Over the last few decades, mindfulness has gone viral. These days, the practice has found its way into corporations, prisons, schools, police departments, and even the U.S. military. There are many benefits to mindfulness of course, but in the latest Upstream Conversation, “McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality,” author Ron Purser unpacks the more pernicious part of the practice by examining how capitalism has co-opted mindfulness to further capitalist exploitation and extraction.
Interestingly, it turns out that mindfulness can be very compatible with our current neoliberal ideologies of individualism, inward-focus, and the watering-down of sociality. It has been expertly applied in ways which encourage us to only look inside for solutions to our problems, instead of challenging the systems and structures that drive the suffering we experience. Purser argues that McMindfulness is a way of pacifying a population and of instilling a victim-blaming mentality.
“The message is, if you can’t change your circumstances, just practice mindfulness and change your reactions to circumstances,” Purser says. “That’s problematic because the explanatory narrative of stress [becomes a] privatized spirituality, and privatization is the driving force of neoliberalism. Stress is seen as an epidemic. It’s omnipresent, it’s inevitable. And so therefore it’s up to us to cope and to “mindful up,” so to speak.”
Purser sees modern mainstream mindfulness as part of a long history of what he calls, “capitalist spiritualities.” He believes mindfulness has been colonized and utilized to produce a highly individualistic spirituality that maps onto our dominant, neoliberal values of individualism and inward focus.
“It’s privatized — it’s become a privatized practice, easily co-opted. Mindfulness has an accommodationist orientation which operates in such a way that it is our feelings of anxiety at the individual level. It works in that respect, but it also has the side effect of pacification. So we’re not really paying attention collectively or in a civic way to the social, political and economic contexts that are causing the distress that we’re feeling in the first place.”
Mindfulness has also been deployed in many questionable contexts, including the U.S. military, police departments, and corporations. In these contexts it continues to serve as a sort of “quick fix for the anxieties of late capitalist society,” Purser says. In the context of the corporation, mindfulness is a way to shift the focus of the overworked, underpaid, stressed out employee onto things like self care, mindfulness, or yoga — and away from things like, say, starting a union or going on strike.
“Corporate mindfulness works very subtly to train employees to serve employers. It’s not an industrial form of brainwashing, but it is a way of shaping a sophisticated form of bio power, which always kind of says, well, you know, your dissent, your dissatisfaction in the workplace, is a psychological problem.”
Mindfulness is especially pernicious in the contexts of police departments and the U.S. military. These institutions are inherently violent and damaging to communities — especially black communities here in the U.S. The thought of police officers and soldiers utilizing mindfulness to further strengthen the police state and U.S. empire is not a comforting thought.
Of course, Purser is in no way “anti” mindfulness — he simply feels that the current mainstream iteration of it needs to be reclaimed, radicalized, and extricated from the clutch of our culture’s dominant neoliberal values.
“Buddhism does not equate strictly to meditation,” Purser says. “And the Dharma [has] a lot more to do with critical fundamental inquiry into the causes and conditions that lead us to unwholesome mental states, actions that cause suffering, the suffering within our own mind streams, but also the suffering that we co-produce in our social and political systems.”
By going back to its roots, Purser believes that we can co-create a new “radical mindfulness” that will allow us to open up to a wider vision of reality, cut through the illusion that we are all separate, atomized individuals whose problems are our own to deal with, and perhaps even be used as a radical force for system change.
You can listen to the full Upstream Conversation below to dive deeper into this topic and learn about what a more radical mindfulness might look like.