Corporatist Spirituality

Glenn Wallis has commented on the YouTube clip that Ann Gleig sent me this (Monday, 17 Feb.) morning. I would like to thank Ann for doing so, and Glenn for cleverly working my name into the post so often.

Three not entirely unrelated things struck me about the clip, and a casual follow up perusal of the Mindfulness 2.0 website. Glenn’s patience for interrogating x-Buddhism is much greater than my own, and his post will give you both more information and more links to access information about the event, as well as the YouTube clip that motivated both his reflections there, and my own here.

The first aspect of interest was that this reveals the two step process by which mindfulness has been mainstreamed, and the extent to which it has become an expression of “Corporatist Spirituality.” I would describe (not define, as that has a tendency to kill thinking) corporatist spirituality as the use of spirituality for corporate ends. (As a concept spirituality is also deserving of a hermeneutics of suspicion, but it is used here to identify the strain of thought being employed in the social dynamics of corporatist spirituality—a disembodying of the subject which becomes embraced by the subject.) In a very real sense, once churches or temples or store-front meditation centers or Buddhist seminaries become more focused on maintaining and growing institutionally, and employ spirituality toward the ends of institutional preservation and growth, they are also instances of corporate spirituality.

(I know of some potential students who have been put off by the Institute of Buddhist Studies’ style, its lack of glamor—in the original sense of that which bedazzles and distracts—and its almost total absence of the paraphernalia of Buddhist exotica. This is intentional, and although the phrase “corporate spirituality” only occurred to me this morning, the intent of IBS’s stylistics may be located in the desire to avoid corporate spirituality, and exploitation of the consumer that is the consequence of corporate spirituality.)

This first step in mainstreaming mindfulness leading up to Mindfulness 2.0 was to remove it from its Buddhist context, that is, strip off anything that identified it as originating from Buddhism or having any characteristic that was offensively ritualistic or superstitious. The appropriation of an already decontextualized and secularized mindfulness as a quasi-medical therapeutic is part of this first step.

The perennialist claim defending this step is that mindfulness is a universal human practice, found in all religions, and is not in fact particularly Buddhist. This rhetorical claim is usually presented as self-evident and obvious, that is, not requiring justification—which as Daniel Dennett in his recent work on “intuition pumps” (along with many other thinkers in their own ways) has pointed out is a red flag that the claim is in fact dubious—it ought to be questioned. On what grounds other than an a priori conception of the subject as an isolated individual with private access to a pre- or trans-cultural and universal cognitive ground of consciousness can such a claim be made? This latter question is intended to rhetorically highlight the absence of any possible means of providing evidentiary justification for such a claim.

Having stripped mindfulness of its Buddhist identity (and let me note in passing that this is an analysis of the social dynamics of Buddhism specifically and religion more generally in present-day US and not some sectarian counter-claim intended to defend the integrity of Buddhism—which is quite able to take care of itself), the second step is that mindfulness is then presented as something that one wants to adopt so as to be a better, happier, more productive employee—or perhaps out of the simple desire to belong amongst such a techno-hip, upper middle class crowd. The kind of presentations made at Mindfulness 2.0 probably did not include any encouragement to consider a radical career change. Joining the Peace Corps and digging wells by hand in small African villages would not appear as an option for meaningful self-fulfillment among the social values pervading the event. Much less, as in the case of the YouTube clip, any encouragement or opportunity to call into question Google’s corporate policies. (Anyone with a modicum of logical training will understand that the argument: Mindfulness is good. Google promotes mindfulness. Therefore, Google is good. is a fallacy.)

That segues nicely to my second thought, which is that corporations are not people. While this may seem overworked and obvious in a post Mitt Romney era, the point is not just about political contributions, but about ethics. Many years ago, I had a disagreement with my parents about “corporate ethics.” They were asserting that there should be formal ethical statements adopted as guiding principles by corporations. Although we were in fact speaking past each other, a not untypical problem between parents and children, the issue as far as I conceived it was very simply that ethical agency only resides in people. Not being people, corporations are fundamentally incapable of acting ethically.

It is not, therefore, that Google’s motto of “don’t be evil” is insincere, or hypocritical, but rather that it is pointless. Corporations are only driven by profit (with the qualification that the social fiction of “corporation” is so deeply entrenched that even groups of people who don’t want to organize to make a profit are legally expected to do so as “not-for-profit corporations”). Profit is the sole measure that corporations (“for-profit” ones that is) adhere to. Indeed, were a corporate executive to make a decision that cost the corporation a significant amount of profit on the grounds that it was the ethically proper thing to do, they would be subject to being removed from their position.

