Liberating Ourselves vs. Blaming Ourselves: The Failure of Mindfulness

He's got a lot on...er...out...of his mind?

They’ve got a lot on…er…out…of their mind?

There’s this excellent article on Salon called Corporate mindfulness is bullshit: Zen or no Zen, you’re working harder and being paid less. And as far as titles go (and especially given the location of Salon) the article is just an overall winner.

I love titles that are brutally honest (or involve puns) and this post delivers on the sort of decimation I like in an article.

For example:

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.

I think the exclusion of subsidies from the state is a mistake on this author’s point but regardless of that this is an excellent point which I’ve attempted to make myself. Work, capitalism, the state, these are all totalizing things that exert themselves through institutions that capture liberating prospects or seemingly liberating prospects for their own purposes.

This is part and parcel of the critique from anarchist communists about using worker cooperatives as a way to liberate the economy from capitalism. And while not being an anarchist communist myself or thinking the critique is great as it’s often made, I certainly see where they are coming from.

Capitalism and other systems of control and oppression tend to absorb ideas and change them to fit their own narrative and frame work and we’ve seen this not only through mindfulness (which I have nothing inherently against by the way) but through working “less” but only so workers can be more productive for their bosses. Or less discrimination and more inclusion in the workplace leading to stereotypical jargon-filled and vague standards about what constitutes harassment.

All of these things are a process of the main actors within capitalism seeing demand, seizing on it and having the perverse incentives of government regulations, a culture of bossism and subordination stifling their ability to more meaningfully engage with these things. The article talks a lot about hypothetical situations and one of mine is that if we abolished both capitalism and the state there wouldn’t be so many perverse incentives for market actors.

This would encourage individuals or groups of folks acting collectively to be able to organize much more efficiently. They’d be able to undermine the role of bosses in the economy and ultimately individuals could also start their own businesses given the reduced costs in barriers to entry that the state creates and corporations lobby for.

Examples of current barriers to entry include intellectual property, zoning laws and license requirements. Eliminating these things from society would open the door to many types of more equitable and mutually beneficial organizations.

The trick to not letting these tools for revolution be seized by the state and capitalism either. To do that have to inculcate it with radical ideas about autonomy, equality and solidarity. Capitalism and other systems of oppression can only take in so many influences from radical ideas before it actually undermines its own operations. At the point in which this happens it becomes easier to show how and why the alternatives are superior.

Here was another great part of the article:

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.”

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.

If there’s one thing I’ve harped on at this blog ad museum it’s that simply viewing the world differently doesn’t make structural and systematic issues go away. And Smail makes this point in another way and so do the authors of the Corporate mindfulness piece.

There’s no sense in saying that mindfulness is doing anything except making you less personally stressed during a given day. I have been meditating off and on for about a week and a half and it’s helped me at times and other times it hasn’t. It takes a lot of time to get “good” at it and even then there’s always new practices to learn or old ones to hone.

But I wouldn’t say any of this has radically changed the way I interact with the world right now. It may in the future but even then it would be on a personal level and not something I think was radically challenging power dynamics in society.

That said, I don’t care for the “lifestyle anarchist” critique. I thnik there’s real purpose, pleasure and comfort in taking individualized strategies that help you deal with the hard things in the world. And if you need that and it somehow isn’t helping your local anarchist movement then so what?

Our whole lives shouldn’t be made up of activism and working for liberation anyhow. We should also know how to have fun, be ourselves, discover who we are and enjoy whatever we time have on this planet. Politics is great and all and it’s important but you shouldn’t let it control your life or sense of purpose.

But even when you’re doing that and doing all of it well it doesn’t make much of a difference on a social level. And personally I think that’s fine. Not everything has to have a social element for it to be meaningful for the people who are engaging themselves in it. I don’t meditate every morning (or when I remember to) so I can somehow save the world from global warming or make all of my friends around me happy. I chiefly do it for me, myself and I and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but I also wouldn’t declare it’s some sort of “revolution” in thinking either.

