Mindful Indoctrination

You know something has gone terribly wrong, when the most sensible party in a media discussion about Buddhism is the American Christian right. Is this what we get when the only alternative allowed is the Western Buddhist hegemony?

I came across an article in Lion’s Roar magazine reporting that conservative Christian group The American Center for Law and Justice intends to legally challange the introduction of mindfulness programs in public schools.

The chief counsel at this organization is Jay Sekulow, a well-known crook in the American conservative media industry, and the kind of Christian who is sincerely oblivious enough to believe that Christianity is under attack in the United States. It’s not surprising, then, that most of the reasoning behind their anti-mindfulness campaign is just outright batshit insane. Take, for instance, the passionate plea offered by a disgruntled caller on Sekulow’s radio show:

I have two small children, and I don’t want them sitting around just thinking about creation and goodness and peace. I mean, if my two angels, who are innocent, are gonna be learning about explorers, they should be learning about Jesus or Trump.


So here we have a prime example of the utter moral failure of Western Buddhism. So irresponsibly has it outwardly obfuscated its own ideological commitments, and its functional role within the broader Western culture, that a debate which cuts right to the core of our crumbling education system is dictated by the very two parties which are mutually responsible for its wider systemic failurethese being the Christian Right and the late-capitalist Left.

Luckily for the latter, valid criticisms can easily be dismissed as the morally outdated ramblings of right-wing religious fanaticism, absolving them of the burden of having to critique themselves. Unfortunately, the fact remains that, despite the absurd intentions motivating the mindfulness critique coming from the former, it is true that we should be worried about this fad infecting public schools.

As insane as that caller’s complaints were, it did contain elements that were actually quite spot-on. The first part of the partial quote above was:

This is toxic ideology. This goes beyond just bad education. This could be corrupting our children’s eternal souls.

Okay, that last sentence is still insane. But the two preceding it are completely true, are they not? Mindfulness, as it functions in America writ large, is indeed a toxic ideology. And introducing them into schools does go beyond education, its function as such being to shift focus from the failures of the system itself to forcing students learn “stress-reduction practices” to treat the atrocious rates of anxiety, depression, addiction, and suicide, that are symptomatic of an education system which functions primarily in the service of “economic growth”, rather than in the service of education.

The “secular mindfulness” crowd is simply incapable of seeing that their ideology is an ideology, rather than a set of scientific facts. The danger here is that the neoliberal doctrine is unquestionably posited a natural law, and the human suffering that it necessitates can therefore only be conceivably treated with repression cloaked in rhetoric of “resilience” and “stress-reduction”. There is no considering the possibility that the symptoms are inseperable from the collectively formed system of which they are a dependently arisen phenomenon.

The ACLJ argues that these mindfulness programs amount to “Buddhist indoctrination because the mindfulness practices appear to be similar to Buddhist religious practices.” This is too convenient for those supporting the programs, because all they have to do is argue that mindfulness is totally secular and has been “stripped” of its religious wrappings. The final word in the Lion’s Roar piece is given to this viewpoint:

Proponents of secular mindfulness say mindfulness is not a Buddhist practice; it is a contemplative practice used in religious traditions around the world by many different names. Most programs in schools today are based scientifically-validated programs developed by clinicians.

To be honest, I’m having enormous difficulty following this line of reasoning, and I don’t think that’s a result of my usual pedantry. Perhaps someone in the comments could help me out. The first sentence states that “secular mindfulness” is not a uniquely Buddhist practice but is, rather, one shared by many different religious traditions. The second states that the mindfulness regimens used in schools today are “based [on] scientifically-validated programs developed by clinicians.” Are these not contradictory claims? (Then again, hasn’t Western Buddhism always suffered from an identity crisis?)

Once again, Western Buddhists want to have their cake and eat it too.

Aside from making no sense in terms of consistency, this argument a total non-sequitor. Prayer and church attendance have been empirically shown to associate with relative measures of life satisfaction. That does not make them any less of a religious practice, nor does it change what those practices are productive of, any more than a vaccine being empirically validated changes what the practice of administering that vaccine is productive of.

