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by Jeff Wilson
Oxford University Press, 2014
Review by Finn Janning on Aug 25th 2015
"Thirty years ago, 'mindfulness' was a Buddhist principle mostly obscure to the West," Jeff Wilson writes in Mindful America. Today, however, it has managed to reach nearly every institution of American society (a tendency that is growing in Europe as well, although more slowly). How did this happen?
In Mindful America, Wilson explores the origin of the mindfulness movement. The book offers one of the first critical descriptions of the movement, which is focused on more that the movement's practices. A key point is that mindfulness could only grow by distancing itself from Buddhism as a religion. This process took place in the 1980s through magazines, films, TV programs and, in particular, through bringing mindfulness into a medical context, where it later would open up a completely new field of research. Whether Buddhism really is a religion is something that has been debated before the era of mindfulness, but it is true that mindfulness (or the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR-program of Jon Kabat-Zinn) would probably not be a part of more than 700 medical schools, hospitals, and health care programs worldwide if it were "sold" as religion.
Wilson wants to be neutral in his study, but this is difficult for him. "I do happen to be a Buddhist but am drawn to study mindfulness because of its prominence in the United States," he writes. Being a Buddhist is both an advantage and disadvantage in his work. Wilson knows what he writes about, but it colors his perception at times. For example, he can't help but see mindfulness as a second-rate Buddhist practice. He sees the maneuver of bringing mindfulness from Buddhism into a non-Buddhist context as problematic--a purely business practice; he fails to notice the extent to which it actually has contributed to something such as wellbeing.
Wilson favors a certain kind of origin of mindfulness as if there were only one right way to practice Buddhism. A bit similar if one were to criticize contemporary American pragmatics like Robert B. Brandom or Cheryl Misak because they diverge from the founding fathers Charles Sander Peirce and William James. Evolution is creative. Furthermore, the Dalai Lama looks positively on the matter of how Buddhism or aspects of Buddhism may contribute to reducing suffering in the West.
Having said the above, I still believe that Wilson has written a book that was highly needed. As with all things when they become popular, mindfulness attracts people who are mindful for the sake of money, not for the potential liberation of one's mind. For example, one so-called mindfulness author writes, "mindfulness helps you fall in love," while another writes, "what can that moment-to-moment awareness do for our sex lives" and "another bonus of eating mindfully is that it improves self-esteem." Of course, by targeting sex and food, mindfulness is stretched to fit a need among white middle-class people. In addition, the focus on self-esteem (and worse, on identity) is problematic since among the more serious teachers of mindfulness, the "self" is a process. After all everything changes; everything is impermanent.
The critique that Wilson raises can be raised for the majority of the self-help industry. It targets people who seem to be existentially frustrated, perhaps even bored, rather than those that suffer socially or financially. A title like The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, for example, tells us all we need to know about whom the book is targeting.
Mindful America does a very good job in exploring the mindfulness movement. In its transition from a Buddhist practice strictly for monks to a practice for mainstream Americans, it has had some ups--but mostly downs. The book is not an introduction to mindfulness; rather, it locates this transition in a sociological and cultural setting. It that sense, the need for mindfulness tells us more about the times we live in than about the actual practice itself. Sometimes it can be attractive to become what you're not.
As Wilson says, "Today mindfulness is, quite simply, everywhere." This assertion is both true and false. As a commercial concept it is indeed everywhere, but as a practice, it is not. If it were, the world would be a little bit more caring. Actually, if people were mindful then they wouldn't buy books about mindfulness and sex and shopping and accounting, but simply be mindful.
© 2015 Finn Janning
Finn Janning, Ph.D. in philosophy, is a writer.