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Mind CureHow Meditation Became Medicine$

Wakoh Shannon Hickey

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780190864248

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190864248.001.0001

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From Mind Cure to Mindfulness: What Got Lost

From Mind Cure to Mindfulness: What Got Lost

(p.187) 7 From Mind Cure to Mindfulness: What Got Lost
Mind Cure

Wakoh Shannon Hickey

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers the early, community-oriented wing of New Thought movement and the Mindfulness movement side by side and identifies several characteristics they have in common, as well as significant differences between them. The Mindfulness movement is similar in various ways to Individualist New Thought. This analysis reveals some of the problems and limitations inherent in the Mindfulness movement’s approach to meditation, from both Buddhist and scientific perspectives. By extracting meditation from its religious contexts and meanings and turning it into an individual technique for reducing stress, several important resources get “lost in translation.” These include the social and spiritual benefits of religious community; fundamental aspects of Buddhist and neo-Vedanta spiritual paths, particularly the ethical foundations of meditation and yoga; and systemic analyses of the causes of suffering and stress-related illness, including racism, sexism, and poverty.

Keywords:   structural inequality, Mindfulness, meditation, yoga, New Thought, Perennialism, Orientalism, stress, individualism

IN CHAPTER 5, I argued that the Mindfulness movement as described by Jon Kabat-Zinn, like the Mind Cure movement before him, has all the characteristics of American metaphysical religion identified by Catherine Albanese: it is concerned primarily with the powers of the mind; it draws upon theories of correspondence between spiritual and natural realms; it speaks in terms of energy, flow, and flux; and it sees “salvation” from suffering primarily in terms of therapy and healing. Like the Individualist wing of Mind Cure and some other metaphysical traditions, the Mindfulness movement consists of networks of people and ideas, circulating internationally through books, periodicals, digital media, conferences, and workshops, rather than being organized like a traditional church or denomination. This chapter explores several additional similarities, or—to borrow a term from Swedenborg—“correspondences” between Mind Cure and Mindfulness.1 I also consider some important differences between Mindfulness and the early, community-oriented wing of Mind Cure, and the implications of those differences. In the journey from Mind Cure to Mindfulness, as meditation became medicalized, individualized, and commodified, at least three important things got lost along the way: the ethical frameworks in which the disciplines of meditation and yoga historically have been embedded, the benefits and challenges of long-term spiritual community, and systemic analysis of suffering.

(p.188) Correspondences

First, the correspondences. As we have seen, both New Thought and the Mindfulness movement stress the value of a disciplined mind and the therapeutic value of meditation. Both also share a Perennialist assumption that different religious traditions have an essential unity that is transcultural and transhistoric, and that this universal truth is to be found through contemplative practice and spiritual or mystical experience.2 Perennialism has roots in Transcendentalism, which has roots in German and American Romanticism. Because of their Perennialist orientation, all of the traditions considered here—New Thought, Theosophy, the Mindfulness movement, modernist Buddhism and neo-Vedanta—draw eclectically from multiple traditions and thereby obscure their religious sources. They share modernist values: egalitarianism, democratic decision-making, and an orientation toward lay householder life rather than toward monastic renunciation. Thus they also all have a liberal religious ethos, like that of Unitarian Universalism, another child of Transcendentalism. All stress individual practice as a key to well-being.

The Mind Cure and Mindfulness movements both offer critiques of scientism (the belief that science will ultimately answer all questions about reality), scientific materialism (the assumption that only what can be measured scientifically is real), and medical orthodoxy, yet both also present themselves as compatible with modern science and appeal to scientific authority to validate their healing claims. Both separate spiritual disciplines such as meditation and yoga from their Asian religious contexts and repackage them for Western consumption, yet they valorize the East as holding sacred wisdom that Western culture lacks. These similarities are discussed below.

Therapeutic Applications of Meditation

Because most historians of New Thought have not distinguished between its Community-oriented and Individualist streams and have paid so little attention to meditation in the Mind Cure movement, New Thought’s role in promoting meditation and yoga a century earlier than the Mindfulness movement has largely gone unnoticed. Chapter 3 is one preliminary effort to correct that; further research is warranted. A more thorough investigation would require extensive review of early New Thought materials for discussions of meditation and yoga. Good collections of such materials, (p.189) particularly serials, are scattered among a small number of archives across the United States, which makes the research challenging and expensive to pursue.3

The Mindfulness movement generally, and MBSR in particular, resembles the Individualist wing of New Thought more closely than the Community-oriented wing. Participants in MBSR and other Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) are offered classes, books, retreats, and videos to buy. These are mostly accessible to people who have enough disposable income to purchase such items and can devote about eight hours a week to such programs for a couple of months. MBI instructors may or may not encourage participants to build communities outside their classes, and if they do so, these groups generally are not like religious congregations; they are more like networks or clubs for people with a common interest. MBIs function like what sociologists Stark and Bainbridge called “client cults”: they provide instruction on a fee-for-service model.4 Class participants develop relationships with instructors, but unless those instructors work actively to promote horizontal relationships among student peers, inside class and beyond, ongoing spiritual community is not part of the program. As with the early Mind Cure movement, some MBSR teachers are well trained and some are not; no licensing laws prohibit anyone from hanging out a “Mindfulness” shingle. Nowadays one can even take an MBSR course at home, alone, online or using video guides on DVD. Thus both Individualist New Thought and the Mindfulness movement have adapted themselves well to American consumer capitalism, a point to which I will return.


Philosophically, both New Thought and Mindfulness advocates like Kabat-Zinn share an assumption that religions have an underlying unitary core that is transcultural and transhistorical. Called Perennialism, it was promoted by Leibniz in the seventeenth century and popularized in the twentieth century by Aldous Huxley and Huston Smith. Perennialism is

the metaphysic that recognized a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being—the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy may (p.190) be found among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed form it has a place in every one of the higher religions.5

A corollary to faith in a unitary core of religions is the assumption that historical and cultural differences both within and among religions are “merely” accretions, which can be discarded, leaving the core intact. Thus Sarah Farmer envisioned Greenacre as a place where the fundamental unity of different religious traditions could be explored—and ultimately subsumed in Bahá’í.

The assumption that religious differences are incidental allows Perennialists to cherry-pick ideas and practices from different, even incommensurable traditions, and combine them at will. Theosophists drew from disparate Hindu, Buddhist, and Western esoteric and Spiritualist sources, for example. Neo-Vedic groups such as the Vedanta Society and the Self-Realization Fellowship revere Jesus as an avatar. The modernist Hindu group Brahmo Samaj has ties to Unitarianism. Kabat-Zinn speaks of a universal Dharma that is expressed in both Buddhism and Hinduism but is ultimately independent of both.

A glossy magazine sold recently at the checkout counter of my local Whole Foods Market, the Power of Mindfulness, offered a particularly crass example. Short articles served up “100+ Easy Tips to Achieve Balance.” Among advice for decluttering your house, doing chair stretches at your desk, improving your relationships, eating more slowly, sleeping better, and exercising more, one article suggested that to “feel more centered” one could try any of the following practices derived from major religious traditions: meditation (from Buddhism), prayer and volunteerism (Christianity), recitation of a personal mantra (Hinduism), or carving out a weekly Sabbath (Judaism). These disciplines can be appropriated at will, the article suggested, without any substantive commitment to their underlying religious worldviews, meanings, or goals. If such disciplines seem too onerous, they can simply be reinterpreted in terms that are less demanding. For example, instead of saying set prayers five times a day or fasting from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan, as devout Muslims do, it’s enough to live more mindfully and take inspiration from Islam by setting an intention for each day in the morning, reflecting on it again before bed, and thinking of one thing for which one feels grateful.6 Various types of meditation are elsewhere described in one sentence each: zazen, vipassana, lovingkindness, contemplative prayer, mantra recitation, TM, (p.191) and several yogic practices involving the chakras, kundalini, or tantric visualization.7 Among “14 Ways to Find More Zen” are recommendations to chew gum, wear red garments to instill self-confidence, and buy flowers.8 Thus religious disciplines, developed and maintained by devotees for millennia, are reduced to stress-busting techniques.

