The “McMindfulness” debate and its relevance to counselling: Five Reflections

Mindfulness had quite a year in 2013 as a cultural phenomenon.

It’s increasing in popularity among companies in the silicon valley, being promoted widely as a health and wellness “tool”, and all the rage in my field of counselling for addressing depression, anxiety, and recovery from substance use.  Given the religious/political climate in the U.S., the Buddhist roots of mindfulness have been downplayed and the resultant “secularization” of mindfulness has enabled many people to benefit from this trend.

However, before it becomes a panacea for every possible human problem, it’s important to pause and think critically about mindfulness.  A blog post called “Beyond McMindfulness” over at The Huffington Post by Ron Purser and David Loy ignited a timely debate over the potential downsides of current approaches.  Chat rooms, Facebook pages, and blog comment sections have been busy on this topic ever since.

I went to my first residential meditation retreat in 2002, at one of S.N. Goenka’s centres.  Since then, I have sat retreats with teachers from the Spirit Rock community, and trained in Noah Levine’s meditation facilitators program in Los Angeles.  Currently, as a therapist and workshop facilitator in Vancouver with a background in Theravada Buddhism, who operates often in “secular” non-profit settings, it’s been fascinating for me to watch this debate on mindfulness unfold.  In fact, my mentor / colleague Scott Lawrance and I are currently writing about the importance of integrating other elements of Buddhism “beyond mindfulness”, in the domain of counselling.  I’ll keep you posted on that, but in the meantime, if you’re interested, here are five brief reflections:

1.  Ignoring the cultural and historical context of Buddhism as a container for mindfulness is potentially problematic for counsellors.  These include: cultural appropriation, unethical applications, and misunderstanding the practice.

2.  The emphasis on “present time awareness” is incomplete.  A traditional Pali word for mindfulness, Sati, has a connotation of recalling or remembering.  Without this element, how are counsellors and their clients to reflect on past actions, take responsibility, and prevent future suffering for ourselves and others?  “Just being in the moment,” on its own, lends itself to narcissistic tendencies.

3.  The traditional system of which mindfulness is part, The Noble Eightfold Path, holds much promise for counsellors, their clients, and society more generally.  The Noble Eightfold path is/was an integrated system, so extracting one element out of it while ignoring the others may not allow a person to benefit fully.  These elements include the wisdom practices of Wise Understanding, Wise Effort, Wise Intention; the ethical practices of Wise Speech, Wise Livelihood, and Wise Action; and the meditative practices of Wise Mindfulness and Wise Concentration.  Scott and I have been exploring and teaching the Brahma Viharas (lovingkindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity) as a support for counsellors and other service providers.

4.  Divorced from ethics, mindfulness lends itself to unethical practices, including training soldiers, and helping corporations become more efficient at harmful ecological practices.  While some argue that mindfulness, practiced as a de-contextualized technology of self, will lead to traditional spiritual virtues such as wisdom and compassion, there is little evidence for this. Research will be necessary to determine whether mindfulness on its own might be able to overcome, rather than encourage and support the hyper-individualism and isolation of dominant culture.

5.  Mindfulness has allowed access to thousands of people in secular settings, but perhaps there’s another way that neither enforces religious belief systems, nor misses out on the fuller benefits of Buddhist practices.

… and I’m going to hold you in suspense as to what that might look like – stay tuned.

Your comments and reflections are welcome – as long as they’re mindful!

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