The politics of mindfulness

Sceptical about the current fashionableness of mindfulness meditation? So are we. The problem is not mindfulness practice itself but rather the vulgarised form in which it is presented as a panacea to social problems. It strips it of its philosophical and existential underpinnings in a way that seems questionable in most cases (with notable exception such as this) but the politics of its ascendancy are also rather worrying. Suzanne Moore makes this point well:

For mindfulness is Buddhism without the awkward Buddhist bits. A complex philosophy is rendered as self-help. What does freedom from attachment and desire mean in this self-centred world? What is radical acceptance? Why practise non-judgment? Those who have practised meditation all their lives may not say it’s to get a promotion or be less stressed. There is a whole history of thought here.

But no, once Arianna Huffington is on the case, you know there is money to be made in commodifying blankness. Indeed, the whole of Silicon Valley has hugged mindfulness close, as have the US marines, who use it as part of “mind fitness” to help soldiers relax and learn “emotional intelligence”.

These are basic meditation techniques being sold as a way to function better in an over-connected world. Thus, in the finance sector, companies where bankers are super-stressed – unlike poor people – arrange for their staff to have 10-minute daily meditations. It’s all scienced-up with names such as Mind Lab to shake off the hippyish/religious/psychic-adventurer connotations. Keep fit for the brain.


Much of the cult of mindfulness is a reaction to technology. It speaks the language of detox, of decluttering. There is too much information. We need to clear our minds. Be and not do. The new ascetic is someone who goes for a walk without their phone or takes a week off Twitter to cleanse themselves. This version of meditation requires no more than the faith that we can all be self-improving part-time gurus. It requires no commitment to a community, and it’s cheap.

The corporate world sees that it can make its workers more self-reliant, balanced and focused. What could be better? Take your medicine, because the mindfulness movement is symptomatic of what late capitalism requires of us. A contemplative space opens up wherereligion used to be. We learn techniques to make us more efficient. This neutered, apolitical approach is to help us personally – it has nothing to say on the structural difficulties that we live with. It lets go of the idea that we can change the world; it merely helps us function better in it.

The term McMindfulness, which is rapidly spreading, seems to have been coined in this Huffington Post article by a Professor of Management and a Zen teacher. You can read the full thing here, it’s very good:

The booming popularity of the mindfulness movement has also turned it into a lucrative cottage industry. Business savvy consultants pushing mindfulness training promise that it will improve work efficiency, reduce absenteeism, and enhance the “soft skills” that are crucial to career success. Some even assert that mindfulness training can act as a “disruptive technology,” reforming even the most dysfunctional companies into kinder, more compassionate and sustainable organizations. So far, however, no empirical studies have been published that support these claims.

Categories: Rethinking The World

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