Mindfullness deconstructed

In a recent article posted on the Buddhist Peace Fellowship/Turning Wheel Media site, Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey, a vipassana teacher of the Mahasi lineage, deconstructs mindfulness practice, comparing the inner practice with the external practice of Marxism.

Vega-Frey says that most modern mindfulness practice is like the reformist version of socialism, whereas true Buddhist practice is comparable to the revolutionary approach favored by Karl Marx.

Essentially, the problem is – according to this author – that current fascination with meditation and mindfulness practices is aimed at using these to assist one along the path toward worldly success, rather than as a tool to transcend greed, anger and delusion – the three poisons. (Which are sometimes rendered as: ignorance, attachment, and aversion – perhaps a more accurate set of terms.)

The aspiration to attain worldly success through devotion is not at all new to Asian Buddhism but mindfulness-based meditation as an expression of it is new and seems to have parallel life throughout contemporary Asia as well. Thus, it is appears that this new phenomenon is not simply a cultural desalination program in the West that has turned the ocean of the Buddha’s teaching into vast warehouses of bottled water: It’s also a historical process of political economy, specifically, what Karl Marx termed the bourgeois relations of production.


But just as Marx did not call for harmony between classes as a response to the antagonisms at the root of bourgeois society, the Buddha did not call for a smoothing out of the rough edges of suffering or a negotiated peace with greed, hatred, and ignorance. He called for their complete usurpation, abolition, and annihilation by the forces of love and wisdom. He posited mindfulness as one essential tool for a process of disenchantment that illuminates the profoundly unstable, undependable, and disappointing nature of everything in existence: a revolutionary rather than reformist approach.

In the Satipatthana, Buddha explains the practice of the Four Foundations (or Establshiments) or Mindfulness as leading to a state where one finds oneself “…having gone beyond all attachment and aversion to this world.” This is the classic statement of the liberated mind. Certainly seems to me that the author is right in asserting that much of what goes on in the name of meditation these days has lost sight of that basic goal.

Vega-Frey continues:

… the inner revolution is not simply a matter of will-power but of committed ethical integrity, rigorous mind training, and deepening sensitivity to reality. Indeed, they often commit over many, many lifetimes, to cultivating wholesome mental qualities that will support them in the eventual overthrow of greed, hatred, and delusion. … Essential to this view is the understanding that the humility, kindness, and wisdom that come from this path are rewards of the practice in and of themselves and to look beyond them for our motivation, to external markers that satisfy our unexamined personal and social delusions, is folly. Keeping the north star of complete liberation always ahead of us is a fundamental part of staying on the path with integrity.

Even beyond this, Vega-Frey says that what’s like to happen is:

…the absolute bourgeoisification of mindfulness where the owning class and the bourgeois state try to use it as a tool for the reification of class dominance and imperialism.

If this sounds over-dramatic, consider another recent essay, “The Militarization of Mindfulness,” which highlighted a $4.3 million grant the U.S. Army and Department of Defense has provided University of Miami researchers for a so-called “Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training” for pre-deployment soldiers as well as $31 million for a “positive psychology” program that will include mindfulness education for 1.1 million soldiers.

He concludes with this thought:

Part of me longs for the day when a study proves, once and for all, that mindfulness is entirely useless for anything beside the development of wisdom and kindness.

It’s a long but very thought-provoking article. I welcome responses.

5 thoughts on “Mindfullness deconstructed

  1. orientsee says:

    The desalination line is funny, insightful, and very sad. This serious and playful side of a teacher reminds of a Zen master.

    • John Eden says:

      I agree! I loved the ‘warehouses full of bottled water’. Apt analogy. Hope you’re doing well… nice to hear occasionally! And thanks so much for the comments… I get few real comments here!

  2. orientsee says:

    I very much enjoy the the desalination comment. It is humorous, insightful and very sad simultaneously. It should be turned into some sort of Zen koan.

    • John Eden says:

      Seems like the comment duplicated… oh, no… maybe it made you think it didn’t go thru the first time… I’ve noticed that WP comments do that sometimes, when I comment on other blogs. Some glitch in the system. All this stuff is getting so complicated with all the various sign-ins and avatars and such, it’s a wonder any of it works. Everyone is so hyper-concerned about security that we can’t do things easily anymore. The terrorists have won. We are constantly afraid.

  3. Complicated this one. Reminds me of how I used to feel about yoga. A few years back I got really annoyed about all the marketing and merchandising not to mention all the different types of yoga modified to suit western tastes. Yoga simply as exercise and people attracted to it for all the wrong reasons like losing weight. Later on (interestingly after I started meditating) I began to think ‘does it really matter?’ Years ago it was all about aerobics, in a few more years doubtless something else will be in fashion. Maybe some will take up a watered down, or heated up form of yoga but get curious and go deeper or they’ll move on to the next thing no real harm done.
    As you know John, my own path started from a sanitised Mindfulness course but I feel I’ve moved on from that. As I’ve commented before, I don’t think you can get really into mindfulness on its own and just leave it there. You either go deeper or give up. Lots will follow courses because their organisations arrange them. Then they’ll just forget about it. In my time in HR it was all Time Management and NLP. Not many continued with what they learnt once they were back at work. Having said that I am horrified at the thought of using Mindfulness training to make a more efficient army, although if it helps with PTSD, I think thats good. It could backfire though. What if those introduced to bottled water suddenly decide they’d like to look for the spring?

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