Ron Purser's McMindfulness looks at the recent and prevalent commodification of mental wellness strategies
McMindfulness by Ronald Purser (practising Buddhist and Professor of Management at San Francisco State University) is an exploration of the rise and prevalence of mindfulness practice in various domains of society including education, business, military and the private sphere. While the practice of mindfulness in and of itself is not seen as problematic, Purser’s critique stems from its recent monetisation and the ways in which it is endorsed to maintain neoliberal status quo where radical social change is instead required. The ‘Mindfulness revolution’ is becoming seen as a catch all solution to the effects of stress, burnout, depression, anxiety where ‘self discipline is being disguised as self-help’ (Purser, 2019)
Anything that offers success in our unjust society without trying to help change it is not revolutionary - it just helps people cope. - Ronald Purser, McMindfulness
A Mental Health Crisis
Mental health is an important talking point and one which is in dire need of collective attention. Frequent stories of burnout, work based anxiety, people struggling to cope with difficult living conditions and a rise in teenage and childhood stress and depression are newsworthy and present pertinent questions about what demands people are facing at work, school and home. However, Purser makes the argument against the rise in paid for mindfulness programmes, apps, gadgets, therapies and books designed to help individuals manage their stress as these privatise and internalise mental health difficulties and oversimplify complex issues . By boiling stress down to an internally created issue instead of a direct result to environmental factors, people are encouraged to bear their hardships alone rather than challenge their circumstances. A mind over matter approach means societal issues go left untackled.
Internalising Societal Problems
The sectors Purser explores which resonated most with me were the adoption of mindfulness in business and education. As a former teacher, I can relate to the focus on progress and data that can cause students stress as well as some of the issues facing children from lower income families. Instead of focusing on dismantling the systems which quantify students’ progress, mindfulness programmes encourage children to manage and bear the stress that is placed upon them. This is reflected in Purser’s chapter on Mindfulness in business where mindfulness is touted as a solution to work based anxiety or stress. Purser’s arguments against the mindfulness revolution are based on the fact that the ‘mood economy’, as he calls, it is part of neoliberal governance which only values our ongoing productivity.
In this way, Mindfulness programmes often only act as a quick fix for problems that run much deeper throughout our society. We are taught to bear and cope with the circumstances rather than change them or demand changes from those with the power to create it.
McMindfulness is a thought provoking read that encourages skepticism around the entire self help industry. Self being the operative word. Purser paints a picture of Western society which values individual responsibility rather than collective support and gain. This rings true for those who are successful but also those who are unsuccessful. Purser’s focus on how mindfulness programmes or tools or products are marketed demonstrates how health and wellbeing are being packaged and sold to willing consumers without a receipt. If it didn’t work for you then you aren’t being mindful enough!
McMindfulness encouraged me to rethink the mindfulness phenomenon in terms of its ability to suppress people’s feelings and teach them to withstand stress and hardship rather than demand change to external causes of said stress. Purser’s clear and comprehensive arguments across different institutions illustrate how prevalent this suppression is and how the mood economy is being used to gauge individuals' willingness to follow the company/societal/institutional norms and see their own value in their productivity.
McMindfulness is recommended reading for anyone who may be skeptical about the revolutionary claims made by mindfulness programmes or curious about how self help is adopted by corporations and institutions to maintain a productive workforce. McMindfulness also explores the crossovers between spirituality and science and how the former is stripped back and the later is often shoehorned in to sell a new kind of mindfulness ideology.
Purser, R. (2019) McMindfulness. How Mindfulness became the New Capitalist Spirituality. Repeater: London