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Your Wellbeing: watching out for the ‘Mindfulness Industrial Complex’

Revd Chris McDermott, Lead Chaplain for the University of Sussex.

You may have seen William Little’s article in the Guardian not long ago, ‘Mindfulness Courses at Work? This should have us all in a rage’ (31 January).

The thrust of Little’s article lay in the current trend for business, education, the military and virtually every other institution to host regular mindfulness sessions and training for staff and the ways in which mindfulness can be used as a tool to sustain the neo-liberal capitalist agenda.

The fear is that mindfulness in some contexts is merely a way to help workers be content with their lot. The system remains unchallenged and unimpeded in the quest for maximising profits with workers (a bit more) contented as their labour’s value is exploited amid work environments that proffer a ‘bosses first’ approach to delivering whatever product they deliver.

It is a fair concern. But is it an inevitable outcome of mindfulness to bolster the status quo? Having posed the question, one is given pause for thought when we notice that Buddhists - the original purveyors of mindfulness techniques - are burning mosques in Sri Lanka and persecuting the Rohinga people in South East Asia.

But we can make similar observations about a certain kind of Christianity that bolsters Trump’s right-wing agendas in the USA, supported Jim Crow Laws in the American South and, in more recent times, offered an ideological framework for apartheid in South Africa. Of course, the most vociferous critics of the above are also from those faith traditions.

Mindfulness need not be a mere plaster stuck on the problem of workplace stress and its multi-billion-pound price tag. Nor need the practice of mindfulness support what Michaele L. Ferguson refers to as ‘the Mindfulness Industrial Complex’. More info.

Not that mindfulness as an approach to stress reduction is a bad thing. But it may also have a political dimension. Marc Williams suggests that seeing more clearly what is happening in their lives could make employees more subversive and critical. Mindfulness may not have given birth to a revolutionary movement but it need not be relegated to the bin of the oppressor’s tools.

The original practice focused on ‘seeing reality as it is’ and this includes political and social reality, not just our own inner worlds. Nor should mindfulness be confined to sitting in a chair or on a meditation cushion. We can sit down – and then rise up! Daily meditation was built into the activism of the Occupy Wall Street Movement.

Perhaps reading our understanding of ‘mindfulness’ in conjunction with Paulo Frere’s ‘Knowledge as Critical Consciousness’, mindfulness remains rooted in the values of insight, compassion, kindness - and by extension, justice. It goes the distance in supporting us amid stressful circumstances. But it can also be an approach to engaging critically with our social and political environments.

By all means just sit there. And then rise up.

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By: Sean Armstrong
Last updated: Friday, 9 March 2018