Friday, January 27, 2017

Please ‘be’ in whatever moment you see fit, Ms. Whippman (My belated response to the NYT’s Op-ed on mindfulness)

Dear Ms. Whippman: Thank you for your New York Times Op-Ed ‘Actually, let’s not be in the moment.’ I agree that the indiscriminate application of mindfulness as a solution to everything is immensely problematic. Unfortunately, you’ve avoided actual criticism of the practice of mindfulness in favor of engineered outrage, straw-man rebuttals, and poorly researched questioning of its effectiveness. This may be related to what I would describe as your rather precarious understanding of what mindfulness actually is.

But let me start with the parts of your Op-Ed that I agree with. I tracked down what I believe is the article on mindfulness and dishwashing that you referenced, and I have to admit that it immediately made my eyeballs roll. There’s a rather tiresome alchemy at work when unpleasant tasks can, with the wave of a mindfulness wand, be turned into moments of relaxing self-contemplation.  This is one example of how mindfulness can irritate pragmatists like ourselves who tend to be somewhat allergic to spirituality. I was lucky that mindfulness was introduced to me by someone who is utterly alien to anything remotely spiritual or New Agey, my friend FT, who I’ve always admired for his outspoken views, his penchant for online political brawls, and his nail-biting obsession with the news.

But your use of the dishwashing example, Ms. Whippman, highlights what’s wrong with the Op-Ed: you’ve set up the most frivolous invocations of mindfulness as canonical pillars of the practice so that you can ceremoniously knock them down. You could have found a considerable number of more pragmatic approaches to it, but you didn’t seem terribly interested.

You also cast various veiled references to the idea that mindfulness has no practical benefits. This contradicts my own personal experience. I try to spend 10 minutes a day focusing on my breathing so I can tune out distracting thoughts like petty disputes or useless regrets. It’s like turning off a rattling television. I’m less likely to forget appointments or misplace personal belongings, and more likely to maintain my cool under pressure. As you note, the U.S. Marines Corps has picked up the practice. This is not because they’re idly indulging in spiritual exploration, it's because they’ve found it makes marines more focused. This did unleash criticism that a practice built on finding peace should not be used for making war. I can see why someone might think that. But if I can use mindfulness for practical benefit without any associated spirituality, why can’t the Marines? 

If you're interested in actual arguments against the mindfulness craze, there are many. Contrary to what the hype suggests, mindfulness is not a substitute for courage, hard work, or good judgment. It could help a person understand that they need to make a difficult decision, but it won't make any decisions for anyone, nor will it assume the consequences of those decisions. And mindfulness may indeed be damaging for people who struggle with severe depression or are recovering from psychological trauma.

But instead of reasoned criticism, you've stirred up outrage over workplace and educational inequality that are spectacularly irrelevant. No serious practitioner of mindfulness would wag a finger at someone with a back-breaking job for “not being in the moment” while they slaughter chickens or haul bricks – though many would suggest that mindfulness could help them reduce the likelihood of workplace injury. Similarly, the idea that “we give inner-city schoolchildren mindfulness classes rather than engage with education inequality” is utter sophistry. Come on, Ms. Whipmann. Nobody is actually proposing that we no longer need to properly fund public schools because mindfulness is here to save the day. Similarly, I understand the implied moral hazard of mindfulness in the workplace, but I’ve yet to see this turned into an actual concern. Office workers worry about all sorts of things – layoffs, downsizing, expensive health insurance. I’ve never heard an office worker complain of being forced to meditate.

Your reaction to mindfulness appears to come from that fact that you don’t like it, which has been a common thread in the overall mindfulness backlash (note the lead of this Guardian story). It may not be your thing, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. But I believe that people should form an opinion of it by trying it, rather than by absorbing Op-Ed invective about unrelated social issues. And I did not get the sense that you made much of an effort to try it out apart from attempting some mindful dishwashing. This is perhaps one reason your arguments come across less as reasoned criticism than an army of straw men on the march.   

Ultimately, Ms. Whipmann, you will “be” in whatever moment you see fit. But I think you will do a better job managing the pressures of modern life if you spend less time worrying about which moment everyone else chooses to be in.

Best regards,

Brian Ellsworth

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