The Amphetamine of the Upper Middle Class?

Steve Tipton, one of my professors at the Candler School of Theology, always juxtaposed this phrase (“amphetamine of the upper middle class”) with “opium of the people,” Marx’s famous critique of religion.  He as suggesting that contemporary forms of self-help and spirituality reconcile white-collar and creative professionals to their frenzied labor every bit as effectively as Marx’s religion sedated the proletariat.

The latest outburst of this critique has focused on the surging popularity of mindfulness, often among the conspicuously well-off and powerful.  Among the latest gems in this mini-genre is Joshua Eaton’s new post at Slate, “Gentrifying the Dharma: How the 1 percent is Hijacking Mindfulness.”  Eaton begins by describing a protest that disrupted a panel called “Three Steps to Build Corporate Mindfulness the Google Way,” part of the 2014 Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco.  Apparently the conference focuses on the conversion of technology and spirituality.

And, well, money.  Eaton quotes an article by one of the protestors:

“Most of the workshops offer lifestyle and consumer choices that are meant to help people heal from the harm, emptiness and unsustainability associated with living under capitalism, but [they do so] without offering an analysis of where this disconnection comes from,” Amanda Ream, one of the disruption’s organizers, writes in a blog post for Tricycle Magazine explaining why she disrupted the conference. “The conference presents an evolution in consciousness of the wealthiest among us as the antidote to suffering rather than the redistribution of wealth and power.

While traditionalists and communitarians have accused contemporary spirituality of narcissism since roughly 1966, the emergence of corporate spirituality, like Google’s, has prompted a new wave of cultural criticism that frames the vogue of mindfulness as the servant of neo-liberal capitalism — a way to soothe the nerves of professionals so they can, in turn, serve the bottom line.   Particularly since it’s recent cover story in Time, mindfulness has attracted the bulk of this criticism.

MindfulnessBut it’s not just mindfulness practice, which, as almost everyone allows, can do lots of people lots of good.  The spiritual capitalism of Tom’s shoes has raised some eyebrows, as has Google advertisements that frame good technology as the panaceas to world conflict (leaving aside that pesky history). My friend Dennis LoRusso, who is doing his dissertation on workplace spirituality, was ahead of the curve in 2011 when he attended the first International Faith and Spirit at Work Conference at the Tyson Center for Faith and Spirituality in the Workplace, itself affiliated with the Sam Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Among other things, Dennis reported back that while many presenters were spiritual teachers, the sponsorship was all corporate. Which brings us back to mindfulness.

So here’s the thing: on my better days, I do mindfulness meditation.  It makes a difference.  I’ve also seen documentaries showing it helped prisoners in India, and I know colleagues at Emory University and the Earlham School of Religion who have used it to cope with serious illness as well as stress. One response to the Time article pointed out that mindfulness practices were bringing healing and solace to soldiers, burned-out doctors, the mentally ill, and amateur athletes, among other members of the 99 percent.  So it’s clear that mindfulness meditation is not intrinsically a force for neo-liberal capitalism. It’s been around a little longer than that.

But in a place like the ESR, where we embrace spiritual formation and are, at the least, open to personal spiritualities and various meditation practices, how do we resist becoming part of the problem?  For example, can we cultivate a spirituality of resistance (as the Quaker tradition would strongly suggest)?  Because, as much as sympathy as I have for criticisms of spirituality, I suspect resistance movements are also going to need it.


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