Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Continuing the Discussion on Corporate Mindfulness and the Wisdom 2.0 Conference

Today, I would like to highlight part of an ongoing discussion happening over at Turning Wheel Media about corporate mindfulness and the recent protests at the Wisdom 2.0 conference. Instead of writing a full post, I want to offer parts of recent exchanges between three commenters: myself, Katie Loncke, and Mario Pedroso. Please visit the original post to read the rest of the exchanges. It's a really good discussion!

Mario Pedroso:

"Google, like all of us, is a symptom and cause of Capitalism and other systems of injustice. We are all forced to participate and therefore perpetuate. It doesn’t mean we are evil, we are all trying to survive in a system that inherently deprives us of our fullest potential.

Action is necessary, and it has to happen simultaneously with change of hearts and minds. If action only leads us to become more entrenched in our camps (good activist, evil capitalist) we do more harm than good. If our actions are born from the desire to challenge patterns of suffering, we must see the humanity in all beings. G-Dog, Jesuit priest Father Greg, points to this beautiful when he refuses to look at gang members in East L.A. as merely being murderers and thugs, but connects with God’s presence within each, even those some may demonize and fear the most.

It’s important to hold people/corporations accountable, and sometimes we have to take strong actions to do so, but ultimately if we don’t engage hearts and minds as well, we will never overcome the separation and division that underlies our capacity to perpetuate oppression."

Katie Loncke:

"Marlo, thank you for this — such an important dialogue to have. I think we agree more than not! And thanks for your example of the work with gangs; that’s powerful stuff in a social climate that demonizes and criminalizes poor men (and women, and trans folks) of color.

On our shared views, I agree than in one sense political movements for justice are born out of political consciousness. It’s essential to keep working at the level of consciousness raising, critical thinking, education: which we could call hearts-and-minds. (There’s a whole other conversation to be had here about historical materialist views of the world, versus idealist views of the world — we don’t necessarily have to go into that but I love that conversation too and just wanna flag it.)

But while agreeing on the importance of ideological work, a very general agreement, what I want to avoid is the idea that we can slowly perfect society by creating compassionate capitalists. As Assata Shakur said,

'Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people that were oppressing them.'

Instead of appealing to capitalists to be kinder, can we question why we need capitalism in the first place?

Joshua Eaton also put this well in a response to his recent article criticizing the corporate commodification of mindfulness:

'Let me set the record straight: I don’t think elites shouldn’t practice Buddhism or meditate. I think they shouldn’t be elites.'

Part of what I hear you saying, which I agree with (and please correct me if I’m wrong), is that we expect that most of the elite wouldn’t cede their outsize power willingly — hence the reference to guns and force for unseating them. And that’s such an important question: what are our options? Is it our responsibility to try to patiently educate elites into redistributing power and resources, in order to minimize the force that would be required for such a redistribution? OR does this ignore the tremendous amounts of violence and force that are *inherent* and *ongoing* in our current systems of capitalism and injustice? Whose timeline are we on, here? Who are we trying to make comfortable?"

Mario Pedroso:

"Hey Katie,

First off, thanks for the lengthy and thoughtful reply. It’s true that we are mostly in agreement. I’m super grateful that these dialogues are happening more and more in the online sphere. I’ve been having them in my own small ways in my Sangha. I love what Josh Korda (Mindfulness is Not Enough), yourself, and others have been posting more constructive dialogues that seek to bring issues like ethics, justice, and right lively-hood into the more secularized spheres of Mindfulness. Another good example:


I think we are seeking, here and beyond, to integrate the materialist and idealist spheres, no? And I agree, to quote another fierce sister, Audre Lord: ““For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

Yet, and this may be naive, while I don’t believe mindful capitalists will solve the problems we face, I’d rather they be mindful, to whatever extent they are, than not. To some degree, I believe that mindfulness takes us for a ride, and where we end is not where we intended on going. In other words, Mindfulness is not the master’s tool, it’s a powerful spiritual practice, and what comes out of practicing it may not be what we expect. (but shhhh let’s not spoil it)

In the meantime, I won’t hold my breath. But I also think, and I know you agree, that there are bigger fish to fry than getting mad at the upper middle class for using mindfulness. Let’s show them how much better it gets! Besides I’d rather challenge the major systems that are contributing the problem. It seems more valuable than confronting people for trying to ameliorate the destructive effects of this machine on our all of our souls, top and bottom. And unlike Zizek I don’t think this keeps the machine going longer. I think we need to do whatever we need to do to keep our souls intact, until something more sane and healthy comes into being."

