It is encouraging to see someone take a thoroughly critical stance toward a profitable ideological project. And no doubt difficult to do, in an age when almost all access to media is controlled by a few big corporations which are focused exactly on promoting such projects. This book is accessible enough, and engaging enough in its accounts of various mindful practices, that it is possible it may provoke some reaction, and so some critical thought about the newest mantra of neoliberalism. So, kudos to Purser and to Repeater Books for publishing it.
But, of course, I have some concerns.
To begin with, Purser makes it clear that he “do[es] not question the value of adapting mindfulness for therapeutic use, nor do[es he] deny that it can help people”(83). My position on this has always been that in fact this is what we do need to question. That is, that mindfulness does not actually help most people, and those people whom it does “help” it helps to become horrendous human beings.
To some degree, Purser would seem to agree with my last statement. The overwhelming force of his book is in its argument that mindfulness produces a passive subject trained to adapt to the world as it is and never question, and certainly not attempt to change, the social formation. The good subject of neoliberalism blames herself for her suffering, and seeks to avoid even considering the possible existence of any social or material causes of human suffering outside of her own attitude, her own disposition. Such people may, if they are affluent enough, actually be happy enough as they go about the business of reproducing capitalist social relations. But what they are doing is clearly, even on Purser’s account, nothing more than profiting by enabling the oppression of others. I can see how this is therapeutic, if we understand therapy as the adjusting of individuals to better serve the interests of global capitalism—that is, if we grasp that therapists are, as Purser says (quoting Fromm) “the priests of industrial society,” whose goal is “helping the person to become better adjusted to existing circumstance”(258). Given the overall force of the argument, and the approving citation of Fromm, it would seem to me to be a contradiction to still maintain that “the therapeutic functions of mindfulness-based interventions are clearly of value” and so “we don’t need to stop using them” (258).
To be clear, what Purser is advocating is that we “need to do much more”(258). That is, that we should do mindfulness practice, but then add on some critical thinking which will enable active participation in the transformation of society. My position is that this is not possible. That is, that the goal of undertaking mindfulness is exactly to render the subject incapable of the “much more” that Purser, rightly I think, urges us to engage in.
So why this apparent contradiction? Why the simultaneous acceptance of mindfulness as a necessary beginning in the midst of an overwhelming argument that beginning from there forecloses any hope of meaningful progress?
I’ve written a longer response to the book on my blog, Faithful Buddhist, at Wordpress. I cannot provide a link here, because of Amazon policy, but if you’re interested I try to account for the contradiction at the heart of this book there.
- Paperback: 240 pages
- Publisher: ROH; New edition edition (20 August 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 191224831X
- ISBN-13: 978-1912248315
- Product Dimensions: 13 x 2.2 x 19.7 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 286 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 87,319 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)