Power and Pedagogy

Autonomous Terrace has extended the discussion of “corporate spirituality” to include its use in educational institutions, and does so in a fashion that I think is both thoughtful and self-reflectively informative. AT’s focus is on the institutionalization of mindfulness practice in education, and the difficulties that imbalances of power create for those attempts. We note that educational institutions are also “corporate bodies” even if they are not for-profit corporations. In other words, the same kinds of dynamics, including imbalances of power, are at work there as in for-profit corporations. As AT notes, mindfulness is on offer as another “quick-fix,” that is, something simple (in conceptualization, if not execution) that will supposedly solve all/some/most of the problems plaguing the institution.

Hyper-sensitive defenders of mindfulness please note: as I read AT’s post, neither AT nor I are saying that there is anything wrong with mindfulness practice per se, and indeed both of us hold that it is good, useful, and beneficial—the issues that concern both of us are those that follow from attempts to institutionalize mindfulness practices, that is, how those with less power in an institution respond when those with more power attempt to get them to do something “for their own good.”  And, the slippery slope from the intent to provide someone with something that will benefit them into a technology of control—one that shifts responsibility for a person’s unhappiness with a situation onto that person, rather than allowing for a critique of the situation or institution. An employee experiencing stress at work may well benefit from mindfulness practice. However, an employer who simultaneously expects 60 + hours from employees, and then offers them mindfulness training in order to deal with the stress is making them responsible for dealing with their own stress (note the individualization involved here), rather than attempting to address the unreasonable work environment. (This strategy may also be referred to as “corporate paternalism.”)

This links to a very common rhetoric in popular religious culture, which is sometimes expressed as: It’s not the situation, it’s how you’re thinking about it. There are contesting true claims involved and as such the application of the principle needs to be contextualized. There are indeed situations in which the only control an individual has is to accept a situation and make the most of it. However, this is not always the case—changing how one thinks about a situation is not a panacea. Two instances come to mind: women in violently abusive relationships, and those suffering under political repression. To tell either group that their unhappiness is a result of how they are thinking about the situation is to demand that they become willing victims.

It seems to me that the advice of the Buddha was not to change how you think about things so that you’re happy and content with them as they are, but rather to see things as they are.

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8 thoughts on “Power and Pedagogy

  1. Pingback: Via “Power and Pedagogy” | djb.

  2. Is this related to the critique Marx had of Christianity? The use of religious practices/beliefs to engender passivity in the face of injustice is well-known in Christianity: for Christians, it typically comes as accepting one’s suffering as “bearing the cross”–a necessary part of Christian discipleship; or as being unconcerned about the sufferings of this life, in favor of the reward that is waiting in heaven. I hadn’t thought about how doctrines/practices in Buddhism might also be interpreted in a similar way.

    • This is in an important sense similar, though as I understand Marx’s point it had to do with what might be considered voluntary subservience to the authority of the the employer, who had taken on the authority previously held by state and church. What I think we are seeing today is something that might be characterized somewhat differently, that is, the encouragement of individualistic accommodation. The individual is encouraged to find ways to accommodate to the work environment and its stresses, such as by mindfulness practice. Additionally, because it is the individual’s problem, framing issues in this fashion discourages unionization, that is, collective action to change the conditions of employment. It seems to me that “bearing the cross” has been used as a rationale for deferred gratification (you will get your reward in Heaven), and adherence to social norms and duties. In this instance, however, the rationale seems to be something more along the lines of: “To succeed you need to give your all to this corporation, and you can keep on giving your all by employing this technique. So, get plenty of hydration, meditate, go work out in the gym we’ve provided here on campus so you can continue working 60+ hours a week for years without vacation, and you too can become a millionaire/retire/have a Maserati by the time you’re 40.” This plays on the macho/heroic attitude, and implicitly pits employees against one another. Where it does come back to Christianity is the role that the Gospel of Prosperity (admittedly a rather questionable theology) has played in informing popular religious culture. At that level, mindfulness becomes a quasi-magical fetish along the lines of affirmations.

  3. Pingback: News and Updates (July 10: one new item) « Speculative Non-Buddhism

  4. Hi Richard,

    I am also troubled by the trend of requiring kids to do mindfulness meditation in school. But what I’m curious about here is your statement that you believe mindfulness to be “good, useful, and beneficial.” I would agree with your assessment that it usually functions in the same way as the version of Christianity taught to the working classes in the 19th and 20th centuries–it is meant to get people to accept what should be an unacceptable situation, and to convince them that if they aren’t happy it is their own fault. So, in what way is mindfulness beneficial, exactly? Or perhaps a better question is, what do you mean by “mindfulness” when you say it is a good and useful practice? What exactly is that practice?

