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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.