Drowning Social Ethics in a Sea of Meoliberal Niceness

Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business From the Inside Out

Author: David Gelles
Book review by Carol Horton from Issue 3 of YOKE

In the closing pages of Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business From the Inside Out, author David Gelles shares a final vignette that (like the rest of the book) is more revealing for what it omits than what it describes. Interviewing Chade-Meng Tan, founder of Google’s wildly successful “Search Inside Yourself” mindful business training program, Gelles asks him why mindfulness is so popular in Silicon Valley today. Meng replies, “The corporate spirit here is to radically change things for the better, to take radical steps for improving the world … It’s a very altruistic and idealistic culture.”

Gelles shares Meng’s self-congratulatory explanation without additional commentary. Yet it’s well known that the Silicon Valley tech boom has created unprecedented socio-economic inequality in the San Francisco area, with record numbers of homeless and a hemorrhaging middle and working class. Such facts, however, which raise important questions about Meng’s vision of “radical altruism”, are invisible to the world of Mindful Work. The larger social context in which Silicon Valley’s “radical steps for improving the world” are supposedly occurring is never mentioned, let alone analysed and discussed.

I believe that we can and should set the bar higher. The value of mindfulness in the workplace needs to be evaluated in concrete terms that include individual, interpersonal, organisational and social dimensions. Personally, I found it to be a poignant, if not depressing sign of the times that Gelles, a New York Times journalist, evidences significantly less social and political awareness than the progressive-minded CEOs of luxury clothing brands Patagonia, PrAna and Eileen Fisher, whom he interviewed for the book. Whatever happened to the Fourth Estate?

Not all that long ago, elite journalists were expected to cultivate a broad social vision and analyse current events through a lens informed by a commitment to (small-“d”) democratic values. Gelles’ authorial voice is certainly likeable: he comes across as a genuinely nice person who’s enthused about mindfulness because it enables him to be more present with his family at mealtimes despite the relentless demands of his job. His writing, however, evidences not the slightest hint of old-school journalistic, let alone politically progressive values.

Instead, Mindful Work conveys the taken-for-granted neoliberalism of someone who has been thoroughly socialised into the politics of the post-Reagan and Thatcher eras, in which “there is no such thing as society”. Everything of consequence is assumed to happen at the individual level; consequently, there’s no need to think into the social and organisational contexts in which businesses operate and work actually takes place. “But for all this talk of stress, we rarely examine its root causes,” Gelles writes. “Stress isn’t something imposed on us. It’s something we impose on ourselves.”

Given this framework, the claim that mindfulness is important because it gives us the tools to manage our stress makes perfect sense. As does the silence surrounding the work context in which said mindfulness is being employed. This mindset implicitly endorses the view that the way to reduce stress in any work situation is simply to add mindfulness, rather than assess whether it’s possible to improve working conditions in more concrete and systemic ways.

For example, Gelles happily reports how “at Green Mountain Coffee, based in Waterbury, Vermont, mindfulness has become part of the fabric of the company”:

At Green Mountain, mindfulness training started with the top executives and soon spread to midlevel employees. But Fried and her colleagues realised that much of the workforce was still not being served. The frontline workers who put in 12-hour shifts roasting coffee beans, packing boxes, and shipping them off … also need a bit of on-the-job stress relief … in a bid to reduce injuries, and perhaps increase mental well-being as well, she made it mandatory that all frontline workers do a series of mindful stretching exercises before beginning their shifts.

While Gelles quotes two workers saying they came to like the “Mindful Stretching” program because they found themselves in less pain at the end of the work day, one has to wonder how they’d feel about being offered eight-hour shifts at a higher wage rate instead. Mindful Work, however, doesn’t bother with questions such as what their pay scale might be, why they are working 12-hour shifts, and whether they’d prefer their (mandated) hours of “Mindful Stretching” be included as part of their (compensated) work day.

Today’s mindfulness movement has much to offer. Gelles is right to champion the virtues of learning to manage one’s own stress more effectively, as well as fostering a more considerate workplace. The problem is that in a time of relentless work speed-ups, ever-increasing inequality, unprecedented environmental devastation and unravelling democratic values, this simply isn’t enough.

We can’t harness the power of mindfulness to promote positive change without considering the organisational and social context in which it’s operating. While Mindful Work presents some important examples of how mindfulness, social ethics and business practices can be combined, it does so in a way that obscures, rather than reveals, the essential point that this integration is, in fact, the real bottom line.

Carol Horton is a writer, educator and activist working at the intersection of mindful yoga, social science and social justice. Author and co-editor of two books on contemporary North American yoga, she offers yoga workshops, teacher trainings and public lectures on modern yoga history, yoga culture and ethics, trauma-sensitive yoga and other topics at leading studios in Chicago and worldwide.