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Beyond McMindfulness

by Ron Purser and David Loy

(Note: This post was also recently published at the Huffington Post. We welcome your thoughts and reflections.)

Suddenly mindfulness meditation has become mainstream, making its way into schools, corporations, prisons, and government agencies including the U.S. military. Millions of people are receiving tangible benefits from their mindfulness practice: less stress, better concentration, perhaps a little more empathy. Needless to say, this is an important development to be welcomed — but it has a shadow.

The mindfulness revolution appears to offer a universal panacea for resolving almost every area of daily concern. Recent books on the topic include: Mindful Parenting, Mindful Eating, Mindful Teaching, Mindful Politics, Mindful Therapy, Mindful Leadership, A Mindful Nation, Mindful Recovery, The Power of Mindful Learning, The Mindful Brain, The Mindful Way through Depression, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion. Almost daily, the media cite scientific studies that report the numerous health benefits of mindfulness meditation and how such a simple practice can effect neurological changes in the brain.

The booming popularity of the mindfulness movement has also turned it into a lucrative cottage industry. Business savvy consultants pushing mindfulness training promise that it will improve work efficiency, reduce absenteeism, and enhance the “soft skills” that are crucial to career success. Some even assert that mindfulness training can act as a “disruptive technology,” reforming even the most dysfunctional companies into kinder, more compassionate and sustainable organizations. So far, however, no empirical studies have been published that support these claims.

In their branding efforts, proponents of mindfulness training usually preface their programs as being “Buddhist-inspired.” There is a certain cachet and hipness in telling neophytes that mindfulness is a legacy of Buddhism — a tradition famous for its ancient and time-tested meditation methods. But, sometimes in the same breath, consultants often assure their corporate sponsors that their particular brand of mindfulness has relinquished all ties and affiliations to its Buddhist origins.

Uncoupling mindfulness from its ethical and religious Buddhist context is understandable as an expedient move to make such training a viable product on the open market. But the rush to secularize and commodify mindfulness into a marketable technique may be leading to an unfortunate denaturing of this ancient practice, which was intended for far more than relieving a headache, reducing blood pressure, or helping executives become better focused and more productive.

While a stripped-down, secularized technique — what some critics are now calling “McMindfulness” — may make it more palatable to the corporate world, decontextualizing mindfulness from its original liberative and transformative purpose, as well as its foundation in social ethics, amounts to a Faustian bargain. Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.

Most scientific and popular accounts circulating in the media have portrayed mindfulness in terms of stress reduction and attention-enhancement. These human performance benefits are heralded as the sine qua non of mindfulness and its major attraction for modern corporations. But mindfulness, as understood and practiced within the Buddhist tradition, is not merely an ethically-neutral technique for reducing stress and improving concentration. Rather, mindfulness is a distinct quality of attention that is dependent upon and influenced by many other factors: the nature of our thoughts, speech and actions; our way of making a living; and our efforts to avoid unwholesome and unskillful behaviors, while developing those that are conducive to wise action, social harmony, and compassion.

This is why Buddhists differentiate between Right Mindfulness (samma sati) and Wrong Mindfulness (miccha sati). The distinction is not moralistic: the issue is whether the quality of awareness is characterized by wholesome intentions and positive mental qualities that lead to human flourishing and optimal well-being for others as well as oneself.

According to the Pali Canon (the earliest recorded teachings of the Buddha), even a person committing a premeditated and heinous crime can be exercising mindfulness, albeit wrong mindfulness. Clearly, the mindful attention and single-minded concentration of a terrorist, sniper assassin, or white-collar criminal is not the same quality of mindfulness that the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist adepts have developed. Right Mindfulness is guided by intentions and motivations based on self-restraint, wholesome mental states, and ethical behaviors — goals that include but supersede stress reduction and improvements in concentration.

Another common misconception is that mindfulness meditation is a private, internal affair. Mindfulness is often marketed as a method for personal self-fulfillment, a reprieve from the trials and tribulations of cutthroat corporate life. Such an individualistic and consumer orientation to the practice of mindfulness may be effective for self-preservation and self-advancement, but is essentially impotent for mitigating the causes of collective and organizational distress.

When mindfulness practice is compartmentalized in this way, the interconnectedness of personal motives is lost. There is a dissociation between one’s own personal transformation and the kind of social and organizational transformation that takes into account the causes and conditions of suffering in the broader environment. Such a colonization of mindfulness also has an instrumentalizing effect, reorienting the practice to the needs of the market, rather than to a critical reflection on the causes of our collective suffering, or social dukkha.

The Buddha emphasized that his teaching was about understanding and ending dukkha (“suffering” in the broadest sense). So what about the dukkha caused by the ways institutions operate?

