clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
A collage of a smartphone showing a silhouette of a person meditating; dollars; and a highlighter. Zac Freeland/Vox

Filed under:

Mindfulness meditation in America has a capitalism problem

Can the mindfulness movement resist becoming a tool of self-absorption?

The Highlight by Vox logo

Capitalism has a way of co-opting a lot of our culture’s best ideas.

Great concepts in fashion, music, and wellness are constantly rebranded and used to peddle consumer products. Whether it’s punk music or yoga, industry will find a way to profit from it.

Is mindfulness meditation the latest victim? This is the argument David Forbes, a professor of contemplative education at Brooklyn College, makes in his new book Mindfulness and Its Discontents.

The number of Americans who’ve tried meditation has tripled since 2012. And many are doing a specific practice with Buddhist roots called mindfulness, which involves directing your attention to your experience in the present moment with kindness and without judgment. The practice is increasingly being offered in schools, health care facilities, and prisons to improve well-being.

So how is this a bad thing?

A lightly edited transcript of my conversation with Forbes follows.

Sean Illing

What does the mindfulness movement in America look like from your point of view, and how is it changing?

David Forbes

It’s a lot of different things. The mindfulness you see in Buddhist communities is not the same mindfulness being promoted in corporations and schools across the country. There are lots of people who join a mindfulness group or take an MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) course, and being part of a small community like that helps a lot. And plenty of people just practice mindfulness by themselves, in isolation, at home or wherever.

At the same time, mindfulness is also becoming an industry, and lots of companies are cashing in on it. I live in New York, and there are money-making studios popping up all over the place. And mindfulness is being marketed [by them] as very much an individualistic practice, which is not healthy and even further contributes to stress and ill-health.

Sean Illing

What sort of problems is this creating within the movement?

David Forbes

Well, it raises a question about the intentions of those who practice mindfulness — both those who identify as Buddhists of any kind, and those who are part of a general mindfulness movement in the US and internationally.

Buddhists seek to let go of attachment to the myth of the private, solid, unchanging self, and to promote universal compassion and end universal suffering.

But capitalist culture enforces the myth of the privatized, self-centered self. So unless mindfulness is employed in the service of making the world a better place — then practicing can and does end up serving to maintain the very self-centered, greedy, individualistic institutions and relationships that contribute to the lack of connected presence, kindness, and compassion that contribute to our unhappiness.

They help people adjust to the status quo rather than helping to transform it.

Sean Illing

Does mindfulness, in your view, have a moral foundation?

David Forbes

Buddhism has ethical values and practices such as non-violence. Its deeper moral stance is that we are interconnected with all beings, to all our social relationships and institutions, and with the earth itself.

People will argue that you become kinder and more compassionate just by practicing mindfulness. But I believe people need a moral framework in addition to mindfulness, some social vision to guide them. I think [in many US contexts it has] been severed from this moral tradition. Without that, meditation can become just another tool of self-absorption.

Sean Illing

Some people will read this and wonder why is teaching mindfulness as a coping mechanism so problematic if it does, in fact, help people?

David Forbes

Well, I don’t think it’s an either-or situation. I think it’s a good thing that people are getting tools to help them cope with difficult circumstances. I don’t want to dismiss that. My problem is that it ultimately doesn’t go far enough because it reinforces the sources of our unhappiness. As long as mindfulness is focused on the individual and not on our social situation, it will not help us change the conditions that are making us unhappy, namely a hyper-competitive, ultra-individualistic culture that separates and alienates us.

Sean Illing

Are you troubled that millions of Americans are discovering mindfulness through apps like Headspace and Calm, which recently became the first mindfulness startup to reach $1 billion valuation unicorn status?

David Forbes

It depends on what you value. Again, I think it’s great that people are finding ways to de-stress and focus better. But as more and more people make money off of mindfulness, I think it corrupts the spirit of the tradition and practice. I think it becomes more and more a product like any other in our society, and I think it becomes more an individualistic pursuit.

But what can I say? Capitalism always finds a way to make money off of something, and mindfulness is no different.

Sean Illing

What are examples of mindfulness being co-opted in the way you’re describing?

David Forbes

A lot of corporations are adopting mindfulness as part of their corporate culture. Mindfulness without any moral roots can be used as a hack for all kinds of unsavory ends.

Google, Goldman Sachs, and Aetna among others have trained many employees in mindfulness for stress reduction.

These corporations have been involved in various scandals and unethical practices that are at odds with the public good. There’s no evidence that mindfulness has made them kinder, gentler, or more socially responsible. Mindfulness is used instead to enhance employee productivity and performance by getting them to focus better [or] cut down on employer healthcare costs from stressed-out workers. All of this is aimed at improving the bottom line.

Sean Illing

Any other examples?

David Forbes

There are also well-intentioned educators in schools across the country that are teaching mindfulness but lack any analysis of neoliberal reform in our education system. So they’re helping kids feel less anxiety about high-stakes tests without questioning the meaning and quality of those tests in the first place, without challenging the individualistic, competitive ethos underneath it all.

Mindfulness is also being used in inner-city schools as an anger-reduction technique, which in its own way is terrific. But at the same time, maybe we should be asking if that anger is legitimate? Maybe we should be asking why kids are angry and alienated? If we’re focused on reducing the reaction to these injustices and not focused on fixing the problems at the source of it all, how much good are we really doing?

Again, I want to be clear: I’m not opposed to teaching mindfulness to students or anyone else. But I just think we cannot ignore the moral and social dimensions of life, and I worry this is what’s happening.

Sean Illing

What does your vision of “social mindfulness” look like? Do you think we should be meditating with other people? Do you think we need to supplement mindfulness training with a concrete political agenda?

David Forbes

In mindfulness, you focus on your breathing and you’re noticing your thoughts as they come and go. What I’m suggesting is that we expand on this and begin to identify where those thoughts are coming from.

How are we conditioned by certain troublesome patterns rooted in dominant society? What are the forces or structures perpetuating those patterns? In this way, we’re using our attention to really pay attention to the sources of our unhappiness and then the next step to work to overturn those sources.