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McMindfulness with Ron Purser

Chris Hedges talks to Ron Purser, professor of management at San Francisco State University, about the growth of mindfulness meditation in the mainstream. As meditation makes its way into schools, prisons and government agencies, Purser argues the booming cottage industry with its promises of "Buddhist-inspired" techniques tries to offer a universal panacea for resolving almost every area of daily concern. While it can be helpful, compartmentalizing the practice away from asking why there is so much stress in daily life and away from making challenges to corporate and political practices could do more harm than good. Purser is the author of 'McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality.'

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss the corporate appropriation of the mindfulness movement to ensure obedience and conformity with the author, Ron Purser.

RP: Because mindfulness is a very individualistic privatized activity, it then turns into a therapeutic technique which focuses on the self.  And that deflects attention away then from asking more critical questions about social and economic and political causes or societal problems.  And so we don't really think about how we can actually come together as collectives in solidarity with other people to really solve the sources of the social origins of suffering. 

CH: American culture is awash in schemes for self-improvement.  We are taught to be mindful, to think positively, to believe in ourselves, and we will not only vanquish our anxieties and alienation but find success, an elusive happiness.  This $4,000,000,000 industry, with it, some 100,000 book titles, workshops, online courses, magazines, documentary films, apps, and lucrative conference circuit thrives, however, on doublespeak.  It celebrates self-centered freedoms while ignoring the loss of our political and economic freedoms that are the true source of our disenfranchisement and often our depression.  Mindfulness, along with discipline such as positive psychology, are designed to condition us to uncritically accept the cruelty of the corporate capitalist structure and blame ourselves for any inability to adjust.  Joining me in the studio to discuss capitalism's most effective ideological tool for conformity is Ronald Purser, the author of "McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality."  What is--makes your book, I think, so interesting and thoughtful is that you come at this as a practicing Buddhist who has seen how this mindfulness industry has corrupted, distorted, and I would even say you would agree, betray the essence of Buddhism.  Explain what mindfulness is and what it purports to do.

RP: Well, mindfulness, from the Buddhist tradition, was always grounded fundamentally in a moral and ethical vision which was the foundation of the practice.  In fact, you didn't begin mindfulness practice without engaging in ethical and moral training, which provided sort of the context.  The Buddhist Eightfold Path Mindfulness is only one of the factors in a very integrated path of spiritual cultivation.  And what's happened is that mindfulness has been extracted from a grounding in that ethical and moral tradition and turned into a utilitarian and instrumental technique, which is unmoored from any kind of ethical and moral commitments.  So, it's basically been morphed into a tool, into a technique which can be used for any particular purpose and instrumental aim.  And, you know, mindfulness is not a neutral technique or a tool.  It's fundamentally integrated as a--as a path of spiritual development.  So what we have seen happen is this decontextualization of mindfulness and its extraction from that religious and integrated framework.  It's almost like, you know, once you take a tree out of the forest, it becomes a piece of lumber.  The4--it's very similar in that sense.

CH: But it's become a very effective tool in the hands of--even the military uses it.  And we're going to talk about that later.  And explain how its distorted form is being used to buttress capitalism.

RP: Yes.  This is why I call it the latest capitalist spirituality is because it's now performing an ideological function by privatizing--first of all, the view is that stress is all inside our heads.  It has nothing to do with the political and social and economic context.

CH: Right.  But let me just go back because, you know, I think for people who don't understand mindfulness, the way it's been decontextualized, you write, is that it's essentially become nothing more than basic concentration training.  Although derived from Buddhism, it's been stripped of its teachings as you mentioned.  And it's about essentially giving people breathing and meditative skills in order to integrate themselves into systems that may in fact, well, and I think largely do, contribute to the very anxiety and the alienation they're trying to overcome.

RP: Right.  It becomes a palliative basically, a way to de-stress and basically reenter the rhetorics, to basically go back into toxic corporate cultures, for example, which are notoriously fought with, you know, long hours, job insecurities, bullying, you know, people don't have autonomy or discretion over their work.  And so mindfulness provides, you know, sort of a timeout, but really with no sort of critical questioning of what are the causes of these toxic…

CH: But isn't it worse?  Because if you're alienated and have--or discontented and depressed, it's your problem.  It's--the onus is put upon you.