Over the past several decades, many scholars have challenged the Perennialist erasure of differences within and among religious traditions, as well as changes over time and from culture to culture. Perennialists seem blind to the ways that they project specifically Protestant and Western assumptions and categories onto other religions and presume that these assumptions apply universally. Deployed by white people, Perennialism becomes hegemonic because it obliterates differences that are meaningful and important to other cultural groups. Asian religious reformers and missionaries also deployed Perennialism for their own strategic purposes, but their efforts were a response to white, Protestant hegemony, that is, to European and American colonialism and imperialism: political, economic, religious, and cultural. Given that most of the spokespersons—and apparently most of the consumers—of Mindfulness-related products are white, the hegemonic character of Perennialist assumptions underlying the Mindfulness movement deserve attention and critical analysis.

Critiques of Medical Orthodoxy

The most obvious similarity between Mind Cure and the Mindfulness movement is that both offer critiques of prevailing medical orthodoxies. They do so in different ways, however, because orthodox medicine has changed dramatically since the late nineteenth century. The most extreme Mind-Curers, particularly Christian Scientists, denied the reality of matter altogether, and thus rejected any need for orthodox medicine. The Mindfulness movement accepts Western biomedicine but presents itself as complementary.

As we saw in chapter 1, nineteenth-century physicians relied on bloodletting, leeches, blistering, and highly toxic emetics and purgatives. Treatments for “hysteria” in women were even more horrifying. The germ theory of disease did not begin to gain acceptance until the end of the nineteenth century, and antibiotics were not widely used until World War II. So it is no surprise that many people were receptive to critiques of mainstream medicine and that Mind Cure was an attractive option. Like other unorthodox healing systems, such as homeopathy, hydrotherapy, (p.192) and osteopathy, it was far less painful and dangerous than mainstream medicine, particularly for women. It was certainly less likely to kill patients than so-called heroic measures, and people flocked to it as an alternative.

Advocates of Mindfulness, on the other hand, say their methods fill in certain gaps in orthodox medicine. Although medical science has made enormous advances since the nineteenth century, Kabat-Zinn observes, “no matter how remarkable our technological medicine, it has gross limitations that make complete cures a rarity, treatment often merely a rear-guard action to maintain the status quo, if there is any effective treatment at all, and even diagnosis of what is wrong an inexact and too often woefully inadequate science.”9 MBIs add a more human dimension to modern biomedicine, proponents say; it is not a substitute. Like patients at the early twentieth-century Emmanuel Clinic, MBI patients are frequently referred to a program by doctors, and one of Kabat-Zinn’s explicit reasons for using nonreligious language was to make MBSR acceptable to medical professionals, health insurers, and anyone else who might feel spooked by Asian religious disciplines. The first group of MBSR students at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center included “medical patients who could be said to be falling through the cracks of the health care system, people who were not being completely helped by the medical treatments available to them. That turned out to be a lot of people. It also included a great many people who had not improved with medical treatment or were suffering from intractable conditions for which medicine has few options and no cures.”10 As with Mind Cure, some patients do not resort to meditation until after other options have failed. Both require sustained commitment and skillful guidance.

Rhetorical Uses of Scientific Authority

Despite their critiques of mainstream medicine, both MBIs and Mind Curers have deployed the authority of science to validate their claims about the efficacy of the contemplative disciplines they promote. They do this in slightly different ways, because the meaning of “science” has changed since the mid-nineteenth century. Early Mind-Curers claimed that their methods were scientific: Phineas Quimby called his method “the Science of Health and Happiness.” Mary Baker Eddy called her teachings “Christian Science,” as did some of her students, who later founded their own groups under the banner of New Thought. These included “Divine Science” and “Religious Science,” also known as “Science (p.193) of Mind.” (Which is not to be confused with the Scientology founded by L. Ron Hubbard.) By “science,” they did not mean modern controlled, clinical trials; they simply meant that their claims were demonstrably true: ill people reported cures, and others reported observing them.

In fact, the term “demonstration” is central to Eddy’s Christian Science. She wrote, “Late in the nineteenth century I demonstrated the divine rules of Christian Science. They were submitted to the broadest practical test, and everywhere, when honestly applied under circumstances where demonstration was humanly possible, this Science showed that Truth had lost none of its divine and healing efficacy, even though centuries had passed away since Jesus practised these rules on the hills of Judaea and in the valleys of Galilee.”11 Stephen Gottschalk, a historian of Christian Science, explained, “That which is demonstrated is always the allness of God and the spiritual perfection of man. The full demonstration of these realities constitutes salvation as defined in Christian Science. And salvation in this sense is the only thing that Mrs. Eddy ultimately claimed to offer. Healing is considered indispensable in Christian Science, for in no other way can spiritual fact be demonstrated.”12

Ernest Holmes, the founder of Religious Science, also used the term “demonstration.” Like Eddy, he believed that the healing powers of mind were not miraculous, in the sense of divine intervention; they were manifestations of natural law: “We hold no argument with any one over the possibility of demonstrating the Law. There is such a thing as Universal Law and Mind, and we can use It if we comply with Its nature and work as It works. We do not argue, ask, deny, nor affirm; WE KNOW. Thousands are to-day proving this Law, and in time, all will come to realize the Truth.”13

It is clear that Christian Science and New Thought were popular because many people benefited from their teachings. Although Christian Science has declined dramatically since its heyday, New Thought ideas continue to captivate audiences. “The Law of Attraction,” popularized by Ralph Waldo Trine’s 1897 best seller, In Tune with the Infinite, is “The Secret” that Rhonda Byrne’s twenty-first-century film and best-selling book claim to reveal.

Of course, there is no way to validate—or invalidate—any past claim about the efficacy of mental healing, by contemporary scientific methods. Nineteenth-century medical diagnosis was far less sophisticated than it is today, and it is impossible to determine physiological causes of the symptoms for which people reported cures. Available historical records are insufficient to determine whether the cures lasted or whether people (p.194) suffered relapses. Nevertheless, the claim that cures were demonstrable, and therefore empirical or “scientific,” was certainly effective rhetorically, especially at a time when science was beginning to offer serious challenges to Christian orthodoxy.

In the present day, for a hypothesis to be valid scientifically it must be testable, and therefore it must be falsifiable: it must be at least theoretically possible to show that the hypothesis is incorrect. For the results of scientific experimentation to be considered valid, they must be replicable in experiments using control groups, and the experimental methods and data must be subject to peer review. These conditions are impossible to satisfy in case of cures attributed to Christian Science and New Thought practitioners. Controlled clinical trials did not become the standard in scientific research until the late twentieth century, thanks in part to Henry Beecher’s analysis of the placebo response.

Likewise, proponents of MBIs rely on medical and scientific authority to validate claims about the physical and psychological benefits of meditation. Kabat-Zinn wrote, “The medical and scientific model . . . is based on years of scientific research and the careful attempt to move away from voodoo and witchcraft and spiritualism and all sorts of things that have no basis in the scientific framework.”14 He even asserted, like the modernist Buddhist reformers from Asia before him, that “the Buddha was a great scientist” because his teachings were based on empirical observation of his own psychophysical processes.15

But as chapter 6 indicated, modern clinical trials are far from infallible. In addition to the difficulty of designing studies that account for multiple variables and provide adequate control groups, negative results may not be fully reported in medical journals, which compromises the integrity of the peer review process; research may be funded by organizations (such as for-profit corporations) with vested interests in study results; researchers may have financial interests in those entities; and regulatory oversight of research may be inadequate.16 Nevertheless the authority that scientific studies convey has been very effective in marketing Mindfulness.

A particularly clear example appeared in August 2017, just as this book was going to press. That month, Public Broadcasting Service stations began airing a thirty-minute infomercial called Mindfulness Goes Mainstream.17 A press release insisted four times in five paragraphs that scientific evidence has “proven” the mental and physical health benefits of mindfulness. “No longer limited to Eastern philosophers or California hippies,” readers were assured, “mindfulness is now embraced by millions (p.195) of ordinary people trying to survive in a totally stressed out world.” More than “1,500 studies have now been published citing how meditation lowers stress, improves heart and lung functionality and dramatically enhances focus and performance,” the document continued. The film itself insisted unequivocally that mindfulness reduces depression, anxiety, addictive behavior, and chronic pain and that it increases focus, empathy, compassion, and happiness.

While these are clearly good things, neither the marketing material nor the film mentions any of the methodological critiques of Mindfulness research, or the ambiguous results of some studies, or meta-analyses suggesting that measurable benefits from MBIs may be ambiguous or small. Also unmentioned are potentially harmful effects from meditation undertaken too intensively or without adequate guidance from experienced teachers. Mindfulness is simply “scientifically proven” to be beneficial in myriad ways. While claiming this authority, the program actually sidestepped the sort of peer-review and critique that are fundamental to the scientific method, as well as to careful scholarship in the humanities. It also made no reference to the ethical underpinnings of meditation in Buddhism and yoga and offered no analysis of the process by which these disciplines have became medicalized, commodified, and corporatized.

