Cultural Studies
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

What is Enlightenment?: Mindfulness in the Moment of Stress

Daniel Anderson

Major Professor: Denise Albanese, PhD, Department of English

Committee Members: Hugh Gusterson, David Kaufmann

Enterprise Hall, #318
April 26, 2016, 11:30 AM to 01:30 PM

Abstract:

Mindfulness is a meditation technique that involves attending to the present moment, without reference to past or future, and without judgment. In the “radical acceptance” of the present it prescribes, mindfulness is a practice concerning one’s relation to time that is promoted as a health boon in times of turmoil and tension appropriate for those short on time. A self-help practice legitimized by appeal to Buddhist cultural references and public figures, mindfulness promises do-it-yourself stress relief, performance enhancement, and happiness to the belabored North American petit bourgeois enduring increasingly stressful and diminished working and living arrangements. While scholars have investigated mindfulness as a religious phenomenon, few studies have considered its generalization and use in everyday life as a cultural formation in the context of its historical milieu. The generalization of mindfulness coincides with that of stress as a pathology, and the production of a pressured, volatile, and competitive social environment by the economic liberalizations of the 1980s to the present. This dissertation offers a discursive history of mindfulness as an artifact of this historical juncture, and probes the social problems and possibilities that are encoded in its applications for spiritual growth and professional development. Here, mindfulness comes into focus as a paradoxical formation: As stress management and as a disciplined elision of history in the present, mindfulness reproduces and retrenches the class relations that generate the stress of this juncture, even as the appeal of mindfulness is grounded in an Enlightenment ethos of freedom by practiced self-knowledge and the explicit anti-capitalist sentiment and desirable social alternatives to the present figured in the Buddhist sources it appropriates, frustrating its realization by generalizing its own opposite.

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