Both Scientific and Spiritual: the curious rhetoric of Big Mindfulness

This is one of those “Is it just me?” moments.

Mindfulness seems to be promoted as both spiritual and scientific—a combination that I find jarringly incongruous. Let me say at the outset that I am not concerned here with the questions either of “scientific validity” or of “spiritual efficacy.” My concern here is with the juxtaposition of two rhetorics that are fundamentally contradictory, but which are both deployed in the promotion of mindfulness. Each may have its own structure of justification, but those questions are not what I am examining here. It is the almost simultaneous assertion of both, as if they somehow form a seamless whole, that I find questionable. No attention seems to be given (that I have seen) to justifying the combination of the two, and the absence of any sensibility that such attention might be warranted leads me to suspect that this combination is in fact a well-established rhetorical strain in American popular religious culture. At the same time, it allows proponents to shift from one to the other, distracting the audience from looking at one by making proclamations about the other. This intellectual sleight of hand is also known as “Watch the bunny!”

To take one example of playing both sides, in response to a new policy document from Britain, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes glowingly about the potential of mindfulness (“Mindfulness has a great health potential—but McMindfulness is no panacea” Guardian, Tues., 20 Oct., 2015). He claims at the outset that mindfulness is now an increasingly global phenomenon, one “supported by increasingly rigorous scientific research.” Similar assertions are made seemingly habitually. One respondent to Adam Grant’s plea that mindfulness advocates leave him alone asserted “In fact, there are more than a thousand scientific papers documenting the benefits of meditation on health.” That this is a knee-jerk response is made evident by the fact that Grant’s essay did not question the scientificity of mindfulness.

Self-help culture has embraced science at least since the first half of the twentieth century, when psychoanalysis was becoming an established cultural idiom. Eva Illouz has noted that

Psychologists are representatives of a complex group at the crossroads of multiple identities and roles: “scientific” experts whose speech derives its authority from the institutional and economic power of science; representatives of a form of knowledge sanctioned by and incorporated into programs of the state; and popular leaders with a traditional charismatic authority to heal and to care for the “soul.” (Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help, Univ. of California, 2008, p. 56)

We should perhaps amplify her second point with its reference to “programs of the state” to include programs of corporations and industries. And also note that the increasing role of psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists as those responsible for healing and caring for the soul is part of a “de-spiritualization of asceticisms” (Peter Sloterdijk, You Must Change your Life, Polity, 2013, 61), that is, part of the larger societal shift away from institutionalized religion to a diffuse, life-style spirituality.

Kabat-Zinn goes on to explain what mindfulness is, saying that there is so much confusion on this point: “In essence, mindfulness – being about attention, awareness, relationality, and caring – is a universal human capacity akin to our capacity for language acquisition.” (Personally, I didn’t find his old description of mindfulness as bare, nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment anywhere near as confusing as this.) He goes on to acknowledge its origins in Buddhism, while carefully distancing it at the same time:

mindfulness is not a catechism, an ideology, a belief system, a technique or set of techniques, a religion, or a philosophy. It is best described as “a way of being”. There are many different ways to cultivate it wisely and effectively through practice. Basically when we are talking about mindfulness, we are talking about awareness – pure awareness.

And he then explains pure awareness, saying that “Awareness in its purest form thus has the potential to add value and new degrees of freedom to living life fully and wisely and thus, to making wiser and healthier, more compassionate and altruistic choices.”

Although he does not use the term spirituality per se, much of the rhetoric alludes to it. Centrally, the claim that mindfulness is not a religion, but rather a way of being.

(This kind of thing makes me feel so stupid—I don’t know what that means. Does anybody? Or does it just sound nice and reinforce the message, vital to the promotion of mindfulness in medical and other societally sanctioned settings, that mindfulness is not a religion…Or maybe the point is to make people like me stupid in the sense of silent, i.e., silencing critical reflection. Perhaps generations raised on sloganeering in televised advertising have become inured to meaningless claims such as this.)

