Does Mindfulness Make You A Better Person?

Published on 30 March 2024 at 10:07

I explore arguments about secularized mindfulness and its (possible) detachment from Buddhist ethical roots. Here, a tension emerges: I try to highlight concerns that mindfulness has been co-opted to serve neoliberal interests, while also pointing toward my own experiences of healing with this practice. Critique and intellectual engagement, I suggest, are important for the maturity of one's practicing life.

I have recently been reading a fantastic book by Ron Puser called McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. There are many arguments in this book that are worth extracting. However, among his interrogations of mindfulness, this line of questioning is perhaps the most consequential: 


Does practicing mindfulness make you a better person?


Throughout the book Purser displays how mindfulness has been ripped from its original context and sanitized to fit modern Western sensibilities. Our individuality. Capitalism. Neoliberalism. Productivity. The usual culprits.


This post summarizes some critiques regarding ethics and mindfulness practices. It responds to questions that I continue to turn over in my own practice: to what extent does mindfulness interact with one's morality or ethical action? how is mindfulness appropriated―and who is the judge of its rightness or wrongness? what are the legitimate forms of healing one can expect from a secularized and decontextualized mindfulness practice? 

Frankensteinian Mindfulness

If you know about the history of mindfulness, it is indeed intriguing that mindfulness can fit into our modern Western context. Mindfulness is a Buddhist meditative practice. While there is no single definition of Buddhist mindfulness, mindfulness practices have always possessed an ethical component. When you remove that component, you can fit mindfulness wherever you wish.


Throughout the book, Purser highlights a dubious claim from mindfulness teachers: That the practice of mindfulness need not have an explicitly ethical or moral teaching element, that mindfulness practices naturally lead to human goodness. Yet this claim cracks under Purser's historical examination. From WWII Japanese soldiers utilizing concentration practices to cleanse the "karmic" effects of their kamikaze attacks, to modern day mindfulness-based attention training for American soldiers to more effectively pull the rifle trigger, Purser convincingly argues that this isn't the case.


"Laissez-faire mindfulness lets dominant systems decide such questions as “the good.” It is simply assumed that ethical behavior will arise “naturally” from practice and the teacher’s “embodiment” of soft-spoken niceness, or through the happenstance of inductive self-discovery. However, the claim that major ethical changes intrinsically follow from “paying attention to the present moment, non-judgmentally” is patently flawed."


He also leans on more "traditional" Buddhist figures to argue his point. In the eyes of Bikkhu Bodhi, an American Buddhist monk, contemplative practices such as mindfulness can lead to liberation or mindful subjugation:


"To quote Bhikkhu Bodhi, an outspoken American monk, the power of meditative teachings might enslave us: “Absent a sharp social critique,” he warns, “Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism."


These critiques―of Buddhist mindfulness being transplanted into modern systems in order to bolster and perpetuate misery―reach a new kind of zenith in the words of David Chapman. Chapman, unlike Purser or Bikkhu Bodhi, does not argue that secularized mindfulness has lost its original roots in ethics and morality. Instead, in a broad critique of Western Buddhism, Chapman argues that the emphasis on ethics is a patent fraud, culminating in what he refers to as "Consensus Buddhism":


"..[T]he problem is, traditional Buddhism doesn’t actually have anything distinctively useful to teach Westerners about ethics. There’s no single ethical system in Buddhism; it has a slew of contradictory half-systems. Worse, they are mostly quite conservative, often downright horrid, unacceptable to Westerners, and overall no better than the narrow Christianity the hippies rebelled against... So, Consensus Buddhism quietly swapped out traditional Buddhist ethics, and replaced it with “nice” vintage-1990 liberal Western ethics. (source)


It may seem odd, for me to interchange the terms "secular" or "therapeutic" mindfulness with terms like "Western Buddhism." But the very assumptions that enabled mindfulness to enter hospitals and schools and therapy offices are the same foundational assumptions of a larger Western "dharma," that "universalized truth" which some claim is "the essence of all religions."


In other words, the rhetoric that pervades modern, Western Buddhist practice is the very same rhetoric that pervades scientific and educational discourses around secularized mindfulness. This language is familiar to any therapist in the mindfulness space. For a taste, we can turn to Chapman again to elucidate the broad contours of this rhetoric:


"[Modern Western Buddhism] tries to answer “why should Buddhism be our way?” by appealing to general, abstract principles:
It’s rational/scientific
- You can verify it by using your intuitive, true self to connect directly to ultimate reality
It is based on universal principles of ethics and justice
- It harms no one and seeks to benefit all beings (by being very nice)" (source)


The critiques presented here give a taste of how different cultural forces have penetrated and transformed what modern Westerners mean by "Buddhism," "meditation," and "mindfulness." As I hope is clear by now, modern mindfulness is a Frankensteinian monster of a meditative practice, situated firmly in the social, political, religious, and cultural contexts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. I can smell the formaldehyde in the next room over, can hear the good Dr. Victor passing over his schematics.

My healing matters, too.

Sharp social critique. Franknstenian monster. These lamentations around the "true meaning of mindfulness," or its messy and confused ethics, can itself assert a dominant or dismissive position. Especially in therapeutic spaces, these critiques are often pointed toward secularized mindfulness and its progenitor, Jon Kabbat-Zinn. As a consequence, those who have experienced the deep healing from such secularized approaches may raise their hackles in defense―and rightly so. "But it helped me to become a better person," you may argue.


Perhaps. This is a sentiment that I deeply agree with, and continue to write about at length [1, 2]. However, there are certain turnings in contemplative practice that one could take, turnings along paths and dead ends and cul-de-sacs, that open new vistas. The vista of critique that is biting and uncompromising is one such turning―and in my experience, one of the most promising turns my practice has taken in a while. Contrary to the anti-intellectualism in Western Buddhism more broadly, the intellect offers excellent resources for giving new contexts and meanings to one's own practices.

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