Many corporate advocates argue that transformational change starts with oneself: if one’s mind can become more focused and peaceful, then social and organizational transformation will naturally follow. The problem with this formulation is that today the three unwholesome motivations that Buddhism highlights — greed, ill will, and delusion — are no longer confined to individual minds, but have become institutionalized into forces beyond personal control.

Up to now, the mindfulness movement has avoided any serious consideration of why stress is so pervasive in modern business institutions. Instead, corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because it conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employee: stress is framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments. Cloaked in an aura of care and humanity, mindfulness is refashioned into a safety valve, as a way to let off steam — a technique for coping with and adapting to the stresses and strains of corporate life.

The result is an atomized and highly privatized version of mindfulness practice, which is easily coopted and confined to what Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, in their book Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, describe as an “accommodationist” orientation. Mindfulness training has wide appeal because it has become a trendy method for subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and as an instrumental tool for keeping attention focused on institutional goals.

In many respects, corporate mindfulness training — with its promise that calmer, less stressed employees will be more productive — has a close family resemblance to now-discredited “human relations” and sensitivity-training movements that were popular in the 1950s and 1960s. These training programs were criticized for their manipulative use of counseling techniques, such as “active listening,” deployed as a means for pacifying employees by making them feel that their concerns were heard while existing conditions in the workplace remained unchanged. These methods came to be referred to as “cow psychology,” because contented and docile cows give more milk.

Bhikkhu Bodhi, an outspoken western Buddhist monk, has warned: “absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.” Unfortunately, a more ethical and socially responsible view of mindfulness is now seen by many practitioners as a tangential concern, or as an unnecessary politicizing of one’s personal journey of self-transformation.

One hopes that the mindfulness movement will not follow the usual trajectory of most corporate fads — unbridled enthusiasm, uncritical acceptance of the status quo, and eventual disillusionment. To become a genuine force for positive personal and social transformation, it must reclaim an ethical framework and aspire to more lofty purposes that take into account the well-being of all living beings.

Ronald E. Purser, Ph.D. is a professor of management at San Francisco State University, and a Zen teacher in Korean Buddhist Taego order. He is co-author and co-editor of five books including, The Search Conference (Jossey-Bass, 1996), Social Creativity, Volumes 1 & 2 (Hampton Press, 1999), The Self-Managing Organization (Simon & Schuster, 1998), and 24/7: Time and Temporality in the Network Society (Stanford University Press, 2007) and over 60 academic journal articles and book chapters. His professional writings and publications currently focus on the application of Buddhist psychology and mindfulness practices to business, management, and organizations. Dr. Purser currently serves on the Executive Board of the Consciousness, Mindfulness and Compassion (CM&C) International Association.

David R. Loy, a long time Zen practitioner and Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition, is a professor of Buddhism and comparative philosophy. A highly regarded lecturer, he is also a prolific author.  His books include Non-duality; Money, Sex, War and Karma; A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency, and the most recent, The World is Made of Stories.  David is leading Buddhist thinker on the interface of Buddhism and the social and ecological issues of our times. More info at www.davidloy.org

 

Comments (10)

  • Dawn Haney

    “Up to now, the mindfulness movement has avoided any serious consideration of why stress is so pervasive in modern business institutions. Instead, corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because it conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employee: stress is framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments. Cloaked in an aura of care and humanity, mindfulness is refashioned into a safety valve, as a way to let off steam — a technique for coping with and adapting to the stresses and strains of corporate life.”

    It’s embarrassing to admit that I fall trap to this problem even right here, working at BPF! I’m so indoctrinated to believe that when I’m feeling overwhelmed by work, that it’s MY problem, something wrong with me. If only I were a better mindfulness practitioner, then I wouldn’t feel so overwhelmed with my responsibilities. If only I could learn to put the work down at the end of the day, then I’d feel more balanced. I just did a self-evaluation as part of our yearly staff evaluation process, and it’s right there in all my Areas of Needed Improvement: “It must be my fault that I’m overwhelmed.”

    When really, it’s clear that I’ve worked for a woefully understaffed organization for two years, figuring out how to be scrappy to hold things together so BPF can keep our doors open as a resource to Buddhist activists. But at the end of the day, as a result of layoffs and downsizing, I’m doing a job that three people used to do. And before them, there were 5 or 6 people doing what I’m doing now, and even they felt like the workload was too much! Because when you have a mission like achieving peace and justice, when is the work day done?

    All this to say – McMindfulness is insidious, and even hangs out in BPF headquarters sometimes.

  • nathan

    I think this is common in any social justice/anti-oppression org. And I have totally been there myself as well. In my work life and activist life, with have often been blurred together.

