The Mindfulness craze

I wrote this in 2015 but it sounded too much like a conspiracy theory. Now that the Guardian has published an article actually entitled the Mindfulness conspiracy, I thought I’d add my insider angle from someone who’s gone through the process of changing her whole life to fit a different worldview and changing it back again. 

Tl;dr: Funding for campaign for Mindfulness comes from sources with an interest in spreading a Buddhist worldview. Changing a worldview isn’t exactly conducive to an easy life and definitely should not be sold as a cure for mental health problems.

Mindfulness. It is everywhere.

That’s great, isn’t it? We’re all gonna be so much happier.

From “A study on Transcultural Mindfulness (TM)”:

“Mindfulness” is a critical term in contemporary psychology and medicine. The Western psychological definitions of mindfulness and the practical applications in diverse clinical settings are built on the ancient Indian, particularly Buddhist, ideas on mindfulness meditation. The probably earliest systematically developed psychological understanding of Buddhist mindfulness (Pāli sati, Buddhist hybrid Sanskrit smṛti) can be found in the indigenous Buddhist psychology (BP) of the Pāli canon. The concept of sati is the foundation for the current Western clinical developments and discourses.

As someone who has been spending a huge part of her life trying to live according to a very similar, Indian philosophy, I would take the view that this should be made clear. The entire structure of the philosophy that Mindfulness is based on is hugely different to our Western way of thinking. In every detail. Approaching life from the perspective of that worldview is not a simple switch, it involves a lot of quite hard work to change every one of your thought processes.

But surely none of the people going to a mindfulness course to help with their mental health problems take that approach. They’ll be fine.

When something that’s been recommended to you by the NHS and your HR department doesn’t seem to work, intelligent people have the tendency to try harder, find out more about it, go deeper. Which is fine if what you set out to do is to change your entire life. If you’re already unwell and just expect to be made to feel better, that is a different question.

Ok so why is everyone recommending it all over the place?

I wonder exactly the same. First of all, it isn’t sold to us as anything that should change our lives. It’s just supposed to help us live better.

From the “Mind guide to Mindfulness“: (Mind is the largest mental health charity in the UK):

Mindfulness originates in Buddhism, but being mindful is a skill that anyone can learn. You do not have to be spiritual, or have any particular beliefs, to try it.

Where did this current dumbed-down blanket approach in the huge push for Mindfulness in the UK originate? I’ve had a look at the 43 page report ‘Mindful Nation‘ by the Mindfulness All-Parliamentary Group. It contains exactly zero philosophy.

If anyone knows any of the members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness (here they are in Hansard), we could ask them if they had a philosophy lecture.

The main driver behind getting the matter to Parliament seems to be the Mindfulness Initiative, where Jon Kabat Zinn pops up for the first (and not the last) time. The source of academic arguments for Mindfulness as the solution to all mental health problems is the Oxford Mindfulness Centre.

The Oxford Mindfulness Centre started with three psychologists, Zindel Segal, Mark Williams and John Teasdale, developing the system of mindfulness taught in UK healthcare, “Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)“, on the the basis of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Jon Kabat-Zinn found Zen at MIT in the early seventies and continued to learn from various Buddhist teachers. (So much for all of this having absolutely nothing to do with religion.)

Mark Williams moved to Oxford and took up a Wellcome Trust funded Principal Research Fellowship, starting a team there.

Then this happened:

In 2006 Mark Williams was approached by Professor Richard Gombrich of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, the Venerable Kammai Dhammasami and Mr Geoffrey Bamford, founder of the Society for the Wider understanding of Buddhism (So-Wide). They proposed a collaboration to support the wider dissemination of the benefits of mindfulness as proven by scientific research.

(It’s since been removed from the website but I decided to leave the quote here. When these institutions tidy up their history, it’s worth someone keeping a record.)

Ok, wait. The Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies sounds a bit like the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. I expect they are all very authoritative, academically neutral institutions, right?

Well, the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies is the Hare Krishnas, and the local professor, who conducted his research there and has a D.phil from Oxford University, now teaching religion around the world (Univ of Florida, Gainesville, and Hong Kong), is an active ISKCON guru.

Wait, what?

From the Board of Governors Handbook, Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies:

The Centre began its life at 63 Divinity Road, in East Oxford. This property was provided rent-free by the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, Sweden. It now serves as student accommodation for Gaudiya Vaishnava students of the Centre.

I went there a lot to see the local professor before I left that scene, because he was my guru. So I know it well.

But you don’t know that much about the Buddhist Centre?

I don’t. But I know about the “Hindu” Centre. The director is Irish and always uses his Hare Krishna name. All the lectures for the “friends” are by ISKCON members. Some using their Hare Krishna names (like Anuradha Dooley), some not (like Rembert Lutjeharms) but they all go by them in the community, and the intention is always to show how intellectual the Hare Krishna philosophy really is. From that we can at least draw a conclusion about the standard of Oxford University in accepting religious institutions as credible academic partners.

