The Great Mindfulness Swindle

For a number of years now an idea has taken hold of the corporate world, its HR departments and business consultancies. In a nutshell, this idea is about the embetterment of work through applying Eastern philosophy and spiritual techniques like Buddhism, yoga and meditation. The most popular term nowadays is ‘mindfulness’. By looking into mindfulness and its applications, the narrow and ignoble path this whole venture is taking can be illustrated best.

Mindfulness in its original Buddhist meaning (Sati) describes the ability to maintain focused on one thing without shutting out everything else, to take a wide angle perspective in simultaneously being aware of the entire background and its interconnectedness. Mindfulness is a comprehensive way of perception based on a unity of bodily, emotionally, mentally and worldly awareness: an all-encompassing form of care. Mindfulness meditation (Vipassana) enables the practitioner to gain a deep and broad understanding of the world and, as most Buddhist techniques, assists in reducing suffering – your own suffering through insight, the suffering of others through enabling them to gain their own insights.

In a strange but not totally unexpected twist, mindfulness in a managerialist view now becomes a method of productivity and efficiency increase in situations of high work pressures. Mindfulness, in this perspective, is a means to alleviate stress, allowing employees small escapes during work and offering some relief by showing them ‘the bigger picture’ and finding new strength, motivation and meaning (‘sensemaking’) through meditation. This appropriation of spiritual and philosophical techniques into a western-capitalist-managerialist mindset, as a means to an end i.e. to increase profits and keep employees happy despite the workload, is bound to fail big time. Being mindful in an otherwise ordinary organization can create paradoxes and actually increase personal stress. To illustrate this with a blunt example: a mindful Mafiosi that has taken a holistic perspective on the suffering of the world and still has to deliver blood-dripping horse heads into the beds of his enemies – that is the entire mindfulness swindle unfolding in the corporate world, although probably without too much animal sacrifices (depending on the industry).

What is the alternative? Perceiving the world comprehensively and focused in order to reduce suffering is an end in itself – just like employees are ends in themselves in a Kantian sense. If a company wants to take mindfulness serious then this cannot just be another manipulative cognitive technology – the focus on ‘Happiness’ is another one of those by the way – in order to ‘create’ seemingly relaxed and fulfilled employees doing the same job as before. Taking mindfulness serious means focusing your organization towards the reduction of suffering: the suffering of your employees, the suffering of your customers, your corporate partners, the suffering of society that is most likely also caused in part by your activities. Mindfulness implies and demands an active contribution of your company to reduce suffering and that entails radical change of your own activities, products and goals. Mindfulness is only meaningful and can only make sense to anyone if it accompanies and influences a change process. In other words, mindfulness in management is only meaningful on an organizational level, not an individual one. If your company wants to start the journey towards change, to redefine and subordinate your company goals to reduce the suffering of people and society, then mindfulness is imperative. And if not: never mind the Buddhists!

This text was originally published in German with the Zukunftsinstitut for its TrendUpdate on Mindful Business in November 2016.

Leave a Reply