In just a few years, meditation went from niche to mainstream: Elementary schools, military units, corporations, even prisons have adopted the practice for its calming, anxiety-relieving attributes and concentration improvement.
Modern meditation heavily focuses on mindfulness, the idea of being present in the moment. But it’s also ditched its Buddhist roots—which promoted community, service, and altruism. This stripped-down, secularized version makes the once-religious ritual far more accessible for most Americans. It also proves potentially problematic.
In his new book, McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, author Ron Purser traces how a countercultural, antiestablishment practice morphed into a lucrative industry and capitalist productivity tool. A management professor for over 30 years, Purser argues that the overwhelming marketing message pushed by the meditation industry might not be good for our mental health—that a “harmless” solo activity based on calming our emotions might better help corporate entities. In fact, what we call mindfulness might actually be more about social control and self-pacification in some cases.
“There’s a lot of money to be made by telling people that they’re responsible for their own problems,” says Purser.
We spoke with the author to learn more. (Note: This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Fast Company: You take issue with the modern, popularized iteration of mindfulness, which most people assume is just an affordable and convenient way to calm down. You, however, believe it has depoliticized and privatized stress. In what ways?
Ron Purser: Stress is really more of a symptom of the structural and systemic issues we’re facing as a society, whether it’s gross inequities or workplace stressors. They’re not just a matter of individuals being “distracted” or not being mindful enough.
Modern mindfulness doesn’t look critically at how the privatization of stress has become the dominant explanatory narrative for people’s problems. Building on this notion of rugged individualism, it instead puts the responsibility totally on the individual to adapt and cope.
It’s a medicalization of mindfulness, which is situated within a biomedical paradigm. It’s seen through a lens explained purely through physiological, maladaptive responses to the environment. It therefore obscures other narratives that could help people not only make sense of the stress that they’re feeling, but to do something about it socially and politically.
Fast Company: You criticize the separation of mindfulness from its Buddhist roots, in part because it eliminates the communal aspect. What’s the problem with this practice being me, myself, and I?
Ron Purser: Buddhist monks were doing meditation within the network of resources that the community provided for them; they weren’t just individuals meditating on their own. But what we have now is this image of meditation or mindfulness as a do-it-yourself standalone technique that individuals believe will provide a sense of happiness. They’re taught that happiness is a skill and not really contingent on your environment.
A famous psychiatrist named James Hillman wrote a book titled We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—And the World’s Getting Worse. This self-oriented positioning of mindfulness, which is focused on attaining personal gains, is hedonic in nature, rather than eudaimonia, which is the idea of flourishing. Traditionally, flourishing was always done within the context of one’s relationships and situated within a wider community.
Fast Company: It seems farfetched to think that people will opt out of complaining or civic responsibility by virtue of meditating for 20 to 30 minutes a day. Do you sincerely think this growing trend of positive thinking will affect communal action? Most people just use it to relax.
Ron Purser: I take issue with the claim that by people meditating 20 minutes a day, it’s going to somehow miraculously change the world. It puts the burden on the individual, which obscures political and economic explanations for the distress they’re experiencing.
Corporate mindfulness is a poor substitute for organizational change. It takes a structural problem and basically reframes it as an individual-level problem. But individuals are always situated within context. So when you talk about stress, you have to ask: What’s the context of it? How are people interpreting it? And what resources do they have available to deal with stress?
When you put it all on the individual and say, “Well, just do this mindfulness practice,” it’s a form of victim blaming. It says: Stress is your problem. That’s kind of the discourse that emphasizes that stress is all inside your own head. And so the theory of change then becomes to provide individual-level interventions to hack our brains.
Fast Company: So many publications and researchers vouch for mindfulness’s health benefits. But you say such findings are often exaggerated or based on poor control methods. Do you think the science of mindfulness is still too much in its infancy to vouch for its efficacy?
Ron Purser: Many social scientists are looking at these mindfulness studies more critically and assessing the methodological weaknesses associated with them. More recently, the “Mind the Hype” study had 15 coauthors.
Some of the research finds that over time, the benefits of a mindfulness intervention course—which were very modest to begin with—weakened over time. A lot of these studies also enlist subjects who already agreed to the treatment. In other words, they’re already biased in terms of being experimental subjects: Which people are signing up? Are these rich or poor? Do they already have healthcare? Do they already have well-paying jobs? Are they living in safe communities? A lot of that’s not really reported.
Then there’s the problem that oftentimes the person teaching the course in the mindfulness study is also the author of the study.
Fast Company: You take issue with large corporations, schools, and even the army introducing mindfulness practices.
Ron Purser: It’s a utilitarian, instrumental approach to mindfulness—a belief that technology can tell us our subjective states better than ourselves, that emotions and moods can be monitored.
It’s a form of corporate surveillance. Historically, corporate managers are always looking for methods and techniques that can adjust the subjectivity of the employee to the interest of profit making. It’s always sort of some sort of problem with the subjectivity of the worker that needs to be adjusted or manipulated in some manner.
Fast Company: You note the irony of mindfulness apps, specifically some of the more popular ones that exhibit tracking or addictive features.
Ron Purser: People try these things out because they are kind of sent the message that if you do X, you will achieve Y. If they don’t, they blame themselves.
