Andrew Sullivan posted an excerpt of this piece by Melanie McDonagh from the Spectator earlier in the week, and it’s obviously a subject that interests me quite a bit. I was introduced to the concepts of mindfulness through my therapy in the wake of a suicide attempt in the spring of this year, as a way to help manage and understand my anxiety and my depression. I began practicing meditation as a means to achieving mindfulness more recently after reading Waking Up by Sam Harris. McDonagh is a harsh critic, calling out prominent advocates and practitioners of mindfulness, and comparing it unfavorably to Christianity. She swings her sword at a target she doesn’t fully understand, taking stabs at it here and there. At times her criticism is appropriate, if done with little regard to how her points also turn directly back at the Christianity she claims to be defending. At other times her criticism is dismissive of important elements of practicing mindfulness. I thought I’d take a moment or two to address her article and provide my own response based on my experience.
Of her complaints that people like Andy Puddicombe are using mindfulness to make money and are perhaps exploiting meditation and mindfulness for their own self-interest, I have no quarrel. But to pretend that these are the first people to exploit people seeking some kind of comfort and truth is laughable, and I need only point to cons like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker to show her hypocrisy on this point. And like Christians cannot and should not be judged on the basis of the Jerry Falwells of the world, those practicing mindfulness and meditation shouldn’t be assumed to be cynical thieves or gullible rubes.
Next McDonagh claims the benefits of meditation while simultaneously waving them off. She glosses over the therapeutic benefits of meditation, sarcastically acknowledging their ability to reduce stress and anxiety, but then writes that Christian prayer has been doing this too for a long time and that “Mindfulness can join the queue.” She conveniently leaves out the part about Christian beliefs having also been a great cause of stress and anxiety for many people for centuries- from the threat of hell, the encouragement of sexual repression and thriving off of people’s guilt for donations and service. No wonder Christians pray to relieve their stress- churches have been stirring it up for years.
I don’t know that I would characterize my own practice of meditation and mindfulness as a replacement for religion, though there is definitely a “spiritual” component to it, but I am not and never have been looking at it as a way to replace the communal experiences that I had growing up in a mainline protestant church. McDonagh says the stress relief is not an end in itself. Sure it is. I practice meditation as a therapeutic exercise to reduce and relieve anxiety. It doesn’t inform my values or my morals. She asks “Where’s the bit about feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, all the virtues that Christianity extols? Where in fact is your neighbor in this practice of self obsession?”
This is, I think, one of the areas where she misses the mark. Asking these questions about mindfulness is a bit like asking of a dog “But where are it’s wings?” I won’t deny the virtues that she claims Christianity extols (though I would note that Christianity does not have an exclusive claim on these virtues nor are they always prioritized by self-described Christians). But mindfulness and meditation don’t make a claim to them. At most mindfulness emphasizes compassion for others but as part of a wider awareness of the self. As I understand it, when one becomes mindful of their own self and their place in the world, compassion, charity, etc. are a natural outgrowth of that, but mindfulness has no particular teaching or call to action. Mindfulness isn’t about being told the right way to live in the world, it’s about understanding that you do live in the world, as do others, and asks what you will do with that knowledge.
Mindfulness can certainly mean different things to different people who practice it (just ask a Catholic and a Baptist about the meaning of the Eucharist to see this in action in the Christian world). Are there those who make money off of it? Sure. Are they helping people? Some more than others, no doubt. McDonagh seems mostly to be shouting at the wind, but reading the title of the article can give us a clue about why that is, and it has nothing to do with the practice of mindfulness…
“Mindfulness is something worse than just a smug middle-class trend.” That actually encapsulates things pretty well. We find someone who is part of a movement (Christianity) that is facing declining attendance/participation, sees the encroachment of “the other” and wants someone to blame for it. It’s lashing out, which is too bad. I know that I’ve found meditation and mindfulness very helpful parts of my recovery and my ability to handle anxiety, and my guess is that many others have too.
Maybe Ms. McDonagh should give it another try- she’s clearly very anxious.