The sixty-minute PBS program included forty minutes of pseudo-documentary, punctuated by two ten-minute pledge breaks in which viewers were urged to become sustaining contributors to their local PBS affiliate stations. For $7 per month or an annual contribution of $84, viewers could own a copy of the film; for $10 per month or $120 per year, they would also receive a gift-pack of two DVDs and an audio CD that would teach them mindfulness techniques. I am a sustaining supporter of my local PBS station who believes meditation can be beneficial, but I found the whole program nauseating. Another reason for this was that the film is a perfect example of troubling racial and gender dynamics explored in this book, about which more will be said below.

Strategic Occidentalism and Orientalism

A third characteristic the Mindfulness movement shares with the religious traditions that inform it is a tendency toward both “strategic Occidentalism,” that is, using Western cultural resources and methods to promote Asian religions, and “strategic Orientalism,” using Asian religious systems to critique certain aspects of Western culture. As we saw, (p.196) the use of Western scientific rhetoric to legitimize the religious disciplines of meditation and yoga is an example of strategic Occidentalism. So is the claim that Buddhism, shorn of all its magical, miraculous elements and reduced to a philosophy grounded in selected texts, is more compatible with Western science than Christianity. A third example of strategic Occidentalism is the efforts some Asian gurus have made to promote their religious claims with the support of European and American celebrities and rock stars. Transcendental Meditation is one such case.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Sri Lankan, Japanese, and Chinese Buddhist reformers engaged in strategic Occidentalism to great effect. They learned Western philosophy and methods of textual analysis and deployed them to revitalize and reinterpret their religious traditions at home and to advance their own religious and political agendas abroad. Asian Buddhist scholars were inspired by Orientalist translations of their scriptures to explore their sacred literature and traditions afresh, and to recover “forms of knowledge which were atrophying and might otherwise have been lost.”18

In Sri Lanka, Buddhist modernizers used Protestant methods to combat the Protestant missionary activity that accompanied British colonialism. For example, reformers adopted Protestant styles of preaching and religious education and used printing technology to revitalize Buddhist institutions and argue for the superiority of their own traditions over Christianity. In this project, they were aided by the white founders of the Theosophical Society: Henry Steel Olcott and Helena P. Blavatsky.19 Theosophists and other sympathetic Orientalists also supported Hindu reformers in India who challenged British colonial rule and promoted Hindu nationalism.

During the Meiji Era in Japan, Buddhist institutions facing state persecution sent missionaries abroad to study Western philosophy and Orientalist scholarship. These missionaries then reinterpreted Buddhist philosophy through the lenses of German idealism and social Darwinism, and defended Buddhism as a modern, rational, ethical philosophy more compatible with Western science than was Christianity. They promoted their modernist reformulations at home, where the Japanese were eagerly appropriating Western technologies and fashions. They also promoted their ideas abroad, particularly at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions. The modernist versions of Buddhism they presented appealed to Western audiences in part because they had been designed to do so. Judith Snodgrass has argued that underlying efforts to present Japanese (p.197) Zen as equal—or superior—to Christianity were the missionaries’ desires to defend their religion against Western characterizations of Buddhism as nihilistic, superstitious, and backward, and politically, to secure the revision of unequal treaties between imperial Japan and Western countries.20

A more recent example of strategic Occidentalism is the Dalai Lama’s dialogues with Western scientists on the neuroscience of meditation, conducted under the auspices of the Mind and Life Institute. These dialogues counter a Chinese government narrative that characterizes Tibetan Buddhist culture as feudal and backward, offered to justify intervention by the Chinese state.

At the World’s Parliament, Vivekenanda and Dharmapāla (among others) also engaged in strategic Orientalism: they drew from their own Asian traditions and their knowledge of Christianity to assert the superiority of their religions over Christian monotheism. Vivekenanda argued that belief in an omnipotent God who allows human suffering is “unscientific” in comparison to the impersonal workings of karma, a deft use of both strategic Occidentalism and Orientalism. He critiqued the bigotry, individualism, and dogmatism he perceived in Western, missionary Christianity.21 Dharmapāla, in a speech before the Parliament, proclaimed pointedly, “The crude conceptions of anthropomorphic deism are being relegated to the limbo of oblivion. Lip service of prayer is giving place to a life of altruism. Personal self-sacrifice is gaining the place of a vicarious sacrifice.” According to Buddhist ethics, he said, “Prohibited employments include slave dealing, sale of weapons of warfare, sale of poisons, sale of intoxicants, sale of flesh—all deemed the lowest of professions.” Dharmapāla, Vivekenanda, and other Asians used the platform provided by Protestants at the Columbian Exposition—which had been carefully designed by its white organizers to demonstrate the superiority of Protestant civilization—to critique Protestant doctrine, practice, and hypocrisy.

Likewise, contemporary missionaries for Mindfulness, particularly those who are sympathetic to Buddhism and Hinduism, practice both strategic Occidentalism and strategic Orientalism. They interpret, promote, and describe meditation in Western scientific terms, while simultaneously deploying “the East as a means of intellectual and cultural criticism.”22 J. J. Clarke observes:

Arguably, these orientalist strategies could be seen as appropriating Eastern cultural products for the benefit of a manifestly Western project, commodification of Eastern traditions for Western (p.198) consumption. But at the same time it must be recalled that universalizing projects such as these were often subversive and counter-cultural within the Western context, designed to confront indigenous Western religious and philosophical assumptions and practices with a radical alternative, and in this sense they are expressive of ruptures within the West itself. And while projects such as universalism are effectively ways of subsuming Eastern systems of thought under the “intellectual authority” of Western categories and for purposes that flow from specifically Western aspirations, they are nevertheless premised on a belief that Eastern contributions to these projects have an inherent excellence that Western sources lack.23

Advocates of MBIs and New Thought have promoted meditation as an antidote to the stresses caused by Western civilization, and mental therapeutics as an antidote to the shortcomings of mainstream Western medicine and technologically driven culture.

Coziness with Consumer Capitalism

Like Individualist New Thought, the individualistic, lay-oriented, and therapeutic approach to meditation found in MBIs is particularly well suited to consumer capitalism. It can be easily commodified: taught in books, workshops, and classes. It does not require either monastic training or long-term formation in a religious congregation. It also squares very nicely with Krishnamurti’s injunctions to reject institutional forms of religion and chart one’s own path.24 It is ideal for those who like to think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious”: the target audience for Mindful magazine. In its most secularized and simplified versions, Jeff Wilson wryly observed, Mindfulness

requires no gurus, no initiation, no foreign mantras, no years on a cushion, no silence, no devotion, no moral restraint, no belief, no physical flexibility, no wisdom, no patience, no submission, no money, no community, no costumes. In some cases, it doesn’t even require meditation for more than a minute at a time. Yet . . . it promises everything: it can allegedly improve any conceivable activity and provide unlimited practical benefits. Perhaps it can even save the world.25

(p.199) The online program 10 Percent Happier, for example, developed by ABC News correspondent Dan Harris and Vipassana teacher Joseph Goldstein, offers “Clear, Simple Meditation. (No Robes. No Crystals.)” to a target audience of “fidgety skeptics,” defined as people “interested in meditation but allergic to woo-woo.” It provides video and audio lessons and a personal meditation coach, but “you don’t have to sit in a funny position. (Unless you want to, of course.) You also don’t have to: light incense, chant, or believe in anything in particular. There’s nothing to join, no special outfits to wear.” A subscription costs just under $30 for three months and $80 per year.26 In the PBS infomercial Mindfulness Goes Mainstream, which features Harris, Chade Meng Tan says, “One breath a day is all I ask.”27

Ron Purser and David Loy famously dubbed corporate and commercialized meditation training “McMindfulness,” which is advertised as a means of personal self-fulfillment, a competitive edge, and “a reprieve from the trials and tribulations of cutthroat corporate life.” As the singer-songwriter Jewel put it in Mindfulness Goes Mainstream, “It’s not trying to solve world problems when you meditate; it’s just a willingness to take a brain break.” This sort of individualized and consumerist approach “may be effective for self-preservation and self-advancement,” Loy and Purser note, “but is essentially impotent for mitigating the causes of collective and organizational distress.”28

