In his new book, McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, Ron Purser contends that mindfulness dulls our social awareness and discourages us from taking action. Thought leader Andy Lee explores why Purser missed every opportunity to prove those points.
Despite its ever-growing popularity and mounting evidence of its benefits, mindfulness as it is being taught today is not without its critics. Ron Purser is one of them. In his book, Purser assesses the contribution that mindfulness is making in helping people to reduce their stress and enhance their well-being, and finds it wanting.
His main concern is not what mindfulness does, but what it doesn’t do. In his estimation, much of people’s suffering is not caused by how they manage stress internally, but rather by the hardships and inequities imposed upon them by our capitalist society. To Purser, mindfulness courses are advertised as a meaningful and sustainable way to reduce your stress. But as long as the social and economic causes of stress are not discussed in mindfulness courses, they are not living up to this billing. In his words:
“Reducing suffering is a noble aim and it should be encouraged. But to do this effectively, teachers of mindfulness need to acknowledge that personal stress also has societal causes. By failing to address collective suffering, and systemic change that might remove it, they rob mindfulness of its real revolutionary potential, reducing it to something banal that keeps people focused on themselves.”
That is a strong indictment of a practice that has been beneficial to countless people. To better understand it, we need to look at Purser’s argument from a few different angles. And to get started, let’s look at the big picture: What do we know about the causes of people’s stress and illness, and what mindfulness does and does not address?
The Causes of Stress and the Sources of Well-Being
Purser’s contention that much of our stress is caused by social factors is supported by research. Researchers have identified five Determinants of Health as follows:
- Genetics and biology—age, sex, and genetic/inherited conditions
- Individual behavior and habits—diet, activity, hygiene, and alcohol and drug use
- Availability, cost, and quality of health services
- Social factors including education, housing, employment, and exposure to violence, crime, and discrimination
- Government policies, including taxation and incentives
Among these, the social determinants of health (SDOH) have gotten a lot of attention. In fact, researchers believe that they have a bigger impact on your health than the quality of health care that you receive.
The greatest contribution of mindfulness is in the area of individual behavior. Mindfulness helps people to come off autopilot and as they do, they begin to pay closer attention to their habits. As a result, people make wiser choices in how they care for themselves. In fact, mindfulness has been applied quite effectively to help people quit smoking and improve their eating habits.
But besides enabling habit change, mindfulness also has a direct effect on health and well-being. Mindfulness practice helps to bring the body back into physiological balance by reducing the heart rate and blood pressure. It also helps people to become more aware of their emotions, and to manage them more skillfully, in a way that also reduces stress.
While mindfulness practice can’t address the social determinants directly, it can help to mitigate their effects. For example, mindfulness practice can help children who live in volatile home or social environments to manage this stress more effectively, and thereby improve their social relations and their performance in school. While this is addressing the outcomes of social stressors rather than the cause, it still offers tangible benefits to students.
Your Stress Level is Not All Your Fault
Despite this interest in the social causes of stress and illness, Purser points out that popular culture seems to be heading in the other direction – it is personalizing stress, and portraying it as a purely personal responsibility. Recent years have seen an explosion of self-help books and apps for happiness and well-being. Companies have also contributed to this by offering diet and exercise programs to help employees “take charge” of their own well-being.
Despite this interest in the social causes of stress and illness, Purser points out that popular culture seems to be heading in the other direction – it is personalizing stress, and portraying it as a purely personal responsibility.
This message of personal responsibility has a positive component. It empowers us to take action and change what we can about our well-being. However, the other side of this message is: if you’re feeling stressed out burned out or unhappy, don’t blame your employer, your social conditions or your political system. Your well-being is nobody’s responsibility but your own. Don’t worry about working two jobs and 12-hour days—that’s just the way life is these days, you can’t change it. Just focus on your daily steps, keep a gratitude journal, and eat more superfoods and you’ll be fine.
This dynamic can perhaps be most clearly seen in the corporate world. A company’s leadership may impose reorganizations, and staff and budget cutbacks with little apparent regard for the human cost. At the same time, embattled employees are offered various programs to help them reduce their stress and improve ‘engagement’.
The health toll that management practices takes on employee health is documented by Jeffrey Pfeffer, who equates it to sharing an office with a smoker. It is high time companies recognize employees as true stakeholders in the enterprise, and that employees also take it upon themselves to call out excessively stressful working conditions when they occur.
Self-Awareness Is Not Self-Centeredness
Given the real impact that people’s workplaces and social environments have on their well-being, what role can mindfulness play in calling this out and helping to address it? Purser argues that mindfulness training is not only incomplete by excluding these topics, it is actually a barrier to raising awareness of the social causes of stress and suffering:
“…the mindfulness movement’s reinforcement of Western individualism seems more like an entitled, self-centered, and myopic path to happiness. A stress-free life is yours for the taking, within a protective bubble that screens out the cries of the world.”
Purser believes that since mindfulness focuses on how people manage stress internally, it makes them more self-involved and less interested in changing their external circumstances. In addition, it disconnects people from the world around them and the troubles of others. As a result, people are less likely to advocate for positive change in their workplaces and communities. Unfortunately, this argument demonstrates both a misunderstanding of the essence of mindfulness, and also runs counter to the relevant research.
This argument demonstrates both a misunderstanding of the essence of mindfulness, and also runs counter to the relevant research.
Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges from paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” When we practice mindfulness meditation, this awareness is often focused internally, such as on our breath or our physical sensations. But it would be a mistake to confuse self-awareness with self-centeredness.
By sitting in silence, mindfulness meditation exposes the constant procession of self-referential stories that pre-occupy our minds and cloud our perception. As a result, we learn to take our thoughts, and ourselves, a little less seriously. We also learn to recognize and set aside our own biases and assumptions when we interact with the world, and instead to pay closer attention to what’s actually going on around us. In this way, mindfulness practice actually makes us less self-centered, and more curious and engaged in our surroundings.
Consistent with this, researchers have found that mindfulness reduces bias and discrimination. In an online money lending game, people who had taken a mindfulness course lent significantly more money to people of another race than those who hadn’t. Mindfulness may also help us to be more ethical and compassionate. People higher in mindfulness cheat less on exams, and are twice as willing to help someone in pain.
On a personal note, I would add that in my own experience teaching mindfulness both in workplaces and in the community, I have seen no evidence of people becoming self-absorbed, complacent or disengaged. Instead, mindfulness gives people the mental space to see things differently, and discover new possibilities for dealing with challenges that they were otherwise to stressed out or too checked out to see. And it gives them the emotional resilience to have challenging conversations and make difficult decisions that they have been denying or avoiding.
On the other hand, if there is anything that supports Purser’s contention that mindfulness dulls our social awareness and discourages us from taking action, either in the research or in his own experience, he does not present it.
The Power to Change That Which Causes Suffering
How can mindfulness training most effectively relieve people’s stress and suffering? Purser contends that it should help participants identify all the sources of their stress and suffering, and then encourage them to become socially active in order to change them.
While this is a worthy goal, achieving it at the scale at which mindfulness is being consumed today would be a challenge. As we all know, simply learning the principles and practices of mindfulness is no small task. It takes regular practice and some determination to simply learn to bring an open, non-judgmental awareness to one’s experience.
Unfortunately, Purser offers no guidance in this area. While I had high hopes that the last chapter of his book would offer such a proposal, it did not. Curiously, Purser seems to be aware of this expectation, even though he fails to meet it. He quotes one mindfulness teacher at a conference asking him, “Well, what is it you want us to do differently?” Another asks him, “Are you ever going to be anything other than a crank?”
Thankfully, others in the mindfulness community are already offering such courses. The Engaged Mindfulness Institute offers teacher training for a mindfulness-based approach to social justice and change; USF Law Professor Ronda Magee offers workshops nationally on mindfulness, bias, and racism; and the Garrison Institute hosts many retreats that bring a contemplative approach to social action. How these methods might be integrated into a course for the general public is an open question.
What McMindfulness Misses
In the end, McMindfulness comes up short in several areas. Perhaps the most pervasive issue is that his arguments throughout are largely abstract and lack any form of support, whether it be academic research or first-hand observations. Does mindfulness practice make people more complacent and self-centered? Does it suppress social activism? Purser ruminates extensively about these claims, which are central to his thesis. But in the end they go unsupported by any evidence, while opposing evidence that is readily accessible, is ignored.
A similar pattern is seen in the lack of any tangible recommendations for change. What a powerful book this might have been, had Purser ventured beyond criticizing the status quo to offering a plan for improvement. Purser sticks to his well-worn talking points, which he has been sounding since 2013.
There is another issue with this book that I hesitate to bring up, yet it needs to be addressed: It is its tone, which veers regularly into condescension and careless hyperbole. When attending an MBSR course, he comments that “mindfulness interventions have a Puritan obsession with controlling emotions,” which sounds catchy but is patently inaccurate. When talking about mindfulness conferences, he asserts that “Using mindfulness to shore up class power requires a great deal of media hype and mass enthusiasm,” without specifying who is guilty of shoring up class power and how. I could go on. Even when he makes valid points, Purser’s language, including references to the ‘mindful jet set’ and its ‘overlords’, can undermine his arguments.
Purser saves his sharpest barbs for Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is compared to none other than Donald Trump. First, he criticizes Trump for displaying “dishonesty, hypocrisy, arrogance, greed, short-sightedness, racism, hatred, fear, self-centeredness and stupidity… without a trace of conscience… [and] encourage[es] his followers to celebrate and embrace vice as virtue.” Then, this:
“Despite the apparent sincerity of his intentions, Jon Kabat-Zinn does something similar. Having secularized mindfulness to help patients face chronic pain, he sells it as a global panacea. We are simply told to focus on the present, ignoring the long-term effects of our behavior. Abstaining from being “judgmental,” we are invited to abandon ethical discernment. Just like Trump, the mindfulness movement promotes moral ambiguity to help us feel better. Both reflect the triumph of narcissism in American culture.”
Purser would be hard-pressed to find a place where Jon Kabat-Zinn asks people to abandon ethical discernment. While there may be a broader point embedded in the midst of this mischaracterization, I wonder whether Purser might have found a more charitable way to make it, given the immense benefit that Jon Kabat-Zinn and his programs have brought to countless people. Mindfulness is certainly not a panacea. In addition, how it is taught today is far from perfect. In fact, there are important issues in the field that are not even addressed here – teacher credentialing, for one. Yet mindfulness offers so much to so many, in terms of a refuge from stress and pain, and a powerful set of skills and practices to navigate our lives. That is why it deserves a more thoughtful and constructive critique than McMindfulness.