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.
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.
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.
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.