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It’s Not the Economy, It’s You: The Rise of Corporate Mindfulness

by Katherine Doane



“For instance, the darker your skin, the more likely you are to be ‘loitering.’ Though a Patagonia jacket could do some work to disrupt that perception. A Patagonia jacket, colorful pants, Tretorn sneakers with short socks, an Ivy League ball cap, and a thick book that is not the Bible and you’re almost golden. Almost. …[A]nother of the synonyms for loitering[, ]‘taking one’s time,’ makes it kind of plain, for the crime of loitering, the idea of it, is about ownership of one’s own time, which must be, sometimes, wrested from the assumed owners of it, who are not you, back to the rightful, who is.”

— Ross Gay, “Loitering,” The Book of Delights


At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, a myriad of new words and phrases infiltrated our vocabularies. “Rapid test,” “social distancing,” and “quarantine” plastered bulletin boards on campus; a new assortment of Covid slang danced through dorm hallways and classrooms. As the Great Lockdown loomed closer on the horizon, humanities and science professors alike began peppering lectures with words like “efficacy” and “comorbidity.”

In March, when the lockdown was first instituted, a new rhetorical shift seemed to be underway. News headlines and blog posts no longer solely focused on “flattening the curve,” but now also considered the mental health of the so-called unaffected population. “Resilience,” “gratitude,” and “stress-reduction” were some of the first words to pierce the rapid currents of the covid-speak tide. Piggybacking on the public hunger for a shared vocabulary for crisis, mental wellness went mainstream. One word, in particular, kept cropping up in headlines and reports by essayists and fitness gurus alike, a word that promised to erase all of our problems. That word, one from which I still mentally recoil, was mindfulness.

Illustration by Julian Crosetto, Layout Editor

Mindfulness is the exercise of being fully present and aware of what is happening around you and within you, and accepting your own thoughts without judgment or reaction. Mindfulness was originally intended to help people to be more present and reduce chronic stress through exercises such as body scans and walking meditation, but in the last decade or so, the tool has been gutted and scaled by radical new advocates. Suffering, they say, exists only in our minds, and it is our responsibility for how we react to the problems we encounter. New mindfulness ignores the possibility that these problems are broad and systemic, and equips us with tools to adjust ourselves to the very system that creates our problems in the first place. Suffering is depoliticized, and people are disincentivized from creating change. Mindfulness has become a social anesthetic, improving not our happiness, but our productive output.

Beyond mindfulness, countless other CBT techniques have been subtly extricated from a vision of social good and rebranded as means towards achieving maximal performance in the ever-more mercurial “workplace;” taking a break from work is seen, primarily, as a way to return to work as quickly as possible. Recent growing obsession with self-improvement, dubbed “wellness syndrome” by Carl Cederström at Stockholm University, demonizes idleness and “negative” emotion — anger, grief, despair — towards the same end. This tendency towards exclusively upwards emotional growth emerges from the close-knit relationship between western consumerism and Christian enlightenment, which preaches ascension in the same way that economists preach the gospel of upward social mobility. These ideologies have colonized mindfulness, which traces its roots back to the Buddhist Seven Factors of Awakening, into a secular means towards rugged individualism. Wellness syndrome’s vilification of idleness at its worst jeopardizes the disabled and vulnerable, as Johanna Hedva highlights in their influential essay Sick Woman Theory.

“‘Sickness’ as we speak of it today is a capitalist construct, as is its perceived binary opposite, ‘wellness,’” they write. “The ‘well’ person is the person well enough to go to work. The ‘sick’ person is the one who can’t.” Sickness is a deviation from the norm and is assumed to be temporary; when being sick is temporary, “care is not normal.”

Examining the wellness obsession from the disabled perspective clarifies its effect on a multitude of other identities: continuous mutual support, which once was an inseparable feature of human civilization (and still is in many communities outside of the West), is now a luxury. There is extensive research into studies where patients with long-term illnesses or symptoms were cared for with compassion and support during the treatment process, and subsequently experienced greater relief from their symptoms. Relaxing had visible physiological benefits that helped them heal and recover faster or more thoroughly. This data, when considered alongside the vast number of people who reenter the healthcare system multiple times after initial treatment, confirms that medical professionals are not trained to offer holistic support, but instead dole out temporary fixes for problems that they are trained to isolate in ways that are incongruous with reality. CBT techniques have undergone much the same treatment as antidepressents and antianxiety medications: they are no longer seen as interconnected factors in creating a social support system, but are individually packaged commodities, unmoored from a coherent spiritual practice.

