Is mindfulness meditation a capitalist tool or a path to enlightenment? Yes
It’s hard to put your finger on the point when the Western stereotype of Buddhist meditation flipped. It was sometime between the 1950s, when Zen Buddhism seeped into the beat generation, and the early 21st century, when mindfulness meditation seeped into Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
One minute founding beatnik Jack Kerouac was spouting arcane Buddhist truths that meditation is said to reveal. “There is no me and no you,” Kerouac wrote. And “space is like a rock because it is empty.” Fast forward half a century, and hedge fund manager David Ford, in an interview with Bloomberg News, was summarizing the benefits of meditation this way: “I react to volatile markets much more calmly now.” Buddhist practice, once seen as subversive and countercultural, now looked like a capitalist tool. It had gone from deepening your insight to sharpening your edge.
Of course, a stereotype is just a stereotype. Most of today’s meditators aren’t following the guidance of the Bloomberg News headline that accompanied Ford’s quote: “To Make a Killing on Wall Street, Start Meditating.” Still, the past decade’s wave of interest in mindfulness meditation has had a utilitarian air. When companies like Goldman Sachs start offering free meditation training to employees, and salesforce.com puts a meditation room on each floor of a San Francisco office building, it’s a safe bet that heightened appreciation of Buddhist metaphysics isn’t the goal. In fact, mindfulness meditation is often packaged in frankly therapeutic terms: “mindfulness-based stress reduction.”
This drift from the philosophical to the practical has inspired two kinds of blowback. First, because goals like stress reduction are so clear, attainable, and gratifying, many people now sing the praises of meditation—which deeply annoys some people who don’t. The author and business guru Adam Grant has complained of being “stalked by meditation evangelists.” Which bothers him all the more because the feats they harp on are so pedestrian. “Every benefit of the practice can be gained through other activities,” Grant says. For example, exercise takes the edge off stress.
The second kind of blowback comes not from Buddhism skeptics but from Buddhism aficionados, who lament that meditation has—in some circles, at least—become so mundane as to invite ridicule from the Adam Grants of the world. These Buddhism purists aren’t against reducing stress. After all, the Buddha preached liberation from suffering. But liberation was supposed to be a spiritual endeavor.