Corporate mindfulness is bullsh*t: Zen or no Zen, you're working harder and being paid less

Mindfulness matters, but make no mistake: Corporations are co-opting the idea to disguise the ways they kill us

Published September 27, 2015 4:00PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>Ollyy</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Ollyy via Shutterstock)

Mindfulness has become a household word. Time magazine’s cover of a youthful blond woman peacefully blissing out anchors the feature story, ‘Mindful Revolution.’ From endorsements by celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Goldie Hawn, to monks, neuroscientists, and meditation coaches rubbing shoulders with CEOs at the World Economic Forum in Davos, it is clear that mindfulness has gone mainstream.

But is the mindfulness boom really a revolution? If it is, what exactly has been overturned or radically transformed to garner such grand status?

Wall Street and corporations are still conducting business as usual, special interests and political corruption goes unchallenged, public schools are still suffering from massive underfunding and neglect, the concentration of wealth and inequality has reached record levels, mass incarceration and prison overcrowding has become the new social plague, indiscriminate shooting of Blacks by police and the demonizing of the poor remains commonplace, America’s militaristic imperialism continues to spread, and the impending disasters of global warming are already rearing their ugly heads.

To consider only the corporate sector: with over $300 billion in losses due to stress-related absences, and nearly $550 billion in losses due to a lack of "employee engagement," it is unsurprising why it has jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon. Such losses in production and efficiency threaten the logic of profit-making. For capitalism to survive, as Nicole Ashoff points out in "The New Prophets of Capital," “people must willingly participate in and reproduce its structures and norms,” and in times of crisis, “capitalism must draw upon cultural ideas that exist outside of the circuits of profit-making.”  Mindfulness is one such new cultural idea serving this purpose.

However, those celebrating the mindfulness boom have avoided any serious consideration of why stress is so pervasive in corporations and society. According to New York Times business reporter David Gelles, author of "Mindful Work,"  “Stress isn’t something imposed on us. It’s something we impose on ourselves.” The New York Times recently featured an exposé on the toxic, sociopathic work culture at Amazon. A former employee was quoted as saying that he saw nearly everyone he worked with cry at their desk. Would Gelles offer his advice with a straight face to these employees of Amazon, telling them that they have imposed stress on themselves, that they could have chosen not to cry?

For Gelles, the causes of stress are located inside our heads, from our own lack of emotional self-regulation, from our habitual patterns of thinking—and if fMRI images are revealing the neural correlates of stress, then surely our misery must be self-created. We only have ourselves – our own mindlessness – to blame. This is not to deny that experiences of stress and misery are partly due to our habitual reactivity, but Gelles goes too far. His victim-blaming philosophy echoes the corporate mindfulness ethos: shift the burden and locus of psychological stress and structural insecurities onto the individual employee, frame stress as a personal problem, and then offer mindfulness as the panacea. Critical psychologist David Smail referred to this philosophy as "magical voluntarism," because it blames individuals for their own stress, ignoring the social and economic conditions which may have contributed to it.

A recent Stanford-Harvard study, however, tells a different story. A meta-analysis of 228 studies showed that employee stress is not self-imposed nor due to a lack of mindfulness. On the contrary, major workplace stressors were associated with a lack of health insurance, threats of constant layoffs and job insecurity, lack of discretion and autonomy in decision-making, long work hours, low organizational justice, and unrealistic job demands. Yet, individualized mindfulness programs pay virtually no attention to how stress is shaped by a complex set of interacting power relations, networks of interests, and explanatory narratives. Carl Cederstrom and Andre Spicer argue in "The Wellness Syndrome" that the mindfulness movement exemplifies an ideological shift, which turns an obsessive focus on wellness and happiness into a moral imperative. This "biomorality" urges the individual to find responsibility via the "right" life choices—whether through exercise, food, or meditation—to optimize the self.

Buddhist teachings about awakening to the reality of impermanence "as it is" become inverted in corporate mindfulness. Instead of cultivating awareness of the contingencies of present reality that cause suffering, and thereby developing the capacity to intervene in those conditions of suffering, corporate mindfulness goes no further than encouraging individuals to manage stress so as to optimize performance within existing conditions of precarity—which, curiously, are portrayed as inevitable even as they demand flexibility from individuals. As Gelles said in his interview for the Atlantic: “We live in a capitalist economy, and mindfulness can’t change that.” But doesn’t this underscore what Bhikkhu Bodhi, an outspoken Western Buddhist monk, has warned: “absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism”?

