Sunday Paper with the BPF: Ahhh, Mindfulness

Well, I don’t really read a Sunday newspaper anymore.  Either they’ve been driven out of business by the internet or intellectually eviscerated by corporate centralized ownership.  But I’ve been kicking back and checking out some posts on the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF) website after renewing my membership today.  Among them was a piece with a nicely satirical opening image:  a resort-style photograph that looks like it was clipped from the pages of a fashion magazine full of Versace advertisements, with the sarcastic title, “Ahh… Mindfulness.”  The weird thing is I have actually seen pictures of retreat centers like Spirit Rock published in fashion magazines like Vogue.


If you click on the image above, it will link you to an article called “The PBG and The False Promise of Mindfulness” by Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey, co -founder of The Stone House here in North Carolina.  The acronym PBG stands for Petty Bourgeoise in the sense that Marx intended it: educated professionals with salaries rather than wages, who nevertheless fall short of the kind of large scale accumulation of the big bourgeoise, such as hedge fund managers, corporate CEOs, etc. The author comes up with the staggeringly awesome phrase “turning the ocean of the Buddha’s teachings into vast warehouses of bottled water” to describe what he refers to as a “cultural desalinisation program” that has been carried out by the PBG in the West as they took up Dhamma practice and created what some have called “the upper middle way.”  The piece reminds us that this spiritual transformation is “also a historical process of political economy, specifically, what Karl Marx termed the bourgeois relations of production.”

At issue is the shoehorning of the Buddha’s teachings into a set of historical circumstances that require discourses adhere to certain ideological tenets as the price of admission to the kind of mainstream media dissemination that mindfulness now enjoys.  time mindfulnessThe above cover of Time magazine suggests that one of these tenets is notions of beauty that have to with white supremacy and gendered power dynamics as critiqued by feminism.  (Everyone pictured in the piece is white.) The Time piece also follows the tenets of American militarism (I use that term in the sense intended by Chalmers Johnson) by chronicling and celebrating the value of studies Professor Elizabeth Stanley has done for the Pentagon on whether mindfulness could make Marines “more resilient in combat situations.”  Time celebrates the Department of Defense’s decision to award two $1million grants to explore the topic further.  The article at hand on the BPF site addresses this issue and reveals that the extent of the military’s investment in mindfulness runs many millions beyond those grants.  It also links to an excellent article by Ronald Purser in Inquiring Mind that reprints the astonishing adaptation of mindfulness of breathing to the firing of a weapon, described below by Professor Stanley:

The military already incorporates mindfulness training—although it does not call it this—into perhaps the most fundamental soldier skill, firing a weapon. Soldiers learning how to fire the M-16 rifle are taught to pay attention to their breath and synchronize the breathing process to trigger the finger’s movement, “squeezing” off the round while exhaling. (p. 263)”

This is a great example of one of the dangers of delinking mindfulness from Buddhism.  Purser’s piece reminds us that “Mindfulness practice in the Buddhist tradition is embedded in an ethical and soteriological framework that includes a cardinal prohibition against intentionally killing a living being. Such ethical restraint against killing can be found throughout the Buddhist path, such as in Right Action, the first of ten unwholesome actions, or the Five Precepts—as well as the commitment to nonviolence, nonharming and wishing for good will for all sentient beings.” What’s more, he writes that no distinction is drawn between friend and enemy in this teaching against killing, and that no evidence of support for any kind of holy war can be found anywhere in the Buddhist canon.  But if mindfulness is delinked from Buddhism, a process that began with the well-intentioned work of Job Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts’ Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, that contradiction disappears.

In a less obvious vein, the work of scholars like Peter Dale Scott and Alfred McCoy has chronicled how the intelligence component of America’s war machine, the CIA, has violated another one of the five precepts, the one about refraining from the use of intoxicants, on a scale the Buddha probably could have never imagined.  Books like The Politics of Heroin and Drugs, Oil and War provide evidence that the CIA gave an exponential steroid shot to the drugs trade in countries that are either currently, in the case of Southeast Asia, or formerly, in the case of Afghanistan, Buddhist societies in order to fund the aims of American Empire during the Vietnam war and the past and current wars in Afghanistan from the 1980’s to today.  “The devastating consequences of CIA use and protection of traffickers can be seen in the statistics of drug production, which increases where America intervenes and also declines when American intervention ends,” Scott writes in his book American War Machine: Deep Politics, the CIA global Drug Connection, and the Road to Afghanistan.  

