Originally published in 2019.
Over the past two decades, mindfulness meditation in the West has gone from a marginal practice to a mainstream phenomenon. Its promise, as sold to us in countless books and apps, is seductive: it’s a simple technique to calm down and be more present. It is touted as a panacea for our stressful lives.
Ronald Purser argues that on its way to popularity, mindfulness has been severed from its communal context, corrupted by capitalist forces, and co-opted for nefarious purposes by corporations and the US military. Purser lays out his argument in his book McMindfulness: how mindfulness became the new capitalist spirituality.
Purser brings a unique perspective to mindfulness and capitalism. He is a professor of management at San Francisco State University and an ordained Buddhist teacher in the Korean Zen Taego order.
He is the author of McMindfulness: how mindfulness became the new capitalist spirituality.
Here is part of his conversation with Tapestry host Mary Hynes.
Mindfulness in the meeting room
I want to quote here the former Buddhist monk Clark Strand. It was in a review of your work. “None of us dreamed that mindfulness would become so popular or even lucrative, let alone that it would be used as a means of putting millions of us to sleep soundly through some of the worst cultural excesses of human history, while making us believe that we were awake and silent.” It’s a horrible thought. Do you think that’s happening to some extent?
Unfortunately, I think that is the case. Let me state from the outset that I am all for the practice of mindfulness, having been a Buddhist practitioner myself for 40 years. I’m more concerned about how it’s been hijacked and instrumentalized for purposes that are quite suspicious in my opinion.
For example, corporate mindfulness programs are now very popular. And as we all know, most employees these days are extremely stressed. The Gallup poll that came out about four or five years ago indicated that companies – and that’s in the United States – lose about $300 billion a year to stress-related absences and seven out of ten employees say be disengaged from their work. So there is definitely a problem. There is no doubt that people suffer from anxiety, stress and depression. No one is going to pretend that is not the case.
The problem is: what is the cure? The cure has now become mindfulness, where employees are then individually trained to learn how to cope and adapt to these toxic corporate conditions rather than running some sort of diagnosis of the systemic causes of stress not only in companies but in our society in general. This kind of dialogue, this kind of inquiry, does not take place.
And for that reason, that’s why I’ve become quite critical of how mindfulness is deployed in this instrumental way.
Why mindfulness training in the workplace is troublesome
I am against centralized power, corporatism, the idea that corporations are run like totalitarian institutions. A lot of my academic background and a lot of my early consulting work was in the industrial democracy movement where we were actually trying to change organizations to be more democratic, more participatory, more egalitarian. And even through that experience, I became a little disaffected because, despite the inroads and progress that we were making, when the pressure came, if it threatened the centers of corporate power, those industrial democracy experiments were fundamentally unplugged and without funding.
It reminds me of a phrase I hadn’t come across before reading about mindfulness. What is an Integrity Bubble?
An integrity bubble is where there is a little oasis within a company – for example, let’s take Google because it’s a great example.
You have a small group of engineers who are reaping individual benefits from corporate mindfulness training. They learn to de-stress. Google engineers [are] working 60-70 hours a week – very stressful. So they get individual-level benefits without challenging digital distraction technologies. [that] Google engineers are actually trying to work on it. These questions are not taken into account in a conscious way.
So you become aware, to become more productive, to produce mass distraction technologies, which is quite ironic in many ways. A sad irony in fact.
How the US Army Uses Mindfulness to ‘Optimize Warrior Performance’
If mindfulness is used to support mass distraction techniques…I know you’re also concerned about mass destruction techniques. What do you know – what do we know – about how mindfulness is used by the military?
This is probably one of the most egregious examples of what happens when you remove mindfulness from any sort of ethical or moral context. You essentially reduce it to a utilitarian attention-enhancing technique. And that’s exactly what happened. Even though they call it “mindfulness” in the military, it’s probably been going on for at least 10 years now. There is a program called the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program which received over $125 million from the Department of Defense. And I know about $10 million has been spent on mindfulness training and mindfulness research in the military. A number of neuroscientists work on mindfulness training programs and research for the US military. [and] the US Marines.
One of the most interesting examples is probably in San Diego. I believe it was the US Marines. They created a fake Afghan village. In other words, they had bombs going off and everything. And they trained these US Marines in a mindfulness program. And so they took them through this fake Afghan village and they said, “Listen, now you can learn to calm down. Now you can learn how to handle stress better with this training.
But the bottom line is that the purpose of this training is to make better soldiers. “Complete physical training” is what they call it. Create mental armor for these soldiers. But the bottom line is that he’s really trying to “optimize warrior performance” and that’s the actual language they’re using if you read some of the Department of Defense documents. And that translates into better snipers, better killers.
Mindfulness in the service of producing better killers?
Yes, it is very sad. Of course, they will rationalize it. The people behind it will say ‘Look, we can save lives because people are overreacting.’ I mean, combat infantrymen are under a great amount of stress and there is no doubt that they are. So instead of accidentally shooting a child, we might be able to save civilian lives. And that’s laudable of course, but it distracts from the larger political question: is it really mindfulness and should we use it to instrumentalize the improvement of better killers?
‘Good mindfulness’ versus ‘bad mindfulness’
I’m interested in something you wrote about the larger issue. Your suggestion is that mindfulness has been detached from its moral moorings and without some sort of principled anchor, it’s becoming this renegade technology that helps people rationalize unethical behavior. I would like to know more about this moral foundation. What are some of the principles that should accompany mindfulness training?
If we go back to how mindfulness was situated in a religious tradition, namely Buddhism, there was a classic differentiation between what they called “good mindfulness” and “bad mindfulness”. There was actually a very clear distinction between the two. So there was a cognitive dimension of mindfulness involving discernment. All of this focus on ethics and morality is missing from many modern forms of mindfulness. This is what made it a technique and not a way of life. Mindfulness has been seen as a means to an end. When you separate that, you’ve made a Faustian bargain. Yes, you can make it a beautiful therapeutic technique that can develop a sense of calm and tranquility. But then it could be used for nefarious purposes.
Is part of your goal to bring Buddhism back into full consciousness as it is widely practiced?
No, I think that would be impossible and insane because we live in secular times. I think there are ways to reclaim mindfulness. I think there are ways to save it from its capitalist grip right now and it’s going to take some work. And I think there are people doing this kind of work and it’s encouraging.
I think a lot of leaders in the mindfulness movement – I’ve met a lot of them – are very sincere and really believe in what they’re doing. And a lot of them were anti-war activists, a lot of them were very counter-cultural. I think they kept the hope and belief that by introducing these practices in various institutions, it would lead to social change.
The problem is that the way they brought them into the establishments was very non-confrontational, very non-confrontational, in order to get a foot in the door. And so they work with these other elites in these institutions and over time they have been co-opted in my opinion. Thus, by not offering a challenge to these commercial interests, the radical revolutionary potential of these practices has been neutralized. They have been domesticated and they have been co-opted to serve the existing purposes of these institutions.
I think mindfulness could be revolutionized in a way that doesn’t denigrate the therapeutic benefits of self-care, but it becomes intertwined with those causes and conditions of suffering that go beyond just individuals. It is therefore a way of trying to reclaim mindfulness and prevent it from becoming hostage to instrumentalist capitalist applications.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.