I’m in two minds about mindfulness. Having embraced it enthusiastically a couple of years ago as a potential cure for anxiety, I’ve squirmed a bit as it has gone mainstream, and now I am watching the inevitable backlash. Countless articles recently have condemned the new meditation as little more than a shallow, egocentric form of Buddhism-lite, just another vacuous hobby for the self-obsessed middle classes.
Some of the accusations centre around the idea that, in an already anti-intellectual culture, the last thing we need is any encouragement to empty our minds. And I have seen it argued that there is something sinister in its adoption by corporations, or schools; that in these hands mindfulness becomes a tool of control, inducing passivity and acceptance in employees or students. A new kind of anaesthetic, like the soma consumed in Brave New World.
The mind-emptying charge is nonsense, as it’s just not what happens. In meditation, rather than clearing away your thoughts, you try to observe them, to notice how they come and go, and how often you return to the same, useless cycles. Meditating can be different every time, sometimes boring, sometimes not. Sometimes the mind slows down, and sometimes it speeds up; thoughts in the form of words are replaced by images, which mysteriously appear out of nowhere, like the dreams you have just before sleep.
And when troubling thoughts do come you don’t yell shut up at them (as I used to): you register them, then return to something central, usually the breath. This might sound like nothing to those of you with a quiet and peaceful mind. But to anyone who dwells in the past or the future, it can be a great relief.
Is meditating going to render us all docile? Is that precisely why it is becoming so popular? I’m not sure. Anxiety and depression can be paralysing states of mind in themselves. Anything that helps you gain some perspective could be empowering.
Yet I can understand the worry that an insistence on mindfulness could delegitimise anger that might have a rational and social cause, offering the wrong answer to the question: “Should the world change, or should I change?”
I started thinking about this the other night when I was watching What Happened, Miss Simone?, Liz Garbus’s documentary on Nina Simone. The film is full of extraordinary live clips, including one jarring occasion when Simone sings “I Loves You, Porgy” on Hugh Hefner’s television show Playboy’s Penthouse, surrounded by gowns and cigarette holders, her eyes full of burning sorrow. What struck me about many of the performances was her vivid, righteous anger. Her daughter spoke of her being diagnosed fairly late in life with bipolar disorder, and that can’t be ignored – but still, what rang out like a bell from the life story that was told was how much of her fury was justified, and how it found an outlet in both political activism and creativity.
Playing the piano from early childhood and dreaming of a life as a classical pianist, she witnessed her own parents being asked to sit at the back as she gave a recital in church, was rejected by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and took refuge in nightclubs; she was an unorthodox jazz/blues artist with classical technique, uniquely gifted, but thwarted and resentful. Finding common cause with leading figures in the civil rights movement, she then lived through their murders. And all of this fuelled her anger, which fuelled her creativity, flaming out in such defiantly expressive songs as “Mississippi Goddam” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”.
Simone expressed all this rage at no small cost to herself and her career. I remember John Lydon singing that “anger is an energy”. For Nina Simone it clearly was, and we reaped the benefit in those songs, that imperious voice, those flashing eyes. So I understand the fear some people have that mindfulness might dull that edge, blunting the emotions and creativity. We think we seek calm, but is it really what we want?
This article appears in the 26 Aug 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism