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How Mindfulness Morphed from Ancient Spiritual Practice to Big Business

Ron Purser

The roots of mindfulness as a spiritual practice go back thousands of years. But today, corporations like Facebook and Google are using it as a technique to extract more productivity and more profits from workers.

A meditation event hosted by Ted Danson and Cigna’s Dr Stuart Lustig encouraging people to create a plan to manage their stress on October 10, 2019 in New York City. (Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images)

Interview by
Liza Featherstone

“Breathe!” The contemporary white-collar worker is constantly exhorted. Capitalism drives us crazy and makes us sick. But whatever the malady — anxiety, hypertension, or trouble focusing at work — “mindfulness” is touted as the cure.

On November 21, at McNally Jackson’s bookstore in Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, Jacobin’s Liza Featherstone talked with Ron Purser, a practicing Buddhist and a professor of management at San Francisco State University, about his new book McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, on the present-day neoliberal uses of this ancient practice.


LF

Stress is such a ubiquitous complaint now. But I learned from reading your book that as a feeling, phenomenon, and word, it’s fairly new. Can you historicize stress for us?

RP

The term “stressed out” didn’t enter the common parlance until the early 1980s.

There was this bizarre diagnosis, in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, called neurasthenia. Also often referred to as nerve disorder or a problem of nervous exhaustion, it afflicted primarily the upper class, the elites.

LF

Especially intellectuals!

RP

Yes, Theodore Roosevelt and William James were diagnosed with this — and many women.

LF

Yes, intellectuals and women.

RP

George Beard, a Boston neurologist, is credited with coming up with this diagnosis. It was very fashionable at that time. It was seen even as a badge of honor to come down with neurasthenia because people in the upper classes weren’t getting their hands dirty, like laborers. And so they said, well, you know, this is the price you pay for success.

LF

And it showed how sensitive you were!

RP

Yes. In fact, the middle, upper-middle classes, and elites were seen as having more sensitive nervous systems because they were doing more mental work.

So for women, the treatment for neurasthenia was to isolate them for weeks, put them in bed, and not allow them to read books or do anything. That was called the rest cure. Some men were given the rest cure, but it generally was considered too feminine for them. So they had to go out into the wilderness and do vigorous exercise. And then there were bizarre electrodes put on people to try to replenish their “nerve energy,” because neurasthenia was seen as a depletion of nerve energy.

Obviously there was something happening. Did these people physiologically suffer in relationship to what was going on economically with the rise of industrialization? And then by the 1910, 1920, it just disappeared. The diagnosis went out of fashion.

Hans Selye, a Harvard physician, was dubbed the father of stress in the 1950s. And with Selye, there’s a hidden history. Not many people know that Selye was being funded by the tobacco industry. The tobacco industry was interested in taking attention away from any connection between nicotine addiction and smoking and cardiovascular diseases and so on. They had lawyers tell Selye — for great sums of money — what to say. And he began testifying at government hearings saying that actually cigarette smoking was a form of stress relief.

But I think something important to say is that this is a biological model of stress — that stress is seen through the lens of a biomedical model, as an individualistic maladaptation to the environment. It’s seen as a privatized interior affair. It becomes completely depoliticized and pathologized. Not only that, the discourse of stress, which has now been disseminated throughout our culture, becomes a doctrine. So [now] stress is just a natural given within a capitalist economy that we as individuals have to learn how to adapt to. We have to “mindful up,” as I put it, to self-correct and compensate.

Dana Becker wrote a beautiful book (One Nation Under Stress: The Problem with Stress as an Idea), and she calls this the doctrine of “stressism” — where stress is seen as strictly a poor lifestyle choice. That disconnects it from the social and the economic and political factors. So that’s the explanatory framework for stress, and the mindfulness movement buys completely into that.

LF

So mindfulness then becomes the perfect remedy.

RP

It’s the cure on offer.

LF

The purveyors of mindfulness that you describe in your book make a lot of claims for mindfulness as a science — a lot of empirical claims about its efficacy, its effects on our brains, and so forth. What are these claims, and how should we evaluate them?

RP

Reducing blood pressure, reducing anxiety, reducing depression.                  I don’t dispute that there are benefits, but they are modest. That is what the meta-analytic studies are saying. The results are not miraculous — probably no better than going walking in the woods or going for a jog.

These methods can provide stress relief. They can provide benefits, but the way they’re being deployed is a neoliberal cooptation, where they are then refashioned as performance enhancement methods in alignment with institutional goals, whether it’s a corporation or the military.

