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Buddhism has found a new institutional home in the West: the corporation

Buddhism has found a new institutional home in the West: the corporation 

Photo by CroDigTap on Flickr.

Once associated in the United States with the alternative spirituality of hippies and beat poets, Buddhism is now ubiquitous in Silicon Valley. In 2016, tech giant Salesforce set up “Mindfulness Zones” at its annual Dreamforce Conference, with pavilions where Buddhist monks from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village monastery taught meditation and mindfulness techniques. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner calls his leadership style “compassionate management,” which he describes as “putting yourself in another person’s shoes and seeing the world through their lens or perspective,” and claims it is inspired by teachings of the Dalai Lama. Bill Gates took up meditation in private lessons from Andy Puddicombe, the former Buddhist monk who co-founded Headspace, an app which has turned online meditation into a multimillion-dollar business. Google even has its own in-house mindfulness guru, Chade-Meng Tan, a former software engineer who says his program “Search Inside Yourself” not only boosts profit but also contributes to world peace.

What we see in the tech world is an extension of American Buddhism’s adaptation into the US mainstream, a process that has been shaped by influential mindfulness entrepreneurs such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, who claimed to have extracted from the Buddha’s teachings the universal “essence” of Buddhism without the rituals and paraphernalia of religion. Kabat-Zinn popularized meditation — traditionally an advanced practice for gaining insight into the ultimate nature of reality — as a secular practice to boost mental health and productivity. Now, business meetings often open with a brief meditation session to make sure everyone is fully engaged: a mental hack in service of productivity.

In her new book, Work Pray Code, Carolyn Chen — a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley — argues that a new kind of American Buddhism has evolved, one which serves the logic of work and business. “Buddhism has found a new institutional home in the West: the corporation,” she writes. Chen spent five years studying American tech companies’ infatuation with Buddhist-inspired mindfulness and meditation practices. She participated in company meditation sessions; attended corporate mindfulness retreats; interviewed personal mindfulness coaches who help CEOs find their “authentic” selves; and spoke to tech workers who use meditation as a “self-hack” to improve focus, efficiency, creativity, and confidence. Her book describes a corporate culture where meditation and mindfulness address workers’ mental and spiritual needs, imbue work with a spiritual aura, and turn workplaces into productivity-centered “faith communities.”

Chen warns that corporate spirituality is turning work into a religion that replaces community-based spirituality and engagement. In an industry where 70+ hour workweeks are normal, the boundary between private life and work has been erased. Chen describes how tech professionals are dropping out of political and civic participation because their commitment to their companies leaves no time for such engagements outside the workplace; instead, they are encouraged to seek meaning and connection at work. “Instead of building friendships, trust, and goodwill within their communities,” writes Chen, “[workers] develop the social capital of their companies.”

– Judith Hertog for Guernica

Guernica: In your book, you describe how Buddhist meditation practices have been disconnected from their religious context and repackaged for business. Is there something inherent in Buddhism that lends it to being used this way?

Chen: The Buddhism practiced among white Americans does not have the same structures of centralized authority that we witness in many Abrahamic religions. You could say it’s been an unregulated market. Especially early on, there was no formal credentialing if you wanted to teach meditation or mindfulness. But there are also historical reasons why this has happened, in particular in the Bay Area. The Bay Area has been the epicenter of this fascination with Asian religions and Buddhism, starting in the late 1950s with the arrival of the Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, the Beat movement, and then the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Many of the people who initially brought mindfulness and meditation to the Silicon Valley corporations were what I call “mystics,” spiritual seekers who had come to the Bay Area to participate in the great counterculture movement.

But then we saw the mainstreaming of both the tech industry and Buddhism. People like Jerry Brown and Steve Jobs, who had an interest in Buddhism and had traveled to Asia, became the political and business elites, and the ethos and practices of the baby boomers became part of the establishment. Many of the meditation and mindfulness coaches in the tech industry picked up these practices in the 1960s and 1970s. For most of their careers, they were teaching in dharma centers or community centers, but with the rise of the tech industry and the rise of the cost of living in the Bay Area, they increasingly found that they had to service the tech industry if they wanted to survive and make a living. And this came with certain compromises or adaptations to the teachings and practices to meet the needs of the tech industry. I call it “trickle-down Buddhism,” because their culture became the ambient culture of the Bay Area.

Guernica: You write that most white Westerners know only “a particular brand of Buddhism that has repeatedly been altered and adapted to appeal to them.” Can you talk more about this process?