To state the same point differently, the practice of “mindfulness” is productive of, that is to say it tends to result in, subjects who are more willing to sit back and accept their expoitation as “the present moment”, which must never be judged or questioned. In the context of education, we could see how mindfulness would result in passive students who are unabe to recognize how the education system is failing them and demand otherwise. That there is empirical evidence that such a practice can “[visibly] reduce stress” or “increase productivity” is an entirely different matter. In fact, in this case, those are exactly the results you’d expect to see; a blissful slave is obviously one less likely to turn on his master.

I suppose the calories in the cake don’t count, as long as one practices mindful eating. Indoctrination into a collectively harmful ideology is harmless, as long as one practices mindful indoctrination.

See the comment below from Richard Payne; Candy Gunther Brown writes about this issue extensively, including in this Tricycle piece, which presents both sides of the issue. I think her contribution is more articulate than my treatment of the issue here. (Also, if you haven’t yet, take a look at Richard’s blog, which contains some of the best critical writing on Buddhism.)

I would highly recommend reading the opposing viewpoint in the linked article as well, written by Saki Santorelli. It is quite telling, revealing the ideological blindness of the “secular mindfulness” crowd.

Consider this portion:

Mindfulness is awareness itself—the knowing capacity that we consider the central feature of our humanness. Nonreligious, mindfulness does not ask someone to adopt a predetermined belief system or dogma. In practice, mindfulness offers us a method for investigating the nature of sentience and sanity. It mirrors the principles of scientific investigation by providing people with a method for learning to relate directly to whatever is happening in their lives. It is impartial. It does not grasp, reject, or prefer; it affords people the opportunity to see things just as they are, unclouded by the usual filters of conditioning and culture. [emphasis mine]

Here is a clear case of Buddhist apologists falling into the atman trap, believing that it is possible to “see things as they are” without any conditioning influence whatsoever. This is a fantasy that Buddhists can’t seem to shake. A Christian would assert that their religious practice also constitutes “seeing things as they are”; that’s what makes a religion a religion: simply asserting things without evidence.

Santorelli states that mindfulness helps us “learn to take things less personally”. I would insist that, on the contrary, the exploitation and indoctrination that are woven into our education system should be taken very personally indeed. He is also proud to bring up the government interest in mindfulness research, yet conveniently fails to mention the military interest in mindfulness to create better-functioning soldiers.


6 thoughts on “Mindful Indoctrination

  1. nice; I’d recommend the work of Candy Gunther Brown in this regard, especially as it makes apologists of the type you’re concerned with here uncomfortable–see most particularly her forthcoming Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools, she also has several relevant posts on Huffington, best wishes


  2. “To be honest, I’m having enormous difficulty following this line of reasoning, and I don’t think that’s a result of my usual pedantry.”

    This is a fairly typical form of reasoning for those in psychology or education. It takes the form of the old Soviet Jewish joke:
    –I have two reasons for wanting to leave Russia. The first is that the Soviet Union is about to collapse, and when it does the Jews will be blamed for all its atrocities.
    –But that’s impossible! The Soviet Union will NEVER collapse!
    –Yes, that’s my second reason!

    This is what Freud discusses as the “Jewish Joke” in Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious. Psychologists use this all the time:
    –We use CBT to treat addiction because it is empirically validated.
    –But the empirical studies all show that it fails to work.
    –Sure, because therapy is an art form and depends on intuition, so the it can’t be tested empirically The second reason we use it is because it seems intuitively true!

    I literally got exactly this argument from two separate professors when I was in graduate school in psychology. For most people, it seems to be convincing.

    I think Gunther Brown makes the argument against mindfulness clear–but it will only be convincing to those for whom the law of non-contradiction holds.

    As for Santorelli’s argument that mindfulness is “impartial”, it does seem so if you assume the universal truth of the Lockean model of the human subject. The entire discipline of psychology (and of education) does assume this, and is in fact unaware that it is a philosophical model that has long been called into question. It is so fundamentally assumed that they have never thought to consider its conceptual flaws. The assumptions of the Lockean model of consciousness are so throughly naturalized for most of us today, that the oddly the best critique of them I’ve seen in years comes from the extreme right, in Edward Feser’s book on Locke. Nobody outside of philosophy can even consider questioning them. (I’ve tried to call them into question in a small way in my review of Galen Strawson’s last book in the most recent issue of Radical Philosophy.)

