Oct 13, 2015

Cynical and amoral: the dark side of the mindfulness fad

Zac Alstin
October 13, 2015

I was into meditation before it was cool.

Actually, I was into it long after it was cool. I was born in the early 80s, and in my late teens I came across the scattered and dishevelled remnants of the meditation boom of the 60s and 70s. In my university library I read dusty tomes of esoteric religious mysticism supplemented with time-capsule bits and pieces like Jack Kerouac’s crazy adventures, breathless enthusiasm over the scientific power of Transcendental Meditation, and erstwhile attempts to find a bridge between religions East and West through shared practice of the kinds of methods once ridiculed in Medieval Eastern Europe as “Omphaloskepsis”, the original “navel gazing”.

Meditation is cool again. Not The Beatles hanging out in India with the Maharishi in ’68 kind of cool, but the Paleo diet, Bikram yoga, gluten-free, activewear, corporate sociopath kind of cool.  Meditation, with all its real and alleged benefits, has been building into a new mass-market panacea, sold to stress-conscious consumers and compliance-conscious corporations alike as the lowest common denominator of psychosomatic self-improvement. But the rise of meditation is not without its critics, and a recent New York Times opinion piece begging meditation evangelists to “end the madness” is just one instance of the push-back against mindfulness and meditation generally.

To tell the truth I was never “into” meditation in the literal sense. Various popular methods proved as tedious, tiring, and demoralising as they were openly admitted to be.  That’s something apparently overlooked in the high tide of the “McMindfulness” fad: all forms of meditation, whether they focus on counting breaths, being mindful of one’s mental states, cultivating a sense of loving kindness, or discursively analysing metaphysical connundra, are known in their full religious contexts to be gruelling disciplines when undertaken in the proper spirit.

The proper spirit is precisely what has been lost amidst the growing popularity of meditation and mindfulness. Buddhists are increasingly critical of the “non-judgmental” stance injected into mindfulness programs by corporations keen to harness meditation’s cool self-improvement vibe without touching on any of the awkward ethical stuff that goes with it. At last year’s Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco, Google representatives’ "3 Steps to Build Corporate Mindfulness the Google Way," presentation was interrupted by a Buddhist protest:

The activists jumped onto the stage to chant, "Wisdom means stop displacement! Wisdom means stop surveillance!" They claimed that "Google should not be speaking as experts on mindfulness, when they're playing a role in displacement, privatization of public assets, for-profit surveillance, profiling, policing, and targeting of activist communities."

After the activists were removed from the stage, without acknowledging or refuting their allegations, the Google spokesperson directed the audience to "check in with your body" to "feel what it's like to be in conflict with people with heartfelt ideas."

These protesters were clearly yet to master the “non-judgmental” side of mindful awareness. But the truly exciting applications of mindfulness lie in its capacity to increase the productivity and compliance of corporate employees. The author of a study that proclaimed these exact benefits noted in 2012:

"I kept thinking, 'This is crazy,' " he says.  "I do wonder why we make ourselves work this way. There's no time to even think. We've gotten to a place where we're just speeding up and we don't do things well. We've got to slow down."

While Levy says further study is needed to determine whether the meditation benefit can continue over the long term, in his own life he says meditation has helped calm his stress. He thinks it can be worth a try for workers who feel overwhelmed, distracted and stressed.

That’s the author of a study into the workplace benefits of meditation noting first that he found full time academic workloads to be “crazy”, and then concluding that meditation can aid with the symptoms of this craziness.  It’s meant to be read as an endorsement of mindfulness, but commentators are increasingly seeing the mindfulness fad in a much more cynical light – as an insidious attempt by employers to turn us into non-judgemental little worker-bees.

Imagine if corporations started offering their employees Xanax to help them deal with stress and be more focused on the job.  How are mindfulness programs substantively different? In 2013 Ron Purser, a Professor of management at San Francisco State University and Zen teacher David Loy wrote a sharp critique of the mindfulness movement as it infiltrates schools, corporations, prisons and government agencies:

“Up to now, the mindfulness movement has avoided any serious consideration of why stress is so pervasive in modern business institutions. Instead, corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because it conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employee: stress is framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments. Cloaked in an aura of care and humanity, mindfulness is refashioned into a safety valve, as a way to let off steam -- a technique for coping with and adapting to the stresses and strains of corporate life.”

Let’s all check in with our bodies and feel what it’s like to realise that our corporate overlords will exploit even spiritual development for the sake of profit.  I’ve met and worked with people who are deeply into this kind of meditation and promote it at the middle-management level. The scary thing is that they aren’t even completely cynical; they genuinely believe in the near-magical benefits of meditation, and see no problem in advancing Google-inspired programs in their own corporate territory.  They see mindfulness and meditation in uncritically elevated terms, and are equally uncritical of the corporate structures of which they are a part. Meditation will save the world, but it turns out there’s nothing bad to save it from.

If you look carefully, you can find critiques of mindfulness practices themselves. Side effects? No one ever said anything about meditation side-effects.  Mindfulness is supposed to be a magical panacea, but you might want to take care if you suffer from PTSD, are prone to seizures, or have pre-existing foundational religious beliefs. Like Xanax, mindfulness and other forms of meditation are tools designed for specific purposes, but they should not be used or promoted indiscriminately. Critics of the current meditation fad have pointed out that mindfulness can, paradoxically, amount to a form of dissociation.  The supposedly non-judgemental quality of mindfulness meditation is often packaged as a way of dealing with painful and difficult emotions, and can become a means of avoiding rather than processing uncomfortable feelings. As one critique noted:

“The idea that each of us is unique is a cornerstone of individual-based therapy. But with mindfulness-based approaches there is little space for one’s individuality, in part because it’s a group practice, but also because there has been no serious attempt to address how individuals react differently to this technique”

Then there are the genuine spiritual goals of meditation. While meditation is typically couched in the safe language of self-improvement and stress relief, there’s no denying that the end-goal of meditation in its original context is a radical departure from a conventional view of life and reality. According to the Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in deep meditation saw that the five aggregates of human experience are essentially empty, and so passed beyond all suffering. His productivity levels also dramatically increased, and HR had no further complaints from him.

Wisdom 2.0 may be all about well-being and workplace efficiency, but Wisdom 1.0 doesn’t sit well with these “accommodationist” concerns. From a Buddhist point of view, it is absurd to watch people espouse mindfulness while changing nothing in their deeper values or daily life.  It is as senseless and egoistic as practicing some kind of secular “prayer” for the sake of health and feel-good benefits.

In its proper context, mindfulness is supposed to be right mindfulness, and is but one of eight components of the Noble Eightfold Path.  It is supposed to be grounded, contained, and expressed through right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right concentration.  To fixate on non-judgemental mindfulness alone is simply not right.

Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at zacalstin.com


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