But if it’s so obviously shady that you can find out just by doing a bit of research online, why is it still going?

That is the question.

5 responses to “The Mindfulness craze

  1. I don’t know – this doesn’t seem that shady to me. And I don’t think that it is fair to assume that the Oxford Buddhist Centre is exactly the same as the Oxford Hindu/Hare Krishna Centre, if you don’t know anything about the Oxford Buddhist Centre. That’s a bit like saying that you know what the Oxford Quaker Centre is like because you know what the Oxford Evangelical Centre is like.
    And Oxford University has always used religious institutions as its academic partners – its Foundations are all Christian, Christian funded, Christian named colleges etc. And of course there are plenty of scientists there with very strong faiths of all kinds, which doesn’t make them worse scientists. That is just to do with academic rigour.
    As you quoted, they proposed “A collaboration to study the wider dissemination of mindfulness beliefs *as proved by scientific research*.” Surely the last bit cancer something particularly when taking in consideration with other credible work by respected scientists like Goleman and Davidson at Harvard (both practising Buddhists I believe, which led them to trying to understand the neurological & psychological effects of meditation states)).
    There has been plenty of this kind of work trying to apply scientific rigour to the study of meditation in therapy and neuroscience, without the mumbo-jumbo.
    I am actually reassured by the fact that there is no mention of any religion or creed in the Parliamentary work, rather than seeing it as a sinister cover-up. There is a neurological psychological effect here which has some benefits – why should we ignore that just because it sometimes gets bundled up with religious beliefs, If we are applying scientific rigour to it? Or are you just assuming that anybody using mindfulness in this way is doing so in bad faith as a Trojan horse for Buddhist evangelism?
    Wow – I wrote a lot more than I expected, using Dictate and I’m sorry if this comes across as cross at all – I’m not, just had all of these thoughts immediately in response to reading your argument here.
    Personal context: i’m not a practising Buddhist or any other religion, or an atheist. I grew up CofE before realising I didn’t believe in God in my teens and have listened in the last year to a lot of hours of Buddhist teachings by a western teacher who interests me. Hence my interest in this here. But I don’t think that invalidates my argument about scientific process being applied to study of meditation’s social benefits any more than I think it does Goleman etc. You may disagree!

  2. God, I just read that Guardian article. Straw man nonsense. The central conceit is that mindfulness is enabling capitalism, by teaching people to accept it and not be stressed by it.
    “Mindfulness is positioned as a force that can help us cope with the noxious influences of capitalism. But because what it offers is so easily assimilated by the market, its potential for social and political transformation is neutered. Leaders in the mindfulness movement believe that capitalism and spirituality can be reconciled; they want to relieve the stress of individuals without having to look deeper and more broadly at its causes.”
    This is absolute nonsense, its claims baseless and its thesis ideological cruelty. Not only have I never met or read a mindfulness leader who believes this, but worse this is like saying that people shouldn’t take painkillers in response to chronic long term pain because they need the pain to understand what is causing it so that they can fix it.
    It accuses mindfulness of cruelty, while being actually cruel itself by suggesting that people should suffer nobly and not use something that can alleviate the pain (caused by a system they live within and over which they have no control) – its argument is that addressing people’s depression, stress and pain is a cop out, and that the only worthy answer to capitalism is revolution prompted by stress. By this argument, all forms of counselling and therapy are decadent weakness which should be denied in order to force an anti-Capitalist future. Jesus.
    When actually, clearly mindfulness makes people respond *less* to the shallow ephemeral temptations of capitalism, because they don’t need to dull their psychic existential pain by buying the next shiny thing.
    The whole central section where the journalist describes the methodology of Krok’s McDonald’s, and then goes on to suggest that any packaged training scheme is like that, is just childish strawman nonsense.

  3. “As someone who has been spending a huge part of her life trying to live according to a very similar, Indian philosophy”

    At the risk of sounding overly critical, it is typical for a Westerner engaging in Eastern philosophy or spirituality to become harshly critical of others doing the same. “My Hinduism/Buddhism/Taoism/Otherism is better than yours” is quite common.

    While I agree that understanding Eastern philosophy and spirituality is a radically different perspective than what is found in the West, most antagonists of this “Mindfulness Movement” (whatever that truly means) tend to be just as dogmatic as the view they construct and critique.

    • The point is that this stuff is not sold as “here, we will show you how to change how you function on a very deep level, it’s going to be hard work and it might not even get you to where you want to be”. It’s sold as “here, this is very simple and will make you happy” to people who are struggling and sometimes seriously unwell.

      And when I say “tried to live according to a different way of thinking”, all my writing in this blog is about recovering from that and getting my ability to process my own emotions back. My thoughts are that Eastern philosophies with their “emotions and, in fact, everything is an illusion” might not really help people with their mental health problems but in fact make them worse.

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