Advocates of McMindfulness, they say, “argue that transformational change starts with oneself: if one’s mind can become more focused and peaceful, then social and organizational transformation will naturally follow.” This is a claim frequently advanced by speakers at big Mindfulness conventions, like the Wisdom 2.0 business conferences or the annual Mindful Leadership Summit in the District of Columbia. The flaw in this claim, Purser and Loy argue, is that “the three unwholesome motivations that Buddhism highlights—greed, ill will, and delusion—are no longer confined to individual minds, but have become institutionalized into forces beyond personal control.” I would argue that they are deeply entrenched in a globalized capitalist economy, institutionalized racism and sexism, the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, the healthcare industry, and government bureaucracies. They are reflected in unprecedented income inequality and the destruction of ecosystems worldwide. Purser and Loy continue:

Up to now, the mindfulness movement has avoided any serious consideration of why stress is so pervasive in modern business (p.200) institutions. Instead, corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because it conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employee: stress is framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments. Cloaked in an aura of care and humanity, mindfulness is refashioned into a safety valve, as a way to let off steam—a technique for coping with and adapting to the stresses and strains of corporate life.29

In Mindfulness Goes Mainstream the CEO of Aetna, a medical insurance company, credits mindfulness for helping him deal nonpharmaceutically with chronic pain; he says a twelve-week corporate wellness program involving three hundred employees, which included mindfulness and yoga, generated sixty-nine more minutes of productivity per month (he doesn’t explain how this figure was derived) and a 7 percent drop in corporate healthcare expenses. I do not mean to suggest that these are not good things, but they do little to change the fact that millions of people lack access to basic medical care or that the American medical system is the most expensive in the world, despite health indicators that are frequently far worse than those of other developed countries (e.g., rates of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, infant mortality).

Jeremy Carrette and Richard King have sharply critiqued a psychologically oriented and consumerist approach to “spirituality.” While it may claim to offer freedom from dogma and institutional constraints, they argue, it is in fact embedded in the assumptions, values, and power structures of neoliberalism and serves the interests of consumer capitalism. The rhetoric of individual “spirituality”

established a form of thought-control by turning religious discourse into private and individualised constructions, which pacified the social, and potentially revolutionary, aspects of religion. Under the terms set by political liberalism, religion could exist in the modern secular state so long as it was pushed safely into the private sphere. One way to achieve this is by containing it within psychological registers of meaning that would thereby limit the possibilities for threat to ruling elites.30

(p.201) Erasing its religious roots, rejecting forms of religious practice that require renunciation, and operating outside religious institutions, capitalist spirituality “offers personalized packages of meaning and social accommodation rather than recipes for social change and identification with others. In this sense, capitalist spirituality is the psychological sedative for a culture that is in the process of rejecting the values of community and social justice.”31 Carrette and King acknowledge that religious traditions “are not without their own dark histories of thought-control, oppression, and violence. Nevertheless, what they also offer are ways to overcome the pernicious consequences of individualism, self-interest, and greed throughout history.”32 At their best, religions can help practitioners to transcend such vices.

The late Marc Poirier, a lay teacher of Zen, saw the commodification of mindfulness and meditation as problematic for several reasons:

It obscures the importance of at least three key aspects of traditional Buddhist training: (1) a sustained commitment to practice over time; (2) the usefulness of the community of practice in stabilizing and expanding individual practice; and (3) the importance of guidance from a learned and trusted teacher or elder with whom the student develops a long-term disciple relationship. These three elements are essential for those who wish to explore more deeply what mindfulness and meditation can offer as a way of life.33

Without commitment, community, and wise, ethical guidance, critics say, corporate “McMindfulness” is about as wholesome as most other fast food.

Divergences: What Got Lost

Having considered characteristics that Mind Cure and MBIs have in common, let us consider how they differ, and the implications of those differences. First, early New Thought, like the Emmanuel Movement, was largely community-oriented. In the early New Thought movement, white women and black men founded religious communities that helped people to cultivate character and develop spiritually. Many members of these communities also worked politically for social reforms, such as women’s suffrage, changes to marriage and divorce laws, and antilynching (p.202) legislation. Others worked for economic empowerment and self-sufficiency for all women and for black men. Changing unhelpful habits of mind was simply the first step to liberation—not just spiritually, but in political, legal, and economic terms. However, as mental therapeutics became medicalized, “positive thinking” became more commercialized, and the public sphere became increasingly secular, the religiously motivated social justice agendas of early New Thought communities fell by the wayside. Their ethical and political concerns were privatized and faded from view.

Freudian psychotherapy had a strongly atheist bias, and as mental therapeutics shifted from the Mind Curers to the Emmanuel Movement to the purview of mainstream doctors, it became ever more individualized and secularized. “Talk therapy” certainly can provide a confidential space for confession and reflection, but it is not rooted in any particular ethical or spiritual framework. This development was not inevitable, however. Other groups have managed to maintain relatively successful syntheses of psychological counseling and spiritual formation.

Alcoholics Anonymous, the Salvation Army, and Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) have all blended various forms of psychological counseling (professional or peer) with religious community, ethical formation, and social support. These three institutions occupy a space between traditional churches and the medical establishment. CPE trains clergy candidates to understand themselves better psychologically and to provide more effective pastoral counseling in institutions that serve religiously diverse populations. Chaplains are trained in peer groups and generally are also accountable to the churches and denominations that ordain or otherwise authorize their ministries. AA and the Salvation Army reach out to the most isolated and alienated people in society: those who are poor, ill, homeless, and/or addicted. The Salvation Army, which represents the conservative, evangelical end of the Protestant spectrum, offers residential treatment for substance abuse, counseling, job training, transitional housing, and other supportive services. AA retains its Protestant flavor but makes room for the unchurched, the agnostic or atheist, the “spiritual but not religious,” and those who identify with religions other than Christianity. Fellowship is central to the success of those who find recovery in these organizations. Neither is oriented toward social, economic, or political change, however.

In the spaces that such groups provide, people can form friendships and interpersonal networks; learn the value of community; mature psychologically, ethically, and spiritually; participate in democratic processes; (p.203) exercise responsible leadership; and perform acts of service. They practice introspection and are encouraged to become more sensitive and compassionate to others. They foster “faith instead of disbelief, community in place of alienation, ethical striving rather than self-indulgence.”34 These organizations have “convinced millions of spiritually and socially alienated Americans that, in their pursuit of well-being, they needed to turn to God and fellowship, and that to do this they had to become more honest and altruistic.”35 AA also helps people adapt to religious pluralism, as members encounter and must serve alongside those who orient toward religion differently from themselves. The Mindfulness movement seems too privatized to foster such benefits effectively.


When a spiritual discipline like meditation is individualized, medicalized, instrumentalized, and commodified, the most fundamental loss is the benefit of long-term immersion in a community that transcends the bonds of kinship or tribe. Religious congregations, for all their flaws, can create social and civic bonds that make people and communities happier and healthier. They can motivate people to work for social change, as they did during both the Civil Rights movement and the Reagan Revolution. MBSR protocols, on the other hand, have students interact primarily with instructors, so relationships among classmates have little opportunity to form. In online or DVD-based courses, students can practice entirely alone. And in both kinds of courses, some participants will stop practicing after the course ends because meditation is difficult to maintain on one’s own, especially when painful emotions or memories arise.

In Buddhist groups, practitioners take refuge in Three Jewels: the Buddha (i.e., a qualified teacher), the Dharma, and the Sangha (a community of practice). In the monastic traditions, the Sangha embodies

quite literally, a critique of mainstream social values and cultural norms. . . . It necessitated a radical change in the way one lived; one was required to opt out of family ties and worldly pursuits, and opt in to an alternative, communal, celibate, and highly regulated lifestyle. Modern teachers of mindfulness rarely make such demands of their students; the liberating, or if you will therapeutic, benefits apparently do not require dramatic changes in the way one lives. Rather than enjoining practitioners to renounce carnal and sensual (p.204) pleasure, mindfulness is touted as a way to more fulfilling sensual experiences. Rather than enjoining practitioners to renounce mainstream American culture, mindfulness is seen as a way to better cope with it.36

Rigorous, monastic practices of “poverty, celibacy, homelessness, and lack of any personal attachments or possessions . . . is the expression of the core truths of impermanence, non-clinging, and interdependency. In none of these traditions was meditation separable either from an all-encompassing form of life or from a strict ethical set of precepts governing all aspects of conduct,” write Barry Magid and Marc Poirier, both nonmonastic teachers of Zen. Even among laity, however, Buddhist moral precepts are fundamental.37 In most forms of Buddhism, the most basic act of affiliation with the tradition is publicly to “take refuge” in the Three Jewels and vow to practice at least five basic precepts: not to kill, steal, lie, misuse sexuality, or use intoxicants.

