Throughout these posts, I will be exploring themes and narratives commonly found in mindfulness discourse.   My focus will be what is written or said in the name of mindfulness, regardless of whether what is written or said reflects a “correct” understanding. My approach will be somewhat like that of an anthropologist studying the system of meaning shared by members of a community - the culture of that community. Cultural analysis can be applied to any collectivity that shares common practices, beliefs, values and points of reference, such as the mindfulness community. This doesn’t mean that every member of the group feels and thinks the same way – only that one can find patterns within the mosaic of their discursive acts.

Cultural analysis may also involve looking at outside influences that contribute to a belief system or ideology. For instance, the mindfulness movement stems in part from ancient Eastern traditions, but it has also borrowed and expanded upon themes present in contemporary Western societies (e.g. cognitivism, self-esteem, positive psychology, New Age movements).

This project will also include “interrogations” of texts written to promote mindfulness practice. Here I’m appropriating the sense of “interrogate” used in literary criticism, that of reading closely and critically, and especially looking for:

  •  The way language is chosen, used, or positioned as an indication of what an author considers crucial and what he expects you to glean from his argument.
  • Possible ideological positions, hidden agendas or biases.
  • Recurring images
  • Repeated words, phrases, types of examples, or illustrations
  • Consistent ways of characterizing people, events, or issues

Regarding mindfulness as a discursive and cultural object is not to say mindfulness is without positive qualities: mindfulness practice has much to recommend it.

So, what is mindfulness? To me, it is part skill-building regimen, part worldview, part self-help movement, part religion, and part ideology. (These “parts” will be elaborated later, often in considerable detail.)   Some practitioners may object to my descriptors and say that, more than anything, mindfulness is a “way of being”, one that involves a non-judgmental state of “present-centered awareness” (Bishop et al, 2004:232).  But here I'm assuming an etic position as an outside observer, not as a committed adherent.   I am less concerned about what mindfulness “really” is than in how it is talked about and in the allusions, assumptions and implications of the words spoken in its name.  Hence I'm hesitant to provide a strict definition.

Still, to the extent that mindfulness is a discussable thing, albeit a thing with shifting and fuzzy boundaries, it would be useful to have a rough idea of what type of thing mindfulness is.  So here goes:

Mindfulness is a more or less cohesive set of propositions about what is and what  matters, along with various practices associated with those propositions.

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