This in turn segues to my third thought, which has to do with the study of Buddhist history. The long-standing focus on Buddhist philosophy is not only in large part crypto-theology, but also serves to focus attention away from the social history of Buddhism. The other focus of contemporary Buddhism in the west is on individual awakening, individual experience, individual transformation. This also keeps the focus of attention away from social history.

But reflecting on the sponsorship of Mindfulness 2.0, which includes many more corporations in addition to Google itself, may lead us to ask about the economics of Buddhism, the role of sponsorship and the effects thereof. This is not only a contemporary issue, but one that extends into Buddhist history. We know, for example, that King Aśoka played a key role in the institutional development of Buddhism. Other kings and emperors across Asia played similar roles. But the effects of court patronage is relatively understudied (as is the economics of religion generally). Ron Davidson’s work Indian Esoteric Buddhism is a positive example in this regard, considering the role of the Guptas and feudalism in medieval India in the formation of the tantric movement.

But for the more philosophically or theologically inclined such questions seem either irrelevant or irreverent. And so the relation between sponsorship and the messages of Mindfulness 2.0 remains occluded. The believer cloaked in typically American soft-pragmatism might ask, Why do you want to talk about that when mindfulness is so beneficial? To which the not purely rhetorical question may be asked in reply, Beneficial to whom, for what, and in what way?

As I’ve said elsewhere and will no doubt repeat myself again and again, mindfulness and all other practices are not simply value-neutral, context-free mental hygienics, a mental tool for self-improvement. All tools are ideologies—they exercise the values of their makers and instantiate those values in their users.

17 thoughts on “Corporatist Spirituality

  1. When I think of corporatist spirituality I think of the many splendid monasteries of the squalid little town of Bodhgaya. The whole region is populated by the poorest of the poor in India (which is really, really poor) and yet Buddhists have been focussed on building temples and massive statues for many years – raising the prices of local land, etc.

    In this vein I also think of the samurai class in Japan who adopted many of our techniques in order to better kill opponents in battle and yet have never received the kind of opprobrium being heaped on Mindfulness therapies. When I trained in martial arts as a youngster I learned that they were invented by Buddhist monks. When I became a Buddhist I realised that many Buddhists are involved in teaching and practising martial arts and that most accepted the idea that martial arts are an offshoot of Buddhism. But I’ve never heard a Buddhist complain that they have secularised our techniques only to pervert them and make money from them (though this is certainly true in many cases).

    As for who benefits and how:
    PLOS One shows 5888 hits with the keyword mindfulness.
    PubMed shows 1795 hits for mindfulness.

    Of all the corporate sponsored tools of ideology that a tearing our world apart and oppressing the 99%, why is mindfulness in your sights? I genuinely wonder.

  2. Dear Jayarava, Thank you for your ever thoughtful contribution to the discussion. Starting at the end, mindfulness is in my sights, as you put it, not out of any particular intent to denigrate the practice, which I’ve also done and encouraged others to take up, but in this particular instance because of the framework within which it has been relocated to serve corporate interests. Simply because in this manifestation it feels as if something that I value has been not just appropriated, but expropriated. There are now lots of people who will only know it in this form. I know that there are other “corporate sponsored tools of ideology” that are destructive, which I hope can be disarmed by analysis as well, but this is one that I presume to know something about, and make an informed analysis of. It is also, I believe, worthwhile as Buddhists to reflect on what happens when Buddhism is institutionalized in any fashion (not, of course, that there is some pure individualized for of Buddhism that is sullied by institutionalization, but rather the need to be self-consciously reflective of the effects of institutionalization and responsible for it).
    Your points about who benefits and how are quite well taken. My point, however, was not to question the efficacy of mindfulness practice or of its therapeutic applications, but rather to highlight the tendency to simply presume its utility and to not frame the question of what that means. However the early Buddhists might have conceived of the efficacy of meditation, something that you would be able to speak to much much better than I, it was probably not in terms of stress-reduction, or reducing cognitive rigidity. I actually would agree with the claim that mindfulness like other meditative and contemplative techniques is a skill that can be learned. What I hoped to call into question, however, was the not uncommon claim that it is value-neutral and context-free.
    As for heaping opprobrium on the samurai, well yes indeed. My own reflection on that would be to think about how as a teenager I happily adopted D.T. Suzuki’s romanticized representation of the “Zen of swordsmanship” and saw no contradiction between my own claims of a pacifist Buddhism and practicing martial arts. So not only is the ideal of pacifist Buddhism problematic, but real samurai were not interested in achieving a higher state of consciousness through confronting death, but rather wanted to win, that is, kill their opponent. The kind of samurai practice represented by Suzuki as “Zennish” were those in Tokugawa whose military function had been removed and had become largely bureaucrats with swords. However, my adolescent sensibilities were unable to distinguish them from the samurai of Japanese period piece movies.
    I hope that this clarifies where my concerns actually are, and again, thank you.

