Mindfulness, social change and the ‘neoliberal self’

Hi everyone

One of the criticisms which I increasingly come across with regards to mindfulness is that through helping people to deal with stress by engaging differently with their thoughts, rather than addressing the external cause of the stress, mindfulness further individualises suffering. The blame for suffering is placed on the person – ‘if only you could be more mindful you would not be stressed’. In so doing mindfulness detracts from the economic, social and environmental factors that are contributing to the suffering of many people.

I have felt this tension in my own work when teaching mindfulness and self-compassion to a group of health professionals over the summer. Given the very difficult and stressful circumstances that they are currently working in in the NHS, I did at times experience some internal conflict around asking them to become more mindful and compassionate in the inherently stressful environments where they experience very little compassion and ever greater demands. They were very open to the relevance of what I was teaching which was reassuring but I do remain slightly conflicted.

This article prompted me to write this blog by reminding me of these issues. It is about the potential for mindfulness in schools to turn children into robots – by equipping them with tools that will create ‘compliant students who can manage their own behavior, focus on their assignments, and calm themselves when angry or frustrated with school’ (Forbes 2015). Forbes goes on to describe how mindfulness may reinforce the concept of the ‘neoliberal self’, the idea that we should be able to live completely independently, the danger being that stress might come to be seen as a personal failure, playing down or ignoring the economic, social and institutional factors which may contribute.

Initially I felt that the author (who I knew nothing about at the time) clearly had a very narrow concept of what mindfulness was however the article goes on to develop more nuanced arguments about how mindfulness is taught. He draws attention to the danger of mindfulness being taught in such a way as to emphasise personal and academic ‘success’ at the expense of a creativity, exploration, reflection and personal development. In order to avoid this he goes on to describe how mindfulness education needs to feature as part of a critical pedagogy which raises challenging questions about social inequalities and injustice. Furthermore he emphasises the importance of compassion, reflecting the ethical basis which underpinned mindfulness in its traditional context:

‘For all of us mindfulness should be a fiercely compassionate practice in which we uncover, challenge, and transcend how our thoughts, feelings, and actions are conditioned and colonized by unhealthy cultural practices and social institutions that (re)produce greed, meanness, and delusion.‘ (Forbes 2016)

I highly recommend reading the actual article.

Overall I think he touches on issues which speak directly to the importance of aspects of contemplative pedagogy that cultivate meaningful reflection and the development of community, explore interconnectivity and compassion, and provide a space for the development of our internal lives – through mindfulness and other means.

In my own experience though, I have actually found that mindfulness has been very helpful in giving me the courage and equanimity to work for change and to speak out and take action. I am willing to acknowledge the extent of inequality and injustice more clearly than I have before as well as facing up to my own role in it.  By developing wisdom about my own mental states and insight into my own delusion, I am now willing to be more vulnerable and risk criticism and as such I am much freer to take action than I have been in the past. As I have not been able to run a randomised control trial on different versions of my life I am unable to attribute this only to meditation but I am confident that it has played a large part.  I think mindfulness can help to open the door to more critical engagement with the world – it is not about a numb, compliant acceptance but a deep recognition and openness to how things are. It is from this space that real change can come.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this issue as it is very pertinent to what we are doing. Please comment below.

Warm wishes Caroline

Forbes, D. They want kids to be robots: Meet the new education craze designed to distract you from overtesting [Online] Available at: http://www.salon.com/2015/11/08/they_want_kids_to_be_robots_meet_the_new_education_craze_designed_to_distract_you_from_overtesting/ [Accessed: 26 November 2015].

14 thoughts on “Mindfulness, social change and the ‘neoliberal self’

  1. Thank you for posting this. It is an issue that has resonance in an academic context as well. I think you hit the nail on the head with your final comment: “I think mindfulness can help to open the door to more critical engagement with the world – it is not about a numb, compliant acceptance but a deep recognition and openness to how things are. It is from this space that real change can come.”
    I hear this as: if mindfulness as a “fiercely compassionate practice” (Forbes,2016, see above) is practiced by people who contribute in some way to maintaining the systems that create “social inequalities and injustice” (from any employees to CEOs/directors/Principals/Deans/VCs), maybe beneficial changes can start to occur on all levels of oppressive structures? I find this is difficult to do on an individual basis, especially in a large organisation. I would like to see committed communities of mindfulness practice within workplaces. Within these communities the focus can be on our own fiercely-compassionate-mindfulness-practice-in-action, alongside and at the same time as interest in researching all aspects of mindfulness, and it may then be easier to advocate for some of the needed changes??


