Feb 27th 2018

McMindfulness: Buddhism as sold to you by neoliberals

by Peter Doran

Lecturer in Law, 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. ouh_desire/Shutterstock.com

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.

Stripped 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.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jun 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Confronting our complex history and ultimately embracing a more equitable, balanced, and humble culture may be a tall order in these fractious times. But that makes it even more imperative that we fully reckon with who we are and who we are capable of becoming."
Jun 11th 2021
EXTARCT: "A further health benefit of hiking is that it’s classed as “green exercise”. This refers to the added health benefit that doing physical activity in nature has on us. Research shows that not only can green exercise decrease blood pressure, it also benefits mental wellbeing by improving mood and reducing depression to a greater extent than exercising indoors can."
Jun 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” If we apply that test to the world as a whole, how much moral progress have we made over the past two millennia? ...... That question is suggested by The Golden Ass, arguably the world’s earliest surviving novel, written around 170 CE, when Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire. Apuleius, the author, was an African philosopher and writer, born in what is now the Algerian city of M’Daourouch."
Jun 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Research we’ve done, which looked at 37 adults with type 2 diabetes, found that over two weeks, prolonged sitting was associated with high blood sugar levels. But we also found that when people stood up or walked around between periods of sitting, they had lower blood sugar levels. Other studies have also had similar results."
May 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Paul Van Doren's legacy lies in a famous company, and in his advice to young entrepreneurs to get their hands dirty, and to know what goes into making what they are selling."
May 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "May 7th marked three hundred and ten years since the philosopher David Hume was born. He is chiefly remembered as the most original and destructive of the early modern empiricists, following John Locke and George Berkeley." .... " Shocking as it may (and should) sound, Hume is implying nothing less than that the next time you turn the key in your car ignition, you are as justified to expect the engine will start as you are in believing it will turn into a pumpkin. For there is a radical contingency that pervades all our experience. We could wake up tomorrow to a world that looks and behaves very differently to the one we are in now. Matters of fact are dependent on experience and can never be known a priori — they are purely contingent, and could always turn out different than what we expect."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."