Salvos Mind Your Own Business

Barbara Ehrenreich

At about the beginning of this decade, mass-market mindfulness rolled out of the Bay Area like a brand new app. Very much like an app, in fact, or a whole swarm of apps. Previous self-improvement trends had been transmitted via books, inspirational speakers, and CDs; now, mindfulness could be carried around on a smartphone. There are hundreds of them, these mindfulness apps, bearing names like Smiling Mind and Buddhify. A typical example features timed stretches of meditation, as brief as one minute, accompanied by soothing voices, soporific music, and images of forests and waterfalls.

This is Buddhism sliced up and commodified, and, in case the connection to the tech industry is unclear, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist blurbed a seminal mindfulness manual by calling it “the instruction manual that should come with our iPhones and BlackBerries.” It’s enough to make you think that the actual Buddha devoted all his time under the Bodhi Tree to product testing. In the mindfulness lexicon, the word “enlightenment” doesn’t have a place.

In California, at least, mindfulness and other conveniently accessible derivatives of Buddhism flourished well before BlackBerries. I first heard the word in 1998 from a wealthy landlady in Berkeley, advising me to be “mindful” of the suffocating Martha Stewart-ish decor of the apartment I was renting from her, which of course I was doing everything possible to un-see. A possible connection between her “mindfulness” and Buddhism emerged only when I had to turn to a tenants’ rights group to collect my security deposit. She countered with a letter accusing people like me—leftists, I suppose, or renters—of oppressing Tibetans and disrespecting the Dalai Lama.

During the same stint in the Bay Area, I learned that rich locals liked to unwind at Buddhist monasteries in the hills, where, for a few thousand dollars, they could spend a weekend doing manual labor for the monks. Buddhism, or some adaptation thereof, was becoming a class signifier, among a subset of Caucasians anyway, and nowhere was it more ostentatious than in Silicon Valley, where star player Steve Jobs had been a Buddhist or perhaps a Hindu—he seems not to have made much of a distinction—even before it was fashionable for CEOs to claim a spiritual life. Mindfulness guru and promoter Soren Gordhamer noticed in 2013 that tech leaders from Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other major tech companies seemed to be “tapped into an inner dimension that guides their work.” He called it “wisdom” and named his annual conferences Wisdom 2.0—helpful shorthand, as it happens, for describing the inner smugness of the Bay Area elite.

Today, mindfulness has far outgrown Silicon Valley and its signature industry, becoming another numbingly ubiquitous feature of the verbal landscape, as “positive thinking” once was. While an earlier, more arduous, version of Buddhism attracted few celebrities other than Richard Gere, mindfulness boasts a host of prominent practitioners—Arianna Huffington, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Anderson Cooper among them. “Mindful leadership” debuted at Davos in 2013 to an overflow crowd, and Wisdom 2.0 conferences have taken place in New York and Dublin as well as San Francisco, with attendees fanning out to become missionaries for the new mind-set. This year’s event in San Francisco advertises not only familiar faces from Google and Facebook, but also speeches by corporate representatives of Starbucks and Eileen Fisher. Aetna, a Fortune 100 health insurance company, offers its 34,000 employees a twelve-week meditation class, and its CEO dreams of expanding the program to include all its customers, who will presumably be made healthier by clearing their minds. Even General Mills, which dates back to the nineteenth century, has added meditation rooms to its buildings, finding that a seven-week course produces striking results. According to the Financial Times,

83 percent of participants said they were “taking time each day to optimize my personal productivity”—up from 23 percent before the course. Eighty-two percent said they now make time to eliminate tasks with limited productivity value—up from 32 percent before the course.

Productivity is only one objective of the new miniaturized meditation; there are also the more profound-sounding goals of “wisdom” and “compassion,” which are not normally associated with Silicon Valley or American business in general. Just a few years ago, say in 2005, the tech industry exemplified a very different kind of corporate ideology, featuring multitasking and perpetually divided attention—think an incoming call conducted while scanning a new product design, checking email, and deflecting the interruptions of subalterns. It was madness, but the business self-help literature encouraged people to “surf the chaos,” nourishing themselves on caffeine and adrenaline. If we needed to unclutter our minds, we were directed to the gym and an hour or so of intense physical activity. A trim muscular body, combined with an ever-flickering gaze, signified executive status.

