Mindfulness the Google Way: well-intentioned saffron-washing?

February 22, 2014 in buddhism, meditation, social action by seanfeit

For the last few years there’s been a growing uproar in San Francisco rooted in dismay and anger over ballooning rents, historically high eviction rates, and other markers of the intense gentrification that has been happening for 15 years or so — if I choose the tech boom of the 90s as a convenient recent historical marker. The recent acceleration follows the recovery of the tech sector after the economic slowdown of the late aughts, with Google — who perhaps evilly, or at least against vigorous recent complaint, busses employees from SF down to their mothership on the Peninsula — occupying the current symbolic center. Here’s Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful piece on the issue and its history. And one from Eric Rodenbeck in Wired. The culprit isn’t just Google, of course, but they’ve become a stand-in for the corporate juggernaut of Silicon Valley that is turning the Mission from a relatively affordable mixed immigrant/artist neighborhood (I lived there for 7 years on $300/month rent! Absurd, right? I know.) to a groovy dormitory for software engineers and the boutiques that date them.

So last Saturday at Wisdom 2.0, a gathering of tech industry progressives inspired by Buddhism and American Buddhist celebrities (including some teachers I very much respect), protestors from Heart of the City interrupted Google’s presentation called “3 Steps to Build Corporate Mindfulness the Google Way” with a strong message about, essentially, Being Evil. Here’s some video, and an account of the event published in Tricycle (Wisdom 2.0 organizers apparently cut the live feed and deleted the interruption from their official video). Here, also, is an organizer of the protest, Amanda Ream, discussing SF’s rapid gentrification and Wisdom 2.0. She encapsulates the issue eloquently:

Most of the workshops [at Wisdom 2.0] offer lifestyle and consumer choices that are meant to help people heal from the harm, emptiness, and unsustainability associated with living under capitalism, but it does so without offering an analysis of where this disconnection comes from. The conference presents an evolution in consciousness of the wealthiest among us as the antidote to suffering rather than the redistribution of wealth and power.

Both Wisdom 2.0 and Google’s relationship to mindfulness need to be, and have been, critiqued. Here’s Richard Payne’s response to the protest, a short but precise analysis of “Corporatist Spirituality“, and Glenn Wallis’s, on Speculative Non-Buddhism, which is appropriately sharp, noting that the whole event could have been a Tutteji spoof. They’re right. Brand labels like “Mindfulness the Google Way” and “Wisdom 2.0″ ring with narcissism, suggesting that these corporate variations on mindfulness and other “spiritual” practices are brilliant new developments rooted in ancient respected traditions but not bound by them. It is this claim — of simultaneous lineage and innovation — that I want to focus on. The importation of individualistic meditative method removed from its fuller religious context, both culturally and as a complete system of spiritual practice is characteristic of postmodern Buddhism and yoga both.

The protestors were essentially saying that one of the contexts that Google-type mindfulness (and by extension the so-called secular mindfulness movement) is very careful not to be bound by is ethics. I’ve written before on the dangers inherent in uncoupling meditation and teachings about the nature of reality from the ethical frameworks that in their religious forms they are intimately embedded in. And though this is an urban-scale ethical abuse (the tech industry’s complicity in gentrification) rather than a community-scale guru scandal, the principle is the same: a practice is taught that purports to be a grounded spiritual path, but in leaving out significant elements that actually ensure that a practice IS grounded, ends up reproducing harmful conditions that undermine the claims of its inevitably powerful and privileged boosters.

To the degree that this is the case, I will repurpose a term from the Indian press: Saffron-washing. Like green-washing, in which a corporation masks harmful eco policies in surface environmentalism (“Beyond Petroleum“…), when saffron-washing, a hip postmodern corporation is very visible in its Buddhist-inspired “Mindfulness”, masking harmful and less Buddhistic activities. Here’s what I’ll assert: they actually mean it — their promotion of mindfulness and healing, and that implies that two mind-states are not mutually exclusive: sincerity and denial. Sincerity because I do believe that the people promoting mindfulness in secular contexts, from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR to Google’s in-house system, Chade-Meng Tan’s Search Inside Yourself, truly want to offer something that will help people be happier and less stressed.

[Note for further exploration: SIY is much more indebted to Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence than to mindfulness. I suggest that it succeeds in exactly what it wants to do: help employees be less stressed and more productive. Maybe the only dissonance here is that some of us on the outside still want it to be MORE Buddhist and take on values alien to its agenda just because it is a distant descendent of Buddhist practice. Am I just the traditionalist (fundamentalist) kid who learned Classical music and thought that my peers who played Pop or New Age music were betraying the profound heritage of Bach? In this true story, it's clearly me that was deluded, hypnotized by an ideology of European hegemonic cultural power, not them. What if it's the same with Secular Mindfulness? If I don't mind that it has very little to do with the Buddhism I love (read: "identify with"), then I get much less dissonance in, and less upset about, Google's offering. It's not Buddhism in any way, so why complain about it as such? I'm now free to complain about what it IS, not what it ISN'T.]

