The Co-opting of Spiritual Practice by our Capitalist Culture
Yoga and meditation have gone mainstream, and it seems psychedelics are on their way too. Now all we need is an authentic spirituality.
Yoga and meditation, once considered to be relics of the 60s, are now practiced throughout the country. Google offers classes for its employees. Nike, Yahoo and HBO offer classes. It’s being offered in prisons and schools. It’s everywhere. And its no secret why. There are obvious benefits of yoga and meditation. They can help us to de-stress, relax, focus, raise productivity and increase creativity. There is a growing body of evidence that it can help develop emotional intelligence, strengthen empathy, and offers endless therapeutic benefits.
Even psychedelics are finding a wider audience. Besides the many notable therapeutic uses, micro-dosing is now all the rage in silicon valley, where it is seen as way of improving memory, cognitive function, mood, and creativity.
How could anyone see a problem with any of it? I think it is great that these practices, once relegated by western society to the fringe counterculture or some caricature of the mystical “East,” are finding relevance for mainstream society. It’s for everyone, and no one should be left out. If anyone told me they wanted to take LSD so they could be more creative at their tech job, I might even gift them the great book by James Fadiman, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide.
But I am seeing a troubling trend. Not only are these practices benefiting society, but they are being changed by it as well. Some of this is reasonable and expected. We are westerners engaging in practices from the East, and thus we are going to adapt them to fit our needs. This is not the first time this has happened. As Buddhism spread throughout Asia, it assimilated with various cultures to produce the wide spectrum of Buddhism we see today. Tibetan Buddhism is very different in form than Zen, and western Buddhism is developing in its own unique way.
Change is natural. And yet, I can’t fathom in any way that the values of our dominant, neoliberal, materialistic culture can actually coincide with the values of compassion for all sentient life, with our inherent interconnectedness, or the sacredness of everyone.
Yoga, meditation, and psychedelics are all tools that come from holistic traditions and cultures that praise interdependence over individualism and harmony over dominance. These are all tools that were ushered into the west to transform consciousness and are now being used to enhance the ego of our dominant culture. They are perpetuating a core value of greed, exploitation, competition and individualism that objectifies other people, other animals, and the environment.
As Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams state in Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work,
Neoliberalism has thus become ‘the form of our existence– the way in which we are led to conduct ourselves, to relate to others and to ourselves… we are constructed as competitive subjects… the imperatives of neoliberalism drive these subjects to constant self-improvement in every aspect of their lives. Perpetual education, the omnipresent requirement to be employable, and the constant need for self-reinvention are all a piece with this neoliberal subjectivity… One’s personal life is as bound to competition as one’s work life. Under these conditions, it is no surprise that anxiety proliferates in contemporary societies. Indeed, an entire battery of psychopathologies has been exacerbated under neoliberalism: stress, anxiety, depression and attention deficit disorders are increasingly common psychological responses to the world around us… Even if you do not buy into the ideology, its effects nevertheless force you into increasingly precarious situations and increasingly entrepreneurial inclinations. We need money to survive, so we market ourselves, do multiple jobs, stress and worry about how to pay rent, pinch pennies at the grocery store and turn socializing into networking (72-73).
This “form of our existence” runs so deep that it has slithered into even the most radical spiritual practices. Rather than showing us why stress and fatigue are so prevalent, they become another tool for us to privatize our well being. The new energy and creativity gained from these practices are often directed towards self-preservation and material possession, without any clue as to why we were cut off from that energy in the first place. Even increased empathy and a healthy psyche can only go so far if we are unable to see the root cause of our sense of disconnection and suffering.
In the corporate world, these practices are often used to create productive workers who can “not judge” the actual value of their work or environment. As Ron Purser, a professor of management at San Francisco State University, and Zen teacher David Loy wrote:
“Up to now, the mindfulness movement has avoided any serious consideration of why stress is so pervasive in modern business institutions. Instead, corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because it conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employee: stress is framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments. Cloaked in an aura of care and humanity, mindfulness is refashioned into a safety valve, as a way to let off steam — a technique for coping with and adapting to the stresses and strains of corporate life.”
Both yoga and meditation come from holistic systems that help us to unravel our selfish desire, and help us to instead work out of compassion. They are not just meant for individuals to be happy, but for the transformation of society. Compassion stands boldly opposed to all forms of objectification and subjugation.
If we fail to see this, then compassion becomes something we do to feel “good,” another high we use to stave off our insatiable desire to hide from the horrors of the world.
Psychedelics come from diverse, rich, and ancient Indigenous traditions, but even as little as 50 years ago, when LSD exploded onto the consciousness of our western culture, it immediately allowed people to see outside of the societal norm.
When Timothy Leary said “Turn on, tune in, drop out” it helped many young people to see that the various values and actions of society did not need to be followed, that we could live in a different way, that we could inspire society to work in a different way. I feel confident that it didn’t mean we could become better and more efficient at exploiting the planet.
This is not a new phenomenon. It has happened many times in the history of Christianity. Christ broadcasted a radical message in the midst of an extremely oppressive regime. And yet, much of early Christianity’s doctrine changed when it was appropriated by Rome. Even more recently it realigned with the conservative right as they used it to perpetuate their own neo-liberal agenda.
