Is Mindfulness the new opium of the masses?

This seems to be what Ronald Purser is suggesting in his book McMindfulness. It’s an interesting read with some impressive statistics about the size of the Mindfulness industry ($4 billion anyone?), an account of its development and some nice juicy gossip about some of the insiders.

What I want to pull out is the bare bones of his critique of the industry. It is perhaps important to note that he happily acknowledges that practicing mindfulness can have benefit. Indeed he himself is a practicing Buddhist. What he objects to is the argument that teaching people one by one to be mindful, stripped out from its spiritual trappings, will somehow make the world a better place. He describes this belief as ‘Magical thinking on steroids.’ Rather he suggests that mindfulness practice acts as a band-aid to help people survive the difficult work and societal conditions many live under in our neoliberal economies. Here’s the gist of the critique.


  • By decoupling the practice of mindfulness from its spiritual roots and home of Buddhism, the modern mindfulness industry has jettisoned the ethical dimension to the practice. This cultural appropriation and mutilation leaves, he suggests, nothing more than basic concentration training. There seems to be a fond belief that ‘ethical behaviour will arise ‘naturally’ from practice.’ He suggests there is no evidence as yet of this.

  • The faith that, as CEO’s practice mindfulness, there will be a trickle-down effect on the world, so it will become a better, kinder, nicer place is somewhat misplaced and not supported by any evidence. He says

‘Trickle-down mindfulness, like trickle-down economics, is a cover for the maintenance of power.’

  • There is a colourful, impressive-looking plethora of neuro-science brain pictures produced to support the pitch that this new improved stripped-down version of ‘pure mindfulness practice’ is strictly science-based; no dodgy dippy-hippy or God-embracing beliefs here, thank you, this is a strictly secular, science-backed methodology. The neuro-science, he argues, effectively obscures the very weak research base to support an argument of effectiveness.

  • As the mindfulness industry has grown, so have the overblown claims of what it can be good for, including that it is especially effective at reducing anxiety, depression and stress. One of the 0.25% of 18,00 odd studies that actually reached decent scientific research standards concluded,  ‘that mindfulness was moderately effective at treating a variety of conditions, but no more effective than other active treatments such as drugs or exercise.’

  • Mindfulness is now a big business like many others and suffers from the same challenges of staying ethical in a monetary world. He favourably compares Kabat-Zinn’s business prowess to that of McDonalds.

  • The stripped downness of the technique, which is it’s USP and key selling point, renders it acontextual, which, amongst other things, means that the known counter-indicators aren’t always adhered too. Mindfulness training in contra-indicated for those who have suffered trauma or are suffering PTSD. Criteria for exclusion include depression, social anxiety, psychosis, and suicidal tendencies. Are all school groups screened? Does anyone check in work-place programme roll-outs?

  • This is all occurring in a context where ‘Stress has been pathologized..., and the burden of managing it outsourced to individuals.’ Mindfulness training holds the promise of helping people deal better with stress. This in itself is part of an interesting large debate emerging about the whole ‘Me Inc.’ culture where we are all encouraged to focus on shining up every aspect of our self-care to produce a better me. So we can work harder, faster, longer without burning up. He says

‘Mindfulness-based interventions fulfil this purpose by therapeutically optimising individuals to make them ‘mentally fit’, attentive and resilient so they may keep functioning within the system.’

  •  And, most damningly of all, he argues that the academic-science mindfulness complex is a servant of neoliberalism. That rather than encouraging people to challenge overwork, underpay, or  insecure,  or dangerous work; or any other form of workplace stress, it instead helps people put up with it. Mindfulness advocates, he argues, are providing support to the status quo; he criticises this stance: ‘the political naïveté involved is stunning’. But its’ adherents believe it is an apolitical practice. He doesn’t explicit say this, but I read it as, in effect, it is tolerated, indeed positively embraced, by organizations because it supports the status quo.


 What particularly interests me I suppose, is that some of these criticisms, if not all of them, can be extended to the whole positive psychology field.

 I believe we have a moral obligation to recognize that we work in a political, economic and social context. I don’t believe big organizations or corporations to be inherently bad, but I do believe that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that very good people can, like the proverbial frog, find themselves doing very bad things if the conditions are right. We must be on our guard against a complacent belief that, because we believe ourselves to be good people, we are incapable of doing harm.


Other Resources

Sarah Lewis is the owner and principal psychologist of Appreciating Change. She is author of ‘Positive Psychology in Business’Positive Psychology at Work’ and ‘Positive Psychology and Change’ both published by Wiley. She is also the lead author of 'Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management'.

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