Seminar on Economics and Capitalism in the Study of Buddhism
program for AAR 2015 in Atlanta:
“Health Care Institutions and Economics: Transforming Buddhist Practice”
ABSTRACT: The Seminar on Economics and Capitalism in the Study of Buddhism has been established to provide a venue for examining the ways in which late capitalism and its globalization are impacting both Buddhism as an institution with diverse local forms, teachings, systems of authority, and styles of practice, and Buddhism as an object of scholarly inquiry. The seminar begins in 2015 and will pursue its course of studies over a five year term.
The topic for this first year’s meeting of the seminar focuses on the effects of the rapidly expanding adoption of Buddhist practices, particularly mindfulness in its secularized interpretation, into health care settings. Of particular interest is the effects of the commodification of practice as a kind of therapy for mental and physical disorders on the many dimensions of Buddhist practice. Four papers examine Contemplative Studies Centers, psychotherapeutic adaptations, the marketing of mindfulness and Reiki to hospitals and hospices, and the extension of mindfulness into the well-being programs of corporations.
DESCRIPTION: The Seminar on Economics and Capitalism in the Study of Buddhism has been established to provide a venue for examining the ways in which late capitalism and its globalization are impacting both Buddhism as an institution with diverse local forms, teachings, systems of authority, and styles of practice, and Buddhism as an object of scholarly inquiry. The seminar begins in 2015 and will pursue its course of studies over a five year term.
The topic for this first year’s meeting of the seminar focuses on the effects of the rapidly expanding adoption of Buddhist practices, particularly mindfulness in its secularized interpretation, into health care settings. Of particular interest is the effects of the commodification of practice as a kind of therapy for mental and physical disorders on the many dimensions of Buddhist practice.
- “Buddhist Practices and/as Medicine in Contemplative Studies Programs: Mental Labor and the Corporatization of Health and Wellbeing” by Susan Zakin (University of Chicago) examines three Contemplative Studies Centers to demonstrate how corporate, scientific, and healthcare concerns intersect for the putative purpose of furthering individual wellbeing, and to illustrate ways that Buddhism has become implicated in these endeavors. By identifying discrete forms of religious practice and subjecting them to study, scientists treat disconnected religious techniques as conceptual and tangible givens, rendering them measurable, hence knowable. Once analyzed into isolable constituents, these have utility both for producing knowledge about the mind, brain, and behavior, and for determining ‘best practices’ for mental and physical health. It is this felicitous commensurability between the experimental and the experiential that in part motivates the advocates of the Contemplative Studies programs that have been burgeoning on campuses across the country. A distinct and scientifically validated technique is one that can be credibly promoted and sold in the booming and readily apparent happiness industry, driven by the equally booming but less apparent economics of happiness. The axiomatic utility of such methods propels the exhortations to incorporate spiritual hygiene – most obviously ubiquitous mindfulness practices – into daily routine for the sake of personal and professional self-improvement.
- Next, “Insider Trading and Outside Observers: The (Re)Construction of Contemporary Mindfulness Practices in U.S. Mental Health Economies” by Ira Helderman (Vanderbilt University) examines the psychotherapeutic use of Buddhist-derived mindfulness practices. Once described as a new popular trend, these practices should now be considered an established feature of the mental health economy in the United States and beyond. Some scholars express concern that clinicians commodify centuries-old Buddhist traditions into biomedical techniques marketable within global capitalism. Others suggest that healing practices were historically always employed to propagate new Buddhist forms, transformed through interactions with local economic authorities. Drawing on new ethnographic data, I observe these same lines of commentary within psychotherapists’ public discourse about their use of mindfulness practices and its relationship to U.S. political economies. I argue that clinicians listen and respond to cultural critique, at times, citing scholars’ argumentation to legitimate their activities as authentically Buddhist and thus capable of transcending capitalist ideologies. Psychotherapists have incorporated the interpretations of Buddhologists and commentators for decades in ongoing processes of construction and reconstruction of contemporary mindfulness practices.
- “Marketing Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Reiki to Hospitals and Hospices as Secular, Scientific, Cost-Effective Therapies” contributed by Candy G. Brown (Indiana University) argues that Buddhist-affiliated practices, including Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Reiki, have been integrated into hospitals and hospice programs as promoters marketed them as secular, scientific, cost-effective therapies. Financial pressure to attract patients motivates hospitals to satisfy patient demand for “secularized” versions of practices that apparently distill “Eastern” healing “wisdom.” Successful marketing depends upon the use of three related tactics: secular language, scientific validation, and commercial packaging. First, promoters use neutral-sounding terminology to emphasize this-worldly benefits, while avoiding vocabulary that most Americans associate with religion. Second, marketers capitalize upon the widespread assumption that practices are either “scientific” or “religious,” but cannot be both. Third, MBSR and Reiki promoters market their techniques as cost-effective treatments for hospital and hospice staff and patients that will result in cost savings for hospitals, insurance companies, and patients and their families. The paper concludes by reflecting on ethical implications of these marketing tactics.
- The final paper, “Trickle Down Mindfulness: Examining and Questioning Core Assumptions in the Corporate Mindfulness Movement” by Ron Purser (San Francisco State University) examines and critically addresses current trends in corporate mindfulness movement. It begins by questioning some of the major claims professed by corporate mindfulness advocates and trainers, by situating these claims in a broader social and historical context. The major claims that will be interrogated are: 1) mindfulness is inherently ethical (“built into” the practice) and “naturally” leads to right action, livelihood, etc.; 2) mindfulness “naturally” leads to kindness, compassion, investigation, and wisdom; 3) mindfulness will “naturally lead to all things good (“practical benefits”, career success, etc.); and that 4) mindfulness is a “Trojan Horse,” as it works insidiously from within, eventually leading to corporate transformation and reform, even social activism. This historical tracing includes examining the legacy of the self-help movement, the politics of subjectivity in dominant therapeutic narratives, the rhetoric of “flexibility” under late-capitalism, and its association with the neuro-ideology of brain “plasticity.”
Respondent: Megan Bryson (University of Tennessee)
Business meeting to follow
Seminar Chairs: Fabio Rambelli (UC Santa Barbara) and Richard K. Payne (Institute of Buddhist Studies, GTU)