Mindfulness and its limitations in a neoliberal society

Transformation through Inquiry: Mindfulness for the Neoliberal Self

by Ronald E. Purser (co-editor of the Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context and Social Engagement)  and Jack Petranker (former Dean of the Tibetan Nyingma Institute)


It is not a sign of health to be well adjusted to a sick society”

 – Krishnamurti

Mindfulness, a practice with Buddhist roots but a contemporary secular face, is today found almost everywhere. From programs in schools, hospitals and prisons; to endorsements by celebrities; to monks, neuroscientists, and meditation coaches rubbing shoulders with CEOs at the World Economic Forum in Davos, it is clear that mindfulness has gone mainstream. Some have called it a mindfulness revolution.

There is much that is good in this. Thousands of people in all walks of life attest to the value of mindfulness in dealing with stress, anxiety, and burn-out, not to mention chronic pain, negative and buried emotions, and much more. The scientific evidence, though mixed, offers at least some support for such claims.

On the negative side, the evangelical promotion of mindfulness as a panacea for all that ails us has generated a backlash—a drumbeat of criticism suggesting that its claims for achieving happiness, well-being, and career success have been oversold.

More and more, a deeper critique is also being heard. Despite the good intentions with which it has been introduced and popularized, say the naysayers, mindfulness is increasingly used to prop up an economic and social order that instead needs to be fundamentally reformed.

To clarify this charge and ask whether mindfulness has the resources to overcome it, let’s take a closer look at how mindfulness is understood, how it is being used, and how it could be developed in new directions.

The basic instruction for practicing the new mindfulness (generally secular and largely divorced from its Buddhist roots) is simple: pay attention on purpose and non-judgmentally to what is happening in the present moment. Many people have found that making this basic instruction the foundation for a regular practice helps them deal with stress and anxiety. Turning the mind toward its own workings promotes calm, stability, and insight.by cutting the power of obsessive thoughts and reactive emotionality.

What could be wrong with such a practice, which promotes freedom from psychic distress and serves as a source of well-being? The answer lies in what is being left out of the picture. Whatever the benefits on the individual level, in the social sphere a focus on the inner workings of the mind can shift attention from the hard truths of our contemporary society: the massive inequalities, harmful material conditions, and injustices that have become the bread and butter of our daily lives, not to mention a planet in crisis, nefarious corporate business practices, and political corruption. In fact—and this is the real issue—the practice of mindfulness may actually reinforce the patterns and understandings that have brought about these unacceptable conditions.

To clarify this concern, we need to briefly review the ever growing power in our society of the political, social, and cultural movement known as neoliberalism. The neoliberal worldview maintains that human beings are best understood as rational, economic actors—what Michel Foucault in a pioneering analysis referred to as homo economicus. In effect, it sees individuals as entrepreneurs running their own enterprises—the business of Me, Inc.—in competition with others. Neoliberal actors maximize their own welfare, freedom, and happiness by deftly managing their resources—both external and internal—to arrive at their desire outcomes.

Since competition is central, the neoliberal ideology holds that all decisions about how society is run should be left to the workings of the marketplace, the most efficient mechanism for allowing competitors to maximize their own good. Other social actors, including the state, voluntary associations, and the like are just obstacles to the smooth operation of marketplace capitalism, and they should be dismantled or disregarded. As Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, famously put it, “there is no such thing as society; there are men and women and families.”

At its root, neoliberalism is a politically conservative movement, for it valorizes the status quo; what is more, it argues that those who enjoy power and wealth should be given free rein to accumulate more power and more wealth if that is how market forces play out. Yet political thinkers such as Wendy Brown and Ilana Gershon have argued that over the past few decades, neoliberalism has outgrown its conservative origins to become widely accepted cultural dogma. In fact, it has taken over our public discourse, so that today even progressives think in neoliberal terms. Market values have invaded every corner of human life. As David Harvey puts it, neoliberalism “has become incorporated into the common-sense way many of us interpret, live in, and understand the world.”

Cartoon of woman looking at viewer with air bubble: "There is no alternative"

Let’s see how this plays out. Suppose you are a left-leaning thinker who unwittingly shares the fundamental mindset of neoliberal discourse, even while rejecting its policy prescriptions. Suppose that at the same time you are firmly convinced of the value of practicing mindfulness and making it widely available. It turns out that your two orientations line up remarkably well. For an actor in neoliberal society, mindfulness is a skill to be cultivated or a resource to be put to use. When mastered, it will help you navigate the tricky currents of the capitalist ocean. Developing the “present-centered and non-judgmental attention” that mindfulness counsels gives you a powerful way to deal with the stress and anxiety that marketplace competition inevitably generate. You have developed a powerful new tool for maximizing your personal well-being.

