How corporates co-opted the art of mindfulness to make us bear the unbearable

Mindfulness is an ideal tool to induce compliance. Flickr/David Gabriel Fischer, CC BY

“If you understand, things are just as they are; if you do not understand, things are just as they are.” Hsin Hsin Ming

Almost every person who walks through my practice doorway is anxious in some way. And so they should be. While their anxiety might be blasting messages at an overly high volume, the messages themselves are worth paying attention to: abusive relationships, significant losses and workplaces that have squeezed their personal, physical and spiritual lives into a corner too small for a hamster to burrow in.

Most come in hoping that the volume of their anxiety will be turned down, but many also hope that the messages themselves will go away. Like all of us, they want to find a way around having to take difficult action to change their lives. And for some of them, their hopes are pinned on our current corporatised misinterpretation of mindfulness. They’ve been sold on meditation as a simple way to bear the unbearable.

Pasteurised versions of the ancient practice of mindfulness are now big business. With Google, Target and Ford recently jumping on the corporate mindfulness bandwagon, the rebranding of mindful meditation and practice as a means to increase both productivity and compliance is now complete.

Slowing down, tuning in and radical acceptance have been molded into low-cost tools to increase our ability to speed up, tune out and drive ourselves harder than ever before.

While there can be little doubt that the practice of mindfulness can lead to significant health benefits, its current prominence in corporate culture is nested within a social, cultural and political context where stress is now seen as a failure of the individual to adapt to the productivity demands of the corporation. In other words, if you’re stressed out, you’re not working hard enough on your personal focus strategy. You’re letting the team down.

The current translations of ancient mindful practices are also highly gendered. In a culture where women are much more likely to be encouraged to apply acceptance, silence, stillness and the relinquishing of resistance to their problems, the trap of mindfulness can be set to stun for those who may be much more in need of speaking up, resisting and taking space in the workplace.

In this context, mindfulness is an ideal tool to induce compliance, with its focus on the individual management of our responses to forces we’re being told are well beyond our control.

And this is perhaps the crux of the problem of the mindless application of Buddhist meditation practice: the marketing of mindfulness as a solution to work stress and life balance rather than the complex spiritual approach to living it is meant to be.

This confusion, of what is essentially a way to exist with full awareness, with a one-size-fits-all treatment strategy for everything from depression to premature ejaculation, has placed a powerful way of life into a tiny box reserved only for the treatment of behaviours we currently see as unacceptable. Stressed at work?

Having trouble containing your grief at the office? Struggling with the uncertainty of your position during the 7th restructure in as many years? Do some mindfulness. It’ll fix not so much what ails you, but what is ailing those who depend on you. Rather than a difficult but easily accessible way to free your mind and body, mindfulness has been rebranded as a kind of gentle harness to help us heel to the corporate leg.

And the purpose of the practice has been restructured to include a hierarchy of outcomes as well.

Take a look at the current marketing of corporate mindfulness. If you’re reading an endorsement for mindfulness from one of our Captains of Industry, Jeff Weiner, for instance, you’ll hear about how he credits the practice with enhancing his success. If you’re slightly lower on the food chain, you’ll read about how you can reduce your stress and be more productive with just a few daily minutes of meditation. And if you’re even lower down the social hierarchy, a pregnant woman perhaps, you’ll be told about how mindfulness can help you be a better carer for others.

I try to meditate every day. Even to brush my teeth mindfully. To sit on the train without my phone, to breathe consciously, to watch my thoughts go by. Most practice days I spend at least some time teaching people simple mindful practices that can help to reduce their in-the-moment anxiety, calm emotions that threaten to interfere with their ability to express them and to come into the present enough to speak clearly from their hearts and minds.

This is just part of the work of taking responsibility for our lives. Mindfulness is a way of living, not a substitute for taking action. If we truly become mindful of our existence then our recurrent anxieties become not just a wave we watch pass through our minds, not something to be mastered in order to be a better servant, but a call to take action in order to be more fully alive.