The Mindful Elite
Mobilizing from the Inside Out
- ISBN: 9780190881818
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: November 2018
Jamie Kucinskas’ The Mindful Elite: Mobilizing from the Inside Out offers unique, important contributions to the growing scholarly conversation surrounding the use of contemporary mindfulness practices in nearly every segment of society—from health care and education to the military and corporate sectors. In recent cultural commentary, the tremendous popularity of “mindfulness” can itself seem suspicious to critics who argue that its widespread use is complicit in, among other ills, pacifying individuals who might otherwise protest systemic injustice.
While these critiques often rely exclusively on theoretical analyses, Kucinskas grounds The Mindful Elite in social-scientific methodologies. She explains the mass proliferation of contemporary mindfulness practices as a social movement and assesses the systemic impact of this movement. Kucinskas presents this as useful case example of alterative movements that can teach social scientists more about common tactics for the acquisition of greater organizational and institutional support across multiple cultural spheres.
Drawing on data from over a decade of participant observation and scores of interviews, Kucinskas complicates common dominant narratives surrounding mindfulness practices. She gives voice to practitioners who gravitate to a common set of progressive values that include a strong opposition to the very systemic injustice that critics accuse them of perpetuating. One of her central research questions is to thus ascertain whether the so-called mindfulness movement does “retain deeper social and political importance, offering a critique of the individualist, capitalist status quo, as intended by some early contemplative leaders” (190). She explains that these practitioners operate with a particular social change model “not just for the individuals practicing but for society as a whole . . . believ[ing] that if they could transform individuals . . . they would initiate broader processes of social reform” (42–43). Kucinskas investigates this model of social change beginning with the organizations to which mindfulness practitioners themselves belong.
The book’s structure follows this line of argumentation. After an introduction establishing the issues at stake as described above (chapter 1), Kucinskas outlines the history of what she calls “the contemplative movement.” This ranges from early curiosity about Buddhist traditions in the United States (chapter 2) through a post-1970s period (chapter 3) when developers of therapeutic mindfulness practices sought to distinguish themselves from earlier popularized forms perceived as superficial and frivolous (e.g., transcendental meditation).
The central chapters analyze tactics that communities of mindfulness practitioners utilize to “mobilize mindfulness.” Drawing on theories of organizational change, Kucinskas describes how proponents gained purchase within particular institutions and institutional spheres, such as the health care and corporate sectors (chapter 4). She explains how “familiar insiders” within these spheres introduced practices into their organizations “unobtrusively” and sought to establish their legitimacy by, for example, leveraging the authority of scientific research purportedly demonstrating their efficacy. In chapter 5, she further describes methods used to market mindfulness practices as helpful for nearly every sphere of society and the often deeply intentioned adaptations made to these practices over time to make them acceptable to institutional authorities.
Kucinskas shares numerous stories of personal transformations from mindfulness practitioners taken from her extensive interviews, but she questions how deeply these practices are “changing individuals or institutions” (chapter 6). She begins to advance her own answer to this question in chapter 7, elucidating how social elites with access to funders remained dominant within the organizations she studied. The final two chapters are devoted to, as the section is titled, “Assessing the Contemplatives’ Success, 2013–2016.” This refers less to the success that mindfulness proponents have in popularizing the practices they believe can be transformative to both individuals and society—they have clearly had tremendous success in this regard—and more to assessing whether these practices have been successful in truly generating such societal transformations.
From a Buddhist studies perspective, Kucinskas relies largely on the scholarship of Thomas Tweed and David McMahan to, importantly, specify that mindfulness proponents tend to be connected to highly specific contemporary forms often referred to as “Buddhist modernism,” forms she suggests are being “watered down” in the mindfulness movement. This is interesting as “Buddhist modernism” is itself often deployed as a rubric to label significant deviations from historical Buddhist traditions. Kucinskas can teeter on the edge of positioning an idealized “Buddhism,” modernist or otherwise, as source of ethical wisdom juxtaposed against the communities she studies. And yet, one finds as much reliance on elite “familiar insiders,” as much concern about obtaining social stature and, certainly, resource sustainability in medieval China as the contemporary United State. Future scholarship could compare the tactics used by Buddhist communities in the past with those Kucinskas so effectively illuminates.
In conclusion, Kucinskas successfully achieves her laudable goal to “show the movement from multiple angles in an effort to eschew overly simplistic portrayals assuming that one side is ‘right’ and another is ‘wrong’” (190). In the end, however, she finds that whatever concerns she heard from speakers at gatherings of mindfulness practitioners about societal inequalities, such a focus has not seemed to “trickle up,” one might say, into their organizing structures. She notes that “one of the great risks for elite-driven alterative movements like contemplatives is [a] myopia” that can cause a “forgetting [of] the problems of the people who never make it into the room with them because they lack the economic, cultural, or social capital” (193). Future longitudinal studies would be necessary to determine how this tension does or does not resolve itself.
Future research could also focus on the use of contemporary mindfulness practices in very different populations from “the mindful elite” who are subject of Kucinskas’ study. It would be a different project altogether to conduct ethnographic observation with the activist meditators who “Occupied Wall Street” or in meditation groups for people of color utilizing “mindfulness” for healing from racialized trauma. Additional studies could be conducted within these nonelite communities to gain a larger picture of the place of mindfulness practices in society. If so, those studies would do well to adopt the same careful and rigorous methodological approaches of Kucinskas. The Mindful Elite demands the attention of all future consideration of the so-called mindfulness movement.
Ira Helderman is visiting assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University.Ira HeldermanDate Of Review:April 30, 2019