In recent decades, meditation has captured the imaginations of western citizens. In the last 10 years alone, the number of Americans who practice meditation has tripled. And the pandemic has brought even more people to the practice, for obvious reasons.
Meditation in neoliberalism is now part of culture. You can’t read a self-help book without mention of it, every life coach endorses it, even corporations jumped on the mindfulness wagon. Countless studies and research were (and continue to be) done investigating the effects on meditation on the brain, trying to back up with science the age-old practice. And of course, we have the mountains of meditation apps competing for a chance to transform you from a stress-riddled anxious person to a calm and wise human.
Just for reference, the global meditation market is expected to be worth $9 billion by 2027. There’s some solid cash to be made from selling meditation products. Apps, courses, silent retreats.
But, that’s a good thing, right? People are finally recognizing the importance of observing their own thoughts, understanding their emotions, getting deeper into the weeds of their soul and psyche. Except, that’s not why people meditate.
According to surveys, over 80% of people meditate to reduce stress, and 50% each for concentration and performance at school/work. While these are all valid reasons, there’s an underlying layer of causes and symptoms that often go unexamined.
If we spend more than 2 minutes analyzing the symptoms of people who turn to meditation, it quickly becomes apparent that there are deeper causes at play. Burn-out, stress, anxiety, depression, uncertainty – all of these point to the state of the world and the increasing pressures and demands put on people.
You’re stressed at work? You’re anxious because of your marriage? You’re depressed because of your life circumstances? Not to worry, we have a solution. It’s inside of an app. That’ll be $10.99.
It shifts the responsibility from a dysfunctional society unto the individual. But more on that later.
Meditation no longer possesses a crispness of meaning. We’ve systematically diluted its spirit with cheap tactics, perverted interests and integrated it into the narrative of self-help, furthering its status as a commodity. We’ve divorced it from any ethical framework or a community of practice. The individual has been crowned as the nuclear agent of society, bearing the burden of managing every aspect of his life, from how he sleeps, what he eats, to how he deals with stress.
Our autonomy has slowly shrunk, receding ever inwards, only allowing us authority over our self. Since changing the world doesn’t seem like a feasible task anymore, we’re content to “work on ourselves” indefinitely. And meditation seems like the perfect tool to do that.
In the Western world, meditation is usually viewed as a practice necessary for self-improvement and spiritual growth. It’s predicated on promises of making you more compassionate, non-judgemental and mindful of your emotions, among other things. Ultimately, it’s about embracing the present moment. But what stands beneath these seemingly innocent expectations, is the underlying cause of why they might be needed in the first place. Had it not been for the stress generated by a capital-obsessed society, to the constant anxiety of having to manage it all on your own, I suspect people wouldn’t turn to meditation as they do now.
As I’m writing this, my habit tracker app reminded me to meditate. Which I will, but first, I must write. This essay isn’t meant to convince you to stop meditating, In fact, I think you should continue (if you do it already.) My “problem” (if you can call it that) is not with meditation or mindfulness practices per se, but I take issue with how they’re marketed and promoted to the population.
This essay has been inspired by my own observations and the lucid writing of Ronald Purser in McMindfulness. After reading the book, I’ve decided to gather my thoughts into a cohesive argument, that’s by no means complete or perfect, but simply presents all the puzzle pieces I put together after many hours of reading, researching and thinking.
I’m going to make the case for the negative effects our economic reason propagated in all ares of life, which ultimately affected meditation too. Then I will analyze how our obsession with the individual bled into a disregard for the outside world and how our cultural grammar of possessing and manipulating everything have commodified meditation into a marketable product.
I’d like to note that although this is a fairly critical essay, I consider myself as being on the receiving end too. Part of the reason why I can recognize and condemn these attitudes is because I myself have entertained them (and I can see traces of them still, in my mind). I’m both on the outside looking in, but also on the inside, looking out. I’ll attempt to step out of my frame of reference and impartially analyze the rhetoric and stance we take on meditation. For our purposes, I’ll only refer to what’s known as mindfulness meditation.
If it ruffles your feathers, just know that mine are ruffled too.
