Below are 3 critiques of the current panacea offered for all mental and physical ailments, one that irritates me no end because it’s being pushed as a “treatment” for chronic pain, even if it’s from physical ailments, like EDS or the damaged nerves of neuropathy.
Over the last few years, I’ve been reading about a wide range of topics, largely to inform a book I wrote on practical ways to address rising polarization. One thing I’ve noticed is that every issue I’ve looked at, even ones that seem very straightforward, turn out to be bitterly controversial once I get further into the details. Every. Single. Issue.
The format I’ve read again and again is of seeking to discredit the other side without acknowledging when they’ve raised valid points.
It lacks nuance and complexity and doesn’t establish common ground before critiquing. This is the formula for polarization.
Academics might, perhaps not consciously, seek to conform to their academic group’s theories and lingo, to maintain their status as good and loyal members. These identities may even pass on to future generations so that the retirement of the “old guard” doesn’t alleviate the divisions. There’s also a huge cost to admitting to being wrong: It can be shameful and result in a loss of funding for research that’s no longer sexy.
Perhaps the last topic you’d imagine to be explosively controversial is sitting still and peacefully watching our thoughts. You’d be wrong. A new essay published in Aeon is the latest contribution to the controversies.
This is another worthy goal for our fragmented society: to be honest about the good parts of the “other” view and honest about the problems of “our” view.
In this blog, I’m deliberately biased because I feel forced to shout the alternative viewpoint that’s been completely drowned out by all the media-hype and PROPsganda passing as journalism or even science these days.
But this makes me feel somewhat “fake” myself.
I rationalize by insisting that the “other” side is the default view and is supported by politicians and almost all of our government agencies and law enforcement. But by doing so, I feel like I’m committing the same sins of bias that I complain about in the “other” side.
There’s also the fact that people read my blog to learn about the less popular point of view that opioids are NOT dangerous and MOSTLY effective for pain relief, which is also related to the relief of suffering. But “suffering” is a loaded term, often used again us by people claiming that our emotional state of “suffering” is causing our pain and it can thus be treated by psychology instead of medical pharmaceuticals.
Ratnayake helpfully introduces various critiques of mindfulness.
- misrepresentation or appropriation from Buddhism
- actually inconsistent with Buddhist meditation practices
- overly commercialized and watered-down
- a quick fix not based on understanding
- presented inappropriately as a panacea, and
- dangerously apolitical (not “interrogating the deeper socioeconomic and political conditions that give rise to the distress”)
Now here’s what I think makes this well-written essay a good representation of debates on so many issues.
she states that this makes it “harder to understand why we think and feel the way we do.”
But, despite noting in her conclusion that she does see limited usefulness for mindfulness, her overall essay makes it sound as if life is an all or nothing game.
Certainly, some folks may take mindfulness to the extreme of trying to permanently suppress all forms of critical thought.
But isn’t this a bit like saying jogging is bad because a handful of us will get addicted and never stop until we’ve severely injured ourselves?
She appears to be presenting an extreme possibility as though it’s the most likely possibility. I find this very often in discussions of all sorts of issues.
Balance is rarely considered as necessary and achievable. Instead, we’re too often given extreme all-or-nothing framings of the issues.
Ratnayake doesn’t seem to present or even consider possible explanations different from her preferred one.
The belief Ratnayake is troubled by is that there is no permanent or distinct soul or self.
That has not been my experience. I sometimes wake up in a mental stew of anxiety and depression before I even have a chance to think about anything. The persistence of this state is definitely in “me” and torments my “self”.
I see this as a biochemical problem in my brain that first stormed onto the scene as suicidal depression during the hormone circus of puberty. Later in life, a new and crippling anxiety erupted violently after my ovaries shut down abruptly and my estrogen levels dropped precipitously.
These changes were not due to my “thoughts” or my “social situation”; they were clearly biological and hormone-driven.
But still, I’m told to practice “mindfulness” and meditation to tame these two beasts that have torn my life apart.
But why is it that mindfulness requires us to believe this? Couldn’t we believe that we do have a soul and still practice mindfulness?
in the article, Ratnayake doesn’t seem to have taken the alternate perspective and tried to disprove what she wanted to believe.
It’s a great exercise for each of us to try to argue against ideas we want to believe in, and to look for the evidence that would disconfirm them.
I very highly recommend this practice, not just to develop understanding and sympathy for the “other” view, but to find clarity on exactly what it is we object to.
Here are a few of the questions Ratnayake might have tried to answer. The idea that we are not identical with, and don’t need to be so reactive to, our thoughts is taught beyond mindfulness circles, for instance by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Does that mean that CBT also requires us to believe that there is no real self?
