Modernist Mindfulness

A paper presented here at the IABS/17/Vienna by David McMahan discusses the creation of what can perhaps best be called “modernist mindfulness.” This category is broader than “corporate mindfulness,” and also one that clearly locates it in the modernist discourses, such as the ones highlighted by McMahan. The paper was entitled “Modern Configurations of Meditation, Selfhood and the Secular.” He started by pointing out that the categories of religious and secular are defined in relation to one another, that is, they are co-constituted. The boundary between religious and secular is, therefore, a space of contestation, subject to change, and does not identify any naturally distinct kinds of things. It should be emphasized that the secular–religious categories are not only co-constituted, but are also not universal, even though the tend to be universalized.

Citing the work of Erik Braun (The Birth of Insight, SUNY 2013) McMahan went on to discuss the way in which Ledi Sayadaw constructed lay meditation as a response to what he saw as the imminent decline of the dharma presaged by the British conquest of Burma. Doing so involved changing the interpretive framework of meditation so that it could be presented as being on the secular side of the divide. This interpretive process was furthered by Goenka, and set the groundwork for the kind of “de-Buddhicized” mindfulness that is so widespread today.

A point that I found particularly interesting was suggested by McMahan when he discussed the detached, non-judgmental, and therefore objective observer, which some forms of mindfulness represent as the goal of practice. He pointed out that “non-judgmental bare attention” hardly describes the full range of practices found in the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta, the text that many teachers of modernist mindfulness claim as their textual authority (perhaps in much the same way that some fundamentalist Christians claim the Bible as their source of authority, that is, without reading it). (My favorite such practice being that of observing the stages of a decaying corpse, which is even more fun than the meditations on the repulsiveness of the body.) Instead, as a form of subjectivity non-judgmental bare attention replicates the Enlightenment ideal of the scientist. I was particularly reminded of the repeated use of the line attributed to Freud about the analyst being a detached observer, and how this single point of apparent similarity is taken by some authors as evidence of the congruence of modernist mindfulness and psychotherapy.

Perhaps the deeper cultural roots of modernist mindfulness, underlying even the Enlightenment epistemology of detached observation as the ideal of objectivity, is Stoicism. The ideal state of mind according to many Stoic authors is that of detached unconcern, which allows one to “rise above” the turmoil of human emotions, desires, and passions. The Stoic goal of apatheia, the source of “apathetic” though also arguably better rendered as equanimity (as suggested by the Wikipedia entry), is a religio-philosophic one, one that I believe continues to live in popular religious culture of the US. This looks to be yet another overdetermined value, one that because of a similarity between some Buddhist teaching and some value in Western culture, well-established to the point of being subliminal, that teaching comes to be lifted up as central to Buddhist praxis.

2 thoughts on “Modernist Mindfulness

  1. Pingback: Mindfulness 1.0 | Richard K. Payne


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