And denial because within the tenets of progressive spiritual practice, it is implied that it is fully possible to deepen in one’s awakening process while embedded in a capitalist system. Slavoj Žižek, quoted in Wallis, nails it:

The ‘Western Buddhist’ meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity. (“From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism“, Cabinet, 2001)

As has been said many times, you can be mindful while riding a Google bus or even firing a gun, and mindfulness will help you be happier while doing either. But as in the parable of Milarepa, who used yogic power for harmful ends before coming to Buddhist practice, mindfulness — if that means a system of attentional training, as in Kabat-Zinn’s definition,

[Mindfulness is] paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally… it is an appreciation for the present moment and the cultivation of an intimate relationship with it through a continual attending to it with care and discernment.” (Kabat-Zinn’s definition, from Hart, Ivtzan, 2013)

does not imply any specific ethical position. And so it’s relevant to ask what is being taught and to what end. The issue I feel is not that Secular Mindfulness programs somehow are not Buddhism (they’re not), or don’t lead employees to greater well-being and spiritual awakening (they can), or that they aren’t worth doing (they are). But if we don’t interrogate their assumptions and agendas (ideology by any other name would smell as… ideological), we’ll fall into exactly the hegemonic stance that Žižek, Payne, and Wallis rightly decry.

Calling Google-style mindfulness programs “sincere” is a much softer stance than some of the critique out there of this event and these kinds of programs, I know. Do they condition the kind of disengaged passivity that Žižek and others claim — mindfulness as opiate for the self-actualization-oriented masses? So much of contemporary Buddhism focuses the attention “inward”, and situates the causes of suffering in reactivity rather than material conditions. The well-known teaching on the Second Arrow is a case in point:

But in the case of a well-taught noble disciple, O monks, when he is touched by a painful feeling, he will not worry nor grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught. It is one kind of feeling he experiences, a bodily one, but not a mental feeling. It is as if a man were pierced by a dart, but was not hit by a second dart following the first one. So this person experiences feelings caused by a single dart only. It is similar with a well-taught noble disciple: when touched by a painful feeling, he will no worry nor grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught. He experiences one single feeling, a bodily one.

Having been touched by that painful feeling, he does not resist (and resent) it. Hence, in him no underlying tendency of resistance against that painful feeling comes to underlie (his mind). Under the impact of that painful feeling he does not proceed to enjoy sensual happiness. And why not? As a well-taught noble disciple he knows of an escape from painful feelings other than by enjoying sensual happiness. (SN 36.6, trans. Nyanaponika)

Am I being trained not to “resist (and resent)” direct harm caused me by an abuse, and only to focus on practicing non-resistance to the feeling and renunciation of sensual happiness in relation to it? In other words, to let go of aspirations for improvement in material conditions in favor of a change in attitude? This teaching underlies much contemporary dharma: that the cause of suffering is personal reactivity. Now, as a student and teacher who has found much benefit through practicing with my own patterns of reactivity, I totally honor this teaching as powerful medicine for a certain illness. But I don’t think it tells us how to act when faced with public harm. Should we be like the fictional martyrs in the Parable of the Saw?

Monks, even if bandits were to savagely sever you, limb by limb, with a double-handled saw, even then, whoever of you harbors ill will at heart would not be upholding my Teaching. Monks, even in such a situation you should train yourselves thus: ‘Neither shall our minds be affected by this, nor for this matter shall we give vent to evil words, but we shall remain full of concern and pity, with a mind of love, and we shall not give in to hatred. On the contrary, we shall live projecting thoughts of universal love to those very persons, making them as well as the whole world the object of our thoughts of universal love — thoughts that have grown great, exalted and measureless. We shall dwell radiating these thoughts which are void of hostility and ill will.’ It is in this way, monks, that you should train yourselves. (MN 21, trans. Buddharakkhita)

Students constantly ask, after teachings on renunciation like these, or the practice of Karma Yoga in the Bhagavad Gītā, what they actually suggest we should do in actual life situations. I do not think that these teaching parables necessarily imply a quietistic stance, but that their teachings on non-reactivity (vairagya) must be understood in the context of the full ethical and relational training they were presented in. Inner calm and non-reactivity can be a powerful support for vigorous social action when it is intimately connected to the practices of non-harming, supporting qualities like patience, steadiness of purpose, non-distraction, and compassion. When uncoupled from ethics, mindfulness — in its popular form as a non-reactive present-moment awareness as suggested in the Google presenter’s triage response to the protestors — is in danger of becoming an opiate. The “Simile of the Saw” is a teaching partly about what to practice when in an impossibly painful situation. It says nothing about how to deter the saw-wielders or bring them to justice, presumably holding the standard Pali Canon view that those who commit such violence will be reborn in unhappy destinations (hell realms).

What if the Buddhist reliance on karma to redress all ills (since everyone will inevitably, but in unpredictable ways, experience the appropriate results of their actions) is the same kind of ideology as the right wing vision of the “Free Market” as ultimate judge and executioner: businesses that don’t act in accord with people’s well-being will be shunned, and therefore bankrupt? The “market” as self-correcting meta-economic actor, karma as self-correcting meta-action principle?

To the extent that Google is savagely severing San Francisco, limb by limb, with a double-handled saw, let’s not wait for karma to catch up with Google, as it inevitably must. Not allowing them to saffron-wash their agenda is a first step. Amanda Ream and Heart of the City, you rock. Let’s hold the beautiful practices of attentional training and emotional intelligence wisely, re-coupling them with the ethical foundations of the tradition they are inspired by. If you can be mindful while riding a Google bus, you can certainly be mindful while blocking one.

[And, inserted a week later, here's Joshua Eaton in Salon, taking it to a fuller reflection on the gentrification of American Dharma. This needs to be discussed more in our sanghas. Class inequality in Western convert Buddhism is as important as the currently trending racial diversity, and gets much less attention.]