On the internet is an image of Ronald McDonald, the McDonald’s hamburger icon, seated in a lotus position. Some Thai Buddhists see this in literal terms as disrespectful to the Buddha; others are rightly critical of the colonialist and harmful cultural appropriation of Buddhism by the west and the lack of regard for Asian Buddhism in the US and Canada.
The technical, neutral definition of mindfulness and its relativist lack of a moral foundation has opened up secular mindfulness to a host of dubious uses, now called out by its critics as McMindfulness. McMindfulness occurs when mindfulness is used, with intention or unwittingly, for self-serving and ego-enhancing purposes that run counter to both Buddhist and Abrahamic prophetic teachings to let go of ego-attachment and enact skillful compassion for everyone.
Instead of letting go of the ego, McMindfulness promotes self-aggrandizement; its therapeutic function is to comfort, numb, adjust and accommodate the self within a neoliberal, corporatized, militarized, individualistic society based on private gain.
While the term McMindfulness had been used before, Ron Purser’s and David Loy’s article, Beyond McMindfulness, published online in 2013, caused a defensive stir. The authors argued that a “stripped down, secular technique” of mindfulness originating in Buddhism not just fails to serve to awaken people and organizations from “the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots”.
McMindfulness aims to reduce the stress of the private individual and does not admit to any interest in the social causes of stress. In corporations, “[m]indfulness training has wide appeal because it has become a trendy method for subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and as an instrumental tool for keeping attention focused on institutional goals.” Mindfulness, they argued, needs to reclaim an ethical framework that goes beyond privatized adjustment to a society based on market capitalism that contributes to stress and other sources of unhappiness.
McMindfulness practices psychologize and medicalize social problems. Rather than a way to attain awakening toward universal love, it becomes a means of self-regulation and personal control over emotions. McMindfulness is blind to the present moral, political and cultural context of neoliberalism. As a result, it does not grasp that an individualistic therapized and commodified society is itself a major generator of social suffering and distress. Instead, the best it can then do, ironically, is to offer to sell us back an individualistic, commodified “cure” – mindfulness – to reduce that distress.
Meditation apps monetize mindfulness; Headspace’s revenue is estimated at $50m a year and the company is valued at $250m. These enterprises cater to Big Business, with which it has had a long history. Silicon Valley has a ball producing profitable, hi-tech, marketable mindfulness apps as “brain hacks” for which there is no evidence they are helpful.
By negating and downplaying actual social and political contexts and focusing on the individual, or more so, the individual’s brain, McMindfulness interventions ignore seeing our inseparability from all others. They ignore seeing our inseparability from inequitable cultural patterns and social structures that affect and constitute our relations, and thereby ourselves. McMindfulness thus forfeits the moral demand that follows this insight: to challenge social inequities and enact universal compassion, service and social justice in all forms of human endeavor.
Without a critical account of the social context of neoliberal individualism, mindfulness as a practice and discourse focused on the self minimizes social critique and change and contributes to keeping existing social injustices and inequitable power structures intact. With regard to those who write about mindful politics, Jeff Wilson noted: “Most mindfulness authors pin their hopes on a mindful capitalism as sufficient to bring about the kinder, wiser society they envision.” There is nothing revolutionary about the so-called Mindful Revolution. Chris Goto-Jones says: “The revolution doesn’t require any particular change in values or economic systems … For a revolution this movement shows remarkable conservatism. The leading voices make no demands on followers. They need not become activists or participate in political struggle.”
Therapist Jeremy Safran says: “It’s the marketing of mindfulness practice as a commodity that is sold like any other commodity in our brand culture, a brand that promises to deliver … McMindfulness is the marketing of a constructed dream; an idealized lifestyle; an identity makeover.”