  3. Hi Richard, Yes I see where you are coming from. I’m processing many comments on mindfulness at the moment from many different sources, including a number of Buddhist friends and colleagues who offer mindfulness as a therapy (one of whom has been highly successful in the corporate world). And my responses are getting a bit generalised. But I see you are making a more subtle point than many.

    However I’m not sure I share your proprietary feelings towards Buddhism or it’s parts.

    I have quite strong antipathy towards the Neoliberal (or as I say Neolibertarian) hegemony enacted through the military-industrial complex (with government as the entertainment wing). I see them as a malignant and parasitical presence in the world. I’m also acutely aware that generally speaking Buddhists meet this problem with political disengagement, not to say apathy; with ignorance and Romantic fantasies. Which is to say, with just the kind of behaviour that allowed the Neolibertarians to take over the world in the first place. I drop the occasional economics-heavy blog into my writing, but they are not well read. I believe that Buddhists lack interest in these matters because they are “matters” not “spirits”, that we are lost in the matter/spirit dichotomy and busy trying to be “spiritual”. But that is another story.

    What is certain is that Buddhism has had very little positive impact on Western Society since the 1970s when it really began to settle in. We are still less than one percent of the population, and religious discourse is dominated by Christian and Islamic fundamentalists and Catholic child abuse scandals. During that time we’ve seen the Neoliberal agenda take over most Western governments and large businesses. Lewis Powell’s call to arms ( has been heeded and the war is going badly for liberals. So just carrying on doing what we’ve been doing is not a viable option.

    One of the interesting areas of actual engagement is those of my colleagues who are taking mindfulness out to corporates. Perhaps this is dining with the Devil. Or perhaps the interaction with our values will make a difference? Perhaps the techniques of mindfulness will not simply help corporate drones deal better with stress, but also make them think about their actions as well?

    Another thing that strikes me about Buddhist history is this. That Buddhism has never taken root in a culture *until* it has been co-opted by the governing elite. This certainly seems to have been true of India, Tibet, China and Japan. I have’t looked so closely at other places, but I suspect the same pattern occurs everywhere. I’ve been saying for a while that in the UK we need to infect the Royal Family with the Buddhism bug. Prince Charles is the perfect target. Not sure how Americans will move things forward – the political landscape is so different.

    As such I see Mindfulness as potentially a trojan horse for Buddhism in the world of the powerful elites. Although we still have the samurai as a salutary warning. I know that one of my mentors who is teaching Mindfulness as a therapy finds that about 1 student in every class becomes really curious about examining their experience and wants to go deeper. And from that they are building up a new local sangha from people with no prior interest in Buddhism per se. In the modern world religion is a dirty word. My landlady, a retired history teacher, informs me with shocking vehemence and hatred that “Religion is shit! Just shit! Shit! SHIT!” Not an isolated opinion these days. Faced with that attitude I tend to move into the “Buddhism is not a religion camp”, unless talking to actual Buddhists (when I like to remind them of just how much a religion Buddhism really is).

    Anyway I think we could see the corporate expropriation of mindfulness as potentially a good thing. If they genuinely practice it, then it will affect them. But anything is better than what we’ve been doing for the last 40 years, which amounts to very little. I’m glad something new is happening and will watch with interest. And I think it’s a shame that so many Buddhists are so very negative about this development.

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  6. Mindfulness, meditation, arose in Buddhism but are not confined to it. I don’t see the need for sectarianism or the need to consider Buddhism a religion. It is extended ego thinking, identification, attachment. The practice is the main thing, however you label it. However making mindfulness a tool with the assumed aim of getting more productive employees is a misuse. It sounds like an alternative to all that positive psychology stuff. I would hope at least that some Google employees might become mindful enough to question whether working for Google is a good use of their talents.

