Photo of staring young male zombie.

Images of mindfulness: the Zombie

In All articles, Making sense of mindfulness by Norman Lamont0 Comments

Photo of staring young male zombie.

I just went to a free taster session. (

The Zombie and other mindfulness stereotypes

In the last few articles we’ve looked at three stereotypes formulated by Chris Goto-Jones which capture the image of mindfulness held, often unwittingly, by people today. We’ve seen how the same image can attract and repel different people.  You might prefer a mindfulness class to a religious group because you have a ‘Scientist’ orientation and will trust psychology where you wouldn’t trust an Eastern philosophy. Or you might have a ‘Monk’ viewpoint,  seeing secular mindfulness as reducing a system of self-transcendence to a mere system of self-improvement. You may be tempted to hope for increased ‘Warrior powers’, even if just over productivity, or you may be afraid of committing yourself to a harsh and unforgiving regime.
The Scientist, Monk and Warrior views can be found both in people attracted to and put off by mindfulness, and indeed can influence which variation of mindfulness training they approach.  The last two images we’re going to look at, however, the Zombie and the Hippie are more one-sided – they encapsulate common criticisms or concerns people have about mindfulness training.

‘Mindless meditation’

In a 2014 post about the teaching of mindfulness in schools, educationalist Donald Clark wrote

Mindfulness plays a neat trick. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing as it is actually mindless meditation under the guise of mindful attention. What we need is more mindful, external attention on learning, teachers and other people in learning. This means getting involved, not idle internalizing.

Clark lumps mindfulness along with Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Learning Styles and Emotional Intelligence as ‘Ponzi schemes’ welcomed with open arms by the gullible ranks of teaching management and corporate and public Human Resources departments. Much of his criticism is spot-on, but with the phrase ‘mindless meditation’ he encapsulates one of strongest fears of those who are suspicious of mindfulness.

Life without the self

In popular culture the zombie is the most prevalent image, beating yesteryear’s monsters and today’s supervillains. The zombie, a mindless automaton which nevertheless used to be a real, living person and retains their characteristics, is frightening because it’s us, and it’s not us.  It’s our nightmare of life after death – or more precisely, life after the sense of yourself has departed.  While the language of Buddhism and some mindfulness approaches may speak of ‘abandoning the self’ as a somehow desirable outcome, leading to a wider, more altruistic perspective, the zombie is another side of the same coin. The face is there but nobody’s home.

What’s so great about the present moment?

Why would we want to become mindless? If you focus exclusively on the present moment, avoiding all reflection on the past and aspiration for the future, what’s left of you as a human being in society?  The phrase ‘contemplating your navel’ first emerged from yoga practice and soon became shorthand for a self-involved, preoccupied focus on yourself to the exclusion of the world. While the ‘Monk’ viewpoint may see the idea of shedding aspects of our selves as liberating, the ‘Zombie’ viewpoint sees it as retardation or even death.
It expresses a fear of irrationality, of a surrender of those aspects of mental life that make us most human – dreams, hopes, fears, and memories. Not freedom but the collapse of reason.  Critics point to well known examples of cult behaviour (the term ‘brainwashing’ speaks not of cleansing or decluttering but of manipulation) as the logical outcome of suspending the critical faculties and is also concerned that a ‘retreat’ into mindfulness with its language of acceptance means a retreat from the motivation to change society for the better.

Becoming less than human

This isn’t the place to refute the zombie viewpoint – this can be as much an unconscious collection of biases as it is a reasoned criticism – but to recognise it and to appreciate the genuine concern behind it.   The idea that mindfulness involves an attack on what it means to be human is found right across the spectrum from ‘ I wouldn’t be able to do this, I can’t make my mind go blank’ to ‘ the ranks of mindfulness zombies are just waiting for a new Hitler to rally them’.

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