McMindfulness: Buddhism as sold to you by neoliberals – Peter Doran

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Peter Doran, Queen’s University Belfast

Mindfulness is big business, worth in excess of US$1.0 billion in the US alone and linked – somewhat paradoxically – to an expanding range of must have products. These include downloadable apps (1300 at the last count), books to read or colour in, and online courses. Mindfulness practice and training is now part of a global wellness industry worth trillions of dollars.

Mindfulness has its origins in Buddhist meditation teachings and encourages the quiet observation of habituated thought patterns and emotions. The aim is to interrupt what can be an unhealthy tendency to over-identify with and stress out about these transient contents of the mind. By doing so, those who practice mindfulness can come to dwell in what is often described as a more “spacious” and liberating awareness. They are freed from seemingly automatic tendencies (such as anxiety about status, appearances, future prospects, our productivity) that are exploited by advertisers and other institutions in order to shape our behaviour. In its original Buddhist settings, mindfulness is inseparable from the ethical life.

The rapid rise and mainstreaming of what was once regarded as the preserve of a 1960s counterculture associated with a rejection of materialist values might seem surprising. But it is no accident that these practices of meditation and mindfulness have become so widespread. Neoliberalism and the associated rise of the “attention economy” are signs of our consumerist and enterprising times. Corporations and dominant institutions thrive by capturing and directing our time and attention, both of which appear to be in ever-shorter supply.

The attention economy

The celebrated French activist philosopher and psychotherapist Félix Guattari observed some time ago that contemporary capitalism had begun to determine who we think we are. The power of corporate media, advertising, video games, Hollywood and the rise of social media condition how we present and think about ourselves. And in turn, our visions of ourselves participate in the production of all other commodities.

As we have come to identify with our lives as consumers, our lives have been reduced to an infinite series of choices and transactions. At the same time, our relationships with a once flourishing biodiversity – both natural and cultural – atrophy and recede behind a series of screens, preserved only as televisual spectacle to salve our blighted collective sense of unease.

So there is a great deal at stake for companies competing to commodify and colonise our attention. We are no longer mere consumers captured by chance by skillful marketing. We have become subjects and products formed in the interplay of algorithms, technology and newly minted corporate tools that mine our relationships, tastes, moods and intimate preferences. These are then fed back into the system in a perfect loop on platforms developed by Facebook, Apple, Netflix and a host of others now busily turning our attention into a tradeable commodity.

But as our enclosure in this “attention economy” accelerates, our vulnerability to addiction, loneliness, depression and alienation is entrenched. The more we buy into a disenchanted world bereft of complexity, care and meaning, nature and other people appear to retreat behind a series of screens.

Screen life.
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McMindfulness

Meanwhile mindfulness, a practice with its roots in Buddhism, has mushroomed in popularity. This may seem odd. But the popular, secular variety of “mindfulness” – or “McMindfulness”, as it has been dubbed – can appear to offer a tailored, therapeutic response to many of the features of contemporary neoliberalism and the demands of the attention economy.

Indeed mindfulness-based practices are merging with the neoliberal logic of “self care”. They seem to be consistent with the imperative that we increasingly take responsibility for our own individual fates as they are set adrift from community. This is a logic that has become pervasive across our public and private institutions, where “self regulation” in pursuit of resilience is the new watchword. Adapt – or perish.

And so mindfulness is being sold as a respite from hyper-consumerism, or as support for our struggle to comply with pressures to enhance productivity in the workplace. It is being used, for example, as a form of self-discipline in the service of enhanced productivity in corporate and institutional settings. Equally, the practice is being deployed by institutions to help mitigate consequences at heightened moments of distress such as when staff are being prepared to adapt to news of their imminent redundancy.

Back to Buddhism?

So called secular therapeutic mindfulness practices, then, can operate on the same register as neoliberalism and the “attention economy”. That’s why the philosopher Slavoj Žižek once described Buddhism as the perfect supplement for a consumerist society. Žižek was only half right. The real problem is the selective appropriation of Buddhist practices, stripped of their ethical and philosophical insights. As a result, mindfulness practices are too often presented and taught without adequate acknowledgement of the power structures that are themselves an important source of our distress.

Buddhist scholarship differentiates between “right mindfulness” and “wrong mindfulness”. Mindfulness must be practised with attention to the operation of power and context if it is to generate useful and liberating insights. It is irreducible to exclusively personal or individual experience. Rather, it must be practised as a gateway to an ethics of care and community – the “mindful commons”. As the philosopher of care, María Puig de la Bellacasa, reminds us, all knowledge is situated: knowing and thinking are inconceivable without attention to relations. These including relations of power, which can bear down on and move through our bodies, minds and places, influencing the way we think.

