Friday, February 21, 2014

The Mindfulness Wars

Over at American Buddhist Perspective, Justin offers a goodbreakdown of recent articles in response to the brief protest that occurred at the recent Wisdom 2.0 conference. Odds are the "mindfulness wars" are only beginning to heat up, as more and more areas of the military industrial complex adopt mindfulness programs. While Justin's post offers excellent insight into some of the highly thorny issues coming up when mindfulness enters the world of big business, the ending offers at least a mildly optimistic tone, citing research suggesting mindfulness alone can increase ethical behavior.

First off, let's consider the source of two of the three studies: the University of Chicago and the Wharton School of UPenn. The former is home to the Milton Friedman Institute, while the latter is one of the highest ranked business schools in the world, with numerous alumni leading Fortune 1000 corporations around the globe. On the one hand, it makes sense that they would be doing research on mindfulness in the workplace. On the other hand, these are places with a vested interest in maintaining our current economic system, including many of it's numerous abuses.

I would really like to see some significant research from universities and other organizations that aren't driven by highly pro-capitalist models. In addition, what I find problematic about much of the research on mindfulness that I ave seen is that it tends to focus on individual benefits and changes in intrapersonal and/or interpersonal dynamics. It's fairly easy to find articles on psychological and therapeutic benefits, and I'm guessing that folks who get upset with the wholesale rejection of secular mindfulness by some Buddhists (and others) are thinking in part from this place. And the fact that mindfulness programs clearly do seem to offer folks stress relief, healing or significant improvement of depression, anxiety, and similar conditions. In addition, there seems to more and more articles and perhaps research on the improvement of intrapersonal and/or interpersonal dynamics in groups such as large workplaces. I frequently see appeals from secular mindfulness proponents that point to better boss/employee relationships, as well as less hostile work environments in general. Which, if it's true that mindfulness programs are doing this, is certainly a positive in my book.

However, none of this readily translates into systemic social change. Just because the corporate workplace is filled with more caring and less stressed people doesn't mean they'll be more likely (in my view) to act (individually or collectively) in ways that significantly reduce manufactured economic inequality, environmental destruction, and numerous other issues. Not when the main, even sole purpose of corporations is to make profits for the elite.

What incentive does a corporation like Google have to actively address (from their own sense of conscience) something like gentrification? Why would they bother to do anything unless public pressure threatened to cave their financial bottom line?

Google has been at the forefront of corporate mindfulness programming for a good decade now, not only influencing programming incorporate Silicon Valley, but numerous other places. And yet, Google's ethical track record is fairly lousy. From avoiding taxes to exploiting the digital commons in Africa, Google isn't exactly demonstrating the supposed social ethics of a mindfulness-based business.

Overall, I think this discussion needs to move beyond the mindfulness produced "zombies" and "mindful sniper" examples that keep being brought up by folks on both sides of the table. These extreme, individualistic memes are highly charged distractions that keep us from taking a deeper look at the interdependent systems that mindfulness programs are plugging into, and how the oppressive forces within those systems impact whatever programs are being offered, regardless of how good the intentions are.


Author: Maia Duerr said...

Hi Nathan, thanks for this post.... I'll share a comment here that I also shared on Genju's blog, 108zenbooks, 'cuz it's kinda like what you are saying:

Here’s what i’ll offer to the conversation — I think the argument about mindfulness in a secular setting and being stripped of its ethical framework is a red herring. There are both openings and limitations to pulling mindfulness (complex concept that it is) out of an explicitly Buddhist framework and applying it to various psychological and physical ills. But what is more concerning to me is something much more pervasive. (Some of you have heard this rant of mine before, so apologies in advance for repeating myself.) That is our cultural tendency to focus on individualism and solo wellbeing rather than collective wellbeing. And in many dharma circles, an insistence on being apolitical. We so often ignore the most basic teaching of the Buddha, that interconnection is the truth of things as they are. We forget that when the Buddha had his own awakening, from the get-go he put it in the context of all beings… “I and all sentient beings on earth, together, attain enlightenment at the same time.”

Who knows if ‘mindfulness’ will be used by the corporate powers that be to create more passive employees in the service of corporate profit. That may happen. But it may not. Practice is a powerful thing that can transform lives in surprising ways, ways that no one entity can possibly control if it’s ‘true’ practice. However, what’s not so surprising is the non-response of the Wisdom 2.0 organizers to the activists who turned up on their stage to call attention to the negative impact that Google and other tech corporations are having on the San Francisco human eco-system. From what I understand, the W 2.0 folks essentially did a spiritual bypass. And THIS is what I’m talking about.

I come from the Robert Aitken Roshi school of socially engaged Buddhism, which holds that SEB is actually redundant… there is no Buddhism that is not engaged. That tendency to move away from collective wellbeing, to move away from hard questions about power and privilege, and instead stay safe behind a veneer of meditation that forgets about the truth of interconnection…. This is what some of us are trying to call out. I hope that makes sense.

Zee Mark said...

Hi Nathan, great post. Thank you.

Kōgen 光現 Dito-Keith said...

Samadhi divorced from ethics and practice is as dangerous as uranium. It's fueled war machines, it can fuel any other...It's like those who want Zen to exist outside Buddhism, or separate from...I just don't agree.

Thanks Nathan.

Anonymous said...

Good post. I wish you had a "like" button on your blog though. I never knew about a "mindfulness" course before your post.

I agree that it would be better to focus on the "we" and not the "me." There is too much focus on the "me" in our society already.


Jayarava said...

This blogging platform is provided for free by Google, since 2003. So how does benefiting from Google's "fairly lousy ethical track record" fit in with your critical narrative?

If we're going to insist on an evidence base then let's be fair and subject ourselves to the same standards.

Nathan said...


Sure, Google has offered these platforms for free to bloggers. They also make plenty of profit from doing so, through sponsored advertising and other means.

And you're right. I am - in using this platform - linked to their lousy ethical record in some small way.

So, is this about painting me - or other individual critics - as soiled because we in some manner or another receive some small benefit from the very beasts we're challenging.

Like all the poor folks who stand against Wal-Mart's labor practice and yet shop there some times because they can't afford much else.

Corporations are not individuals. And while I readily agree that we need to examine our connection to, and benefit from, organizations like Google, but whatever evidence base I could pull up on myself or another writer is miniscule compared to that of a multi-billion dollar company.

Another way I could put it is "Thanks, Google, for providing this space to me the past 5 years. As part of your customer base, I want you to clean you're act up!"