    Because as it has been defined most often in the West, mindfulness is an attempt to achieve a pure, thought-free sensory awareness; this, of course, is not possible at all, and so the only function this practice serves is to occupy people with trying to do something completely impossible, and to tell them that when they can’t do it they are at fault, inferior spiritually, or just not trying hard enough…so, all their unhappiness is their own fault. The goal of mindfulness practice, then, is to attempt to reinforce a mistaken belief, to strengthen an erroneous understanding of the world–to convince people to try really hard to be perfect Lockean empiricist subjects of capitalism. Of course, most people realize quickly enough that they cannot achieve this “thought-free sensory awareness,” and give up, and those who delude themselves that they can do it (usually by falling into some kind of hypnogogic state, sometimes by just lying about it) are considered the spiritually superior–the most deluded among us, then, are praised as being the wisest.

    Perhaps the “mindfulness” practice you see as useful is something other than this popular version? If so, can you say more about what it entails?

    • Hi Tom,
      Thank you for the perspective you have on what constitutes mindfulness as presented in contemporary teachings. It provides a useful reference point for much of what is wrong. The question you close with raises what I think are some interesting intellectual questions, as I find myself wanting to make two seemingly conflicting rhetorical moves.
      The first has to do with separating the technique of mindfulness from its context. This move I see myself having employed previously in this sequence of posts on corporate spirituality—particularly when criticized by mindfulness true believers who don’t want to see anything that critiques the relation between the propagation of mindfulness practice in capitalist institutions (not just for-profit, but also not-for-profit and governmental), because they fear that it will do harm to the beneficial aspects of the movement (the scientific character of the claims in this regard cry out for separate treatment). This “mindfulness is good no matter what” attitude is evident in both some comments here, and in one of the responses to Jeff Wilson’s recent post on the Tricycle blog .
      The strategy of separating technology from context, however, is highly conducive to the rhetoric of purity defiled, or that of co-option. There are then the accompanying rhetorics of authenticity, legitimacy and authority, which seem to almost always go untheorized and therefore are simply exercises in power.
      The seemingly conflicting argument is that technology cannot be divorced from context. (An argument that I am in fact more strongly convinced of than I am of the separation strategy.) The limiting constraint on this argument, however, is that while context is both unavoidable and formative, it is not the case that context is everything. That path, it seems to me, leads too far down an idealist path, and away from such things as the material conditions of life. (Just as the “new thought” approach of arguing that it is only your interpretation of your situation that determines how you feel in that situation—also toward the blame the victim rhetoric.)
      So, obviously, this is not an answer to your question. It is rather something of an explanation of why it will take much more extensive reflection to come up with an answer—probably (hopefully?) one that will satisfy no one.
      best, Richard

      • Hi Richard,

        Okay, if you don’t want to answer the question, that’s fine. What I was asking has nothing to do with the idea of a good technology being corrupted by a bad practice—that’s obviously always possible, as when knowledge of contagious diseases is used to create biological weaponry.

        My point isn’t that the use to which mindfulness is put is bad, so the practice is corrupted. My point is that the understanding of what mindfulness itself means is based on philosophical and conceptual error (and, perhaps this is why it is useful in the way it is used today, but that’s a separate questions).

        To be as explicit as I am capable of being, mindfulness as defined by Kabat-Zinn, or by Williams and Penman in their very popular book, is just not a possible thing to do at all, ever, for anyone. It assumes the existence of a pure consciousness, separated from and uncontaminated by the material world, and then of a pure and essential reality from which we are “screened” by things like language and social conventions. To put it in Kantian terms (because it is a Kantian understanding, right?) they believe in a radical dualism, in which the soul is screened from the noumenal essence of things by language and mere appearances; for Kant, we transcend this gulf in aesthetic perception, fur Kabat-Zinn et al we do so in mindfulness meditation, which assures us that we have set aside the interfering phenomenal mess (become “unattached”) and are living in pure and unconstructed reality—even if only momentarily. In Buddhist terms, the goal is to escape dependent arising, and live in the unconstructed of eternity.

        Of course, unlike Kant (and Locke, and Descartes etc.) Kabat-Zinn and his followers pretend to a secularism which can’t deal in mystical eternity and souls. So, the first step in their mindfulness is to be convinced that one is NOT actually assuming the existence of an eternal “pure consciousness” exactly while one IS assuming it—in other words, the important first step is to become a poor thinker, and to become irrecoverably immersed in delusion and error. Then, one can pursue this (impossible) task of living as a pure soul uncreated by dependent origination, and hopefully delude oneself that one has achieved it (although very few seem capable of this level of self-delusion).

        So, setting aside for now the question of why we are typically encouraged to learn to become poor thinkers and live in self-delusion, my question is, do you think there is ever a point to doing this? How could it ever be “good, beneficial and useful” in any way? Having read quite a few things you’ve written, it seems to me unlikely that you would hold this position. I am assuming, therefore, that the “mindfulness” you are suggesting is good is some other practice, not this popular one.

        Of course, any practice can be put to bad uses, although it is less likely that practices based on error about the nature of reality can be put to any good uses. Setting aside the question of the use the practice is put to, what IS the practice that YOU mean by mindfulness?

        As I said, though, you may not want to answer that question, and that’s fine. I just wanted to try to clarify what my question actually is.

  5. Pingback: Mindfulness and the Institutional Abuse of Power | Engage!

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