The ConversationStripped of its ethical and contextual roots, mindfulness-based practices borrowed from Buddhist and Zen lineages risk shoring up the very sources of suffering from which the Buddha set out to liberate himself and others. But practised correctly, mindfulness – aligned with and informed by acknowledgement of powerful institutional sources of suffering – can be a pathway to critical engagement and resistance.

Peter Doran, Lecturer in Law, Queen’s University Belfast

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

9 thoughts on “McMindfulness: Buddhism as sold to you by neoliberals – Peter Doran

  1. Thank you for this. I get angry when people posit mindfulness as a cure-all because that puts all the responsibility on the individual without addressing the root cause of their problems.

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  2. Love your article and totally agree. I have been teaching mindfulness for 25 yrs as a lay person but with a full buddhist psychological and philosophical basis and am shocked at how many people come to my groups who have been taught the secular versions and still do not really get what they are doing or how empowering it can be

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    1. When was young I was taught a secular mindfulness technique that had been developed by an Armenian teacher called Gurdjieff. It’s very effective and I have used it ever since. In fact I was so impressed that I started attending weekly meetings at the local Buddhist temple.

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  3. You say: “The real problem is the selective appropriation of Buddhist practices, stripped of their ethical and philosophical insights.”
    The interesting thing about this, is that every religion was and is constructed in this way. There is a need for spirituality in many people and it would be surprising if this need was not exploited. The idea is to make you feel sinful, inadequate and guilty compared to its ideals or mythical heroes. The idea then is to offer you peace, redemption, eternal life – that you don’t deserve – if you submit to control.

    The archaic idea of sin is replaced by guilt about climate change, the environment, killing fisheries with plastic, polluting the atmosphere by driving your car to work and heating your home. The amazing thing about all these things is that the guilt is supplied by a science community that has failed to find answers and so it’s all our own fault. Like all religions you are going to fail – you are not going to make the grade and this again is down to your own inadequacy – you are not trying hard enough. What you are not told is that you were never meant to succeed.

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    1. Actually there is nothing much in the Pali Canon about sinfulness or guilt. However, there is lots of it in the Church of England Book of Common Prayer. (e.g. ‘We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us’).

      As Monty Python might say: ‘Forgive us, O Lord, for this dreadful toadying and barefaced flattery’. 😉

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  4. This is a really fascinating argument by Peter Doran about the neo-liberal reinvention of the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, and it is well worth reading.

    He is basically arguing that Buddhism is an ethical religion, and that mindfulness is inseparable from an ethical life. Practised properly, its practitioners hope to inhabit a ‘more spacious and liberating awareness’.

    However, we have now become subjects of a contemporary neo-liberalism that undermines who we think we are and this had had the unfortunate effect of turning this popular secular variety of mindfulness into big business. In short, mindfulness is being sold as a respite from neo-liberalism in the service of enhanced productivity. And what’s worse, ‘the real problem…is the selective appropriation of Buddhist practices’.

    I’d like to sympathise with this, but I see one or two problems with his argument.

    Firstly, what some might see as a secular sell-out, other Western Buddhists might view as an invocation of the Buddhist doctrine of ‘skill in means’ (or upaya-kausalya). This refers to the ability to present Buddhist teachings in such a way as to be understood by audiences with different levels of comprehension.

    Secondly Buddhism as practised in the West is a relatively recent re-invention of Eastern practices that were often seen as part of the ‘Hindu’ tradition until their study by European scholars in the nineteenth century.

    Thirdly, Buddhism is a very diverse religion; so much so that many groups (such as those within the Tibetan tradition) are often falling out with each other . But ‘religious’ Buddhism – as practiced in the West – has been designed for the more egalitarian, technological ‘pick ‘n mix’ society in which we live. This is why Americans can be found using inkjet printers to print verses of sacred Buddhist prayer for use in their domestic shrines, and it’s why SGI UK appeals to young professionals, because they can use their repetitive chanting of the Lotus Sutra to get that new house or new car that they desire.

    Finally, I would perhaps query whether mindfulness, when practised correctly, becomes a pathway to ‘critical engagement and resistance’. Rather, I would say that mindfulness, when practiced correctly by Theravadan monks, leads to a still mind, the cessation of all desire and – most importantly – the realisation of a ‘deathless’ state while still living. In that sense it’s not about fighting anything and it’s not about the environment.

    It’s more about recognising ‘the suffering of change’.

    At least that’s what Richard Geer says. 😉

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