Forty years ago, John Travis, a medical doctor based in affluent Marin County north of San Francisco opened the Wellness Resource Center. "Wellness is recognising that there is more to life than the absence of sickness," he told veteran US journalist Dan Rather in a 60 Minutes television interview. As early as 1979, Travis was promoting wellness and the value of "self-care", describing it as an "ongoing state of dynamic growth". According to Travis, one could be free of disease and presumably, not be considered "well". Defending the programme from charges that wellness was a middle-class cult, one participant assured Rather that with "wellness you are the leader and your own guru, and you’re the perfect person trying to make your life better and more full."
It seems we can never be well enough. Just as we are exhorted to pursue an ambiguous state of ever-receding wellness – whether it be hitting the gym, eating more kale or taking forest baths – we are now expected to be mindful of everything we do. As the latest wellness remedy, mindfulness has gone mainstream. The market is saturated with books on mindfulness touting its benefits, such as Mindful Parenting, Mindful Eating, Mindful Teaching, Mindful Therapy, Mindful Leadership, Mindful Finance, Mindful Nation, The Mindful Twenty-Something, The Mindful Athlete, Mindful Dog Owners and The Mindfulness Colouring Book, just to name a few (over 100,000 titles are listed on Amazon). Mindfulness is now estimated to be a $1.5 billion industry that, besides books, includes workshops, online courses, glossy magazines, documentary films, apps, bells, cushions, bracelets, beauty products and other paraphernalia, as well as a lucrative and burgeoning conference circuit. Mindfulness programmes have made their way into corporations, schools and government agencies, including the US military. Almost daily, the media cite scientific studies that report the numerous health benefits of mindfulness meditation and how such a simple practice can affect neurological changes in the brain.
A recurrent message from the mindfulness movement is that our failure to pay attention to the present moment and getting lost in mental ruminations and mind-wandering is the underlying cause of our dissatisfaction and distress. Mindfulness promoters tell us that our entire society is suffering from an attention deficit disorder. The father of the mindfulness movement, Jon Kabat-Zinn, tells us that we are suffering from a "thinking disease". The diagnosis is simple: our stress is self-imposed because we are distracted, addicted to Instagram, and fail to live mindfully in the present moment.
Not only are we distracted, we can’t manage and control our unruly emotions. We lose our temper if someone criticises us or we become irritable due to our demanding boss. The reason, so we are told, is because we are constantly overreacting to external stimuli. In other words, our fight-or-flight alarm system is being pushed way too many times in the course of a day, throwing our homeostatic systems out of whack. The popular explanation is that we have inherited an outmoded physiology from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Their survival was often threatened by encounters with the notorious sabre-toothed tiger. Thanks to their "fight or flight" instinct, the rush of adrenaline in their bloodstreams provided them the energy to fight or flee. Having inherited an outdated and flawed biology, it is up to us to compensate by practising mindfulness.
In other words, it is mindless and maladapted individuals, not the political and economic conditions, who are to blame. By shifting the burden of responsibility to individuals for managing their own wellbeing, there is no need to pay attention to the fact that we are being manipulated and that our attention is being monetised. The technologies of mass distraction propagated by Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Apple are not the culprit. No wonder these very same companies are some of the most enthusiastic promoters of mindfulness.
Wellbeing is just a matter of training your brain by practising mindfulness. External resources and social conditions don’t matter. Individuals are responsible for their stress and anguish, regardless of the social and economic milieu in which their lives are embedded. As a DIY technique, mindfulness is viewed as something isolated individuals can perform in order to cope with the challenges of modern life.
People may find that they could be a lot less stressed if they organised around collective resources by building community and engaging more politically in solidarity with others. While it isn’t an either/or choice, mindfulness has been marketed as a therapeutic technique that pacifies feelings of anxiety at the individual level by helping individuals to cope rather than challenging the social, political and economic injustices that cause modern distress in the first place.
This is especially the case in how mindfulness has been applied in corporations. Corporate mindfulness programmes promise to make employees calmer, more focused and resilient. They’re a trendy form of corporate virtue signalling – a boon to employers that purport to care for the wellbeing of employees but whose real aims are to boost productivity and reduce healthcare costs – while absolving companies from addressing the systemic causes of workplace stress. Andy Lee, a self-appointed "thought leader" and lead trainer for Aetna’s Healthcare mindfulness programme exhorts "that employees also take it upon themselves to call out excessively stressful working conditions when they occur." Tell that to warehouse workers who are under constant surveillance, closely monitored and non-unionised.
Stress has been depoliticised in neoliberal economies by depicting it as the result of poor lifestyle choices. This ideology naturalises stress as something omnipresent and as an inevitable given which we have to manage through self-care. Seeking fleeting relief from stress and anxiety by listening to a guided mindfulness meditation on app on the Tube is fine, but finding sources of meaning that go beyond personal concerns or merely feeling good about one’s self can alleviate feelings of isolation, loneliness and hopelessness.
This doesn’t mean that caring for the self is a mistake. As the late black lesbian feminist activist Audre Lorde said, "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare." Subjectivity can also be a site of struggle. Self-care as a way of resistance, however, rejects the dominant narrative that stress is all inside our heads, and that the burden is on individuals to adapt and accept the status quo.
Ronald Purser is a professor of management at San Francisco State University. He is the author of McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, published by Repeater Books.