RP: The onus is put upon individuals.  It basically is individualizing these social and political problems and blaming the victim in some way saying, look, it's your problem.  You have to adapt.  You have to adjust to these conditions.  So it deflects attention away from these more critical questions of the structural and systemic injustices and problems that are generating this cultural malaise that we're all feeling.  And that is really appealing to institutions such as corporations and the military and schools.

CH: Well, you have major in Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, they're--they've all incorporated this technique, whatever you want to call it, into their corporate structures.  And you call it, you know, a religion of the self.

RP: Right.  I think it's functioning as a new secular religion.  And you're absolutely right.  And it's interesting that why is it that mindfulness has become so popular in technology companies in Silicon Valley which I find to be quite an irony because they're providing a small oasis of relief for, let's say, Google engineers, right?  We're getting some individualistic benefits.  They're de-stressing really to produce more…

CH: And this would be--let me just interrupt just to be concrete.  So they would have, what, an hour a day or something when--how would it physically work within the corporate structure?

RP: Usually, it's a program of sorts that employees will attend maybe an hour a day for eight weeks.  And then they're trained in the technique basically.

CH: And the technique, what are they actually doing?  A lot of it's about breathing, isn't it?

RP: A lot of it is focusing on your breath, learning how to calm down, learning how to monitor your reaction.  There's sort of a kind of an acceptable bandwidth of affect and emotions that you're basically normatively taught, you know, so if you have anger coming up or irritation, you know, okay, let's try to monitor that and put that aside.

CH: Yeah.  Let's go into the--because military has invested quite heavily in this.

RP: Absolutely.

CH: And I speak as somebody who grew up in Maine hunting and anybody who's fired a rifle will tell you that breathing is extremely important in terms of being able to fire your shot and there's this kind of fusion now with these techniques to make more efficient killers.

RP: Yes.  The military has latched on to mindfulness because it provides a better of way of concentrating and focusing attention to achieve military objectives.  And if you look at the Department of Defense literature, they refer to it as optimizing warrior performance.  There's been like $10,000,000 allocated to several neuroscientists that are doing research and training on mindfulness from the DoD.  Over $125,000,000 has been allocated to what they're calling comprehensive fitness soldier training, which mindfulness is part of that.  But I think what we're talking about here is not mindfulness, really.  We're talking about attention enhancement performance training.  Now I'm not someone who has anything against soldiers coming back suffering from PTSD and any kind of therapy even if it's a mindfulness therapeutic training.  I'm not--I'm not an opponent to that of course.  But they're using it for pre-combat deployment training before soldiers go to Afghanistan.  And so they have actually a mock Afghan village down in San Diego where they teach the mindfulness course to these combatants and then they run them through this mock village where bombs are going off to see--and then do research on their physiology and everything.  So, yeah, it's very appealing to them but I think this is probably the most egregious example of what happens when you decontextualize mindfulness and strip it away from its ethical context.

CH: Having been in a lot of combat myself, the way you survive, it is, number one, luck, but number two, panic is--enhances your--the danger.  And so, you know, I would kind of learn physiologically to almost I felt reduce my, you know, my very kind of body performance so that I would speak more slowly, I would breathe more slowly because you couldn't make a mistake.  And that seems to be exactly what it is they're attempting to teach soldiers, marines to do.

RP: I think that's--I think that's fair.  I think that's correct, yes.

CH: And that makes you better at your job?

RP: Yes.

CH: You know, you talk in the book about Jon Kabat-Zinn who's one of the major figures in this movement.  I believe he works with the military, right?  Is that…

RP: He has.  He has been involved in those conversations and bringing the infamous…

CH: How do--how do figures like him justify what it is they're doing?  He's the son-in-law of Howard Zinn.  I can't imagine Howard Zinn particularly embracing this.  What do they say?

RP: I think deep down, they believe that somehow, by introducing small doses of mindfulness into institutions, in this case, the military, that somehow magically it will kind of spread and bring about some sort of miraculous transformation towards a compassionate military.  I don't know.

CH: But every time--I mean, this--and we mentioned before, this is a billion-dollar industry.  The selling point is productivity.  The selling point is performance, isn't it?

RP: That's exactly how these programs are pitched and sold especially when it comes to corporations, that that is the selling point.  That's the only way they can get it in the door.  You have to remember that it's management that are--management that's buying these programs.

CH: Right.  You call it "the entrepreneurial equal of McDonald's."

RP: Pretty much.  Well, I think it's the McDonaldization of society in general.  I mean, George Ritzer wrote a book on that and it's basically the quantification, the standardization, you know, turning everything into predictable control, efficiency.  You know, one size fits all and that's how it's been marketed.

