‘Like a doomay opening’: sacralising mindfulness

So far, we have discussed constructions of mindfulness which are decidedly secular-sounding. Mindfulness training involves taking a scientific approach, such as a naturalistic observation, and/or a kind of laboratory experimentation. Ocular metaphors of ‘seeing’ the mind reinforce the orientation of a scientist who, by watching their experience, heals themselves. Yet, in addition to this secularising of mindfulness, the dialogue between Williams and the attendees of the DoP goes further. This is evident in the sharing of experiences that extend beyond breathing which subtly challenges a sole emphasis in meditation on attending to physical sensations of the body alone.

Extract 3: Doorway (I)

Participant 2 It really struck me in that moment that the ah opening to the quality of the breath is like a doorway into the immediacy of of this whole experience erm so it’s not just the quality of the breath ... you know that instruction it’s like a kind of a doorway inta- err opening to this as opposed to being caught in reflection er erm yeah

MW What is it a can you say more about the that shift, it sounds like a

really interesting shift between erm ... just observing the breath and somehow being drawn into notice its quality in some way? What is it about that that draws you in do you think

This participant subtly challenges what we have described above as a technoscien-tifrc interpretative frame, that is, mindfulness as a purely objective scientific pursuit. Participant 2 uses a simile - ‘it’s like a kind of a doorway’ - and suggests that the instruction of ‘opening’ to the quality of the breath is a potential ‘doorway’ to ‘this’. The use of the indexical ‘this’ points to this as yet unnamed experience. Later on, following the sequence reported in this extract, Participant 2 further describes, with some apparent difficulty, where the doorway opens onto: ‘this experience as it is’; ‘rich vividness of this’; ‘vital immediacy’; ‘the richness of this'. However, Williams keeps returning to the feeling of the breath as the focus of discussion, as he does in Extract 3, proceeding to make a contrast between ‘ideas’ and ‘life’ and how practitioners can inadvertently ‘put the breath on automatic ... pilot’. Williams later encourages paying attention ‘inside the texhire of the breath’ in ‘this moment'.

While in one sense, people who practice mindfulness have authority over then-own so-called ‘first-person’ experience, and ‘share’ this during spoken dialogue, in another sense the elicited confessions of ‘experience’ of meditation are also monitored and regulated by external authorities, such as mindfulness teachers, spiritual gums and contemplative scientists (Pagis, 2009; Tresch, 2011). We find that mindfulness teachers tend to balance their position as being liberal, ‘open-minded', ‘neutral’ and ‘permissive’ figures while also exerting (sometimes very subtly) the strict regulation, control and disciplined prescription of authority figures (Crane et al., 2015; Stanley & Longden, 2016). This balancing act, which involves the negotiation of contrary themes of equality and expertise, can be described as a ‘permissive prescription’ (cf. Billig et al., 1988; see also Peteri in this book). By redirecting the topic of dialogue back to the feeling of breathing, Williams displays a subtle resistance to the participants’ attempt to discuss the ‘doorway’ opened through the instruction, as well as what might be beyond the doorway.

Soon after this sequence of interaction, however, Williams takes up an invitation from another participant to explore the ‘doorway opening’.

Extract 4: Doorway (II)

Participant 3

So as you’re saying that erm sometimes one can be quite distant an an we talk about compassion for ourselves and so on but actually actually having that emotional response to the feeling of the breath or or being with it or that that doorway opening which is a which is an emotion that’s actually quite difficult to talk about?


mmm (nods head) mmm it’s difficult to talk about yeah that’s what wonderful about it

Group MW

(some ‘mmm’ acknowledgements)

We come to the edge of words and are called into silence the and and intimacy with what is most most real for us and it’s like we suddenly realise that we don’t need more information we need- we’re being called to yield to what we already know in our hearts whereas when we sit we’re often thinkin’ ‘with just a bit more information I’ll be the perfect meditator’

Group MW


erm rather than in those moments of intimacy yielding to what we already know erm when we’ve reached the edge of words or inner language hmm thank you

