Kucinskas, Jaime (2019) The Mindful Elite: Mobilizing from the Inside Out, Oxford University Press: New York, NY.
Jaime Kucinskas’s first book, The Mindful Elite, offers an innovative contribution to social movements literature. Dr. Kucinskas and I met as participants in the Young Scholars of Social Movements conference, where I had the pleasure of getting acquainted with her early research on this topic, and it’s wonderful to have an opportunity to review it for Mobilizing Ideas. Her book explores what she conceptualizes as “the contemplative movement,” a group of individuals and organizations who set their sights on incorporating meditation into public life starting in about the 1970s. Using an historical qualitative approach, she describes how advocates for mindfulness used insider processes to spread meditation practices across institutional arenas, including business, education, and science. Her data includes over 100 interviews with early pioneers in the movement, participant observation at multiple large events for mindfulness advocates, and content analysis of media data. Kucinskas’s analytical strategies reflect an in-depth and rigorous exploration of how meditation and mindfulness was legitimized as cognitive behavioral treatment and, consequently, a practice that is now widely used beyond the previous enclaves of the new age community.
Although defining meditation advocacy as a social movement (contemplative movement, as it’s called) can be debated, part of the power of this conceptualization is that it allows Kucinskas to use it as a case study interrogate the use of insider strategies. She is able to grapple with the ways that insider strategies can lead to the “successful” institutionalization of movement demands or can lead to movements being coopted, where activists are disempowered by the guise that incorporation will lead to the change they want. Wanting people to practice mindfulness could be seen as the demand, but in her historical account meditation was an element of Buddhist traditions, and institutionalizing meditation could be seen as a tactic for generating a broad cultural and spiritual shift. Kucinskas describes how meditation was a kind of Buddhist vehicle for fostering compassion and rejecting the ego-centricism and unbridled materialism that is central to our capitalist political economy. If we think of other movements encouraging changes in practice with the assumption that it will lead to deeper change (like animal rights activists who encourage veganism as a path towards elevating the status of animals), her analysis is powerfully generalizable.
Kucinskas establishes a central theme with her account of an organization in the contemplative movement, the Center for Contemplative Mind, that worked with meditator insiders at Monsanto and Google to institute meditation internally. The organization adapted mindfulness, as a Buddhist tradition, to fit these kinds secular institutional contexts, and the “conceptual murkiness (of ‘secular’) and the porous boundaries of the edges of the contemplative movement leave room for meditators to play with contemplative culture, adapt it, ‘language it,’ and identify it as secular in complex and sometimes convoluted ways.” (101) This adaptation risked compromising a tenet of Buddhist tradition– deconstructing cultural values like individualism and ego-centrism that is inherent to U.S. capitalist culture.
There is one point of departure I’m going to indulge in: I wanted Kucinskas to engage with Weber’s The Protestant Ethic beyond his argument that bureaucratization is corrosive to spiritual and religious values. Protestantism and the development of capitalism were mutually reinforcing. Mindfulness is being used broadly as a form of cognitive behavioral treatment for regulating the emotional turmoil that accompanies the exceptionally fast-paced nature of technological advancements, where digital communication (i.e. the internet, obviously) facilitates increased capital accumulation, consequent economic inequality, and working-class precarity. The explosion of internet usage that coincided with the contemplative movement also facilitates forms of social isolation that are affecting our emotional lives in ways we don’t understand. Kucinskas grapples with nuances of how mindfulness became institutionalized and I would enjoy hearing how she would explore this larger theoretical picture.
Tangents aside, she articulates the problem of how to define contemplatives’ intervention incredibly well when she discusses a 2013 Huffington Post article by Ron Purser and David Loy on “McMindfulness,”
(Mindfulness) operates as a Marxist “opiate,” which comforts the suffering workers just enough so that they do not collectively organize to confront the structural sources of discomfort affecting them. This individualized “accommodationist” approach to change can lead to cooptation. (167)
Although Kucinskas highlights cases where meditation does not function as an “opiate,” like interviewees who abandoned high status and high paying careers in business, she avoids broad normative and binary claims that meditation is either being coopted or is successfully changing our ego-centric culture. Instead she sparks curiosity in the reader about how her analysis can be used to explain other movements. Readers, especially those of us who focus on the use of institutional routes by activists, are offered conceptual tools to further explore the pros and cons of using an “Inside Out” movement strategy. We should all be eager to engage with her work in our own.