All this may help you sleep better at night. But its consequences for society are potentially dire. Slovene philosopher Slavoj Žižek has analyzed these developments with great acuity. As he sees it, mindfulness stands poised to become “the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism.” Its meditative stance offers “the most efficient way . . . to fully participate in the capitalist dynamic while retaining the appearance of mental sanity.” No wonder Wall Street traders and hedge fund managers now use mindfulness for “fine-tuning” their brains, “upping their game”, and “giving them[selves] an edge.”

By deflecting attention from the outer conditions that frame work in a capitalist culture, mindfulness risks being coopted as the brand of a capitalist spirituality. In this form of spirituality, stress is privatized and pathologized. “Search inside yourself,” counsels Google’s Chade-Meng Tan, for there—not in the structures of a market-driven culture—lies the source of your problems. Applied in this way, mindfulness becomes a practice perfectly suited for what Jim McGuigan has called “the neoliberal self.”

Of course, many in the mindfulness movement agree that there are big problems with the world we inhabit. But they generally argue that mindfulness is part of the solution, not the problem. Train people in mindfulness, and they will begin to live their lives in ways that undermine neoliberal values and assumptions; over time, this will have a transformative effect. Chris Goto-Jones refers to this as the Trojan Horse hypothesis: the view that “individuals who are more mindful, compassionate, and authentic themselves will slowly and peacefully ensure the emergence of a humane and compassionate capitalist society.” On this view, even if “the mindfulness revolution . . . is essentially a therapeutic not a political project,” it can still have positive political consequences.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and a leading figure in the mindfulness movement, would surely agree. He speaks of mindfulness as a “radical act of love and sanity” that can avert dysfunctional politics and global problems. In his view, our “… entire society is suffering from attention disorder—big time.”  That’s the problem, and mindfulness is the cure.

It comes as no surprise, then, that mindfulness is increasingly gaining traction as an approach for dealing with social concerns. Nearly a quarter of the members of the British Parliament have taken a mindfulness program based on Kabat-Zinn’s approach, and many of them advocate that mindfulness should be widely deployed widely in schools, hospitals, and prisons. In the United States, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, author of A Mindful Nation, has climbed on board. “Why wouldn’t members of Congress be stressed out and have active amygdalas?” asks Ryan. “. . . We don’t need to move to the left or to the right. We all need to go a little deeper.”

Yet this well-intentioned “politics of depth,” with its hope for a kinder, more compassionate world, is on a collision course with the realities of a neoliberal culture. Talk of overactive amygdalas provide a scientific patina to the claim that our political discord would fade away if we all just learned to pay attention non-judgmentally in the present moment. The reality on the ground, however, is that privatizing the causes of stress dovetails nicely with the assumptions of neoliberal discourse, which—argue thinkers such as Mark Fisher and Wendy Brown–undermines the very concepts of the public and the body politic. In neoliberalism, public discourse gives way to personal gain. Mindfulness practitioners may have a very different political agenda, but the risk is that they will retreat into their own private worlds and particular identities—which is just where the neoliberal power structures want them.

Three monkeys, one covering its mouth, another its eyes, another its ears

It may seems natural to view mindfulness as a buffer against the corrupting influences of society—a return to a more noble way of being not unlike Rousseau’s romantic notions of a natural self that has been corrupted by social conditioning. Yet there is a high political cost to pay. By promising access to “pure awareness” or “bare attention,” mindfulness becomes part of a therapeutic culture that displaces the practice of democracy and public debate. As a member of the body politic, the neoliberal self is always being encouraged to “go a little deeper” into the interior, to care for the self. As this journey moves to the foreground, our collective and political lives disappear from view.

When we accept Kabat-Zinn’s claim that our societal malaise traces to mass attention-deficit disorder, we are putting the blame on the shoulders of masses of distracted, atomized individuals, whose happiness (and salvation) will come about through turning inward to free themselves from their psychological conditioning.  This is a dualistic form of mindfulness. It squares nicely with the neoliberal stories that, as Julie Wilson puts it, “prompt us to turns our disaffected consent inwards toward ourselves, to double down on the present in order to protect and secure ourselves against others.”

Does this mean that mindfulness, for all its therapeutic and healing value, is necessarily the enemy of social change? That conclusion seems premature.  If we look more closely, we can discover within mindfulness the seeds of an approach that could truly turn the neoliberal agenda on its head. To do so, however, we may have to rethink how mindfulness operates.

The key to taking mindfulness deeper is to recognize that it is ultimately not so much a way of dealing with stress and negative emotions. While that is certainly an important benefit, mindfulness is better understood as a form of what Tibetan lama Tarthang Tulku calls “free and open inquiry.” Paying attention, being fully present with our experience, is a way to see with greater clarity what is going in in our lives and in the world around us.

