Okay, so that title is likely a little misleading. I find mindfulness to be an interesting practice; potentially very useful in the world that we currently live in. Sources of stimulation and distraction are so common, and so often engineered to reward your brain for engaging with them, that it’s often impossible to resist the temptation to distract oneself with these things.
But as I’ve followed some of the trends in modern american mindfulness practice, things have started to look a little grim.
Mindfulness is a meditative practice intended to improve mental control; over time, the practice is said to allow one to become more resistant to distractions, and to maintain an awareness of one’s place in the universe. It is said to make people happier, healthier, and less vulnerable to stress, anxiety, and their attendant illnesses.
There is value here; in a world that is so full of distractions, in which we see so many people falling victim to compulsive thought patterns, there’s a great deal to say about being able to acknowledge thoughts without judgement and then calmly redirect one’s focus. I practice a limited amount of mindfulness meditation, and have found that it helps me a great deal.
But then corporate america got a hold of it and suddenly it became a productivity hack; a way that employers could get more work out of their employees while paying them less money.
It also fell into the hands of the Cult of Positive Thinking (more about the Cult of Positive Thinking in a later post), and became the answer to unlocking happiness.
The thought behind each of these uses is that misery and stress and unhappiness comes from within, and that if you are mindful, you can shake off these shackles.
The implication, of course, being that you are the one responsible for your own misery and not outside influences. If you are unhappy, it is your own fault.
There are several problems with this. First, mindfulness meditation is not and never has been a panacea. Second, much like attempts to breed the stress gene out of pigs for commercial meat production, it relies on changing the behavior of the victim rather than improving conditions that cause the victim’s misery in the first place.
I’m here to tell you that misery has a place in the modern world; that your work stress has a rhyme and a reason, and that all of us would be better off improving working conditions (here in the US, but also all over the world) and living conditions than we would be simply focusing on our breathing a few minutes a day. The stress we experience reading the news provides impetus to change the world in real, positive ways.
If your job is so difficult and so stressful that you cry at your desk, that’s not your fault. It is the fault of your employer demanding ever climbing levels of productivity for the same or dwindling pay. Studies show you can inure yourself to the emotional impact of these demands using mindfulness to some extent, but in the end you’re still getting paid less for more. Nothing has changed, other than the fact that you’ve become more pliant, more passive, and more productive.
If you breed the stress genes out of pigs, the conditions they endure in confinement meat operations are still deplorable. Nothing has changed, and what’s being done to them is still wrong. Pork producers are simply better able to do it without ruining the meat. The bottom line increases, and everyone involved wins but the pigs.
The revelation that happier workers are more productive workers should lead to an improvement in working conditions. It should lead to increasing pay. It should not lead to a corporate mindfulness mandate.
And that leads me to my second point: mindfulness meditation is not a happiness pill.
It has never been a happiness pill and was never intended to be one. This is a simplification of the practice to make it fit into the good/evil, black/white duality of a society based on judeo/christian tradition (more about the damage this duality does in a separate post, sometime in the future). It’s dedicated to awareness, and is not concerned with your happiness. And awareness has a dark side.
I mean, every aspect of human existence has a dark side, and ignoring that doesn’t eliminate it.
A friend shared this article with me regarding negative impacts of mindfulness meditation from The Guardian, and I found it really fascinating and utterly unsurprising. The word “mindfulness” is translated from a sanskrit word meaning memory. It is about awareness, and as a result some of the things that you will become aware of aren’t terribly pleasant.
This is a risk that comes with self-knowledge.
And this is what the resilience (resilience, not happiness) that mindfulness is said to bring is supposed to help with. Mindfulness is to help you be better at being human. It’s not supposed to make you happy, or productive, and it must not be used as a replacement for human decency or for global justice.
For further reading on corporate mindfulness, I found this article from Salon.com really informative.