Meditating Ourselves to Death

In 1985, Neil Postman wrote a book titled Amusing Ourselves to Death, which used a well-known idea from Marshall McLuhan’s media theories, “the medium is the message,” to critique television. The central idea was that TV affected us more through its form than its content. True to the Hiedeggerian roots of McLuhan’s work, Postman expounded on how TV changed our ways of being-in-the-world, or more simply, our mental, physical, and social habits.

To highlight the ways habits have changed, Postman recalled the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Those 1958 debates, in which Douglas argued for white supremacy and Lincoln against, lasted for hours and hours. And people sat through them, read transcripts of them, etc. Television, in contrast, never asks more than 7 minutes at a time before a commercial comes (his book was written before the advent of DVR). So one of the ways television was amusing us to death was through lowering attention spans.

Postman argued that Huxley’s dystopian vision in Brave New World was more accurate then Orwell’s 1984 in that TV acts as a self-injected anesthesia. We distract ourselves: no overlord with cunning mind control plans needed. Postman died in 2003 and his comments about cyberspace, even in its infancy, are prescient and luckily available through the power and wonders of, yes, the Internet. One example is here.

His pondering on cyberspace in the linked video was focused on where consciousness resides and the effects the Internet could have on community: he saw the Internet as something that would erode community. Put another way, for Postman the Internet was a means through which people could pursue hyperindividualization.

These ideas are of interest here and bring me to the recent spate of interviews and articles I’ve seen critiquing mindfulness practices. Examples are here and here. I’m a fan of mindfulness. I have been trying off and on (mostly off) to practice meditation ever since I first read The Quantum and the Lotus. I have friends and family who have benefited from mindfulness practices through the apps Calm and Headspace. I’ve used both myself sporadically. I read Joko Beck’s Everyday Zen every few years and I feel its power in my daily life.

But I find myself in full agreement with the critiques of mindfulness. They echo Postman’s critiques of television and cyberspace: we are meditating ourselves to death. The ways in which mindfulness is practiced through apps and in hospitals to reduce the chance of stroke are focused on the individual. Zen practices and yogic meditation practices come from collective, not individualist, cultures. Mindfulness is taught as a coping mechanism, a stress reliever for you, the unit of society.

But this individualism, part and parcel of the western ethos, is the root of stress. And stress is a bodily response to make a change. The interrelated issues of climate crisis, structural racism, and neoliberal capitalism should not be coped with, they should be changed. In the face of climate crisis, greater ability to cope with the anxiety of living in an uninhabitable world diminish our chances for survival. It is the fear and anxiety brought to our hopes and dreams, most important among these our immortality projects, that should be driving attempts to make changes that mitigate the crisis.

Luckily, we know that McLuhan, Postman, and the critics of mindfulnesss leave out a crucial aspect of the human condition. Agency. It is there whether or not theories of class and race acknowledge it. It would be foolish to pretend that human agency triumphs in the end or some other kind of grandiose faithful conception of humanity in the face of struggle. Habits are encouraged and created through technologies’ default structures. A brilliant example is highlighted in Catherine Adams’ article titled PowerPoint, Habits of Mind, and Classroom Culture. One could argue that Postman’s arguments could provide a powerful theoretical base for how and why Facebook and Twitter can produce the kinds of fights we’ve all seen.

However, this is where technology resistance is so important. In cultural studies, the theory is known as active audience. The TV producers and mindfulness sellers cannot control the ways in which people take up the product. From fan fiction as a response to television to maybe something as simple as getting a better night’s sleep with the Calm app, the creativity of people is still a thing.

It’s not quite as simple as “use the tool, don’t be a tool,” although that’s almost sound advice. Use the tool while mindful of the ways it may lock in particular habits and effects. Meditate yourself into a place of empowerment, rather than acceptance.


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