Nathan Thompson:

"'And unlike Zizek I don’t think this keeps the machine going longer. I think we need to do whatever we need to do to keep our souls intact, until something more sane and healthy comes into being. '”

Mario, this is the crux of challenge for me these days. I’m more inclined to agree with someone like Zizek that corporate mindfulness is just another prop to keep folks from totally falling apart in environments that are hostile to their very humanness. After over a decade and a half volunteering, working, and even leading in various non-profit settings, I started to overwhelmingly sense that so much of what I was doing was helping folks cope with injustice, and/or navigate our horrorshow economic and social systems. Whether it was counseling abused children from broken homes, or teaching English to recent immigrants – everything was framed in terms of helping folks function, adjust, be productive, etc. within the current systems. Which doesn’t mean that nothing beneficial happened, nor that all my work was a waste of time. But I’m hard pressed to see something like corporate mindfulness as anything other than a coping mechanism.

The fact that the response to the protest from the folks on the stage at the Wisdom 2.0 conference was to individualize the whole thing speaks volumes. Turning a complex set of issues into an exercise of being aware of your feelings around conflict basically neuters thoughts and reflections about social ethics. I personally think its dangerous to assume that anyone who practices some form of mindful awareness will naturally become more aware of (and perhaps willing to act on) social injustices and systems of oppression.

... a lot of what is trotted out as mindfulness these days isn’t complete. It’s very similar to what’s happened to yoga. Instead of a profound spiritual path, a single element – asana – has been pulled out, and then reduced to something that is mostly about exercise and stress reduction.

So, like you, I’d like to think that capitalists being more mindful is a positive. But is that actually happening as a result of these programs? I honestly don’t know, but there’s really no good evidence to suggest that corporate leaders are really acting more ethical because of practicing what they call mindfulness. The best that might be said at this point is that some leaders have better relationships with their employees. They care a little more for each other while continuing to exploit and destroy the planet. (Sorry if that sounds crass, but that’s kind of what it boils down to in my mind.)

'Besides I’d rather challenge the major systems that are contributing the problem. It seems more valuable than confronting people for trying to ameliorate the destructive effects of this machine on our all of our souls, top and bottom.'

Here’s what I think. You’re right in one way. Getting too fixated on corporate mindfulness isn’t terribly helpful. On the other hand, it can be a gateway into understanding the broader systems. Specifically by illuminating the way mindfulness is being used, and how it functions within corporate settings, people can come to see what the broader systems are about. How they warp everything in the name of power over and profits.

I guess I wonder how we might both support some efforts to help people cope, while also remaining radical enough to keep challenging systems of oppression and create true, more beneficial societies?

When I see all the energy put into trying to maintain food stamps programs or to get modest gains in the minimum wage, I feel so damned torn. Because it seems like we’re just sucked down the rabbit hole of doing whatever we can to cope – or even be allowed to cope. We’re basically playing their game. The elite’s game. How do we shift the frame, and operate from a grassroots power base that is diverse enough to handle all the needed prongs?"


A few things to note here. One of the difficulties with this discussion on the whole is that the underlying philosophies people are entering it with frequently clash, making it even more difficult to tease out the particulars when it comes to corporate mindfulness. Consider that all three of us above essentially reject the capitalism economic system, a starting point which allows for a certain kind of dialogue to unfold. Whereas, when I see a more mixed crowd discussing corporate mindfulness, it's much more likely that the whole discussion gets lost in things like battles over whether corporations are "good" or "bad," or whether or not mindfulness can be a "great change agent" force in the corporate world. It strikes me that if the conversation were limited to folks who are either ok with capitalism or fully support capitalism, then perhaps discussions might unfold around the efficacy of programs in relieving stress, improving relationships between leadership and workers, and perhaps doing research that might "prove" or "not prove" that mindfulness improves business ethics.

I think both of the philosophically similar based discussions can offer useful information. Whereas, with more mixed discussions, it's vital that some of us learn to recognize the mixed quality and perhaps figure out ways to engage from that knowing so that new ideas and experiences can arise.

In the meantime, I tend to think that the corporate mindfulness trend will continue to gain steam, even as those of us who are in opposition to it become more clear about our reasoning for doing so. The titanic of the American Empire is slowly sinking, regardless of what side you're on in this discussion. Many people are suffering and desperate. And the elite are desperate to keep the gravy train going for another generation or two at least. Until they're dead anyway.

In my view, the planet is calling us forth right now to step beyond our limited, often trapped in binaries frameworks. It's not enough to just be pro-mindfulness or anti-mindfulness for example. We need to collectively move beyond that place, not to some middle ground between the two poles, but to some entirely new Middle Way.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I'm sick of the topic. If we're going to talk, why talk about acts of omission? Does teaching mindfulness challenge big corporate capitalism? Does not teaching mindfulness challenge big corporate capitalism?