Spiritual Junk Food
Today’s landscape of spiritual practices has developed a new branch that appeals to the people who want to be seen as “spiritual,” or reap the “benefits,” but would prefer the quick fixes. None of the inner work and transformation. Just like a “get rich quick” scheme, so too meditation is seen as a miracle cure for stress, depression and anxiety. And it helps in some regard, no doubt.
Meditation has been popularized in the West in the 90s by people like Jon Kabat-Zinn and S. N. Goenka who brought the practice from India. Prior to teaching meditation, Goenka was a businessman, and his pragmatic attitude and keen business skills can be observed in how he approached the practice. He taught Vipassana meditation, with an emphasis on a secular understanding of the practice and most importantly, rooted in science. It was only a matter of time until the capitalist machine saw the immense profits to be derived from meditation, so it did what it does best: it commodified it and deprived it of its ethos. All in the name of profit.
And these aren’t some new claims. Consider this article from the Guardian, almost 7 years old, raising concerns over the increasing commodification and the unregulated teaching of the practice.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not accusing all meditation teachers, meditation & mindfulness apps or public communicators of perverting this practice, but the utilitarian bend given to it is visible from 1000 miles.
I call this utilitarian version of meditation “spiritual junk food” because it emphasizes instant gratification over radical change. Similar to how junk food is fattening our bodies, spiritual junk food is fattening our egos. It stains us with greasy hubris and it inflates our sense of self.
In some ways it is like a McDonald’s happy meal — mass advertised to “work” and mass produced; empty, calorific comfort food that’s convenient, quick, affordable, and maybe even addictive.
We need to start by understanding neoliberalism, because it’s the corrupted foundation on which the practices and attitudes presented in this essay rest upon.
Neoliberalism (re-)emerged roughly in the 70s (though not uniformly across the globe) and can be described as a set of economic practices predicated on free trade, austerity, privatization and deregulation. It encourages free markets, free trade and unfettered competition between market players. Thatcher and Reagan’s policies are probably the most representative neoliberalism’s ethos.
Deregulation was (and still is) the name of the game. The role of the state is minimal: it should only support the economy and ensure the free flow of capital. Neoliberalism seeks to bring into the economic sphere all domains of life. Basically, everything should be a market. (And today, it kind of is.) Even the available people whom you can date are referred to as “the dating market.” A cardinal feature of neoliberalism is its emphasis on the individual and individual responsibility.
And from this cloth, neoliberalism has constructed homo oeconomicus, a radically individualized human driven by economic self-interest and a rationalized calculus of cost and benefit. The neoliberal agent is constantly assessing the cost and benefits of his practices, like working out, taking on a new project, moving to another city, and meditation is no different. While some may claim that their meditative practice is actually an oasis where they’re free from external goals, in fact they already calculated the ROI, like any good corporation would do, and have decided that taking up this practice is a net-positive. Meditation is not divorced from the incessant consideration of cost/benefit analysis. It is just another asset in the modern man’s portfolio of investments. And like any good portfolio, you’re expecting returns: decreased stress, improved performance and so on.
Instrumental utility has permeated all spheres of life. You can most distinctly see it in our language. People talk about “investing” in their children’s education, employees talk about their “career capital.” Economic talk is prevalent in our everyday life.
A place where meditation has been welcomed with incredible approval is the corporate world which is happy to endorse a technique that’s supposedly helping workers focus better, manage stress and navigate a fast-paced environment with ease. All this leading to any manager’s wet dream: increased productivity.
Today, meditation is the center piece of any corporate wellness program, devised to cultivate mindful employees so they can continue to be obedient workers. All the big names in the tech industry (Apple, Google, Meta) offer some sort of meditation classes.
But how come meditation fits into the overly competitive, soul-sucking corporate world?
Because of its secularized, morality-barren, individual-focused character, this meditation is but a husk of the rich authentic practice found in the East and conveniently, it poses no threat to existing power dynamics, because the only search you’re encourage to make is within yourself.
Meditation in neoliberalism is the key that unlocks several doors: on the one hand, it increases employee happiness (or at least keeps their stress in check), which directly leads to better productivity. One begins to wonder what holds more weight for the corporations: the workers’ quality of life or their labor output.
The promises of enlightenment, of getting to taste the groundless nature of being, of recognizing the interdependence off all things, dissolving your ego, well, those don’t sound like they hold much value for the average Western citizen. Maybe you’d get some hippies excited, but you won’t grow a devoted following by “advertising” the non-duality of experience.
