Theorising on Social and Embodied Aspects of Contemplative Practices 


Image courtesy of Timo Klemola

An international Workshop

University of Tampere, Finland

13-14.7. 2016

What distinct modes –affective, gendered, economical, activist, bodily, educational, – do the meditative practices called ‘mindfulness’ acquire in postindustrial culture? How did eastern spiritual practices become crucial part of global corporate industry?

In 2015 the meditation and mindfulness industry raked in nearly $1 billion, according to research by IBISWorld, which breaks out the category from the alternative health care sector (Fortune 2016). Happiness, well-being, self-help and supreme health have become an industry in global markets (Skeggs 2005; Parviainen 2011; Salmenniemi 2014). Furthermore, ‘soft skills’ such as mindfulness disciplines have assumed a central part in post‑industrial societies’ institutional power (Carrette & King 2004). Today, mindfulness‑based interventions (MBIs) are one of the most widespread and widely studied bodily skill in working life and therapy alike. In the last 35 years, international mindfulness and meditation research has focused on medical, psychological, and psychiatric aspects of their study (Bishop 2004; Siegel 2007; Williams & Kabat-Zinn 2013).

However, there is a dearth of diverse research perspectives on it in the humanities, social sciences  and political economics (Williams 2011; Forbes 2012; Stanley 2012; Purser 2012; Kortelainen, Saari, & Väänänen 2014; Barker 2014; Madsen 2015). The term ‘mindfulness’ refers to an alert mode of perceiving all mental contents – perceptions, sensations, cognition, and affect (Walach 2006). It is a skill to be cultivated via meditation and skills in day-to-day life. Whilst attention to embodied and social mindfulness is clearly lacking in this definition, the practices themselves are highly embodied and socially driven (Shusterman 2008). In western philosophy there is a lack of research that recognizes perspectives of contemplative practices, for example the somatic analysis of inner perceptions of the body, movement-awareness or structure-awareness (Armstrong 1962; Klemola 2005; Shusterman 2012). This reflects that the new theory addressing embodied, affective, religious and social aspects of mindfulness-related practices is not well‑developed. There is much more strict theoretical, philosophical and critical work, including definition, to be done on the methods’ embodied, conceptual, environmental and social elements.

The widespread popularity of mindfulness-based stress reduction has made it big business for global companies, one that commodifies many kinds of embodied skills, body shaping, professional competence, and even ethical behaviour. The marriage of the technological world and discourse of embodied mindfulness, constituting a relatively new cultural phenomenon, is linked to, for example, larger themes of the computerisation and development of the service economy (Stanley 2014; Williams 2014; Parviainen & Kortelainen forthcoming).

Some critics use the term ‘McMindfulness’ to describe the well-being, self-help, therapy culture and happiness industry related to this field (Purser & Loy 2013; Purser & Milillo 2015). Various authors have pointed out that the ‘dark side’ of MBIs has not yet been discussed, investigated, or empirically explored in much depth. Professor Ronald Purser’s (at San Francisco State University), Steven Stanley’s (Cardiff University) and John Williams (Yale University) work and research carried out by Brown University’s Assistant Professor Willoughby Britton stand among the rare studies that have begun questioning the one-sided approach of most meditation studies (Lindahl 2014; Farias&Wikholm 2015). Furthermore, Carrette and King, have directly suggested that meditative practices could also offer at least a serious challenge for consumerist culture (Carrette&King 2005; Stanley 2012; Occupy mindfulness 2015) Accordingly, this workshop is aimed at developing examination of the new contributions and pitfalls of mindfulness-oriented practices.

In the Theorising Social and Embodied Aspects of Contemplative Practices workshop, we investigate how mindfulness-related practices are imbued with social, affective, technological, and bodily elements. The workshop’s themes include theoretical perspectives from management studies, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, education, gender studies, psychology, and social psychology. In particular, we are interested in theories of body phenomenology, somaesthetics, affective labour, critical psychology, contemporary metaphysics, Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM), discourse analysis and performance studies (see for example Butler 1990; Blackman 2012; Ricoeur 1992; Adkins 2000; Mckay 2013; Rose 2007). The main speakers specify, discuss, and problematize the various definitions of mindfulness. Their research is grounded in the work of theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hannah Arendt, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Karl Marx, Michel Foucault, Richard Shusterman, Julia Kristeva, and, alongside theories of Buddhist philosophy or Western analytic philosophy.

Topics include theoretical and empirical reflections on:

  • The body in contemplative practices
  • Operational definitions of MBIs
  • Phenomenology of meditative experience
  • Affect theories, phenomenology or performative studies of mindfulness-based interventions (MBI)
  • Workplace spirituality
  • Technoculture and contemplative practices
  • Critical perspectives on MBIs
  • Self-promotion and self-help in late capitalism
  • Gender in contemplative practices
  • Meditation and death studies
  • Biomedicine and biotechnology compared with ‘mindfulness phenomenon’
  • Theorizing the relations between individual level mindfulness and organizational/social change
  • Education and training in contemplative practices
  • Meditation as social inquiry


Image courtesy of Janne Vesivalo

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