I would say it absolutely does, and this is my objection to this form of therapy as a panacea for all that ails us. I had never thought of how closely it’s related to mindfulness, but reading this makes it click for me.
CBT seems to insist that “You are not your feelings” and substituting it for “you are your thoughts”, which is just as absurd.
This is true and even I have benefitted from using mindfulness to calm my fears about my anxiety. I feel it’s because it allows me to distance myself from my torment, almost as if looking at myself from the outside and diminish my involvement in myself.
My objection is that mindfulness is appropriate in some situations, but not in others, jsut like CBT is appropriate ins some situations and not others.
A “universal cure” for the suffering of all kinds cannot exist because humans are not one-dimensional beings. We are an interaction between our external and internal environments, whose influencee and interaction is constantly shifting.
But lest this blog post discourage you, I should say that in addition to finding lots of cases of topics being framed and debated in ways that polarize, I’ve also been able to find a good deal of evidence, laid out in my book, about how to have richer conversations and to build deeper understanding of folks we can’t agree with.
Author: Matthew Legge is the author of Are We Done Fighting? Building Understanding in a World of Hate and Division. He is a Peace Program Coordinator at Canadian Friends Service Committee.
Are We Done Fighting?: Building Understanding in a World of Hate and Division
Canadian Friends Service Committee
Had Enough Therapy?: A Critique of Mindfulness Meditation – Stuart Schneiderman – Jul 28th 2019
If we assume that emotions are trying to tell us something, about our lives, about our moral character, about whatever else matters… mindfulness seems to make it more difficult to read them.
It works almost like a drug, calming emotions and failing to allow us to read them.
This is what I felt when I was practicing meditation. It induces an “alternate” state of the mind and of thinking and feeling as well.
Like drugs, it is “mind-altering”, perhaps in a beneficial way, but still…
Surely, we ought to question whether we can really gain any distinct advantage by pretending that our selfhood reduces to a bunch of semi-mythic narratives:
Mindfulness seems completely inner directed. It does not require any analytical thinking or even understanding.
I find it troubling that it lacks any concern about community or how we relate to others. Humans are a very “social” species and cutting oneself off from this vital aspect of our lives would be a loss, if not a true loss of some of the best parts of living.
If you follow the theory behind mindfulness you will end up detached from yourself and from your world. As for other people, those who are near and dear to you, the family or community you belong to… these two will become erased:
This means, as noted above, that if your feelings are not yours and if they are not trying to alert you to some aspect of your life, you will never learn how to read them and will never be able to take responsibility for your good or bad behavior.
you do better to see yourself as a social being, connected to a myriad of other people, bearing responsibilities toward them and allowing them to bear responsibilities for you
Ratnayake sees that the mindfulness approach to mental health truncates human existence and becomes part of the problem that it is trying to solve
The search for self-understanding, like the effort to obliterate self altogether, runs seriously afoul of all ethical obligations.
Knowing who you are does not tell you what you should do. Being and doing are not the same thing.
Those who emphasize being are most often attempting to absolve themselves of moral obligation.
Mindfulness does not and cannot tell you what you ought to be doing. When you are facing a difficult moral dilemma mindfulness will be of little help
It provides a name for a phenomenon that I didn’t even know needed one, and makes it real.
So what is McMindfulness? It’s the marketing of mindfulness practice as a commodity that is sold like any other commodity in our brand culture.
Never mind the fact that up until recently there was no research comparing the effectiveness of mindfulness to anything else.
And never mind the fact that the research that has compared mindfulness based cognitive therapy to traditional cognitive therapy (allegedly the evidence based treatment of choice) finds that the emperor has no clothes.
And never mind the fact that there is no solid evidence that traditional cognitive therapy is more helpful than any other bonifide form of psychotherapy (including the “discredited pseudoscience” of psychoanalysis).
McMindfulness is a stock on the rise. A brand that promises to deliver. It satisfies spiritual yearnings without being a religion. It’s backed by brain scientists at Harvard and MIT. It’s magic without being magic.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in mindfulness. I would not have practiced it in one form or another for the last forty years if I didn’t.
So hasn’t mindfulness always been marketed? I suppose in one sense “yes.”
But there is something different about the selling of mindfulness these days. That’s what makes it McMindfulness.
McMindfulness is the marketing of a constructed dream; an idealized lifestyle; an identity makeover.
In order to understand what mindfulness does and does not do for people, we need to understand the desires, needs and yearnings that the successful marketing of mindfulness taps into.