Sheep’s clothing? marketing Mindfulness as socially transforming

The bad faith of mindfulness proponents’ responses to critiques of the industry is examined by Ronald Purser and Edwin Ng, in “Corporate Mindfulness is Bullsh*t: Zen or no Zen, You’re Working Harder and Being Paid Less” (on Salon, Sunday, 27 Sept., 2015). They summarize much of the promotion of corporate mindfulness as a “Trojan horse” argument—claims that mindfulness will transform the bad practices of corporations from the inside. This hypothetical transformation is predicated on an argument that has the following structure:

(1) as individuals undertake mindfulness practice, they become more sensitive to the needs of others—more compassionate, more respectful, more cooperative, more conscious, more ethical in their behavior generally,

(2) as enough individuals within an institution undertake mindfulness practice and become increasingly ethical, that institution will “naturally” be transformed, itself becoming more ethical, thereby becoming a force promoting human flourishing,

therefore, mindfulness practice is a viable, or even the best, means for transforming not just individuals and corporations, but also society as a whole.

This belief is evident in the question raised, apparently repeatedly, by the interviewer in the recent “Mindfulness Summit” to the effect of “What happens when enough people practice mindfulness?” This looks to be an instance of what has been called the “100th monkey” effect, i.e., magical thinking. There is no such short-cut to social or institutional change.

The alternative to the Trojan Horse hypothesis is what the authors call the Corporate Quietism hypothesis. This is the claim that mindfulness is a means for corporations to make individual employees responsible for their own stress: If the stress I feel is the result of my own shortcomings, then I am responsible for dealing with it myself. The stress is not the result of unreasonable and ever-increasing demands from the employer. This is the neo-liberal fantasy of the entirely autonomous individual, aggravated by what might be called the corporate-hero-myth—the image of the individual who, working 18+ hours a day for 3 months leads his (almost never her) team to successfully come in ahead of schedule and under budget!

Having raised concerns about Corporate Quietism, the authors go on to point out that:

The fact is both are hypotheses. On the one hand, the Trojan horse hypothesis predicts that corporate mindfulness programs will encourage whistle-blowing, wise decision-making, more humane work environments, ethical behavior, greater organizational citizenship behaviors, and transformational culture change leading to greater social and environmental responsibility. And on the other hand, the Corporate Quietism hypothesis posits that corporate mindfulness programs will provide privatized glimpses of stress reduction and focused attention, with no significant application of collective attention to systemic conditions of stress and anxiety.

The authors emphasize that they would like to see experimental evidence supporting either of the two hypotheses. However, instead of treating their own claims as hypotheses needing to be demonstrated, the proponents push back—confusing, either unwittingly or not, critique with criticism.

Rather than raising questions regarding the social effects of, for example, the privatization of prisons by for profit corporations, mindfulness proponents would perhaps advocate that these prisons introduce mindfulness programs for the well-being of prisoners. Any benefits to prisoners, which I grant may indeed take place, does nothing to address the problems created by the prison-industrial complex itself. An only slightly less extreme example would be the promotion of mindfulness programs for the employees of such corporations, who while not literally imprisoned may experience their economic conditions and their working conditions as imprisoning them. (For the sake of clarity, I have deep respect for Buddhist chaplains who work in the very difficult and dangerous conditions of prisons. My concern here is with the claims that corporate appropriation of mindfulness leads to social change, which is a different matter.)

For those of us who actually did survive the 60s and the 70s, all this should be familiar. Much the same claims were made for Transcendental Meditation (TM). It was claimed that its efficacy was scientifically demonstrated, and it made you more spiritual. (Supposedly, with enough practice and special advanced training programs, you could learn to levitate—honest, I saw the pictures that were supposed to prove this claim.) There was talk about how society would be transformed “naturally” (quotes indicate that the mechanism for such change was never explicated) if enough people became TM meditators. Similarly, efforts were made to get enough people around the world to meditate simultaneously, the idea being that there would be some kind of amplification effect.

Given the resistance proponents demonstrate to examining their own claims regarding mindfulness as the Trojan Horse of social change leads one to suspect that the claim is merely rhetorical—a means of marketing mindfulness programs while simultaneously blunting upper middle class liberal sensitivities to social inequity. Claiming that mindfulness has the potential to transform British society, Jon Kabat-Zinn closes his Guardian post on the Mindful Nation UK report, by saying that “Indeed, they will be addressing some of the most pressing problems of society at their very root – at the level of the human mind and heart.” Central to the Trojan Horse claim is the narcissistically gratifying idea that by engaging in mindfulness you are doing the most important act toward social change—changing yourself. Any connection between the two remains to be demonstrated.

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