Scholars Suggest Mindfulness Can be a Means for Questioning Capitalism

Buddhist-inspired mindfulness counters Western misappropriations of self-help mindfulness to provide a framework for challenging capitalism

Zenobia Morrill
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Dr. Bee Scherer and Jeff Waistell argue that Western misappropriation of mindfulness as a self-help technique promotes acceptance of a consumer capitalist status quo. Instead, they draw from Buddhist philosophy to demonstrate that mindfulness is not an ethically vacuous practice, providing examples of how it can and is being used to challenge materialism, competitiveness, and the notion of the independent self.

“Mindfulness is becoming part of the self-help movement and part of the disease that it ought to cure,” they write. “It is seen as a source of competitive advantage, a means to progress in life, thus losing its rationale. Buddhism generally becomes the cure for the stress induced by capitalism, functioning as its ideological supplement, dealing out an ‘opium of the people.’”

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When mindfulness is applied de-contextually toward individual stress-reduction, the social causes of distress become obscured. Rather than seriously questioning “why stress in organizations is so pervasive,” the aim becomes to change personal interpretations to maximize individual stress tolerance. This can serve to benefit corporate organizations and those occupying institutional power by promoting employee pacification and adjustment to toxic work culture, Scherer and Waistell claim.

“Organizations find mindfulness convenient because it can individualize stress while helping employees cope with toxic corporate life, subdue employee unrest, promote acceptance of the status quo, and focus attention on corporate goals.”

Ultimately, the authors make the case that this form of individualized mindfulness detracts from an opportunity to gain insight to suffering causes and conditions and to experience a broader, interconnected compassion. They specifically focus on the Buddhist concepts of non-self and nonduality. When all objects are understood as interdependent, suffering becomes shared rather than artificially siloed. Similarly, nonduality stresses that personal liberation and liberation of the other are one and the same.

Scherer and Waistell reference the critique by “revolutionary” monk Lin Qiuwu who attributed capitalist greed to a lack of insight into nonduality. While this ontological separation is criticized for fueling the desire for personal possessions and the rise of class struggles, its opposite is understood by the authors as a pathway to active compassion through social engagement.

They outline “socially engaged Buddhism” as a practice which values social advocacy and activism. Namely, that Buddhism fundamentally opposes capitalism through ideas of the non-self that challenge possessions, ownership, and property as material ends conducive to freedom. Rather than satisfying desires, Buddhist mindfulness shifts the focus toward the transformation of desires, they write.

“The approach we are arguing for in this paper can help organizations and leaders increase their understanding of non-duality by providing them with new and better perspectives on interdependence. This could better inform corporate social responsibility programs, in that non-duality incorporates different roles and statuses into the organization, rather than viewing them as secondary to profit making.”

Scherer and Waistell specifically draw from Marxist ideology, arguing for the compatibility between Marxism and Buddhism. Despite Karl Marx’s critique of religion as a delusional diversion, the authors note that Buddhism distinguishes itself from “Western, colonially universalized” religions. The authors argue that both traditions “seek a resolution of existential determination” in response to concerns surrounding alienation and dehumanization.

The authors’ vision for how Marxism and Buddhism might work in tandem surrounds their potential complementarity. While Marxism is noted to overemphasize an external framing of class struggles and political action, Buddhism privileges internal transformation which can be a necessary prerequisite to outward action. Essentially, one informs the other reciprocally.

“Buddhism teaches that suffering is caused by attachment, which can be resolved by morality and meditation. Marxism teaches that social ills are caused by economic exploitation, which can be resolved by socialist revolution. Thus liberation is both psychological and economic, both inner and outer, so that mindfulness and political revolution are both recommended and should be practised simultaneously.”

Contemporary Buddhist ethics have grown increasingly concerned with eco-sustainability. The authors highlight a link between ecological responsibility, sustainability, and mindfulness practice, calling attention to the Thai Asoke Buddhist reform movement as exemplifying these ideals. The communal mindfulness-in-action practiced by the Asoke, they describe, provides an environmental, anti-capitalist alternative by stressing selflessness and mindful moderation. Although not self-defining as communist, the motto of the community is as follows: Consume Little, Work Hard, and Give the Rest to Society.”

Scherer and Waistell provide details on the Asoke community as a case example to bolster their overarching point that individualized, self-help mindfulness may simply be a handmaiden to corporate, profit-maximizing aims. Rather than stifling ethical and political action, Buddhist-inspired mindfulness practice can give rise to activism, advocacy, and alternatives.

“This is the reason why we have written this paper: to develop a mindfulness that is detached from capitalism (not supporting it), a socially-aware and-responsible approach – a Buddhistsocialist mindfulness, perhaps – that goes beyond a blithe recognition of “stakeholders” to a full acceptance of our interdependence.”

 

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Scherer, B., & Waistell, J. (2017). Incorporating mindfulness: questioning capitalism. Journal of Management, Spirituality & Religion, 1-18. (Link)

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Zenobia Morrill
MIA-UMB News Team: Zenobia Morrill is a graduate of the dual master’s counseling psychology program at Columbia University. As a doctoral student and researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, she seeks to understand the context informing psychology research and the underlying social factors that influence individual psychology. She is currently involved in projects examining the impact of structural violence.

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17 COMMENTS

    • Good point, Welshtr5. MIA has been stumbling down the post-modern nihilistic path for a while now and embracing and promoting Marxist ideology as it tries to find some values and ideologies to cling to fill the nihilistic void. As someone who has been on Buddhist retreats, meditates regularly and who has listened to debates about the core teachings of the Buddha I find this article one dimensional in its anti-capitalist rhetoric. According to some interpretations/translations of Buddhism the Buddha did not speak of ‘no self’ but ‘not self’. This is an important distinction. I believe that the Buddha may have been wise enough to realise how the complete abandonment of the idea of ‘self’ was a very dangerous path to follow as once we abandon our sense of individuality and independence from the group/tribe we become a cog in the group/tribe’s plans (whatever they might be). This abandonment of ‘self’ for the greater group can feel joyous, exhilarating and following this feeling can achieve great things (I have experienced this energy on retreats and at other periods of my life when I have felt deeply connected to the world in which I live and from which I have been formed). However, as the 20th Century has particularly taught us, the abandonment of one self completed to the group/tribe that is driven by certain ideologies (Nazism, Communism) can also be and still is the most destructive force on this planet. To me, this article is one-dimensional and does not explore or investigate the complexity and variations on the different interpretations of Buddhist philosophy, the Buddha’s original teachings and how it has developed since then. Rather it uses Buddhism to try to justify and push its own Marxist/anti-capitalist agenda. It is a shame that MIA is pushing its own social justice/Marxist ideology over robust objective evidence based empirical investigation as this is the very thing it rightly lambasts psychiatry, medical professionals and pharma for doing. Hopefully the postmodern nihilistic/Marxist slide does not continue to happen as MIA will lose many people who came here for and are interested in facts and objective evidence if this continues.

        • Noted uprising. I’ll try to make comments more readable in the future.

          Human being, I agree that a lust for money and a lack of looking after our home could lead to devastating results. However, while I don’t think that capitalism is perfect I believe that it is better than Marxist ideology being widely adopted by societies. I believe that capitalism does need to be tapered or balanced by strong ethics/religious or spiritual philosophy, e.g. Buddhism, that acknowledges our human capacity for corruption and greed and tries to keep the worst aspects of our innate characteristics in check.

          I have written about this before if you want to check out my previous comments and outlined how I think corporatism is the real problem which I would define as a combination of the most ruthless aspects of capitalism and ultraprotective socialism. I believe that these two forces which I believe exist in each individual are playing out in our current societies in the shape of Big Pharma and government collaboration. I think that these two destructive forces must be addressed (This is both a personal and collective journey I think) if we are to challenge the current direction societies are going in and keep ourselves and our world balanced.

          • I think corporatism is the real problem which I would define as a combination of the most ruthless aspects of capitalism and ultraprotective socialism.

            Socialism occurs when workers collectively own the means of production of goods and services, and democratically control the mechanisms of distribution. In other words, it’s the opposite of capitalism.

      • I agree MartinMc, regarding that the Buddha did not strictly adhere to non-self. According to the teachings: from a ‘conventional’ sense (i.e., relative sense), we exist as individual entities. However, at an ‘ultimate level of analyses’ there is no unchanging entity to be found anywhere in the constantly changing body or mind. This is described well in the following article: “Theoretical Foundations to Guide Mindfulness Meditation: A Path to Wisdom,” Current Psychology. [free link (legal) from the MindRxiv research repository: https://mindrxiv.org/mfs63/ ]

        Also, mindfulness exercises can simply be used as a mental exercise to promote mental wellbeing, just like physical exercises can be used to promote physical wellbeing. So, I don’t think there is an issue with anyone using mindfulness to promote general wellbeing in employees. There is also evidence that the practice of mindfulness may positively influence ethical behavior [see for example the following article: “Mindfulness-based business ethics education,” Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, 16(3), 99. http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/articles/77842201/mindfulness-based-business-ethics-education ] – so, promoting mindfulness is ultimately a good thing.

        Additionally just like everyone who becomes physically fit is not going to endeavour to climb Mount Everest, not everyone who learns to meditate would have ‘spiritual enlightenment’ as their goal.

  1. Great article, and very interesting. The Pentagon has long supported “meditation” to help calm its employees who are engaged in god-knows-what (https://parabola.org/2015/12/10/the-pentagon-meditation-club-by-tracy-cochran/); also check out this article about Wall Street and TM: http://www.businessinsider.com/wall-street-trend-transcendental-meditation-2016-10

    There are many other examples of “meditation” being used to further capitalist/imperialist ends. Good to see that some who use these Buddhism oriented techniques appropriately see the inherent contradiction between capitalism and spirituality.

  2. There is a limit to which ‘social causes of distress’ can be addressed (e.g. disadvantaged populations – think of the Whitehall study). Therefore, mindfulness practices are very useful to address individual stress reduction. Learning mindfulness practices can also improve employee’s family life. So, there is nothing wrong in teaching these practices in corporate settings. People are simply going to use the techniques for stress reduction – they are not going to suddenly get enlightened, so talking about things like non-duality and non-self is not relevant here. People generally want to criticize everything (saying they are gaining, losing, etc.), but we need to look at the bigger picture here as well as the many different variables involved.

  3. There was a recent article I’ve seen, appropriately enough for the 50th anniversary of the summer of love, on psychedelic communism. If I’ve got mixed feelings on the subject, let me say here, I’m not against it. Collectivism, communes, communism, threesomes, contact highs, etc. I’m not against social experimentation myself.