This is Buddhism sliced up and commodified.

The backlash against chaos surfing came on quickly, as if The Wolf of Wall Street had been forced to drink a soothing bowl of milk. Studies were piling up to suggest that a lifestyle dependent on multiple devices and double-shot espressos might be toxic to the human mind, impeding concentration and undermining human connectedness. There was wild talk of “unplugging” and fleeing offline. In Northern California in 2013, a group called Digital Detox began offering Camp Grounded, a well-publicized summer camp for adults, at which all devices (and alcohol and children and real names) were prohibited, the better to encourage “play” and conversation. We had once imagined that human attention was infinitely divisible, with each particle of it potentially available to advertisers, entertainers, and employers. But it was turning out to be fragile, even endangered, and in need of constant repair.

Where brilliance and creativity had formerly reigned, there were, by the turn of the millennium, suspicions of pathology. Child psychiatrists began to drop “bipolarity” as a default diagnosis and turn their attention to attention itself. Too many children were deficient in it, just as their plugged-in parents were often guilty of “distracted parenting.” The switch from bipolarity to attention deficit disorder is hard to date exactly, in part because these conditions are now said to be frequently “comorbid,” or overlapping. But as we began to spend more and more of our time interacting with mood-less programs and devices, psychiatry seems to have turned from emotional concerns like bipolarity, which is a “mood disorder,” to cognitive problems like ADD and ADHD.

At the same time, diagnoses of autism and Asperger’s syndrome were skyrocketing—especially, as a 2001 article in Wired pointed out, in Santa Clara County, home of Silicon Valley. Among the adult population, surely something was wrong with Steve Jobs, who alternated between obsessive attention to details and complete withdrawal into himself, between a spiritual aloofness and uncontrolled temper tantrums. Some observers thought they detected a hint of autism in the unblinking, almost affect-free Bill Gates, and the characters in HBO’s Silicon Valley are portrayed as well “within the spectrum.”

So Silicon Valley embraced mindfulness with a twinge of contrition. Not only did its corporate culture encourage something called “geek syndrome,” but its products seemed to spread that same derangement to everyone else. The devices that were supposed to make us smarter and more connected to other humans were actually messing with our minds, causing “net brain” and “monkey mind,” as well as physical disorders associated with long hours of sitting. As we click between Twitter and Facebook, text and hypertext, one link and another, synapses are being formed and then broken with febrile inconstancy—or so a growing number of experts, such as MIT’s Sherry Turkle, warn us—leaving the neuronal scaffolding too fragile to house large thoughts.

A less arrogant industry might have settled for warning labels on its phones and pads, but Silicon Valley wanted an instant cure, preferably one that was hi-tech and marketable. The great advantage of mindfulness was that it seemed to be based firmly on science; no “hippie bullshit” or other “woo woo” was involved. A neuroscientist reported that Buddhist monks with about ten thousand hours of meditation under their belts had altered brain functions; shorter bouts of meditation seemed to work at least temporary changes in novices. The field of “contemplative neuroscience” was born, and Silicon Valley seized on it for a much-needed “neural hack.” Through meditation, monastic or app-guided, anyone could reach directly into their own moist brain tissue and “resculpt” it in a calmer, more attentive direction. Mindfulness, as its promoters put it, fosters “neuroplasticity.”

The backlash came on quickly, as if The Wolf of Wall Street had been forced to drink a soothing bowl of milk.

No one questions that the brain changes with the experiences the mind undergoes. If thought has a physical basis, as scientists assume, then it produces physical alterations in the brain. Trauma and addiction can lead to lasting problems; even fleeting events may leave the chemical changes in the brain that we experience as memory. In fact, “plasticity” is a pallid descriptor for the constant, ongoing transformation of brain tissue. Neurons reach out to each other through tiny membranous protusions, often forming new synapses. Synapses that fire frequently grow stronger, while the inactive ones wither. Well-connected neurons thrive, while neglected ones die. There is even some evidence that neurons in mature animals can reproduce.