  2. Thanks for this Carolyn and also your comment Marlies. I have had very similar lines of thought about this in my university. Our HR department is supportive of our mindfulness meditation and contemplation initiatives, but I do indeed share the concern that if individual employees raise issues around stress with their managers, they might then be told to go and do a mindfulness course as a cure, instead of addressing the actual situation that gives rise to the stress (e.g. too much work). As with most things in life, I think there are no hard and fast rules here and we need to seek for a dynamic equilibrium between the need for mindful individuals and the need to identify, understand, question and oppose oppressive, exclusive and discriminatory systems and practices. I agree with Marlies that if more individuals in power become mindful (in the compassionate sense) then much can change. I very much concur with Carolyn in that I also feel that my meditation practices have helped me to speak up in meetings and to questions aspects of the organisation and our practices. At the same time I am also very aware of my own limitations in this and the possibility of serious erosion of my energy in relation to fighting things that are too big for me to take on. Sometimes walking away is simply the best thing I can and am willing to do. This could be a physical walking away or a psychological ‘walking away’. In relation to this, I am intrigued by a book I am reading by Harrison Owen on Open Space Technology “expanding our now” . This seems to be a truly mindful way of organising meetings, I am looking into using this approach for organising the Contemplative Pedagogy symposium on 22 April 2016 at Queen Margaret University (sorry for the plug, date for your diary, more details to follow).


  3. Hi Carolyn, Thanks for sharing this. I tried replying but for some reason, it didn’t take. I can understand the concerns raised by the article but I think what is key is how mindfulness is taught. I see mindfulness as very complementary to social change since it helps one become more self aware and cultivate nonreactivity, especially in the face of adversity. It helps one to see things clearly and to act in ways that are skillful and wise. I have seen people involved in social justice and social change work who don’t have this awareness or mindfulness and wind up acting trying to bring about change in ways which are unskillful, squelcing different viewpoints and acting in ways which bring more aggression. That’s why I see mindfulness as invaluable to healthy social change. I think of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen monk, who was involved in peace and justice activism during the Vietnam War, and found his spiritual practice critical to his work. And, from what I’ve read, so did Martin Luther King and the Dalai Lama, both Nobel laureates. Just a few thoughts!


    On Thursday, November 26, 2015, Contemplative Pedagogy Network wrote: > contemplativepedagogynetwork posted: “Hi everyone One of the criticisms which I increasingly come across with regards to mindfulness is that through helping people to deal with stress by engaging differently with their thoughts, rather than addressing the external cause of the stress, mindfu” >


  4. It is a source of solace to happen upon this blog and comment thread. I share Caroline’s internal conflict. The issues she raises have been concerning me as I try to deal with a difficult personal situation which I have been actively trying to respond to with mindfulness, compassion and loving kindness (stemming from a keen Buddhist interest), rather than react from the pain and anger I feel at being treated very badly.

    In wanting to believe in the inherent goodness of the person inflicting the damage, and in continuing to be compassionate, open, and hence vulnerable, might there be a point at which this approach is unhealthy, while also encouraging the continued bad behaviour? Or should one adopt the approach, as advised in a recent post by Jack Kornfield: “Only to the extent that person exposes themselves over and over again to annihilation and loss can that which is indestructible be found within them. In this daring lie dignity and the spirit of true awakening.” [https://www.jackkornfield.com/zen-aching-heart/]

    I have been reading and listening to a lot of contemporary Buddhist approaches to compassion and loving kindness but have not found much that deals with this dilemma. I would be interested to know if anyone has any leads I can follow up on.


    • Hi Kirsty sorry for the delay in responding – this is a complex area 🙂 Remember that Buddhism also talks about self-compassion and that the ethical precept of non-harm also refers to ourselves. To act compassionately does not always mean to give someone what they want or to allow others to treat us as they wish. I would recommend looking up the work of Pema Chodron for a Buddhist perspective or Kristen Neff for a psychological angle on self-compassion.


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  6. Great to see this discussion develop. I think there are number of aspects of this discussion that need to be addressed here:

    1) We need to be very clear about the difference between formal mindfulness meditation practice and changes that come about in behaviour that result from the practice. On the one hand formal mindfulness meditation practice may be about cultivating a particular mindstate that arises from parasympathetic activation (low emotional activity, low thinking activity, suspension of discrepancy monitoring, enhanced sensory awareness) but when we try to define what this mindstate means we begin to have problems. For example, this mindstate may be a “non-dual” minstate but if you start to talk about a “non-dual world view” you encounter all sorts of problems culturally, ethically and philosophically.