Meditation is just another means to an end. Improve focus, sleep better, reduce stress. Nothing wrong with that. But the meditation many practice today is an empty husk of what’s was intended for. In order to make it more accessible, appealing, relevant to today’s needs, we’ve sterilized this practice and neatly packaged it to be sold as the natural cure to our depressed minds.
In the times when the answer to every problem seems to be “there’s an app for that,” it’s no wonder we’ve commodified an ancient practice that’s supposed to make us better human beings, by softening our attachments and revealing the nature of reality. Just spend 10 minutes a day watching your breath or observing your thoughts and you’re good to go. Back to working a soul-sucking job or making fashion hauls on TikTok. No need to change anything else about your life. Or profoundly investigate your attitudes, desires and beliefs.
“But wait,” critics might reply, “who’s not to say that adopting a mindfulness meditation practice won’t lead to profound changes in one’s character?” This is a valid question. And I think this practice can lead to a more compassionate and non-judgemental attitude but it’s not a guarantee. Some mindfulness advocates allude to a Mindful Revolution, a sort of gentle shift in the mindsets of meditation practitioners, which will reverberate to the whole world, by the power of individual change.
The much-awaited quiet Mindful Revolution may prove to be just a mirage we’re constantly striving for, but never quite reach. Always slipping through our fingers. Especially the kind of meditation popular today, so self-centered and individualistic, it’s hard to see how it can promote pro-social attitudes, how it can foster systemic change, when the practice that starts it is predicated on keeping the existing power structures intact.
This is not an argument to stop using your meditation app, there are some that do it right. Many though, no to so much. But that’s not the point. What I’d like you to do is reflect on the reasons you’re meditating and see if you can identify the desire to be better suited for our demanding capitalist world. Chances are, there’s some part of you that will recognize that desire.
Meditation in neoliberalism has many flavors. Like any good service, meditation had to adapt to a broad palette of needs. Shrewd meditation promoters learned that securing a spot in a niche market is how you hone your offering to be as specific and relevant as possible to your target audience. So now there exists meditation specifically aimed at children, war veterans, busy executives and even cool millennials.
If you’re feeling a bit low on confidence, why not try an “inner badass meditation?” Or perhaps “a bad bitch meditation.” Yep, those exist. I kid you not. And it shows how far removed from its spirit this practice is now.
The deeply individualistic, bordering on narcissism, optimization-focused meditation is so far detached from the philosophy of meditative traditions, that it’s almost unrecognizable.
Stripped from the larger tradition
Buddhism was psychologized and medicalized; it went from a practice for awakening to the insights of the dharma to a science-based coping method to deal with personal stress.
At its core, Buddhist teachings, or the Dharma, explore the nature of the self and the way to escape suffering by understanding The Four Noble Truths. It’s deeply rooted in a way of life concerned with freeing all sentient beings from suffering, waking up to experiencing life a totally new way. Free from desires, envy, hate. Recognizing the Oneness of being.
Yet, the meditation practices we’re accustomed to in the West don’t address any of these points. There’s no moral system to ground them, no principles to guide us. It’s all a relativist mush, a vanilla-flavored practice, designed to be as neutral and innocent as possible, lest it antagonizes anyone from buying the product. Or worse, that it makes them think they need to actually make some changes in their lives.
There’s a neat trick some meditation “gurus” employ to have their cake and eat it too. They’re happy to acknowledge the roots of meditation in Buddhism, to appeal to the lure of exoticism and wisdom traditions, while also proclaiming to strip the practice of any “metaphysical claims” or religious “baggage” and endorsing a scientific view of it. The result? David Forbes describes it like this:
To Buddhists it is a watered-down, secular program that lacks depth of meaning; to secularists it is too religious, too Buddhist.
Meditation is suspended between two worlds, with both poles tugging on its ideological ropes, pushing the boundaries of what meditation stands for and stretching its fabric thin like a membrane, polarizing it even more.
Because of its status as a commodity, meditation contributes to expanding our ego. This is the phenomenon spiritual materialism, of becoming attached to the idea of practicing meditation or other spiritual practices and letting it cloud our judgement. We internalize these concepts and attach them to our sense of self, inflating it even more.
