26 March 2024

The Egocentricity of Meditation

A critical reflection on motives and practices - An Essay

Mindfulness is good for you, is the dominant message about this form of meditation. It helps against stress, anxiety, depression, eating disorders and more. And it makes you a better person, or at least a little bit. That message is usually supported by two claims. One that its positive effects are scientifically proven. The other that this meditation practice is essentially the same as that of the Buddha 2,500 years ago and thus has proven its worth. Nothing could be further from the truth, or at least only partially. It begs the question of why we are so attracted to meditation. Why do we meditate and what does it do to us? And what does it bring to society?

In his book Rethinking Meditation, US professor David McMahan shows that a new standard version of meditation has developed over the past half century in the United States and Europe, mostly calling itself secular. The most influential description of mindfulness is associated with the name of Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the founders of the modern mindfulness movement. Mindfulness, he states, is “‘the awareness that arises from paying attention, purposefully, in the present moment, non-judgementally'”. You will find this description everywhere, with largely the same basic instructions for meditating and similar concepts of what mindfulness is and what it brings about.

Meditation is culturally determined

In examining our motives for meditating, I leave aside for a moment the question of whether the standard version is correct or not, still the same as it was 2,500 years ago or changed in time and circumstances. Indeed, in his book McMahan shows fascinatingly how a confluence of different forces led to the new standard version. How in the process early Buddhist scriptures, various Chinese, Tibetan, Japanese elements merged with ideas and practices from the European Enlightenment and Romanticism, psychology and Existentialism. Along with countercultures from the 1960s onwards and the latest insights from cognition and neuroscience in recent decades.

This leaves virtually nothing of an essentially going back to the Buddha, he shows. With the standard version comes a new amalgam, a new interpretation of meditation, what it is for and how it works. In McMahan’s words, “it reveals the unconscious mind; it unveils laws of nature in the psyche, like a scientist discovering laws of nature in the physical world; it uncovers hidden motivations, desires, thoughts that allowing one to steer them more consciously; it discloses an authentic and natural self, deeper than the one conditioned by one’s particular culture and society.”[1] .

To understand why mindfulness became so attractive in our late-modern culture and what motives attract people to meditate, as well as where the limitations of a ‘belief’ in meditation lie, we need to place meditation in its modern cultural context. We should then see it not as a methodology of self-improvement, McMahan says, but as a cultural practice. For meditation is embedded in the daily lives of practitioners. It performs a socio-cultural function. Beautiful examples of this, filmed with integrity and a touch of irony, can be found in the documentary series Buddha in the Polder on Dutch national television, the third season of which aired early this year[2] .

Seeing meditation as a cultural practice directly questions the oft-repeated claim that meditating would help you detach, free yourself from your cultural and psychological conditioning and bring out something authentic and pristine. On the contrary, the standard version is completely (and almost uncritically, WK) embedded in modern individualistic thinking and no longer even sees that even that idea of detaching yourself from culture is a typical part of post-Enlightenment thinking. Meditation has thus been reformulated into an essentially individualistic practice of a separate mind contemplating itself and discerning in isolation the truth of things[3] . It fits perfectly with the dominant liberal political philosophy in our world, that of ‘possessive individualism’: the individual as “essentially the proprietor of his own person, owing nothing to society for them”[4] .

This focus on ‘individuality’ is expressed in all contemporary forms of meditation practice, time and again wrapped in a different jacket[5] . Sometimes it is the rational, autonomous self of the Enlightenment, then the feeling and deep internal self of Romanticism. Occasionally the political self as owner of rights and duties and much more often the psychological self with unconscious depths and neuroses. And, of course, not forgetting the currently popular cerebral self, based on the brain and its functions. Then add to this Christian-religious conceptions of the singularity of the soul, or the Buddhist concept of ‘non-self’ as a singularity of fluid processes, and you have a very wide range of arguments for the motivation to meditate. Before we elaborate on these, we need to describe what meditation does constitute if it is not about detaching from ingrained, obstructive habits.

What you practice, you become

Meditation is regularly, but wrongly I would say, presented as an ‘objective’ way to gain insight into the inner workings of the mind, independent of the influence of culture and society. Scientific research on the brain and central nervous system is often cited as supporting evidence. However, meditation is not just about the brain, McMahan argues, practitioners meditate in a social and cultural environment and the prevailing beliefs, desires and dreams for a good life in that context.