We see here then a juxtaposition of claims of scienficity on the one hand, and assertions that mindfulness involves pure awareness (which sounds much more like a Hindu [Vedanta] concept than Buddhist, a crypto-atman) and is a “way of being.” What ought to be the natural question in light of these claims is What are the objective measures of pure awareness and one’s way of being by which replicated experiments related to such claims be conducted?

The first set of claims about the scientific evidence of mindfulness’s efficacy may well in fact indicate that the practice has objectively measurable benefits. (Let me assure any irate reader that I do indeed know people who have benefited from mindfulness training.) Though we quickly need to add a caution that what counts as a benefit is itself socially determined—which may include cost-efficiency. One thinks that there might be some danger of people being advised to meditate when they are actually suffering from a hard to recognize or uncommon illness.

The spiritual side of the rhetoric, however, is (necessarily I would believe) not something that can be measured objectively, i.e., according to the standards of medical science—that it should not be expected to be so measured is something on which both religious and spiritual proponents have long agreed. Nor, therefore, would spiritual effects be subject to experimental replication. Claims of replication also need to take into account the social formation of experience—there is no such thing as an objective self-report. And if you don’t have an objective measure, how do you know that you have successful replication? Some have claimed that adequately trained observers of the self would be able to provide consistent evidence of the subjective efficacy of such practices. Yet the qualifier “adequately trained” becomes critical.

A. Adequate training sounds a bit like entering into the discourse, and therefore seeing things from that perspective. In other words, contrary to claims to the opposite, this is a belief-system, part of which is the claims to the scientific validity of its own claims.

B. If you can only demonstrate an effect with those who are adequately trained, then how do you know that it will be effective for ordinary, i.e., untrained, clients of the medical profession—or does everyone need to be, well, how else can one put it but, “converted” to the belief system?

I am reminded of one of my undergraduate philosophy professors, Prof. Fallico. Some of us in our late 60s neo-Romantic enthusiasm for the strange and mysterious asked him about his thoughts on such matters. He told us that in his own youth, he had experimented with what are generally now called Ouija boards—related to automatic writing and often with claims of communications from spirits. He said that it had worked, which at first excited us. However, he went on to explain that what that meant was not that the dead could talk, but rather that you could get any such supernatural effect that you wanted badly enough. One thing that being mindful has taught me about myself is that I—and I assume this extends to my fellow human beings more generally—am very clever at coming up with good reasons for believing in my own delusions.


2 thoughts on “Both Scientific and Spiritual: the curious rhetoric of Big Mindfulness

  1. First: I also have no idea what Kabat-Zinn is saying. It sounds to me like a string of the most potent “floating signifiers” he could put together. More like an advertisement for some patent elixir than an explanation of anything. But as you say, most people raised on advertising will mistake meaningless terms for real explanation–and the more meaningless the term, the more convincing it seems to be.

    On the question of this rhetorical strategy, I would suggest it is as old as the discipline of psychology, at least. William James employs it in his “Principles of Psychology.” A while back, as a graduate student in counseling psychology, I was told by my professor that we must use “empirically validated” therapies because psychology is a science; I pointed out that the therapy we were then studying had actually been “empirically” demonstrated to have no effect at all, to be slightly (but not statistically significantly) worse than being on a wait list. I showed her a meta-analysis demonstrating that the therapy was in fact consistently found to be ineffective. Her response? “Well,” she said, “therapy is really more of an art form–we know it works, but its effects just can’t be quantified.” I tried to get her to at least admit that she was contradicting herself, but I believe she really could not see this as a contradiction. It is a way to keep the persuasive power of “science” while actually producing an ideology (or a “way of being”?). It was at this point that I think I decided to quite psychology (although I actually quit the following semester, when I was asked to believe that there really have been children raised by wolves, and to accept that there is “scientific evidence” of the Myers-Briggs typology).

    Mindfulness, it seems, has drunk the same Kool-Aid as the rest of psychology.

    • Dear Tom, Thank you for this additional perspective. It does seem that the most effective purveyors of ideologies are those who fail to see the internal contradictions. all best, Richard

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