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IEET > Life > Neuroscience > Vision > Psychology > Philosophy > CyborgBuddha > Staff > Hank Pellissier

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“McMindfulness”: is Buddhism contaminated by capitalism?” - interview with Terry Hyland


Hank Pellissier
By Hank Pellissier
Ethical Technology

Posted: Feb 6, 2016

Terry Hyland is an expert on Buddhism who was interviewed by IEET for a previous article, in August 2015. He is Emeritus Professor at University of Bolton, UK and Lecturer in Philosophy at Free University of Ireland, teaching courses in mindfulness. He has written over 150 articles, 19 book chapters and 6 books.

Hyland’s recent article -  “Critical Review of Mindful Nation UK” - published in the Journal of Vocational Education & Training* - critiques the “Mindful Nation Report”, published by The Mindfulness Initiative, UK.

IEET interviewed Terry Hyland on his opinions regarding the commercialization of medication in the UK, aka “McMindfulness.”

IEET: Please explain the “mindfulness revolution” in the UK… how popular is it?

Terry Hyland: The “mindfulness revolution” in the UK is, I suspect, very similar to that in the US and, to some extent, globally. It consists in the exponential growth of applications of the basic practices (breath meditation, body scan, mindful movement) to a seemingly limitless range of fields - depression, stress, addictions and anxiety disorders in health and social care, plus, implementations at all levels in education, in workplaces, in leadership and management, and in public and private sector organisations.  In the last few years it has become a meme, a product, a fashionable spiritual commodity with enormous market potential and – in its populist forms – has been transmuted into an all-pervasive ‘McMindfulness’ phenomenon. The mindfulness brand is now used to sell books on colouring, hiking, cooking, driving, gardening and so on, and there are scores of self-help “apps” on every topic under the sun.


IEET: Can you describe Parliament’s interest in it?

Terry Hyland: The recent parliamentary report (*the subject of my critical review) on mindfulness is symptomatic of the ongoing revolution as the meme spreads virus-like through all sectors of academia, culture, public media and the various forms of social media.  Some members of parliament responsible for the report had completed one of the standard mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) courses based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s original programme which are currently so popular in all areas of Britain and the rest of Europe. Stimulated by massive publishing and commercial interests, the mindfulness “mania” is currently at its peak but, in my view, will soon start to wane.

IEET: What does the term “McMindfulness” mean to you?  

Terry Hyland:  McMindfulness is the commodified, marketised and reductionist version of mindfulness practice which consists in the construction of courses, “apps”, books, and other items for sale to the public.  McMindfulness techniques fully satisfy Ritzer’s original model of McDonaldization – the commodification of all aspects of life through standardization, calculability and control in the relentless capitalist pursuit of profits – and are distinguished by their denaturing and reductionism of basic practices and the divorcing of these from their ethical groundings in contemplative Buddhist traditions.  The goals of McMindfulness products are typically strategic/operational and linked to the achievement of materialist outcomes such as selling books and courses, increasing productivity in workplaces or achieving short-term objectives in education and training

IEET: How is the practice of mindfulness being misused and ruined by “McMindfulness”?

Terry Hyland: McMindfulness strategies which are linked to the sale of products in the pursuit of materialist gain are in contradiction of the Buddhist ethical precepts linked to right action, right view, right effort and right livelihood and, as such, constitute an overt misuse of mindfulness.  When such techniques are employed, for instance, in police and army training regimes or by large corporations in staff development programmes (see the sources listed in my critical review piece) this clearly raises issues about the outright abuse of practice since foundational mindfulness values such as right livelihood, loving-kindness, compassion and non-materialism are self-evidently and fundamentally at odds with aspects of the core business of corporations and the military. McMindfulness models represent obscene and monstrous mutations of the original core practices and values derived from Buddhist traditions.

IEET: How is it ruined by “greed, ill will, and delusion” ?

Terry Hyland: Greed, ill will and delusion are traditionally the three poisons which Buddhist mindfulness is intended to make us aware of and, ultimately, to challenge and overcome in the process of alleviating suffering and enhancing human flourishing in all beings.  McMindfulness products – not only misuse and abuse such practice in ways noted above – but they actually increase suffering by adding fuel to the fires which keep craving, hatred and ignorance burning in the pursuit of materialist gain.  The marketisation of mindfulness can – in this sense – be compared directly with the expropriation of the Protestant Ethic by capitalist interests during the Industrial Revolution. On the current model, the capitalisation of mindfulness has produced an ideal consumer product with a handy dual purpose which, on the one hand, promises to alleviate stress in employees – often in organisations whose ruthless and draconian working conditions have caused such stress in the first place (see Purser & Ng 2015, referenced in the critical review) – and, on the other, a commodity with infinite sales potential in a spiritually impoverished culture shot through with attention deficit disorder and late-capitalist angst.

IEET: Jon Kabat Zinn - how is he involved in this?

Terry Hyland:  Kabat-Zinn is acutely aware that the current mindfulness revolution has, arguably in large part, been inspired by his own MBSR work at the University of Massachusetts Medical School from 1979 and in subsequent publications.  Rather belatedly, in my view, he has criticised the obsession with the psychological measurement of mindfulness and has warned against ‘opportunistic elements’ for whom ‘mindfulness has become a business that can only disappoint the vulnerable consumers who look to it as a panacea’.  Such warnings should be heeded by all mindfulness teachers and practitioners, along with Kabat-Zinn’s insistence that all practice should be grounded solidly in ‘the ethical foundations of the meditative practices and traditions from which mindfulness has emerged’ (see reference in the critical review). 

IEET: Name some Buddhist thinkers who have been criticizing McMindfulness.

Terry Hyland: Prominent critics of McMindfulness in recent years include Prof Ronald Purser, Stephen Batchelor, John Peacock, David Loy, Sam Harris and Bikkhu Bodhi.  Some of this work – along with that of other similar commentators – is referenced in my own recent critiques of McMindfulness which are available for free download here.

IEET: Don’t you think it is positive that mindfulness is in schools and workplaces?

Terry Hyland:  Yes, there is some solid evidence about the effectiveness of mindfulness practices in schools and workplaces – as I note in my book Mindfulness and Learning (Springer, 2011) – but this is only positive when it is informed by moral principles underpinning practice concerned with relieving suffering and enhancing mind/body well-being.  Applications in the health and social care sector are ideally and essentially remedial, thus directly connecting them with foundational mindfulness principles concerned with relieving suffering.  In education and work on the other hand, there has been a tendency for this core transformational function to be co-opted in order to achieve specific operational objectives, and such pragmatic purposes have obscured the links with the foundational moral principles.  In education, such practical aims have included enhanced self-esteem/control and improved focus/attention span and, in the workplace, reduction of employee stress, lower rates of absenteeism and enhanced communication skills.  All this seems quite some way from the ethical values which Kabat-Zinn and mainstream mindfulness practitioners would ideally wish to advocate. 

IEET: How do you believe it should be implemented?

Terry Hyland: Given the extraordinary fertility of the transmogrified mindfulness meme and the exponential growth of McMindfulness products in the last few years, a key question concerns how the damage can be repaired in the interests of restoring ‘right livelihood’ to those activities designed to cultivate the wisdom which allows us to alleviate human suffering in the struggle against greed, hatred and delusion? The following strategies are suggested.

* Expose fully the shortcomings of commodified McMindfulness programmes indicating the misuse/abuse of using mindfulness for materialistic purposes or in the pursuit of goals which are in direct contradiction of foundational moral principles such as non-harming, compassion and loving-kindness.

* In education and work, the ethics of respect for personal autonomy of participants needs to be foregrounded along with the insistence that growth and development are not short-term operational goals but longitudinal signposts in a lifelong journey of discovery and awakening.