In these moments of dialogue, the discursive aspects of practice are (somewhat paradoxically) de-emphasised, and instead emphasis is given to ‘doorways’ to experiences, which seemingly cannot be easily captured or expressed through language alone. Stillness, silence and the arising of what might be termed ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ experiences may make their discursive inscription a challenge, perhaps necessarily so. Indeed, difficulty ‘talking about’ certain experiences, such as emotions and doorways, can attest to the limits of language. Williams does not say who, or what - if anyone - is ‘calling’ us into silence in these moments. He does not use words such as religious or spiritual or sacred (Williams and Penman, 2011 do acknowledge ‘heart’ and ‘soul’). Yet, he describes ‘moments of intimacy’, ‘yielding’ to ‘what we already know in our hearts’.

Recent research on mindfulness has suggested, rather than representing distinctly secular, religious or spiritual discourse alone, that some varieties of mindfulness teaching are instead better captured by the idea of ‘post-secularity’, in which secular spaces are sacralised and enchanted (Arat, 2017; McMahan, 2012). This idea is supported by our materials. There is little explicit discussion of religion or spirituality during the DoP, and yet the discourse is not simply secular. The discussion of ‘doorways’ and being ‘called into silence’ could be interpreted as deriving from discourses of religion, such as contemplative strands of Chr istianity, or forms of spirituality in which ineffable psychological and emotional ‘experience’ is foregrounded (Drage, 2018a, 2018b; James, 1902).

Williams and Participant 3 collaboratively produce an account in which the space of mindfulness is sacralised and imagined to be a kind of ‘post-secular’ laboratory, which potentially transcends words and physical materiality. Williams appears to undermine, or at least put a limit on, the usefulness of the central metaphor of cognitive science - information - when he says ‘we don’t need more information'. He suggests that mindfulness practice itself, especially its silent dimensions, may provide a different - equivalent or superior - form of knowledge to science. A wordless knowledge.

The somehow ‘difficult’ or ‘beautiful’ experiences encountered among the mindfulness practitioners, as seen in breathing as a ‘doorway’ to some other understanding, along with much more profoundly disturbing experiences, are claimed to be more commonplace than popular and professional discourse about mindfulness courses might imply (Ellis, 1984; Farias et al., 2016: 1012; Shapiro, 1992). Lindahl and others have pointed out that such experiences are seldom investigated within the mindfulness field, since the ‘positive’ therapeutic benefits of training have been emphasised (Lindahl et al., 2014: 2; Lindahl, 2017; Kornfield, 1979). The unusual affects and body-consciousness related experiences mostly remain hidden, or at least downplayed, in the materials we have studied so far.


In this chapter, we have problematised the idea of mindfulness as a ‘free-floating’ and universal panacea. By situating mindfulness within a specific training environment, we have implicitly criticised the idea that mindfulness is a totalising discourse, producing the same effects everywhere it goes - such as individualisation or self-governance. We have shown how, rather than being a singular and coherent totality, the therapeutic culture of mindfulness can be understood as an assemblage.

When we look at what happens during specific occasions of mindfulness teaching in action, we find a complex reality which cannot be easily accounted for by notions of an amorphous ‘therapy culture' (Furedi, 2004). Our analysis has given special attention to the multiple affective-discursive practices, which are put together to ‘make up' mindful bodies - visualising, technologising and naturalising. Such metaphors and similes are used within an overarching framework in which mindfulness, within the specific context we have studied, is spatialised as a ‘laboratory of practice’. Yet, even this framework of meaning was subtly challenged by some participants who attempted to transcend the boundaries of the self-healing laboratory, opening up a 'doorway' into a realm which we described as involving a ‘post-secular’ sacralising of space.

Our analysis illustrates how the affective-discursive practices making up mindfulness training may possess multiple functions with potentially contradictory effects. Mindfulness-based therapies humanise cognitive-behaviourism, bringing humanistic and Asian-inspired practices into the heartland of ‘evidence-based’ clinical psychology and medicine (Dryden & Still, 2006). By importing the body, meditation and emotional awareness into evidence-based psychotherapy, MBCT pushes against the boundaries of cognitive science. Mindfulness potentially softens the rigid boundaries of experimentalism, allowing a sense of‘beauty’, ‘wonder’ and ‘the sacred’ to be drawn into the matrix of the ‘psychological complex’ (Rose, 1985). Yet, at the same time, meditation itself is being imagined as a simultaneously organic and technoscientific hybrid. The logic of scientific observation, experimentation and discovery are possibly being distributed into the body politic

Assembling mindful bodies 37 through mindfulness training courses, similarly to how medical ideas are being spread through the mindfulness movement (Barker, 2014).

