A response to ‘The Mindfulness Conspiracy’ from Dr Karen Blakely at the University of Wincester
In 1992 Fukayama wrote about the end of history. There was no more to say – the debate had been won by capitalism, hands down. From the vantage point of post 2008, we may laugh at this hubris but when we do this, we forget something very important: we are teaching Thatcher’s kids and their kids and their grandkids. For these generations, the market, competition, survival of the fittest is not a paradigm, it is the truth. It is, using Schein ’s phrase to describe culture, ‘how things work around here’. For baby boomers, this is often difficult to acknowledge and we complain about how lacking in criticality students are today.
One way of cultivating critique is to use the spirituality lens. For example, when I help my students study business ethics, we typically look at classical models of utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, human rights theory and the ethics of care. Then we study behavioural ethics that tells us that, whatever beliefs human beings espouse, they will act in their self-interest as long as they don’t have to sacrifice their views of themselves as ultimately ‘good’ people (this leaves a lot of leeway). Basically, we know what the right thing to do is, but because we are human beings we don’t do it – so if everyone’s pursuing their self-interest why should anyone care about social justice, planetary extinction and climate change?
In teaching we draw on ideas around mindfulness (but not ignoring their roots in Buddhism and Hinduism) and we ask students about a typical day. They describe getting up, looking at social media, washing, looking at social media, getting dressed, eating whilst looking at social media, travelling to work/uni whilst looking at social media, entering the classroom whilst looking at social media, looking at social media whilst partly paying attention to the class, and exiting the class with friends chatting about what was on social media.
When asked to describe this state of mind, students invariably use the word ‘trance’. When asked how much of their day is spent in trance, they say up to 90%. When asked how they behave when in trance they acknowledge that they are reacting to conditioning – reacting, buying, comparing, judging, liking, buying, copying others, liking, buying. What a perfect recipe for consumerism – create an all-embracing paradigm of ‘you are what you buy’, cultivate insecurity through the use of celebrity role models, drawing on the natural human tendency to compare, inculcate a trance-like state through social media, and then brainwash the young into buying stuff in order to meet the emptiness they feel inside.
But how then do we come to know the right thing to do? Our society is telling us that the right thing to do is compare, judge and buy. This is where mindfulness can make a contribution. The only way our young people can know is to look inward and connect with their inner selves – their conscience, their courage, their sense of justice and righteousness. But how do you connect with your inner sense when your inner world is being bombarded by capitalism. What chance do our young people have? The only chance they have is to connect to their own sense of right and wrong, to talk about this with others, to listen to themselves, to value their inner voices and then to gain the confidence to act – not react.
At the other end of the scale I see friends growing old, too scared to say what they think and what they feel, and continuing to suppress their rage at the way they have been manipulated to live their lives. The one thing that Marx under-estimated was the power of the capitalist state to manipulate identity. Mindfulness, in a critical framework, offers us a way to help the young to pursue personal integrity. I don’t know of any other way of doing this.