Mindfulness and the Institutional Abuse of Power

Power and Pedagogy
by Richard K. Payne
from Critical Reflections on Buddhist Thought: Contemporary and Classical

Autonomous Terrace has extended the discussion of “corporate spirituality” to include its use in educational institutions, and does so in a fashion that I think is both thoughtful and self-reflectively informative. AT’s focus is on the institutionalization of mindfulness practice in education, and the difficulties that imbalances of power create for those attempts. We note that educational institutions are also “corporate bodies” even if they are not for-profit corporations. In other words, the same kinds of dynamics, including imbalances of power, are at work there as in for-profit corporations. As AT notes, mindfulness is on offer as another “quick-fix,” that is, something simple (in conceptualization, if not execution) that will supposedly solve all/some/most of the problems plaguing the institution.

Hyper-sensitive defenders of mindfulness please note: as I read AT’s post, neither AT nor I are saying that there is anything wrong with mindfulness practice per se, and indeed both of us hold that it is good, useful, and beneficial—the issues that concern both of us are those that follow from attempts to institutionalize mindfulness practices, that is, how those with less power in an institution respond when those with more power attempt to get them to do something “for their own good.”  And, the slippery slope from the intent to provide someone with something that will benefit them into a technology of control—one that shifts responsibility for a person’s unhappiness with a situation onto that person, rather than allowing for a critique of the situation or institution. An employee experiencing stress at work may well benefit from mindfulness practice. However, an employer who simultaneously expects 60 + hours from employees, and then offers them mindfulness training in order to deal with the stress is making them responsible for dealing with their own stress (note the individualization involved here), rather than attempting to address the unreasonable work environment. (This strategy may also be referred to as “corporate paternalism.”)

This links to a very common rhetoric in popular religious culture, which is sometimes expressed as: It’s not the situation, it’s how you’re thinking about it. There are contesting true claims involved and as such the application of the principle needs to be contextualized. There are indeed situations in which the only control an individual has is to accept a situation and make the most of it. However, this is not always the case—changing how one thinks about a situation is not a panacea. Two instances come to mind: women in violently abusive relationships, and those suffering under political repression. To tell either group that their unhappiness is a result of how they are thinking about the situation is to demand that they become willing victims.

It seems to me that the advice of the Buddha was not to change how you think about things so that you’re happy and content with them as they are, but rather to see things as they are.

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