July 02, 2013

Trike Contributing Editor David Loy takes on "McMindfulness"

Alex Caring-Lobel

Over at the Huffington Post, Tricycle contributing editor David Loy and Ron Purser take on the trend of "McMindfulness," a quickly growing (and lucrative) industry slinging a form of secularized mindfulness deracinated from its ethical context. Proponents of mindfulness training often brand their teachings as Buddhist-inspired, the authors note, but in the same breath deny the practice's ties to its origins, assuring their corporate clients and sponsors that the technique is purely secular. While "uncoupling mindfulness from its ethical and religious Buddhist context is understandable...the rush to commodify mindfulnesss into a marketable technique" has a number of undesirable results.

While a stripped-down, secularized technique—what some critics are now calling "McMindfulness"—may make it more palatable to the corporate world, decontextualizing mindfulness from its original liberative and transformative purpose, as well as its foundation in social ethics, amounts to a Faustian bargain. Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.

Mindfulness consultants' unabashed focus on self-transformation has functioned to prop up the status quo rather than subvert it:

Bhikkhu Bodhi, an outspoken western Buddhist monk, has warned: 'absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.' Unfortunately, a more ethical and socially responsible view of mindfulness is now seen by many practitioners as a tangential concern, or as an unnecessary politicizing of one's personal journey of self-transformation.

Read the full article here.

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golson's picture

I read somewhere that many Western Buddhists actually started their journey toward Buddhism by first learning to meditate for relaxation or pain relief and had no knowledge or desire to learn of Buddhism when they started. That has been true for me too. I became interested in meditation because of the pain in my neck and found that it helped more than any other remedy. I actually resisted the idea of exploring Buddhism as a philosophy or religion because I thought it was a "fad" from the counter-culture of the 60's and 70's. (A 2500 year old fad --- ha ha.) I didn't want to follow a fad because I wanted to show that I was "independent." However, small ideas from Buddhist philosophy kept beckoning me and I struggled to do some intermittent meditation for pain and stress relief. With age and suffering, I came to read a few books and articles about Buddhism and found that it was what I had been searching for all along. I may not be as far along on the path as many but it has made a difference in my life. So, I see no problem with people starting wherever they are. If mindfulness meditation is helpful without the Buddhism, that's better than no mindfulness. In many cases, I believe it can and does lead to a deeper interest in Buddhism.

leebert's picture

Since when is activism, or major paradigm shifts, an absolute part of Buddhism? And what in the name of all that is holy does "neutered" mindfulness mean? Never mind whether his intent is on making "the best" the enemy of "the good," *whose* place is it to denigrate the practice of conscientious people embarking on the path?

"McMindfulness" as a term is, prima facie, an implicit slur meant to evoke prejudices against corporate trainers and their ilk. Why next thing you know & Zig Ziglar will be achieving Parinibbana in his tomb! The horrors, get Buffy & her wooden stake!

Since when was it ever said there perfect uniformity within Buddhism, amongst teachers as well as practitioners? And what varieties of the Dharma arise regardless, in varying degrees depending upon skill, inclination and time? Shall I lay claim to my bully pulpit to start inveighing against devotional Buddhism? That would be rude of me, yes?

Ahhh, but Buddhism is results-based, but promises nothing. Enter empiricism and the helping professions, and we have to see results. And indeed, there *are* results.

First and foremost, and more notably than even MBSR, Buddhism has been adapted via empiricism, in Dialectic Behavior Therapy (a Cognitive Behavior Therapy developed in the early- mid- 1990's). It was the prodigy of a young doctoral student working under the guidance and approval of her Zen master & her PhD committee, and it has resulted in ameliorating the abject suffering of countless individuals whose mental disorders condemned them to a 1:4 chance of suicide. Once undergoing this mindfulness therapy the odds improve drastically for these individuals (sufferers from Borderline Personality Disorder, or BPD), and saw improvement like no other prior cognitive-behavioral or psychotherapeutic regimen (reduction in suicide rates by an order of magnitude as opposed to other "talking" therapies).

