Capitalistic Therapy

‘…although “Western Buddhism” presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of capitalistic dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Glassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement.’[1]

For Slavoj Zizek, Western Buddhism is sold as a cure, or at least a solution for the stress of the capitalistic society that is our world. But he argues that in fact, through Buddhist practise, we as individuals are able to take more on and therefore contemporary mindfulness does not hel to diminish the problems thrown onto us, yet in fact allows us to take on more. Zizek has rightly put Western Buddhism within quotation marks, as his issues are not that of Western Buddhism, yet that of the contemporary mindfulness movement that is rippling through the Western World; embodied in apps, literature and classes; any sellable product in fact[2]. Mindfulness, in this sense has become a product, a product that can be promoted with being both Buddhist, yet often not religious, and with great medical benefits. It has become a spiritual pill that the Western World has become eager to consume.

The ideologies of mindfulness being uncoupled from Buddhism has become widely desirable, yet has this devalued and “watered-down” the practice? For many yes, but I am writing to argue that a clear cut needs to be made between the religious practice and contemporary mindfulness. Currently mindfulness is an entity that cannot be held accountable due to its elastic form. It is a fluid activity where users and advocates can pick and choose when, and to what degree they can refer to their practice as “Buddhist”. There is the potential for both Buddhism as a religion and also mindfulness as a practice to both become devalued. I will turn to From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism, to analyse the devaluing of Buddhism as a religion due to Zizek’s sweeping generalisations of Buddhist practice as a whole. The reduction of secularised mindfulness is devalued and abused, through such actions as corporations holding mindful seminars in attempts to increase productivity.

Meditation for a Buddhist is not a contemporary trend, but is a practice that has been undertaken with enlightenment as the end goal. It is a way in which the Buddhist can understand the three marks of existence; impermanence, suffering and non-self. Mindfulness (Sati) is a term which has become adopted within the West; the Buddhist Sati is not only about deep focus and looking within, yet this is often the Western perspective. The blanketing terminology of the West is depreciating the core Buddhist values. Western Buddhism is often rooted from the “New Burmese Method” which was established by Mahasi Sayadow. The movement centres around the notions of “Bare Attention”, a meditative practice focusing on the present moment. This method was designed so that advanced skill or previous Buddhist knowledge was not required; it provides the laymen with Buddhist Practice[3]. This notion of “Bare Attention” is the basis of most Western mindfulness action. It is a very partial element of Buddhist thought. The East and the West have very differing core beliefs due to culturally embedded morals and values. This is quite problematic for Western Buddhism as there are certain ideals that go against Western culture. Kulananda argues that for Buddhism to have a radical effect on the world we live in, we need to focus on integrating Western society into Buddhism appose to integrating Buddhism into Western society.[4] The pick and mix approach that Western non-Buddhists have taken where they are selecting a small element of Buddhist practice and labelling it as such, will have no effect upon our society Kulanada is arguing.

With the contemporary mindfulness movement that is heavily focused on fixing the Self, with doctors and practitioners often turning to mindful practice as an alternative to prescribing pharmaceutical medication. The Mental health foundation promotes two key programmes; Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).[5] Both of which are designed to help those suffering from mental health illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Mindfulness in this sense is used to cure a problem, it is used as a responsive action. Chris Mace’s Mindfulness and Mental Health uses a selection of quotes to define mindfulness, all of which emphasises paying attention to the present moment. He writes that many authors differ in their definition of mindfulness dependant on their point of view; whether they are writing from a Buddhist or a psychological stance.[6] For Mace, there is a definite divide between religious and psychological mindfulness. Mace therefore does not feel that the other elements; wisdom and ethics, are necessary for mindful practice to be accredited, a stance that health services have also taken on. Christopher Titmuss applies his Buddhist perspective to this divide and claims that:

‘Some orthodox religious Buddhists, privately and publicly, suspect that there is a “watering down” of the Buddha’s Dharma. I am asked regularly my views on this. I feel religious Buddhists sometimes miss the point. The Buddha’s teachings have a single priority, namely the resolution of suffering. Mindfulness courses, retreats and programmes make a contribution for inner change for individuals for peace of mind and the sense of well-being.’[7]

So for Titmuss, mindfulness courses relieve dukkha from the world, he places dukkha within the Individual. Within secular parameters this is a feasible argument and individual ailments relievable through mindfulness, is a practice that should be promoted. But to deduce that the Buddha’s teaching to resolve suffering is within the individual is not beneficial for greater social change. When illustrating corporate uses of mindful practice as a way to resolve suffering is counterproductive. With this argument mindfulness is holding the flag of religion to justify their usage. Contemporary mindfulness is a different entity to Buddhist mindfulness, yet with scientific theory and religious justification it is a tool that is easily adaptable for abuse.

‘Buddhist wisdom is touted as the very antithesis of depression, rather than eliciting an attempt to escape the world. Buddhism is seen as a science of happiness, as a way of easing the pain. Buddhist practice in turn is reduced to meditation, and meditation is reduced to mindfulness which is touted as an empirically validated means of living a more emotionally and rewarding way of life.[8]

The value of Buddhism has become lost in a sea of self-help books and medical pamphlets. Mindfulness has become “empirically validate”, language that falls in the realms of science. Mindfulness in this sense is target and goal driven. X amount of clients have benefited from X amount of hours. The religious element has been entirely dropped and only this “present-focused” state of mind has been left. This is not Buddhism, this is way to decrease mental illness. Mindfulness has become quantifiable, a tool that can be used to analyse progress. Mobile apps such as headspace allow for users to track their own progress and monitor their personal wellbeing. Opportunities to set up mindful facilities and to become mindful practitioners is available to any aspiring entrepreneur. No experience necessary. The market is entirely unregulated.

Miles Neale has often expressed his concerns with the “watered-down” mindful practice.  He uses language like ‘Frozen Yoga’[9] and ‘Mcmindfulness’[10] to refer to the lacking depth and potential of the contemporary mindfulness movement. Neale is insinuating the shallowness of the practice and expresses concern that practitioners are only attaining a surface level[11]. ‘Meditation for the masses, drive-through style, stripped of its essential ingredients, pre-packaged and neatly stocked on the shelves of the commercial self-help supermarkets.’[12] Neal is arguing that mindfulness is only the cream in the middle of an Oreo, the biscuit being ethics and Wisdoms; which are just as important. ‘You can just have the cream—it’s lovely—but it’s more delicious as a cookie.’[13] With contemporary mindfulness hiding behind the guise of Buddhism, he argues this can prove to be problematic. If users are practicing mindfulness under the pretence of being towards enlightenment and understand mindfulness as Buddhism, then the religious aspect has become totally undermined and Buddhism has become devalued with this Western perspective. Writers such as Zizek contribute to this devaluing of Buddhist practice with such claims that the ‘Western Buddhists [are] unaware that the “truth” of his existence is in fact the social involvement which he tends to dismiss as a mere game.’[14] For Zizek, Buddhism is a “playful” religion and Buddhists have their heads buried in the sand, avoiding and dismissing the actual environment that encompasses their existence. By such claims he has generalised all Buddhist practice as ignorant of the surrounding world. His argument, I believe, is in fact against the contemporary mindfulness movement that is spreading throughout the West, and is not towards Buddhism. Yet as mindfulness can thrust “Buddhism” to the forefront of their practice whenever they choose, the differentiating values of Buddhism and contemporary mindfulness can easily become muddled.

With a separation and a clear cut made between contemporary mindfulness and Buddhism, both practices would benefit with its own set of individual values. As long as contemporary mindfulness is not taken as a Buddhist practice then Neal’s concerns fall apart. Users of mindfulness will be participating in mindfulness for merely that; they are not interested in the full scope of the Buddha’s teaching. To illustrate this I will look to a cyclist; a cyclist who only uses their bike to travel to and from work is not using the tool of their bike to its full potential, and is not pushing themselves to maximum fitness. Yet the cyclist and the environment are benefiting from the users choice of transport. So in this analogy, full potential of an action, does not mean the action is lacking value.

Capitalism has engulfed the contemporary mindfulness movement of the West. A concern that Zizek highlights in the opening quote of this essay, where he looks to mindfulness as functioning as [a] perfect ideological supplement’[15] for the rat-race we call life. Cut-throat corporations are inflicting high level of stress upon their employees, with terrible work conditions, long working hours and high levels of scrutiny. Mindfulness is being projected as a remedy for the stress that employees are under; yet the true nature of corporations putting staff on mindful courses, or to undertake meditation is really a bid to improve productivity. The value of mindfulness is being abused. It is being acted out as a means to an end. As a tool to procure more capital.

‘“Meditating at work might … make you happier,” concurred two writers in the Fairfax press earlier in October. “But you know what else might make us happier at work? Packing up and going home on time.”’[16]

In a Forbes article, mindfulness is described as a ‘great way to make it through your busy day in a calm and productive manner’[17]. This leaves a rather sour taste on the tongue; mindfulness described as a tool to be productive, a way to increase productivity within the corporate world. Through such abuse of mindful practice, capitalism are in fact sidestepping the blaming finger for the causation of stress, and conveniently turning the finger to point to the individual. The quantifiable approach to mindfulness that the psychotherapists advocate is the mindfulness business are using, yet with a “spiritual but not religious” approach declared. The fuzziness surrounding the definition of mindfulness and the selectiveness of the practice allows for abuse to occur. There is no clear outline of what contemporary mindfulness is, this medicating of the business world is only possible as contemporary mindfulness as a secular entity has not been defined. If it had than there would be no difference from a business trying to medicate stress by prescribing pharmaceuticals to their staff as there would be with employing meditation classes.

