[Note: This is a slightly revised version of a previous post with the same title.]
Recap: Borrowing from Robert Jay Lifton and Willard S. Mullins, I’m defining ideology as arelatively comprehensive and coherent set of convictions (a “vision”) about how humans and the world works, which is powerful enough to influence one’s thinking, feelings, evaluations, and actions. In this sense, I consider mindfulness as an ideological movement.
Per Teun A. Van Dijk in Politics, Ideology and Discourse, the “ideological square” is pervasive in ideological discourse:
- . Emphasize Their bad things
- . De-emphasize Our bad things.
- . Emphasize Our good things
- . De-emphasize Their good things
The points of the ideological square are recurring narrative themes. Narratives aren’t so much untrue as part-true. Rarely are narratives completely false – but they do tend to distort the truth though exaggeration, minimization and simply leaving important stuff out.
In the last post, we discussed how mindfulness advocates“de-emphasize Our bad things”, the “bad things” having to do with possible ill-effects of mindfulness practice, such as undermining creativity and problem-solving through a general devaluation of self-generated thought, aka mind wandering. The example of mind wandering was used for illustration. Other criticisms of mindfulness – as commonly advocated, explained and practiced – include its promotion of dissociation and distancing to deal with unwanted thoughts and emotions. See Mindfulconstruct.com:the-dark-side-of-mindfulness and Mindfulconstruct.com: ways-mindfulness-meditation-can-cause-you-harm for more on this line of criticism, then check out some of the responses for great examples of the “you just don’t understand” defense. ) Of course, there is room for disagreement whether possible downsides of mindfulness practice or ideology are indeed that bad. I’ll leave that issue to a later discussion.
Onward to the next destination on our Square: “Emphasize Our good things”. Well, this could go on and on. For illustration, check out Full Catastrophe Living (FCL) by Jon Kabat-Zinn. We’re talking: “fully embracing and inhabiting” our lives (FCL, Kindle p. 286), living in the embodied moment in the “domain of pure being, of wakefulness” (ibid, p 823), liberated (especially from identification with the thinking mind, otherwise known as “just thoughts”), transformed, being in an “entirely different” relationship to the difficult and aversive (ibid, p 5939), more “in touch and in control” (ibid, p 5939), no longer half-asleep, mindless, merely reacting but “fully present… with the comfort of wisdom and inner trust, the comfort of being whole.” (ibid, p6107), all our resources at our disposal, the “freedom to be creative” (ibid, p 9078), awakened “from the self-imposed half sleep of unawareness in which we are so often habitually, but not inevitably, immersed.” (ibid, p 8047)
This is religious language, where the religious experience is not on a continuum with everyday experience but is something else entirely. It’s “new”. It truly is salvation:
“And when the human mind does not know itself, we get ignorance, cruelty, oppression, violence, genocide, holocausts, death, and destruction on a colossal scale. For this reason, mindfulness writ both large and small is not a luxury. Writ small, it is a liberative strategy for being healthier and happier as an individual. Writ large, it is a vital necessity if we are to survive and thrive as a species.” (FCL, p 9078-9084)
This being the modern age, advocates of mindfulness repeatedly cite scientific support for the benefits of mindfulness, often in triumphant tones that stress the status and authority of science and scientists. For instance, in FCL we come across: “…cutting-edge neuroscience research…latest evidence … most prestigious and high-impact scientific journals in the world…renowned psychologist…renowned stress researcher…” and so on.
Specific claims of scientifically-backed benefit resulting from mindfulness practice and mindfulness-based treatments include: happiness, brain efficiency and cortical thickness, reduced stress, anxiety, loneliness, social isolation and depression, increased lifespan, telomere maintenance, reduced inflammatory processes, increased self-knowledge and self-awareness, increased control of attention and emotions, better sleep, better grades, fewer colds, better health in general, more compassion, deeper appreciation of music, and better pain control – to name a few.
I’m sure there is some truth to these claims. After all, there are supportive studies – see, for instance: making us more compassionate, decrease feelings of loneliness, lessen the nasty effects of colds, lower risk for depression, lose weight, have better control over mood and behaviors, objectively analyze ourselves, increased signaling connections in the brain, better control over processing pain and emotions, more focused engagement in music, make us more compassionate, practice good hygiene, and improve our grades.
The question is not whether there are benefits to practicing mindfulness; the question is whether these benefits are as significant and unequivocal as often presented –as per the third corner of the ideological square: “emphasize our good things.”
Reference: Jon Kabat-Zinn Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, Kindle Version, Revised Edition 2013; Bantam Books, New York