In secular educational settings, mindfulness is taught primarily with reference to its observable and measurable scientific benefits. Educators often refer to findings of brain imaging studies that reveal mindfulness can significantly alter brain structure in ways that would appear to make it particularly applicable to modern life. As a mindfulness educator, I have seen students accept such findings without question, as conclusive proof that mindfulness “works,” not taking into account some of the more complex and nuanced contributions to mindfulness scholarship. Given that the field continues to evolve, we, as mindfulness educators, could benefit from developing our own capacities for discernment and critique.1
One way to develop such an engagement with this field is through a critical approach, in which educators interact with and teach from this continually unfolding field of knowledge. Another way is for educators to explore and appreciate both qualitative phenomenological accounts and personal, textured narratives of mindfulness as “evidence” in equal measure to quantitative studies. In this post, I suggest that applying a critical lens to scientific and spiritual truth claims can deepen, enhance, and enliven mindfulness teaching within higher education, community settings, and beyond.
Uncritical Approaches to Mindfulness
Multiple risks arise from relying exclusively on one form of knowledge in an unqualified and uncritical way. First, educators unknowingly risk making claims to the “truth” about “indisputable” “facts”. This may promote the assumption that all mindfulness practices are underpinned by a single truth or logic,2 for example, the idea that “mindfulness leads to our true nature.” While not necessarily incorrect soteriologically, this claim assumes one “authentic” nature that all people should be able to access regardless of their psychic and social circumstances. But, what happens when mindfulness does not lead us to our “true” nature but to something else?
Secondly, the uncritical approach may involve the claim that a particular way of practicing works for everyone — a “one-size-fits-all” approach. This, too, fails to recognize individual differences and the multiplicity of human experiences. Moreover, the one-size-fits-all approach risks reducing complex subjective life to the “mind” only (read: one universal, unparticular mind) — which, in turn, fails to acknowledge the somatic, unconscious, imaginal, and relational components of one’s consciousness at any given point in time.
Finally, the uncritical approach might fail to appreciate the sociohistorical paradigms that shape the mindfulness movement and its claims, resulting in a reductive and acultural construction of the psyche and the spiritual path. The “whitewashing” of mindfulness, for example, has characterized it as yet another consumable product in the capitalist system.3
Uncritical approaches to teaching mindfulness can lead to oversimplification, generalization, and lack of rigorous inquiry. Critical approaches, on the other hand, are likely to avoid these problems and can be incorporated by educators through careful reflection and skills development.4 Critique, however, does not equal rejection. It may elicit a healthy skepticism, but it also offers the potential to bring educators to a richer understanding of how mindfulness has been shaped and applied over the years, in different contexts, with different effects.
Critical mindfulness, as a body of knowledge, emerged in the 2000s as a response to the dominant, hegemonic narratives shaping the modern mindfulness movement. Scholars critically evaluated the then-undisputed alliance of mindfulness with psychology, medicine, science, and self-improvement ideals arising from the Judeo-Christian tradition.5 Moreover, they explored how the individualistic values of neoliberalism, consumerism, autonomy, and self-determination were smuggled into mindfulness and its cultural proliferation.6 They raised concerns about the medicalization of mindfulness, which constructs psychological suffering as an ailment to be treated through self-directed well-being practices.7 Moreover, in its early adoption by Western culture, mindfulness was often decoupled from its ethical and cultural foundations in Buddhism, a fact these scholars brought to light in a revealing way.8
The term McMindfulness came out of this first wave of critical scholarship, highlighting the pitfalls of commodifying mindfulness stripped of its original intent, context, and Asian roots.9 Today, such insights are finding their way into prominent mindfulness and Western Buddhist communities, particularly those committed to decolonizing mindfulness and raising awareness of its cultural and racialized biases. Many communities are currently interrogating the ethical foundations of mindfulness, challenging the suggestion that it is inherently value-free by contending that ethical conduct should be actively cultivated as an adjunct to mindfulness practice.
Further critiques raised concerns about how the mindfulness movement constructs the mind, pain, and agency.10 They highlighted how the mind was typically constructed as a private, interior realm that individuals could deliberately alter with the “right” techniques, shaped to align with Western worldviews. Scholars linked this narrative to the Renaissance, Protestantism, and American Puritanism, which propagated self-fashioning and self-discovery to reach a mystical union with the divine.11
Critical mindfulness researchers also examined power: Who gains power, influence, and notoriety as a result of the increasing popularity of mindfulness? They dared to ask if mindful self-improvement techniques might be used against people (i.e., responsibilization of individuals for their suffering, regardless of external factors) and if mindfulness discouraged practitioners from speaking out about systemic injustices. Some Buddhist groups have taken up these critical questions as they endeavor to develop an ethical mindfulness that acknowledges social suffering and injustice.12
Unfortunately, however, such critiques have gone mainly unnoticed within the secular mindfulness movement. Certain aspects of critical mindfulness, like examinations of power and racism, have gained attention in recent years — but lines of inquiry around the more subtle insights into selfhood, medical models of mindfulness, and dominance of the quantifiable sciences have yet to be widely explored.
This lacuna highlights the importance of critical approaches to mindfulness into contemporary academic and community settings, where we can examine the source of ideas, question cultural norms and sociohistorical paradigms, and challenge assumptions about science, spirituality, and the “self.” When relying on neuroscientific findings, for example, educators might give some time and attention to the paradigm — its opportunities and limitations — while also noting that the field of neuroscience is constantly, rapidly changing.
