As it slowly became clear that the world would once again survive a global financial crisis, there was a moment of self-examination on Wall Street. Something had obviously gone wrong: Investment banks were either closing, paying billion dollar fines or begging the government for help, high-level managers were openly vilified, bankers were awarded least-liked professional group. Something had to fundamentally change.
The Harvard Business School Professor Bill George had exactly the right book prepared: In his economics bestseller “Discover Your True North” he explains that leaders can only arrive at good decisions if they are authentic and listen to themselves. To do that, they obviously have to find themselves in the first place, perhaps by attending Bill George’s Mindful Leadership conference.
In his first life, Bill George was chairman of the board at a giant medical company. Today, he is a white-haired man with a permanent Dalai Lama-smile who tells top managers to not let their self-esteem be dependent on income. According to George, the real challenge is to not let oneself be led astray by seeking shortsighted, superficial results, and instead develop a consciousness for the bigger picture.
Mandatory Reading for Executives
Bill George’s teachings on mindfulness were perhaps the biggest regulative innovation that Wall Street had to tackle post-financial crisis: Because the U.S. government itself refused to supply the banks with stricter rules, the managers now regulate their own consciences. The board members of a few of the largest American companies have publicly deemed “Discover Your True North” as required reading for the subject.
In many American companies, mindfulness has in the meantime become approximately what the morning martini in Martin Scorsese’s “Wolf of Wall Street” had been — a nearly inescapable collective ritual that is mandatory for employees if they want to be promoted. Google offers its employees self-discovery courses and lessons in mindful eating culture. Every year the mindfulness conference Wisdom 2.0 takes place in Silicon Valley. And in New York two former Buddhist monks have recently founded the lifestyle coaching agency Upbuild to educate stressed employees on how they can become conscious of their essence. The new company’s seminars have been booked by, among others, L’Oreal and the pharmaceutical company Novartis, and cost $15,000.
Bankers in the Monastery
One of the founders recently told The Wall Street Journal that he had always been very stressed when he worked as a banker. He only became truly relaxed once he gave up his job and moved into a monastery. From that experience sprung his business idea — a consulting agency, which would help businesses establish a culture of self-awareness so that employees would no longer desire to move to a monastery. The research shows, according to the Upbuild founder, that lack of trust in the office is the most important source of inefficiency and stress. His agency now plans to replace the traditional climate of competition with an “atmosphere of empathy and compassion” so as to optimize the “human potential” of employees.
Such statements have appeared more often in recent times, although mostly in dystopian novels such as Karl Wolfgang Flenders’ “Greenwash Inc.” or in the companion text to the slightly unsettling digital art of Kate Cooper or Ryan Trecartin. Upbuild is not, however, a critical installation, but a real company, which throws up the question of whether or not the differences between cultural criticism and entrepreneurship no longer depend on their opinions but on their pay.
Mindfulness as Product
For the relatively new variation of commercially productive mindfulness the term “McMindfulness” has embedded itself in record time. It describes the phenomenon of how mindfulness today all too often originates from mass production and offered in easily digestible packets for immediate consumption. McMindfulness is “the marketing of mindfulness practice as a commodity that is sold like any other commodity in our brand culture,” as the magazine Psychology Today recently criticized. The actual, 3,000-year-old Buddhist teachings on mindfulness are about separating oneself from superficial and material objects. The goal is explicitly to not become richer and unnecessarily stress oneself.
On the other hand, industrialized mindfulness does in fact make an impact exactly where it promises: It reduces stress and chronic pain, helps with light depression and fearful conditions. It works like an antidepressant, but doesn’t go to the liver. Of course any health issue could be aided with adequate sleep and balanced nutrition. But those simple acts somehow aren’t quite as meaningful.
For Every Solution a Problem
If McMindfulness does in fact lead to a more relaxed society, its form as a commodity, which is now being criticized among some traditionalists, is maybe not a bad thing at all but indeed a welcome change. Only Hermann Hesse’s sense of mindfulness is not. A present in which people actually imagine the process of separating from consumer society as a product in and of itself, finds itself in a perfect cycle: Each solution creates a problem that enables the next solution, and so on forever. In the Buddhist world view this cycle is, of course, exactly what is depicted as hell in Christian teachings.
Poorly Constructed Factories
The healthy results of changing to a mindful lifestyle do not derive from better adhering to this cycle but rather leaving the entirety of it behind and eventually entering nirvana. One of the central keys to this process is adherence to “ahimsa,” or nonviolence, which obviously cannot be claimed if someone manufactures their products in poorly constructed factories in Bangladesh or Vietnam, ironically the countries in which mindfulness is practiced extensively.
Perhaps the international success of mindfulness teachings can be completely explained by the fact that all of these contradictions can be effortlessly overlooked and become entirely integrated in the everyday life of people who have never read the “Prajnaparamita.” In the '50s, mindfulness was popularized in the U.S. by the beat poets, in '60s and '70s by the hippies. Each time they acted as an avant-garde, contemporary answer to the excess of the problems of industrial modernity: wars, assembly line labor, obsession with consumption.
The Kingdom of Apple
That only changed with the figure of Steve Jobs; the Apple founder was the first to lecture on the biggest possible stage, that Buddhist introspection is not only something for long-haired polygamists, but can also help build the most expensive company in the world. Once Steve Jobs publicly acknowledged his Zen Buddhism, mindfulness was, for the first time in Western pop culture, no longer something alternative, but a kind of state-sanctioned religion in the kingdom of Apple. The view that the reformation of society first begins with a reformation of oneself no longer exclusively belongs to poets, such as Jim Morrison and Gary Snyder, but also to high-paid engineers and managers.
In this context, the commodity form, in which mindfulness is so often packaged today, is chiefly a consequence: Slavoj Žižek observed that popular consumer ideas, such as ecological sustainability or fair trade, demand that they radically change their lifestyles, something that no one is actually considering.
But when these ideas are marketed as products, everyone can continue to do exactly what they have always done before. Only now it feels better. Only when a revolutionary idea appears as a product, can we come to enjoy its advantages without simultaneously being burdened with its unpleasant realities. German philosophers have long considered that as frightful. But at the very least it is only pleasantly noncommittal. If we do get the opportunity at some point in life to live in static peace, perhaps we should enjoy it. It may not come again.