Zinn Industries' Relaxationism

Today some otherwise astute x-buddhist commentators are inclined to unabashedly argue, as for example triratna-buddhist blogger Jayarava, that mindfulness “is the future of Buddhism.” And yet despite a long time alliance between mindfulness industry and modern x-buddhism's mass media outlets like Tricycle or Shambhala Sun magazines, recently a few cracks have appeared on the surface of this seemingly symbiotic relationship. Some time ago religious studies scholar David McMahan in an interview for Tricycle talked openly about the “mindfulness” as a new “folk religion of the secular elite in Western culture” and tried to counterpoint it with a wider Buddhist context. Most recently in another, I bet very uncomfortable interview for many Mindfulnistas and more overt x-buddhists alike, given to the Tricycle by neuroscience researcher, and Buddhist practitioner Willoughby Britton, one reads that what “blows [her] mind is that the main delivery system for Buddhist meditation in the modern West isn’t Buddhism; it is science, medicine, and schools. There is a tidal wave behind this movement. MBSR practitioners already account for the majority of new meditators and soon they are going to be the vast majority. If Buddhists want to have any say, they better stop criticizing and start collaborating, working with instead of just against. Otherwise, they might get left in the dust of the 'McMindfulness' movement.” This syncs pretty well with what Glenn Wallis used to wrote in the beginning of his post titled Elixir of Mindfulness: “The mighty 'Mindfulness' juggernaut continues to roll joyously throughout the wounded world of late-capitalism. And why shouldn’t it? The Mindfulness Industry is claiming territory once held by the great occupying force of assorted self-help gurus, shrinks, health care workers, hypnotists, preachers, Theosophists, the church, the synagogue, actual gurus, yogis, meditation teachers, and even—gasp!— Buddhists themselves.”

No matter how divergent goals would have the above critiques of mindfulness industry, I think that all of them generally assume that this crypto-Buddhist industry, with all of its ambiguous relations with The Dharma, is in fact on some fundamental level another x of Buddhism. But even if one assumes that the buddheme sati is the main link that makes mindfulness industry a sub-station in this vast power grid pumping buddhistic charism, how, my question is, given the legendary ambiguity of sati, one can say that “mindfulness” is an x of Buddhism at all? Or maybe to some degree it is like with Modern Yoga phenomenon, as in his very revealing paper writes Mark Singleton, that “[t]his blend of biomedicine, psychology, and esoterica is very generally propagated as ‘wisdom of the East’ and a critical distinction is rarely drawn between modern relaxation techniques and ancient practices. In fact, the line often seems to be intentionally blurred to lend a method asiatic cachet.” (italics mine) And right after that, to explain this obvious machination, he mentions about “the belief in the salvific function of proprioceptive awareness” understood as William James's “salvation through relaxation” from his famous The Varieties of Religious Experience. Hence my use of the term “relaxationism” in the title.

Now, let me quote a list of six elements of yoga relaxation that Singleton presents in his paper, which to me look virtually indistinguishable from the elements that one can find in various descriptions of “mindfulness techniques”:

  1. Progressive muscular (tensing and relaxing the muscles of the body in turn)
  2. Differential relaxation (tensing muscles in one part of the body and being aware of all other muscles being relaxed)
  3. Sensory awareness (focusing on the contact or absence of contact between the body and clothes and the support beneath it etc.)
  4. Yoga Nidra (rotation of awareness through the body and the use of sankalpa)
  5. Using affirmations such as ‘I am confident and aware’
  6. Visualisation/guided imagery, such as a picture of a garden or country scene or building a personal safe haven

It is not my main point here to draw attention to this obvious similarity but to highlight the fact that all of the above elements that have been relatively recently subsumed under Zinn Industries' marketable floating signifier “mindfulness” have actually nothing to do with The Dharma/Buddhism dispensation, but are plain and simple, assortment of methods that one can find in the books of now obscure Western authors that lived at the end of nineteenth and in the first half of the twentieth centuries. Authors, who, what everything indicates, had nothing at all to do with 'wisdom of the East'. So to paraphrase Singleton one can say that relaxation techniques of Zinn Industries “is an alloy of relatively new practices, which do not derive from an ancient (...) tradition, as is often claimed. Although some of the methods find apparent equivalents in pre-modern sources, the theological and ideological frameworks that underpin them tend to remain permeated by assumptions of New Age religion and indigenous Western esotericism.”

So who are those long forgotten Western authors that according to Singleton originally and with no connection to the "East" devised all those methods that today mindfulness industry sells cunningly exploiting asiatic glow of sati/mindfulness?

Regarding the progressive and differential relaxation techniques, both of them are “simply and unequivocally,” as writes Singleton, techniques developed by the Chicago scientist Edmund Jacobson in the 1920's. The rotation of awareness can be linked to the methods such as Autogenic Training of German psychiatrist J. H. Schultz from 1930's, or the “Brain Control” method of Mesmerism-inspired Swiss physician R. Vittoz (1863-1925). “The affirmations of point five,” writes Singleton, “although often (...) hopelessly confused with mantra, derive from a particular strand of the mesmeric tradition exemplified by Emile Coue´ (1857–1926). The guided imagery of number six, not to be confused with tantric practices of visualisation, is in reality a psychotherapeutic method favoured by post-Jungians and a variety of New Age therapists.” Annie Payson Call (1853-1940) was one of the first to adhere to the view – writes Singleton - that “the physical body becomes the locus of a new religion, with proprioceptive relaxation as its principal form of prayer. That only by relaxing the muscles of the body that the heart and mind can be quieted, because thoughts and emotions are stored within the physical frame. (…) If we were to rid ourselves of physical (and thereby emotional and mental tension), 'We should grow faster spiritually, because we should not make conflicts for ourselves, but should meet with the Lord’s quiet strength whatever we had to pass through'. Call believes that by relaxing fully and with awareness, we align ourselves with God’s and nature’s ‘law’. If, however, we are full of tension, we will not be receptive to this influence. Thus, paradoxically, by slackening the pace of our physical and mental drives, we enter a fast track to spiritual growth.”

I am not going to paste here all of such informative bites from Singleton paper, I just would like to recommend it to everyone who wants to challenge the status quo that Zinn Industries seem to promote worldwide. Whatever they mean by the “mindfulness” meme, they have to recognize that very similar ideas had been propagated at least century ago in the West and most importantly those ideas had nothing to do with the commodified and monopolized buddheme sati so markatable today. They used to be, as much as they are increasingly today, a form of relaxationism that, as in conclusion writes Singleton,“is far less (as some would have us believe) an integral package despatched through the millennia by Indian sages than a symptom of the religious and economic crisis of our time.” Earlier in his conclusion he also writes that “modern relaxationism develops explicitly in response to this perception [of frantic pace of modern life]. However, techniques of rest and streamlined activity are not conceived as challenges to this oppressive order, but are enlisted into the service of efficient labour.” One should remember that already “[I]n the 1920s (…) The British Industrial Health Research Board found that with regular relaxation, 'The work curve is not only raised in height but it is also improved in form' (...) and a later series of tests in a textile factory revealed that 'organised' relaxation pauses yield far more 'output' than informal ones.”

Sounds familiar to us today, right? It just proves that Zinn Industries have a long and rich heritage, but most certainly it does not derive from "Eastern wisdom."