Assembling mindful bodies: Mindfulness as a universal ‘laboratory of practice’

This chapter explores how mindful bodies are assembled within mindfulnessbased therapies. Our objective is to investigate the intersubjective dynamics taking place within mindfulness-based training, especially the interactions between expert-level mindfulness teachers and the attendees of mindfulness courses, who are sometimes also themselves teachers and trainers of mindfulness. We analyse the specific ways in which mindful bodies are assembled by one particularly influential mindfulness teacher during a professional training event. We pay close attention to the sociality of mindful bodies and the group-based practices of mindfulness teaching in action. We focus our analysis upon the ‘affective-discursive’ practices (Wetherell, 2013) that are used to make bodies mindful. We find that the mind-body of the mindfulness practitioner, along with the space of meditation practice, are put together using diverse and potentially contradictory resources. We argue on the basis of our analysis that it is precisely the sheer multiplicity of the assemblage of mindfulness which makes it so portable, transferable and potent.

There is arguably insufficient attention given to the practical conduct of mindfulness-based therapeutics, within both the mainstream psychological literatures, which engage in measurement and experimentation, and in the humanities and social sciences literatures, which tend to comprise cultural and textual analyses (Arthington. 2016; Barker, 2014; Eklof, 2017). The study reported in this chapter builds upon the growing ethnographic literature on mindfulness, especially in anthropology, by analysing mindfulness as an assemblage of affective-practices. We will show how the study of mindfulness may, in turn, contribute to much broader transdisciplinary investigations of self-governance, therapeutic culture and religion/secularity (Illouz, 2008; McGee, 2012).

Wetherell (2013) argues that a focus on affective practices allows researchers to study social meaning-making without making sharp divides between bodies, discourse, affects and emotions. ‘The concept of affective-practice ... encompasses the movement of signs but it also tries to explain how affect is embodied, is situated and operates psychologically’ (Wetherell, 2013:159). This theoretical framework is a good fit for studies of mindfulness, because the practice of mindfulness involves bodily routines where discourse, bodily knowledge and silence are commonly interspersed. In accordance with our focus on affective-practices, we argue that studies of mindfulness, as well as other related mind-body therapies, would benefit from unpacking the practices actually involved in therapeutic cultures by giving special attention to social action, metaphor and embodiment, materiality and spatiality.

By analysing the affective-discursive practices which make up the assemblage of mindfulness, we show how one particular mindfulness teacher draws upon a variety of conceptual, historical, metaphorical, material and bodily resources to assemble mindfulness. Mindfulness is discursively imagined to be a universal ‘laboratory’ for self-healing. Embedded within this overarching metaphorical framework are practices of visualising, technologising and naturalising mindfulness. We further find that the spatial metaphors of mindfulness, in which the mind-body are ‘seen’ within a ‘laboratory’ of practice, are also subtly challenged by the teacher and some participants, who sacralise the space of mindfulness. We show how the presence of ‘post-secular’ themes in mindfulness training may problématisé making sharp divides between psychotherapy, religion and spirituality (Madsen, 2014; Lerner, Salmenniemi et al., and Tiaynen-Qadir, this book).

In the sections that follow, we summarise the historical background of mindfulness and current research informing our study; discuss our methodology and methods; present our analysis; before finally making some concluding remarks.

Assembling mindfulness

Since the late nineteenth century, people of Anglo-American and Nordic countries have adopted Asian mind-body training regimes as therapeutic ways of living with industrial capitalism (Williams, 2014). Along with yoga, Tai Chi and Transcendental Meditation, mindfulness - Buddhist sati, insight meditation, or vipassand - illustrates this trend. Emerging out of complex cross-cultural encounters, most notably early twentieth-century British colonial expansion in Southeast Asia and the 1960s countercultural movement, mindfulness has now become a predominant feature of the globalised self-help industry (Nehring et al., 2016; Madsen, 2015).

Humanities scholars have shown how Buddhist disciplines such as mindfulness have been transformed as they move across time and place. Mindfulness has been made compatible with empirical science and turned into a secular psychological therapy for the purpose of self-healing (McMahan, 2008; Sharf, 1995). Many clinical psychologists, medics and neuroscientists now suggest mindfulness, when applied in standardised eight-week courses of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) can be effective for the relief of chronic pain, stress, anxiety and depression.

The mass expansion of mindfulness provision in the past twenty years, particularly in the United States, has led some commentators to describe a ‘mindfulness movement’ (Wilson, 2014). Interest in mindfulness has grown markedly during times of rapid socio-economic and technological change and political uncertainty.

Today, mindfulness is being implemented across the UK at an astonishing rate, within an ever-expanding array of sectors and for a multitude of purposes. While predominantly applied as MBCT (Segal et al., 2013) for the treatment of depression, in recent years mindfulness has moved out of the clinic and into the public sphere. As well as the National Health Sendee (NHS) mindfulness can now also be found in the Westminster, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland governments and parliaments; schools, colleges and universities; private, public and third-sector workplaces; and even smartphone ‘apps’. Mindfulness is being employed ever more readily, as a way to ensure national well-being, happiness and ‘flourishing’ (Davies, 2015); productivity, performance and efficiency (Cederstrom & Spicer, 2015); and sustainability, creativity and activism (Rowe, 2016). Mindfulness has become professionalised and institutionalised in the UK to such an extent that this nation may represent the vanguard of mindfulness practice globally.

To date, academic and popular debate on mindfulness has been characterised by polemics, starkly polarised between proponents and critics of mindfulness. Advocates promote mindfulness as a panacea for world peace (Tan, 2012), while critics expose ‘McMindfulness’ as a corporate capitalist bandwagon (Purser & Loy, 2013; Purser, 2019).

