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Is Mindfulness Really an Antidote to Modern Life, or Just Another Symptom?

30/10/2014 15:31 GMT | Updated 29/12/2014 10:59 GMT

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All this talk of 'mindfulness' teaches us to accept the world as it is, rather than change it.

As the avalanche of hype about the miracle of 'mindfulness' rumbles on, I think of an old Woody Allen joke about a man who visits his doctor, complaining that his hand hurts when he shakes it. The doctor's advice? 'Don't shake it'. I fear that the same avoidance strategy lurks beneath the mindfulness movement. Beyond its dubious appropriation of ancient Buddhist practices, the cult of mindfulness reinforces the idea that the major obstacles to mental well-being result from our attitudes and responses to a situation, rather than the concrete situation itself.

As an inhabitant of earth, you probably already know that mindfulness is 'a mind-body approach to well-being that can help you change the way you think about experiences and reduce stress and anxiety'. It uses daily meditation and breathing exercises to improve mental and physical health - and it's everywhere. Right now, hundreds of mindfulness classes are taking place up and down the country. Flocks of celebrities (including Oprah Winfrey,Arianna Huffington and Ruby Wax) swear by it. The National Health Service recommends it. The US Marine Corps uses it. Many Fortune 200 businesses (such as Google, Target and General Mills) offer it to their employees. The UK government is even considering introducing it into schools to improve pupil performance. If mindfulness were a political party, its propaganda machine would be in overdrive.

So who am I to blow against the wind? What's wrong with advocating mindfulness? Well, nothing in itself. But we should ask to what end are we encouraged to be mindful? If the aim is to create a more efficient, submissive and pliable population, then mindfulness seems to fit the bill pretty well. For the striving executive in Silicon Valley, mindfulness is just the latest cognitive app in the ongoing development of Human Being 2.0 - meditation as a top-up or software upgrade. For the struggling unemployed or underpaid, mindfulness is the government's psychological counterpart to economic austerity - a 'Keep Calm and Carry On' sticker slapped on a JSA claimant form.

It is hardly surprising that the mindfulness movement should flourish at a time of prolonged economic crisis. Today's working culture is one of precarity (rebranded as 'flexibility'), overwork, constant connectivity and continuing professional development, all of which contribute to higher instances of stress, anxiety and depression. The UK has seen a sharp increase in the prescription of anti-depressants (up from 33.8 million in 2007 to 50.2 million in 2012), in addition to losing an estimated £100 billion last year as a result of poor public mental health. But despite its mass appeal, mindfulness has little to say about social welfare. Instead, it simply serves to neutralise the symptoms by focusing all its energies on the 'intentional, non-judgemental awareness of the present moment'.

In its peculiar blend of ancient wisdom and modern neuroscience, the secular version of mindfulness is fully in keeping with the demands of global capital. It promotes strategic self-interest, self-policing and resilience, turning adversity into advantage. In this way, the triumph of mindfulness goes hand in hand with the revival of Stoicism. Both are age-old traditions repackaged for the neoliberal age whose gurus of self-realisation are quick to transform every parlous situation into an opportunity for growth (whether personal or economic). In doing so, they place us in a passive and reactive role, where 'shit happens' and we're meant to just deal with it and move on, to roll with the punches. Allocating blame or responsibility is seen as fruitless, a waste of precious time and energy. Dwelling on negative feelings, anger, sadness, loss, pain, trauma, is deemed counterproductive. For the mindful set, non-judgemental awareness and acceptance is the name of the game.

But we should be judgemental. When shit happens, we should search for the causes, so as to learn what can be done to improve things now and in the future. We should challenge systems and behaviours that impoverish, demean, depress and oppress people, not willingly engineer ourselves to be more insular, functional and obedient. When you're encouraged to internalise the selfishness and mutual indifference demanded by 'market forces', remember that another world is possible. The mindful brigade wants us to accept the Panglossian ideology that ours is the best of all possible worlds. Or its neoliberal variant: 'there is no alternative'. But we should be genuinely mindful of any approach to mental health that simply makes us feel more at home in our cages. The point is to break out.