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Zac Alstin

I was into meditation beforeit was cool.

Actually, I was into it longafter it was cool. I was born in the early 80s, and in my late teens I cameacross the scattered and dishevelled remnants of the meditation boom of the 60sand 70s. In my university library I read dusty tomes of esoteric religiousmysticism supplemented with time-capsule bits and pieces like Jack Kerouac’scrazy adventures, breathless enthusiasm over the scientific power ofTranscendental Meditation, and erstwhile attempts to find a bridge betweenreligions East and West through shared practice of the kinds of methods onceridiculed in Medieval Eastern Europe as “Omphaloskepsis”, the original “navelgazing”.

Meditation is cool again. NotThe Beatles hanging out in India with the Maharishi in ’68 kind of cool, butthe Paleo diet, Bikram yoga, gluten-free, activewear, corporate sociopath kindof cool.  Meditation, with all its realand alleged benefits, has been building into a new mass-market panacea, sold tostress-conscious consumers and compliance-conscious corporations alike as thelowest common denominator of psychosomatic self-improvement. But the rise ofmeditation is not without its critics, and a recent New York Times opinionpiece begging meditation evangelists to “end the madness” is just one instanceof the push-back against mindfulness and meditation generally.

To tell the truth I was never“into” meditation in the literal sense. Various popular methods proved astedious, tiring, and demoralising as they were openly admitted to be.  That’s something apparently overlooked in thehigh tide of the “McMindfulness” fad: all forms of meditation, whether theyfocus on counting breaths, being mindful of one’s mental states, cultivating asense of loving kindness, or discursively analysing metaphysical connundra, areknown in their full religious contexts to be gruelling disciplines whenundertaken in the proper spirit.

The proper spirit isprecisely what has been lost amidst the growing popularity of meditation andmindfulness. Buddhists are increasingly critical of the “non-judgmental” stanceinjected into mindfulness programs by corporations keen to harness meditation’scool self-improvement vibe without touching on any of the awkward ethical stuffthat goes with it. At last year’s Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco,Google representatives’ “3 Steps to Build Corporate Mindfulness the GoogleWay,” presentation was interrupted by a Buddhist protest:

The activists jumped onto thestage to chant, “Wisdom means stop displacement! Wisdom means stopsurveillance!” They claimed that “Google should not be speaking asexperts on mindfulness, when they’re playing a role in displacement,privatization of public assets, for-profit surveillance, profiling, policing,and targeting of activist communities.”

After the activists wereremoved from the stage, without acknowledging or refuting their allegations,the Google spokesperson directed the audience to “check in with yourbody” to “feel what it’s like to be in conflict with people with heartfeltideas.”

These protesters were clearlyyet to master the “non-judgmental” side of mindful awareness. But the trulyexciting applications of mindfulness lie in its capacity to increase theproductivity and compliance of corporate employees. The author of a study thatproclaimed these exact benefits noted in 2012:

“I kept thinking, ‘Thisis crazy,’ ” he says.  “I dowonder why we make ourselves work this way. There’s no time to even think.We’ve gotten to a place where we’re just speeding up and we don’t do thingswell. We’ve got to slow down.”

While Levy says further studyis needed to determine whether the meditation benefit can continue over thelong term, in his own life he says meditation has helped calm his stress. Hethinks it can be worth a try for workers who feel overwhelmed, distracted andstressed.

That’s the author of a studyinto the workplace benefits of meditation noting first that he found full timeacademic workloads to be “crazy”, and then concluding that meditation can aidwith the symptoms of this craziness. It’s meant to be read as an endorsement of mindfulness, but commentatorsare increasingly seeing the mindfulness fad in a much more cynical light – asan insidious attempt by employers to turn us into non-judgemental littleworker-bees.

Imagine if corporationsstarted offering their employees Xanax to help them deal with stress and bemore focused on the job.  How aremindfulness programs substantively different? In 2013 Ron Purser, a Professorof management at San Francisco State University and Zen teacher David Loy wrotea sharp critique of the mindfulness movement as it infiltrates schools,corporations, prisons and government agencies:

“Up to now, the mindfulnessmovement has avoided any serious consideration of why stress is so pervasive inmodern business institutions. Instead, corporations have jumped on themindfulness bandwagon because it conveniently shifts the burden onto theindividual employee: stress is framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness isoffered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently andcalmly within toxic environments. Cloaked in an aura of care and humanity,mindfulness is refashioned into a safety valve, as a way to let off steam — atechnique for coping with and adapting to the stresses and strains of corporatelife.”

Let’s all check in with ourbodies and feel what it’s like to realise that our corporate overlords willexploit even spiritual development for the sake of profit.  I’ve met and worked with people who aredeeply into this kind of meditation and promote it at the middle-managementlevel. The scary thing is that they aren’t even completely cynical; theygenuinely believe in the near-magical benefits of meditation, and see noproblem in advancing Google-inspired programs in their own corporateterritory.  They see mindfulness andmeditation in uncritically elevated terms, and are equally uncritical of thecorporate structures of which they are a part. Meditation will save the world,but it turns out there’s nothing bad to save it from.

If you look carefully, youcan find critiques of mindfulness practices themselves. Side effects? No oneever said anything about meditation side-effects.  Mindfulness is supposed to be a magicalpanacea, but you might want to take care if you suffer from PTSD, are prone toseizures, or have pre-existing foundational religious beliefs. Like Xanax,mindfulness and other forms of meditation are tools designed for specificpurposes, but they should not be used or promoted indiscriminately. Critics ofthe current meditation fad have pointed out that mindfulness can,paradoxically, amount to a form of dissociation.  The supposedly non-judgemental quality ofmindfulness meditation is often packaged as a way of dealing with painful anddifficult emotions, and can become a means of avoiding rather than processinguncomfortable feelings. As one critique noted:

“The idea that each of us isunique is a cornerstone of individual-based therapy. But with mindfulness-basedapproaches there is little space for one’s individuality, in part because it’sa group practice, but also because there has been no serious attempt to addresshow individuals react differently to this technique”

Then there are the genuinespiritual goals of meditation. While meditation is typically couched in thesafe language of self-improvement and stress relief, there’s no denying thatthe end-goal of meditation in its original context is a radical departure froma conventional view of life and reality. According to the Heart of the Perfectionof Wisdom Sutra, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in deep meditation saw thatthe five aggregates of human experience are essentially empty, and so passedbeyond all suffering. His productivity levels also dramatically increased, andHR had no further complaints from him.

Wisdom 2.0 may be all aboutwell-being and workplace efficiency, but Wisdom 1.0 doesn’t sit well with these“accommodationist” concerns. From a Buddhist point of view, it is absurd towatch people espouse mindfulness while changing nothing in their deeper valuesor daily life.  It is as senseless andegoistic as practicing some kind of secular “prayer” for the sake of health andfeel-good benefits.

In its proper context,mindfulness is supposed to be right mindfulness, and is but one of eightcomponents of the Noble Eightfold Path. It is supposed to be grounded, contained, and expressed through rightview, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, righteffort, and right concentration.  Tofixate on non-judgemental mindfulness alone is simply not right.


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