Neale logically strips down the position corporations are holding that it is the individual that needs to be transformed. He does this by looking towards the “three poisons” that the Buddha defines; greed, ill will and delusion. Which for a Buddhist is something to overcome, yet Neale writes that these are ‘no longer confined to individual minds, but have become institutionalised into forces beyond personal control.’[18] David Loy illustrates these “institutional poisons” concisely in an article written for the Insight Journal. He writes that greed stems from profit driven corporations and that society has an inability to consume enough, ill will due to an increase in militarisation and delusion he blames the media.[19]

Buddhism and mindfulness alike are both being devalued and accessible for abuse through capitalism due to the elasticity of the term mindfulness. By defining clearly that contemporary mindfulness is secular and is its own entity than the devaluing of Buddhism and mindfulness will cease to occur. Buddhism will no longer be tainted with the “watered down” version of their practice. Whereas mindfulness will no longer be usable for a means to an end, by corporations using mindfulness as a way to boost productivity. It is deemed unethical for a company to prescribing stress relieving medication upon their staff and if contemporary mindfulness becomes defined as a medical tool then it would therefore become just as much an ethical issue. To further this practitioners of mindfulness will be regulated and a level of qualification will be required to trade in this medical activity. To conclude with looking at the opening quote, I stand behind Zizek that mindfulness is being used as a tool to improve productivity and is being abused by the corporate world. This abuse of mindfulness would become eradicated if a divide between Buddhist practice and contemporary usage is established. I am concerned with Zizek’s generalisation as I believe writers such as him are devaluing Buddhism by coupling the practice of Buddhism with the contemporary mindfulness movement.

[1] Slavoj Zizek, “From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism”, Cabinet, Issue 2 (Spring 2001)

[2] Delaney Brigid, “If 2014 Was The Year Of Mindfulness, 2015 Was The Year Of Fruitlessly Trying To Debunk It | Brigid Delaney”, The Guardian, 2017 <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/19/if-2014-was-the-year-of-mindfulness-2015-was-the-year-of-fruitlessly-trying-to-debunk-it&gt; [accessed 14 March 2017].

[3]Robert H. Sharf – Mindfulness Or Mindlessness (ASI 2013)”, Youtube, 2017 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c6Avs5iwACs&gt; [accessed 1 April 2017].

[4] Kulananda., Western Buddhism, 1st edn (London: HarperCollins, 1997). 233

[5] “How To Look After Your Mental Health Using Mindfulness”, Mental Health Foundation, 2017 <https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/how-look-after-your-mental-health-using-mindfulness&gt; [accessed 26 March 2017].

[6] Chris Mace, Mindfulness And Mental Health, 1st edn (Hove, East Sussex [Angleterre]: Routledge, 2008), 3-4.

[7] “The Buddha Of Mindfulness. A Stress Destruction Programme”, Christopher Titmuss Dharma Blog, 2017 <https://www.christophertitmussblog.org/the-buddha-of-mindfulness-the-politics-of-mindfulness&gt; [accessed 2 April 2017].

[8] Robert H. Sharf – Mindfulness Or Mindlessness

[9] Danny Fisher, “Frozen Yoga And Mcmindfulness: Miles Neale On The Mainstreaming Of Contemplative Religious Practices”, Lion’s Roar, 2017 <https://www.lionsroar.com/frozen-yoga-and-mcmindfulness-miles-neale-on-the-mainstreaming-of-contemplative-religious-practices/&gt; [accessed 19 March 2017].

[10]Ron Purser & David Loy “Beyond Mcmindfulness”, The Huffington Post, 2017 <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ron-purser/beyond-mcmindfulness_b_3519289.html&gt; [accessed 28 March 2017].

[11] Danny Fisher, “Frozen Yoga”

[12] Ibid

[13] Danny Fisher, “Frozen Yoga”

[14] Zizek, “Western Marxism”

[15] Ibid

[16] Brigid, “Year of Mindfulness”

[17] “Forbes Welcome”, Forbes.Com, 2017 <https://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2016/04/01/5-ways-you-can-use-mindfulness-to-fix-your-brain-reduce-stress-and-boost-performance/#49457d142714&gt; [accessed 1 April 2017].

[18] Purser & Roy, “Beyond McMindfulness”

[19] David Loy, “The Three Institutional Poisons: Challenging Collective Greed, Ill Will, & Delusion”, Bcbsdharma.Org, 2017 <https://www.bcbsdharma.org/article/the-three-institutional-poisons-challenging-collective-greed-ill-will-delusion/&gt; [accessed 3 April 2017].

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Capitalistic Therapy

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