Embracing McMindfulness: What the corporate mindfulness movement can learn from its critics
Updated: Jun 16
The expansion of mindfulness in various professional environments is accompanied by a growing critique of this development. Rather than rejecting the criticism, it is essential for proponents of mindfulness to listen seriously to it. While the discussion is complex and delicate, this short article sheds light on selected aspects that I hope will strengthen the mindfulness movement.
What is McMindfulness
The expression “McMindfulness” was coined by Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Miles Neale in 2010, referring to a “feeding frenzy of spiritual practices that provide immediate nutrition but no long-term sustenance”. Among the most outspoken critics of corporate mindfulness today is Ronald Purser, a professor of Management as well as a Zen Dharma teacher. In his 2019 book McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, Purser argues that corporate mindfulness reinforces existing neoliberal power structures rather than instigating social and political transformation. Consequently, “stress,” for example, depends on an individual’s inability to properly deal with high pace and complexity. Mindfulness now helps leaders and employees to “cope” with stress rather than challenge the underpinning structural conditions, as it shows how to “accept” stress and “breathe through” it. Moreover, Purser argues, the current mindfulness movement is massively focused on individual wellbeing rather than cultivating ethics for collective, let alone planetary wellbeing.
Mindfulness now helps leaders and employees to “cope” with stress rather than challenge the underpinning structural conditions
As you are reading this text, I assume you are somewhat intrigued by mindfulness, if not a coach, trainer or facilitator using mindfulness-based frameworks or methods, like myself. While it is easy to object Purser’s above criticism with a resounding “But … !,” my invitation is to remain attentive and open to the critique. Personally, although I believe Purser’s framing tends to be one-sided and polemic, I also see an opportunity for widening my understanding of corporate mindfulness through a healthy (self)critical lens. Indeed, Purser’s perspective helps me to more clearly see my own blind spots and to identify precarious tendencies in the current mindfulness movement.
The Meaning of Mindfulness
One of the root causes for McMindfulness is an arguably flawed interpretation of mindfulness in popular discourse, including professional environments. “Mindfulness” is a translation of the Pali term sati. One meaning of sati is “here-and-now-ness” or “being in the present moment,” which shapes widespread interpretations of mindfulness. However, there is a second major meaning of sati, namely, “remembrance” – in the sense of “coming home” or “knowing what feels right.” There are various reasons why the meaning of “remembrance” has been neglected within the mindfulness movement, for example, because it appears less secular than “neutral” present awareness. Significantly, however, this second meaning of “remembrance” arguably provides the essential ethical foundation for mindfulness.
Right Mindfulness as Moral Compass
An expert sniper, to take an extreme example, will be able to remain totally focused and present for many hours, ready to shoot someone at any given moment. Our ability to be hyper focused and self-aware – like a sniper – does not suffice to define a state of mindfulness. Within the Buddhist tradition, the cultivation of samma sati (“right mindfulness”) is only one part of the “Eightfold Path,” along with “right” understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort and concentration. The “right” highlights the required ethical foundation that gives direction to mindful actions. If detached from an ethical and moral compass, mindfulness can do as much harm as bear insight. For this reason, I agree with Purser that it is possible that mindfulness in corporate settings (or anywhere, for a matter) can affirm rather than transform unwholesome structures. It is possible that mindfulness-based interventions help people cope with stress rather than empower them to challenge its structural roots.
A “right mindfulness” requires two wings: one wing of here-and-now-ness, the other wing of ethics. In a corporate setting, the ethical wing requires engaging with purpose and values, especially with the role of compassion and self-compassion. Exceeding empathy, which refers to our ability to feel the emotions of others, compassion awakens a deep wish to alleviate suffering in others and ourselves. Compassion inspires to go beyond feeling toward action – to courageously step forward to eradicate unwholesome structures and to create more humane circumstances. By stretching both wings - mindfulness and compassion – and letting them dance together, individuals, teams and whole organizations can create cultures that nurture wholesome and sustainable togetherness.
3 Courageous Steps
In conclusion, what can proponents of mindfulness in organizations do to strengthen the movement?
To listen seriously to any critique of corporate mindfulness that may expose our personal framing and blind spots, including the shadows in our social bubbles and the larger mindfulness discourse.
To cultivate a personal mindfulness practice that helps us cultivate the depth, compassion and values we wish to embody.
To actively integrate the dimension of ethics, values and compassion in all forms of mindfulness trainings, initiatives and interventions.