The Shadow Side of Mindfulness

Kelly Wendorf, PCC

In 2008 I was sitting in a café with several fellow colleagues excitedly speaking about a new book detailing the mainstreaming of mindfulness practices in corporate circles. Google, Nike, Harley Davidson and Apple were all beginning to embark on a watered-down secularized version of ancient Asian practices in one of the most ‘politically correct’ cultural appropriations in history. Meditation was going public. The Buddha was trending.

Even then statistics were showing that sales and efficiencies rose, and stress reduced in the wake of Human Resources’ delivery of Buddism Lite. How cool was that?!, we thought. Inside the Trojan horse of increased productivity, consciousness would be released into the bowels of corporate greed. How fantastic would it be to leverage the colossal strength of companies for social change? Perhaps this was at last the door to world peace and the end of climate change.

‘What could be wrong with enlightened CEOs?’ my friend Ken wondered over his chai. ‘It could mean that all their power is used for awakening and good.’ We all sat quietly for a moment thinking over this new possibility. Then I asked, ‘Ok, so let’s take a hypothetical scenario here; what if the CEO is someone like Dick Cheney? What if teaching him mindfulness just assists him to feel less stressed and less conflicted about bombing a country?’ We all got quiet again… ‘No way!’ we suddenly chimed naively. How could meditation enable bad behavior?

I think I was on to something, though. Only it isn’t the ‘who is taught this mindfulness’ that is the issue, but the question of ‘what is this mindfulness’. Eleven years later meditation and mindfulness is a billion dollar industry, and even that doesn’t count the revenue from the over 1000 mindfulness apps available. Images of Buddha heads, lotuses, and elegant slim yoginis sitting crossed legged play into our desires to be a highly evolved human being, having gone through some obscure spiritual portal, to arrive at this sublime final advanced stage. All with just a touch of a smartphone screen.

An app is not that portal. Even Columbia Pictures knew this when they featured The Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi and his stern tutelage to Daniel to put the wax on the car, wipe it off, and repeat it again and again. True mindfulness is a byproduct of deep, authentic and extremely difficult spiritual work; it is not the work.

Coined McMindfulness by critics, the industry––with its lack of moral, ethical and spiritual foundation––is attracting increasing skepticism, and for good reason.‘McMindfulness occurs when mindfulness is used, with intention or unwittingly, for self-serving and ego-enhancing purposes that run counter to both Buddhist and Abrahamic prophetic teachings to let go of ego-attachment and enact skillful compassion for everyone,’ writes David Forbes, author of Mindfulness and Its Discontents. ‘Instead of letting go of the ego, McMindfulness promotes self-aggrandizement; its therapeutic function is to comfort, numb, adjust and accommodate the self within a neoliberal, corporatized, militarized, individualistic society based on private gain.’

McMindfulness not only fails to serve to awaken people and organizations from greed, abuse of power, delusion and denial. Refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique, it can also actually reinforce those tendencies. We are literally Zen-ed out of any kind of healthy response to those societal ills.

As coaches, practitioners and leaders we would be wise to have a hardy and critical discussion around stripped-down spiritual techniques that are simply approaches to stress reduction dressed up in malas and robes. And what is wrong with a little stress reduction you might ask? Well, nothing inherently except when it is being used as a device to subdue rebel voices inside organizations and society as a whole.

Let me expand a little. Let’s say as an executive coach I’m hired by a company that has a policy of smoking indoors. Smoke is everywhere, everyone can smoke at any time, and over the months and years, the entire building, every room, is filled with cigarette smoke. The company has an issue with one of its middle management leaders who is starting to complain about the conditions. Please can I assist him to better work within the company environment, they request of me, otherwise they’ll have to fire him.

As a coach, hired by the company, is it right action to assist this employee to ‘manage his stress’ about the smoky rooms, and about the illnesses he is contracting within the company environment? Do I teach him meditation so he can sit quietly, unperturbed by his coughing? Do I encourage mindfulness so that he can quickly recognize his ‘judgements’ about the organizational leadership, and the smoke, and just ‘let it go’?

Or instead, do I awaken his capacity to see the systemic issue? And do I empower him to not only illicit change in his own life, but perhaps even be a champion for change in his organization?

The new normal in corporate America is stress and more stress. Bigger, faster, more, sooner, better and now. Employees are being forced into increasingly toxic environments, to work more hours, to take on more, and threatened to lose their place, or their job, if they do not conform. McMindfulness aims to reduce the stress of the individual and takes no interest in the social causes of stress. ‘Mindfulness training has wide appeal because it has become a trendy method for subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and as an instrumental tool for keeping attention focused on institutional goals,’ writes Ron Purser and David Loy in their article, Beyond McMindfulness.

We are systematically numbed to the increasingly inhabitable and unacceptable state of our modern world, legs crossed, starting at our navels, self-regulating and controlling our emotions. ‘Where are all the protestors, the raging masses?’ people now ask. Answer: sitting in their office, earbuds on, eyes closed, meditating.

Our outrage and anxiety is pathologized, and the focus shifts from politics, moral injustice and a commodified society, back to the ‘individual with a problem’. This is the antithesis of true spirituality, grounded in oneness, interconnectivity, and universal love. When the Dalai Lama is mindful, no doubt his awareness includes the suffering of all.

What’s the solution? I think as leaders (and I use this term broadly––leaders of ourselves, inside a family, within an organization), and within my own field of coaching, we need to cultivate the rarefied discernment between ‘numbing’ and ‘awakening’ inside this wellness / meditation / mindfulness arena. I believe we need to cultivate true spiritual capacities, and engage in our own robust spiritual life.

My personal alliance and commitment inside my coaching practice is around awakening, consciousness and awareness. People who work with me know this up front. I’m not going to simply ‘let my clients lead’ as I was taught to do in coaching school. I’m going to let their deepest, wisest selves lead. I’m going to let consciousness lead. They may end up breaking the mold, coloring outside the lines, rocking the boat or stirring up trouble. Yep, authenticity has a way of doing that. If a company wants to hire me to ‘deal with a problem employee’, I’m careful to discern if it is the employee who needs to change, or the toxic company culture.

My hope is that our natural enthusiasm for peace, freedom and joy will not become irrelevant to society because we did not insist on the spiritual transformation of McMindfulness. We have an opportunity to leverage the positive response to meditation, and evolve it towards true mindfulness––awake to inhumanity and suffering––and called to be spiritual warriors in our fight for a compassionate and enlightened society.

Kelly Wendorf is an executive coach, spiritual mentor, facilitator, horse-woman, writer, poet, mother of two astonishing people, and courageous life explorer.
To inquire about coaching, spiritual mentoring or private retreats with Kelly, email her.