Ron Purser is a prominent critic of how mindfulness meditation has been at times misused and abused. He wants the practices to be used to fight for more social justice and to fuel societal changes to reduce burnout and stress. He is a professor of Management at San Francisco University and author of the book McMindfulness.
We discuss the roots of meditation practices, their spread and corporatization, and whether suffering is in our minds or in the outside world and in how our society is structured. (Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
What is your personal experience with meditation?
It goes back to when I was an undergraduate in college. I was dabbling with numerous things back in those days. Many people were. I had actually moved out to Northern California, to the San Francisco Bay Area. There was a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who had an institute in Berkeley just north of the University of California. I started taking courses there. Everyone was reading books by Alan Watts – he was the one who sort of popularized Zen. I started taking classes at this Tibetan Buddhist Institute. I’ve been affiliated with them since then – that’s about 35- 40 years or so. I was coming more out of the Zen tradition and Tibetan Buddhist tradition: mindfulness is not really central to either of those.
What is your criticism of how mindfulness is practiced today?
Mindfulness is always practiced within some sort of context – whether it’s a religious context or whether it’s a medical therapeutic practice. It’s not a standalone practice by any means, even though people may consider it to be. So, when it’s completely severed from any kind of ethically informed context, whatever environment it is being deployed in becomes the context for the practice. So if it’s deployed for corporations and the underlying unspoken context is this will help you to be more productive, then that informs the practice.
How would you summarize the core argument of your book – and its critique of corporate mindfulness?
There are two key messages. That mindfulness as a standalone technique is misguided. Number two, to send a message to people that your well-being, your health, your sense of success in the world is completely within your own control by practicing mindfulness is wrong. In other words, I’m against the idea that true happiness is a skill, that you can hack your brain or train your brain and it doesn’t depend on your social or economic circumstances. So it’s an ideological critique: against the idea of rugged individualism, that the individual needs to learn to adapt to the social, political and economic conditions, even if they’re toxic. That’s really a myth: resilience has a lot to do with whether you can access external community and environmental resources. You could be less stressed and more healthy if you have access to these resources and it’s not just about turning to an app to temporarily destress – it also matters whether you have a healthy community, whether you have health care, whether you have child care, whether you have a living wage.
Do you think meditation can be harnessed to help people fight for social justice and make our society more centred around wellbeing, or do you think it’s largely focused on individual people improving their lives?
If you try to turn to the Buddhist tradition historically for any sort of radical application of mindfulness, you are not going to find it. Traditionally, Buddhism has relied on state support for monasteries, kings and emperors and so forth. Meditators were not going to become political or radicalized and question the social and political order. But you do see adaptations within very small segments of the Western Buddhist community, who have socially engaged Buddhists that are trying to say, look, we can use these practices in ways that can prevent social activists from getting burnt out. It’s still been more of an individual service model – helping people become a little more resilient. But yes, there are innovators out there asking if we can do something besides therapeutic applications for mindfulness.
As you’re still meditating and have been for decades, where do you see meditation practices as having the most use?
Well, yeah, certainly. I’m not denigrating people getting benefits or therapeutic gains. I really try to make that clear in the book. That’s not what I’m critiquing. My critique is at the ideological level and the messaging of how these practices have been portrayed and presented. Obviously there is benefit in terms of reducing mental ruminations and reducing stress, there’s no doubt that they work in that respect. I’m not really critiquing the individual beneficial effects. My fear is with individualizing public health problems, or structural social problems. I go into the history of how stress was privatized and pathologized. It’s reductionistic to say stress is just a maladaptation, our inability to adapt to the environment and it’s all inside our heads.
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