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Off the Books

‘McMindfulness,’ and why deep breathing isn’t always the answer

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Editor’s note: Off the Books is a biweekly column diving straight into that stack of unread nonfiction on your nightstand. Rather than reviews, articles cover topics from each book that are particularly relevant to college students and Seattle life, with input from professors and UW community members to round out the picture.

The Daily writes a lot about mindfulness (including yoga, meditation, self-care, mental health, and every other iteration you can imagine). It’s something we pride ourselves on. Whether it be for coping with the stress of classes, UW’s lovely competitive majors, or simply the state of the world, we never thought that encouraging students to take a couple deep breaths could do any harm. 

But, as I am sure you have already realized during the adventure that has been 2020, nothing is without layers, and mindfulness practice is yet another thing that we can no longer simply take at face value.

The 2019 book “McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality,” by Ronald Purser, explores how the contemporary mindfulness industry is yet another hand that simply feeds the proverbial neoliberal beast. Misappropriated mindfulness practice simultaneously privatizes, pathologizes, and depoliticizes stress, moving focus away from the systemic sources of anxiety in society and placing them solely on the individual. 

“It says the causes of suffering are disproportionately inside us, not in the political and economic frameworks that shape how we live,” Purser says. In other words, contemporary mindfulness says that there is nothing wrong with capitalism, that we as individuals are simply maladapted to the demands of modern society, and that we need to get our shit together.

I’ll be honest: a disparaging attack of neoliberalism by a snarky 64-year-old white man was not what I signed up for. Purser doesn’t necessarily feel like the right person to be broaching this issue. But to his credit, he brings up a wealth of important considerations, and I’m never going to complain about a little late-stage capitalism hate.

One of the main topics Purser tackles is mindfulness’s focus on calming and being present in the moment, both things Purser views as coping mechanisms that stall revolutionary political change.

However, Danny Arguetty, mindfulness manager at UW Recreation, has a more optimistic take. He believes it is a common misconception that mindfulness and yoga focus solely on calming and slowing down the mind.

“It’s a welcoming of the full spectrum of human emotion,” Arguetty said. So if (or let’s be honest, when) you’re angry, successful mindfulness practice should help you fully experience that anger before thoughtfully and skillfully taking up action. 

Purser is also concerned about the use of mindfulness’ Buddhist roots as some kind of sales tactic. Depending on the audience, he points out that mindfulness teachers may wear Buddhist robes and chant, or they might rely on a PowerPoint with neuroimaging, callouts to productivity, and stock images of people looking tranquil on beaches. Turning Buddhism on and off in this way can feel manipulative.

However, Joseph Marino, an assistant professor of Buddhist studies, points out that since there is no one form of Buddhism, the modern movement is not betraying any “traditional” practice.

“A search for any ‘original’ sense of the Buddhist notion of mindfulness will reveal a regular process of change and reinterpretation of the concept across time and space,” Marino said in an email. “This includes modern changes like [Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction].” 

Jane Compson, assistant professor in interdisciplinary arts and sciences at UW Tacoma, agrees that modern mindfulness practice isn’t betraying or misappropriating Buddhist tradition.

“The whole concept of Buddhism is a Western construct,” Compson said. “The Buddha never described anything like we would call an -ism. He just said this is a path, a discipline, and training, to help alleviate suffering.”

Compson and Arguetty agree that they don’t want to lose prospective students who are turned off by the idea of a “religious” practice, and neither feels the secular-religious distinction to be particularly accurate or useful.

Something they are more concerned about is students with traumatic backgrounds.

“If you’re teaching somebody mindfulness and they’ve had a traumatic background, and you don’t know how to teach it with that in mind, then some people can end up being retraumatized by traumatic memories that come up while they’re meditating, and that can cause harm,” Compson said.

The teaching of mindfulness without a clear code of ethics that prevents this kind of harm is a concern, particularly because ethics comprises a significant part of Buddhist teachings.

“For Buddhists, meditation is only part of a path of practice that also includes recommendations for moral behavior,” Marino said.

Compson agrees that mindfulness would benefit from being taught in conjunction with ethics, compassion cultivation, or other aspects of the Buddhist Eightfold Path, but she is adamant that no harm can come of focusing on one of them and, in fact, believes that studying one aspect will help to inadvertently cultivate the others.

So is any of this to say you shouldn’t be practicing mindfulness? Not at all. But it’s also necessary to think critically about your practice and to hold the community accountable while finding the bandwidth and resilience you need to continue fighting for change.

Marino says mindfulness of the four satipaṭṭhānas — the body, the feelings, the mind, and dharmas — can provide us with refuge and protection from being overwhelmed by the world. And I don’t know about you, but that’s certainly something I could use right now. 

Reach Co-Copy Chief Sam Steele at Twitter: @samsteele246

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