Nowadays it is fashionable and common to proclaim oneself “spiritual but not religious”; according to surveys conducted by the Pew Forum on the American Religious Landscape, “nones” are the fastest growing group in American society. When I probe with college students what they mean by this, it turns out that many ascribe to the category “religion” everything they dislike—rules, structures, institutions, exclusiveness, judgmentalism—and ascribe to “spirituality” everything they like: wisdom, compassion, reverence, generosity, love, unsullied nature, and so on. Frequently, behind this categorization is negative experience with a highly dogmatic form of religiosity and limited exposure to alternatives. Because I have learned to cultivate much of my own “spiritual” life through specifically “religious” disciplines, I see the dichotomy as a false one. Religious communities certainly can promote toxic, hateful ideologies, and religious disciplines and rituals certainly can be done in rote, empty, ineffective ways. But such disciplines and rituals are not inherently ineffective, or they would not have lasted for centuries and millennia in the institutions that practice and preserve them.

Robert Sharf, a scholar of East Asian Buddhism, made cogent observations about problems that attend any individualistic, de-institutionalized approach to Buddhism:

I think this deep suspicion of religious institutions is understandable but also misguided. The organized, rule-bound and tradition-bound (p.205) institution of the sangha provides a framework that, at least ideally, helps to efface egocentrism. The sangha literally embodies the Buddhist tradition; it transcends the self-concerns of any individual, especially the concerns that arise from placing our inner life at the center of the universe. So we must ask whether Buddhism, when practiced without the ties of community and tradition, instead of mitigating our tendency toward narcissism, actually feeds it.38

Sharf was careful to add:

I certainly don’t think that personal experience, meditation, spirituality, and the like are unimportant or that they have no place in Buddhism. The Buddha, after all, attained enlightenment while meditating under the Bodhi tree. My concern is with how Buddhist modernism has isolated meditation from the context of the whole of Buddhist religious life. So much of what was once considered integral to the tradition has been abandoned in this rush to celebrate meditation or mindfulness or personal transformation or mystical experience as the sine qua non of Buddhism. . . . It’s really not a question of right or wrong. It’s a question of what gets lost.39

What gets lost, he explains, are the corporate dimensions of Buddhist formation—the texts, rituals, and traditions that have inspired and shaped Buddhist communities over two and a half millennia. Although advocates of MBSR insist that mindfulness is “a way of life and not a technique,” this vehicle for promoting Mindfulness does not provide, and may not even succeed in encouraging, the kinds of long-term, community-based formation that might help people to internalize that way of life.

Poirier and Magid “can see the legitimate need for avoiding anything that appears to be proselytizing of a particular religious faith within corporate or educational settings. But it is also part of the secular, market-based pitch that mindfulness is a technique that can be separated from any long-term commitments, lifestyle changes, or ethical concerns.”40 Designating a practice as religious implies a long-term commitment: not just to the practice itself, but to the community of practice. Further, many of the values that Buddhist ethics promote are social values.

For the notion of sangha to be viable, we must have a group of practitioners who are committed to one another, not just to their (p.206) own meditation practice. They must be united by something more substantial than the coincidence of meeting up at irregular intervals at a smorgasbord of workshops. The commitment is not merely a matter of peer support but of a shared ethical responsibility, based on the precepts.41

Poirier points out that it is possible to develop a sequence of instruction that begins with short modules and leads to longer periods of practice, and eventually to a relationship with an experienced meditation teacher and community. The secularized Shambhala Training developed by a Tibetan teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, did this: “The workshop model was used at the front end, but there was a door beyond it leading to a structure more supportive of sustained practice.”42 As Stephanie Muravchick has pointed out, the Emmanuel Movement, the Salvation Army, and Alcoholics Anonymous (and its offshoots) all managed to create forms of psychoreligious therapy and healing grounded in communities of practice.

Some MBSR teachers do offer regular meditation groups or classes to provide ongoing instruction and support. The Center for Mindfulness does this. In Baltimore, an MBSR teacher and psychotherapist, Trish Magyari, worked with colleagues to establish a weekly meditation group affiliated with the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C., to provide ongoing support for MBSR graduates and others. It meets in a yoga studio.

Even people embedded in American Buddhist communities can have a myopic and ahistorical view of Buddhist history and traditions, however—especially if they emphasize meditation (or other practices such as chanting) to the exclusion of other forms of Buddhist practice, including devotional rituals and formal studies. Two examples will illustrate the point. A March 2008 article in a popular Buddhist magazine surveyed clinical research on meditation and noted that to make mindfulness broadly palatable, “researchers and clinicians have stripped away vipassana’s South Asian cultural and ritual baggage and presented it as a simple way to walk through mental and emotional turmoil—much, perhaps, as the Buddha himself did 2,500 years ago [emphasis added].”43 A more recent Mindfulness advocate, responding in Mindful magazine to critics who expressed concern that a secularized approach to meditation fosters a superficial, watered-down version of Buddhism, said this:


I think these critiques come from more fundamentalist Buddhists. I mean, if you want to see watered-down Buddhism, travel to the beautiful Zen temples of Korea, a country where Buddhism is still alive and well, and you’ll see all the ladies in the temples working their malas, chatting about their kids, sometimes shucking peas; the temples are very much village and urban gathering places. How many people are deeply practicing?44

In my view, this remark reflects the same kind of cultural arrogance that led European Orientalists to claim in the nineteenth century that “real” Buddhism was the philosophical and ethical teachings to be found in Pali scriptures, and that devotional and ritual practices, as well as the social and communal life of temples, were “corruptions” of that “pure” tradition.

A version of Buddhism in which meditation is the “essence,” purified of extraneous “cultural baggage” and universally applicable to all, may be closer to fundamentalism, in that it takes a highly selective reading of a complex and diverse religious tradition, particularly its textual tradition, and projects it backward in time in order to valorize an imagined “golden age” before “corruption” and “decline” set in—which, of course, modern Westerners must now recapture. It is a patronizing, colonial mentality. White, Euro-American converts to meditation-oriented Buddhism—and I am one—tend to say this sort of thing when we practice and talk mostly with one another rather than with other sorts of Buddhists. Asian American scholars of Buddhism such as Chenxing Han, Funie Hsu, the late blogger “Angry Asian Buddhist,” the Dharma teacher Mushim Ikeda, African American Dharma teachers such as Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and others have repeatedly pointed this out in American Buddhist media over the past decade or more.

It will take a long time—perhaps centuries—for the West to engage with the Buddhist tradition at a deeper level. Such an engagement will require that we see past the confines of our own historical and cultural situation and gain a greater appreciation of the depth and complexity of the Buddhist heritage. Certainly one impediment to that is the idea that the only thing that matters is meditation and that everything else is just excess baggage.45

(p.208) And what of the “cultural baggage” that the white, meditation-focused, convert described above is carrying? It is a mark of unexamined white privilege to assume that others have “cultural baggage” but oneself does not.


As we saw in chapter 5, mindfulness is only one element of a comprehensive path of spiritual cultivation called the Eightfold Path, said to lead to spiritual insight and liberation from suffering. Three elements of the Eightfold Path deal with moral conduct: right speech (not lying, engaging in harsh or divisive speech, gossiping, or participating in idle chatter), right conduct (not killing, stealing, intoxicating oneself, or misusing sexuality), and right livelihood (not making a living based on wrong speech or conduct, e.g., butchery, dealing weapons or intoxicants, prostitution or human trafficking). One of the factors aiding the spread of Buddhism along trade routes such as the Silk Road was that it provided a system of ethics not dependent upon one’s social class (varna), tribe, or clan. Right Mindfulness, the seventh element of the Eightfold Path, has an ethical function: to help practitioners distinguish wholesome from unwholesome actions and states of mind. Ethical conduct is understood to be fundamental to meditative calm.