    After frying myself out last fall and spending almost half the winter sick, I had a good case of “activist guilt” for most of the spring. I also felt totally forgotten by those I had spent so much time in the trenches with, and it seemed like the only way to remain “in good graces” was to keep doing, keep active even at the expense of my health and finances. It’s a no win, living with this mindset. And I’d argue that it’s difficult to shake in large part because so few around us support a culture of healthy rhythms. Time for inward focus and reflection when possible and time for outward action. Do, do, do is the name of the game and too many of us are attached to some version of “saving the world,” which reinforces hyper personal responsibilty narratives and heavy judgment cycles for anyone who doesn’t sacrifice it all, all the time, for “the cause.” This collective pattern has to change. Privatized notions of mindfulness are just one more hindrance keeping too many of us from liberated lives.

  • Bob

    I have been collecting source material on how the US military is starting to incorporate Mindfulness training into standard basic training. The military is embracing meditation. Here is a great short video about how popular Zen has become at Fort Benning (home of the School of the Americas)

  • Bob

    For those who are interested here is a link to the major US Military program expanding evidence based mindfulness training. It looks like mindfulness will become a standard part of basic training

    http://www.mind-fitness-training.org/

  • Jeff

    I love it, Bob! Buddhist chaplain Thomas Dyer mindfully prepares young Americans to fight brown people in exotic parts of the world: “A Buddhist can put on an army uniform, pick up an M-4 and lock & load, with a clear conscience, with Right Intention, to do good, to protect, to serve and defend…” In case anyone thought Japanese Imperial War Buddhism or the Myanmar genocide were aberrations, here it is in our backyard! There was a lively discussion on another intersection of Buddhism and war around Joseph Bobrow’s work with veterans on this site in May: http://www.buddhistpeacefellowship.org/?s=joseph+bobrow

    Nathan and Dawn, I can totally relate to the “activist burnout” syndrome. As we become truly mindful of the sickness of our system and the suffering it inflicts, we often throw ourselves into the progressive cause with tremendous passion and commitment. Yet the movement grows slowly, the victories are few and far between, and at the end of the day, you’re still dragging your tired body and frazzled mind home and wondering if anything’s gonna ever change. Well, I don’t have a wise, pithy aphorism to put all that in perspective, but let me say this, at least: over the months I’ve been participating in these interchanges, both of you have inspired many of us with your stories and insights, so at least you got that right! Thanks for keeping the fire burning.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    Thank you Jeff! Activist burnout, and how to prevent it (or minimize it) has become a very important topic to me. Still figuring it all out, but hope to offer more on it soon.

  • Bob

    I know there are Buddhists who suffer activist burnout. And especially those folks are likely to congregate at a website like this one. However when I hear Dharma teachers consoling people to take a break from activism, or suggesting that fixation on changing the world is neurotic and avoids inner work, then I have to wonder… Is it really the case that most modern american (united statesian) Buddhists are so incredible busy with activism, burning the candle at both ends with relentless pursuit of social justice? Is activist burn-out really such a big problem? I doubt it. I think what is going on is that many people express their grave concerns about the state of the world during private interviews with teachers. Buddhist teachers who for the most part have little to no history with activism / organizing then offer a kind of generic response to everyone who is worried about the world, ‘Turn inward, be at peace. Discover the truth of non-self, etc.’
    And lets not forget Thomas Merton who will go down in history for encouraging people to give it a rest (sarcasm intended). There is a quote from Jonathon Kozol which I do not remember at the moment but the gist of it is that for us modern folk, feelings of abstract moral sentiment have replaced the ethics of actually doing something. I think that pathology is broadly true of Western Liberals, and united statesian Buddhists. I can only say this because its true for me, I hope I don’t come off as overly judgmental and arrogant. I certainly aint holier than shit.

  • nathan

    Bob, I think you are pretty accurate there. The experiences I and Dawn and some others on different posts are sharing are minority experiences in American Buddhist circles. I can count on my fingers the number of folks in my home sangha that are seriously involved in the community and might have to deal with activist burnout or sonething like it. Probably 5-10% of our sangha and I would guess you’d find similar numbers elsewhere.

    The thing about those “fixing the world is neurotic” comments is that thry are both true and often an excuse to avoid and stay sheltered. In trying to counter that, it seems helpful to acknowledge that clinging to paticular results or desired outcomes brings a lot of misery. And yet, we still are called to do something.

    I think a lot of folks are overwhelmed by systemic issues. Seems to me that this is one place mindfulness practices often go wrong. Instead of zeroing in on that overwhelm and breaking it down so folks can be more free to act, they end up reinforcing non-engagement by creating a buffer between the person and their feelings of overwhelm.

    What holds you back from being more engaged in social issues?

  • John Eden

    Thanks David and Ron! This is a very important piece of the whole! We all need to hear this and integrate into our practice and teachings. Makes me renew my intention to get more involved with the BPF instead staying on the fringes….

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