A Mindful Response to Ronald Purser

Jul 2, 2019

We are writing to take exception to many of the claims made by Ronald Purser in his June 14, 2019 piece entitled “The mindfulness conspiracy.” Our critique extends to The Guardian itself, which appears to be supporting his book and making it available for sale. Overall, there is no empirical evidence and little substantiation for his claims that mindfulness and the mindfulness movement are engendering passivity and compliance in practitioners facing social systems of oppression. We would go so far as to say that it is irresponsible on the part of the author and of The Guardian to publish something so ill-informed and misleading about a practice with so much promise in the struggle against global epidemics of mental illness, depression, and stress.

We do agree with some of Purser’s points, including that the social change agenda is not explicitly taught in most mindfulness programs; however, that doesn’t mean that social engagement isn’t an effect of training in mindfulness. Nor do we refute that some ill-informed commentators may distort messaging about mindfulness, but such is the case with many rapidly popularizing practices. Furthermore, while Purser offers a credible critique of neoliberalism and capitalism, he does not offer a valid critique of mindfulness, at least the mindfulness movement beyond capitalist contexts like his own workplace: a US School of Business in San Francisco. Indeed, that the author opted to omit such key biographical data – his position and location as well as his training as a Zen Buddhist teacher – is itself problematic as it shrouds his potential bias in the commentary.

The secular or contemporary mindfulness movement is at heart a marriage between secular contemporary Buddhism and science, not capitalism as the author suggests. Indeed, his attempt to make mindfulness equivalent with what he refers to as “neoliberal mindfulness” is a forced and unconvincing association. As scholars and teachers of mindfulness, and Buddhism in the case of Dr. MacPherson, within higher education and community health promotion, we have experienced directly many of the key transitions of the “mindfulness” movement from its early Buddhist roots to the contemporary secular scientific program. The founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program that Purser critiques, Jon Kabat Zinn, was a Ph.D. biochemist, who introduced his program, adapted from Buddhism, in the continuing education programming of a medical school. He designed the 8-week MBSR program to help those with chronic illness and pain, not just stress; in this sense, it was intended as a medical treatment guided by scientific validation. These contexts drove its rising popularity, not corporate or capitalist adoption, appropriation, or misappropriation as the case may be. The intertwining of mindfulness and science is clearly congruent with western culture as evidenced by its rapid uptake into healthcare, education and the workplace.

Of most concern was the way Purser depicted the theoretical underpinnings of mindfulness, claiming that the “fundamental message” of mindfulness training is “…that the source of dissatisfaction and distress is in our heads.” First, even if this were true, this doesn’t mean this source is to be denigrated, viewed as less significant or real than a social source of dissatisfaction. That said, we have rarely if ever heard this explanation proposed in mindfulness training, studies, or teachings. Instead, the fundamental and consistent message of mindfulness training and of the mindfulness movement is that we are conditioned by multiple internal and external factors – physiological, psychological, social, cultural. Without awareness, these conditioned stimuli or stressors trigger habitual, automatic responses that often result in maladaptive or dysfunctional patterns that undermine our interests, broadly construed. The effect of such blind reactivity is to deepen and perpetuate suffering – not just our individual suffering either, but our collective suffering. Mindfulness, when taught as intended, does not create a passive, soporific population resigned to whatever context they find themselves inhabiting. Rather, its purpose is to increase self-efficacy and allow individuals to more skilfully address their difficulties whether they be personal, political or social. Mindful acceptance is not resignation but awareness: Mindfulness enables practitioners to de-center sufficiently to negotiate challenging situations and mind or mood states and to gain perspective, discerning what needs to be addressed and what does not. 

As an antidote to suffering, mindfulness trains us how to slow and expand the gap between stressor and response, how to be more aware and exercise more intention in our interactions and actions in the world. Rather than being a source of quietism, withdrawal, or complicity with sources of oppression like capitalism or neoliberalism, mindfulness is presented as an antidote and source of empowerment that can catalyse change within its multiple manifestations in our lives – personal, work-related, or political. The theory that awareness of oppression and suffering precedes transformative change is consistent with the critical theories Purser obliquely references (e.g, Giroux); these theories also posit the need for enhanced awareness, consciousness “raising,” and conscientization (Paulo Freire) as a key aspect of social change.

It is true that many mindfulness teachers don’t consider it necessary nor even ethical to propagate a particular theory of social critique in our teaching because we believe that the training in mindfulness itself will enhance the capacity of students to recognize and respond to oppression and suffering as they manifest diversely in their lives, not just in corporate workplaces but in relationships, families, other workplaces, and the community. Many other mindfulness teachers do integrate social critique in mindfulness training, or vice-versa, integrating mindfulness in courses on social critique. This is evidenced in the popularity, for example, of Berila’s (2016) text designed to teach diversity studies in higher education, Integrating Mindfulness in Anti-Oppressive Pedagogy. In this approach, students are supported to reflect with mindfulness on their own oppression to enhance their openness and empathy for the suffering and oppression of others.

Having participated in overpriced “mindful leadership” workshops designed for corporate audiences, the authors concur with Purser that there can be distortions in how mindfulness is taught and presented in corporate training; however, that is a critique of the culture of some forms of business education rather than a valid critique of mindfulness, which is to-date dominated by scientific and health discourses rather than corporate discourses. Many of these organizational or business programs are “mindfulness light;” they do not reflect the form of mindfulness taught in the MBSR or MBCT, for example, which much of the research on mindfulness is based.  

