Sahanika Ratnayake in aeon:
Where once Europeans and North Americans might have turned to religion or philosophy to understand themselves, increasingly they are embracing psychotherapy and its cousins. The mindfulness movement is a prominent example of this shift in cultural habits of self-reflection and interrogation. Instead of engaging in deliberation about oneself, what the arts of mindfulness have in common is a certain mode of attending to present events – often described as a ‘nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment’. Practitioners are discouraged from engaging with their experiences in a critical or evaluative manner, and often they’re explicitly instructed to disregard the content of their own thoughts.
When eating the raisin, for example, the focus is on the process of consuming it, rather than reflecting on whether you like raisins or recalling the little red boxes of them you had in your school lunches, and so on. Similarly, when focusing on your breath or scanning your body, you should concentrate on the activity, rather than following the train of your thoughts or giving in to feelings of boredom and frustration. The goal is not to end up thinking or feeling nothing, but rather to note whatever arises, and to let it pass with the same lightness.
One reason that mindfulness finds such an eager audience is that it garbs itself in a mantle of value-neutrality. In his book Wherever You Go (1994), Jon Kabat-Zinn, a founding father of the contemporary mindfulness movement, claims that mindfulness ‘will not conflict with any beliefs … – religious or for that matter scientific – nor is it trying to sell you anything, especially not a belief system or ideology’. As well as relieving stress, Kabat-Zinn and his followers claim that mindfulness practices can help with alleviating physical pain, treat mental illness, boost productivity and creativity, and help us understand our ‘true’ selves. Mindfulness has become something of a one-size-fits-all response for a host of modern ills – something ideologically innocent that fits easily into anyone’s life, regardless of background, beliefs or values.