The Experience of Mindfulness

October 13, 2017   •   By Susan Kaiser Greenland


Thomas Joiner

I HAVE A natural fondness for any author who can pack penguins, the Stoics, and Pokémon Go into a single paragraph. The author in question is Thomas Joiner, a professor at Florida State University who has written or edited 17 books, most of them on the psychology, neurobiology, and treatment of suicidal behavior and related conditions. Joiner’s latest tome is Mindlessness: The Corruption of Mindfulness in a Culture of Narcissism, a take-down of the “faux” mindfulness movement.

For those unfamiliar with the term, mindfulness is a state of attention that’s strengthened through meditation. It was introduced to the West largely through the assimilation of trends in Buddhist thought. For Joiner, authentic mindfulness is the “moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness of one’s environment and subjective state” — as opposed to faux-mindfulness, which he sees as “an easy, faddish, and seemingly high-minded and spiritual excuse for self-regard and self-indulgence.”

Joiner says he expects his attack on the commercialization and popularization of mindfulness to provoke a fight. But I have no problem with Joiner’s criticism of the mindfulness craze and have taken my own share of shots at it. The youngish field of secular mindfulness is growing more quickly than those of us who’ve been in it for a while ever expected. Many of Joiner’s criticisms are well considered and well deserved. I will push back, however, against his main premise, which pits faux-mindfulness against authentic mindfulness. This oppositional set-up misses an essential component of authentic mindfulness, which is resistance to such simple dualisms.

Joiner claims to have been disappointed by his first — and apparently only — experience with formal meditation training (a daylong mindfulness workshop), writing about it like a true believer defending his cause against charlatans:

It is not that I said much — I didn’t because I was there to listen — nor was it that what I did say was particularly contrarian. I was struck, rather, by the fixation on one narrow band on the vast continuum of intellectual ideas, the relative lack of awareness of this fixedness, and the simultaneous, ironic, and hollow exaltation of broad-mindedness. No one is fully exempt from this natural human foible, for example, it is on ready display in American political life or, to take another example, in many university professors. Like these latter, mindfulness advocates should know better, by virtue of what defines them.

I appreciate Joiner’s recognition that both openness and awareness are inherent in the worldview that supports mindfulness. And I feel his pain. He’s understandably vexed by wrongheaded ideas that have infiltrated his field of psychology, and I’m frustrated by similar ideas that have infiltrated my field of secular mindfulness. Joiner writes:

We have been infected with a set of ideas that has weakened us. The ideas take various forms, but they share a view of the importance of the individual self as compared to things like principle, posterity, and the greater good. They celebrate individual rights and entitlements but neglect individuals’ responsibility and duty, and they assume that whatever occurs to a particular mind has value and importance in its own right (mindfulness gone mindless), when in reality, the usual thought or feeling in the mind of any given human is so lacking in profundity that ironically, it staggers the mind. From whence this infection? The source is multi-determined, but there is a strand of thought within psychology that tends to encourage it: Namely, the flight of fancy that goes under the name of mindfulness.

The issues Joiner has with faux-mindfulness relate to how modern materialism and consumer narcissism can hijack good ideas and even good intentions. Yet this exasperating phenomenon isn’t new. In 1967, Eric Hoffer cautioned against it in The Temper of Our Time: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” Of course, the fact that cultural trends toward self-involvement, commercialism, and self-promotion aren’t problems for mindfulness alone doesn’t get the movement off the hook. But Joiner’s pitting of faux-mindfulness against authentic mindfulness oversimplifies a more complex and more hopeful picture.

Faux- and authentic mindfulness exist separately only in theory; in the real world, they’re more akin to poles on a spectrum. Mindfulness manifests through those who practice it, and the strength of someone’s mindfulness depends on his or her capacity and development. Some people embody a greater degree of mindfulness than others. I sing a little bit, but I can’t belt out a song like Lucinda Williams. Mindfulness, like singing, is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Further, those who embody mindfulness well aren’t mindful all the time. Factors such as stress, fatigue, and hunger adversely affect people’s capacity to be mindful just as they adversely affect their ability to self-regulate in general.

As with singing, people develop mindfulness through study and practice. Unlike singing, however, mindfulness is a naturally existing state that, according to classical texts, everyone can access. Anyone able to work through the layers of misunderstanding and habit that get in the way of their mindfulness can meditate like the great masters. We don’t all have the talent to be an amazing singer, but all of us have the potential to be a prodigious meditator. As with any developmental trajectory, the road to mindfulness is rarely linear and often messy. Mindfulness teachers learn early on to meet students where they are, and some of the students that teachers meet are knee-deep in faux-mindfulness. That’s not a problem from a practice perspective. The openness of this approach allows for faux-mindfulness to become a stepping-stone to more mature, genuine mindfulness.

