“Absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.”
-American Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi
I work as a teacher’s assistant at a school for children with low-functioning autism. On Martin Luther King day the students had the day off, but TA’s were called in for a special seminar. I assumed that it would be additional training for the job. I was wrong.
What I walked into that morning was “Zensational Kids”- a mindfulness seminar. Two hundred people were crammed into the gym and instructed on basic yoga techniques, which we could not perform for lack of room, and breathing exercises. We recited chants (“I am amazing”, “I am strong”) while we held poses and practiced deep breathing.
I don’t have anything against mindfulness. I suffer from anxiety and depression. My therapist has me practicing mindfulness techniques and cognitive therapy exercises all the time. They’ve helped me avoid panic attacks and sometimes they are the difference between sitting in my room paralyzed with anxiety and going out to see my friends. My girlfriend practices yoga and it helps to improve her mood and reduce stress. These things can play a positive role in peoples lives.
By writing this essay I am not targeting mindfulness, but the cooptation of mindfulness. I take issue with the way a certain type of mindfulness is deployed on a macro level. Both the therapeutic technique that I’ve worked on with my psychologist and the stress relieving wisdom of eastern scholars have become warped and commodified.
During my particular experience with this distorted version of mindfulness we performed ridiculous exercises completely foreign to anything I learned in therapy. For example, we were told to close our eyes and picture a balloon. We were instructed to take deep breathes, filling the balloon with positive energy. When the balloon was filled we were to mentally send this balloon, swelling with positive thoughts, to someone we thought was in need of it. We were told that positive energy is communicated through vibrations and our targets would receive these good feelings from us. This was said in all seriousness to a group of adult educators. We were told, “You always have a choice in how you feel. You’re wrong when you tell someone ‘you’re making me angry!’, you are choosing to be mad”. We were told that our heart vibrations and our brain vibrations often did not match, and we must strive to synchronize them. Apparently something called “synchronous energy” is the best kind of energy.
This terrible seminar is not an isolated incident. It is, in fact, indicative of a larger, more pernicious, phenomena: a distorted form of mindfulness being used to harm the interests of the working class.
Employers attempt to use this form of mindfulness to boost employee productivity. It has been adopted by fortune 500 companies to squeeze more value from their workers- to increase the rate of exploitation. The reasoning is that if employees can learn the skill of mindfulness, their stress will be reduced without their material conditions improving, and this stress relief would lead to workers producing more profits. Additionally, mindfulness is pushed as a skill individuals in the job market can use to get ahead of the competition. In theory mindfulness increases an individuals chance of employment and it increases the profit of the capitalist.
But none of this is true. An employee’s mental health at work will not improve dramatically without their material conditions improving. After taking part in mindfulness seminars the worker is only happier and more productive in theory. In reality the corporate manifestation of mindfulness serves the function of reinforcing the narrative of personal responsibility as the determining force in an individual’s life. The mindfulness seminar re-ensures its audience that life’s stresses are not imposed upon us from without, but are created from within. If we are feeling negative emotions it is simply because we are choosing to feel this way.
I’ve written before about the cult of individualism that exists under capitalism, especially in the United States. The overarching narrative that we are fed is that of the context-less, ahistorical individual. The way we see the world is through this lens. It is only through this lens, for example, that the poor are able to be perceived as lazy and undeserving. It is the only way homelessness, hunger, discrimination, addiction, racism, and the entire system can be justified and defended. Mindfulness has a part to play in maintaining this narrative.
If you are stressed because minimum wage won’t pay the rent, or you cannot pay your medical bills, or you are suffocating under crushing debt, or you cannot afford mental health treatment, it is your own fault. The constant stress of living under 21st century capitalism is a personal flaw. You “have a choice” in deciding how you feel. All you need to do is strike a few poses and practice some breathing techniques and your brain will be in sync with your heart. Then all that stress will melt away. Your employer will give you tips on how to de-stress your life while simultaneously cutting your health benefits. They’ll teach you breathing exercises to help you get to sleep after an all night shift for 12 dollars an hour. You don’t need a day off of work, or a higher salary, all you need is a seminar on mindfulness.
Instead of individuals working in solidarity to change this society that produces and exacerbates mental illness while offering little material aid for the vast majority of us who suffer economically and emotionally because of it, we are offered corporate mindfulness. It’s not the organization of society that is fundamentally flawed, but the individual. The onus is on the individual to change themselves and their thinking.
The construction of this narrative has become a billion dollar industry. The woman giving the seminar today was able to quit her job as a physical therapist to tour around the country full time, educating teachers and students alike in the healing art of mindfulness. Like a snake-oil salesman she explains that if everyone holds hands and breathes the right way then we can pass our “heart energy” around the circle. A wonderful cure for the anxieties and stress of working at a special needs school.
This billion dollar industry is built upon a population of people who think that their unhappiness is a personal failing. It is built on the backs of people desperate for change. It is a weapon bent on obfuscating the real cause of our unhappiness: debt, low wages, racism, sexism, poverty, exploitation, mental illness, and all of the problems of a society organized under the capitalist mode of production.
We must reject the notion that our anxieties, depression, and stress are personal failings that can be solved through training our brains how to work properly.
People suffering from mental illness need more than mindfulness seminars. We need mental illness to be de-stigmatized. We need affordable access to medication. We need access to counselors. We need more mental health professionals available in emergency rooms. We need beds available at drug rehab centers. We need, and deserve, so much more.
The working class, especially those living in poverty, needs more than mindfulness seminars. We need good paying jobs. We need universal healthcare. We need free education and job training. We need affordable housing. We need, and deserve, nothing less than liberation from exploitation and oppression in all its forms.
We must resist commodified, weaponized, corporate mindfulness and embrace system change through solidarity. It is the only way to truly fight against the mental health crisis in this country. It is the only way to create a society that works towards achieving humanity’s potential instead of stifling it.