Instead of helping us lighten the grip on our attachments, these practices become an avenue of strengthening them. We take pride in what we do, may even see ourselves as superior to others. We may consider that advancing in these practices is equivalent to us becoming better people. It’s not necessarily true. You can meditate all you want and still be a terrible person.
Obsession with the individual
The modern man doesn’t afford to waste time pursuing dead end activities unless there’s clear evidence that all parts of his optimized daily routine can provide the high return on investment he needs. Every step is calculated and meticulously planned. Meditation needs to give the neoliberal self a “competitive edge” to justify doing it. This instrumentalization of the practice is obvious in the way it’s marketed: as a tool to help you calm your mind in the pursuit of more capital.
We treat our selves as a company. We approach every aspect of our lives through the lens of economy: dating, family and even health. Everything is an investment. No wonder meditation is only “good” insofar as it resets our profit-driven minds for a few minutes a day, giving us a breather from constantly striving for “more,” only so that we can return to the rat race refreshed and recharged.
By responsibilizing the individual, corporations and other governing institutions tighten their grip on the population. The philosopher Michel Foucault has coined a term to describe this phenomenon: governmentality. It encompasses the means and practices the government uses to control its citizens. In a neoliberal state, power doesn’t need to be exerted from a single source, but rather it’s de-centralized and citizens govern themselves through technologies of the self.
Meditation in neoliberalism becomes a technology of the self, a way to self-regulate our behavior, without the need for outside intervention. Meditation seen as self-care aligns perfectly with neoliberal ideals. As Carl Cederström and André Spicer describe in The Wellness Syndrome, taking care of one’s self is not a nice-to-have, but a serious moral imperative that must be followed. It’s a must to be happy and healthy, and if your deploy no efforts in this regard, then you’re regarded as deeply irresponsible. Being health conscious is something so ingrained in our society, that it must feel weird to read me criticizing it. But I’m not condemning the people who take care of their health (as I think it’s beneficial to do), but our moralizing attitudes towards those who perhaps slack in this department.
Mental Gyms for Corporate Athletes
Meditation is not merely a “self-care” practice or a vehicle for self-exploration, but a prerequisite for coping with a demanding schedule and piling responsibilities. You’ve probably heard of the analogies between meditation and a mental gym, and the claims that meditation will improve your “mental fitness.” The analogy goes even further with talks of mental strength and “doing reps: as you bring back your attention when it wanders away. I don’t see anything inherently bad in these mental images. If anything, they can illustrate some of the ways in which meditation helps.
But the mental gym is instrumentalized for increasing employees’ threshold for stress and tacitly implies that if you feel the shadow of burnout looming over you, then you need to take a few more trips to the mental gym, because clearly you’re not strong mentally enough. This rhetoric almost completely diminishes the working conditions that have brought about the stress in the first place. But as we’ve already established, the individual has the sole responsibility of managing their responses to external conditions, dissolving any obligation from employers to ensure a healthy work climate.
Disregard for the Outside World
Every meditative tradition is deeply established into a larger body of cultural norms, religious practices and ethics. We’re so concerned with how we should relate to our own selves, that we rarely stop and reflect on how to relate to others. A meditation practice, which is intrinsically centered on one’s self needs to be balanced by another practice (or practices) that is aiming to open us up and situate us into the larger context of the world. (Like a metta practice.) It seems to me we completely neglect this aspect to the detriment of our relationships and our connection to others. All meditative traditions are set within an ethical framework, but since we’ve removed them from their context, we’re missing crucial information about how to apply what we’re cultivating when sitting.
Mindfulness training, at least as understood within the Buddhist tradition, is inseparable from ethical development. The cultivation of “right mindfulness” is only one part of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, along with “right” understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort and concentration.
Besides the ethical valences of meditation, there’s also a community aspect. The 3 pillars of a traditional meditation practice are the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
The role of the community, or Sangha, is to help you cultivate meaningful connections and situate this practice into a social framework. Much like a religious practice, meditation is enhanced when it’s shared among peers. The inner and outer world are dancing with each other, reinforcing, balancing and completing one another. The Sangha is an indispensable part of the practice. Sure, one can still pursue meditation in neoliberalism on their own, but without situating it in a communal, ethical and larger life philosophy, it’s bound to be instrumentalized as yet another self-help habit.