Thus, in mindfulness meditation, the requested noticing of experiences is not neutral, as is often assumed. For you learn a certain view of your inner psychology. And with that comes a whole psychological-cultural baggage, a view of your individuality, your mind, as well as your social role and place in society. In the standard version of modern mindfulness meditation, you learn to see all experiences as ‘thoughts’ – I would rather speak of mental sensations – with an attitude of detachment and objectivity (Kabat-Zinn’s ‘non-judgmental’). In the most common approaches like MBSR and MBCT[6] , this is done against the backdrop of a medical-psychological idea about being sick and getting well, coloured by conditions like chronic stress and depression. It is these core ideas about the role of meditation in one’s personal and social life that are implicitly imparted. This can vary from culture to culture. Korean shamans, for instance, learn to detect the voice of ancestors in this stream of thought, and evangelical Christians hear in it the voice of God inspiring them and giving them directions for life.

The insights you learn in modern meditation require training in a particular view of one’s own mind, based mostly on modern psychology and cosmology of contemporary natural science. It is a culturally determined understanding of what ‘thoughts’ are (events ‘within’ the confined space of the mind), what you need to do to detect them, what they mean and how to relate to them. And therefore also what you need to do to put them into everyday practice such as making time to meditate, or live mindfully. Incidentally, it does not mean that you thereby automatically and uncritically adopt that cultural context. It also questions taken for granted, interrogates tacit truths and changes emotional habits. Meditation practice teaches you certain things off but also on. What do these cultural practices look like? And indeed, what social effects does meditation have and how critical is meditation to today’s society?

The meditation ethos in sixfold

The motivations for meditating and organising our lives accordingly (even though it is often not the first thing we think of) can be seen as forms of an ethos. We can define an ethos as a moral attitude or the guiding thoughts in the behaviour of a person or a group. It is a “constellation of concepts, values, and ideals by which meditation practitioners interpret the self and the world, including directions on how to act in the world”[7] . Not an elaborate ethic, more like a landscape of ideals and values that surrounds the activities of meditation and daily life in the background. Below I describe some six forms of ethos. In practice, we find them intermingled. But they provide a good handle for exploring motives and the practice of meditation.


This ethos emphasises appreciating life in all its diversity, complexity and nuance. It does not focus on transcendence of the world and is thus quite far removed from classical Buddhism, which argues that the material realities of the world, such as birth and death, food and drink, sensual pleasure, etc., are matters of attachment to which we must detach ourselves. Today, meditation, in the Romantic tradition, calls for enjoying life to the full, and an emphasis on transcendence is almost entirely absent. Living is done in the now, and the less enjoyable and difficult or painful aspects are an opportunity for learning and deepening appreciation. Gratitude – think of it in the form of gratitude diaries – is an exemplary attitude.


The ethos of authenticity folds the originally Buddhist forms of meditation into the individualistic ethos of modernity, but in a special way. It is about ‘being yourself’, ‘actualising or realising yourself’. In this ethos, you are someone of your own character, and not primarily a son, daughter, partner, relative, or colleague. We must, while meditating, ‘let go of who we presume we should be, and embrace who we are’, in the words of renowned US author Brené Brown[8] . Authenticity sets the individual against external forces of tradition, social norms and expectations.

Being truthful thus implicitly becomes a moral imperative and you as an individual learn to break free from the autopilot of mental habits. You become the author of your own life by escaping the internalised dictates of a sick society and pursuing your own unique, authentic path.


Our culture demands freedom and autonomy from us. “Free from and free to” in the words of political philosopher Isaiah Berlin[9] . From this self-evident modern concept of freedom, meditation techniques are seen as ways to help people become autonomous. By meditating, you develop an ‘inner fortress’ where the autonomous subject is seated that floats above social conditions undisturbed by external influences. It is an ethos ideally suited to the reasonably affluent independent citizen of our time. But it is quite different from the original Buddhist meditation, which is much more focused on becoming free of this world, escaping the cycle of death and rebirth.


This ethos links meditation not only to personal development but also intertwines it with ethical and social responsibilities. It emphasises the porosity of boundaries between self and others and the systemic (rather than individual) nature of suffering and responsibility for others and the planet. It refers more or less to an idea that everything is connected to everything, which fits both classical Buddhism and descriptions of complex late-modern society. It contrasts, incidentally without abandoning the individual starting point, with an exclusive focus on meditation as the cultivation of personal peace of mind. Thich Nath Han’s “inter-being” and the ecological approaches of Joanna Macy and David Loy are explicit examples of this[10] .

