McMindfulness: how capitalism hijacked the Buddhist teaching of mindfulness

Ronald Purser, a Buddhist teacher and a professor of management, advises us to approach mindfulness techniques with a critical eye. He says mindfulness practices have been co-opted by capitalist interests, freeing corporations and governments from responsibility for the larger issues at play in our stressful society.
Buddhist teacher and a professor of management Ronald Purser argues that today, mindfulness has been co-opted in ways the practice wasn't originally intended. (iStock.com)

Originally published in 2019.

Over the past couple of decades, mindfulness meditation in the west has gone from fringe practice to mainstream phenomenon. Its promise, as it is sold to us in countless books and apps, is alluring: it's a simple technique to calm ourselves down and be more present. It is presented as a panacea for our stressful lives.

Ronald Purser argues that on the path to popularity, mindfulness has been divorced from its community-minded 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 boardroom

I want to quote the former Buddhist monk Clark Strand here. This was in a review of your work. "None of us dreamed that mindfulness would become so popular or even lucrative, much less that it would be used as a way to keep millions of us sleeping soundly through some of the worst cultural excesses in human history, all while fooling us into thinking we were awake and quiet." That's a horrifying thought. Is that what you think is happening to some extent?

Unfortunately, I think that is the case. Let me just make the point right upfront that I'm all for mindfulness practice, being a Buddhist practitioner myself for the last 40 years. I'm more concerned in terms of how it's been hijacked and instrumental for purposes that are quite suspect in my opinion. 

For example, corporate mindfulness programs are now quite popular. And as we all know, most employees these days are extremely stressed out. The Gallup poll that came out about four or five years ago said that corporations — and this is in the U.S. — are losing approximately 300 billion dollars a year from stress-related absences and seven out of ten employees report being disengaged from their work. So there's certainly a problem. There's no doubt that people are suffering from anxiety and stress and depression. No one no one is going to argue that that's not the case. 

The problem is: what is the remedy? The remedy has now become mindfulness, where employees are then trained individually to learn how to cope and adjust to these toxic corporate conditions rather than launching kind of a diagnosis of the systemic causes of stress not only in corporations but in our society at large. That sort of dialogue, that sort of inquiry, is not happening.

And for this reason, that's why I've become quite a critic of how mindfulness is being deployed in this instrumental way. 

Why mindfulness training in the workplace is troublesome

I'm anti-centralized power, corporatism, the idea that corporations are run like totalitarian institutions. A lot of my graduate training and a lot of my consulting work in the early days was in the industrial democracy movement where we were actually trying to change organizations to become more democratic, more participative, more egalitarian. And even through that experience I became a bit disaffected because, despite the inroads and the progress we were making, when push came to shove, if it threatened the centres of corporate power, these experiments in industrial democracy were basically unplugged and defunded.

This reminds me of a phrase I hadn't encountered before reading about mindfulness. What's an integrity bubble?

An integrity bubble is where there is a small oasis within a corporation -  for example let's take Google because that's a great example of it. 

You have a small group of engineers who are getting individual level benefits from corporate mindfulness training. They're learning how to de-stress. Google engineers [are] working 60-70 hours a week - very stressful. So they're getting individual level benefits while not questioning the digital distraction technologies [that] Google engineers are actually trying to work on. Those issues are not taken into account in a kind of mindful way. 

So you become mindful, to become more productive, to produce technologies of mass distraction, which is quite an irony in many ways. A sad irony actually.

How the U.S. military uses mindfulness to 'optimize warrior performance'

If mindfulness is being used to support techniques of mass distraction ... I know you also have a concern about techniques of mass destruction. How much do you know - how much does anyone know - about how mindfulness is used by the military?

Ronald Purser is the author of 'McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality'

That's probably one of the most egregious examples that show what happens when you strip mindfulness from any sort of ethical or moral context. You reduce it basically to a utilitarian attention enhancement technique. And that's exactly what's happened. Even though they do call it 'mindfulness' in the military, it's been going on probably for at least 10 years now. There's a program called the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program which received over 125 million dollars from the Department of Defence. And I know about 10 million dollars have been devoted to mindfulness training and mindfulness research in the military. There are a number of neuroscientists that are working on mindfulness training programs and research for the U.S. Army [and] the U.S. Marines.

Probably one of the most interesting examples is down in San Diego. I believe it was the U.S. Marines. They created a mock Afghan village. In other words, they had bombs going off and everything. And they trained these U.S. Marines in a mindfulness program. And so they ran them through this mock Afghan village and they said 'Look, now you can learn how to calm down. Now you can learn how to deal with stress better because we've given you this training.'

But the bottom line is that the whole purpose of this training is to make better soldiers.  'Comprehensive fitness training' is what they call it. Creating mental armour for these soldiers. But the bottom line is it's really trying to 'optimize warrior performance' and that's the actual language they use if you read some of the Department of Defence documents. And that translates to better sharpshooters, better killers.

Mindfulness in service of producing better killers?

Yes, it's quite sad. Of course they'll rationalize it. The people behind it will say 'Look, we can save some lives because people are overreacting.' I mean, combat infantry men are under a great amount of stress and there's no doubt that they are. So instead of accidentally shooting a child, we may be able to save some civilian lives. And that's commendable of course, but it deflects attention from the larger political question of: is this really mindfulness and should we be using it to instrumentalize enhancing better killers?

'Right mindfulness' vs. 'wrong mindfulness'

In his new book, Ronald Purser details how mindfulness practices have been hijacked by capitalism.

I'm interested in something you've written about the larger issue. Your suggestion is that mindfulness has been cut loose from its moral moorings and that without some kind of principled anchor, it becomes this renegade technology that helps people rationalize unethical conduct. I'd like to hear more about that moral underpinning. What are some of the principles that have to accompany mindfulness training?

If we go back to how mindfulness was situated within a religious tradition, namely Buddhism, there was a classic differentiation between what they called "right mindfulness" and "wrong mindfulness." There was actually a very clear distinction between those two. So there was a cognitive dimension of mindfulness involving discernment. This whole focus on ethics and morality is missing from a lot of modern forms of mindfulness. That's what's turned it into a technique and not a way of life. Mindfulness has been seen as a means to an end. When you separate that out, you've made a Faustian bargain. Yes you can turn it into a nice therapeutic technique that can develop a sense of quiet and calm. But then it could be used for nefarious purposes.

Is part of your goal to put the Buddhism back in mindfulness as it is practiced widely?

No, I think that would be impossible and foolish because we are living in a secular age. I think there are ways of reclaiming mindfulness. I think there are ways of rescuing it from its capitalist stranglehold right now and that's going to take some work. And I think there are people out there doing that kind of work and that's encouraging.

I think that a lot of the leaders of the mindfulness movement — I've met many of them — they're very sincere and they really believe in what they're doing. And many of them were anti-war activists, many were very countercultural. I think they retained the hope and belief that by bringing these practices into various institutions that it would lead to social change. 

The problem is that the way they brought these into institutions was very non-confrontational, very non-oppositional, in order to to get a foot in the door. And so they're working with these other elites in these institutions and over time they became co-opted in my opinion. So by not offering a challenge to these corporate interests, the radical revolutionary potential of these practices have been neutered. They've been domesticated and they've been co-opted to serve the existing goals of these institutions.

I think mindfulness could be revolutionized in a way that does not denigrate the therapeutic benefits of self-care, but it becomes interdependent with these causes and conditions of suffering which go beyond just individuals. So it's a way of trying to reclaim mindfulness and take it back from becoming hostage of capitalist instrumentalist applications.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.