    2) Using a Buddhist rationale in the context of social change. In my view, mindfulness in a secular context should remain within a secular framework of understanding else it becomes covert Buddhism on the one hand and potentially cultural imperialism on the other.

    3) A cognitive understanding of mindfulness will always focus on the psychological function of the individual with an assumption that these psychological functional constructs have neurophysiological analogs. This way of understanding things is congruent with the neoliberal self – a unit in a machine. We need to start to understand the mind as a socially embodied process and think about how mindfulness meditation is taught and practiced in a social group.

    4) In Japan in the second WW mindfulness of marching and fighting was used to encourage young men to kill or to be killed, sacrificing their lives for the greater self of the Japanese Empire and the Japanese Emperor. Mindfulness meditation generates a “socially constructed” experience in that it is an experience that takes place when the self-construct begins begins to “disintegrate”. This leads to various insights into the experience of absence of this self-construct, however, this self-construct is socially constructed and as such the experience of the disintegration of the self-construct is culturally defined. We need to think carefully about the self-construct that we wish to re-create out of this process.


    • Hi Mark thanks for this. Interesting points. I’ve not come across the idea of ‘mind as a socially embodied process’ and would love to know more – can you point me to relevant writing or explain a bit more? Thanks and best wishes Caroline


      • Hi Caroline,

        I think you’ll find these talks by Evan Thompson and Robert Sharf for the UC Davis Centre for Mind and Brain Summit, 2015, Perspectives on Mindfulness, interesting.

        In my view, in teaching mindfulness meditation in modern secular society, we need to be aware of these perspectives to build a pedagogical framework that takes into account the impact of mindfulness meditation on the embodied self-construct and the social conditions in which this takes place. My chapter, Making Mindfulness Meaningful and Accessible, in a new book, Mindfulness in the Workplace: An Evidence-based Approach to Improving Wellbeing and Maximising Performance, edited by Margaret Chapman-Clarke, 2016, goes some way to describe a pedagogical rationale that applies this understanding in this context.


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  9. Hello I read with interest your posts here regarding mindfulness and its snug fit with the values and drivers of neoliberalsim. I am about to embark on a dissertation about this for my Mres in Wellbeing. I am looking also at the idea that another paradigm, originating from within the Buddhist tradition, Self Compassion is perhaps an antidote to this problem. If one does not fit in with societal ideals such as extorversion, competition, self interest, autonomy, self responsibility etc, one can begin to feel devalued by society and this can turn inwards. But In learning self compassion the subject is opened up to a new perspective.Self compassion can teach another way, of loving kindness towards the self and self acceptance of ones true self, strengths and weaknesses etc. It highlights the human condition, universality and collective consciousness. It is therefore compassion which begins with the self and extends outwards to others and the planet, it has potential to increase compassion world wide and act as an antidote to neoliberalsim. I would appreciate anyone’s thoughts on this, and would especially like to hear from those with personal experience of practicing self compassion or of teaching it. I am in the very early stages of my research, but am keen to hear from the horses mouth with regard to this approach.


    • Hi Vicky,

      From a Buddhist perspective liberation is achieved by insight into the insubstantial, transient or illusory nature of the self-construct. In parallel with this framework of liberation is the establishment of the Brahma Viharas (Divine Abodes), which are kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity. Interestingly friendship within the community of monks and nuns (and potentially lay practitioners) is also “the whole of the path”.

      From a Buddhist perspective then, the notion of “self-compassion” is a category error. The notion of “self-compassion” is a modern construct that arguably is dependent on the neo-liberal self.

      My personal view, is that the solution to the question you ask is to position mindfulness practice within a framework meaning built on a socially constructed self and experience. Do have a look at Evan Thompson’s talk and Rob Sharf’s talk I posted above. Evan Thompson argues the case for a socially embodied mindfulness.

      Here, Thompson builds two key elements together to define mindfulness: embodiment and social experience. “Embodied” experience is developed in mindfulness practice by increasing interoceptive sensitivity which, in mindfulness practice is developed by directing attention to body-based sensory expression of physiological state and the calming effect of this. In terms of evolutionary psychology, parasympathetic immobilisation is produced when needs are met and social safety is assured. Social safety is based on attachment, social value and purpose. This explains the link between pro-social mind states and mindfulness practice.

      It might be helpful to think about the self as body-based experience or the self as self-construct. Farb et al 2007, I think it is, might be an interesting study to look at to understand this from a neurological perspective.


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