Mindfulness proponents don’t see compassion as a social, relational quality but as a personal, individual act. There is no sense or understanding of the interrelated nature of society itself, of public life and the public good, as anything other than a bunch of atomized individuals meditating inside their heads.
As I’ve argued above, in the grip of a neoliberal rationale, our mental states are the sole responsibility of the person having them. That’s not to say that our perspectives and outlook on life don’t play a role in how we interpret the events that happen to us, but we mustn’t always look inwards. Sometimes, the social conditions and society as a whole is the reason for many of our existential crises. We don’t exist in a vacuum. Outside factors do impact our well-being, and no amount of meditation is going to change a broken system.
Neoliberalism separates our mental states from the broader social and cultural contexts that created them. The rhetoric of meditation can have a flattening effect on our personalities and our involvement in social and political discussions. Meditation is the big equalizer. The social issues and negative consequences of a neoliberal system are just thoughts, emotions and appearances in consciousness that should be acknowledged and then “released.”
One of the tenets of mindfulness meditation teaches us how to relate to negative emotions. The advice is to simply observe them, but not engage with them. They don’t necessarily need to be “suppressed,” but acting on them is certainly not encouraged. “Let go” is probably the most ubiquitous instruction when we’re encountering powerful states of mind.
While I agree that giving in to every impulse and letting our inner states cloud our judgement is not a desirable attitude, we mustn’t fall in the other extreme. If anything, this “let go” advice sounds to me like a directive to self-administer our own lobotomies. We should acknowledge our negative emotions, but they need to be let go. Our anger, frustration, sadness are not seen as productive in any way, or leading to a desirable outcome (presumably economic flourishing), so they need to be discarded. Instead of investigating the source of our distress, we’re prompted to label it as “mental clutter.”
In this respect, mindfulness trainings can limit the potential to speak, investigate, and act in ways that threaten existing power relations. One can think of these regulatory influences as a form of “internalized pacification,” promoting a potent form of quietism. If employees are compelled to monitor their inner states, and to self-regulate “destructive emotions” by “being mindful,” they become — as Foucault warned — “docile subjects.”
Rather than make us challenge and question the current status of affairs (political, social, economical), a mindfulness practice has conveniently trained us to cling even harder to the neoliberal utopias of autonomy over the self. If we lived in the Matrix, the red meditation pill would not wake us up to the true reality, but anchor us even deeper into the existing order of events. To take the analogy a bit further, Morpheus would be akin to the celebrity spiritual guru, sitting cross-legged on a zafu, proclaiming to cure our suffering by completely dismissing the root of it.
How many meditation teachers have you seen to start a conversation about the injustices prevalent in our world or some of the toxic norms we follow as gospel? How many have encouraged their followers to “look outside themselves”? How many have sought to widen their students’ frames of reference? My bet is not many. Because it’s not good for business.
Let’s put together the threads spun so far. I’ve argued that the prevailing influence of capitalism, especially the neoliberal kind, has had unfortunate results, that have ramified and developed in all areas of life. Since no corner of our existence is untouched by the market, even our spiritual pursuits have been corrupted by greedy corporations or sly self-help gurus.
This essay wasn’t intended to convert anyone to Buddhism or “shame” people for the reasons behind their meditation practices. I wanted to offer a different lens through which to view how we relate to this practice in hope that we’ll stop treating it as a vending machine that dispenses cures based on “the illness of the day.”
As for myself, I’ll continue to meditate, being careful not to cling to any expectations or results, and to close the gap between practice and the rest of life.
Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s stealth revolution by Wendy Brown
The Wellness Syndrome by Carl Cederström & André Spicer
Mindfulness at risk of being turn into a free market commodity in The Guardian
The Best Dharma for Today, talk by Lauren Leve
Mindful Calculations: Mindfulness and Neoliberal Selfhood in North America and Beyond, thesis by Joshua Eisen
Mindfulness meditation in America has a capitalism problem by Sean Illing interviewing Daivd Forbes in Vox
Mindfulness is a hot commodity: looking for a quick fix? by Winton Higgins