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The Mindfulness Industry

The new book, 'McMindfulness,' explores how mindfulness became capitalism's spirituality.

Mindfulness is a big business, and it’s entering the corridors of power. Analysts of the ‘meditation market’, forecast a 11.4% average yearly growth in the USA alone, reaching $2.08 billion by 2022. In 2015 the UK Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group published a paper, ‘UK Mindful Nation’, which sought to “address mental and physical health concerns in the areas of education, health, the workplace and the criminal justice system through the application of mindfulness-based interventions.” Meditation apps such as Headspace and Calm are downloaded in the millions, with Calm –the ‘mental health unicorn’ valued at $1billion recently. 

Mindfulness has many proselytisers, some (slightly murky) scientific evidence to back up its claims to enable better mental health, and a leading figure in its modern founder John Kabat Zinn. Its practice is based on Buddhist meditation, millennia old techniques replanted in the 21st century West. But just how deep does it penetrate modern life? Does Mindfulness merely follow in the footsteps of earlier eastern-inspired spirituality trends that became commodified, such as the new-age 1960s and the growth of western yoga? Or has it been fully co-opted and utilised by business in the same way ‘self-help’ and ‘stress management’ had been in the not too distant past? 

Ronald Purser is the author of a new book, McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. In 2013 he published an article on Huffington Post called ‘Beyond McMindfulness’ which went viral and caused quite an uproar in the discourse around the self-care and wellbeing industry. I sat down with Ronald in London to discuss his book. Ronald is genial, amusing company and exudes a calming stillness. I put this down to the fact that he is an ordained Dharma instructor in the Korean Zen Buddhist Taego order, as well as a professor of management at San Francisco State University.

Mindfulness as concept and praxis is lifted directly from Zen Buddhism. Jon Kabat Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, and father of what we now know as ‘mindfulness’ took elements of Buddhist meditation techniques and repackaged them for corporate and stressed out America. The ‘mindfulness’ aspect of Buddhist meditation is all about concentrating on what you are doing in the exact present moment. A classic modern mindfulness exercise is to roll a raisin around your mouth, chewing it slowly, experiencing what it is like to have the raisin in there, rather than just chewing and swallowing for sustenance. The idea is that in a world of constant distraction, you can develop a way to be still and present in the moment. 

One of Purser’s criticisms of Kabat-Zinn’s appropriation of Buddhist technique is that he has decontextualized mindfulness from its spiritual and conceptual frameworks. Mindfulness comes from the ‘Eight Fold Noble Path’ which Purser explains to me. “In the eight fold noble path, there are three sections. Ethical intent (or ‘moral virtue’), Meditation, and thirdly, Wisdom. So here, with the way mindfulness is being used in the West, we put aside Ethics and Wisdom, and from Meditation, we’ve taken a very tiny part of that: something Buddhists call ‘right mindfulness’. Mediation is not just mindfulness and breathing and paying attention to sensations – that is the very thin end of a big wedge.” My understanding of Buddhism is fairly slight but I’ve always seen it as something that is anti-ego, or at least in pursuit of self-negation and liberation from the trappings of ego. Purser jokes that the self-centred nature of mindfulness’s Western incarnation should lead to it being renamed, “mefulness or myfulness.” 

Purser is keen to stress that he is not trying to argue that we should insert more Buddhism into mindfulness. “What I argue is that if you take a practice out of its space and recontextualise it, you have to look at the new context that is informing that practice. If you don’t engage and articulate this, in the West the new context will be of its own sensibilities and some of the crassest forces of the market. A lot of people think that you perform mindfulness and you will achieve a particular mental state; you do X to achieve Y. And that mental state is universal no matter if it was 2000 years ago or today. That is a flawed understanding.  But if you have that misunderstanding, deliberately or otherwise, you can insert it into all sorts of situations. You can turn it on as an attention enhancement training technique.”

When I read Purser’s book I was shocked, if not exactly surprised, that mindfulness based stress reduction techniques had been adopted by the US Military to help soldiers deal with the stress of conflict, with the endorsement of Kabat-Zinn. In anything but name, this is combat enhancement training, designed to make soldiers better at killing other people, better at staying focused on firing weapons in inordinately stressful environments. More obviously, mindfulness has been adopted wholescale in corporate America as a method to reduce the effects of workplace stress, to drive productivity and increase workers capacity for working. By introducing corporate mindfulness training, Kabat-Zinn and other practitioners are helping big business to flog the worker hard with one hand, and provide a salve for the welts with another. 

I ask Purser if he thinks that mindfulness is a product of neoliberalism or a response to it. 

“There is a Carrot and King book Selling Spirituality, in which they talk about the ‘privatisation of spirituality’. I think this is what we have with mindfulness. When we look at meditative techniques, what is under appreciated is that these techniques are always co-constituted by the context that they are in. An 8th century Tibetan monk is in a very different situation, he’s informed by a whole set of historical, philosophical, religious, literary, disciplines that are surrounding the practice that the monk is doing. Let’s say you have this monk doing mindfulness breathing exercises, and you have a businesswoman in 21st Century London doing the exact same practice, it’s cultivating a very different ways of being because that context is shaping a certain subjectivity. So when people say ‘mindfulness works’ well, it works when it’s contingent on the meaning and significance of what you mean by that, and what you want the outcome to be. In that sense we’d have to say it’s a product of neoliberalism, or it’s co-constituted by the neoliberal socio-political background that we’re operating in.”

