Culture

How to Be Mindful of McMindfulness

Mindfulness functions as a modern-day opiate for the masses.

Photo Credit: Evgeny Atamanenko / Shutterstock

We are mindfully smiling and rolling our eyes at Times business reporter David Gelles’ weekly column, "Meditation for Real Life." Each week Gelles dishes out Hallmark Card-like platitudes, such as “How to Be Mindful When Doing Your Taxes,” “How to Be Mindful at the Gym” and “How to Be Mindful at the Doctor’s Office.”

His column, “How to Be Mindful on the Subway,” is too much fun to pass up. Imagine a New Yorker in a crowded subway following Gelles’ advice:

Take a few deep breaths, turn your lips up into a half-smile, softly gaze at another person on the subway car. Notice the thoughts or feelings that arise as you consider this person. Try to adopt a gaze of warmth and kindness, perhaps by imagining that this person is a friend of yours.

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What’s amusing is that Gelles’ trite prescriptions to pay attention to the pleasures of everyday activities end up as compulsive demands. He tells us we have to be mindful when taking a shower or sitting in a dentist’s chair. Why is being hyper-vigilant, willfully detached and self-absorbed in “present moment” experience always a good thing? Forget simply living life with all its pleasures and pains. Mindfulness is puritanical fanaticism. Losing yourself in a daydream about being in Hawaii while doing the laundry instead of attending to every detail, feeling, sensation, thoughts and breathing is to indulge in the secular sin of mindlessness.

Gelles’ brand of mindfulness is myopic and stoic. It’s fixated on an obsessive self-monitoring of one’s inner state, a morally laden form of constant self-surveillance. A wider vision of the outer world vanishes. Just be mindful of what’s in front of your face! Don’t worry about questioning the regime and circumstances that are making people anxious, miserable and sick.

The “just be mindful” cult is what Ron Purser and David Loy have called “McMindfulness." The commodification, branding and instrumentalization of mindfulness—what had been ethically grounded in contemplative Buddhist traditions—is now marketed as a fashionable spiritual technique for private gain.

In fact, Gelles has taken McMindfulness to another level—what we call the zombification of Mindfulness. Zombification is the deadening of something that is alive. Gelles’ mindful zombie is relieved of having to make difficult choices. The moral imperative is that you must attend to everything you do. Gelles even instructs us on “How to Be Mindful While Cleaning the Bathroom.” Why not listen to Black Sabbath blasting while cleaning the bathroom? For Gelles, every human activity, even falling in love, must be laser-focused under the scrutiny of mindfulness.

But isn’t this just an attempt to control the uncontrollable? Is the overvaluing of conscious control really a futile attempt to shield us from the various suffering and vulnerabilities of daily living? The irony here is that Gelles probably wants to do the opposite, to bring you into the full present moment where you experience your senses, for isn’t that what mindfulness should do? The numbing of experience occurs by removing the mindfulness activity from any actual social context. Whether doing taxes or going to the gym or the doctor, each becomes an empty, abstract, self-conscious behavior devoid of the flavor of what’s occurring in one’s life. Is doing taxes normal for everyone—why doesn’t Trump do his? Can you afford to pay for a gym membership or go to the doctor—once the Republicans re-instate your pre-existing condition? When you’re in the examination room, Gelles suggests, “Acknowledge the universality of sickness and mortality.”

But universality is not universal in “real life.” The inequitable social relationships of which you are a part, whether you have premium coverage or are getting by on Medicaid, recede into the background. The story behind how you arrived at this exam room of this doctor at this time and place disappears, leaving just you in the sterility of this abstract “present moment.”

McMindfulness may set aside the stresses of real life for a brief time, but the complexities do not magically disappear. Real life happens to everyone, but some lives are more "real" than others.

Philosophy professor Chris Goto-Jones says, “Mindfulness functions as a form of secular religion within capitalism—a contemporary opiate for the people—serving as a new form of ideological domination that enables people to endure the alienating conditions of capitalism without calling for material revolution, redistribution, or institutional change.”

Apparently Gelles agrees. He states in his interview for The Atlantic, “We live in a capitalist economy, and mindfulness can’t change that.” His capitalist-friendly book, Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside Out, is a prime example of McMindfulnessIn the book Gelles sings the praises of the managed health care company Aetna, describing how its supposedly benevolent CEO, Mark Bertolini, did the right thing by embracing corporate mindfulness programs for employees. For Gelles, Aetna is the poster child of a successful corporate mindfulness program, especially since the training program allegedly resulted in productivity gains of $3,000 per employee, saving the company $6.3 million. Clearly, mindful employees are good for big business.

But as a business beat reporter, Gelles seems to have missed the news story that Aetna lied about its reasons for withdrawing from Obamacare—not exactly a mindful decision. While Aetna claimed mounting losses that required it to pull out of Obamacare exchanges in 11 states, the real reason, according to U.S. District Judge John Bates, was “to evade judicial scrutiny over its merger with Humana.” Aetna’s decision came less than a month after the Department of Justice, on antitrust grounds, blocked the $34 billion merger.

Evidently the corporate mindfulness programs Gelles gushes over aren’t concerned with training employees to call into question nefarious business practices.

Gelles even devotes a whole chapter to McMindfulness, depicting the critique as a “seductively nefarious vision” that paints a simplistic portrait of corporate mindfulness as a covert agenda of “brainwashing.” Skeptics are described as “conspiratorial” and “alarmists” who perpetuate the false idea that meditation is “harmful” or that it can “make someone a worse person.”

But when we say we are concerned about the workings of power, we are not talking about coercion or some covert agenda for mind control. Rather, we are pointing out how corporate mindfulness programs easily lend themselves to being coopted and used as a self-disciplinary performance enhancement technique. Employees need not be monitored and punished by their boss when they can be zombified into mindfully docile and productive workers.

Gallup study estimates nearly $550 billion in losses are due to a lack of “employee engagement.” Stress, anxiety and depression in the workplace is rampant. But Gelles tells us that “Stress isn’t something imposed on us. It’s something we impose on ourselves.” Really? Tell that to African Americans, who have a higher rate of stress-related diseases due to institutional racism.

So it’s not surprising that corporations are jumping on the mindfulness bandwagon as the next panacea. It’s also not surprising that trainers, coaches and consultants have figured out there is big money to be made on corporate mindfulness programs. It’s a perfect collusion that places the burden to relieve workplace stress and be cheery and happy squarely on the employee.

Perhaps Gelles might contemplate (be mindful?) why employees are disengaged and stressed out in the first place. Could it possibly be because of threats of layoffs and job insecurity, a lack of health insurance, grueling work hours, and toxic corporate cultures?

So don’t be surprised to see Gelles’ future piece on “How to be Mindful When Disengaged at Work.”

Simply paying attention to the present moment in our privatized bubbles worlds—what Gelles’ weekly advice column celebrates—is no mindfulness revolution. Not even close. Let’s turn it around. Let’s revolutionize mindfulness by focusing our collective attention on “How to be Mindful When Vanquishing Self-Centeredness, Greed and the Structural Inequities That Plague Our Society.”

Ronald Purser is a professor of management at San Francisco State University, an ordained Zen teacher in the Korean Buddhist Taego Order and co-host of the podcast The Mindful Cranks.

David Forbes is an associate professor in school psychology, counseling and leadership at Brooklyn College. He is the author of Boyz 2 Buddhas: Counseling Urban High School Male Athletes in the Zone.