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Silicon Valley’s corporate ‘mindfulness’ hypocrisy

Mindfulness is the latest, shiny new tool for promoting a brand of cool capitalism. But it has a dark side.

By Ron Purser , written on October 13, 2020

From The Delivering Happiness Desk

Silicon Valley is notorious for its idiosyncratic blend of free-market libertarianism and ersatz corporatist spirituality. Perhaps it all started at Apple with Steve Jobs and his dilettantish interest in Zen Buddhism, even though he often called his employees shitheads and was seen as a tyrant and bully. Little did Jobs know of the dark side of Zen’s long history of militarism and its cooptation by Japanese imperialism. 

 

Mindfulness is the latest, shiny new tool for promoting a brand of cool capitalism - but it has a dark side

Mindfulness has now taken center stage in the self-help industry. It’s sold to us as a band-aid and DIY quick-fix. If you are stressed out at work (or have Zoom fatigue), it’s your problem and your own fault.

Get over it. 

This is essentially what Starbucks management told its stressed-out baristas by offering them free access to the Headspace meditation app earlier this year while ignoring their demands for higher wages and complaints of understaffed locations. 

According to the mindfulness cheerleaders, stress is all inside your head because you are suffering from a “thinking disease” – caused by your inability to mindfully pay attention to the present moment.  In other words, it’s not the capitalist economy, it’s not the mass marketing of digital distraction by tech companies, it’s your brain that is the central problem. You just need to ‘hack’ and ‘retrain’ your brain like a muscle at the gym. Practice mindfulness, and you will become a successful mental athlete. You are completely responsible for your own happiness and wellbeing, despite the fact that your unemployment check ran out 

The diagnosis is flawed. It ignores the concept that stress is not merely an individual pathology and that it’s linked to social, economic, and political forces that are larger than the individual. Are the stresses essential workers feel due to the Covid-19 pandemic all inside their heads?

 

Mindfulness programs, like any other fad, have spread like wildfires in corporations

Even as far back as the early factory systems, management has latched on to techniques for yoking employee behaviors to corporate goals. Of course, it’s always the worker who is the target of change and in need of an attitude adjustment. Management practices and policies, corporate culture, working conditions, wages, salaries and benefits, and structural inequities are off the table. 

Management fads have common traits: 

  • They’re simple and prescriptive
  • They overpromise (but underdeliver)
  • They claim to be a universal panacea and a one-size-fits-all remedy
  • They’re legitimized by gurus hawking techniques in a veneer of science

Corporate mindfulness, or ‘McMindfulness’, checks all these boxes.  

 

These programs are especially popular among the tech-titans in Silicon Valley

Google’s former mindfulness Czar and self-appointed ‘Jolly Good Fellow,’ Chade-Meng Tan, counsels to “search inside yourself” (the title of his NY Times best-selling book), suggesting it is you—not the structures of a market-driven culture—that is the source of your problems. 

And this is the crux of the problem: Corporate mindfulness is a poor substitute for organizational change. By reframing structural and systemic problems as an individual-level pathology, by putting the onus of responsibility all on individuals – telling them, “Just do this mindfulness practice” –is akin  to victim-blaming. 

McMindfulness has a special affinity to the highly competitive nature of hipster capitalism, fueled by the hyper-masculinity rampant in Silicon Valley companies. Male-dominated companies such as Google and Facebook are notorious for gender inequality, their mistreatment and sexual harassment of women, and systemic racism. 

David Smallen, in the Feminist Review, argues that this insidious ethos of privilege, entitlement, and exclusivity in Silicon Valley subculture is held together by hegemonic masculine values of rationality, individualism, and competition, epitomized in the heroic icon of the entrepreneur. 

Perhaps this might explain Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey’s (net worth $8 billion) narcissistic tweeting of his ten-day silent meditation digital detox vacation on a remote island off the coast of Myanmar. His obsessive rational accounting, evidenced in the play-by-play photo diary of his daily meditative performances (“the 2nd day was my best”) and pain-level reports, bespeaks of a toxic male masculinity driven by ambition and an acquisitiveness for “spiritual experiences.”  

In just ten days, Dorsey is suddenly a self-professed expert, informing his followers that meditation is not merely about strengthening concentration or just focusing on the breath – its aim (as The Guatama the Buddha taught) – is about ending attachment to pleasure and pain. 

Did Dorsey get to the island on his private jet?

This trendy sort of “mindful masculinity” among the tech elites isn’t just corporate virtue-signaling. Techniques like mindfulness effectively internalize neoliberal edicts: each individual should take charge of their own “self-care” to remain competitive and employable. McMindfulness delivers the message with a feminine velvet glove, but it still contains the male iron fist.  

 

There is also implicit classism in the mindfulness industry that nobody cares to speak about

The baristas at Starbucks get a Headspace meditation app to self-manage their exploitation, but the tech elites get to attend expensive meditation retreats as another useful ‘life hack’. Why aren’t corporate mindfulness programs offered to hamburger flippers at McDonald’s? 

It isn’t just the cruel optimism of doling out meditation apps to wage laborers scrambling to pay rent and demanding access to healthcare that is disgusting, it’s also the incredible irony of turning to a smartphone app on the very device that is designed to fragment and disperse our attention span. 

While software engineers at Google and Facebook design addictive algorithms that exploit our attraction to divisiveness to gain our attention, we should be comforted to know they are doing so “mindfully” – thanks to their company-sponsored corporate mindfulness programs. 

 

Ron Purser is a Professor of Management at San Francisco State University and founder of The Mindful Cranks podcast. 

In his book, McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, he exposes how this practice suddenly became a $1.5 billion dollar industry as it was co-opted and corrupted by corporations to harness greater productivity – without ever questioning the social, economic, and political structures that impact our lives.   


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