Early Buddhist scriptures such as “The Chapter of the Eights” in the Sutta Nipata and the Sigālaka Sutta in the Dīgha Nikāya are strongly ethical in character. “The Chapter of the Eights” is a series of aphorisms discouraging greed, sensuality, dogmatism, arrogance, contentiousness, violence, and so forth, and lauding the renunciate life of a wandering monk.46 The Sigālaka Sutta contains “Advice to Lay People”; it discourages addiction, gambling, and keeping poor company, and encourages respect for parents and teachers and fair dealings with one’s spouse, friends, employees, and servants. Generosity is the most fundamental Buddhist virtue. In most forms of Buddhism it is traditional for laity to adopt five moral precepts, and when people ordain as monks and nuns, they formally adopt at least ten and often hundreds of precepts governing every aspect of comportment and daily life.

But ethical training is not necessarily part of Mindfulness training. At a Day of Mindfulness retreat I attended in North Carolina as part of early research for this book, participants were asked simply to maintain silence and avoid eye contact with one another. In the Vipassanā retreats upon which the Day of Mindfulness is modeled, however, participants are (p.209) normally asked to observe the five precepts for lay Buddhists during the event. In MBSR retreats, this is up to the leaders of the particular course.

Also absent from MBIs is an epistemological framework for meditative practice. Clearly, physical yoga, meditation, and lovingkindness visualizations can be helpful to people apart from Buddhist and Hindu doctrines. Yet these practices are grounded in assumptions about the nature of reality, humans’ capacity to discern reality, and the ethical implications of such discernment. For example, one consequence of the Vedanta teaching that the divine manifests in all things is that people try, through various forms of yoga, to learn to see God everywhere, in everything and everyone. Buddhist liberation is predicated on the recognition that what we imagine to be the “self” lacks any independent, unchanging, enduring essence. The ethical consequence of this realization is that people must learn to overcome the grasping, aversion, and ignorance that arise from attachment to the putative “self.”

Kabat-Zinn disputes the claim that MBIs ignore ethics in favor of a few decontextualized techniques:

First, it is inevitably the personal responsibility of each person engaging in this work to attend with care and intentionality to how we are actually living our lives, both personally and professionally, in terms of ethical behavior. An awareness of one’s conduct and the quality of one’s relationships, inwardly and outwardly, in terms of their potential to cause harm, are intrinsic elements of the cultivation of mindfulness as I am describing it here.47

He also argues that ethics are built into the structure and setting of MBSR in various ways. These include the fundamental ethical imperatives to “do no harm,” and for healthcare providers to place patients’ needs before their own. Kabat-Zinn even compares the Hippocratic Oath to the Māhāyana Buddhist Bodhisattva Vow.48 But the Hippocratic Oath refers to physicians’ obligation not to harm people in their care because there is a power imbalance in the doctor-patient relationship and patients are considered vulnerable. The oath says nothing about how Mindfulness students should behave toward their corporate coworkers once they leave the classroom or meditation hall, or how mindful soldiers and police should regard the people in their gunsights.

Because Buddhism is, at its roots, a monastic, renunciant tradition, which has survived through the dedication of monastics and the patronage (p.210) of aristocrats and monarchs for much of its history, it has not developed the same kinds of prophetic, social justice traditions that are central to the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. A number of contemporary Buddhist leaders—monastics, priests, and lay teachers—have been working to develop social ethics grounded in Buddhist teachings about compassion, which are in turn grounded in wisdom teachings about the impermanent, interdependently co-arising, self-less nature of reality. In a 2013 essay in the Huffington Post titled “Beyond McMindfulness,” Purser and Loy assert that separating mindfulness from its spiritually transformative purposes, as well as from social ethics, “amounts to a Faustian bargain. Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.”49 Hozan Alan Senauke, an American Zen teacher and political activist, writes:

In recent years Google, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Monsanto, and other corporate giants hired mindfulness trainers to de-stress their employees. The development of mindfulness programs in corporate and military settings raises compelling ethical questions, including the problem of commodification. Corporate environments can be pressure cookers. The ability to practice meditation and mindfulness, even for the space of a few breaths, can immediately alter one’s inner environment, which is part of the larger whole. In itself this is beneficial. But lacking a view of the precepts the question is not asked: what is the purpose of this corporation; what are we making?”50

Citing the Vanijja Sutta, Senauke quotes the Buddha’s instructions to lay followers not to traffic in weapons, human beings, meat, intoxicants, or poisons.

Before and during World War II, he adds, leading Zen teachers and schools of Japanese Buddhism jumped on the bandwagon as Imperial Japan committed atrocities in Russia, China, Manchuria, and Korea during expansionist wars and military occupations. “ ‘Imperial Way Zen’ melded the Buddhist principles of selflessness, discipline, and mindfulness with the aggressive goals of an expansionist, militarist state, concocting a witch’s brew of violent nationalism.”51 We are seeing similar violence today in other cultures where Buddhism has been joined to nationalism: the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and of (p.211) Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka, for example. In response to the moral failings of Japanese Buddhism, the scholars Hakamaya Noriaki and Matsumoto Shirō have promoted what they call “Critical Buddhism,” arguing that these failings are a result of the “Buddha-nature doctrine,” the innate-ist interpretation of enlightenment discussed in the previous chapter, because it fosters social, ethical, and political passivity. If all beings already possess the Buddha-nature, one can argue, there is no need for rigorous monastic and ethical practice. This innate-ist view of awakening underlies Kabat-Zinn’s understanding of Mindfulness, even though he advocates rigorous practice.

No doubt Mindfulness can be helpful to stressed employees, to schoolchildren, and to military veterans with posttraumatic stress and physical, emotional, and moral injuries. But because it minimizes the need for rigorous ethical behavior and downplays Buddhist teachings about the interrelatedness of all phenomena, there is a risk that it can also mute critiques of dysfunctional organizational structures or flawed goals, such as short-term profits at any cost or soldiers who are better “armored” emotionally to withstand the horrors of war.

Senauke asks:

  • If one is practicing mindfulness in a corporation, what are you making and selling, how are you treating your workers in a distant land, and at what cost are you extracting resources from the earth?

  • If one is working in a prison, on either side of the bars, do you see the common humanity of prisoners, guards, and administrators?

  • If one is bringing mindfulness programs to active-duty soldiers, what if they are taking part in wars that might be viewed as illegal and unwinnable, and what does it mean to take orders and directions from a political structure that is not accountable for the widespread violence of its own policies?

  • And finally: Before we minister to corporations, prisons, and the military, perhaps we should consider that the members of our government and the policymakers on corporate boards and in the so-called justice system are the ones who most need instruction in right mindfulness.52

In Buddhist tradition, Right Mindfulness is our ability to distinguish what is wholesome from what is unwholesome in order to cultivate the former and renounce the latter.

(p.212) Systemic Analysis of Suffering

Finally, an individualist approach to mental and physical well-being prevents a systemic analysis of suffering. While Kabat-Zinn has written about the social or systemic dimensions of suffering, MBIs are not designed to address them: they teach that the way to heal stress-related pain and illness is to focus on one’s own present-moment experience. I certainly do not deny the value of this, but it does not help communities to understand and address structural problems that can affect psychological and physical health.

In fact, treating disease as an individual problem can actively impede analysis of these social factors. Kabat-Zinn acknowledges that “it may be profoundly unwise to focus solely on our own individual well-being and security, because our well-being and security are intimately interconnected with everything else in this ever-smaller world we inhabit.”53 He argues that meditation can be “an act of love, an inward gesture of benevolence and kindness toward ourselves and toward others, a gesture of the heart that recognizes our perfection even in our obvious imperfection, with all our shortcomings, our wounds, our attachments, our vexations, and our persistent habits of unawareness. It is a very brave gesture: to take one’s seat for a time and drop in on the present moment without adornment.”54 I agree. But at some point, one must rise from the cushion, and deal directly with problems that have everything to do with individual and communal health and wellbeing: racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, poverty, and inadequate medical insurance.

Perhaps one reason MBIs do not include systemic analyses of illness and other forms of suffering is that many of the people involved have better access to medical care and are less directly afflicted by racism, and poverty. Mindfulness training costs several hundred dollars and is accessible only to people who can devote eight or more hours to it a week, for at least two months. Certification as an instructor costs thousands of dollars: at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare and Society, MBSR teacher training and certification costs $10,300 to $10,840, plus the cost of supplemental retreats. Teacher training for the two-day “Search Inside Yourself” program developed at Google is $7,500.