In traditional Buddhist cultures, inquiry as a central benefit of mindfulness was built into its practice. For Buddhist monastics and yogis, mindfulness was part of the spiritual path that leads to enlightenment. It served as a gateway to wisdom—a way to investigate how human beings cling to a self and its needs, and an invitation to let go of that attachment.

In the new mindfulness, however, this link to inquiry is easily lost. Mindfulness today is practiced in an entirely different personal, cultural, and social context than in times past—the neoliberal framework that has penetrated our ways of thinking at the deepest level. When mindfulness becomes a practice for the neoliberal self, struggling to make its way in a neoliberal world, inquiry drops away: the aim at some level is to fit in, not speak out.

Stating the problem in this way, however, also begins to point toward a solution. As a way of conducting inquiry, a way of cultivating full presence, mindfulness can reveal the understanding that guides neoliberalism and shapes the neoliberal self.

At this point, we have arrived at a place where Buddhist wisdom and spiritual practice intersect with the critique of neoliberalism we so badly need. Using mindfulness to conduct a careful inquiry into the role of the self gives us a fulcrum, a turning point for taking mindfulness deeper.

To see how this might work, it helps to go to a very practical and immediate level. Let’s take the most basic object for mindfulness practice: paying attention to the breath. How to do this may seem straightforward enough, but there is more going on than may at first appear. When I make the breath the focus of attention, I am taking on board a whole set of assumptions about what it means to practice. As the meditator, I am ‘here’; the breath, the object of my awareness, is ‘there’; and there is a distance between us. Even though the sensations of breathing takes place in my body, I am looking at them as an observer.

When I take on board the structure of ‘here’ and ‘there’, subject and object  in my mindfulness, I am replicating in my practice the basic structure of an atomistic self, a Cartesian spectator to experience. I have confirmed that I am an entity separate from what I experience or observe. This may seem like a point of philosophical interest only, but in fact it has profound practical consequences. I am confirming at an interior level a neoliberal understanding of what it means to be a self. Ilana Gershon makes this point when she writes that for a neoliberal agent, “there is always already a presumed distance to oneself as an actor. One is never ‘in the moment’; rather, one is always faced with one’s self as a project . . . .”

Mindfulness, however, does not have to proceed in this way. Staying focused on the breath while inquiring into the structures that this focus presupposes, we readily discover that the self actually plays no role in the act of breathing, which goes on just fine on its own. Instead of engaging the breath as an object for an observing subject, we can simply allow for breathing to breathe.

This shift both decenters the self and reintegrates it into the field of experience. As we work out its implications, we discover that mindfulness means being present in the world, connected to our experience, our circumstances, and our fellow human beings. The key here is turning our back on the implicit claim to own our experience, with its built in distancing. Engaging the field of experience, we take back our presence in a socially constructed reality. Being fully present, we do not stake out a position and an identity. Mindfulness is no longer about ‘me’ becoming more mindful, but about questioning the story of the ‘me’ in operation.

A full-presence mindfulness subverts the fundamental assumptions of neoliberalism. By not separating the external conditions and circumstances we find ourselves in from our ‘inner’ responses, we are naturally present with others. The idea that the source of our stress and anxiety lies within us no longer makes sense, because there is no ‘within’ separate from the situation we inhabit. We are already in the world.

What that world looks like will depend on our broader understanding, and here our spiritual and social commitments will make a difference. But the general point remains: when mindfulness gives us the resources to inquire into the unquestioned assumptions we operate with, it leads us to being more fully engaged, not less. Fully present, we are ready to heal and be healed.

There will always be those who argue that inquiring into how our minds operate is a distraction from the pressing social and political work that must be done. Yet if the thinkers we have discussed are right—if neoliberalism has worked its way deep into our ways of thinking and being with each other—then we must find ways to uproot those unacknowledged patterns, on pain of undermining our own best efforts at reform and renewal.

This is true just as much for spiritual progressives as anyone else. Are we serving the aims of the self, and in this way confirming the fundamental structures of the neoliberal order? Or are we ready to let our actions be guided by what the world asks of us?


Ronald Purser  is a professor of management at San Francisco State University. He is an ordained teacher in the Korean Buddhist Taego Order, co-editor of the Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context and Social Engagement (Springer) and co-host of the podcast The Mindful Cranks.

Jack Petranker  is Director of the Mangalam Research Center for Buddhist Languages and the Center for Creative Inquiry, and a former Dean of the Tibetan Nyingma Institute. He is the author of When It Rains, Does Space Get Wet? He teaches programs in Full Presence Mindfulness.


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