Proponents like Jeremy Hunter, however, assure us that mindfulness can act as a "disruptive technology," reforming even the most dysfunctional companies into kinder, more compassionate and sustainable organizations.  Corporate mindfulness teachers who claim that individualized mindfulness programs are subversive often evoke a ‘Trojan horse’ metaphor. They speculate that over time, leaders, managers and employees trained in mindfulness may wake up and effect major transformations in corporate policies and practices. Going by their claim, Goldman SachsMonsanto and General Mills, companies that have publicized their successful corporate mindfulness programs, will soon become the poster children for socially and ecologically responsible corporations. But there is no empirical evidence to support these claims: it remains a speculative hypothesis.

In the absence of evidence for the Trojan horse hypothesis for corporate mindfulness, there is an alternative hypothesis: Corporate Quietism. This hypothesis suggests that offering mindfulness to individuals in corporations will, at best, offer stress relief or create what Kevin Healy has described as "integrity bubbles" for select individuals, while systemic corporate dysfunction continue unabated.

Consider, for example, board member of Goldman Sachs William George’s claim: “The main business case for mindfulness is that if you're more focused on the job, you'll become a better leader.” George suggested that mindfulness practice could help executives and staff “behave less aggressively.” “Certainly,” he said, “the financial community could use some of that.”

What might we make, then, of the incident where a 21-year-old Bank of America Merrill Lynch intern died of an epileptic seizure after working 72 hours straight? In the wake of the incident, Goldman Sachs announced new rules to cap the intern workday at 17 hours. Where was mindful leadership prior to the introduction of the new rules? And with the implementation of the workday cap—17 hours—are we witnessing mindful leadership? Who or what is really benefiting from a reduction in stress and aggressiveness within the financial community, as it proudly declares its embracing of mindfulness? Was it the intern’s own fault that he died? Was the stress he faced self-imposed? Was his tragic death a consequence of failing to work mindfully?

The fact is both are hypotheses. On the one hand, the Trojan horse hypothesis predicts that corporate mindfulness programs will encourage whistle-blowing, wise decision-making, more humane work environments, ethical behavior, greater organizational citizenship behaviors, and transformational culture change leading to greater social and environmental responsibility. And on the other hand, the Corporate Quietism hypothesis posits that corporate mindfulness programs will provide privatized glimpses of stress reduction and focused attention, with no significant application of collective attention to systemic conditions of stress and anxiety.

The jury is still out. It remains an open question whether training individuals in mindfulness will transform corporations and society, or whether it merely amounts to employee pacification and a form of passive nihilism. As Norm Farb notes, “While the idea of mindfulness as a beneficent Trojan horse may appear far-fetched, it seems equally plausible as accounts where mindfulness leads employees to spiral into complacency and subjugation.” This open question of what mindfulness may or may not lead to is really the rub of the matter, which asks that all parties invested in mindfulness collectively inquire into the multifarious forces of altruism and exploitation that might impact on the as-yet-unactualized potentials and dangers of contemporary mindfulness.

When socially engaged Buddhist critics raise concerns about the systemic problems that circumscribe the mindfulness trend, we are doing so in recognition of the openness of the radical potentials and real dangers of mindfulness, rather than a dogmatic defense of traditionalist approaches to mindfulness over contemporary ones, or a wholesale dismissal of their therapeutic value. Yet, in response to these concerns, advocates of secular mindfulness repeatedly beg the question, sidestepping the issue at hand by deflecting Buddhist criticisms with the very open question that demands collective engagement in the first place. To highlight some salient quotes (italics added) from prominent commentators:

“Leaders touched by mindfulness may find innovations to solve real problems and help make a better life.Who knows what a leader—in workplaces from Ford Motor Company to the Los Angeles Fire Department—might do for the greater good with the aid of a little mindfulfulness?” --Barry Boyce

“Mindfulness can be a great boon….widespread meditation practice could make a real difference to the problems of our age. But while some people may be drawn to practice through the scientific promise of betterment, they may end up finding that once they've got started, the path is far more interesting than that.”  -- Ed Halliwell

“And then there’s the possibility that enhanced awareness may result in a disconnect between personal and organizational values. If that happens, of course, an employee might simply leave to find a better fit. On the other hand, if an organization can work creatively with the questions that increased personal awareness can churn up, that could be a great asset.”  --Jeremy Hunter

“I think what it [mindfulness] can do, hopefully, is give individuals, influencers of organizations, and maybeeven companies themselves the perspective that's needed to make decisions and changes, even, that are beneficial, not just to the bottom line but to our emotional, physical, and social well-being.” –David Gelles

These different commentators are effectively saying: who knows? Is this not an act of faith in the face of limited knowledge and unforeseeable change? These are essentially appeals of trust to Buddhist critics to reciprocate in "good faith." As committed engaged Buddhists, we take very seriously the ever-present potential for change and do not take issue with the question of "who knows?" as such. But precisely because "who knows?" is an open question where its radical potential lies in its openness, that we underscore repeatedly the need to interrogate the dynamics of power shaping contemporary mindfulness—because change for the common good (rather than change simply for individual benefit or personal wellbeing) must come through the disruption of prevailing systems of inequality, exploitation, and injustice.