It is indeed a secular mindfulness regimen, and it is quintessentially empirical, results-based, portable, culture-neutral, and it does not necessarily require meditation to work, although it teaches very much from the sense-perception or "noting" methodology of an amalgamation of Vipassana and Zen.

Now where have the Buddhist critics of the so-called "mindfulness industry" been during the development of this nascent, but fast-maturing new wave of Cognitive Behavior Therapy? Or for that matter, MBSR which again has been conscientiously developed to empirically deliver a portable Dharma to alleviate suffering? Where have these critics been to help promulgate life-enhancing and life-saving dharmic skills to a waiting world?

Like technology, the Dharma first and foremost is portable. Is it as ethics- and culture-neutral as the people employing it? Why I suppose the answer is "Yes." But then how many contemporary people in the world are in fact devoid of ethics? In other words as Mindfulness manifests itself, it is not very ethics-neutral at all (unless you want to claim that corporations are riven with sociopaths who'd rigorously meditate in order to hone their corporate sociopathy....).

And in fact, a recent study showed that samaritanship showed pronounced gains in people undergoing mindfulness training, completely secular from any other factors than the mindfulness training by a margin of 10:1. In other words compassion is innate to people, and given the opportunity to cultivate, engender it, we do.

But if I were to occasion the pages of Huff Po, Tricycle and other venues, I might come increasingly to find that this new empirically-backed and humanist dharma is increasingly being ridiculed by my fellows in the Dharma. Why? For what good is this lumping & splitting being conducted?

Whose agenda does this serve to label and asperse? It doesn't serve the Dharma that I can tell, and although it ranges from tepid critique to errant slurs, its tenor as of late has been more defensive, more aggressive, and less thoughtful. It smells of bailiwick, and rather rankly at that.

I find this an utterly unacceptable state of affairs, that a nascent, still-evolving secular and empirical dharma is being scrutinized to the point of having to justify itself against claims that it is mediocre, or worse DANGEROUS.

Whose sense of entitlement is being threatened to have to resort to such divisive statements, casting indiscriminate aspersions against the unfamiliar or unapproved? In context it doesn't even make sense, considering that Buddhism has long been on a trajectory to present a more portable, non-devotional, non-religious Dharma to the rest of the world - a world full of theists, agnostics, non-theists and atheists alike.

Well I think it's quite telling that in the two missives against secular mindfulness occupying the attention of Buddhists on Trike & Huff Po, that neither one of them mentioned any of the Buddhism-influenced cognitive-behavior therapies, or the incipient motion toward a deeper, non-dual approach in all of the secular mindfulness regimen and therapies.

It is utterly selective and biased to single out "McMindfulness" when the simple truth is that Dharmic teaching has long accepted that there is a spectrum of practice and practitioners who may (or may not) actually be actively pursuing the process. Might it have been too much trouble to invite a conversation with a Mindfulness teacher? Neither they nor the DBT therapists would claim to teaching a non-dual Dharma (for many obvious reasons) nor would they want to appeal to, or compete against, religious sentiments professionally. It comes down to a facile dismissal of the broader mindfulness movement, picking out a subgroup and then decrying all the barbarians at the gateless gate.

Whose Dharma is it anyway? Are we to beggar the merchant, the soldier or the thief their own Dharma? Since when would that constitute any of the enumerated objectives of the eightfold path?

mahakala's picture

The commercialization and commodification of all things considered "buddhist" does not end (or begin) with the current trending of mindfulness practice. There have been countless peddlers of all manner of peripheral ephemera relating to all things considered "buddhist" for a very long time. Especially those who work in such an industry would do well to be mindful of this.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Call a spade a spade. Mindfulness is mindfulness, Buddhism is Buddhism. The current situation in Myanmar between so-called Buddhists and Muslims, the support for Japanese military expansion during WWII by well-established forms of Buddhism, etc. are cases where "absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo".