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Real mindfulness would transform the economy

Mindfulness without worker power is capitalism at its worst.

People sitting and meditating in a large empty indoor space. Getty Images
Oshan Jarow is a staff writer with Vox's Future Perfect, where he focuses on the frontiers of political economy and consciousness studies. He covers topics ranging from guaranteed income and shorter workweeks to meditation and psychedelics.

It has been over a decade since the psychotherapist Miles Neale coined the term “McMindfulness,” which quickly became the buzzword for critiquing a kind of fast food mindfulness training that was marketed as a panacea for stress by everyone from corporations and schools to prisons and governments.

The rise of McMindfulness spawned a question that continues to fracture the meditation community: Is spreading meditation always a good thing, whatever its purpose? For Neale, marketing departments and the profit motive geared mindfulness toward its most superficial potential, “like using a rocket launcher to light a candle.”

Ronald Purser, a professor of management and an ordained Zen teacher, has gone further, calling McMindfulness “the new capitalist spirituality.”

In his account, mainstreaming mindfulness hasn’t just missed the point and given rise to another $300+ million industry. By harnessing mindfulness to mitigate the stress of exploitative corporate practices or steady the aim and focus of military operatives, it has become counter-productive to the original ethical frameworks from which meditation derives.

In his 2019 book on the subject, Purser argues that McMindfulness pacifies and fractures the collective discontent that could otherwise be organized to achieve changes in the workplace, like unions, or ultimately, in the economy at large. Instead of fueling the energy for collective struggle and reform, “it just seems like it’s become a lubricant for capitalism,” he noted in an interview with Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

As someone who devotes a fair bit of my life to sitting quietly and doing nothing, I’m on board with the Buddhist idea that there are sources of stress and suffering built into the mind’s habitual ways of operating, and meditation can help unravel them no matter the external conditions.

If companies want to help unwind that stress and suffering, I’d prefer a shorter workweek or a raise, rather than a subscription to a mindfulness app like Calm Business. (Though you can see why the latter might appeal to CEOs — one year of the app for a 100-person team costs the company about $5,400 per year, equivalent to just a $54 annual pay bump per employee.)

Still, employers offering the apps isn’t in itself a huge deal. My concern is that the rising interest in corporate mindfulness programs will pave the road for businesses to take even more of an active interest in the mental life of their employees. With a new era of neurotechnologies just around the corner that will likely offer unprecedented degrees of surveillance and influence over the mind, it’s worth asking where that road could lead.

Corporations aren’t the ideal stewards of mental health

During the third quarter of the 1984 Super Bowl, Apple — still an insurgent startup, not yet the largest company in the world — aired a commercial depicting an Orwellian society of total conformity. Apple was shown as the hero, the rebel that would free human mind-slaves from the surveillance state.

In his 2014 book Psychopolitics, the philosopher Byung-Chul Han points out the irony: Apple “did not signal the end of the surveillance state so much as the inception of a new kind of control society — one whose operations surpass the Orwellian state by leaps and bounds.”

The corporate interest in mental health carries an eerie resemblance. At a moment when depression is at record highs, burnout is widespread, and employee engagement hovers around just 30 percent, here comes workplace mindfulness, framed as the hero to free us from our ailments.

Already, more than 20 million employees across 3,000+ organizations reportedly use Calm’s business software, complete with a dashboard that provides analytics on employee use of the app and resources designed to encourage uptake. (I can imagine a near future where meditation analytics become resumé candy.)

But the nature of a society where corporations take a deep interest in the mental lives of their workers and employ a suite of apps and programs designed to fine-tune consciousness for the better will be shaped by what mental health means to a business. And since the business of business is business, not well-being for well-being’s sake, the corporate vision of mental health is necessarily bound by productivity.

This creates a few knots because the drive for productivity can itself be a source of worker distress. Amazon, for example, implemented tiny “ZenBooths” for employees to watch videos about mindfulness, nestled within a company culture that drives employees to skip bathroom breaks for fear of losing their jobs. At its worst, McMindfulness can urge us to look inward for the sources of stress, which can blind us to their true location in the external world.

Part of the tension the McMindfulness critique gets at is this: The Buddha urged an understanding of the root causes of stress. For him, that meant the craving and attachment that belief in an illusory, permanent self hitches our minds to. But what about when, to a non-trivial degree, the root cause of stress is work itself? What if the real road to better mental health involves letting productivity fall? Or letting the companies who pay for our mindfulness apps wither away?

In early 20th century America, this was almost conventional wisdom. The economist John Maynard Keynes believed that the necessity of labor was at odds with human virtue. As economic growth carried on, we’d progressively free ourselves from work and use our “freedom from pressing economic cares” to learn how we might “live wisely and agreeably and well.”

That isn’t what happened. The length of the average workweek has hardly budged for the better part of a century. Even today, as the movement for shorter workweeks is springing back to life, they’re mostly on the table for industries where they won’t harm productivity. A boost in mental health isn’t enough; employers must be convinced that it’s good for business, too.

Mindfulness, voice, and exit

Coming back to the original question of whether it’s always good to have more meditation no matter the means, I think Neale got it basically right: “[T]he more mindfulness practiced by anyone, anywhere, the better off we all are.” But to really practice mindfulness and get to the root causes of stress, we should remember that even in Buddhism, mindfulness was only one part of an eightfold path that covered everything from how one makes a living to nonviolence toward all living beings to avoiding rude language.

As neurotechnologies bring consciousness increasingly into the sphere of business interests, it’s crucial that workers have at least two things to go along with their mindfulness subscriptions: representation in corporate governance and safety nets that provide real exit options.

Voice and representation — through institutions like unions, sectoral bargaining, or codetermination — will ensure workers have a say in how new neurotechnologies or mental health protocols are integrated into the workplace. That means workers won’t just be subject to the corporate vision of mental health, but they can help shape it.

Reweaving the social safety net could mean that anyone, even and especially the lowest-paid, most-precarious workers, can quit a situation that causes them too much stress and go off in search of a job that better aligns with their values. Reforming unemployment insurance, implementing a guaranteed income, or disconnecting health care from employment could all go a long way. But if you look at the anthropologist David Graeber’s survey of Bullshit Jobs, you’ll find that even when the pay is good, the stress of a shitty job can be corrosive to mental health.

Calm Business’s landing page reads: “The future of work relies on a mentally healthy workforce.” What if a mentally healthy workforce isn’t a workforce at all and people were simply free to do something other than exchange most of their lifetime for work they don’t particularly enjoy? Maybe the future of mental health relies on freedom from work.

A version of this newsletter originally appeared in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here!

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