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The dark side of mindfulness

This navel-gazing craze can be deadly.

Julie Burchill

Julie Burchill
Columnist

Topics Culture Feminism Science & Tech UK

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As a stoic, I very much believe in living in the moment and appreciating even the smallest pleasures life has to offer. When my husband and I were first courting, he compared me to the comic character, Brilliant Kid, from The Fast Show. This was due to my habit of musing aloud when our car was stuck at traffic lights, on which light was the most attractive colour, rather than get into a tizzy about our slow progress.

Despite this, I’ve always had a problem with mindfulness, defined by Wikipedia as ‘the practice of purposely bringing one’s attention to the present-moment experience without evaluation’. Excuse me – what sort of fool needs a map to do this? It reminds me of the way ‘wellness’ (another con perpetuated on those with more money than sex) ceaselessly flogs people items they don’t need to assist them to do things that our primitive ancestors managed perfectly well by themselves. A sleep-tracker for £180? Yours, sucker! How about an electronic device that teaches you how to breathe for £160? And don’t forget pedometers – helping you put one foot in front of the other since 1980, now costing you as much as £200 for the privilege.

No one will ever stop people buying snake oil, especially when packaged in such a way as to make couch potatoes feel like Olympic decathletes. But when the healthcare system starts dipping its toes in the shallow river of these fashionable fairytales, they cease to be merely mockable and become dangerous.

Last month, the Daily Mail reported on the shocking case of 15-year-old Olivia Maunder, who was told by Frimley Park Hospital to try a mindfulness app to deal with her ‘indescribable agony’. It turned out she had a tumour in her pelvis. On one of the many occasions she was taken to A&E, she was told to ‘calm down’. On another, she was told that she was just ‘mirroring [her] mum’s pain as she had had back problems’. She and her mum were told it was all down to stress. By the time the tumour was discovered, it was so extensive that surgery was no longer an option. Olivia now has a few months to live.

I had a personal experience of this some years ago, when a friend lost the use of her legs and was offered mindfulness classes rather than a mobility scooter. No doubt she was expected to use the power of her mind to teleport.

I wonder if men are told to go away and be mindful as much as women are? I very much doubt it. We didn’t need the arrival of terms like ‘cervix-havers’ and ‘menstruators’ – but never ‘prostate-havers’ and ‘ejaculators’ – to know that the medical profession has always treated women differently. Women are 50 per cent less likely to be diagnosed after having a heart attack, are given less CPR than men, and are more likely to be given sedatives – rather than painkillers – for pain than men. While the NHS has been busy erasing such hate-speech terms as ‘mother’ and ‘breastfeeding’ from their public-information bulletins, NHS maternity negligence claims have doubled in the past decade. Last year, it was revealed that more than 200 babies and nine mothers had died due to bad care at the Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Trust alone.

Sadistic doctors no longer perform lobotomies on women as a cure for promiscuity, or diagnose any female behaviour unpleasing to men as ‘hysteria’, but as Caroline Criado-Perez’s 2019 book, Invisible Women, pointed out, the medical system is ‘from root to tip, systematically discriminating against women, leaving them chronically misunderstood, mistreated and misdiagnosed’. Women are still being told that extreme illnesses are all in their minds. Nicolette Baker, a woman from Cornwall, shrunk to three stone because her doctors insisted that she was anorexic, repeatedly sectioning her. She is dying of Superior Mesenteric Artery Syndrome. Kirsty Maxwell, from Perthshire, was repeatedly told she had an eating disorder and was given everything from Gaviscon to antidepressants. She had terminal cancer. Doctors certainly seem to know what a woman is when it suits them – someone you tell to ‘calm down, dear’.

This is the most lethal kind of gaslighting. It needs to be tackled, not zhuzhed up with twaddle like mindfulness. Not least because those who once advocated mindfulness are now having second thoughts. ‘McMindfulness is the marketing of a constructed dream; an idealised lifestyle; an identity makeover’, writes therapist Jeremy Safran. Psychologist Thomas Joiner suggests that meditation has been corrupted for commercial gain by self-obsessed celebrities, encouraging smug narcissists to become even more so. Mindfulness is certainly a lovely little earner. It’s thought to be worth around $4 billion, taking in everything from meditation apps to the 60,000 books on Amazon including the word ‘mindfulness’ in their titles, including Mindful Finance, Mindful Leadership and Mindful Dog Owners. This is all despite the increasing evidence that too much navel-gazing can increase depression and decrease your ability to withstand pain – even though dealing with pain is precisely what mindfulness is often prescribed for.

Perhaps the powers-that-be have worked out that a nation of ninnified sissies is a good deal easier to control than a populace of tough-minded stoics. Here’s the latest infantilisation attempt, according to the Mail: ‘The NHS is in talks with underwear and bathroom-tissue manufacturers to give advice on cervical, bowel and other cancers. It is also speaking with supermarkets about putting advice on underwear labels.’ Maybe I’m just a suspicious feminist, but I can’t help thinking that these words to the witless are far more likely to end up in knickers than boxers.

In the end, mindfulness doesn’t care what sex we are. It wants to mulch us all up and spit us out as self-soothing units, obsessed with our individual ‘journeys’. There’s something about the solitary solipsism of it that fits in so well with our atomised, masturbatory, working-from-home lives. Living in the moment, neither regretting the past nor worrying about the future, is without doubt a cure for a good deal of life’s troubles. But mindfulness, wellness, self-care? There’s something so namby-pamby about them, implying that modern life is so stressful that adult human beings need ceaseless monitoring of their own minds in order to go about their business without freaking out. Is this really the adult life we imagined, when we were bored teenagers itching to get out into the big, bad, beautiful world?

Julie Burchill is a spiked columnist. Her book, Welcome To The Woke Trials: How #Identity Killed Progressive Politics, is published by Academica Press.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Culture Feminism Science & Tech UK

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