Health and well-being

Promoting personal health and well-being, becoming less trapped and affected by discomfort and suffering, is central to this ethos. It is an approach that sees mindfulness meditation as a form of health promotion, both curative and preventive. This is the approach most closely associated with the modern mindfulness movement of which Kabat-Zinn is considered the founder. His mindfulness-based stress reduction training (MBSR) was designed to teach people with chronic symptoms to cope with them and was later developed into a leading supported training in the treatment of depression (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, MBCT). Kabat-Zinn broadened his approach in his book Coming To Our Senses to include the spiritual and nature approach of American transcendentalism, which has similarities with European Romanticism[11] . In doing so, he also turns against the American, originally more Protestant-Christian interpretation of ‘possessive individualism’ and demands that we find our own way differently in a busy world.


The modern standard version of mindfulness has also penetrated the world of production, cohabitation and leadership[12]. The associated ethos of productivity is about learning to cope with the stresses and challenges of the modern organised world. The moral invitation is to flourish as a human being, in the words of Human Potential Movement: “getting the best out of yourself”. Not purely for yourself, by the way, but so that you can also contribute to the development of people and nature around you[13] . Critics such as Ronald Purser accuse this ethos of blindly surrendering to the laws of capitalism[14] .

The question now is what these six forms of ethos can teach us about our motivation to meditate and what insight they offer into the social contribution is of mindfulness meditation.

Trapped or liberating

Anyone who starts meditating signs up. And by that I don’t just mean filling in a registration form. You are joining, depending on the place and circumstances where you start meditating, and empathize with an ethos, sometimes more explicit or – more often – implicit, that comes along with the meditation practice. You will be participating in a cultural practice, shaping a way of life. Meditation, even if you find similar techniques in different places, is not a neutral technique you learn, there is always a context, a way of thinking and doing. It is like developing a yoga lifestyle, or going to your football club with your friends, or becoming active in volunteering or a political party.

Predominantly, if you are going to meditate, this is a cultural practice dominated by modern individualism, aimed at personal flourishing. Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with that. But it might be wise to see that as a choice and account for it. Because participating has consequences: you become what you practise.

If we want to critically examine our motives for meditating against our moral ambition, and if we want to consider the social and political role and contribution of meditation practices to society, we will have to look at meditation practice more broadly than primarily for the benefit of individual flourishing. The question then is whether, in a world in dire need of better interpersonal relations between people, we should emphasise authenticity and autonomy. After all, with authenticity or autonomy as an ethos, where social conditioning is set against inner freedom, autonomy against tradition, authenticity against external norms, do we get anywhere in bringing about better social relations?

And even where attempts are made to let mindfulness meditation have a wider effect than ourselves, as in the ethos of interdependence and that of productivity, we have to note – perhaps reluctantly – that even then it is hard to break free from modern individualism. Again, it starts with personal flourishing and only then comes the other and/or the organisation and society.

In our society, meditation actually always starts from an ‘I’ and rarely, if ever, from a ‘we’. Working out moral and practical responsibility beyond the ‘I’ into ‘compassion with others’ is an essential step, but does not assume a fundamentally different view of meditation as a cultural and social practice. A commitment to change social and political realities, as, for example, jurist, politician and founder of the Indian constitution, Buddhist B.R. Ambedkar argued[15], requires a different ethos that takes the ‘we’ as its starting point.

From the standard version of mindfulness meditation that has grown up within modern individualism, it is not surprising that the Buddha’s own basic manual for meditation, the Satipatthana Sutta[16], is always read as a way to meditate internally. His explicit invitation – or command if you like – to direct meditation externally or outward as well is almost always omitted. While it is precisely in his approach that a broad social morality comes to light if we readd history in a different way[17] . However, morality and politics at the cutting edge are generally left out of meditation practice, as recently addressed by English meditation teacher John Peacock in the article The Elephant in the Dharmahall[18] .

After all, whoever says ‘politics’ says difference of views, difference of interpretation of values and principles. And dealing with that calls for a firm ‘we’, for intense democracy, which goes beyond friendly disagreement and continuing on the path of individual flourishing, without drawing consequences or changing behaviour. It would align with one of Hannah Arendt’s core ideas that we humans can only develop our humanity in a society. She defines humans as fundamentally political beings and reminds us that with the Romans, the terms “life” and “being among men” (inter homines esse) are used as synonyms[19] .

