The London Free Press Review of Mindfulness and Its Discontents

Mindfulness and Its Discontents
Education, Self, and Social Transformation

By David Forbes  

Mindfulness has become big business. An industry has sprung up dedicated to popularizing the practice by removing the overtly spiritual elements, reducing it to the simple act of directing attention to one specific sensation in the hope of increasing focus and emotional control. Far from requiring retreats and asceticism, you can now meditate while walking, or in the shower, or while you’re shopping! Its proponents – selling books, programs and apps to individuals, schools and businesses – argue that bringing mindfulness to bear in all these settings will, de facto, result in kinder, happier, more empathetic people.

However, as mindfulness separates from its spiritual roots, a number of practitioners have grown concerned. “McMindfulness,” as they’ve dubbed it, may not be having all the good effects its purveyors suggest. In Mindfulness and Its Discontents: Education, Self, and Social Transformation, author David Forbes takes the position that separating mindfulness from spirituality may simply be preparing workers and students for life under neoliberalism; people become agreeable, empathic, and emotionally regulated, but unwilling or unable challenge the status quo to create a more equitable world.

At around 200 pages, Mindfulness and Its Discontents is a dense and academic read, but mercifully short. Forbes references shaky neuroscientific claims undergirding McMindfulness, but could do a more thorough job of explaining why the science is problematic. He is stronger when explaining how separating mindfulness from spirituality results in a version of mindfulness that’s morally bereft. Without the spiritual underpinning, he argues, it’s simply magical thinking to imagine practitioners will automatically arrive at an empathetic worldview that encourages social engagement. McMindfulness instead focuses on a therapized version of mindfulness that encourages people to fix the issues in themselves, in order to better cope with an unfair world. Forbes deftly illustrates how this may, in fact, be the point of several programs: emotionally aware, positive people who focus on improving themselves rather than their surroundings make excellent employees and students, who are unlikely to significantly challenge the status quo.

Forbes then makes the case that our current political, ecological and economic realities require kids and teachers who’re able to critically engage at a civic level. He lays out a mindfulness curriculum that includes a strong, socially engaged practice teachers can introduce. While not all readers interested in mindfulness will necessarily care for the curriculum detail, it can be skipped without losing the larger critique. Anyone with a regular mindfulness practice and an interest in activism may be interested in Forbes’ critique of McMindfulness.

— The London Free Press, Sept. 2019

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