Profit involves the deferral of the true cost of a product to the “Other”, an exercise of power that privileges the consumer, and of course the profiteer whose manipulates this act. The cost of oil is deferred to vulnerable ecosystems, the cost of high fructose corn syrup is deferred to vulnerable bodies, the cost of fast fashion is deferred to vulnerable populations. The continual creation of commodities to displace in this way is achieved by systematically stripping a product of its context – mutually interdependent social, ecological, emotional, relational, and temporal continuities. Consumer goods serve as vectors that perpetuate established power relations and institutions. Yet the complexities that are denied in this exercise still remain.
Commodification achieved by stripping something of its context applies to immaterial goods as well as physical ones. Consider the rising popularity of “mindfulness” in popular culture, as Ron Purser and David Loy question in a recent article. Citing the increasing adoption of mindfulness concepts and techniques into American institutions – schools, corporations, prisons and government agencies – the authors question the distortion that occurs when mindfulness becomes a legitimized consumer product.
While a stripped-down, secularized technique — what some critics are now calling “McMindfulness” — may make it more palatable to the corporate world, decontextualizing mindfulness from its original liberative and transformative purpose, as well as its foundation in social ethics, amounts to a Faustian bargain. Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.
Mindfulness’s popularity is based in its tangibly powerful technology for addressing and transforming suffering. Everyone wants to be happy. However, stripping the techniques of mindfulness from their context defers the root causes and conditions involved, in the service of the status quo. Commodifying mindfulness into relaxation and focusing techniques ultimately protects institutions. On one level, it protects the institution of the personal ego and its quest for control of experience. On another level, it protects oppressive and alienating social structures – in the face of which we experience natural feelings of protest – the disquiet, frustration, anxiety, and depression we are often trying to eliminate with meditation.
Mindfulness training has wide appeal because it has become a trendy method for subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and as an instrumental tool for keeping attention focused on institutional goals.
Early in my psychotherapy training I saw video of a woman in therapy recorded in 1964, who was struggling with the same wrenching internalized double-standards of femininity that my contemporaries are still suffering from 50 years later. A cynicism awoke in me, a dark fear that the role of the therapist would be like a janitor patching up the casualties of our power structures, helping clients to internally cope with harmful social forces. As such I would be performing in service of established institutional injustices, doing nothing to address the systemic causes of suffering but in fact perpetuating them by pacifying their victims.
A therapy that does otherwise must continually resist becoming a consumer product, merely selling reassurance and quiescence – and at what price? As a counsellor specializing in mindfulness-based psychotherapy, I am doubly poised for profit. To be honest about the practice I must be in constant dialogue with the practice itself – which is one of recontextualizing, coming into interconnectedness and complexity, and as such, is inherently radical.
The McMindfulness authors note that there is cachet to linking these practices to the Buddhist tradition, while assuring consumers that its practical essence has been salvaged from religious superstition. I can confirm that it is uncomfortable to be transparent with others that the fullness of the practice is deeply connected to the set of ethical, social, psychological, analytical and metaphysical teachings we call Buddhism – lumped as it is into unfashionable categories of religion, dogma and faith. But meditation itself is not a Buddhist innovation. Mind-training techniques were the normative cultural milieu in which the historical Buddha lived and practiced. A form of yoga, these practices function to build skill in calming and directing the faculties of mind, such as towards a trance state. What Buddhism does differently is to recognize these states as nothing special in and of themselves. The Buddhist suggestion is to direct the mind to investigate itself – the object no longer peace and tranquility, but the generation of penetrating critical insight.
The practice of meditation, or “calm abiding” is not particularly one of becoming more in control, more passive, or more comfortable. The thing about insight, is that it is fundamentally destabilizing. It cuts through. It will always take you outside of your comfort zone.
Another way to put this is, is that you are always meditating on something. Usually, it is on all the hope and fear accumulated for the narrative of your own life. Alternatively, you can focus on all the cheerful things going on in your life, cultivating calm reassurance. You can meditate on the breath until you learn to get less carried away by hope and fear. All this could allow you to be a more ruthless trader, a more cunning lawyer, less upset about your future cut short by economic disparity, less upset by racism, sexism, ecological disaster and exploitation suffered by yourself or by others. But you will be living in a bubble, a cocoon. It will feel small, and fragile, and always in need of maintenance/defense.
In short, you can profit, and displace the cost of your privileged position. In cultivating calm reassured control, we displace interdependence, our human need for interconnection – awakened and felt in suffering and compassion with others. We displace our natural protest at having this interdependence denied us. We displace the pangs of loss and fragility, indulging in the illusion of permanence of our status and independence. But this cocoon is false. You are part of a much larger world, and it will call for you.
McMindfulness is stripped of the rich practice of turning the mind to question these realities – the nature of interconnection, the precious impermanence of life, the causes and conditions that give rise to current appearances. The practice is not to know these things intellectually, but to cultivate a lived experience. Rather than displacing the unwanted costs of existence to the Other, mindfulness is properly the voice of the Other, welcomed back into awareness. It is opening to pain, discomfort, uncertainty, the illegitimate and transgressive elements of being. Something we might call peace may emerge out of this practice, on a much different order than the comfort of that cocoon; peace that blasts things apart and peace that binds things together, peace that probably still hurts and lusts and questions, peace that cannot be marketed, owned or achieved.