Book Review: The Mindful Elite

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Max Coleman

As part of our July newsletter, Max Coleman contributes a review of a recently published book: The Mindful Elite by Jaime Kucinskas.

Max Coleman is a PhD student in sociology at Indiana University. His research lies at the intersection of mental health, culture, and social stratification. You can reach him at maxcole@iu.edu.

Sources of stress and anxiety are everywhere: in our jobs, in our intimate relationships, and even in our political climate. As Americans face disturbing rates of psychological distress, they have become eager for novel coping strategies. Enter meditation, a centuries-old practice that has spread rapidly in the last few decades. Yet meditation is not just a form of stress-relief: at its core, meditation offers an antidote to capitalist self-interest. By teaching individuals to detach from desire and focus instead on the neutral sensations of the body and breath, regular meditators find that they are not only calmer, but that they have more empathy, patience, and selflessness than non-meditators.

Why, then, has meditation—along with its Americanized cousin, “mindfulness”—faced such a backlash in recent years? Consider an article by Robert Purser, which recently appeared in the Guardian under the title “The Mindfulness Conspiracy.” While Buddhist meditation may have laudable goals, Purser wrote, it has been coöpted by a neoliberal system designed to reduce social issues to personal problems that can—and therefore must—be mastered with self-discipline. Building on the neuroscientific finding that “you can change your brain,” mindfulness has become a panacea for all social and emotional challenges. In this formulation, the source of one’s suffering is never in society itself; rather, suffering is based on our own maladaptive thinking, our neuroses, our clinging, our desire—and by liberating ourselves through meditation, we can not only cure these problems but render irrelevant their social foundations. Mindfulness, becomes a tool not of transformation, but of quiescence.

In her new book, The Mindful Elite, Jaime Kucinskas examines these troubling contradictions inherent in the American mindfulness movement. Kucinskas traces the origins of the movement from its birth in the transcendentalist era to its resurgence in the 1960s and, following another hiatus, its reemergence and proliferation in the 21st century. Why, Kucinskas asks, has mindfulness exploded into consciousness in recent decades? Can mindfulness be viewed as a proper social movement (hint: yes, with caveats) and how does it differ from other movements? And finally, what explains the enormous success of the mindfulness movement, despite its contradictions?

For Kucinskas, the movement is an object of fascination because it is led by, and to some extent, for, elites. While Buddhist meditation has existed for centuries among Asian Americans, the westernized brand of “mindfulness” is a more recent product, and draws its leadership from the highest echelons of business, academia, and healthcare. Technocratic elites from Google join with cognoscenti from neuroscience and psychoneuroendocrinology, all with the collective aim of transforming the spiritual tenets of Buddhism into a secular, evidence-based tool for stress reduction, concentration, and emotion regulation. Leaders such as Richard Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn, moved by their own youthful adventures learning vipassana and related practices across the Pacific, have lent their spiritual experiences the imprimatur of science, conducting research on mindfulness in prestigious journals and creating impressive programs such as Davidson’s Center for Healthy Minds and Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. Due in part to the cachet of these individuals and institutions, mindfulness has grown tremendously in recent decades.

The leaders of the contemplative movement—as Kucinskas sometimes calls it—are no less privileged than their followers. While mindfulness programs have emerged across the United States, appearing in elementary schools, hospitals and clinics, and even the military, the key disciples of the movement are disproportionately wealthy, white men. Indeed, Kucinskas argues that the rise of mindfulness is attributable, in no small part, to the strategic partnerships formed between academics and the economic elite. Early adopters of mindfulness included Silicon Valley partners such as Google and corporations such as Monsanto.

While mindfulness practitioners carry out their work with good intentions, their privilege sometimes makes them naïve to the suffering of others, as well as to the structural origins of that suffering. In one poignant example, Kucinskas recalls a moment at Wisdom 2.0, a mindfulness conference for the tech industry in San Francisco. As a representative from Google presented a talk, several protestors disrupted the conference, shouting, “Wisdom means stop displacement! Wisdom means stop surveillance!” These protestors, who might have caused the conference attendees to reflect on their privilege—including the gentrification of San Francisco for which these tech employees were largely responsible—were instead quickly ushered from the premises, and Google continued its talk as if nothing had happened. Google’s mindfulness program is called “Search Inside Yourself,” and while self-reflection is important, one wonders what might have happened had the conference attendees looked around at their city rather than down at their cushions.

While the mindfulness movement aims to transform society, one person at a time, those who are most vulnerable may not see their problems solved by meditation, so long as systems of oppression remain unchallenged. Kucinskas quotes a black woman from Humans of New York: “Don’t tell me to meditate my frustration away, because my frustration is valid and it’s real and it’s coming from a genuine place. I wouldn’t be frustrated if it didn’t matter.” As Purser warns in the Guardian, “It is a fundamental tenet of neoliberal mindfulness, that the source of people’s problems is found in their heads.”

Not everyone has access to mindfulness programs. But even for those who do, this access is far from neutral. Mindfulness can easily be coopted, turned into a tool by which profits can be more efficiently extracted, workers can feel more comfortable with long hours, and soldiers can kill with more precision and self-discipline. It is not merely that some have access to mindfulness and others do not; rather, even those who practice mindfulness might be learning it for the wrong reasons. At times, Kucinskas notes, mindfulness programs have “aligned meditation with a self-interested, capitalist business culture rather than emphasizing Buddhist nonattachment to self, success, status, and material objects.” To borrow an analogy that Kucinskas employs throughout her monograph, mindfulness becomes a Marxian “opiate of the masses,” a palliative that buttresses rather than challenges the capitalist system.

Of course, any movement can be coopted. While Kucinskas is sympathetic to concerns about cooptation, she does not go so far as Purser, who fears that Americans are “mindfully enduring the ravages of capitalism.” Instead, she points to the contemplatives themselves, who have responded (if imperfectly) to critiques by engaging a sense of “collective authenticity”—a return to the compassionate, nonmaterialist ideology inherent in Buddhist philosophy.

While The Mindful Elite is a fascinating book, a few questions remain underexplored: How certain can we be that the rise of mindfulness is best explained by its tactics (elite networking) rather than by the conditions that led the public to seek it out—namely, a massive increase in psychological distress and disorder over the last two decades? Kucinskas’s theoretical contribution would be more convincing if she analyzed alternative or complementary explanations for the spread of mindfulness, including not only the rise in distress but also the prominence of therapeutic culture in the United States, from which the mindfulness movement undoubtedly benefits (see the work of Eva Illouz and Jennifer Silva on this point). In addition, the book’s target audience is not always clear. In one chapter, Kucinskas presents a nuanced argument that seems designed for social movement scholars; in another, she takes the time to define a CV (“the academic’s equivalent of a résumé”).

Still, the book is engaging and insightful, and is all the more credible given Kucinskas’s impressive methodology—which includes 108 interviews, participant observation at conferences and meditation retreats, and analysis of hundreds of articles and documents important to the movement. One can only hope that mindfulness practitioners read her book and grapple with the critiques it presents—and that sociologists learn from the tensions and contradictions inherent in this uniquely American social movement.

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