Review by Christina Lee
Thomas Joiner, Mindlessness: The Corruption of Mindfulness in a Culture of Narcissism (New York: Oxford University Press 2017).
In Mindlessness: The Corruption of Mindfulness in a Culture of Narcissism, Thomas Joiner scrutinises the reliability of positive outcomes in publicised mindfulness-based clinical studies and brings his clinical experience in psychology to shed light on the conflicts and potential harms mindfulness can bring to psychiatry and patients. What makes Mindlessness different to previous sceptical mindfulness studies is Joiner’s attention to the interrelation between mindfulness culture and contemporary consumer culture. While he acknowledges that ‘authentic mindfulness’, which he identifies as practices that emphasise dispassionate attention to the present moment and non-judgemental acceptance of emotions and thoughts, can be incredibly powerful when practised properly, he argues that the inward-looking aspects of mindfulness has been derailed by a culture of self-importance and become a vehicle for solipsism and narcissism.
Throughout Mindlessness, Joiner makes three main points: that mindfulness encourages inward-gazing and introspection; that mindfulness is not a panacea for all ills but has its own side-effects; and that consumer culture and social media have turned mindfulness into a caricature of itself. In the first chapter ‘Authentic Mindfulness’, Joiner observes that authentic mindfulness can be very helpful for people who struggle with negative thought patterns that may lead to self-harming behaviour but notes that this aspect of mindfulness is often mistaken as a form of self-abnegation and emptying of the mind. He points to inconsistencies and biases in media reports of clinical findings as key factors that contribute to public misconceptions, as the overall trend of positive representation of mindfulness reduces public awareness of the potential dangers of meditation like depressive breakdowns and trauma-related psychotic symptoms.
One of the strongest points Joiner makes is that mindfulness may promote the idea that mental illness is ‘all in the head’, leading to victim-blaming and creating a stigma around taking medication as a sign of weakness, which in some cases can actually cause death. Suicide is a topic that interests Joiner professionally as a researcher of suicidal behaviour and personally as someone with a family member who died by suicide, and his authority in this field lends strength to the argument that not only can faux mindfulness lead to direct harm in triggering psychosis, it can also indirectly cause death by distracting and delaying vulnerable people from receiving less glamorous but necessary and possibly life-saving medical treatment.
Joiner then examines how faux mindfulness, distortions of mindfulness as pure self-recursive reflection, ‘directly encourage[s] solipsism’ and acts of narcissistic self-regard in contemporary culture (139). He reiterates that ‘self-care, self-forgiveness, and self-compassion over-emphasize the self and thus distract people from their most useful insights, especially that the goal of readiness to serve is subserved by the means of tending to one’s own basic physical and mental health’ (181). He concludes by proposing some potential solutions. According to Joiner, authentic stoicism, defined as a life guided by reason and duty to others, is ‘fully consistent with authentic mindfulness’ and a greater emphasis on stoic virtues could help restore mindfulness to its original version (181).
As Joiner himself admits, his lack of experience in meditation and in Buddhism means that much of his analysis is based on personal, anecdotal observations on popular culture, such as social media and media reports. Engaging in dialogues with Buddhist scholars and practitioners on mindfulness meditation within the contexts of Buddhist ethics would have strengthened his argument on mindfulness and narcissistic culture. His claim of MBSR as the exemplar ‘authentic’ mindfulness practice is questionable because it gives a misleading impression that there is only one authentic way to practise mindfulness. A closer look at the variety of meditative practices within and outside Buddhism in comparison with modern practices would have greatly enriched the discussions. Nevertheless, Mindlessness remains a much-needed critical voice in the mindfulness debate. It provides a clear illustration of how mindfulness has drastically changed social behaviour in modern society and is a valuable resource for mindfulness practitioners and researchers in neurosciences, social sciences and the medical humanities who are interested in the ways in which mindfulness is produced and consumed.