* Ensure that all forms of mindfulness practice – in specific MBSR/MBCT programmes,  general education, workplaces and teacher training – are overtly and comprehensively grounded in Buddhist ethical principles and the rich moral philosophy of centuries of dharma tradition.

It is not a question of preserving some notion of doctrinal purity but – in order to protect vulnerable people who may be attracted by the superficial appeal of McMindfulness self-help gimmicks – of clearly distinguishing what is from what is not mindfulness in the interests of transforming human suffering and fostering more harmonious, just and moral communities.

* Critical Review of Mindful Nation UK;  Journal of Vocational Education & Training, 68(1), pp.133-136, 2016, ID: 1123926 DOI:10.1080/13636820.2015.1123926


Hank Pellissier serves as IEET Managing Director and is an IEET Affiliate Scholar.
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COMMENTS


This is what I have been saying for years and it’s comforting to know their are people with expertise in the field who agree with me. Mindfulness is not a panacea, especially when it comes to people with mental health issues where it can be - though not necessarily - downright harmful. If interested, see my early three-part post on IEET about this subject “What’s on your Mind? - Mindfulness-Based Therapies and Mental Health (Part 1)” http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/bio/john/
Great Q&A - I hope it sparks interest in ‘McMindfulness’ and helps kickstarts a broader debate about its use (fad?) as promoted in the current cultural zeitgeist.





Might not -perhaps- mcnothing[sic] bite its progenitors thinking they can capitalize on mcvomit bit it on the proverbial derriere? In that some might actually fall into satori? What Zen?





after reading a couple books leading to failed attempts to build meditation into my daily routine, i found an app which was a great introduction and eased me into the practice. i’ve been using it daily for a couple months. i’ve noticed several positive benefits.

i have two questions:
- as a happy consumer of a product which helped me in ways other tools hadn’t, why is this a bad thing?
- mr. hyland wrote a book about mindfulness, but then says - in his own words (with my emphasis added) - “McMindfulness is the commodified, marketised and reductionist version of mindfulness practice which consists in the construction of courses, “apps”, **books, and other items for sale to the public.**”
as the author of a book about mindfulness himself, how does mr. hyland feel justified to level this criticism?





Perhaps there’s a case against mainstream mindfulness products, but it’s not really made above. Hyland seems to think that most popular mindfulness programs promote materialistic ends, but I think that’s a pretty gross mischaracterization. Most that I’ve encountered actually promote mindfulness as a countervailing force to getting lost in capitalistic hubub.

I don’t doubt that grounding mindfulness in a full Buddhist practice is superior to experiencing an elemental and stripped down version via an app or popular book, but let’s be realistic, not everyone wants or needs to throw themselves into Buddhism into order to experience some (if not all) of the benefits of mindfulness.  Insisting on such a high and potentially over-restrictive hurdle (mindfulness is also present in countless other religious and secular traditions) will surely shut out the vast majority of the population. The question then becomes, is “Mcmindfulness” better than no mindfulness?





Buddhist practice invites us to seek the “contamination” within ourselves rather than assigning it to some external “evil” such as “capitalism.” If we’re angry or even concerned about “McMindfulness,” then we’re definitely holding onto something.

Some Buddhists hold on to the notion that mindfulness belongs to them. But mindfulness is a universal faculty of consciousness that transcends cultures and ideologies. People attend secular mindfulness programs because they hope that learning this skill will empower them in the lives they actually inhabit. They’re not the least bit interested in the teacher’s critique of the system they live in.

There is a definite value in worldly people like this practicing mindfulness. “Stillness leads to insight.” Deep looking cannot yield bad fruit, even when practiced outside the religious framework. Give mindfulness to everyone who wants it, using all the means available, and watch the world change for the better.





Mindfulness is not the only Eastern spiritual practice that has been misused. Yoga is another. But like water finds its own level, we should let the madness settle down. At some time, the pseudos and the merchandisers will tire of it and take up something else. When this happens, only the true followers and practitioners will be left.





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