Forty years ago, I began studying Buddhism and practicing various forms of meditation. Based on my studies and encounters, I have a deep appreciation, gratitude, and respect for the Buddhist tradition. The meteoric rise of the “mindfulness revolution,” however, took me by surprise. I was baffled by how mindfulness, which for several millennia has been an integral part of the Buddhist spiritual path, suddenly morphed into a domesticated self-help technique and widely touted panacea for assuaging virtually any middle-class desire — from mindful sex to making a killing on Wall Street. How did Buddhist meditation — once embraced by Beat writers, Bohemian artists, and hippies, and which was a countercultural, anti-establishment, anti-materialist movement — become a $1 billion industry that has been warmly received by corporate moguls at the World Economic Forum?
I am also a professor of management and a former management consultant. When corporations began introducing mindfulness programs as a method of performance enhancement and productivity improvement, I felt it was my moral duty to intervene. In 2013, I published (with David Loy) a blog article titled “Beyond McMindfulness” in the Huffington Post that called into question the efficacy, ethics, and narrow interests of corporate mindfulness programs. To our surprise, it went viral and we found ourselves in the middle of a heated debate over the virtues and vices of this latest corporate fad.
Many of my Buddhist friends and colleagues told me privately that they were pleased that I had the courage to speak truth to power, calling into question how mindfulness practices were being co-opted and adapted to further corporate interests. Our article broke the floodgates, and more critiques of mindfulness appeared in the media, dubbed as the “mindfulness backlash.”
By cutting through the hype, the critique of mindfulness started raising critical questions. What is mindfulness for? Are mindfulness-based interventions limited to a palliative for individual stress relief and mental hygiene, or can mindfulness programs develop in ways that call into question the structural causes of injustice and unnecessary suffering in the modern Western world? Or is mindfulness being used to accommodate to the status quo? Is mindfulness practice the main reductive ingredient that can function as an ethically neutral technique independent of its context?
The American-born Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi has been an outspoken critic of the appropriation and commodification of the mindfulness movement: “absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.” It looks like capitalism has won that battle. Mindfulness is now an industry, peddling a cache of techniques, from meditation apps to mindful coloring books.
For those cashing in on the mindfulness industry, capitalism itself is not inherently problematic. Mindfulness is marketed and sold as a self-help technique that can enable people to function more effectively within the neoliberal order, rather than calling into question the structural causes of social distress. For mindfulness advocates, it is the failure of individuals to be mindful and resilient in a precarious and uncertain economy. Chris Goto-Jones, an astute and critical observer of the political naiveté of the mindfulness movement, notes, “It is not the revolution of the desperate or disenfranchised in society, nor is it the impassioned conflict of religious fundamentalism, but rather a ‘peaceful revolution’ being led by white, middle class Americans….For a revolution, this movement shows remarkable conservatism.”
Teaching inner city kids how to take a three-minute breathing break does nothing to respond to the histories of systemic racism.
Until recently, there has been little examination of how neoliberal ideology and capitalist imperatives have influenced and exploited the way mindfulness is utilized as a modern behavioral technology of the self. Most contemporary mindfulness programs are complicit with neoliberal values which frame mindfulness primarily as an instrumental and privatized practice. This framing essentially depoliticizes mindfulness, foreclosing alternative training curricula that could foster a radical critique of the causes and conditions of social suffering that are implicated in the power structures and economic systems of capitalist society.
It is no surprise then why mindfulness has such widespread public appeal. Leaders in the mindfulness movement have diagnosed our cultural malaise: society is corrupt only because the populace at large is distracted and caught up in mental ruminations about the past and future. If only people were more mindful of the present moment, their worlds would be infinitely more fulfilling. Moreover, if only people would stop being caught up in endless “doing” and retreat into their own private worlds, then they could find peace of mind.