Joiner is right to define mindfulness as a stance of attention, but that’s not all there is to the practice. He doesn’t seem to recognize that there’s an experiential aspect to mindfulness that transforms people. Spiritual seekers have sought it for millennia. It’s visceral, non-conceptual, and beyond egocentric desires — an experience during which you can glimpse psychological freedom. Sometimes it lasts for only an instant, but it’s a neurosis-free instant. This experience isn’t unique to mindfulness and commonly shows up during ordinary activities. It’s an “aha” moment that can slip through your fingers if you try to hold onto it. Contemplative practice, coupled with a mindful awareness of actions, speech, and personal biases, can lead to periods of psychological freedom that last longer than an instant. Describing this experience in a way that’s easy to understand without reifying it is a daunting, yet intellectually engaging task. I don’t know that anyone has completely nailed the description yet, but Joiner misses the point.

The book also misses a core tenet of Buddhism that the secular mindfulness movement has embraced but hasn’t articulated well: the motivation for our inner work is to help all beings — not just me, not just you, but everyone. Classical teaching reminds us that when we help others, we help ourselves. I believe Joiner agrees with this principle because he applauds community service and selflessness throughout his book. Joiner clearly understands the altruistic impulse, which is why he is so turned off by the narcissism of faux-mindfulness. But some who are drawn to faux-mindfulness simply haven’t perceived how helping other people helps them. This is another place where faux-mindfulness can be a stepping-stone to more genuine mindfulness. Were people required to be altruistic before they practice, those who might benefit most would pass. Given that mindfulness helps people recognize how deeply connected they are to others, encouraging them to start where they are, even when the reason they start is self-centered, is essential. It’s a skillful way to help them develop a wider perspective and more compassionate motivation.

The same classical teaching that highlights altruism takes the reciprocity of helpfulness one step further and reminds us that, when we help ourselves, we help others. Joiner acknowledges this principle so long as it’s narrowly applied. He is particularly ungenerous when it comes to self-compassion, self-care (he sometimes conflates the two), and forgiveness, considering them to be narcissistic. Few could argue that some of the exercises Joiner describes are overly self-involved, but his descriptions hold little relationship to the contemplative practices I know. I’ve never met a reputable mindfulness teacher who equates manicures and pedicures with inner work, and I doubt I ever will. Unlike manicures and pedicures, mindful self-compassion is often difficult and can be downright unpleasant. It’s not easy to take a close look at what’s causing your suffering.

The most straightforward explanation for why inner work is not narcissistic is common sense: when someone becomes less neurotic and more discerning, those around him or her reap the benefits. Usually, when starting out, people look to self-compassion (and mindfulness) for stress reduction and emotional healing, in the hope that these practices will help them feel better. The exercise is mostly conceptual, as people investigate painful patterns and behaviors. It’s only later, when the investigative process couples with a more experiential one, that self-compassion is more likely to emerge. Compassion becomes an insight born of experience rather than an aspiration.

This experiential shift is no small thing, and it shows up in how people speak, act, and relate to one another. Unfortunately, Joiner’s concept of self-compassion is a straw man. For example, he compares it unfavorably to masturbation:

Any behavior that one can even suggest is more self-absorbed than masturbation is suspect on its face. In self-compassion, where is the fantasized other? Where is the interpersonal connection? Is it to the pedicurist? And what ancient and powerful instinct is being satisfied?

The severe, punitive tone is unnerving. Indeed, when reading the more personal passages in Joiner’s book, I wish he’d give himself more of a break. Going easy on yourself when you’re pushing too hard or being overly self-critical is no more selfish or masturbatory than exercising or brushing your teeth. The key issue here is motivation. No one would consider it masturbatory for medical caregivers to take time to rest before going into surgery, and when the motivation for self-care is to be a better caregiver, then self-care becomes altruistic.

While Joiner is a highly credentialed expert in psychology, he’s a newcomer to the field of mindfulness training and practice. While there’s something to be said for the fresh perspective a beginner can bring to an ongoing discussion, this requires a posture of openness and humility. While Joiner claims to admire such qualities — “[a]uthentic mindfulness requires humility and is largely defined by it” — they are often lacking in the harsh analyses that fill his book.

Joiner is not alone in his critique of mindfulness research. The current issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science includes a spirited back-and-forth between 17 high-profile scientists and scholars. The articles in this issue ask and answer several key questions (some of which are raised by Joiner) and offer a prescriptive agenda for future research. This is just one of several examples of the substantive conversations happening worldwide about how to best steward the rapidly growing secular mindfulness movement. Joiner’s book reminds us that those conversations aren’t loud enough yet to drown out the hype. Clearly, we still have work to do.


Susan Kaiser Greenland is the author of The Mindful Child (2010) and Mindful Games (2016).