Book Review: The Mindful Elite by Jaime Kucinskas – Contemplative leaders & the growth of mindfulness

The Mindful Elite: Mobilizing from the inside out by Jaime Kucinskas (Oxford University Press) takes up the challenging investigation into the origins of the mindfulness juggernaut that includes everything from contemplative to the clinical and popular use of meditation. This is not the first investigation of the path Western forms mindfulness sans Buddhism has taken and its implications.  Academic and popular press articles have raised praise and concerns about the adaptations of a spiritual practice for secular use as well as the hype of the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions for psychological treatment.

Kucinskas, a sociologist, has taken a line of sight from the origins of the very idea that mindfulness held the potential for global change through personal transformation. Her intention in the research she conducted is to show in high relief the “contradictions, success, and shortcomings” of the course of mindfulness from its inception. It’s a broad scope that sets its undertone with the oft-criticized meeting of the Dali Lama with the American Enterprise Institute in 2014. How did a desire for global transformation through the values of Buddhist thought become entangled with an organization that has  “considerably different starting points, ideologies, and approaches” to reforming society? Kucinskas goes to detailed lengths to unearth the subtle ways Buddhist principles were vulnerable to being co-opted by agencies seeking “a stamp of moral approval” from spiritual leaders. The first chapter is a searing read of the vulnerability that was inherent in the early beginning of contemplative mindfulness, specifically the Mind and Life Institute (MLI).

The trajectory of the book is the exploration of the ways contemplative practices, with all good intentions, have not considered the velocity with which a self-focused culture can assimilate, adapt, and effectively sweep away the fundamental principles of a spiritual process. In the author’s view, there was the desire for global transformation through personal change and therefore also a need to project validity by aligning Buddhist practices with science. Furthermore, there was/is an “attempt to bring values, subjectivity, and spirituality back into institutions through their organizations’ (meaning MLI, etc.) support for intervention programs.” In essence, what Kucinskas promotes is a wide-ranging field of “contemplative leaders” who appear to have managed and directed the growth of mindfulness as a secular, scientific, clinical system of thought and interventions. By virtue of its affiliation with highly regarded scientist-contemplatives, philosopher-contemplatives, and Buddhist teachers, the contemplative leaders garnered respect, co-affiliation, and easy dissemination of mindfulness as practice and treatment.

“…(T)heir scholarship has been validated by credible academic standards… In so doing, they leveraged the legitimacy of science to legitimize select Buddhist practices, even if their stated goals were instrumental rather than religious.”

However, with this flow of contemplative practices into every area of human endeavor from capitalistic desires to personal wellbeing, there is also a growth of risk factors including a clouding over of mindfulness through vague language and excessive valuing of its capacity for change. Kucinskas quotes Rohan Gunatillake, developer of the app Buddhify:

(T)here is a risk that contemplative practice is a shallow pool, like a paddling pool, rather than it being a proper swimming pool with a deep end and a shallow part…we need to maintain that full swimming pool ability, I think.”

Of greater concern was/is the approach of some contemplative leaders to not disclose their Buddhist affiliations while others minimized the Buddhist content of recognized Buddhist teachers in the latter’s presentations. Perhaps this latter need to legitimize mindfulness is the most problematic because it harkens back to colonial processes of eradicating cultures while using their resources.

There is also the inevitable formation of in- and out-groups within the contemplative community as well. Although Kucinskas notes she had “tapped into a community of trust”, this world of mutual support and admiration “was not open to everyone.” The cost of access to the inner circles included financial means, ability to name-drop, image management (a mix of sang froid and cultivated asceticism), and “cultural capitalism”. Those wishing inclusion can become ensnared in the projected “sense of intimacy in the interaction that pretends the social power difference is not there.”

The book started with a frame that suggests a group of “contemplative Illuminati” purposefully toiling to obtain cultural approbation for esoteric practices which I found a bit more conspiratorial than may be true. However, The Mindful Elite hits the target on many fronts. A three-fold community of contemplatives, clinicians, and academics has emerged and, for the most part, directs and filters what is acceptable in the creation of the mindfulness juggernaut. While there is a commonality among them, they do diverge somewhat in how to use the practices within their communities. This divergence perhaps unintentionally contributes to confusion for the everyday person leaving them easily taken in by media hype and misunderstanding of what mindfulness can accomplish.

Kucinskas’ book is a painful and validating read – at least it was for me – as it shines the light on the many ways honourable intentions can become subverted to the degree that it has been in the mindfulness community. Still, it is good to be reminded that the birth intention of this path was and is the desire to transform suffering – individual and collective. Kucinskas has done well to name the beast and, hopefully, keep us from continuing to be devoured by it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.