Chen: For the overwhelming majority of Asian Buddhists, Buddhism is a devotional practice. Bowing to images of deities, burning incense, worshiping at an altar — those are all fundamental elements of Buddhist practice. There is this acknowledgement of worshiping higher beings. Meditation was not at all a mainstream lay practice in Buddhism. It only became popular in the early twentieth century, when Buddhist reformers such as the Burmese monk Mahasi Sayadaw, founder of modern Vipassana meditation, promoted it as a lay Buddhist practice. Mindfulness, as it was practiced for most of its history in Asia, was a very elite practice reserved only for advanced monastics. But Jack Kornfield, who is one of a number of influential teachers responsible for making Buddhist meditation go mainstream, understood that devotional Buddhism would be an obstacle for white Americans. He emphasized meditation because he understood that devotional Buddhism would be too associated with “religious” practice.

I want to clarify, by the way, that I’m not necessarily critical of American Buddhist entrepreneurs. The problem is if you mistake this white American Buddhism for all Buddhism, or claim that this is the “right” or “only” way to practice Buddhism.

Guernica: How have traditional Buddhists leaders responded to the Western demand for Buddhist spirituality?

Chen: The Dalai Lama was instrumental in advancing the secularization of meditation. For him it was in part a political calculation. He wanted to make Buddhism relevant and useful to the West. Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, played a key role. In 1992, Davidson traveled to Dharamsala to meet with the Dalai Lama, and they discussed studying meditation scientifically. What ultimately grew out of that encounter is the Center for Healthy Minds, a research center that promotes scientific research on the efficacy of meditation. Talking about meditation in terms of data and metrics and facts has totally revolutionized Buddhism. There’s now a huge body of science on mindfulness and meditation, which has taken it out of the world of spirituality and allowed it to become standard practice in secular therapeutic spaces like hospitals, counseling centers, and schools. You no longer need to be a Buddhist to practice Buddhist meditation.

Guernica: Hasn’t the validity of some of this research on meditation been questioned?

Chen: Yes, and I think the other question here, to which I never got a satisfactory answer, is: Why meditation? Why mindfulness? When I looked at additional research, I learned that gardening can produce similar health outcomes to decrease your stress. Or just sleeping more! But nobody promotes those practices in the same way or to the same scale because there’s nothing to gain there. Several meditation teachers I interviewed told me that meditation is really hard and difficult to sustain, but here are all these companies touting it and claiming it’s making people more productive and improving their mental health. Yet there are all these other things that could be equally beneficial that people can do if they just get more time off work. But employers are unwilling to entertain that option.

Guernica: You’ve identified a kind of “doublespeak” that meditation coaches often rely on to market themselves: on the one hand asserting that meditation and mindfulness are secular, science-based techniques, but on the other hand drawing on the spiritual authority of Buddhism. Could you speak more on this paradox?

Chen: Let me first emphasize that I would not characterize the meditation teachers I interviewed as manipulative or dishonest. Their motivations were genuine and came from spiritual experiences they had had themselves. Their concern was to bring wholeness to people and to share their own spiritual transformation with the world. But because of the particular circumstances of living in the Bay Area, in the techtopian ecosystem, they have to figure out ways to monetize these teachings.

For that reason, they resorted to this kind of “doublespeak.” They felt that in order to market their spirituality, they had to quote the science and use the PowerPoints and language legible to tech professionals. They have to present meditation in secular terms because many companies have qualms about bringing religion into the workplace. These teachers consider this “doublespeak” as “expedient means,” which is a Buddhist term that justifies adjusting the teachings to make the dharma accessible to a variety of people. But I think all the teachers had some qualms about being forced to leave the ethical aspects of Buddhism out of the workplace. They were not being hired to make the employees more ethical; they were being hired to make them more productive.

Guernica: It’s also interesting to look at it from the other side. If companies are so focused on the secular and scientific aspects of meditation and mindfulness, why are they bringing it in as a spiritual practice?

Chen: For some companies it’s just a matter of out-perking other companies. On that level, it has nothing to do with spirituality; it’s just another perk. But on another level, companies are concerned about the spiritual care of their employees. They realize that employees do not perform well if their physical and mental state is not optimal. They worry about burnout. Many HR people talked to me about the spirituality of their workers as a competitive advantage. Human capital is the most valuable asset in a knowledge economy. So how do you grow the value of your capital and increase profit? You invest in your most important asset, which is your high-skilled workers. You try to persuade them to align the deepest parts of themselves with the company. You use “spiritual” practices to try to get them to love work and completely identify with the company. And the meditation and mindfulness that are being promoted in corporate workplaces are all part and parcel of that.

At some companies I observed, they would teach loving-kindness, Metta meditation, which is a traditional Buddhist meditation to promote compassion. Participants would be told: “Imagine yourself spreading your love to your family. And now imagine a circle of love that you enlarge to include all of your workplace, and then all of your community, and then all of the world…” So, first of all, you might ask, what does any of this have to do with work? But when you associate these practices with your company because they happen at work, you begin to associate this sense of wellbeing and spirituality with your workplace. The social and spiritual binding that happens when you practice meditation together — this is what gets people to develop a sense of belonging and identification with their company. It has nothing to do with compassion anymore.