CH: Well, it's a kind of form of Taylorism, really.

RP: Yeah.  Yeah, it's a standardization, especially you can see that when you look at the meditation and mindfulness app industry.  That's where I think it's--that's the epitome of the McDonaldization of mindfulness, yes.

CH: Okay.  When we come back, we will continue our conversation with Ron Purser about mindfulness.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about mindfulness with author Ron Purser.  You write, "Laissez-faire mindfulness lets dominant system decide such questions as the good."  What do you mean by that?

RP: What I mean by that is because there is no real ethical and moral vision tied to commercial and commodified forms of mindfulness, what happens is when you contextualize that, let's say, within a company or corporation, then basically the default is whatever the values of that institution, they're going to drive how that mindfulness program is utilized and how it's repurposed basically, you know, so it--you know, it could be used to increase productivity, as we were talking about.  There--it's really kind of, well, let the market decide what the good is.

CH: You quote Byung-Chul Han, if I read that correctly.  He calls this--he used the term, "Psychopolitics," in which contemporary capitalism seeks to harness the psyche as a productive force.  That's, in essence, what's happening?

RP: Yes.  I mean, we--when we started with Taylorism for example, what did we harness?

CH: Just explain for people who don't know what Taylorism is.

RP: Well, Frederick Winslow Taylor was the father of what was called scientific management.  Back in the factory days, the early factory system, they wanted to increase efficiency and productivity.  And so through time and motion studies, through standardization of tasks, fractionating task, we can retrain physical labors to perform the task in the most efficient manner.  And so we harness their bodies.  And then in the 1920s and the 1930s, we realized, well, wait a minute, people actually have feelings, they have emotions, they have needs for belonging.  And so that was insufficient, and so then we had to find ways to tap into people's sense of their needs, their needs for fit--for belonging to a corporation, a company.  And that was the work of Elton Mayo at Harvard.  It was called the human relations movement.  And so that trajectory was then tapping into, you know, how do we--how do we suppress dissent in ways by making people feel they belong to the company?  We can care for them by asking how they're feeling, you know, be a sensitive supervisor.  But this long tradition in "management science," I'll put that in quotes, has always been to yoke the subjectivity of the worker to the interest of capital.  And so now we see knowledge workers, professional workers, and so now we're actually trying to control how people use their mental capital.  So, mental capital has now become the new asset that we have to harness.

CH: I want to go back to Byung-Chul Han.  He writes and quite pressingly, you quote him in the book, "Endlessly working at self-improvement resembles the self-examination and self-monitoring of Protestantism which represents the technology of subjectification and domination in its own right.  Now, instead of searching out sins, one hunts down negative thoughts."

RP: Yes.  Yes.  I think that's an update, protestant work ethic 2.0, or if you want to call it that.  So, yeah.  So, that basically kind of creates a acceptable bandwidth of what's allowed in the workplace.  So, we don't want people really speaking up.  We don't want people objecting to toxic working conditions, unfair working conditions, so we can kind of manage people's emotions and keep them basically docile and pacified.  It's a form of internal pacification.  So, people are self-pleasing.  They're self-regulating themselves.

CH: Which is what any good, effective, religious hierarchy does very well.

RP: True.  Yeah.

CH: You talk about the difference between self-centered freedoms, which these disciplines promote and real freedoms.  Explain the difference.

RP: Well, I think one of the differences is that mindfulness, in its current contemporary form, has been all about me.  How do I make myself feel a little bit better?  And the market has really been, to middle to upper class, white people in this movement.  It's an elite--it's been an elite movement.  And so it helps people feel a little bit better so they can get back to business as usual.  And it's a--so, it's fashionable in that sense, very fashionable technique.

CH: When Zizek writes about this movement, and you quote Zizek, he said, "It's establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism.  It helps people to fully participate in the capitalist dynamic while retaining the appearance of mental sanity."  But at its core, what it's really doing is absolving people of moral responsibility in essence, isn't it?

RP: That's right.  And because people could learn how to de-stress and focus on themselves in order to function better within the status quo, so it's very accommodationist in orientation.  And so it deflects attention away from these questions about the larger social, and economic, and political issues which are causing such epidemics of stress in society.

CH: And this gets, and you quote, Foucault, the difference between what he calls "Techniques of domination administered from the outside, and techniques of the self which are administered from the inside."  So, it's this kind of symbiotic form of control.