Unless we can factor the exquisite peal of a hammer striking emptiness, I'd venture no.

Shunning and Boycotting worked when there were personal connections between a small society and a target. It worked in Ireland against Captain Boycott. But it's not going to work now. For every qualified teacher of mindfulness that would turn her backs on the tech companies, there are umpteen teachers, unqualified even, that will take there place from across the globe.

It's great that we're all anti capitalist. But let's talk about acts of commission. Let's talk about strategy, tactics, and the taxonomy of action. And that's what I think practice is for- seeing through the illusory samsaric acts and the reactions that propagate them.

Nathan said...

I'm all for strategy, tactics, and action. However, I also think we need to get clear on what exactly it is that we're objecting to, and also our visions for something more beneficial.

That can certainly come through action, but when I look at these discussions from a historical social movement perspective, we're at a new beginning point.

The action at the Wisdom 2.0 conference sparked some positives (in my view.) However, it also felt kind of like a lot of the stuff I saw in the early days of the Occupy movement. Sort of one off and disconnected from a broader movement with clearly defined messages and an understanding of the various groups (ally and oppositional).

Hell, at this point, I find that some of the folks most upset with criticisms of corporate mindfulness ARE qualified dharma teachers who teach mindfulness in various settings. Maybe that's just how it's going to be, but I also think that to some degree, it's because the "critics" haven't created a clear enough vision (both for why corporate mindfulness is a tool to maintain the status quo, but also what a better approach would be). Without some grounding, whatever actions and strategies that are developed will be unlikely to have a great, long term impact.

Inge said...

I just read the Time magazine article and the one in Salon. I found the comment section of these type of media to be enlightening. people seem to be more honest when they an be anonymous.

I enjoyed your post discussion as well. The commenters' viewpoints come from a different perspective than someone who does not study Buddhism (like some of the commenters in the other magazines).

From what I observe, corporations want their employees to be more productive to increase the companies bottom line. I don't see anything wrong with MSBR. Many doctors use it in their practice but they genuinely want to help their patients and their families get through an illness. Michael S. Krasner M.D. is featured in a collection of Buddhist essays I just read.

This discussion reminds me of the post you wrote about the teachings of Eckhart Tolle. His lectures and books revolve around "me" in stead of "we."

This mindfulness (fad?) seems to teach the same thing. Google needs to take a look at it's own behavior. I think becoming mindful means realizing the interconnectedness, it's not about stress relief.

The author at end of the article in "Time" admitted that she stopped meditating after the class was over, but she (thinks) she sees the world differently and changed her behavior by buying a watch instead of looking at her phone to check the time.

I think she missed the point, maybe because the actual point of mindfulness was not taught the way Buddha intended?

To me, being mindful means making mindful choices when it comes to buying something or where I shop. it's about being mindful to leave a softer "footprint" on the planet.

I agree that the elite have no intention of giving up their power (and stuff) to make life better for all. I wonder if it is human nature to want to feel superior to someone else? I know there are times I feel that I am better than another person too, but if I think about it, whatever that person is doing that makes me think that way is probably a reflection of myself, that I don't like very much.

The only thing I can work on is myself and how I interact with the world. Meditating helps me be more observant others reactions and viewpoints without putting in my 2 cents. It helps me be a better listener. I still need more work on being patient though.

I am grateful I don't have to work in a "Google" environment or corporate world. There would be too much going on there that I wouldn't be comfortable being around whether it's office gossip or knowing my job is making someone in another country work in horrible conditions (I don't care how many Chinese people say they are happy to have work. It doesn't make it right to exploit anyone.)

Nathan said...

"The author at end of the article in "Time" admitted that she stopped meditating after the class was over, but she (thinks) she sees the world differently and changed her behavior by buying a watch instead of looking at her phone to check the time.

I think she missed the point, maybe because the actual point of mindfulness was not taught the way Buddha intended?"

If her experience is common amongst those taking mindfulness classes, then it's a pretty sad state of affairs.

I agree with you that MSBR is useful, and definitely helps folks struggling with major health issues and/or things like PTSD. If that was the main place this stripped down, lacking an ethical framework mindfulness were being offered - as an applied therapeutic measure - I don't think I would have an issue.

Unknown said...

you are only seeing the 'tip of the iceberg'
Or: how all the other Buddhist sects allow an atavistic , ninth century cult be the poster child of all of buddhism.


Nathan said...

I tend to stay away from debates about Tibetan Buddhism because I really just don't know enough.

I will say that even if there were a large outcry from Buddhists of other sects, including Zen, against the Dalai Lama for some reason, it probably wouldn't matter that much. I don't see his celebrity suddenly crashing anytime soon.

Also, in terms of the post, I don't even see him as being a main player in the mindfulness movement.