During the Vietnam war, the Northeast region of Thailand, where the school of meditation I practice comes from, (Vipassana in the Thai Forest tradition of Achaan Chah and others,) was deeply affected by this conspiracy: drug production mushroomed from 7 tons in 1939 to 200 tons in 1968 in Thailand.  In Burma, it went from 40 tons in 1939 to 600 tons in 1970.  In Laos it went from less than 15 tons in 1939 to 50 tons in 1973.  Pity the CIA officers involved in that conspiracy weren’t trained in mindfulness to help them handle the stress of a process that included shipping bags of heroin back to the United States sealed inside of body bags holding the corpses of dead US soldiers, a practice effectively dramatized in the Miami Vice episode Back in the World, the first directed by Don Johnson.

Moving on from the issue of mindfulness and the military, the overall focus of Mace Vega-Frey’s piece is on the way mindfulness practice is admissible to publications like Time as long as it offers implicit or explicit pledge allegiance to corporate capitalism.  The Time magazine cover article does this by addressing a very specific segment of society when touting the benefits of mindfulness: the PBG, and the big bourgeoise they work for.  The article is motivated by the observation that mindfulness “is gaining acceptance with those who might otherwise dismiss mental training techniques closely tied to meditation – Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Fortune 500 titans, Pentagon chiefs and more.”  You can tell it is pitched to the PBG by the way it touts its benefits for folks with multiple Blackberry devices who are stressed out by the demands of their high pressured careers.  It says nothing about the potential stress reducing benefits of meditation for those lack access to sufficient nutrition, shelter and medicine due to the way resources are allocated in our society.

This ferreting out of folks interested in meditation but not capitalism is a common phenomenon.  You can see it in a Wired magazine article about the popularity of meditation and mindfulness in Silicon Valley.  The piece starts out with observations of a course Google offers at its corporate campus called Search Inside Yourself. “It’s designed to teach people to manage their emotions, ideally making them better workers in the process.”  Is this the goal of mindfulness – to become better “workers” for a corporation that cooperates with the NSA in maintaining a regime of mass surveillance, conspires with Apple to suppress the wages of their employees, sponsors libertarian think tanks, and shifts profits offshore to reduce its tax bill by $3.1 billion over a three year period?  When criticized on the latter count, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said, “It’s called capitalism. We are proudly capitalistic.” Fortunately their mindfulness workshop isn’t linked explicitly to Buddhism, otherwise they might have to think about violating the Buddhist precept about refraining from taking that which is not freely given, ie, stealing.

The Wired article does more than delink mindfulness from Buddhism.  It subordinates the Buddha’s teachings to the teachings of corporate capitalism in a hierarchical relationship one can read in the following passage:  “These companies are doing more than just seizing on Buddhist practices. Entrepreneurs and engineers are taking millennia-old traditions and reshaping them to fit the Valley’s goal-oriented, data-driven, largely atheistic culture. Forget past lives; never mind nirvana.”  (my emphasis.)

Back in 1996 or so, one of my dhamma teachers, Larry Rosenberg, said that the challenges that Buddhism had faced in being brought to this country paled in comparison to the challenges it would face due to its growing success because of the way capitalism commodifies and trivializes everything that challenges its values.  (Such as hip hop and punk rock.) That future has arrived, not only here but in Thailand, where the government forbade the state-funded Buddhist clergy from teaching the Buddha’s recommendation to be content with what one has because it might undermine the country’s ability to meet the target “growth” goals set by Western financial institutions like the World Bank and the IMF.

Back here in the US, the government doesn’t have to intervene in this manner. We police ourselves.  The Wired piece writes  “In today’s Silicon Valley, there’s little patience for what many are happy to dismiss as “hippy bullshit”. Meditation here isn’t an opportunity to reflect upon the impermanence of existence but a tool to better oneself and improve productivity. That’s how Bill Duane, a one-time engineer with a tattoo of a bikini-clad woman on his forearm, frames Neural Self-Hacking, an introductory meditation class he designed for Google. “Out in the world, a lot of this is pitched to people in yoga pants,” he says. “But I wanted to speak to my people.”

And who are “my people?”  Why, folks who are out to “better oneself and improve productivity” in service of corporate capitalism, of course.  It is breath taking how quickly the Wired piece dismisses “reflecting on the impermanence of existence” from the practice of mindfulness.  This leads quite nicely to the misguided notion that mindfulness is about “better(ing) oneself,” when the Buddha taught that the very commitment to improving and bettering oneself is a major source of suffering, because any “bettered” state one attains can – in fact always is – eventually undermined by the impermanent conditions that allowed it to arise, such as the health of our body.  Ayya Khema, a German Jew who fled Nazi Germany and paved the way for more women to receive full ordination in Therevada Buddhism, taught that the Buddha recommended a path of “Being Nobody, Going Nowhere.” that led toward liberation from the “self” by discovering a source of happiness that is not constructed by the relentless and coercive orchestration of external conditions.  Within my own cultural frame of reference as a musician, I like to think of this as a refusal of the imperative to “get straight, go forward, move ahead” as satirized so brilliantly by my favorite rock video:

It is especially important to those who want to ensure the reproduction of structures of class domination in society that members of the middle class who express an interest in reforming the impact of capitalism on the working classes, as most Western Buddhists probably do, sign on to the ideological affirmations offered by Time and Wired and their ilk.  This distances the middle and working classes from each other and makes a political alliance between them more unlikely.  That’s why Doug Henwood argues that NPR is “more toxic than Fox News…Fox preaches to the choir. NPR, though, confuses and misinforms people who might otherwise know better. Its “liberal” reputation makes palatable a deeply orthodox message for a demographic that could be open to a more critical message.”

Maceo Vega-Frey’s piece reminds readers that while “Mindfulness appears to be that secret ingredient that promises to smooth over life’s rough patches and give us the winning edge in whatever game we are playing,” the Buddha “did not call for a smoothing out of the rough edges of suffering or a negotiated peace with greed, hatred, and ignorance. He called for their complete usurpation, abolition, and annihilation by the forces of love and wisdom. He posited mindfulness as one essential tool for a process of disenchantment that illuminates the profoundly unstable, undependable, and disappointing nature of everything in existence: a revolutionary rather than reformist approach. In one classic refrain, he states,

Bhikkhus,  on one occasion I was dwelling at Uruvelā on the bank of the river Nerañjarā under the Goatherd’s Banyan Tree just after I became fully enlightened. Then, while I was alone in seclusion, a reflection arose in my mind thus: ‘This is the one-way path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the passing away of pain and displeasure, for the achievement of the method, for the realization of Nibbāna, that is, the four-establishments of mindfulness.’ (SN 47.43, The Path) [2]

In the latter part of the article, the author reads the Silicon Valley embrace of mindfulness in a more hopeful light.  The increasingly precarious nature of the middle class life under capitalism may be opening folks up to the Buddha’s teachings on impermanence and suffering in ways that may lead them to examine societal assumptions they currently agree with.  The organizations that maintain mindfulness in the west may transform themselves over time towards the embrace of a less compartmentalized understanding of the Buddha’s true teaching on greed, hatred, and delusion.  “Any entry point into a sincere meditation practice is wonderful,” he writes, “indeed it is priceless, and any mental or physical suffering that is alleviated therefrom is extremely valuable. I know many people whose starting place in meditation practice was a world away from where they ended up in their quest for “stress-reduction”.” The piece closes, however, with a contemplation of the possibility that the middle and upper middle class may lose interest in mindfulness over time when it doesn’t fit their expectations of guaranteeing victory in the gamesmanship of capitalist society. Time will tell – it’ll probably be a little of both.




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