Book Reviews / The Latest

“Mindfulness and Its Discontents”: why we need to rethink mindfulness


Book cover of David Forbes’ Mindfulness and Its Discontents

Mindfulness has become a buzz word in the last few years. The term has taken on so many different meanings in the West and is all at once meditation, letting go of your ego, getting to know your inner self, practicing kindness, learning to let your thoughts go, sitting still for a long time, not thinking, thinking a lot, hot/bikram/beer/whatever-have-you yoga, balancing stones, being thoughtful, wellness, and a lot of lotus flowers. If you’re feeling a bit lost about what mindfulness actually means, or maybe you feel that the definitions or ways it has been taught to you don’t sit right then David Forbes’ up-close analysis of mindfulness in his book Mindfulness and Its Discontents is for you.

This fairly short book (under 200 pages) packs a punch. Forbes does not hold back on why and how mindfulness has been dislocated from its Buddhist roots, or how it has been co-opted by neoliberalism to further promote self-serving consumerist ideologies.

The book can feel very philosophy heavy, but Forbes also has a great reference section at the end of the book for followup reading. He also offers fairly straightforward definitions of major philosophical themes like Michel Foucault’s ‘governmentality’. Forbes’ book isn’t just complaining about how things are, but I truly believe he offers some interesting ways in which we could all benefit from when thinking about mindfulness.

I was first intrigued by Forbes’ book because I have been watching mindfulness from the sidelines. I have tried out a few free trials with the Headspace app and I started to hear a lot of people in my life talk about mindfulness seminars at work and in school. It seemed like everyone was doing it, yet I also got the impression that a lot of people didn’t know what ‘it’ was. Now as I mentioned before, I myself am no expert and I turn to Forbes’ definitions of mindfulness to give a brief overview of what it is.

WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?

Person kneeling before a wall in meditative pose

We cannot talk about mindfulness without first talking about Buddhism because the former is deeply rooted in the latter. Buddhism is one of the world’s major religions. If you believe Wikipedia, it is practiced by over 500 million people today. Some argue that Buddhism could also be interpreted as a philosophy rather than religion, or as a way of life. It has moral codes, it encourages kindness and mindfulness as well as helping others, and it asks its followers to constantly learn and develop wisdom.

Mindfulness is one of the eight paths towards becoming free from self-attachment and reaching enlightenment. It is about letting go of the egocentric self. As Forbes’ posits, mindfulness should “help us reflect on, challenge, and change not just ourselves but our relationships, communities, and unjust social organizations.”

HOW DID WE GET MINDFULNESS WRONG?

The aforementioned (and brief) definition of mindfulness sounds like a positive idea. We could all do with a bit of self-examination, letting go of our egos, and being kind to each other. So what is the big problem? How could such a positive thing be exploited and used against its own purpose? Forbes points out not just the four major ways that mindfulness has been tainted, but also the solutions to these issues. Forbes looks at mindfulness with a close attention to how it is used in schools, yet I believe you could easily use these same conversations mindfulness all throughout the West.

THE PROBLEMS

NEOLIBERALISM

Forbes uses George Moribiot’s definition of neoliberalism stating:

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that ‘the market’ delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

Forbes also goes one step further to say that the citizen is also a product that can be marketed and branded. By being the self, you can compete in a ruthless market that pits us against one another. It focuses on a hedonic version of happiness where self-gratification and using the self as a commodity trump “using your highest skills in the service of helping others realise a more decent life.”

Mindfulness is and should always be positioned in between the absolute and the relative. That is to say, relative to the self or relative to ‘me’ and the community I am in, and an absolute truth of reality beyond the self. Neoliberalism as Forbes suggests, cuts off the community aspect of the relative. Instead of challenging social, cultural, and systemic structures that cause personal and collective stresses, it asks us to self-regulate. By only looking to ourselves for answers, we do not challenge dominant power structures. When used for neoliberalist ideals, mindfulness “helps you de-stress so you can return to more stressful striving. You can then improve your personal brand and become a more marketable commodity yourself.”

This ego-centric nature of neoliberalism also allows you to “pay attention to whatever you want,” and this leads us to Forbes’ next problem.

LACK OF INTERSECTIONALITY

Forbes uses a common thought exercise, ‘the raisin exercise’, to highlight how intersectionality is a vital part of mindfulness, yet is often not addressed. In the raisin exercise, people are given a raisin and they are asked to use their five senses to understand and interact with the dried fruit. This, however, is an extremely egocentric way of focusing on the raisin, because Forbes also states that we should also be thinking about where the raisin came from, who picked it for us, how were the workers treated, etc.

Contemporary mindfulness does not address race, trauma, sexism, and poverty according to Forbes. The lack of intersectionality ties back in with the issues of neoliberalism where the individual is the source of any unhappiness they experience and also the solution. Yet systemic problems, and every culture has them, often dictate people’s lives. An African American person being shot by a policeman because they are black has structural powers beyond their control dictating their life and death.

McMINDFULNESS

As you have probably noticed by now, Forbes’ problems with mindfulness often link to and feed off one another and McMindfulness is no exception. Forbes discussions of McMindfulness directly address the way that mindfulness is used by big business and the schooling system to subdue employees and students. When employees are stressed they are given mindfulness courses. For many the idea being that by changing their inner self they can just get on with things. By always directing the gaze to the self, Forbes argues that we do not challenge the structures around us.

Working 60 hours a week? – take a course on how to de-stress before bed so you can take on a 70 hour work week.

To summarise:

Inner work, self-reflection, is crucial to full human development. Inquiry into ones personal thoughts, beliefs, feelings, the meaning of one’s family history, and states of consciousness; into one’s imagination; into those aspects of oneself of which one is unaware; into troublesome and unhealthy thoughts; into how one’s worldview and emotional make u have been condition by ideologies, assumptions, and experiences from one’s past history and from the dominant society; inquiry into the very nature and development of the self: these are essential practices that mindfulness programs […] seldom engage or encourage—although they can and should.

HAPPY, HAPPY, HAPPY

I’ve talked about this before in my blog and with lots of friends of mine and I found myself nodding aggressively when I got to Forbes’ discussions on negative emotions, such as anger. In a lot of contemporary interpretations of mindfulness anger ‘should’ be turned into mindfulness, compassion, and understanding. And it certainly should not be felt. Yet, anger and other tough emotions like sadness, grief, frustration, and broken-heartedness are not always negative. Giving people tools to understand where these emotions came from and how they can challenge the internal and external causes of these emotions is crucial. Constantly being happy is just not possible. By assuming happiness as the base-line for all human interaction and existence we tell individuals that they have failed when they are not perpetually happy. Returning back to intersectionality, it also doesn’t allow individuals to ask bigger questions about their communities and surroundings. Often times our anger, stress, and sadness have systemic roots.

THE SOLUTION

Forbes has a pretty simple solution to the major problems with mindfulness, which I have touched upon in the discussion of the initial problems. We need to look at the self in relation to the outer, the community, and not just the inner. We need to not just wake up—practice productive meditation and inner-self recognition—but also stay woke—look at the way that social, cultural, and systemic structures influence the world around us. We need to be comfortable with all of our emotions rather than suppress the very human parts of our being. And lastly, know that being good at meditating and shutting off your thoughts, isn’t what mindfulness should be about.

Do you practice mindfulness? Will you be incorporating any of Forbes’ ideas and solutions for making mindfulness great again? (I had to do that pun. Sorry not sorry). As always, share the reading love.

NOTE: This novel was was accessed through Netgalley and Fernwood Publishing for review purposes. Expected publication is March 2019.

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