Mark Williams, the innovative co-founder of MBCT, offers multiple perspectives on the meditative experience. His expert teaching of mindfulness allows for various interpretations of what a ‘mindful' experience can be like. He makes available a diversity of resources, such that people can make ‘choices’ about how they practice mindfulness. This open-endedness of self-care practices allows mindfulness to become a potentially never-ending pursuit of self-improvement and healing (Barker, 2014; Vogel, 2017). The training we have analysed creates new norms for embodied healthcare which have historical precedents and the multiplicity of the mindfulness assemblage selves the open-endedness of its techniques.

Yet, there are limits to this multiplicity. The rigorous training involved in mindfulness practice potentially produces a standardising of theory and practice, which parallels early attempts in psychology to apply introspection as a scientific method (Coon, 1993). Within the mindfulness training session we analysed, the mindful bodies that are being co-produced by the expert teacher and his students are not explicitly marked by social difference or diversity. The mind-body of the mindfulness practitioner, at least within this DoP, is presented as being able-bodied and implied to be genderless, sexless, raceless and classless. That is, no explicit topicalising of sex, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity or class takes place within this MBCT training event, although the ageing body is implicitly acknowledged in the ‘bus pass’ anecdote. In this sense, mindful bodies are implied to be universal and transcendent of society, culture and history (Drage, 2018a, 2018b). Being mindful is also suggested to be independent of religious or political belief. Mindfulness is made to be a universally accessible technique, applicable to all people at all times, and in principle inclusive of everyone’s experience.

Paradoxically, this universalising is being done by a seemingly homogenous group of people. In common with Anglo-American ‘convert’ Buddhist groups, the population of mindfulness teachers and trainers have anecdotally been reported as being relatively homogenous - mostly white and middle-class - and course attendees tend to be white, middle-aged, and highly educated females (Wilson. 2014; see also Figure 2.1). American Buddhist meditation is advertised to young, white, middle-class, female city-dwellers (Mitchell, 2014). Yet, the founders of MBSR and MBCT are commonly identified as white, male, Anglo-American scientists and clinical psychologists, with especially female and Asian founders often being forgotten within historical accounts. Feminist philosophers of science have challenged the ideal of the ‘objective observer' in science and exposed the assumptions made in behaviourist and cognitivist theories of the body. In her essay ‘Loving the computer: cognition, embodiment and the influencing machine', philosopher Elizabeth Wilson suggests that ‘at the heart of cognitive theories we find the body of the thinking man’ (Wilson, 1996: 557).

We found mindfulness-based therapeutics to be a complex milieu and domain of practice, distinguished by multiplicity and paradox. Indeed, it is arguably the variety of influences, paradoxical tensions and contradictory functions of the mindfulness assemblage which contribute to its productive power. In our view,

the productive power of mindfulness, and its potentially curative properties, are principally the result of the contradictory practices which make up this community of practice. Assemblage thinking and affective-discursive practice analysis, when combined together, help to illustrate how tensions and contradictions can be productive of knowledge. In our study, we have not interviewed participants of mindfulness courses to find out about their experiences of mindfulness, yet our analysis suggests how future studies might investigate the ways meditation is learned and experienced by participants, and how teachers and students of mindfulness manage tensions and contradictions of mindfulness practice. It will be interesting also to discover in future investigations how the multiple meanings of mindfulness, which make it so transferable and portable, are interpreted by diverse social actors, across a broader range of institutional and geographical contexts and situations. MBSR and MBCT are now being exported from Anglo-American contexts to North Western and Eastern Europe and even to Asian countries, under the banner of ‘global mental health’. Future social studies of mindfulness might investigate how such practices are being received in the places where they allegedly originated.

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