An annual convention in the District of Columbia called the Mindful Leadership Summit gathers several hundred current and aspiring leaders who want to become “more conscious and effective” in their fields and to transform themselves, their organizations, their communities, and (p.213) the world.55 In 2017 registration fees for the two-day summit ranged from $499 for “early birds” to $899 (regular), plus $199 per night for lodging in the conference hotel, plus travel and meal expenses—not to mention optional “leadership intensives” on the days before and after the summit proper.56 Tickets for the three-day Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco ranged from $499 to $1,550. Wisdom 2.0 Intersect, a weekend “retreat for change makers” in Hawaii, cost $1,500 to $2,500, plus travel, lodging, and meals.

Let us consider such costs alongside the racial and gender composition of the conference presenters. Of fourteen listed on the event website as this manuscript went to press in mid-August 2017, ten were male, and ten appeared to be white. The white men included a professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, an executive coach, the CEO of an engineering firm that is a military contractor, the CEO of an accounting and wealth-management firm, the founder of a company that develops corporate training programs based on mindfulness, and the New York Times reporter who launched 10 Percent Happier, the online meditation program for “fidgety skeptics allergic to woo-woo.” The three men of color included a black retired minor league baseball player; the black president of a division of the aforementioned defense contractor; and a South Asian professor of marketing who cofounded the Conscious Capitalism movement.57 The four women included a white retired corporate attorney who has built a second career in the Mindfulness industry; the white director of the Office of Work-Life at Harvard; and the cofounders of a consulting company that offers training in what it calls “sustainable abundance,” one of whom appears to be white, the other black. Their three-course sequence begins with an online course delivered for a sliding scale of $150 to $500, is followed by two, two-day, in-person courses in Massachusetts, which cost from $300 to $995 each and which are occasionally offered as “destination courses” in the Bahamas.58 The program aims to help people overcome a mindset of “scarcity,” which the founders themselves would appear to be transcending through high-end consulting and training fees.

People who can afford conferences on “mindful leadership” and courses in “sustainable abundance” in the Bahamas, like those who can afford certification as Mindfulness coaches, are the very people most likely already to have access to good medical insurance, healthy food, clean water, safe neighborhoods, and stable housing.59 Unnatural Causes, a seven-part documentary film exploring racial and socioeconomic disparities in health (p.214) and medical care, shows that one’s zip code is the single greatest predictor of health and life expectancy. People in poor neighborhoods, who cope daily with the chronic stress imposed by poverty, live shorter, less healthy lives than people who live in affluent neighborhoods, the majority of whom are white.60

“Worldwide, the most routine obstacle to human happiness is poverty,” notes Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided, a characteristically scathing analysis of American “positive thinking.”61 To illustrate the point, she cites a 2009 New York Times survey of New York neighborhoods, which found that “the happiest areas were also the most affluent and, not coincidentally, the most thickly supplied with cafés, civic associations, theaters, and opportunities for social interaction.” The least happy neighborhood was “characterized by abandoned buildings, mounds of uncollected garbage, and the highest unemployment rate in the city.”62 Poverty disproportionately affects people of color, women, and children.

Racial and gender disparities among spokespersons for the Mindfulness movement were particularly glaring in the PBS infomercial Mindfulness Goes Mainstream. Of eleven featured speakers, ten are white and nine are male. Six of the eight white men interviewed hold doctoral degrees: Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD; Jack Kornfield, PhD, a founder of the Vipassana or Insight Meditation movement in American Buddhism, described as a “meditation thought leader” not a lay Buddhist teacher; Richard Davidson, PhD, of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he has been a major recipient of federal grants for mindfulness research; Dan Siegel, MD, of the University of California–Los Angeles School of Medicine, another major researcher in the field; and Saki Santorelli, EdD, and Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, of the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. The other men are Mark Bertolini, chairman and CEO of the medical insurer Aetna; Dan Harris, the ABC News correspondent who cofounded 10 Percent Happier; and the sole person of color, Chade Meng Tan, who developed Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” program and who emphasized the competitive advantages and profitability of corporate Mindfulness training. The two women, both white, are Eileen Fisher, a fashion designer and CEO of an eponymous clothing company, and singer-songwriter Jewel, who credits Mindfulness with helping her go from homelessness to stardom. Two other white women led the PBS pledge breaks.

Surprisingly absent from the film was any mention of the Holistic Life Foundation in Baltimore, which was cofounded by three men of color to teach meditation and yoga to children in the city’s poorest schools, (p.215) most of whom are black or brown. An earlier PBS program had focused briefly on HLF teachers and students: they got one minute and twenty seconds of airtime in a 2012 segment of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly lasting eight minutes and forty-two seconds total, also titled Mindfulness Goes Mainstream. The rest of the time was devoted to Congressman Tim Ryan and Jon Kabat-Zinn, both of whom are white. But even a time ratio of 6:1 was better than in the sixty-minute PBS infomercial five years later, in which the only people of color were occasional participants in Mindfulness courses, shown in the background. Women may outnumber men as students in Mindfulness classes and as front-line Mindfulness teachers, just as they outnumbered men among early Mind Curers. But once the Emmanuel Movement appeared, the principal spokespersons for Mind Cure became elite white men, and that dynamic has persisted throughout the Mindfulness movement. The visible spokespersons are overwhelmingly white, male, highly educated, and affluent. The stresses they endure, and the resources they have for coping with that stress, are fundamentally different than for the chronically poor.

Kabat-Zinn is a frequent headliner at events promoting Mindfulness, and while he is clearly benefiting from the industry he helped to create, it would be unfair to suggest that he is oblivious to systemic suffering. In Coming to Our Senses, he acknowledges “all those who are disenfranchised, disempowered, who appear to be hopelessly at the mercy of forces they have no direct say in or control over.” But this sentence continues, “until, as in South Africa and in countless other places, they all of a sudden surprise the world and effect what seemed impossible the moment before, and without resorting to violence.”63 This seems a rather optimistic view of how the end of apartheid in South Africa came about. It did not occur “all of a sudden”; it was the result of many decades of concerted, collective, international, political and economic pressure, and the process was not nonviolent. Opponents of apartheid sometimes resorted to terrorist violence and rioting, and the apartheid regime engaged in brutally violent repression.

In another essay, Kabat-Zinn writes, “Of course, the eight-hour workday, child labor laws, gender equality, and desegregation were all won through popular grassroots movements that started small, and that doggedly badgered and perturbed the system, often at huge sacrifice of many anonymous individuals, until it responded and shifted.”64 This seems a more realistic assessment—although eight-hour workdays, gender equality, and desegregation have not been entirely won. His socioeconomic analysis seems limited and, if I may suggest, might be blinkered somewhat by unexamined racial, gendered, educational, and economic privilege.

(p.216) Kabat-Zinn is politically liberal, extremely effective as a public speaker, and, I assume, sincere. I happen to share many of his political and ethical opinions. For example, I agree with the following:

It requires great patience and forbearance to not turn away from the suffering of the world, yet not be overwhelmed by the enormity of it either, or destroyed by it. It requires great patience and forbearance not to think we can magically fix it all or get it all right just by throwing money at what we see as a problem, perhaps trying to buy influence or allegiance, or impose our own values on others. Clarity and peace do not come easily to us as individuals, even less so as a society. In one way, we need to work at continually cultivating those qualities of mind and attention that nurture clarity and peace, selflessness and kindness, even though, seen another way, they are part of us and accessible to us in their fullness even now, and actually, only now. At the same time, we need to recognize the impulses in ourselves toward self-righteousness, arrogance, aggression, cruelty, dominance, and indifference so as not to be caught by them and blindsided.65

Such an attitude has resonances with Protestant perfectionism and millennialism, and like Kabat-Zinn, I have been shaped by these aspects of American culture and history. As a (white, middle-class, highly educated, American, convert, meditation-oriented, modernist) Buddhist, I also agree, as I have said, that the specific practices and attitudes that MBSR promotes can be very helpful. Yet I am less optimistic about the ability of mindfulness itself to bring about social and political transformation.