What happened to Christianity has now spread to the radical spiritual movements of our time. It’s happening right in front of our nose and we can’t even see it.
“Our ethos is all that we currently hold to be true. It is what we act upon. It governs our manners, our business, and our politics.”
– Howard Zinn
Our “ethos” as Howard Zinn calls it, is so pervasive that it even infiltrates the practices meant to dismantle it. This is true for the radical doctrines of Christ, Yoga, Buddhism, and the many other wisdom traditions throughout the world.
Whats missing is a vantage point that puts these tools in their proper context. Rather than entrapping us in a web of desire, they are meant to free us. These traditions not only offer spiritual practices like prayer and meditation, but offer new possibilities of living that include compassion and service to all.
As esteemed Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, states:
“Right livelihood has ceased to be a purely personal matter. It is our collective karma… when I meditate on the interrelatedness of all things, I can see that the butcher is not the only person responsible for killing animals. He does his work for all of us who eat meat. We are co-responsible for his act of killing.”
We can say the same thing about oil companies, those who are plundering the earth to make iphones, those actively at war with the Middle East, or those privatizing water in South America. This is not just a few bad apples that we can avoid or stop. This is a culture and an economic system that is based on exploitation. Yes, we all need to work on ourselves. But are any of us strong enough to root out our own selfishness when we are constantly bombarded by a culture that promotes it?
If we are all a part of this system, and we use practice as a way to de-stress and be more productive, can we really call it spirituality?
To illustrate this, lets look at what happened at the Google 2.0 event in 2014.
As the speaker in the video states, Wisdom 2.0 is a Google event that discusses “3 steps to build corporate mindfulness the Google way.”
If you want to learn more about the protester’s cause, check out their website here. Amanda Ream, a Buddhist practitioner who helped to disrupt the event, stated her reasons for the protest in Tricycle Magazine. Here is a short excerpt:
“Just like the gentrification of a neighborhood where new, wealthy people displace people who have lived there longer, the dharma is undergoing a process of gentrification in San Francisco today. Lost is the bigger picture of the teachings that asks us to consider our interdependence and to move beyond self-help and addressing only our own suffering. The dharma directs us to feel the suffering of others…
…Most of the workshops offer lifestyle and consumer choices that are meant to help people heal from the harm, emptiness, and unsustainability associated with living under capitalism, but it does so without offering an analysis of where this disconnection comes from. The conference presents an evolution in consciousness of the wealthiest among us as the antidote to suffering rather than the redistribution of wealth and power.” [emphasis added]
Troubled by the way Google was influencing San Fransisco’s housing laws to cause no-fault evictions, they invaded the Google 2.0 event to say “Wisdom means stop displacement! Wisdom means stop surveillance! San Francisco’s not for sale!”
As the security guards ushered the protesters away, the mindfulness speaker on the couch said, “Check in with your body, and see what’s happening, what it’s like to be around conflict with people with heartfelt ideas that may be different than what we’re thinking. So, let’s just take a second and see what’s it’s like.” This sounds like the mindful thing to do, but let’s compare it with a few other quotes.
Read these words and check in with your body. See how you feel when you compare the quote above with the words below. These are heartfelt ideas that may feel different than what we are used to hearing in the spirituality of today.
“Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to freedom for hungry and spiritually starving millions?”
“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
-Christ (Matthew 25:34-36)
“God comes to the hungry in the form of food.”
-Neem Karoli Baba
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
— Proverbs 31:8-9
“Just as with her own life
A mother shields from hurt
Her own son, her only child,
Let all-embracing thoughts
For all beings be yours.
-Buddha (Metta Sutta.)
“When our hearts open, when we know that we are in fact the world, when we experience the pain of others in our own blood and muscle, we are feeling compassion.”
“A society that is based on money is aggressive, and those with power can bully and behave cruelly to others. This situation produces growing social unrest. A society that depends on money has problems that reflect its beliefs… In reality, affection and compassion have no direct link with money. They cannot create money. Therefore, in a society in which money is the priority, people don’t take these values seriously anymore… When faced with economic or any other kind of injustice, it is totally wrong for a religious person to remain indifferent. Religious people must struggle to solve these problems… Anger toward social injustice will remain until the goal is achieved. It has to remain.”
– Dalai Lama (From Tricycle Magazine)
These ancient teachings have the potential to completely reprogram our current paradigm, and it is a good thing that they are now mainstream in western America. Society today needs healing, and these tools can play a role in that. However, stripped of their radical context, it’s just not enough.
Yes, these practices calm the body and the mind. Yes, they can enhance creativity, cognitive function, and productivity. They have huge therapeutic benefits.
But they can also show you that you are not your body or your mind. They can show you that you are more than the desire system that craves higher productivity. They can show you God. They can awaken a deep and authentic compassion for all of life.
They can show us the heart-wrenching suffering that we create for ourselves and others due to living in disharmony, and they give us the tools necessary to truly grieve for this planet and all beings.
They can inspire us to live in a different way and to work towards a world that works for everyone, even if we don’t yet know how, even if we don’t yet know what that means. They can inspire us to live with that deep uncertainty and can invite us to walk along its winding and mysterious path.