JUNE 23, 2019
WRITER, TEACHER, AND ACTIVIST David Forbes, author of Mindfulness and Its Discontents: Education, Self, and Social Transformation, sees mindfulness — the practice of meditation — as a useful way to dismantle our “attachments to conditioned patterns of dominant beliefs” and expand our ability to develop better, more meaningful relationships. But he also believes that mindfulness has its limitations. In and of itself, he writes, mindfulness cannot cure what ails our society and can do little to nothing to reverse the manifold legacies of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia that continue to plague us. His conclusion is stark:
By encouraging people to look solely to themselves and to look within, in alignment with neoliberal values, [those profiting from mindfulness] have allowed mindfulness to contribute to the therapeutic adjustment to an unhealthy society within schools, corporations, the workplace, the military, and elsewhere.
It doesn’t have to be this way, Forbes argues. In fact, rather than accommodating ourselves to toxic sociopolitical realities, mindfulness practitioners can express “righteous anger” and oppose oppressive conditions. He calls this an “integral” approach to mindfulness.
I sat down with Forbes in early April for a conversation that touched on the uses and misuses of mindfulness by both the business world and educational reformers.
ELEANOR J. BADER: Before we talk about Mindfulness and Its Discontents, can you tell me how you came to mindfulness in the first place?
DAVID FORBES: I was introduced to it by my therapist about 20 years ago. Before this, I’d dismissed what I thought mindfulness promoted as flaky. The line “just feel, don’t think” always pissed me off. Then, when I discovered Ken Wilber, whose latest book is Integral Mindfulness, I gradually came to see the practice as potentially helpful. But I’ve also been a progressive activist for most of my life, so I wanted to find a way to put the two things together, to be simultaneously self-reflective and politically involved.
Mindfulness and Its Discontents is highly critical of the ways corporations use mindfulness. You write that they promote the myth that “individuals can just choose stress or wellness, misery or happiness,” which completely sidesteps the conditions that exacerbate tensions and stress people out on the job and in their lives. Do you think this is intentional?
Sometime in the 1990s, corporations like Monsanto and Aetna started to bring mindfulness into the workplace. The practice promotes an individualized approach to alleviating stress that never gets to the root causes of that stress. It’s become a big business, and trainers and mindfulness studios are profiting big-time. Some of us, like my colleague Ron Purser, call it the McMindfulness industry.
I have a cousin whose husband is a lawyer. He brought mindfulness into his firm to try to have a calmer, happier, and more productive staff. That’s great, but for me it comes down to the bottom line. Mindfulness training and classes can be a great perk, but if the source of the employee’s stress is too much work, for too many hours a day, or too many hours a week, for too little pay, mindfulness won’t help them feel less stressed out. Mindfulness won’t help them if they’re worried because their child’s after-school program was defunded or they have no access to health care.
When and why did mindfulness come to public schools in the United States?
A group called CASEL (casel.org) — the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning — has for several decades promoted social and emotional learning (SEL) in the classroom, and mindfulness adherents have joined up with them. The problem is that their agenda aligns with the values of educational reformers who see education largely as a training ground to get kids ready to enter a competitive economy.
SEL advocates are well intentioned, but they’re helping kids adjust to standardized tests, for example, rather than questioning and opposing the tests. And it goes much deeper. Some schools practice “restorative justice”: when a child acts out in some way, they call the child in to talk. If there was a fight, they may bring in the victim. They may meet with their peers, as well. This is meant to give the perpetrator a chance to hear from the person they targeted and other classmates — with the goal of helping such perpetrators understand the consequences of their behavior and give them a chance to make amends. This is certainly better than suspending the child, but it does not address the deeper structural inequalities that may have led to the fight. The acting out was probably a response to something systemic, and as teachers or counselors we need to ask why the perpetrator feels alienated. We need to find out what is happening in children’s lives or communities — or within the school system itself — that they find anger-inducing, and then we need to challenge these inequities.
Again, anything that moves us away from the school-to-prison pipeline is good, but this process lets schools off the hook in terms of addressing the root causes of the tensions between students. All too often schools stop the discussion without formulating a strategy for improving the underlying material conditions.