So even though there could be health benefits, those health benefits may be reduced or minimized when they’re redeployed to increase productivity or to further the need for social harmony or reduced dissent, in corporations in particular.

LF

Let’s talk about mindfulness in the corporate setting. It seems like mindfulness has been embraced enthusiastically by Google and some of the biggest giants of the corporate world. Why?

RP

I think it became so popular in corporations because there are threats to capital right now. A Gallup poll that came out a few years back that everyone cites, even the mindfulness merchants, estimated $300 billion a year is lost due to stress-related absences. Seven out of ten employees report being disengaged from their work.

Historically, we used to have ways of expressing dissent through unions, and we had an employee voice. Those have been decimated, obviously. So now the only way to express it is through psychosomatic symptoms. And as Nicole Aschoff argues in her book The New Prophets of Capital, capitalism needs to find new cultural ideas that it can use to help reproduce and maintain itself in times of crisis. So after 2008, we see a sudden interest in corporate mindfulness.

LF

Capitalism has always needed us to be alienated from our labor to some extent, but then we see that maybe too much alienation on the part of workers becomes a problem even for the capitalists.

RP

Yes. It’s a long history. Corporations have always used social science, behavioral scientists, to find ways to yoke the subjectivity of the worker to the interests of capital.

It was called “scientific management” in the time of Frederick Taylor. It was also called a mental revolution back then. And Elton Mayo, an early twentieth century industrial psychologist confronting mental and knowledge work asked, how can we harness people’s psyches, their deep subjective desires, and reshape them so that they’re aligned with corporate interests? Corporate mindfulness is the latest iteration of that approach.

LF

So mindfulness is supposed to get more productivity out of us.

RP

And it’s sold that way. I have sat in on workshops by some of the most prominent corporate mindfulness teachers and trainers on how to sell and pitch mindfulness to companies. And it was all about leading with productivity improvement. You would purposely not pitch it as being humanistic, believe it or not, in order to sell it.

It’s also a form of virtue signaling. You could, as part of public relations say, “Oh, look how much we care for employees. We’re doing mindfulness.” But the way it’s sold to management, they’re not going to buy this stuff if it doesn’t affect the bottom line in some way.

LF

What’s your main objection to mindfulness in the corporate setting?

RP

It takes the onus off the corporation to take responsibility for the conditions that are making individuals stressed in the first place and places the onus onto those individuals. And these programs did not allow any kind of dialogue or systematic diagnosis of the real causes of workplace stressors. So the problem is, “You’re stressed out? Here’s a mindfulness course, and get back to work.” “You’re working seventy hours a week? What’s wrong with that?”

And not just that, but I mean, look at the irony of Google or Facebook. They all have mindfulness programs. Let’s say, for example, Google engineers are becoming more focused, more concentrated, more productive through engaging in these mindfulness practices in order to produce software algorithms and externalities which are basically weapons of mass distraction. We’re not taking into account the purpose for which mindfulness is being used. That’s not on the radar.

LF

I was surprised — and I think other readers will be too — by the use of mindfulness by the US military. Can you tell us about how the military uses mindfulness and why it’s appealing to them?

RP

They’re calling it mindfulness. I don’t think it is, but Mindfulness and Mental Fitness Training (MMFT) was started by a former army intelligence officer, Elizabeth Stanley, who is at Georgetown, in collaboration with Amishi Jha, who’s a neuroscientist now at University of Miami. They took an interest in training combatants during pre-deployment training. So before people are sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, they’re given a training in mindfulness — their form of mindfulness.

I see it as basically attention training, concentration training. The idea behind it is that if we can train soldiers to be more mindful they might be less likely to overreact. They could save civilian lives and not, you know, accidentally shoot a child or something. That’s fantastic. But we’re taking a practice which was derived from Buddhism, and the whole fundamental tenet is non-harming and compassion for all sentient beings, including enemies. And we’re decontextualizing it, and weaponizing it, for that matter, to make better sharpshooters. I went into the Department of Defense documents. They call it “optimizing warrior performance.”

What led me to this project is I thought there was a betrayal of these teachings. They have been refashioned for instrumental purposes. I have a deep respect for the tradition. It’s been around 2,600 years. It’s about spiritual liberation. It’s about cultivating wisdom and compassion. So [neoliberal mindfulness] is orthogonal to the whole impetus of the Buddhist tradition. And that’s very problematic for me.

End Mark

About the Author

Ron Purser is a professor of management at San Francisco State University and the author of McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality.

About the Interviewer

Liza Featherstone is a columnist for Jacobin, a freelance journalist, and the author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart.

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