And this happens not just in Silicon Valley. Almost all Fortune 500 companies are now organizing themselves to function as religious organizations. They have an origin story, a mission, ethics, and a particular set of practices, and many of them have a charismatic leader, which are all basic components of organized religion. I would say that this is strategic. They have learned that managing meaning is a central labor practice to compete for highly skilled workers in a knowledge economy.

Guernica: What would Marx say about that?

Chen: (Chuckles) He would say, “I told you so!” I actually found myself thinking a lot about Marx as I was doing my research.

Guernica: You’ve talked about how companies aim to develop their human capital by cultivating “a spirituality of authentic selfhood.” Is this similar to the individualism that informed the counterculture movement?

Chen: Whether it’s a countercultural movement or a deeply mainstream American movement, there is in the United States this celebration of individualism and the ideal of the autonomous individual, who not only gets to make political choices and exercise their rights, but also gets to make economic choices in the marketplace. In the spiritual realm, this is expressed as an expectation of an unmediated relationship with the divine and of envisioning the divine as embodied in each individual person. At the core of this, whether it’s from the left or from the right, there is this celebration of self-fulfillment, of self-optimization, and of the idea of the autonomous, unencumbered, authentic self. Which, by the way, completely contradicts the Buddhist principle of “no-self.”

Guernica: You call the spirituality promoted by corporate America “Whitened Buddhism,” which claims to capture the “essence” of the Buddha’s teachings without any distracting cultural baggage. How do the racial politics of the US play into this?

Chen: What we see is the erasure of Buddhism as a religion or tradition that Asians or Asian Americans can claim or identify with. In a place like the United States, there is a racial dimension to what is considered “universal.” Things like chanting, bowing, devotional practices, robes, incense, or having an altar are considered “religious” because they are associated with Asians or Asian Americans, while Buddhist meditation practices are presented as universal: something that can cross all times and people and spaces. And this matters a lot, because the universalization of Buddhism makes it marketable for business and therapeutic use. Such supposedly “universal” aspects of Buddhism are promoted in a secular context, while beliefs and practices associated with a particular cultural or ethnic group are considered to be religious.

I remember talking to someone at a company that brings meditation and mindfulness to businesses. She made it really clear to me that they did not bring in any zany gurus to teach meditation; they offered straight-laced teachers (they actually called them “trainers”) who didn’t wear robes but looked just like the people they were teaching, wearing something like khaki pants and a button-down shirt. The way she saw it, they had done away with the accoutrements of religion that were not “fundamental” to meditation.

Guernica: Could this desire for a spirituality geared towards one’s individual needs explain the backlash against organized religion in the US?

Chen: What we see in American religion, even if it is practiced in a corporate setting, is often the question, “How can the group help the individual realize themselves?” Whereas in other cultures this question tends to be reversed: “How can the individual help realize the goals of the group?” Interestingly enough, I think that companies have been able to command great self-sacrifice from Americans in a way that no other institution can today. I would argue that companies or workplaces have become the new faith communities that are replacing organized religion.

But there are downsides to this. We start to organize our selves, communities, and spiritualities around capitalism’s goals of efficiency and productivity, ignoring other possible ethics of justice, kinship, and beauty. Ultimately, companies, which are driven by the bottom line, cannot offer us a “solution” for a flourishing life.

Guernica: What worries you most about corporate control over spirituality?

Chen: It’s a problem when work becomes the alpha institution around which our lives revolve. I use the example of Buddhism to show how tradition and practices become flattened, impoverished, and hollowed out because they now serve the needs of the corporation. We see this also in families and in communities where civic participation has declined in the past 50 years. If we look at the economy of devotion in a community, devotion is collectively organized; it is organized around institutions such as the family, or the church, or the temple, or the workplace. But it’s a problem if you have only one game in town — the workplace — and essentially everything else orbits around it. This is increasingly what we’re seeing as we, human beings, become flattened into workers whose value is determined only by what we produce. This, I think, is also what’s behind much of the obsession with self-optimization, positive psychology, and the health and wellness industry: we are under constant pressure to boost our value as individuals to stay competitive in a capitalist society. And this also damages our democracy. People are spending all their time and energy at work. In a place like Silicon Valley, the workplace takes care of workers’ needs, but it also claims all their employees’ time, energy and devotion, so that they have nothing left to give outside work.

I think this is where traditional religions have a role to play. To be sure, religious affiliation and participation is on the decline, and extreme groups like white Christian nationalists have monopolized America’s popular conversation on religion. But religion still is a powerful vehicle for social justice, especially among people of color — think about the role of religion in the civil rights movement, the United Farm Workers movement, or immigration reform. But religions have articulated traditions and practices of meaning and purpose and of community and kinship that can counteract the extremely individualized, decontextualized, “secular” kind of spirituality that is being marketed today.

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