I don’t mean to suggest that mindfulness and the like don’t have potential to be helpful to folks in political contexts. For example, activists might advocate for or even organize zen spaces where folks can relax together, talk about radical shit and generally have a peaceful and relaxing time trying to overthrow systems of oppression.

Sure, that might sound weird (and probably looks weirder) but what’s wrong with being weird?

The next part really highlights what I’m saying about individuals vs. systems:

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.

These points about external stressors, “biomorality” and obligations towards ourselves (which are really just obligations to systems of oppression in disguise) are all well made. But I want to briefly go back to the previous quote and its use of “victim-blaming”, which is something I’ve talked about before.

I think any strategy that’s going to get us towards a better world (even if it’s not an anarchist one) is going to focus less on blaming ourselves and beating us over the heads with guilt. Instead, it’s going to be a freeing ideology. It’ll be a set of ideas and frameworks from which we can fight things like shame, self-blaming and fear and release ourselves from these constraints that plague so many folks minds these days.

Sorry, I got a little Buddhist there for a second.

In any case, I feel like the anti-work strategies are going to do best when they don’t rely on moralizing of people’s own issues and problems. We can recognize that we have flaws, that we all have mistakes we’ve made in the past, that there are people we have hurt and will hurt and yet we can still be agents of positive change in our lives and other folks lives.

I’m not a Christian (or a Buddhist, for the record) but some of its ideas of “turn the other cheek”, “forgiveness” and “redemption” often appeal to me in secular ways. We can’t be constantly blaming and seeking to invalidate the struggles of others with systems that they tend to not have as much influence over as they’d like to.

Not only does such a strategy backfire on others but it also backfires on ourselves.

It makes us constantly have to bring out the big guns and be on the offensive towards systems of oppression and how it affects our friends, fellow workers, etc. These types of strategies are much more likely to incite frustration and anger among your interlocutors than inspiration.

Gelles summed it up wonderfully in saying that, “We live in a capitalist economy and mindfulness can’t change that.”

No amount of imagining and theoretical changes of how we perceive the world will affect the concrete realities folks face under bossism, capitalism, the state, etc. It won’t change how the dynamics of centralization, bureaucracy and hierarchy affect folks abilities to engage in social relations rationally and effectively. It won’t change the world.

And that’s OK, like I said earlier, not everything has to change the world to be important.

Unfortunately, some folks think that just isn’t so or have to market it as such so they can capitalize on fads.

There’s this theme of “open-endedness” throughout the article and I don’t want to get too deep into it, but I want to highlight at least this sort of response from corporate mindfulness proponents:

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.

The authors point out there’s no empirical evidence for this but I’d go further:

Is there any incentive for this to ever happen?

The important point here isn’t if this is going to happen but why would it ever happen.

There are structural and systematic reasons based on poor incentives that would make any sort of change like this very difficult to happen. I’m not saying it’s impossible but it seems very unlikely that anything that the corporate mindfulness folks would want to see would happen.

The authors, to their credit (and they get a lot for this article’s title alone) point this out as well but they don’t go in as much detail as I’d like and their critique strikes me as rather surface level:

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?

A lot of this is really good but I don’t think “profit maximization” is quite the issue here.

Wanting to maximize how much you or something you control makes isn’t inherently an issue. It’s more of a problem when you can externalize costs on to others and internalize profits in monopolisitc ways. And again, the state is a great institution to help the process of socializing loss and privatizing profits by subsidizing the process that market-based institutions have to go through to compete with other ones.

This gives a great advantage to some institutions (a favorite example being Wal-Mart but it’s hardly the only one benefiting from corporate welfare) and inherently makes it harder for smaller businesses that may have more radical forms of organizing less able to directly challenge state-capitalism.

I just want to reiterate one last time that there’s nothing inherently wrong with mindfulness. I think that it has a lot of merit when personal comfort is concerned, I just don’t think it should be our strategy of choice in even reforming work.

Let alone trying to abolish it.


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Side note: I think this is the first article in a long time I’m (mostly) unambiguously positive about.

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