This diagnosis sounds just a little too convenient — the stress people are experiencing supposedly has nothing to do with their actual material conditions nor the unreasonable demands placed on them by toxic, workaholic corporate cultures. Instead, stress is explained as a private, subjective, and interior affair — a problem individuals need to take responsibility for on their own. This is what the late critical psychologist David Smail refers to as “magical voluntarism,” where the burden and locus of both psychological distress and change entirely depends on the will (or, now we might say, the mindfulness) of the individual.
, I challenge the dominant narrative that privatizes the causes of stress and show how mindfulness has become the new capitalist spirituality — a fashionable technique for social control and self-pacification. Mindfulness as self-help is impotent in challenging what is unjust, culturally toxic, and environmentally destructive. In late capitalist society, greed, hatred, and delusion — the three root “mental poisons” that cause human suffering — are no longer confined to individual minds. These afflictions have proliferated in our society — infecting the media, corporations, the military, and the social character of our culture. It is the interlocking nature of social suffering and its institutionalization that has made its perpetrators virtually invisible.
By viewing suffering as a private matter, as merely something an individual must overcome through self-care, mindfulness functions as a social anesthesia. Practicing mindful “nonjudgmental attention to the present moment,” we are told by the mindfulness cheerleaders, we can “accept things as they are.” And by shifting the burden of responsibility to individuals for managing their own well-being, by privatizing and pathologizing stress, the so-called “mindfulness revolution” has succumbed to the spirit of capitalism.
This means that our psychological interiors are entangled with our sociopolitical exteriors. Harking back to C. Wright Mills's classic, The Sociological Imagination
, the Achilles heel of the mindfulness movement is the disconnect between personal troubles and public issues. Because personal suffering is now enmeshed in an interdependent web of relations, mindfulness is ineffectual in reducing suffering unless it can generate collective attention, build solidarity, and foster communities of resistance.
Mindfulness training programs were developed as therapeutic methods for self-management, not for social transformation and collective healing. Mindfulness programs in schools, for example, have no means whereby students and teachers can develop a critical understanding of their sociopolitical and historical contexts. Mindful school programs for disadvantaged youth are inept in fostering a critical consciousness, what Paulo Friere referred to as concientización
, that would link students’ personal troubles with their social situations plagued by violence, poverty and drug addiction. Teaching inner city kids how to take a three-minute breathing break does nothing to respond to the histories of systemic racism.
Corporate mindfulness programs, by being aligned with the interests of power, never question the larger institutional order or the fundamental goals of the corporation. Such programs conveniently avoid focusing attention on the exploitation of workers, control over workers’ labor power, or the mindless export of toxic externalities.
Mindfulness in the military will do nothing to prevent preemptive wars, moral injury, and cultural trauma, nor will such programs eradicate the deceptions, lies, and propaganda machine required for justifying military actions. Mindfulness in politics has so far not even addressed nor confronted the unprecedented crises of the 21st century — the climate emergency and global warming, skyrocketing levels of inequality, homelessness, poverty, rampant racism, mass incarceration, xenophobia, sexism, corporate welfare and political corruption, and militarism.
This doesn’t mean we should simply jettison the therapeutic functions of mindfulness-based interventions, but the practice must be in a dialectical relationship with social, historical, and political realities. A new praxis grounded in a critically-informed social mindfulness can revolutionize mindfulness, liberating it from the shackles of neoliberalism.
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is a Professor of Management at San Francisco State University. His essays and cultural criticism have appeared in the Huffington Post, Salon, Alternet and Tricycle
magazine. His viral article, “Beyond McMindfulness," opened the floodgates for the mindfulness backlash. His recent books include the Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context and Social Engagement
and the Handbook of Ethical Foundations of Mindfulness
. Dr. Purser began his Buddhist training beginning in 1981 at the Tibetan Nyingma Institute in Berkeley, California, and is an ordained Buddhist teacher in the Korean Zen Taego order. He is cohost of the Mindful Cranks
podcast and is a regular speaker and guests on radio shows and podcasts. He lives with his family and dog in San Francisco, CA.