Cultural practices, reflective or philosophical, can only make a critical, liberating contribution to society if they are able to function as a counterpoint to the dominant social environment. This is possible with modern meditation only if we look beyond the meditation technique and the good will (nothing against it, by the way) of meditation practitioners and teachers. Until we do that, meditation will remain trapped in the dominant individualism. Perhaps mindfulness groups and Buddhist sanghas should think about their ethos before meditating because it’s good for you.



[1] David L. McMahan, Rethinking Meditation. Buddhist Meditative Practices in Ancient and Modern Worlds (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023), 13. (translation: WK)

[2] Available at this URL: https://npo.nl/start/serie/boeddha-in-de-polder/seizoen-3/boeddha-in-de-polder_16 (visited 25 March 2024).

[3] McMahan, Rethinking Meditation. Buddhist Meditative Practices in Ancient and Modern Worlds, 15.

[4] C.B. MacPherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism. Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[5] McMahan, Rethinking Meditation. Buddhist Meditative Practices in Ancient and Modern Worlds, 15-16.

[6] MBSR stands for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and MBCT for Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.

[7] McMahan, Rethinking Meditation. Buddhist Meditative Practices in Ancient and Modern Worlds, 22. I follow McMahan’s characterisations in the descriptions. The first four he himself describes extensively in his book, the last two (Health and well-being, Productivity) I have elaborated myself.

[8] Quoted in: McMahan, Rethinking Meditation. Buddhist Meditative Practices in Ancient and Modern Worlds, 147.

[9] Isaiah Berlin, Isaiah Berlin and the Politics of Freedom: ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ 50 Years Later (London: Routledge, 2015).

[10] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Living (Utrecht: Ten Have, 2021); Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope. How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy (Novato: New World Library, 2012); David Loy, Ecodharma. Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis (Somerville: Wisdom, 2018).

[11] Jon Kabat-Zinn, Coming To Our Senses (New York: Hyperion, 2005).

[12] Jaime Kucinskas, The Mindful Elite (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[13] My own book also fits into this ethos: Wibo Koole, Mindful Leaderschap for Effectieve Teams and Organisations (Amsterdam: Warden Press, 2014).

[14] Ron Purser, McMindfulness. How Mindfulness Became The New Capitalist Spirituality (London: Repeater Books, 2019).

[15] A.R. Ambedkar, The Buddha and His Dhamma.

[16] Buddha, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, trans. Bikkhu Nanamoli and Bikkhu Bodhi, vol. A Translation of the Majjhíma Níkãya (Somerville: Wisdom, 2015).

[17] Nalin Swaris, The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation (Nugegoda, Sri Lanka: Sarasavi Publishers, 2008).

[18] John Peacock, “The Elephant in The Dharma Hall,” Tricycle Magazine  (2024), https://tricycle.org/magazine/western-buddhism-individualism/.

[19] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, Faber Modern Classics, (London: Faber & Faber, 2016), 87.


Quoted literature

Ambedkar, A.R. The Buddha and His Dhamma.

Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. Faber Modern Classics. London: Faber & Faber, 2016.

Berlin, Isaiah. Isaiah Berlin and the Politics of Freedom: ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ 50 Years Later London: Routledge, 2015.

Buddha. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. Translated by Bikkhu Nanamoli and Bikkhu Bodhi. Vol. A Translation of the Majjhíma Níkãya, Somerville: Wisdom, 2015.

Hanh, Thich Nhat. The Art of Living. Utrecht: Ten Have, 2021.

———. Mindfulness. Rotterdam: BBNC Uitgevers, 2009.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Coming to Our Senses. New York: Hyperion, 2005.

Koole, Wibo. Mindful Leiderschap for Effecteve Teams and Organisations. Amsterdam: Warden Press, 2012.

Kucinskas, Jaime. The Mindful Elite. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Loy, David. Ecodharma. Buddhist Teachings for the Ecological Crisis. Somerville: Wisdom, 2018.

MacPherson, C.B. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism. Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Macy, Joanna, and Chris Johnstone. Active Hope. How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. Novato: New World Library, 2012.

McMahan, David L. Rethinking Meditation. Buddhist Meditative Practices in Ancient and Modern Worlds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023.

Peacock, John. “The Elephant in the Dharma Hall.” Tricycle Magazine  (2024). https://tricycle.org/magazine/western-buddhism-individualism/.

Purser, Ron. Mcmindfulness. How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. London: Repeater Books, 2019.

Swaris, Nalin. The Buddha’s Way to Human Liberation. Nugegoda, Sri Lanka: Sarasavi Publishers, 2008.