I have been an inconsistent and skeptical practitioner of meditation for decades. I suppose I believe it helps me focus; but could that just be the placebo effect? Whether out of laziness, empirical disquiet, or unease at anything so in tune with the spirit of the times, I have rarely kept it up for long. But I am also drawn back again and again, as I am to the idea of not smoking, or learning Chinese. Meditation has its origin in Eastern traditions with what it is surely fair to characterise as spiritual aims, but was packaged for Western consumption as a practice with empirically verifiable benefits for health and productivity. This is one strand of what I have discovered is termed “healthism”. Searching suggests the locus classicus is this much-cited article from 1980:
Healthism represents a particular way of viewing the health problem, and is characteristic of the new health consciousness and movements. It can best be understood as a form of medicalization, meaning that it still retains key medical notions. Like medicine, healthism situates the problem of health and disease at the level of the individual. Solutions are formulated at that level as well. To the extent that healthism shapes popular beliefs, we will continue to have a non-political, and therefore, ultimately ineffective conception and strategy of health promotion. Further, by elevating health to a super value, a metaphor for all that is good in life, healthism reinforces the privatization of the struggle for generalized well-being.Robert Crawford, International Journal of Health Services, 1980;10(3); abstract
I first encountered mindfulness through a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, recommended to me by a friend sent on a course by his doctor or work. The book (several hundred pages long and full of diagrams and data) strongly emphasises the hard science credentials of the practice, but its spiritual antecedents are smuggled in in the form of maxims describing the correct attitude to bring to bear. This is a rhetorically potent combination. If there is hard evidence of effectiveness, then there must be something “real” to it; and someone who might see no reason to entertain the spiritual aspects might warm to them with use. Those are attitudes at war with one another. “Effectiveness”, for most of us, means productivity in the stressful modern workplace — in somebody else’s interest. The Taoist and Buddhist roots of this ancient tradition envisage a quite different source of value; but that should stand on its merits — we choose to believe, or follow, or we do not — and not based on a criterion of benefit extraneous to both individual aims, and the collective good.
Nonetheless, there is a possible affinity between the rejection of market materialism and some kind of spirituality. Crawford seems to be writing from a Marxist perspective (I have only read the abstract of his article, so it’s hard to tell). Maybe he would see such an inward turn as complicit with the external order that makes it consoling. I remain torn between a woolly interest, eased by the absence of metaphysical commitments (especially in Taoism), and the feeling which I do not altogether trust that it really does make me a bit sharper. It’s not much to justify an inchoate religious commitment. (“Inchoate” is one of my least favourite English words, not least because no one seems to know either how to pronounce it or exactly what it means; so perhaps its use here is doubly apposite.) On the other hand, I doubt that the place of meditation in most Western lives comes anywhere close to that. For one thing, religion generally appears to require a community in order to “take”, with mechanisms of social reinforcement, carrot or stick.
I’m not coming to any sort of conclusion or pregnant final thought, so I’ll leave it at that.