Illustration by Frances McDowell, Production Assistant

Consumerism is also changing the face of public infrastructure. Public spaces that enable non-productivity and idleness are disappearing, via either physical reconstruction (see: anti-homeless architecture) or a shift in functionality. This social privatization of public space works hand in hand with loitering laws, not-so-distant echoes of the Jim Crow era, to discourage us from engaging with our non-productive selves in meaningful ways. Because we so rarely engage compassionately with these parts of ourselves, we fail to recognize the essentiality of spaces where non-productivity is accepted and celebrated, and so these spaces are not created. Because we do not see this part of our identities reflected in our physical surroundings, we fail to recognize the essentiality of non-productivity to our own well being, and so neglect these needs even more.

It is difficult to discuss the consequences of leading this consumable lifestyle because our ideas of happiness and productivity are so closely entwined. Why is it important to honor the joy we take in idleness, in what cognitive scientists have called play? Once we reject the doctrine that productivity is the ultimate goal, what reason do we have to pursue happiness? The question may seem cynical and ungenerous, but it might be a step in the right direction. As an ascension culture, we are obsessed with rising, and avoid exploring our own depths. But it’s there that we are most human. As poet Kahlil Gibran wrote, “the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” The idea that positive and negative aspects of humanity should enrich rather than undermine each other is not new, and yet its implications are perhaps more revolutionary than ever before. Many Native cultures such as the Pueblo and Mohawk have built-in rituals for collective grieving, and recognize the importance of letting anger and grief excavate spaces for healing and progress. In the current day, welcoming our socially unacceptable emotions is an act of self-salvation. Conflict, too, ranks high in the list of productivity’s enemies. Engaging in healthy conflict in our relationships — the kind of conflict that says, “I love you, but I disagree, and I believe this relationship is strong enough to handle it” — can strengthen communities and create a powerful counterculture of authenticity. Perhaps most essential to the success of both of these tactics is that we practice them together.

In November 2006, 39 Oberlin Conservatory students and staff performed Erik Satie’s Vexations in Fairchild Chapel. The piece, written for piano, consists of a single short melody repeated 840 times. Satie’s convoluted notation for the piece contains C flats where Bs would be expected, and E double-flats instead of Ds. Each performer played 20 painstaking repetitions, spending 18 minutes each at the grand piano. The piece lasted 14 and a half hours. Joshua Morris ’06 was the only audience member to stay for the entire performance.

“Listening to Vexations was like a clock with a blank face and only the second hand, and I was not quite sure which way was up. It ticks and ticks, very intently and it is intensely going from nowhere to nowhere,” Morris said in an interview following the performance. “It is very actively doing nothing. This was my only sense of time, only that surely time must be passing because notes are being played, but always the same notes.” Students could listen to part of the piece in the morning and return in the afternoon to find that virtually nothing had changed. The performance was a highly-technical demonstration in non-productivity.

It’s no secret that Oberlin is riding the waves of post-pandemic ascension obsession. The institution’s graduate success rankings are receiving more publicity than ever before, and, if poster dimensions are any indication, wellness and resilience workshops seem to be amassing more resources than most other student groups. But the college’s most enduring feature as a liberal arts school is its endorsement of environments of structured play. Even as the influence of consumerism grows in higher education, liberal arts colleges will always create multidisciplinary spaces for unexploitable joy. Vexations is just one event in the college’s history that suggests that Oberlin is primed for the dialogue needed to decenter productivity from the pursuit of well-being. As the pandemic recedes, it is critical that this remains central to sustaining generational student knowledge, and that we revitalize the institution’s underlying structures for channeling joy by initiating intimate conversation around grief, conflict, and healing with one another. A cultural reckoning is close at hand, and we happen to be in an optimal place to participate in it.

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