I was introduced to the raisin in the last few years of my work. Eating a raisin is often used as an exercise to explain the mechanics and theory of mindfulness. I, along with a group of mental health service providers, were invited to look at the raisin, smell it, examine its contour and texture, hold it in our mouth and examine it with our tongue and taste buds and through this, and some other strategies, learn how to be “in the moment“. We were being introduced to Mindfulness which we were assured was a new revolutionary change in psychotherapeutics; one that was scientifically based, efficacious, and applicable to almost all forms of distress and disorder. It seemed that it would not have been wrong to say we had in our hands a not a raisin but a veritable panacea; a remedy for all ills.
This was not the first time I’d been introduced to the next great revolutionary step forward in psychotherapy. When I started working the physical therapies had just started to lose their lustre and the Freudian classical analysts had fallen rather out of favour. The Kleinians introduced Object Relations Theory which was going to revolutionize analysis and we all studiously learnt this. Around the same time behaviour therapy jostled it as the ‘true way’ before, via a detour through Transactional Analysis, it was relaunched as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). CBT was then touted as scientifically based, efficacious and applicable to almost all forms of distress and disorder. Transcendental Meditation (TM) came and went, somewhere in between, but throughout my working life it seemed that twice a decade a new bright and shiny panacea would surface to replace the older shabby panacea which had become boring.
Mindfulness is this decade’s new, shiny panacea. It is widely promoted and now is applied in many diverse situations, not simply as therapy for mental disorder but also in schools, workplaces, prisons, boardrooms and even for the existential angsts of growing old or facing death. It has spawned a $1.1 billion wellness industry. There are many books promoting mindfulness and inviting readers to follow them on a route to personal salvation through MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction). This book, however, is not one of them.
This book looks at the promotion of mindfulness in our capitalist society. It shows how ‘mindfulness’ has been severed and removed of its religious Buddhist origins to make it both saleable and useful in a market economy. The author clearly shows that there was a deliberate intention to “secularize” mindfulness to remove it of any taint of association with Buddhist practice and ethics to create something “spiritual but not religious” which would be much more acceptable to a western audience. This acceptability was further promoted by giving the endeavour a scientific sheen with a liberal application of neurobabble. There is a good review of the neuroscience behind mindfulness in the book which reveals how little actual empirical evidence there is – there is little more than there was for TM which was quietly dropped after large amounts of public money financed research into the mental health benefits which confirmed relatively minor and questionable benefits.
The book does not question whether the practices of mindfulness or meditation are effective. It agrees that these can have major effects but questions whether in their current form this is a wise way to approach them. Indeed, as an example it recounts how Anders Breivik, the right wing terrorist, used such strategies to assist his focus during his bomb and gun attack when he murdered 77 men, women and children.
Much of the success of mindfulness is touted as its ability to make us cope with our difficult lives. To help us deal with stress, to avoid the distress of disappointment, to feel calm in the stormy waters of uncertainty and threat. This is its major selling point to large organizations like Google, Facebook or the American Military. It can help create a calm unruffled workforce which will perform better. The military hope that mindfulness will improve efficiency with an M16 – ‘on the trigger pull – breathe out!’ This is a major aspect of the problem. It promotes the idea that the stress is all of our making, in our minds, a failure of our ability to cope. But there are many times when the stress is due to uncertainty, injustice or inequity and the emotions that these problems cause is the motive power for people to demand and create change. It is wrong, through mindfulness, to encourage people to tolerate or cope with these situations. Just as Marx warned that religion was an opiate for the masses to soothe their pain and subdue their needs for change, the author issues the warning that mindfulness is the new religion for capitalism with exactly the same problems.
As our society becomes increasingly secular there are still those who yearn for the benefits of religion. Mindfulness seems to promise this. However, shorn from all its Buddhist teachings it will never be able to fill this promise. Religions gave us ethical codes, personal responsibilities, moral duties and a call to action to create a better society. This strategy is to steal the clothes of Buddhism but to ignore its body and soul. You can put the clothes on but you will not suddenly become a Buddhist. Similarly, if one copied the communal singing, weekly meetings, and candle burning of the Christians you won’t suddenly develop a sense of personal duty and awareness of right and wrong. The rituals are the least thing of a religion it is the teachings and ideas which are at its core. These require to be learnt and understood there is no shortcut to them; certainly not through sucking a raisin.
When the book has been considering Congressman Tim Ryan’s conversion to mindfulness after his “mindful moment with a raisin” it continues
“Never mind how the raisin looks, feels, smells and tastes to a privileged congressman, what if Ryan had contemplated the farm where the raisin was grown by Hispanic migrants doing back-breaking work in the San Joaquin valley earning a cent for every two hundred grapes harvested, Reflection on the raisin could call to mind units from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement rounding up workers like cattle and deporting them. Might Ryan be cognizant of the smog where the raisin was grown? What about the water shortages, or the fossil fuels burnt to transport raisins from Central California to his Catskills retreat ? What about the grocery staff that unloaded, unpacked and stocked raisins on the shelf ? Would Ryan be mindful of the fact that the CEOs who run large agribusiness and grocery chains earn hundreds of times as much as grocery clerks ?