I’ve witnessed what happens when counselors do a “push-in,” literally coming into a classroom to teach mindfulness. The kids are instructed to breathe and notice their feelings and thoughts about, say, an upcoming test. The exercise is done to help them calm down and adjust, but instead of adjusting to a shitty exam, how about if we mindfully discuss why there are high-stakes tests, who benefits from them, and how they are used. Can we use mindfulness to help students envision other ways to learn? Sadly, we rarely reflect on what a truly meaningful education would look like.
All of this functions to tamp down anger. Is that the goal?
We rarely ask ourselves if anger might be justified. What does grown-up anger look like? Is there a productive or mature way to express righteous fury?
Actually, let me go off on a tangent before discussing this further. There are concrete, practical ways of using mindfulness in a classroom. One thing we can do is to look at the hidden norms of a particular school or program. A school can be cold and alienating, or it can be nurturing, caring, and show respect to everyone. Mindfulness can be a trigger to awareness of what a specific school’s culture is actually like. Still, there is more to it than that. A lot of what is taught in school is meant to socialize kids to be productive members of society. The problem is that a lot of conventional and accepted behaviors are unhealthy. Moving beyond conventional ideas allows people to be autonomous in their thinking and tolerant of ambiguity. This allows folks to question and transform competitive norms on the basis of principled moral positions and not simply out of frustration.
Now let’s go back to anger. On one end of the spectrum there are people who recommend stifling it, bottling it up, holding it in. On the other end are those who say that everyone has the right to rebel. That’s fine — that’s true — but if kids who are rebelling are constantly getting into trouble, their behavior is likely causing problems for them or for someone else. Certain mindfulness educators encourage students to dismiss strong emotions like anger as “disembodied visitors” that just come and go. I don’t find that helpful.
There’s a middle ground, focused around critical pedagogy, with someone kicking off a conversation, a deconstruction, which addresses the systemic wrongs that are affecting everyone, while acknowledging that working in solidarity with others to promote change may make the school fairer, friendlier, and more equitable. It’s a move away from looking at things as individual problems needing individual solutions. This is a way for students to avoid undermining themselves by acting out as solo players.
This can also extend into a discussion of drug and alcohol abuse. We can ask why people are so traumatized that they feel they have to numb themselves. Looking at it this way — not as someone engaging in bad behavior that requires punishment — gives us a way to add cultural and political context to the reality that particular people are living.
You’re talking about making SEL educators more attuned to broader sociopolitical concerns and making social justice activists more mindful of the realities facing individuals. How can this be promoted?
Some progressives are rigid and dogmatic and some mindfulness educators think that meditating and changing the individual is enough to create a new social order. As I see it, mindfulness can help us gain a more sophisticated relationship with those we consider our enemies. Of course, progressives have to actively oppose white supremacists, sexists, and homophobes, but in the vein of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Jesus, we can fight like hell but with the most compassion possible.
Personal mindfulness can be step one, but mindful social action is step two. Ultimately, they are inseparable.
How can we incorporate this kind of mindful, disruptive resistance into schools and workplaces?
A group of students in a school can analyze policies that get in the way of compassion and work to get people involved in changing the way things are done. Mindful social action can lead people to create solutions, to come up with strategies to win the changes they want to see. This can include everything from calling meetings, to petitioning, to planning protests. Folks working together can also determine whether their fight should be waged on the local, state, or national level.
Everyone doing this should be aware that there will likely be pushback, since some teachers see mindfulness and/or social action as unnecessary add-ons to their already long hours — so those advocating change need to understand this and be prepare to respond. Bosses and managers are also likely to resist change.
But mindfulness gives you the ability to step back, reflect, and put aside your worldview. Mindfulness further allows you to witness thoughts, feelings, and sensations. This allows you and others to examine your socially conditioned ideas and assumptions. You stop taking everything so personally. It gives you a mechanism for letting go of your attachments and moving to a less egocentric or conventional point of view. Instead of adjusting to the status quo, it can be a good way to start moving forward.