Oliver Rees
Why the West fell in love with mindfulness
February 14, 2019

When I first learnt about mindfulness, in a sweltering lecture hall in 2012, it was still seen as experimental and untested. Writing about mindfulness was difficult because there were so few studies that had been conducted that everything came across as wishful thinking. Yet the moment I heard about the concept I fell in love with it. A dogma-free, Buddhism inspired, neurologically backed concept. Spirality and science weaved together in a way that no other idea I’d ever heard about had managed. And when you become more mindful it really is transformational: it over promises and over delivers.

Since then, the Western world has fallen in love with mindfulness too. It’s now recommended by doctors, taught in schools and prescribed to stressed employees. But as my love affair with mindfulness has continued, uncomfortable questions about the West’s gleeful embrace of the practice have emerged. One of the primary concerns is that mindfulness presents itself as being free of dogma. Similar to other psychological methodologies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, we’re told that you don’t need to ‘believe’ in anything for mindfulness to work for you. Yet the practice of mindfulness carries an unshakable philosophical dimension with it.

Like anything else, this underlying philosophy comes from its founder.

The Buddha as founder

Every mindfulness practitioner owes a debt of gratitude to the Buddha, the hidden co-founder of all mindfulness practices and techniques. But despite being one of the greatest psychologists to have ever lived, the Buddha, and by extension Buddhism, is not without his flaws. The deepest of these is that unlike any other major world religion, Buddhism is devoid of any ethical system. Take the classic trolly problem: should you push someone in front of a train to save ten others? Ask a Christian and they might talk about sin or virtue ethics. Ask a Buddhist and they’ll probably say… nothing. Zen Priest Koun Franz puts it best: “When it comes to ethics, Buddhism doesn’t offer a lot of absolutes; if anything, it raises questions.”

The issue with staying quiet about ethics and generally talking about ‘compassion’ (which Buddhism does) is that you fall into the trap of meaningless subjectivism. As Nietzsche puts it: “that which the world calls virtue [in this case ‘compassion’] is usually nothing but a phantom formed by our passions to which we give an honest name so as to do what we wish with impunity.”

The defining ideology of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths, states that suffering comes from attachment, and that the cessation of suffering is possible by extinguishing desire. This is absolutely true, yet the focus is more narrow than you might think and there is a lack of any real engagement with the world at large. A quote often attributed to the Buddha is “To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s own mind.” This is also clear in the Buddha’s own biography. Whilst Jesus attained the equivalent of enlightenment by essentially taking on the role of doctor, helping and actively engaging with the world, the Buddha took on the role of psychologist, retreating into his own mind and then helping people understand that the only way to solve your problems is to change the way you think.

Enter meditation: the Buddha’s favoured tool and one of the primary way to extinguish desire and control one’s own mind.

While meditation and mindfulness are distinctly different concepts, it is helpful for our purposes to see them together. Mindfulness, defined as an awareness of the present moment, requires a level of mental discipline to stop the mind wandering. Meditation is one of the ways you can practice this present-mindedness. If you sit focussing on your breath for a few hours a day you’ll calm the mind and start to become more mindful.

Meditation: The new protestant work ethic

We’re at the point in the date when Western capitalism and mindfulness meditation meet each other’s eyes and realise there might be a spark.

For Western economies to flourish in their current form, workers need to work hard, spend their money and ideally not complain. Demanding better working conditions, striking and generally causing a nuisance isn’t helpful. Mindfulness meditation fits in here perfectly because the Buddha-backed ideology behind it is: your misery is your problem, it’s in your mind and in order to extinguish your suffering you need to fix yourself, not the world around you.

We’ve seen a happy union between a spiritual ideology and a hard-nosed economic system before. In Max Weber’s iconic text The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber identified that the frugality, hard work and discipline of the Protestant faith fuelled the development of capitalism, allowing people to work hard and save without question. For a time in history, the priests and the captains of industry were telling people the same things.

Mindfulness offers the same exciting opportunity for modern-day captains of industry. You may think that improving your working conditions, getting paid more and having more job security will improve your life but… you’d be wrong. Your suffering is in your own mind, so we’ll help you fix that first (and please do bear in mind that it might take a long time).

It’s this ideology that allows our current government to dish out mindfulness to all schools while in the same breath not providing enough funding for pens and paper. It’s how workplaces can introduce mindfulness without paying staff any more. Rather than being contradictions, cutting benefits is actually tacitly justified by the philosophy behind mindfulness — why should it matter, it’s all in your head!

Mindfulness is amazing, but not on its own

No ideology should be used alone, and mindfulness is no exception. The health benefits of mindfulness are unquestionable and transformational; yet we are sleepwalking into a situation where mindfulness is used as a cure-all for genuine structural issues and working conditions. This is undoubtedly a scary prospect.

Yes, a great deal of suffering is in the mind, but it is also due to conditions around you. The tension comes when these conditions need to be changed. Change happens through anger, protest and disobedience. It happens because people demand and want things. It happens because they externalise their suffering and help extinguish it through legislation and social care.

These desires for a better world shouldn’t be demonised, they should be encouraged.