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To the World’s Loudest Critic of Mindfulness – A Health Journalist's Response

Shannon Harvey

I confess that I was terrified when I picked up Ronald Purser’s new book McMindfulness.

It had been a long time coming after the management professor from San Francisco State University embraced the Mindful Crank persona in 2014 and wrote a series of provocative articles such as The Myth of the Present Moment, and Beyond Mc Mindfulness. During a period in which TIME Magazine was hailing the Mindful Revolution, when Google had started imploring business leaders to Search Inside Yourself and New Republic was declaring 2014 The Year of Mindfulness, Purser raised some thought-provoking ideas.

In essence, his argument is that because secular mindfulness is stripped of potentially unpopular religious mumbo-jumbo (such as abstaining from killing and stealing, and not doing work that harms living creatures), the ancient Buddhist practice, which is supposed to be part of an eight-fold path towards enlightenment, has been turned into a banal, faux-therapeutic, self-help fad that is also being used by unscrupulous capitalist corporations for the purposes of making employees more efficient and docile within stressful work environments.

Fast forward five years, and when the fleshed-out, paper back version of Purser’s argument was released by Repeater Books, along with a weighty push from The Guardian, which led with the seriously click-worthy headline The Mindfulness Conspiracy, I was intrigued and I confess, worried. The blurb promised that the book would "debunk the so-called “mindfulness revolution,” exposing how corporations, schools, governments and the military have co-opted it as technique for social control and self-pacification."

I’m a heath journalist and filmmaker, and I’m about to release a feature documentary called My Year of Living Mindfully – which depicts my year-long experiment, during which a team of scientists tracked me as a meditated every day for a year. In the final weeks before the film’s release, after 32 months of full-time work, 16 international and domestic flights, 23 interviews with scientists and three deep-dive case studies (not including myself), as I picked up Purser’s book – I wondered, what have I missed?

Fortunately, it turns out, not much.

Purser sure comes out swinging. He opens the book by comparing the eight week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which put mindfulness on the radar of scientists around the world, with… McDonalds. And he concludes the book with a one-two punch in the guts by comparing MBSR’s founder Jon Kabat-Zinn to Donald Trump. But rather than even-handedly outlining a clear-cut case, Purser conveniently leaves out vital information.

As an ordained Zen Dharma teacher, as well as a management academic, Purser is bang on when he highlights that there are now more than 100,000 products capitalising on the word ‘mindfulness’ for sale on Amazon. (Some of my personal favourites include the Mindful Pets Tear Stain Remover Combs for Dogs and the Mindfull Products Space Saving Wine Bottle Rack.)

It’s also true that unlike other meditation techniques, such as Transcendental Meditation, mindfulness has never been trademarked and is therefore now widely available everywhere from classrooms to boardrooms, in studios and online. There are mindful books, apps, podcasts, gyms, buses and even mayonnaise.

But the problem with Purser’s case against modern mindfulness is that not one credible expert that I spoke to during the production of my film would argue that the worst of the McMindfulness products for sale on Amazon, on the App Store or on work-place intrawebs, are anything close to the in-depth mindfulness-based programs being delivered by teachers with psychotherapeutic training and decades of meditation experience, and being studied in some of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions in order to understand how and why they do and do not work.

Just take a look at the recent special issue published by the journal Current Opinions in Psychology in which more than 100 scholars, from three continents, contributed 57 papers in order to provide accurate and tempered interpretations of existing data and findings. In fact, I spoke with people like Nicholas Van Dam from the University of Melbourne, who was the lead author of the now-famous Mind the Hype scientific paper, in which a group of 15 well-respected neuroscientists, mindfulness researchers, and meditation teachers warned that mindfulness is being over-sold and over-hyped, and he pointed out that scientists who are keen to start answering the crucial outstanding questions are even turning their gaze directly onto workplace wellness programs and the mindfulness apps that Purser abominates.

By antagonistically lumping all products into the same ‘McMindfulness’ category – be they the Mindful Baby Potty or a mindfulness-based mental health intervention – Purser’s black and white reasoning fails to acknowledge and embrace the shades of grey that progress conversations and lead to meaningful change.

Purser’s other important concern is that if mindfulness is dumbed-down and stripped of it’s ethical underpinnings, it could theoretically mean that people working in tyrannous organisations (who actually need things such as paid vacation leave or flexible working hours) become more compliant instead of taking action. At very worst, according to Purser, this could also mean that people are taught to be desensitised from their natural altruistic human emotions, instincts and values, and subsequently turn evil.

During my mindful living self-experiment, I too covered this ground. Among others, I spoke with Willoughby Britton from Brown University, who has recently gained a lot of attention for her research investigating the good, the bad, and the banal effects of contemplative practice. (More on this coming soon). And I spoke with the former molecular biologist-turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard who now runs a charity with 200 humanitarian projects underway and has been invited to present at the World Economic Forum in Davos nine times, so his perspective on McMindfulness was especially salient.

My conclusion?

Mindfulness is a skill that teaches me to understand how my mind works and in the same way that reading is a skill and teaches me to understand words on a page, what happens after I’ve learned it – good or bad, better or worse – will ultimately be influenced by my own moral code and values, as well as the teachers I choose. It’s also apparent that no matter how many Amazon sales pages say otherwise, I can’t simply buy mindfulness. If mindfulness is a skill, then it will only be learned through hours of uncomfortable (for me at least) contemplation.

Purser’s voice is critically important at a time when people are desperately seeking trustworthy, evidence-based things that they can do for themselves in the midst of an epidemic of mental illness. His influence certainly took me in unexpected directions when I first began researching my new film project, but by branding himself as the Mindful Crank he’s backed himself into a corner and the fact that his own book is the 100,001st product for sale on Amazon has been conveniently left out of the story.

 

*** For more information about my new film and screenings go to www.myyearoflivingmindfully.com


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