Head to your local bookshop and you'll find more books on mindfulness than you could ever manage to read. Mindfulness Plain & Simple. A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled. You Are Not Your Thoughts: The Secret Magic of Mindfulness. Mindfulness is everywhere, and practiced by all sorts, whether you’re Fearne Cotton, Russell Brand or just a run of the mill pleb with anxious tendencies.
I started practicing the m-word back in 2015 after a round of cognitive behavioural therapy. The idea, from the NHS, is that you can alleviate a panic attack by becoming mindful of it, and thus returning the mind to the present moment. How does it work? Well, that's up to you, but for me it involves going outside and counting the different colours I can see. Luscious leaves of viridian and green, various shades of blue in the sky, dark brown dog shit on the floor – that kind of thing.
Like many, I’ve found mindfulness helpful. I rarely have panic attacks anymore; instead, I'm just socially anxious (still not great, but better than feeling like imminent death is around the corner, which is how every panic attack before then felt). However, like the ocean, pre-sugar-tax Lucozade and TV series Arrested Development, one author posits that humans have found a way to wreck mindfulness.
In Ronald E Purser's new book McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became The New Capitalist Spirituality, he describes how mindfulness has become the $1.1 billion dollar buzzword of the wellness industry and, as the blurb reads, "how corporations, governments and the military have co-opted it as a technique for social control and self-pacification".
I gave Ronald a call – me in London, him in San Francisco – to discuss the book and what exactly he means by McMindfulness, before its release next month.
VICE: Hey Ronald. So I guess it's best to start at the beginning. Where did the term McMindfulness come from?
Ronald: It came from Miles Neale, who wrote an article about it. Then I heard it repeated again by a neuroscientist at a conference and thought, 'This is a good meme or word.' That was the beginning of the critique.
I was also seeing the corporate mindfulness programmes emerging in Silicon Valley and Google and so on, and I started paying attention to that. I've also been a student of Buddhism for 35 to 40 years, so the combination of those two trajectories converged and I said, "Wow, I should see what’s going on with this."
To me, mindfulness is paying attention to things. Being mindful, basically. What makes McMindfulness different?
The term mindfulness now is so vague. It traces back to Buddhism but it's an English translation. The real meaning is not to pay attention to the present moment: the connotation is more to recollect and hold the mind in certain instructions and doctrines. The classic Buddhist teaching has four foundations and there’s really no mention of being in the present moment. The current definition, which is more therapeutic, is to pay attention in the present moment – like how Ram Dass mentions in his book Be Here Now.
You say in the book that mindfulness is being co-opted by capitalism. How so?
If a company says they’re practicing mindfulness, they’re saying they have a really caring work culture. Like: "We really care about the psychological needs of workers." Or here’s another way of thinking about it: it’s a new form of the Protestant work ethic. It’s a salve for tolerating oppressive working conditions. It promises better career success – you hear that all the time. It’s almost like neoliberal capitalism has a capacity to devour and invade these practices. That’s why I called McMindfulness the new capitalist spirituality.
You mention Ram Dass and Eckhart Tolle in the book. How do you feel about them? For example, Eckhart practices the Power of Now – is that the good side of mindfulness?
Well, yes and no.
They’re two of the most famous modern spiritual teachers!
One of the key issues I have is that Eckhart Tolle and many others have a big blindspot. The basic message is that all change comes from within. In other words, we can change our reality by simply going within ourselves, finding our authentic selves and so forth. That is problematic, I think, in that there are ideological components to that narrative that are under-appreciated.
Right. Eckhart ignores the fact that: yeah, you can look inside all you want, but there’s still a whole load of other shit happening around you that’s often outside your control.
Right. Tell an immigrant Latino woman with four kids working three jobs that all she has to do is focus on the now and everything will fall into place – it's a deeply politicised way of understanding these practices. It’s the ideology that it’s the individual that needs to adapt to socio-economic political conditions – the constant trope that only change comes from within – and that’s very ineffectual in dealing with our political cultural transformation. Many people in the mindfulness movement would say they agree, there’s problems with mindfulness. But they would say it’s part of the solution, not the problem.
When is mindfulness a problem?
It's a problem when it's disconnected from social critique. If it's promoting this highly privatised and individualistic worldview then it’s buying into the whole rhetoric that it’s the individual that has to self-optimise, to get their act together.
What needs to change to make things better?
These therapeutic practices need to expand their scope. If you look at a mindfulness programme it’s like a curriculum – it’s an eight week course. So I think there can be some more innovation with that. There needs to be a critical enquiry into the causes of stress and how they’re not just individualistic or biological, but embedded in the socio-economic political system. Those sorts of conversations aren’t happening in mindfulness training.
That's a good point. Okay, lastly, off topic but slightly relevant: do you like McDonalds?
I hate McDonalds.
Have you tried it before?
Sure, hasn’t everyone!
Correct. Thanks for chatting Ronald.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became The New Capitalist Spirituality by Ronald E Purser is published by Repeater Books on 9 July. You can pre-order it here.