Some would argue that mindfulness, and the insight it can produce, may equip people morally, that compassion inevitably flows from the recognition of impermanence and interdependence. This is certainly a strong theme in Mindfulness Goes Mainstream. But I am not convinced that this is true.66 Compelling counterevidence includes repeated leadership scandals in American Buddhist communities, in which revered, supposedly enlightened—usually male—teachers are alleged to have preyed sexually on students, most of whom were female, and some of whom were ostracized for speaking out.67 I believe instead that compassion and moral conduct must be actively cultivated in communities; that meditation is helpful but not sufficient for that purpose; and that people in positions of (p.217) spiritual authority must be embedded in systems that hold them accountable to people other than those they teach and counsel.68

Just as we cannot learn to become less greedy, aversive, and ignorant individuals without the help of others, we cannot correct systemic inequities solely through individual efforts because such problems are rooted in collective power dynamics: one group’s domination of another—legally, economically, politically, culturally. Systemic inequities are maintained by the privilege a dominant group enjoys as a result of the history of domination, whether that dominance is based upon racial, gendered, economic, religious, or other social distinctions. Members of a dominant group enjoy privilege regardless of whether or not individual members of that group want to have it. And privilege works in such a way that those who have it are seldom required to notice that they have it and how it functions in daily life. It is simply the air one breathes, without realizing how other people are choking on the exhaust. The work of seeing it is endless, essential, and frequently uncomfortable, even quite painful.

A reluctance to confront painful truths is a deeply problematic feature of American culture, writes Ehrenreich. A penchant for positive thinking led people to ignore or minimize warning signs that could have helped to prevent the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the dot-com bust, massive flooding during Hurricane Katrina, protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the financial collapse of 2008. “Sometimes,” she says, “we need to heed our fears and negative thoughts, and at all times we need to be alert to the world outside ourselves, even when that includes absorbing bad news and entertaining the views of ‘negative’ people.” We cannot solve economic, military, social, and infrastructure problems unless people think clearly and critically about them, with “vigilant realism.” We face real threats and problems, which require action in the real world: “Build up the levees, get food to the hungry, find the cure, strengthen the ‘first responders’!”69 We certainly need respite from those efforts, which meditation and Mindfulness can help to provide, but then we have to get back to work.

Efforts to change structural, systemic inequalities must address such problems systemically, by changing institutionalized power relations. For that, we should take a lesson from the early Mind Cure movement: changing one’s mind is good and important, but not sufficient by itself to overcome oppressive economic, political, legal, and social structures. To transform those, we need engaged religious communities; well-funded educational institutions; reasonable working conditions, wages, healthcare, and housing; and collective political action for the common good. (p.218)


(1.) Thanks to Jeff Wilson for suggesting this term.

(2.) Perennialism is also a feature of Theosophy and of the late twentieth-century New Age religions that New Thought helped to birth.

(3.) Among the largest collections of New Thought materials are those of the New York Public Library, the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston, the Library of Congress, the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and the University of (p.265) California (especially the Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara campuses). The extensive collection of materials assembled by Charles Braden and initially housed at the Bridwell Library of Southern Methodist University was donated to the International New Thought Alliance. Housed in Tempe, Arizona, the archives have no online catalogue and are staffed by a very part-time archivist. The Unity archive at Unity Village, near Kansas City, Missouri, also has a large collection of materials and a helpful archivist. Two bibliographies would be useful in this research. The most recent was compiled by Materra and included in several appendices to his PhD dissertation. The first is an annotated list of fifty-three New Thought serials that he consulted; appendix 2 is a sixty-page bibliography of New Thought books and journals published through 1905; appendix 3 is a forty-five-page bibliography of materials published from 1906 to 1918. Appendix 7 lists periodicals available at the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, the Unity archives, and the University of California, Santa Barbara. Another, ninety-page bibliography containing approximately 2,000 titles is by Whaley. A copy is available in the reference section of the Graduate Theological Union library.

(5.) Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, vii.

(10.) Ibid., 131.

(15.) Ibid., 515.

(16.) Such problems have been cited recently in meta-analyses of research on antidepressant drugs. See, for example, “Anti-Depressants’ ‘Little Effect’: New Generation Anti-Depressants Have Little Clinical Benefit for Most Patients, Research Suggests,” BBC News Online, February 26, 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7263494.stm. Critics charge that when these factors are considered, available evidence suggests that certain drugs may be only slightly more effective than placebos. In the case of research on meditation, corporate interests may not be a significant factor (meditation is a less profitable product than pharmaceuticals), but research designs and interpretation of results can still be problematic.

(17.) PBS Presents: Mindfulness Goes Mainstream, produced by Nicolas Stein, Anne Adams, and Laurie Donnelly (Public Broadcasting Service, released August 4, 2017), https://www.pbs.org/video/mindfulness-goes-mainstream-jjfwvu/, accessed November 3, 2018.

(19.) See Prothero, The White Buddhist.

(20.) Snodgrass; Droit.

(21.) Vivekenanda, “Hinduism as a Religion.” He also remarked that “some of the very best” rishis who transmitted Vedic revelations were women, obscuring the strongly patriarchal norms of Vedic and Hindu tradition.

(22.) Ibid., 107.

(23.) Clarke, 207.

(24.) As noted earlier, Kabat-Zinn is an admirer of Krishnamurti, and the meditation practice of “Choiceless Awareness” that Krishnamurti advocated is taught in MBSR courses.

(26.) The website of 10 Percent Happier is http://www.10percenthappier.com; see also https://gifts.10percenthappier.com/collections/frontpage, both accessed August 15, 2017.

(27.) See PBS Presents: Mindfulness Goes Mainstream.

(28.) Ron Purser and David Loy, “Beyond McMindfulness,” Huffington Post July 1, 2013, updated August 31, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ron-purser/beyond-mcmindfulness_b_3519289.html, accessed November 3, 2018.

(31.) Ibid., 83. The sociologist Robert Bellah dubbed this approach to religion “Sheilaism,” after the nurse who described her version of it during an interview for his book Habits of the Heart.

(32.) Carrette and King, 78.

(33.) Poirier, 14.

(35.) Ibid., 4.

(37.) Magid and Poirier, 48.

(39.) Ibid., 47.

(40.) Magid and Poirier, 50.

(41.) Ibid., 51.

(42.) Poirier, 21.

(44.) Trudy Goodman, in Blacker et al., “Forum: The Mindfulness Movement.” Now Trudy Goodman Kornfield, she is the founder and executive director of InsightLA, which teaches Vipassanā meditation, MBSR, and Mindfulness-Based Compassion Training. The spouse of Vipassanā founder Jack Kornfield, she cofounded the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

(48.) Ibid., 294–95.

(52.) Ibid., 78.

(54.) Ibid., 69–70.

(55.) According to the conference website, mindful leadership is “about recognizing that your leadership is in service to others. It’s about creating the space in your life to cultivate self-awareness and compassion, and leading with authenticity in a way that inspires others. Doing this, we can transform our own lives, our organizations, our communities—and the world.” “2017 Mindful Leadership Summit,” Mindful Leader, http://www.mindfulleader.org/#home, accessed August 10, 2017.

(56.) Personal email to Wakoh Shannon Hickey from Jennifer Fiore, events and outreach coordinator for Mindful Leader, August 10, 2017; “Mindful Leadership Summit Venue & Hotel,” http://www.mindfulleader.org/2017-venue-hotel/, accessed August 10, 2017.

(57.) The white cofounder of Conscious Capitalism is John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, where Mindful magazine can be purchased at checkout registers. Whole Foods was recently gobbled up by Amazon, reportedly netting Mackey $8 million. A pioneering purveyor of organic foods, he is noted for libertarian political and economic views; a relatively modest lifestyle, given his fortune; and opposition to organized labor and universal, publicly funded healthcare.

(59.) Even in the “Varieties of Contemplative Experience” study, described in chapter 6, among the sixty participants, 94 percent were white, and 67 percent held graduate degrees (Lindahl et al., 14).

(61.) Ehrenreich conflates Christian Science, New Thought, and Peale-esque “positive thinking” in ways I do not.

(62.) Ehrenreich, 205–6.

(64.) Ibid., 549.

(65.) Ibid., 519.

(66.) This attitude—or perhaps faith—is also apparent in Varela et al., The Embodied Mind.

(67.) The list is long and troubling: Eido Tai Shimano, Joshu Sasaki, Chögyam Trungpa, Ösel Tendzin, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Taizan Maezumi, Dainen (p.268) Katagiri, Richard Baker, Dennis Genpo Merzel, Jetsunma Akhön Lhamo, Noah Levine, and more.

(68.) Hickey, “Religious Leadership in American Zen”; Hickey, “Meditation Is Not Enough.”

(69.) Ehrenreich, 206.