Mind the Mindfulness Gap

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve probably at least heard of the term “mindfulness” by now.  Mindfulness in a nutshell consists of paying attention to the present on purpose without judgment.   There is a plethora of scientific evidence suggesting mindfulness reduces stress, increases focus, increases cognitive flexibility, and decreases emotional lability.  These benefits are quite desirable in a number of settings and has resulted in mindfulness’ proliferation mental health settings, school settings, and corporate settings.  America seems to view mindfulness as the panacea to the stressors of contemporary living.  What is shocking however is that despite its proliferation, very few are aware of mindfulness’ origins and the social justice implications of its practice.

The origins of contemporary mindfulness are extremely problematic so perhaps America’s lack of attention to it should not be a surprise.  America has a practice of rewriting history to serve its own needs and mindfulness is perhaps the most prominent and contemporary example of this heinous exercise.  “Modern mindfulness” began with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction treatment in the 1990’s.  Zinn was not the originator of Mindfulness’ principles however; he drew much of modern mindfulness from Buddhism.  Zinn believed however that a rebranding of Buddhist principles was necessary for Western adoption.  Thus, the religious and spiritual components of Buddhism were removed to form what we consider “mindfulness” today.

This rebranding of Buddhist principles into mindfulness is nothing less than cultural appropriation.  Western society has decided to take a minority practice and strip it of all of its context and significance.  Buddhism comes from a minority community; let us not forget that.  It was not created for White people.  The Buddhism community, in their seemingly infinite compassion and wisdom, appear open to sharing their practices with the outside world, but was their permission ever sought?  No.  Instead, the religious and spiritual roots of Buddhism were removed as one removes a pussy infectious wart.  Buddhism had to be “purified” so that it would appeal to the Western World.  The lack of attention to this gross disrespect in Western Society is astounding.

This reshaping of Buddhist principles into Mindfulness also reinforces the “yellow peril” narrative harming Asian Americans in Western society.  Western society has been afraid of Asian Americans for a long time.  We are seen as perpetual foreigners and invaders, even if we are citizens.  We are exoticized and fetishized.  We are deprived of our humanity.  We are seen as outside of American and Western culture.  Mindfulness reinforces that narrative.  The Asian roots of Mindfulness had to be purged for Western society’s adoption.  That which is our history, had to be excreted.  White people need to be more accepting of the humanity of Asian Americans and the contributions Asian Americans have made.  Mindfulness does not help that cause and instead reinforces colonialism.  It reinforces the notion that White people can take whatever they want from our culture and not suffer any sort of consequences.  This is something personally I can not abide.

Let us also not forget that millions will be made from the “mindfulness revolution.”  Now that White Western society has appropriated all of the cultural capital surrounding Buddhism by relabelling it mindfulness, White western society has also put themselves into a position where they will make all of the profits.  Who will make the money to give talks and trainings on mindfulness now?  Who will get paid to give mindfulness interventions?  Who will benefit financially from the mindfulness books?  White society.  If psychologists really cared and respected Buddhism, they would incorporate the Buddhist community in some of these benefits.  Let us not forget that though the Dalai Lama gave his blessing to mindfulness, his people are a persecuted people in need.  Instead of benefitting the communities in need that developed this practice, all of the resource gains to be had from mindfulness go now to rich White men.

There are also issues with Mindfulness’ panacea-like usage in Western society.  While being able to alleviate people’s stress and emotional reactivity is nice, it really is only a band-aid.  When mindfulness is used in impoverished schools for example, it may reduce student problematic behaviors, but it doesn’t get to the real issues.  It doesn’t address systemic racism, it doesn’t address the lack of resources given to majority minority schools, it doesn’t address the very essence of impoverished living.  What mindfulness does in its current form is coerce underprivileged individuals to conform to a White-male dominated society.

Mindfulness cannot and should not be ever used as a substitute for real social justice.  For underprivileged communities, we need to think about their real stressors, understand the contexts in which they live, and use our privilege to fight to remove those barriers.  Mindfulness in its current form is used as a substitute for real social justice.  It enables us to not have to think about the context and realities of our privilege.  Mindfulness without social justice, if one really thinks about it, is just another form of oppression.  It is a tool used by those with power towards those without power to help those without power “fall into line.”  Sounds pretty Big-Brotheresque wouldn’t you say?

Mindfulness helps one be at peace, but at times anger is an important tool for those from underprivileged communities.  Research tells us that perceptions of injustice are pretty close to feelings of anger.  If we remove peoples’ anger without addressing the injustice they face, we may feel we are benefitting those communities, but all we are really doing is benefitting ourselves.

What we really need to be doing is redrawing the line; that is what social justice is really about.  Mindfulness doesn’t have to be a tool of oppression, it can be used for good.  Conversations about its cultural roots need to begin at the very minimum.  Additionally, when mindfulness is used in underprivileged communities, it needs to be in conjunction with advocacy and activist efforts to remove some of the systemic barriers facing those communities.

I believe in potential of Buddhism principles/mindfulness to better humanity;  I really do.  Some major changes will be needed however.  Whether or not psychology steps up to that task, I do not know.  I at least will attempt to do my part.

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One thought on “Mind the Mindfulness Gap

  1. Thanks for this. I really loathe the stripping of ethics from mindfulness in Western Psychology. It becomes about symptom relief as opposed to deep reckoning with suffering, which, when done properly, does not get rid of anger or other “negative” emotions but makes room for them. Western Psych is filthy with the capitalistic notion that, if you consume the right forms of helping, your pain will disappear. That’s the opposite of Buddhist teachings, imho.

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