    We really do need to fight the forced indoctrination into the Lockean (capitalist) understanding of the subject. It occurs in schools, in prisons, and in court-mandated addiction rehabs. Anyplace we can force someone to pretend to believe in an absurdity! This wouldn’t be necessary, except that only the affluent ignorant are willing to engage in mindfulness without coercion.


    1. I’m more and more recently coming to see just how many “problems” in philosophy and psychology are only problems if one assumes Lockean atomism. Especially, as you pointed out in your Radical Philosophy piece, the whole free will debate. If we reconceptualize the assumptions underlying the fundamental premise around which the debate revolves — that there are atomistic subjects who can or cannot possess something called free will — then the entire debate collapses, and we can start figuring out what concepts are of better use ideologically.

      I recently noticed this about the “hard problem of consciousness” as well. The question of how consciousness could “arise” out of neuron activity in the brain already assumes that this is what happens. No wonder it’s such a mystery! This is apparantly what philosophers have been doing since they decided philosophy doesn’t have to involve itself in such silly questions as how we might build better societies and minimize human suffering: just circling around the same assumptions they have themselves invented, and wondering why this practice is rarely ever successful at resolving philosophical problems.

      It’s pretty obvious why philosophers are so defensive about this. Who wants to have to admit that such a large part of their discourse is completely grounded in a fundamental misperception about reality? Especially when that mispeception grants them the illusion of escapism?

      I’m especially concerned about this in psychology. So much of academic philosophy has become so absurdly specialized and removed from anything concerning actual human beings that most people have stopped giving a damn what philosophers are talking about. And yet, the field of psychology inherits its worst concepts and exports them into popular self-help and clinical culture.

      I’ve experienced this first hand both as someone with a history as a psychiatric “patient” when I was a teenager, and in an undergraduate psychology course in which the only theories that were given any credence were those assuming a Lockean subject, without even realizing it. The entirety of psychoanalysis was essentially boiled down to “infants want to have sex with their parents” and dismissed as having been falsified — all of 5 minutes were spent in total on it throughout the entire course. It’s really quite amazing how wide-spread and unrecognized this basic assumption is. And of course, now with mindfulness industrial complex, it’s just getting reified even more.

      I would love to see you write more about your experiences as a graduate student in psychology. I’ve always been interested in trying to approach the study of the mind empirically, but since I’ve begun to question the atomistic account of the mind, it’s hard to imagine how this could be done when the research apparatus is so dominated by an approach that is so confused. Do you see any way for psychology to get itself out of this mess? Is it even worth trying to “reform” the field from within, or are they so far up their own asses that one is better off doing something else?


  3. I would say that there is no hope of “reforming” psychology. One reason is that it is too fundamentally dependent on its incorrect assumptions, but there is more important reason. Take a look at a dozen or so recent studies in psychology, and pay attention to who funded the research. This should make it clear why pscychology cannot be reformed—it always only sets out to prove what the funding corporation asks it to prove.

    Of course, this is true of all disciplines today, as universities are increasingly run on the model of for-profit corporations. Academic disciplines are evaluated according to their “market viability,” with the goal being to maximize tuition payments while minimizing cost. The “profit” mostly goes to obscenely large administrative salaries instead of shareholders, of course, but the effect is always the inability to consider things like the truth content of a discipline or the actual social worth or desirability of the particular practices it generates.

    In the discipline I wound up in, this is just as true as it is in psychology or any other academic field. Just yesterday I was informed that the university were I teach part time is now going to be switching to teaching “mindful” freshman composition (yes, there really is now a discourse called “mindful reading theory” and “mindful composition theory). Supposedly, this provides them with a set of “transferable skills’ that are more useful in the vocational disciplines like occupational therapy and marketing.

    If you want to help suffering people, it can’t be done from within the field of psychology. The goal of psychologist is to prove that either a) the suffering is the result of a biological condition that can be cured with a pill, or b) that the suffering is the person’s own fault, so they should be blamed and berated instead of helped.


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