As Americans, we hold this idea that we can just do it all ourselves. If we listen to the right podcast, go to the right workshop, find the right self-help guru, whatever it may be. It’s seductive. We try all these things, and it may help for a short period of time, but we mostly then seek out the next short-term fix.
Fast Company: You argue that to some degree, mindfulness is used as a method to help overburdened employees cope with the “noxious influences of capitalism.” How is this practice helping corporate America build a complacent and submissive workforce?
Ron Purser: Mindfulness has become so popular in corporations because the idea of having so-called “mentally fit” employees who self-regulate their emotions is very useful to corporate interest. It’s a new form of mental capital.
Employees are exhorted to take full responsibility for their performance, to be adaptive and flexible. These subjective capacities are now being instrumentalized—it’s a more sophisticated way of tapping into the mental psyches of employees. The basic message is that we have to be responsible for our own well-being.
Meanwhile, a recent Stanford study found that workplace stresses are associated with a lack of health insurance or job insecurity, as well as not having enough autonomy on the job, long work hours, unrealistic job demands, bullying, etc. These are not just individual issues of personal well-being. The individual level of mindfulness interventions are so popular because they take the responsibility off the employer and put the burden on the individual to adapt. And that’s very convenient.
Fast Company: Why do you think mindfulness took off the way it did with consumers? What is so alluring about it?
Ron Purser: The health and wellness movement is quite a powerful $4.2 trillion industry with a lot of marketing behind it. In many cases, people are convinced by positive coverage in the media. For the most part, the mindfulness movement has appealed to mostly middle- and upper-class people who have resources and live pretty good lives. They’re fairly privileged, and mindfulness makes them feel better about themselves. They think they go about their business, be stressed, and then go back into the rat race.
Americans underestimate the role culture plays on the formation of the self. With so much emphasis being placed on the unique individual who had the freedom of choice, radical autonomy, etc., they rarely see how cultural forces subtly shape their notion of “freedom” to conform and be like everyone else. As Americans, we downplay the role and influence of culture in favor of the atomized individual. There is then a privileging of the psychological, the inner world of the individual, and a rejection of the social and cultural dimensions in our discourse.
Fast Company: How does mindfulness fit into the greater scope of the health and wellness movement? What does it tell us about our American society?
Ron Purser: I see some strange connections to the Protestant work ethic, except we’ve shifted it over to health. So now health becomes a badge of honor for showing how “good” we are.
Under the Protestant work ethic, we worked hard because we thought if we did, then we would be chosen. We didn’t know if we were going to go to heaven, but through our good works, we could increase our chances of something. Modern wellness is a postmodern form of that.
I see mindfulness as a form of neoliberal technique of the self. It’s a kind of a self-disciplinary approach within the language of freedom: I’m free to choose my lifestyle choices. That’s how stress is portrayed—that stress is just a poor lifestyle choice. It’s completely divorced from social, political, and economic explanations which would then require more collective strategies for change.
I’m not saying there’s no physiological reactions when people feel depressed and stressed, but I [take issue] with the explanatory narrative that it’s purely biological. We’re not using political language to help explain these causes, which are broader in nature. So we have this internalization of “it’s not the shitty system that stinks, it’s me.”
Fast Company: In your book, you discuss the concept of a “mood economy,” which demands emotional resilience—the ability to control one’s feelings and quickly bounce back from setbacks, thereby enforcing productivity. You liken the pursuit of mindful correctness to the manners and social etiquette rules of medieval Europe.
Ron Purser: I’m seeing a set of norms of expression. It’s almost like there’s a certain acceptable bandwidth.
People are taught that certain kinds of emotions are seen as off-limits or unhealthy, such as anger. That’s decontextualizes our emotions. We’re sent the message, “I can’t react about my boss breathing down my neck. . . . I need to do a three-minute breathing meditation.”
I argue that our emotions try to tell us something about our environment. Sure, self-righteous anger is never productive, but that should not be some sort of blanket universal rule.
It’s probably not a coincidence that most of the mindfulness school programs are in inner-city schools. I’m not saying it’s not valuable to children to learn how to calm down, but if it just stops there, then it becomes a form of social control because there are probably very good reasons why some of these kids are downright angry and depressed.
Fast Company: How do you suppose we can fix the issues associated with modern mindfulness?
Ron Purser: We have to take into account how important context is. People say, “Mindfulness works, so what’s the problem?” The problem is that it works for what purpose and for whose interests? It works within a complex network of contextual factors.
One of the misconceptions is that if I do a mindfulness practice, it’ll create a particular mental state. But that mental state is always situated within a context that helps us to interpret the meaning of our practice.
To enlarge the understanding of our stress and mental health, then we have to go beyond these biomedical ways of understanding it. And that requires marrying together the focus on self-care understood within a sociopolitical framework. We begin to see mental health as tied to what resources people have available for healthcare and the social determinants of health and well-being.
We have to go beyond just individualistic stress reduction techniques like mindfulness apps and rather than using self-care as a coping tool, reorient these practices to more of a critique of neoliberal values and moving more towards a socially engaged form of mindfulness.
McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, by Ronald Purser, is available for purchase on Amazon and wherever books are sold.