military. Millions of people are receiving tangible benefits from their mindfulness practice: less stress, better concentration, perhaps a little more empathy. Needless to say, this is an important development to be welcomed — but it has a shadow.
This shadow, they continued, could be found in the facts that:
  1. none of the claims about mindfulness’s system-changing potential (such as making companies kinder or more compassionate) have been empirically tested, and
  2. stripping mindfulness from its (Buddhist) ethical foundations may simply allow it to be used to reinforce greed, aversion, and delusion (the three roots of suffering that Buddhists seek to eliminate).
(I mentioned their piece in a broader discussion of Buddhism in America here, but didn’t get into the arguments themselves)

Christopher Titmus, himself a well known meditation teacher and writer, also wrote a lengthy cautionary article the same month: The Buddha of Mindfulness. A Stress Destruction Programme. While he supported teaching mindfulness for its power to help individuals, he likewise noted that mindfulness, defined as the “paying of attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental way” simply “leaves individuals in the company grappling with their stress while ignoring the larger picture of corporate politics as expression of need for change may appear judgemental.” Purser and Loy likened this to past corporate movements that “came to be referred to as ‘cow psychology,’ because contented and docile cows give more milk.”

The implication in both cases seems to be that mindfulness itself is value-neutral, and yet it is being reported (by the media) and sold (by at least some ’mindfulness’ authors, teachers, coaches, and gurus) as good in itself. Titmus writes:

I shook my head in disbelief when I read that mindfulness “almost subversively intends to create much greater transformation toward wise action, social harmony and compassion.”

To such claims, I would respectfully ask: “Show me the evidence of a political party, a single corporation or army unit that has truly transformed itself in terms of action, workers/families’ rights and compassion due to a mindfulness course in the past 30 years of mindfulness programmes.
That quotation comes from author Elisha Goldstein in “The Now Effect: How This Moment Can Change the Rest of Your Life” which is endorsed by a veritable who’s who of the mindfulness world (Jack Kornfield, Tim Ryan, Tara Brach, Chade-Meng Tan, Sharon Salzberg, [Patheos contributor] Rick Hanson, and others).

Read the whole interesting article.

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