The question of faith solicited by the appeal of"who knows?", the challenge of cultivating reciprocal trust or "good faith," is not only a problem for religiously committed Buddhist, but is rather a question for collective attentiveness, a shared responsibility. To be clear, the type of faith we are referring to should not be reduced to the conventional understanding of faith as dogmatic, unquestioning assent to any particular doctrinal or truth proposition. Rather, we are referring to a generalized, non-doctrine-specific understanding of faith-as-trust. This elementary or basic ‘bare’ faith is not confined to religious activities, since every communicative or interpersonal relation we enter into must necessarily presuppose this element of trust or "good faith." We emphasize this necessary shared condition of "good faith" because we take seriously the repeated pleas by both Buddhist and secular mindfulness advocates for reciprocal learning between Buddhist teachings and scientific research on mindfulness.

However, while secular mindfulness advocates expect engaged Buddhists to take their claims in good faith, they have largely sidestepped, misrepresented, or summarily dismissed the issues raised in recent critiques, like the now viral article “Beyond McMindfulness.” Mindfulness advocates seem unwilling to engage with the issues at hand, displaying a kind of "bad faith." Take, for example, Jon Kabat-Zinn, the leading spokesperson for the supposed mindfulness revolution. When he was interviewed about the McMindfulness critique in The Psychologist he replied: “that term came out of one person’s mouth or one person’s mind. When you say it is popping up, of course, every term like that tends to just go viral on the web, but it just came out of one person’s mouth. This is not McMindfulness by any stretch of the imagination.”

But which is more of an imaginary outlook? Is it the socially engaged concern about McMindfulness, which can in fact be situated sociologically within the empirical conditions of our present neoliberal capitalist order of things? Or is it the individualistically oriented uncritical celebration of the supposed mindfulness revolution, which, given prevailing systems of inequality, exploitation and injustice, remains a hypothetical scenario for a future that may or may not arrive?

Some may claim that the seeds of a revolution are already being planted, as the uptake of mindfulness across different sectors is bringing therapeutic benefits to individuals. But the therapeutic benefits of mindfulness were never strictly speaking the issue in contention. Let us clarify yet again that we are not dismissing the fact that individualistic, therapeutic approaches to mindfulness in the workplace or at home can contribute to personal wellbeing. Rather, we are stressing the need to collectively address systemic problems that generate stressful conditions in the first place.

What kind of mindful revolution would it be if prevailing conditions of inequality, exploitation and injustice remain unchallenged, or if only the privileged easily access mindfulness to cultivate greater wellbeing while the problematic conditions persist "business as usual"? The revolutionary potential of mindfulness remains an open question.

Others have also displayed the bad faith exhibited by Kabat-Zinn. The featured article in Buddhadharma, “The Mindfulness Movement: What Does It Mean for Buddhism?” interviewed four prominent mindfulness teachers. In her introductory comments, Jenny Wilks noted that it is “unhelpful for the debate to become polarized or for it to be based on a lack of understanding of what is actually going on or the motivations of those in either field. Entrenched positions do nothing to unfangle the views and opinions surrounding mindfulness.” Fair enough. Yet, a lack of understanding of the motivations of others, or rather, a misrepresentation of the motivations behind engaged Buddhist concerns, is precisely what we find in the responses of teachers like Diana Winston, Trudy Goodman and Barry Boyce, all of whom depicted the engaged Buddhist concern as an unfounded fear about the "watering down" of Buddhism.

But this is not the motivation behind the critique of McMindfulness. Yes, engaged Buddhist commentators do evoke Buddhist ideals in their criticisms. But we do so not to enshrine a traditionalist stance over and against attempts to translate and contemporize mindfulness. Nor is it to assert a traditional Buddhist approach as the sole arbiter of truth on mindfulness. Rather, it is to connect Buddhist ideals about conscientious compassion, as Bhikkhu Bodhi puts it, with the broader sociopolitical challenges which contemporary mindfulness must necessarily negotiate.

We are not romanticizing some ‘pure’ context of practice, which is now being ‘watered down’. Rather, we fully accept the necessary task of translating and contemporizing mindfulness via dialogues with non-Buddhist systems of understanding. To this end, it is necessary to articulate the relevant Buddhist motivations clearly and invite others to engage with them with intellectual hospitality and good faith. But what we repeatedly encounter is a dismissive bad faith response that misconstrues our invitation to collective inquiry as a ‘fundamentalist’ reaction.

