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Critiquing capitalist spirituality


It is interesting to note just how many of the leaders of self-help culture present their credentials as businesspeople, CEOs, “wealth creators” and so on as if it could be taken for granted that success as a capitalist must be the best proof of personal wisdom.

Though I have no desire to disparage the idea of self-help as such, meditation, or mindfulness (of the latter two I am a practitioner, however fitfully) I have long felt uneasy about just how often mindfulness is promoted in a context which assumes the value and legitimacy of the capitalist world.

Enter Ronald Purser’s new book, McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, with his stunning takedown of a mindfulness that has been hijacked and manipulated by capitalist culture to neuter its political potential and make it useful to the corporate world.

As a Professor of Management at San Francisco State University and ordained Dharma instructor in the Korean Zen Buddhist Taego order, Purser has his feet in two very different camps. He is hardly hostile to the idea of mindfulness as such, but I have to say it is astonishing and delightful, given his academic post, how critical he is of neo-liberalism and its manipulation of mindfulness.

In fourteen clearly written chapters Purser examines, among other things, the teachings and implications of mindfulness in the workplace, the military, politics, schools, and among business elites. He explores how mindfulness is used as a capitalist political ideology to promote acceptance of the status quo. Purser also discusses how mindfulness has been branded and sold and removed from the more meaningful and ethical depth of its Buddhist origins. His book also looks critically at the leaders of the movement, principally Jon Kabat-Zinn.

At the core of Purser’s argument is the assertion that mindfulness, as expounded by the likes of Kabat-Zinn, has been broken from its Buddhist eastern roots and emptied of ethical and political consciousness, leading to mindfulness’s use in the promotion and acceptance of the capitalist status quo. In the book’s first chapter, “What Mindfulness Revolution?” Purser says:

There are certainly worthy dimensions to mindfulness practice… Most of the promoters of mindfulness are nice, and… I have no doubt that their hearts are in the right place… The problem is the product they’re selling, and how it’s been packaged… Although derived from Buddhism, it’s been stripped of the teachings on ethics that accompanied it, as well as the liberating aim of dissolving attachment to a false sense of self while enacting compassion for all other beings.

But Purser’s book is not the argument of a Buddhist purist. Nor does it resemble the writings of any one of a number of lazy thinkers who all too freely use the term “new age” as one of disparagement.

About the kind of mindfulness Purser is critiquing, he also adds:

Instead of setting practitioners free, it helps them adjust to the very conditions that caused their problems. A truly revolutionary movement would seek to overturn this dysfunctional system, but mindfulness only serves to reinforce its destructive logic. The neoliberal order has imposed itself by stealth…. widening inequality in pursuit of corporate wealth. People are expected to adapt to what this model demands of them. Stress has been pathologized and privatized, and the burden of managing it outsourced to individuals. Hence the peddlers of mindfulness step in to save the day.

Purser also warns about how mindfulness is being used to deflect attention “from social, political and economic structures—that is, material conditions in a capitalist culture” and that mindfulness is applied in such a way that it “becomes a form of capitalist spirituality, perfectly attuned to maintaining the neoliberal self.”

In a chapter titled “Mindful Warriors”, Purser shows how mindfulness, like religion, is not immune to co-optation by the state for violent and unjust purposes. “When Buddhism has been closely allied with the state, it has also been used as an instrument of militarization,” he writes. “This is particularly likely when its ethical moorings are removed, as happened with Japanese Zen in World War II.”

While McMindfulness deals almost entirely with the present day and very recent history, Purser also discusses D.T. Suzuki who, seen as an “inspiring teacher” in the West in the 1950s, “helped to rationalize death” during the war. “Incredible as it might sound, war was seen as an expression of compassion,” Purser writes. “Fighting, and even dying in battle, was a way to repay a debt of gratitude to the emperor, and Japanese warriors were considered ‘bodhisattvas,’ fearlessly offering their lives to save the state”. Purser ties these attitudes in to his discussion about how mindfulness is being taught to American soldiers now.

The concluding chapter is a rousing call to a better, anti-capitalist mindfulness, and a reminder of the complex and illusory nature of the self in Buddhism.

When we recognize that disaffection, anxiety and stress are not just our own fault, but are connected to structural causes, this becomes fuel for igniting resistance… The liberation of mindfulness depends on building solidarity out of the ruins of McMindfulness, assisting victims of exploitation to resist the inhuman demands of capitalism. Its aim is an individual and collective ‘conscience explosion,’ converting exhaustion, depression and burnout into constructive forms of activism.

Purser even suggests “the mindful equivalent of liberation theology”.

Overall, McMindfulness is a strong account of the commodification of mindfulness by the market, and a well-argued critique of how the sources of society’s problems are not just “found in [our] heads”, but in the material conditions of capitalism itself.

J.W. Horton is a sessional instructor at the University of Manitoba in the Department of English, Theatre, Film & Media. He is also an essayist and fiction writer. Visit his blog, or follow him on Twitter.


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