Why Everyone’s Wrong about ‘McMindfulness’

Has “Mindfulness” peaked? It depends on where you look. School programs that incorporate mindful techniques into its teacher and student training are just now being implemented. The 2015 Davos World Economic Forum held a 10-minute meditation session for the global elite. From students to powerful businessmen, it’s still making waves.

On the other hand, some of the middlebrow newsfeeds are increasingly skeptical. Many of these articles, such as Ronald Purser and Edwin Ng’s recent “Corporate mindfulness is bullsh*t,” refer to Purser’s 2013 Huffington Post blog, “McMindfulness”. What critics like Purser are most critical of is the business culture’s turn to self-introspection–rather than broader corporate reflection–as a way to manage stress.

Here’s the basic critique: Popular versions of Mindfulness work only when the employee assume responsibility for their suffering; meditative practices remind the overtaxed worker that, regardless of any structural problems that might be leading to unsustainable levels of stress, those effects are up to her; if she’s sick and unhappy, it’s because she hasn’t properly “attended to” herself.

This cynical interpretation of what’s driving the Mindfulness movement is further supported by recent attacks on neoliberal managerial strategies, such as William Davies’ The Happiness Industry. I touched on Davies in my last post. The fundamental approach remains very similar: the popularity of Mindful Meditation is a symptom of an economic culture that has transferred risk from the corporation to the employee/consumer.

From what I can tell, the more academically-informed Mindfulness criticisms derive their philosophical scaffolding from Boltanski/Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism and Foucault’s later lectures on neoliberalism and self-regulation. Now, this is going to be a gross generalization of what Boltanski/Chiapello and Foucault have in common, but for the sake of space I’m going to make it anyways: they both suggest that late 20th-century capitalism has a “new spirit” in how it produces workers and consumers; whereas the Industrial worker was expected to conform, late stage, service-industry workers are encouraged by human resource departments and managerial systems to be highly flexible and adaptable.

Enter Mindfulness, our ready-made strategy for facilitating our flexible worker of the future. 

However, the problem with the backlash against “McMindfulness” is that the former assumes the ideal product of mindful practices–the “business athlete”–belongs entirely to a new economic age. It’s vulgar (the critics suggest) to associate “authentic” Buddhist meditation with tech “disruption” and economic efficiency. And yet, according to Mary Brown and Robert Halsall’s “Askesis in Contemporary Organizational Life,” today’s mindful business athlete actually pulls more from the ascetic practices of her medieval monastic counterpart–despite the obvious contemporary indebtedness to Western forms of Zen-Buddhism. Links between Christian monasteries and modern corporations aren’t just analogical. As Brown and Halsall show, disciplinary medieval programs such as the Rule of St. Benedict and the later Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola have been explicitly adopted by modern management handbooks (7).

From what I can tell, what seems to be happening is that the 7th stage of the Buddhist Eight-Fold Path, or Mindfulness/Awareness, is being folded into a Western ascetic tradition that modern corporations have long appropriated.

Medieval asceticism is so appealing to modern corporate management because it honed strategies for “integrating employees” into institutions. Although institutional “profit” is defined very differently, the key to this integration for both St. Benedict and St. Ignatius Loyola was to instill “permanent spiritual exercise” (3). Brown and Halsall’s research suggests that self-discipline and attentive meditation have long served as key techniques for integration.  

However, what a particular “mindful” exercise actually looks like varies depending on the practitioner. There’s more secular versions such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and Transcendental Meditation; then obvious religious candidates such as Buddhist, Stoic, and Loyola-inspired meditation (admittedly much rarer). What this means is that mindful meditative exercises might serve as a curious nexus for competing worldviews. Modern Business Athleticism collects these ascetic lineages together in order to subordinate them to corporate efficiency.

In doing so, however, can meditative exercises serve as a resistance point for the employee/consumer, who may slip into another mode of self-regulation (Buddhist, Stoic, Loyolan) under the guise of corporate authorization?   

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