Even more troubling, Purser supports his critique of mindfulness by citing many old, white-male, left-wing critical intellectuals – e.g., Zizek, Bourdieu, Giroux – who have spent their working lives critiquing social systems in the refined light of academe with high salaries but little or no experience in either mindfulness or politics and activism on the ground. The mindfulness movement is dominated by women practitioners and teachers, so I wonder if these men even have the capacity to imagine or relate to the experiences and interests of these women. In Dr. MacPherson’s case, she has run for a social democratic party in a conservative riding, been an activist and activist leader, and worked for non-profit community organization. In all these experiences, she witnessed the high toll they exacted on the volunteers and underpaid workers through exposure to uncontrolled anger and aggression from within the organizations and without; through inadequate self-reinforced boundaries and self-compassion; and/or through inadequate compensation and resources. Mindfulness helps those of us who are activists address these challenges and stressors more effectively, which may explain why many activists practice mindfulness.

Likewise, if they aren’t already activists, many mindfulness practitioners become oriented on social change if they weren’t already. Recently, for example, the authors were invited to join a Mindfulness for Climate Justice network initiated by the Centre for Mindfulness Studies in Toronto to support the Fridays for the Future movement. Dr. MacPherson was invited to serve as a series editor for a new book series on mindfulness and social justice with DIO Press, a social justice publisher.

Yet, if activists become depressed (after all, 1 in 5 people will suffer a mental disorder in their lifetime), it is unlikely that they will engage in any effective social or organizational critique or action. Contrary to what Purser contends, mindfulness will not obstruct these people from advocating for corporate justice or change, depression will. Their most probable choices will be between medication or mindfulness-based programs  (e.g. MBCT – Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapies, CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or other structured psychotherapies). The World Health Organization (WHO)  reports that depression is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. More than 300 million people are now living with depression. Mounting empirical evidence suggests MBCT, CBT and maintenance anti-depressants are equally effective in preventing relapse.  MBCT is currently found in the NICE and CANMAT guidelines as an evidence-based treatment.

Purser fails to differentiate mindfulness programming used in mental health and health promotion, the education system, and the corporate sector. While we agree that within the corporate sector mindfulness is often used to download systemic problems onto the individual, Purser does not delineate between these varied contexts to which mindfulness is being applied, nor does he address the very real problem of mental illness and the potential role of mindfulness in treating mental disorders or problems. We don’t think the key role of mindfulness is to offer these people a language and theory for social critique so much as a quality of awareness to negotiate through the highly particularized forms of thinking, mood and internalized oppression that continue to limit their ability to act and rectify oppression, stigma and marginalization in their lives.

Purser disparages mindfulness teachers, referring to the “teacher’s embodiment of soft-spoken niceness.” Perhaps we have already disabused him of that generalization given this critique; if not, we would remind him that someone who deserves that description, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn, not Joh Kabat Zinn, has the most credible claim to have introduced mindfulness to the West. His 1975 book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, translated into English, is still available in print. In that text, Hanh advises that meditation should not lead to an escape from reality but to an increased awareness of reality, how mindfulness can be used by “social workers” and other social justice and compassionate workers in society. Nominated by Martin Luther King for a Nobel Peace Prize, Thich Nhat Hahn not surprisingly presents mindfulness as a key social justice practice. Furthermore, his presentation is consistent with the ensuing “mindfulness movement,” which he directly impacted and continues to impact.

Equally problematic in Purser’s argument is the premise that our theories and social critiques necessarily predict changes in behaviour and action. Research on implicit bias and implicit associations have demonstrated that our conscious views have limited relationship to the instantaneous judgements that drive our actions. Likewise, other research suggests that sustained mindfulness practices lead to more environmentally sustainable behaviours, not because participants necessarily intended to be environmentally responsible but because of their desire to sustain wellbeing. For example, Brown and Kasser (2005) found that mindfulness led to higher levels of subjective wellbeing (SWB), and that individuals with higher SWB reported more ecologically responsible behaviour (ERB). Although we need more research in this area, it points to the value of wellbeing as a motivator for change in human behaviour, something that seems to be lost or minimized in Purser’s critique of wellbeing.

Mindfulness is a highly inductive, not deductive, method; however, much of the critical discourse cited by Purser is strongly deductive, premised on the belief that changes in our theoretical beliefs will alter our behaviour. In mindfulness, we don’t teach theory and then ask students to put it into action. Instead, we teach tools to enhance awareness, which mindfulness theories, East and West, believe will give rise to insights that will help us struggle to become free from suffering, personal and collective. New programs are replicating these inductive programs to include compassion, such as Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) and Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) are complementing the mindfulness movement to intentionally foster more awareness of societal-rooted sources of suffering.

If Purser is going to make these claims that mindfulness, in its contemporary form, dulls the impetus for change and the willingness to act for change, he needs to offer more empirical evidence. Meanwhile, although we cannot offer counter-evidence suggesting it mobilizes social justice and activism in practitioners, we can look to our own 60+ years of experience within educational programs to train people in mindfulness, whether contemporary secular or Buddhist. This leads us to say with confidence that his critique is misguided and misleading.

Seonaigh MacPherson, Ph.D. Head, Department of Adult Education, Faculty of Professional Studies, University of the Fraser Valley; Coordinator of the Mindfulness-Based Teaching and Learning (MBTL) Graduate Certificate, the first accredited mindfulness graduate program in Canada (ufv.ca/mbtl). She is author of the 2011 Education and Sustainability and Series Editor Mindfulness-Based Teaching and Learning of the new DIO Press, a social justice press.

Patricia Rockman MD, CCFP, FCFP, Director of Education and Clinical Services, Centre for Mindfulness Studies; Associate Professor, University of Toronto, Department of Family Medicine and cross-appointed to Psychiatry. She is co-author of the 2019 Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy: Embodied Presence and Inquiry in Practice.

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