No Coping Mechanism Is Safe from Neoliberalism

[FREE VERSION] How mindfulness became a tool of corporate capitalism and U.S. imperialism

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Admittedly, the title and cover of McMindfulness leave much to be desired. Depicting a Buddha statue with Ronald McDonald hair and clown makeup scrawled atop, it could only be more Banksy if the title was written in the McDonald’s font (thankfully, it is not). The subtitle, however, is much more enticing, promising to tell the reader “how mindfulness became the new capitalist spirituality.”

Over the course of 300 or so pages, author Ronald Purser demonstrates just that, and even manages to justify the title as a fairly apt comparison, not just a hackneyed naming convention. From the jump, Purser makes clear that he himself is a practicing Buddhist, and his critique is not of traditional Buddhist concepts of mindfulness, but rather the new lineage created by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who’s somewhat of a celebrity mindfulness guru. Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness got its start in 1979, which Purser notes is the same year that neoliberal icons Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan took power. Since then, Kabat-Zinn’s bastardization of mindfulness has only grown more and more popular, which isn’t a coincidence. 

Chapter by chapter, Purser illustrates how mindfulness has infiltrated every level of society, from the average corporate workplace to the billionaire elite class, from elementary schools to the military. The governments of the U.S. and U.K. have invested millions of dollars and pounds in the study and promotion of various mindfulness-based interventions. The U.K. even has its own Mindfulness All Party Parliamentary Group, which develops policy recommendations based on mindfulness research. On a surface level, it seems totally contradictory that these governments would invest so heavily in a practice derived from a non-Western religion, considering the West’s staunch opposition to non-Christian expressions of spirituality. 

“As a consequence of a refusal to adhere to an ethical framework, the mindfulness industry has become a tool of neoliberalism, reinforced by and reinforcing the notion that all problems can be solved through individual will.”

But as Purser shows, the mainstreaming of mindfulness can be attributed in a large part to branding. Kabat-Zinn and other practitioners of his strain of mindfulness simultaneously attempt to lay a claim to Buddhist authenticity while also branding the practice with the veneer of hard science (even though the evidence, like with many mental health interventions, isn’t all there). Purser and other practicing Buddhists aren’t opposed to using mindfulness for secular contexts; the problem is that Western mindfulness practitioners flip on the Buddhism switch when it’s convenient for branding purposes, and flip it off when it’s not. What’s more, Purser argues that Kabat-Zinn has unwittingly founded his own Buddhist lineage, one in which the unchanging self is the highest authority. This runs counter to traditional Buddhism, which dispenses with the notion of a concrete self and instead says that a primary cause of dissatisfaction in life is the fact that the self, like all things, is impermanent. 

So how did this ideological split occur? Other than the obvious answer of cultural appropriation, Purser’s core argument is that………………