On the one hand, of the almost 3,000 psychology and neuroscience articles published since 2010, the overwhelming majority present positive evaluations of mindfulness as being an effective therapeutic tool (Valerio, 2016). MBCT has been recommended by the National Institute for Clinical and Health Excellence and has been made available on the UK NHS for the treatment of relapsing depression since 2004. The evidence-base did not initially result in the ‘roll-out’ of provision in the UK, so in 2014, a Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG) was established. Mindfulness was taught to 130 parliamentarians and 220 Westminster government staff, aiming to build on the momentum of the ‘grass-roots’ mindfulness community, and lobby politicians to roll-out mindfulness en masse across diverse civil society sectors of health, education, workplace and criminal justice. The authors of the 2015 MAPPG report seek to turn the UK into a ‘Mindful Nation’ (MAPPG, 2015; see also Cook, 2016).

On the other hand, the somewhat evangelical promotion of mindfulness as a universal panacea has given way to a backlash, with critics arguing mindfulness has been ‘over-sold’ (Brazier, 2013). Mindfulness, as the latest incarnation of popular Western Buddhism, is arguably becoming established as ‘the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism’, its meditative ‘awareness’ stance being ‘the most efficient way, for us, to fully participate in the capitalist dynamic while retaining the appearance of mental sanity’ (Zizek, 2001: 12-13). Asian religious traditions are framed psychologically as ‘spiritualities’ and meditative practices are commodified for consumers, contradicting their socially radical origins (Carrette & King, 2005). Critics suggest mindfulness is being presented as a neoliberal ‘self-technology’ which medicalises, psychologises and individualises well-being and suffering as being the sole responsibilities of the autonomous individual (Arthington, 2016; Purser, 2019). This critique of mindfulness mirrors the canonical theoretical critique of therapeutic culture, made since the 1960s, as illustrating a widespread cultural decline (see Salmenniemi et al. in this book).

Yet, it has also been suggested, based on recent qualitative research, that mindfulness may pose a challenge to the ideal of self-contained individualism, thereby exposing the limits of neoliberalism (Carvalho, 2014; Cook, 2016; Mamberg & Bassarear, 2015). While mindfulness teachers may present mindfulness as merely a secular ‘technique’ of self-improvement, they may also present mindfulness as a spiritual or sacred practice and encourage self-transcendence among their students. Recent ethnographic and discourse analytic research on mindfulness has investigated the ethico-moral and embodied-discursive ways in which mindfulness teachers and students practically constitute and construct meanings of mindfulness in practice. They demonstrate how both mindfulness, and the selfidentities of mindfulness teachers, are socially produced in complex and contradictory ways, which are contextually specific (Arat, 2017; Drage, 2018a, 2018b; Stanley & Longden, 2016; Vogel, 2017; Wheater, 2017). So, rather than assuming a priori that mindfulness automatically represents a de-politicising and individualising practice of self-governance, we can instead ask what kinds of social and cultural worlds are being imagined through movements towards mindfulness (Illouz, 2008; Thomson, 2006). We can be mindful of the cultural, ethical and political contexts and consequences of mindfulness, understood as a social, as well as a psychological, phenomenon (Kirmayer, 2015; Purser, Forbes & Burke, 2016; Stanley, Purser & Singh, 2018).

Mindfulness is commonly framed as an internal psychological state or trait and accompanied by a universalising rhetoric. Teachers and psychologists often describe mindfulness as a basic human capacity, similar to capacities for attention and consciousness, shared by all people, and as being a universally applicable therapeutic intervention. The creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre and MBSR programme Jon Kabat-Zinn (1994) provides an operational definition of mindfulness as a conscious awareness that arises when we ‘pay attention on purpose, in the present moment and non-judg-mentally’ (ibid.: 4). While mindfulness is often presented as a merely secular therapeutic technique, it is also often suggested to be a spiritual or sacred practice, or indeed a ‘universal dharma’ being skillfully taught in secular settings (‘dharma’ is sometimes translated as ‘Buddhist teachings’, or the ‘truths’ taught by the Buddha). Williams and Kabat-Zinn (2011) argue that mindfulness-based interventions such as MBSR and MBCT are ‘Dharma-based portals’ (ibid.: 12) which contain a ‘universal dharma’ taught in secular settings (Kabat-Zinn, 2011: 301). Kabat-Zinn (2017) has recently described MBSR as a ‘skillful means’ of mainstreaming and making available to course participants the ‘universal essence of dharma’ (ibid.: 1130), which is implicitly (rather than explicitly) transmitted to them through the embodiment and ‘authentic presence’ (ibid.: 1134; endnote 15) of the mindfulness teacher. Mindfulness is often presented as a universal capacity-sometimes suggested to be equivalent to consciousness, awareness and attention -in both its secularised and sacralised manifestations. The notion that ‘the mind’ is universal, as well as the idea of mindful awareness itself being potentially curative and liberative, have historical precedents in psychology, medicine and Buddhism, as well as in the counter-cultural turn to spirituality, suggestively illustrated by

The Doors in their song ‘Universal Mind’ (1970): T was doin’ time in the universal mind, I was feelin' fine, I was turnin' keys, I was settin' people free, I was doin’ alright, ... I’m the freedom man’.

A situated perspective for researching therapeutic cultures suggests mindfulness might not be the same thing in different settings (for example, secular or religious). Meanings of mindfulness multiply across different environments, and vary between cultures, such as between the UK, Nordic region and Germany. We find that the place of mindfulness in healthcare, for example, differs greatly between the US, UK, Danish, Swedish and Finnish contexts (Hickey, 2010, Kortelainen et al., 2017; Plank, 2010). We therefore need to pay careful attention to specific versions of ‘mindfulness’, rather than assuming a coherent totality prior to empirical investigation. We should instead study the specific spaces and places through which mindfulness is made manifest and lived.

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