Another glaring example of a bad faith response is an entire chapter devoted to rebutting the McMindfulness critique in David Gelles book, Mindful Work. Gelles states his intention to put concerns regarding the mainstreaming of mindfulness to rest, but engages instead in rhetorical strategies of dismissal, sidestepping, and hyperbolic misrepresentation. He depicts the McMindfulness critique as a ‘seductively nefarious vision’ that paints a simplistic portrait of corporate mindfulness as a covert agenda of ‘brainwashing.’ Skeptics of corporate mindfulness are described as ‘conspiratorial’ ‘alarmists’ who perpetuate the false idea that meditation is ‘harmful’ or that it can ‘make someone a worse person’. But is this what we are saying?

The McMindfulness critique centers on how corporate mindfulness programs are governed by the self-governing logic of neoliberal individual autonomy, the myth that individuals are simply ‘free to choose’ either stress or wellness, misery or happiness. Gelles taps Sharon Salzberg, a popular mindfulness teacher, who suggests that mindfulness at work can provide people ‘clearer choices’—that they may, as she told him, ‘wake up to the fact that they need to leave.’ But maybe not. Again, who knows?

Maybe people don’t wake up at all. Or maybe an individual does wake up to the fact that they are working in an oppressive and toxic corporate culture, whose policies, practices or products are in conflict with her personal values. But maybe she has no other options for leaving her current job, and is stuck. Maybe she doesn’t have the social and cultural capital to simply escape her current circumstances. We might recall here the exposé on Amazon’s work culture, where a number of the people interviewed described the difficulty of leaving the toxic environment, partly because of group pressure and partly because of the moral injunction that they exercise ‘free choice’ to find self-fulfillment and self-worth by performing under duress without complaints. To what extent, then, would the adaptation of mindfulness in accordance with the neoliberal logic of self-governance and entrepreneurial self-improvement countervail oppressive or exploitative regimes, when these regimes are rationalized by the moral imperative of individual autonomy to begin with?

For Gelles and the teachers interviewed in Buddhadharma, the only foreseeable problem with the mindfulness movement is a shortage of ‘good teachers’. As Barry Boyce, the editor of Mindful magazine, asserts in his editorial “It’s Not McMindfulness,” good teachers are those who “show a strong measure of independence” from their corporate sponsors. But is such independence really possible? Do conflicts of interest, collusion and symbiotic relationships with corporate sponsors ensure such programs remain within the bounds of the institutional status quo? Can mindfulness teachers really be expected to be ‘independent’ when their livelihood depends on corporate contracts and paychecks? Why bite the hand that feeds you?  Even if corporate mindfulness programs expanded to investigate the causes and conditions of stress and social suffering, would such programs be compatible with the fundamental goals of profit maximization? Wouldn’t such programs be viewed as a threat (especially if top talent were exiting the corporation as a result of mindfulness training) and a liability to corporate interests rather than as an asset?

These are all open questions, the dangers and potentials of which can be summed up with ‘who knows?’ We trust that anyone who is committed to mindfulness would agree that it is impossible to fully anticipate change. Mindfulness is a practice to help us cultivate awareness of the habitual and unacknowledged conditions shaping the motivations and consequences of our actions. It is a practice to help us become receptive to the forces of present reality, to help us make and remake decisions to steer our actions heedfully, over and over again, so as to invite change for a more promising future that may or may not arrive.

The open question of ‘who knows?’—the challenge of cultivating good faith in our decisions and actions and relations with others from moment to moment—is the starting point, the condition of possibility, for the ongoing practice of mindfulness, regardless of whether one takes a Buddhist approach or not. It is our hope that debates about mindfulness would become more mindful of this shared conundrum of ‘who knows?’ that threads through questions about the systemic problems that mutually impact on personal wellbeing. These systemic problems at once pose dangers for the future development of mindfulness, and provide the ground from which the revolutionary potential of mindfulness may be actualized.

‘Who knows?’ is both an obstacle and opening. It becomes an obstacle when advocates of mindfulness evoke ‘who knows?’ as a way to dismiss or sidestep the challenges confronting individualistic, institutional or corporate uses of mindfulness. But it becomes an opening when advocates of mindfulness engage with ‘who knows?’ as a shared conundrum to cultivate the intellectual hospitality and good faith necessary for reciprocal learning between Buddhist and non-Buddhist understandings, and for a promising future for mindfulness—for a true mindfulness revolution.

Regardless of whether one is a religiously or secularly oriented practitioner, mindfulness is nothing less than a practice of faith.

By Ronald Purser

Ronald Purser, Ph.D., is a professor of management at San Francisco State University.

MORE FROM Ronald Purser

By Edwin Ng

Edwin Ng, Ph.D., is a cultural theorist based in Melbourne, Australia. He writes on Buddhism and mindfulness for the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s Religion & Ethics blog.


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