Glenn Wallis has commented on the YouTube clip that Ann Gleig sent me this (Monday, 17 Feb.) morning. I would like to thank Ann for doing so, and Glenn for cleverly working my name into the post so often.
Three not entirely unrelated things struck me about the clip, and a casual follow up perusal of the Mindfulness 2.0 website. Glenn’s patience for interrogating x-Buddhism is much greater than my own, and his post will give you both more information and more links to access information about the event, as well as the YouTube clip that motivated both his reflections there, and my own here.
The first aspect of interest was that this reveals the two step process by which mindfulness has been mainstreamed, and the extent to which it has become an expression of “Corporatist Spirituality.” I would describe (not define, as that has a tendency to kill thinking) corporatist spirituality as the use of spirituality for corporate ends. (As a concept spirituality is also deserving of a hermeneutics of suspicion, but it is used here to identify the strain of thought being employed in the social dynamics of corporatist spirituality—a disembodying of the subject which becomes embraced by the subject.) In a very real sense, once churches or temples or store-front meditation centers or Buddhist seminaries become more focused on maintaining and growing institutionally, and employ spirituality toward the ends of institutional preservation and growth, they are also instances of corporate spirituality.
(I know of some potential students who have been put off by the Institute of Buddhist Studies’ style, its lack of glamor—in the original sense of that which bedazzles and distracts—and its almost total absence of the paraphernalia of Buddhist exotica. This is intentional, and although the phrase “corporate spirituality” only occurred to me this morning, the intent of IBS’s stylistics may be located in the desire to avoid corporate spirituality, and exploitation of the consumer that is the consequence of corporate spirituality.)
This first step in mainstreaming mindfulness leading up to Mindfulness 2.0 was to remove it from its Buddhist context, that is, strip off anything that identified it as originating from Buddhism or having any characteristic that was offensively ritualistic or superstitious. The appropriation of an already decontextualized and secularized mindfulness as a quasi-medical therapeutic is part of this first step.
The perennialist claim defending this step is that mindfulness is a universal human practice, found in all religions, and is not in fact particularly Buddhist. This rhetorical claim is usually presented as self-evident and obvious, that is, not requiring justification—which as Daniel Dennett in his recent work on “intuition pumps” (along with many other thinkers in their own ways) has pointed out is a red flag that the claim is in fact dubious—it ought to be questioned. On what grounds other than an a priori conception of the subject as an isolated individual with private access to a pre- or trans-cultural and universal cognitive ground of consciousness can such a claim be made? This latter question is intended to rhetorically highlight the absence of any possible means of providing evidentiary justification for such a claim.
Having stripped mindfulness of its Buddhist identity (and let me note in passing that this is an analysis of the social dynamics of Buddhism specifically and religion more generally in present-day US and not some sectarian counter-claim intended to defend the integrity of Buddhism—which is quite able to take care of itself), the second step is that mindfulness is then presented as something that one wants to adopt so as to be a better, happier, more productive employee—or perhaps out of the simple desire to belong amongst such a techno-hip, upper middle class crowd. The kind of presentations made at Mindfulness 2.0 probably did not include any encouragement to consider a radical career change. Joining the Peace Corps and digging wells by hand in small African villages would not appear as an option for meaningful self-fulfillment among the social values pervading the event. Much less, as in the case of the YouTube clip, any encouragement or opportunity to call into question Google’s corporate policies. (Anyone with a modicum of logical training will understand that the argument: Mindfulness is good. Google promotes mindfulness. Therefore, Google is good. is a fallacy.)
That segues nicely to my second thought, which is that corporations are not people. While this may seem overworked and obvious in a post Mitt Romney era, the point is not just about political contributions, but about ethics. Many years ago, I had a disagreement with my parents about “corporate ethics.” They were asserting that there should be formal ethical statements adopted as guiding principles by corporations. Although we were in fact speaking past each other, a not untypical problem between parents and children, the issue as far as I conceived it was very simply that ethical agency only resides in people. Not being people, corporations are fundamentally incapable of acting ethically.
It is not, therefore, that Google’s motto of “don’t be evil” is insincere, or hypocritical, but rather that it is pointless. Corporations are only driven by profit (with the qualification that the social fiction of “corporation” is so deeply entrenched that even groups of people who don’t want to organize to make a profit are legally expected to do so as “not-for-profit corporations”). Profit is the sole measure that corporations (“for-profit” ones that is) adhere to. Indeed, were a corporate executive to make a decision that cost the corporation a significant amount of profit on the grounds that it was the ethically proper thing to do, they would be subject to being removed from their position.
This in turn segues to my third thought, which has to do with the study of Buddhist history. The long-standing focus on Buddhist philosophy is not only in large part crypto-theology, but also serves to focus attention away from the social history of Buddhism. The other focus of contemporary Buddhism in the west is on individual awakening, individual experience, individual transformation. This also keeps the focus of attention away from social history.
But reflecting on the sponsorship of Mindfulness 2.0, which includes many more corporations in addition to Google itself, may lead us to ask about the economics of Buddhism, the role of sponsorship and the effects thereof. This is not only a contemporary issue, but one that extends into Buddhist history. We know, for example, that King Aśoka played a key role in the institutional development of Buddhism. Other kings and emperors across Asia played similar roles. But the effects of court patronage is relatively understudied (as is the economics of religion generally). Ron Davidson’s work Indian Esoteric Buddhism is a positive example in this regard, considering the role of the Guptas and feudalism in medieval India in the formation of the tantric movement.
But for the more philosophically or theologically inclined such questions seem either irrelevant or irreverent. And so the relation between sponsorship and the messages of Mindfulness 2.0 remains occluded. The believer cloaked in typically American soft-pragmatism might ask, Why do you want to talk about that when mindfulness is so beneficial? To which the not purely rhetorical question may be asked in reply, Beneficial to whom, for what, and in what way?
As I’ve said elsewhere and will no doubt repeat myself again and again, mindfulness and all other practices are not simply value-neutral, context-free mental hygienics, a mental tool for self-improvement. All tools are ideologies—they exercise the values of their makers and instantiate those values in their users.