Critical Mindfulness in Education
Critical approaches to teaching mindfulness open up a range of possibilities in the classroom. They can open the door to self-inquiry and creative reflexivity.13 They can allow for the exploration of orthodox claims and previously untouchable assumptions — such as the role of personal agency in addressing human suffering(s), since agency is arguably overstated in modern self-improvement culture. An individual may face distress, for example, upon discovering that diligent mindfulness practice does not necessarily result in the end of suffering, or that a range of forces cannot be diminished through willpower alone. The educator might then introduce the idea that addressing human suffering requires a more comprehensive approach that acknowledges the constraints of human agency. From a Buddhist perspective, sustained liberation emerges as a possibility only when the subtle sense of self working on the self ceases.
Another common assumption that can be deconstructed in the classroom is mindfulness as universal, ahistorical, and culture-free — that it “works” equally well across all cultures and for all humans. However, as I have argued, mindfulness is not a physical remedy but a concept with a philosophical background, history, and genealogy. Mindfulness, or an individual’s understanding of it, often converges with personal and social histories to produce something unique. As educators, we must be aware of this and avoid oversimplifying and rigidly defining mindfulness without considering subjective perspectives and experiences.
In my classes, I start by engaging the group in a discussion about their understanding of mindfulness. We work together to think about the psychological definition and spiritual and religious understandings and their potential application. I attempt to question and challenge assumptions in real time.
I also provide a brief historical overview of mindfulness in non-academic language. I trace its Buddhist origins and the assumptions we hold as a product of our cultural milieu as subjects of modern life. Are we viewing mindfulness as a means of self-improvement? Do we prioritize individual happiness over letting go of self? Why is happiness valued over other life objectives? Why is stress reduction valued? What do we assume about our ability to change our subjective lives? How do we view our relationships with others in this context? Is mindfulness about gaining something or letting go of something?
Examining the encounter between Buddhism and the West can be helpful. This can include highlighting the modern emphasis on meditation, as opposed to other aspects of Buddhism, and the role of Eastern modernizers, such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in shaping how Buddhism is perceived and practiced in the West.14 Another fruitful area for exploration is the relationship between psychology and mindfulness. In the classroom, I often name the dominance of Western psychology and its medical approach to the psyche and ask students about their concepts of psychological healing and freedom with reference to mindfulness. Encouraging open inquiry and contemplative yet critical reflection, rather than asking leading questions, can assist such exploration.
Teaching mindfulness from a critical framework may be difficult, but it is also valuable and genuinely enriching — for our students and for ourselves as we reflect on our personal and cultural conditioning, interrogating assumptions and beliefs we have carried our whole life. By exploring these various dimensions of mindfulness, we can deepen our appreciation for the full scope of its potential benefits. This is an act of love, not rejection, and is a way to let mindfulness reveal itself to us, again and again, in new and unexpected ways.
- Some mindfulness teachers continue to reference outdated neuroscientific findings from over 50 years ago. A 2023 paper by Dejan Nikolić in Computational Biology and Chemistry, “Where Is the Mind within the Brain? Transient Selection of Subnetworks by Metabotropic Receptors and G Protein-Gated Ion Channels,” proposes an understanding of how the brain produces mental activity — not, as commonly believed, the mind as the product of individual synapses but rather of the coordinated action of specific groups of neurons regulated by chemical signaling molecules. This emerging theory may have implications for psychiatric medication and other therapeutic modalities, including mindfulness. ↩︎
- W. B. Britton, “Can Mindfulness Be Too Much of a Good Thing? The Value of a Middle Way,” Current Opinion in Psychology 28 (2019): 159–65. ↩︎
- Edwin Ng and Ronald Purser, “White Privilege and the Mindfulness Movement,” Buddhist Peace Fellowship (2015): 2. ↩︎
- Edwin Ng, “The Critique of Mindfulness and the Mindfulness of Critique: Paying Attention to the Politics of Our Selves with Foucault’s Analytic of Governmentality,” in Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context, and Social Engagement, ed. Ronald E. Purser, David Forbes, and Adam Burke (New York: Springer, 2016), 135–52. ↩︎
- Richard K. Payne, “Mindfulness and the Moral Imperative for the Self to Improve the Self,” in Purser, Forbes, and Burke, Handbook of Mindfulness, 122. ↩︎
- Ng, “The Critique of Mindfulness and the Mindfulness of Critique.” ↩︎
- Kristin K. Barker, “Mindfulness Meditation: Do-It-Yourself Medicalization of Every Moment,” Social Science & Medicine 106 (2014): 168–76, doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.01.024. ↩︎
- Steven Stanley, Ronald E. Purser, and Nirbhay N. Singh, Ethical Foundations of Mindfulness (Switzerland: Springer International, 2018). ↩︎
- David Loy and Ron Purser, “Beyond McMindfulness,” Huffington Post, January 1, 2013. ↩︎
- Lisa Dale Miller, “The Ultimate Rx: Cutting through the Delusion of Self-Cherishing,” in Purser, Forbes, and Burke, Handbook of Mindfulness, 337–52. ↩︎
- Payne, “Mindfulness and the Moral Imperative for the Self to Improve the Self.” ↩︎
- Notable examples of this work include programs and groups offered by East Bay Meditation Center, San Francisco Zen Center, Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, and Gaia House. ↩︎
- There are some significant efforts to critically examine mindfulness within Buddhist communities, including the works of the late insight meditation teacher Rob Burbea, who delivered a series of lectures on the limits of modernism and scientific materialism in Buddhism. Burbea imbues mindfulness teaching with a spirit of critical inquiry and deconstruction. Through a series of lectures, he endeavors to complexify rather than reduce mindfulness claims, offering nuanced perspectives grounded in cultural critique and a social and historical context. ↩︎
- David L. McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). ↩︎