RP: Right.  It makes individuals more governable so they're basically self-pleasing themselves rather than it having to come from external authorities.

CH: Well, it's the external forms of repression, or in essence, mast.

RP: Their mast and--becomes kind of insidious and obscured.  And it's all done within sort of the pretense of I'm freely choosing, this is a free choice.  And this goes back to how it's tied to neoliberalism in terms of how neoliberal ethos is seeping in to shaping a particular subjectivity, a particular self that is adapting to the neoliberal order.

CH: And that's why, as Ruth Widman points out, again, who you quote, "This movement, like the positive psychology movement, is often being funded by the most retrograde right-wing forces of American capitalism."

RP: Right.  Such as the Templeton Foundation.

CH: Explain who they are.

RP: The John Templeton Foundation is…

CH: Which has a staggering amount of money, yeah?

RP: A staggering amount of money…

CH: Like a billion dollars or something they handed out.

RP: Right.  And they promote research and techniques that somehow conjoin the idea of individual freedom of the market with spiritualities.  And, you know, this is not anything new in some sense because Asian spiritualities have been cooptic going back to the 18th and 19th century.

CH: That you write about in the book.

RP: Right.

CH: There was that schism and Buddhism which land itself to the sacralization of the warrior class, Christianity did the same.  I mean, I would argue every religion seized that schism including the schism within Islam, yeah.  I want to talk about, this is Henry Giroux's term, "The Disimagination Machine" because that's also an aspect of this movement.  Explain.

RP: Yes.  As I was mentioning, because mindfulness is a very individualistic, privatized activity, it then turns into a therapeutic technique which focuses on the self, and that deflects attention away then from asking more critical questions about social, and economic, and political causes of societal problems.  And so we don't really think about how we can actually come together as collectives in solidarity with other people to really solve the sources of the social origins of suffering because now we're focusing on a highly-privatized individualistic form of mindfulness, which really masks and kind of deflects away these sort of other alternative explanations for the problems that we're experiencing.  Instead, everything is sort of therapized.  It's basically turned into, oh, you know, it's your problem, you have to adjust, you have to cope, you have to adapt.

CH: And it's about how they define emotions as "free-floating, cut loose from ideological grounding."  Except for--you quote Joshua Izon, the dominant social order.  So, it's--this de-socialization of logic which is also a central part of neoliberalism is a component of mindfulness.

RP: Yes.  And I--that's sort of how it's basically operating as a form of social control, because it's advocating for a certain acceptable bandwidth like norms of what emotions are acceptable in our various public institutions, private and public institutions.  So if I--for example, if I'm experiencing anger, I'm supposed to monitor that and…

CH: Even if that anger is justified?

RP: Right.  I mean--and so that's how it's become…

CH: In a way, it's never justified under mindfulness, the way it's taught, right?

RP: Yeah.  Unfortunately, that's right.  And which is really countered to, you know, even the Dalai Lama said, "Look, anger can be justified in certain circumstances."  There's a, what we call wrathful compassion in the Buddhist tradition.  Compassion isn't all being, you know, accept--all, you know, accepting and nice, and everything.  No, there's times when, you know, we have to raise the sort of compassion.

CH: Well, if you're not angry at injustice and cruelty, and suffering, then something's wrong with you.  But, of course, that's what they're trying to wash out.  I want to ask at the end here, this is from Erich Fromm.  In this essay, "The Pathology of Normalcy," the extent to which this is contributing to what I think Fromm would call a collective pathology, a kind of social--the normalization of a disease society.

RP: Right.  He talks about the pathology of normalcy and the problems at that time with psychiatry and how psychiatry, once it became Americanized, lost its radical grips.

CH: Because what people forget is the psychoanalysts in Europe were socialists.

RP: Socialists and Marxists.

CH: And Marxist.

RP: Right.  And…

CH: And many ways, the same thing happened to the psychoanalytic movement as it's now happening to the whole mindfulness tradition that comes out of Buddhism, isn't it?

RP: Yeah.  I think that's the same pattern that we're seeing.  And, you know, there's a book by James Hillman say--I think the title is something--we've had a 100 years of psychotherapy and nothing has changed.

CH: Right.  Well, because it's been drained of all that's ethical and moral force which is where we'll have to end.  Thank you.  That was Ronald Purser about his new book, "McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality."

RP: Thank you.

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