Menu Home

Vitamin Pill Zen

I wrote a bit of a Tweetstorm thismorning, and decided to turn it into a blog post, given my tendency to ragequit twitter and delete posts. The diatribe was inspired by an NYT Mindfulness article (via James Coyne, whose critique of the fad is always worth reading). David Gelles’ observations on the commodification of mindfulness remind me of Pollan’s ‘it’s not the Vitamin C: it’s the orange‘.

I was just thinking about this yesterday. How we take these practices out of context and remove so much meaning. Alan Watts talks about it; I’m looking for the precise quote, but to the effect that we shop for religion, taking a bit of this, a bit of that, Meditation and Yoga – but never really settle on one thing, and inevitably miss the point. Joseph Campbell would no doubt have something to say on that too; he spoke about the need to be *in* the story, to participate in the myth.  Faith is lived, not observed.

I see Mindfulness as another self-help fad that has somehow been legitimized by *and* has become legitimate within mainstream Psychological practice (thank you Positive Psychology) because it’s another nice Talking Therapy that you can administer to the angst-riddden middle class and the guilt-ridden upper class and occasionally foist on the exhausted, exploited working class.

And with a dose of snark:  Mindfulness has the bonus of allowing us to focus on ourselves, without all that pesky compassion that Buddhists bang on about…. though more positively, James Petruzzi observed that “Speaking as a longtime Zen practitioner, I agree…the good news tho is that if you’re really practicing mindfulness, compassion will follow“.

The article captures it, but then remains upbeat; it daren’t criticize its readers. It doesn’t want to say ‘you’re doing it wrong’ and gently leaves you with the impression that it’s all rather nice (but maybe there’s more to it, if you did want to look). But few will look further and I worry about these feel-good therapies that are just as much self-medication as alcohol. Like so much psychology, these techniques ameliorate the symptoms without curing the illness.

Food writer Michael Pollan talks about the constant search for the dietary ‘magic bullet’, with a focus on nutritionism meaning that we lose sight of the bigger picture – the whole foods and healthy attitude that make up a good diet. We do this constantly and in every facet of life – seeking to extract the ‘active ingredient’, and ignoring the broader matrix; the context of the thing that ‘does us good’ is part of the good, and we lose it in our reductionist dissection. This isolationism at diet level is the the vitamin pill. Then we obsess about diet and forget about lifestyle. And then about lifestyle and forget about community life. Even ‘holistic’ means our whole *self* as though we live in a bubble. It fails to connect the self with the greater whole at both physical and social levels. We are a community.

James Petruzzi‏ observed that “Words ALWAYS go wrong when trying to describe this stuff. Why I try not to talk about it, except obliquely. : )” – which is what many Zen stories and questions the Koan, the absurd are all about – practices that kick you off-center so you see the truth for yourself, because it can’t be explianed. James pointed out that “it would never occur to the early Taoist thinkers (for example) to separate a practice from its context. They are the same. 🙂

Textile Wrangler‏ asked, “is this one of the prices of specialization?” And I agree. Though I think this is a later manifestation of a fundamental problem; it is a product of our historical ontological positions (both Platonic and Christian)so historically we see ourselves as separate from God, the world, & from each other. I suspect ontology, like gender, might be performative though this is an idea I’m still testing; I was just reading Butler on performativity & reproduction of social roles… I think it goes deeper…

So. just a tangle of thoughts here, not particularly scholarly, but perhaps the beginning of some more critical analysis that I may, or may not, get around to….

Categories: philosophy


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *