How corporate America is corrupting the ancient art of mindfulness meditation

More people than ever want to learn about mindfulness meditation. In fact, if you visit one major online retailer, you have your pick of nearly 60,000 books on the topic. Corporations even offer mindfulness meditation classes to help their employees cope with stress. But as I’ll explain in a moment, their corrupt take on the ancient art of mindfulness simply aims to increase productivity.

In one sense, I’m happy to see the increased interest in mindfulness. Even 5 years ago, I remember my publisher asked my opinion about a potential cover design for my then-to-be-published book with Don McCown, New World Mindfulness. A dozen other mindfulness books had different piles of rocks on their covers, so in the end, we went with a compass rose.

In my view, our book stands out from the sea of other popular books on mindfulness meditation because we dispel the myth that you have to enter a Buddhist monastery to practice it. And we show the strong traditions right here in America that support mindfulness practice. We also show how you can practice mindfulness in the middle of your busy day.

We also realized there was no textbook that could serve as a teaching resource for the growing legions of mindfulness teachers, practitioners and consumers. At that time, Don and I were working at Thomas Jefferson Center for Integrative Medicine in Philadelphia.

We devised a plan to publish the first textbook on mindfulness meditation, called Teaching Mindfulness. It came out several years ago and has been well received with a second edition on the way. Don now runs his own mindfulness center at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. In addition, he has a strong concern about ethics in mindfulness practice and wrote another book specifically on that topic.

Don was certainly correct in anticipating the need to examine ethics in mindfulness practice.

Corporations encourage twisted version of mindfulness

A recent article by Zoë Krupka, Ph.D., at Latrobe University in Pennsylvania, states that corporations enlist the help of wellness “gurus” to help employees learn the art of mindfulness. Except it doesn’t really work the way it should.

In her psychology practice, almost every patient Krupka sees is anxious in some way. She offers therapies designed to turn down the anxiety levels resulting from stressful life and work circumstances. But she also teaches her patients to pay attention to the circumstances that create the anxiety — such as abusive relationships, significant losses, and stressful workplaces.

As Krupka reminds us, mindfulness can turn down the volume on these anxieties, but it can’t make the situations go away. It can’t make reality disappear.

As stated by Chinese philosopher, Hsin Ming, “If you understand, things are just as they are; if you don’t understand, things are just as they are.” There is no authentic “work around” to finding a way to make meaningful life changes.

But many corporate versions of “mindfulness” and “wellness” pin hopes on achieving the unachievable. They suggest mindfulness is the answer to all. After all, corporations can’t have legions of workers leaving the workplace when they realize the meaningful change they really need is to get up and leave! (As, in fact, Don and I have done, leaving behinds job in the “integrative” medical establishment.)

These corporations seek greater productivity, compliance and conformity. So, their hired-gun wellness “gurus” offer sanitized, misinterpretations of mindfulness.

They remold the authentic practices of slowing down, tuning in and radical non-judgmental acceptance into low-cost tools to make us speed up, tune out, and boost performance. These approaches drive people to work harder than ever before.

From the corporate point of view, being stressed is a condition to be corrected.

They say, if you’re stressed, you’re not focused on your own personal acceptance strategy. And you’re letting “the team” down. They use mindfulness as a stun gun to induce compliance and teach employees how to better manage their responses to stress — without having to do the really difficult work of changing their lives.

Medical research shows that authentic mindfulness meditation and other mind-body practices profoundly benefit the body, mind and spirit. But corporate mindfulness works more like a “band-aid” to mask the symptoms rather than provide a cure.

Remind you of anything?

It’s like prescribing an antidepressant drug. Instead of providing any psychological insights to finding authentic solutions, it simply dulls the senses. Remember, antidepressants cause suicides and even mass homicides.

Let’s not let mindfulness become just another drug. Don’t look to corporate bureaucracies for your well-being. They are simply the source of a paycheck (for as long as it lasts).

When you become truly mindful, anxieties will become just like waves that you watch passing through your feelings. These messages to our feelings are not something simply to be mastered in order to become a better servant. They are calls to insight and action in order to better serve our lives. Learn to heed the call.

To learn more, see my book with Don McCown, New World Mindfulness.


“How corporates co-opted the art of mindfulness to make us bear the unbearable,” The Conversation ( 9/22/2015