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  8. HOW IS MINDFULNESS BUDDHIST? “Mindfulness” here in your article goes undefined (as it does most of the time). The English term “mindfulness” started as a bad translation of smṛti, which just means remembering. Is memory Buddhist? But maybe you mean the result of certain types of meditation? What traditional zen master called that mindFUL? Maybe you mean the achievement of śamatha/shyiné? It shows a gross lack of historical understanding to assume that śamatha shyiné or ānāpāna are Buddhist. Did Buddhism “strip these of their Hindu context” when IT adopted them? What is the ideology from which these “originated” that you want to be represented in their teaching? Mindfulness, used like these corporations and you use it, is a Western concept. The fault lies in the presentation of this as traditionally Buddhist, which in fact Mindfulness 2.0 and such are trying to avoid, and articles like this make and then blame others for not making it. Yes “mindfulness” in the west was originally presented (by Western Buddhists) as a Buddhist concept. But try to widen your historical perspective past the last 50 years in America and maybe you won’t make the same mistake. I certainly don’t see any traditional teachers making that mistake.

  9. And, I stress, arguments like in this article push against not just corporate use (aka “the bad guys”) but uses like MBSR done in prisons and in cognitive behavioral therapy, which would also “strip mindfulness of its Buddhist ideology” in the way you object to. There is serious harm in this. That’s why I can’t help but respond.

    • Having spent way too much time trying to understand the barrage of claims and ad hominems in the first comment, I reaized that the real point of concern motivating the anger is here in the second. Somehow my comments have done “serious harm.” I’m not sure how two posts on corporate spirituality does harm to such practices as the use of MBSR in prisons and other therapeutic applications. If some prison administrator out there reads my post (which personally I find highly unlikely) and decides to not approve MBSR training because he doesn’t want to be associated with the likes of Google, that is pretty obviously a misreading. My concern is with the manipulative and abusive uses of spirituality generally (not just MBSR, mindfulness of whatever stripe, or any other kind of spirituality). As such, it should have been clear that the utility and efficacy of a practice such as MBSR is a different question from the corporatist context within which it may be deployed for entirely different goals–and particularly because in a global capitalist context those goals are so naturalized that they are often made invisible, to both participants and promoters.
      That said, the argument here is comparable to those who said that the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests should not be made public, much less brought to the attention of legal authorities for prosecution, because that would hurt the Church. To paraphrase Tutteji’s citations of Sloterdijk, if it doesn’t stand up to being laughed at, then it isn’t the truth. If a psycho-spiritual practice collapses because the wider consequences of its deployment by corporations are discussed, rather than only focusing on the individualized benefits, then there is something problematic about the practice itself since it cannot be adequately supported by its individualized benefits.
      If you didn’t like these posts, stayed tuned for a discussion of the internal contradiction between scandals and the x-Buddhist rhetoric of automatic morality.

  10. Sorry to seem that I seemed angry, what it is is frustration over how frequently I see members of my generation attempt to co-op Buddhism into part of their own political agenda. Whether you are doing that here I can’t say, if I did say that then I actually would be psychologizing and approaching ad hominem arguments. Which I didn’t mean to come off as doing in the first comment, though I don’t really see where that happens, ad hominem generally means attacking an irrelevant fact about the person you are in an argument with, i.e. “you’re just a student,” or “you’re not a Buddhist.” Was it the fact that I used capital letters? Sorry I can’t figure out how to do italics on here so they were a bit all over the place. But I didn’t mean to insult you personally so please don’t take it that way.

    And I totally agree that all these things should be examined! In the second post I didn’t try to quiet you (like the Church), I was just explaining my motivation–as perhaps I should have made clearer. It was an attempt to be transparent, not a real argument–that’s what’s above. Though note that the fact that probably no prison administer will ever read these arguments doesn’t absolve one from the responsibility of their consequences.

    That said, you left unanswered the actual arguments, or, what demanded the most attention, a definition of what you mean by mindfulness.

    But really maybe spend a little more time looking into my “barrage of claims” (or historical facts and objections, whatever you want to call them) and think about what is really meant by mindfulness. I am no expert, and I really am interested how people use the term (meaning is use?) but as far as I can see it is not to refer to anything that is originally Buddhist.

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