Purser is quick to point out that corporate mindfulness training programmes are never applied set up for McDonald’s serving staff or other hourly wage work places. They’re only offered in very white-collar companies. “They offer what Kevin Healey calls ‘integrity bubbles’, small bubbles of integrity – small bubbles of relief, stress reduction, so you can work with a little more concentration and focus, at Google for example, to produce weapons of mass distraction. The aim of mindfulness at Google is that workers become less distracted in order produce more distracting products.”

So where mindfulness might be its most useful is in the McWorkplace, ironically enough. From afar it appears that the entire mindfulness movement is an elitist one.  Ron agrees. “There is a book by Jaime Kucinskas called The Mindful Elite. Jaime makes the point that unlike other social movements, which have been largely marginalised, oppressed groups that had religious impulses behind them, such as the civil rights movement – mindfulness is a movement led by upper class, white, male elites that had the cultural capital; knew insiders in government, in schools, in corporations. This meant they worked on consensus based strategies not oppositional strategies. Their thinking is that if they train one mindful individual at a time it will suddenly magically lead to this collective, systemic, transformation.”

It seems to be a kind of ‘trickle-down’ mindfulness, a kind of Reaganomic Spirituality. “What’s dangerous is these guys are sincere,” says Purser. “Government and policy level solutions are more troubling than anything. How much money can be poured into this? The NHS, state school interventions – I think it’s opportunistic and there are careers to be made.”

Occasionally I struggle with books that are pure critique, with no calls to action or presentation of solutions. McMindfulness has a final chapter that does make several suggestions to bring about change, or a change of focus for mindfulness practitioners. Given that mindfulness programmes tend to be corporate sponsored, or led by silicon valley app culture, the ‘movement’ is not linked to addressing the structural issues in the workplace. There’s no connection that doesn’t go beyond the individual. As someone who sometimes uses ‘body scan’ meditation techniques from an app to help me relax and sleep, I’m not wholly anti the idea that meditation and mindfulness can benefit the individual. However, as someone on the left, I’m conscious that capitalism needs spirituality and reproduction to fuel  exploitation. 

Purser references a book by Nicole Aschoff, The New Prophets of Capital, that highlights this. “Capitalism has to borrow other ideas to help it reproduce the engine, so it borrows cultural ideas too, and mindfulness is one of those that helps capitalism reproduce itself. I think it’s an update of the Protestant work ethic in some ways – instead of a promise of a good afterlife now you can practice mindfulness in corporations with the prospect of well being, a new moralism, a new American Protestantism, really. It really is a privatised spirituality. There’s a long lineage, the new prosperity gospel, the mind cure, it continually finds new modes of cultural production.”

So is there any hope to change the direction of mindfulness to a more collective, socialist movement, one that benefits the workers at the bottom of the chain, rather than reinforcing the hegemony at the top? Meditation is apolitical, in some ways, and if it can be recontextualised to elites in neoliberal economies, can it be applied in the other direction? 

“When it took root, where it started was in biomedicine and psychology which are in themselves are focused on individual level treatment. If you go back to the Stoics and Epicureans, and the concept of eudemonia  – which was a lifelong path of character development and moral development, but it was how you lived, in your actions, it was a holistic worldview. But with the emergence of biomedicine, psychology etc we saw a kind of biological reductionism, which is how stress became privatised. And this set up the space of mindfulness to be a medical intervention rather than a philosophical one. The hosts have been biomedicine and psychology and the scientific study – nothing will go towards collectivism or socialism so long as the discourse is locked into that mode. Because mindfulness is a cultural translation that’s been happening since Kabat-Zinn, but it could be translated in a totally different way, it doesn’t have to be locked into individual level treatment.”

In his essay ‘From Me To We’ Purser argues for “a ‘civic mindfulness’ that focuses attention on stresses in the body politic as well as the structural interventions and systemic changes that are the root causes of our cultural malaise and ecological collapse.” He suggests that mindfulness can be used in direct action (as it has done with Extinction Rebellion to keep activists mentally strong in the face of state aggression). He mentions Audre Lorde to me, understanding that her famous quotation, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” is of great use. But he also says that self-care can be embodied in a leftist socio-political understanding beyond a protection against capitalism’s violence and excesses.

“Mindfulness is used to amplify the distress activists feel by bringing it into collective awareness. Pain, grief, despair and anger are not impediments to mindful resistance, they are its fuel.” It must be used in conjunction with collective organisation and workplace resistance, and embedded in a political movement that seeks to change the cause of capitalist violence, rather than a mitigation against its effects. 

“As the socially-engaged Buddhist teacher David Loy is fond of saying, ‘we have become much better at pulling drowning people out of the river, but…we aren’t much better at asking why there are so many people drowning.’” Perhaps the true mindfulness revolution hasn’t begun, but that doesn’t mean it won’t ever start.