What there is no evidence for, however, is any particularly salubrious effect of meditation, especially in byte-sized doses. This was established through a mammoth, federally sponsored “meta-analysis” of existing studies, published last year, which found that meditation programs can help treat stress-related symptoms but are no more effective in doing so than other interventions, such as muscle relaxation, medication, or psychotherapy. There is no excuse for ignoring this study, which achieved worldwide attention. So maybe meditation does have a calming, “centering” effect, but so does an hour of concentration on a math problem or a glass of wine with friends. As for Silicon Valley’s unique contribution, mindfulness apps, a recent study concluded that there is

an almost complete lack of evidence supporting the usefulness of those applications. We found no randomized clinical trials evaluating the impact of these applications on mindfulness training or health indicators, and the potential for mobile mindfulness applications remains largely unexplored.

For an industry based on empirical science and employing large numbers of engineers, Silicon Valley has been remarkably incurious about the scientific basis of mindfulness, probably because the “neuroplasticity” concept is just too alluring. If the brain can be resculpted through conscious effort, then mindfulness is as imperative as physical exercise; the brain is a “muscle” and, like any muscle, in need of training. Google’s chief motivator Chade-Meng Tan was an early adopter, setting up the company’s mindfulness training program, Search Inside Yourself, in 2007, and later telling the Guardian:

If you are a company leader who says employees should be encouraged to exercise, nobody looks at you funny. . . . The same thing is happening to meditation and mindfulness, because now that it’s become scientific, it has been demystified. It’s going to be seen as fitness for the mind.

One popular and highly rated mindfulness app, Get Some Headspace, advertises itself as a “gym membership for the mind.” Only it’s easier than working out, of course, or even yoga. As one enthusiastic software entrepreneur said of the Headspace app, “You don’t have to sit in a lotus position. You just press ‘play’ and chill out.”

Outside of meditation, which can take just a few minutes a day, the daily practice of mindfulness can be summarized as pay attention, or better yet, pay attention to one thing at a time. Take out the earphones when the children are trying to talk to you. Listen carefully to colleagues, look them in the eyes, and attempt to comprehend things from their point of view. Do not multitask; just sink yourself into “the moment,” one task at a time. What could be simpler?

Left unanswered in all of this is the question of what to be mindful of. Yes, the children. But what do you do when one of them is trying to confide in you and the other one is screaming from the bedroom? Or say you’re at a business lunch. You have to be mindful of your companion while simultaneously attempting to eat without spilling or choking—and I say you would be remiss if you failed to notice the sad-eyed busboy who is refilling the water glasses. Divided attention far predates the advent of smartphones and is intrinsic to many human activities, such as child-raising, cooking a large meal, and waiting on tables. Or take one of the most ancient human occupations—war—which is relevant because the mindfulness promoters are beginning to market their product to the U.S. military. Incoming fire can come from any direction, at unexpected times and speeds. Morale must be considered, as well as changing instructions from the strategists in command. There is no danger of soldiers distractedly checking their Facebook pages; the issue is whether they have the mental bandwidth demanded by the exigencies of battle.

Silicon Valley got its own tiny taste of combat at the 2014 Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco. The panel on “3 Steps to Build Corporate Mindfulness the Google Way” had just begun when a small group of protesters walked on stage and unfurled a banner saying “Eviction-Free San Francisco,” a reference to the savage gentrification that Google, among others, has inflicted on the city. After security pushed the protesters offstage and started a tug-of-war for the banner, a Google mindfulness representative intoned, “We can use this as a moment of practice. Check in with your body and see what’s happening, what it’s like to be around conflict and people with heartfelt ideas that may be different than what we’re thinking.” Zen-like, the panel rolled on, undistracted by the brief glimpse of mass evictions and homelessness.